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Once Upon a Blog...

Chapter Text

The problem with fairy tales is that most of them begin with tragedy. I understand the reasoning behind it. No one likes a pampered heroine. A great character needs trials to overcome experiences to give them depth, to make them vulnerable, relatable, and likable. Good characters need hardships to make them strong. The idea makes sense, but it still sucks if you are the heroine.

My life has never been much like a fairy tale. There have been no magical wishes come true, but no real tragedy either. My dad had an affair when I was eight and he left my Mom and me, but other than that, life has been pretty good.

I'm sort of pretty. I have long, wavy light brown hair and fair skin, inherited from my mother's side. But I have my dad's big, bright-blue eyes. I'm sort of smart, mostly an 'A' student without ever having to study much. And I'm sort of popular, not exactly the prom queen, but never without my friends or a date on Saturday night either.

I may have grown up without a father, but my mom was my best friend and that was good enough for me. Life, in general, was pretty good. Then, last November my mom decided to surprise me with a weekend ski trip to Vermont for my eighteenth birthday, and I received my first real dose of character-building tragedy.

* * * * *

"I booked us the full spa package so we can thaw in the Jacuzzi and get massages when we're sore from skiing all day." Mom confessed as we left the city of Boston behind us for the next four days.

"Wow, Mama! Not that I'm not grateful, but can we really afford that?" My mom laughed at me. I loved the sound of her laugh. It was a light, fluttery sound that made me feel as if I could float away on it. She always laughed. She is the most enthusiastic person I know. For her, life could not be better.

"Listen to yourself, Valentina. You're turning eighteen, not forty!"

I grinned. "Like you are next month?"

"Shut up! That is our secret. If anyone asks, I will be thirty-nine for the rest of my life!"

"Sure, you will. Wait... are those... crow's-feet?"

"Valentina Carvajal!" My mother gasped. "These are smile lines, and I am extremely proud of them." She looked at me, and her bright eyes crinkled into smile lines around the edges. "With you as a daughter, I have had to work very hard to get these instead of grey hair!"

Snorting, I picked up my phone, which had dinged with an instant message.

"You better be nice to me, or I will embarrass you horribly in front of all the cute boys this weekend."

I had had a witty retort ready but forgot it when I saw the message on my phone.

Jana458: Your blog-a-versary is coming up, right?

Jana458, or just Jana, is my best friend in the whole world besides my mom, even though I've never met her. I have never even spoken to her on the phone. But we have been e-mailing nonstop for two years, ever since she stumbled across my blog, 'Valentina's Words of Wisdom'.

My blog reviews books and movies. I started it when I was fifteen, and my third blog-a-versary is indeed coming up soon.

The name Valentina is in honour of my favourite character in my favourite book series, The Chronicles of Jana. It is a fantasy series that has become one of the most cherished stories in modern literature. Hollywood is finally making the first book, The Druid Princess, into a movie.

Valentina also happens to be my name. My mother read the books when she was a girl and loved them so much that she named me after the mysterious druid priestess. I was proud of the name, and of my mom for loving Valentina the best. Everyone else seemed to like the warrior princess Cali instead. But Valentina was a much better character.

Jana is obviously a fan of the series, too. In fact, it was my blog on why 'Valentina is the most underappreciated character' in the book, that drew Jana to my blog in the first place. She loves the books as much as I do, so I instantly liked her, even if she spent the whole time arguing that Princess Cali was better suited for Princess Jana. And she has disagreed with most of my reviews ever since.

ValTheRealHero: Do all those Hollywood friends of yours know you use words like blog-a-versary?

Jana458: Of course not. I need your address. Got you a blog-a-versary present!

Jana got me a gift? My heart flipped.

Not that I was in love with my Internet best friend or anything. That would be utterly ridiculous. The girl was cocky and stubborn and argued with everything I said just to be infuriating. She also had lots of money, dated models, which meant she had to be hot, but was secretly a closet book nerd.

Funny, rich, hot, confident, book lover. Definitely not my type. Nope. Not at all.

Yeah, okay, fine, so she wasn't my type by default because she lived in California and I live in Massachusetts. Whatever.

Jana458: Hello? Val?? Address??

ValTheRealHero: I don't give out my address to creepy Internet stalkers.

Jana458: I guess you don't want this autographed first-edition hardback of The Druid Princess, then. Shame. I had it signed it to Valentina when I met L.P. Morgan at Fantasy Con last week, so I can't try to impress any other girls with it!

I didn't realise I was squealing until the car swerved.

"For the love of God, Valentina! Do not scare me like that! We are in the middle of a snowstorm. The roads are dangerous enough without you screaming like a banshee!"

"Sorry, Mama. But Jana said..."

"Oh baby doll, not that girl again." I recognised her tired voice. I was about to get one of my mom's favourite lectures. "You do realise she is a complete stranger, right?"

I shook my head. "She's not. I know her better than I know anyone."

"You've never met her in person. For all you know, everything she tells you is a lie!"

I admit that I also wondered if everything she said was true, because Jana's life sounded more like the life of a Rockstar, but I'd known her long enough now that I believed she wasn't a liar. "I really don't think so. It is possible that she embellishes a little, but who doesn't? And what does it matter? She's just an Internet friend. She lives in California!"

"Exactly. So why do you waste so much time with her?"

"Because I like her. I can talk to her. She's my best friend."

Mom sighed again, but she smiled at me and her voice softened. "I just worry that you'll fall for her, honey, and then what?"

That was a good question. My mom knew I also liked girls, not that I had really explored it yet. Which was exactly why Jana was not my type. Not my type. Not. My. Type.

Jana458: Address. Noun: The location at which a particular organisation or person may be found or reached. (Or mailed amazing presents.)

ValTheRealHero: Did your car tell you that?

Jana drives a Ferrari 458. Or so she told me when I asked what the numbers in her screen name meant. I had to google it. It costs more money than my mom would make in five years. I like to tease her about her overindulgent ways. And yes, the car actually does talk to her.

Jana458: I'm not driving, so my phone did. Address, woman. Now! Or I won't tell you who signed on to play Jana in the movie!

I almost shrieked again. The movie was green lighted, but the cast hadn't been announced. Jana's dad is some big shot in the movie industry, so Jana always manages to get the gossip first.

ValTheRealHero: No way! Tell me! I'm dying!!!

* * * * *

I never managed find out which actress would immortalise one of the most beloved characters of all time. As we were travelling along the highway a logging truck hit a patch of black ice and slid across the two-lanes, ploughing straight into our car.

I was looking down at my phone when it all happened, I never saw it coming. I only remember hearing my mother scream before I was thrown against my seat belt as an air bag exploded in my face. There was a quick moment of pain so intense it literally took my breath away, and then there was nothing.

I woke up three weeks later in a burn centre in Boston when the doctors brought me out of a medically induced coma. I had second and third-degree burns covering seventy percent of my body and my mother was dead.

 

Chapter Text

I can't remember many specific details about the accident, but the fear I felt that day is still crystal clear in my memory. I have nightmares all the time. They are always the same, a few blurry images and a combination of chaotic sounds, and I am paralysed with a terror so strong that I can't breathe until I wake up screaming. The fear itself is the main focus of every dream.

If the sun were not blaring so rudely onto my face, and my body didn't ache from the five-and-a-half-hour flight from Boston, I would have thought I was back in my dream. I was terrified as I sat in the driveway looking at, what was now, my new home.

So far, I have only seen the view from the car window as we drove between the airport and my father's house located in the winding hills above Los Angeles. It was enough to know that LA was nothing like Boston, despite what the traffic on the freeway would have me believe.

I wish it were only the change of scenery that I feared. I spent eight weeks in intensive care before I was sent to a rehabilitation centre for another six months. Eight months of hospitalisation total, and now, I have been released into the care of the man who walked out of my life ten years ago. Well, him and the woman he left me for, along with the two daughters he had replaced me with.

"I should warn you that Lucia has probably cooked up some sort of surprise welcome dinner."

"Not a party?" I gasped, my terror exploding into something that might finally kill me. I never thought I would live through a hell that most people couldn't even imagine, to then be offed on my first day out of the hospital by a group of random strangers wanting to welcome me home.

"No, of course not!" My father assured me. "It's nothing like that. Your new rehabilitation team stopped by last week and prepped the whole family. Lucia knows meeting a lot of new people will be too overwhelming at first. I'm sure it will be just her and the girls, but there's probably a nice dinner waiting for you along with a few welcoming gifts, and possibly decorations. She's very excited to meet you Valentina."

I couldn't say the same.

When I didn't respond, my dad glanced at me with that look of helplessness he'd been watching me with since I came out of my coma and found him sitting beside my hospital bed. It's a look that is seventy percent pity, twenty percent fear, and ten percent awkwardness. As if he has no clue what to say or how to act with me, probably because he hadn't seen or spoken to me since I was eight.

He cleared his throat. "You ready, kiddo?"

I would never be ready.

"Please don't call me that." I whispered, working hard to speak around the lump suddenly clogging up my throat.

He blew out a long puff of air and tried to smile. "Too old for that now?"

"Something like that."

In truth, I hated the nickname because it reminded me of Mom. She always called me her 'little doll', or 'baby doll'. When I was about six, Dad started calling me 'kiddo'. He said it was because I needed an American nickname too, but I think he was jealous of the relationship I had with my Mom, even back then.

"Sorry." Dad said.

"It's fine."

I opened the car door before the awkwardness choked us to death. Dad came around the car to help me out, but I refused. "I'm supposed to do it myself."

"Right, sorry."

As I moved my legs out one at a time, he handed me my cane and waited as I slowly pulled myself into a standing position.

It took a lot of effort, and it wasn't easy, but I could finally walk on my own again. I was proud of that. The doctors hadn't always thought it would be possible, but I pushed through the pain and regained a lot of my range of movement. The scars were bad enough. I did not want to be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life as well.

I was glad for the slow walk up the driveway. It gave me the time I needed to brace myself for what awaited me inside.

Dad waved a hand at the house in front of us. "I know it doesn't look like much from the front but it's bigger than it looks, and the view from the back is spectacular."

Didn't look like much? What did he expect me to think of the two-story postmodern multi-million-dollar house in front of me? He had seen the small two-bedroom apartment I lived in with my mother in Boston. He was the one who cleared it out after her funeral.

Not knowing what to say, I just shrugged.

"We had your room set up on the ground floor so that you won't have to use the stairs except to get to the main family room, which is only down a short flight of steps. You also have your own bathroom and we had it converted so that it's now handicap accessible. Everything should be ready for you, but if the house doesn't work out, Lucia and I have already discussed buying something new, maybe down the hill in Bel-Air where we can get a nice ranch-style house."

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath trying not glare or say something rude. He spoke like I would be here forever, but I would be out of here as soon as physically possible.

I had a moment of weakness during a low point in my rehabilitation, and I tried to take my own life. I had been in the hospital for three months, with no end in sight. I could hardly move, had just endured my seventeenth surgery and was told I would never walk again. I missed my mother and I was in so much physical pain that I just wanted it all to end.

Nobody blamed me for my actions, but now, everyone thinks I am a danger to myself. I planned to stay in Boston, finish school online, and then go to Boston University when I was ready. I was eighteen and had saved enough money, but when my father realised what I was planning, he had me declared mentally unfit and as my guardian, forced me to come to California with him.

It wasn't easy to be civil with him. "I'm sure the house is fine," I grumbled. "Can we please just get this over with so I can go to bed? I'm exhausted and I am in agony after traveling all day."

I felt bad for being short with him when I saw the disappointment flash in his eyes. I think he was hoping to impress me, but he didn't understand that I never had a lot of money, and I never needed it. I was content with the humble lifestyle I had with Mom. I hadn't even used the cheques he sent me every month. Mom had been putting them in a bank account for years. I had enough money in it to pay for college, another reason I would have been fine on my own.

"Sure, honey." He paused and winced. "Sorry. I suppose that name is off the approved nicknames list, too, huh?"

I grimaced. "How about we just stick with Val?"

Inside, the house was as immaculate, just like the burn centre. It probably had alarms that went off if a speck of dust landed anywhere. My rehab team would be thrilled. The place was elegant and the furniture all looked extremely uncomfortable. There was no way this house would ever feel like home.

The new Mrs Miller stood in an enormous kitchen, setting a silver platter of fruit and dips on a granite countertop as we walked around the corner. I think the tray might have been actual silver. When she noticed us, her entire face lit up into the hugest, brightest smile I had ever seen.

"Valentina! Welcome to our home, sweetie!"

Lucia Miller had to be the most beautiful woman in all of Los Angeles. Her hair was as golden as the sun, her eyes as blue as the sky, and her lashes that reached all the way to the moon. Her legs were long, her waist was tiny, and her giant boobs were perfectly round and perky. 'Bombshell' was the only word that came to mind.

I don't know why I found her beauty surprising. I knew she was a professional advertising model and had been in shampoo and skin cream commercials, so she actually looked healthy and not skinny like a crack addict.

Judging from the size of her house, she must do pretty well for herself, because although my dad is a big shot lawyer, U.S. attorneys do not earn outrageous salaries. When he lived with us, we had a moderate house in the suburbs, but we certainly weren't driving a Mercedes and living in a house on a hill with its own security gate.

Lucia stepped forward and gave me a careful hug, kissing the air next to my cheek. "We are very excited to finally have you here with us. Leon has been telling us so much about you for so long I feel like you are already part of the family. It must be a relief to be back in a real house again."

Actually, leaving the rehab centre was one of the scariest things I've ever had to do, and being here was the opposite of relief. But of course, I didn't say any of that. I tried to think of something that was true and not too insulting. "It's a relief to be off the plane."

Lucia's smile turned sympathetic. "You must be so tired, you poor thing."

I swallowed back my annoyance and forced a smile. I hated people's pity as much as I hated their stares, if not more. Before I had to figure out something to say, my two new stepsisters came bursting through the front door.

"Girls, you're late!" Lucia sounded irritated, but she plastered that big, phony smile back on her face. "Look who's home!"

The two sisters slammed into each other as they came to an abrupt halt. They were twins, but not identical, although they did look very similar, if not for the different hairstyles, I bet I would mix them up. I knew from pictures Dad had shown me that Renata was the one with brown eyes and short brown locks that brushed her shoulders, while Eva had green eyes and long sleek brown hair that fell in silky waves down her back. It was so perfectly coiffed that she looked like she had just stepped out of a hairstyle magazine.

Both girls were as beautiful as their mother, with perfect figures. They were over a year younger than me but could easily pass for twenty-one.

Not bothering with any kind of hello, Eva lifted a hand to her chest. "Oh man, I'm so glad your face isn't messed up."

Renata nodded, her eyes wide. "Totally. We looked up pictures online of burn victims, and, like, all of them had these hideous scars on their faces. It was so gross."

My dad and Lucia let out matching nervous laughs and went to stand by the twins. "Girls," Lucia warned mildly, "it's not polite to talk about people's deformities."

I flinched at the term. Was that what she thought of me? That I was 'deformed'? My face may have been lucky, but my shoulder down the right side of my body and everything from my waist down was covered with thick, raised pink scars that popped in contrast to my naturally fair skin.

My dad pulled both girls close to his sides, tucking one into each arm. I remembered him being a decent-looking man, but he really was quite handsome standing there next to his picture-perfect family. He still had a full head of thick brown hair, and, of course, my bright blue eyes. "Honey, these are my daughters, Eva and Renata. Girls, this is your new stepsister, Valentina."

He grinned proudly, flashing his perfect lawyer smile as he squeezed both girls. The creases around his eyes hurt my heart. Smile lines. He'd obviously spent his life laughing a lot. I also noticed the fact that he'd called the twins his daughters. Not stepdaughters.

Ignoring my desire to curl up into a ball and cry, I stretched out my hand in greeting. "It's just Val. Val Carvajal."

Neither girl took my hand. "Carvajal?" Renata scoffed. "Shouldn't it be Miller?"

Letting my hand fall back to my side, I shrugged. "I changed it to my mother's maiden name when I was twelve."

"Why?"

"Because I'm a Carvajal."

Both my stepsisters looked as though I had somehow offended them. I had to clench my jaw to keep from spouting obscenities at them in Spanish. My glare slid to my father. "Where's my bag? I need to take my medicine, and then I need to rest. My legs feel swollen."

. . . . .

Lucia argued with her girls in heated whispers as my dad led me across the main floor of the house to my room. It didn't bother me that they were arguing over me. I was just glad to have the introductions over. Hopefully now I could avoid them as much as possible.

I sat down on my hospital-style bed that would elevate at both my head and feet, as I swallowed a couple of pills before I looked around my new room. The walls were a soft yellow, no doubt intentionally, because some doctor had told my father that yellow was a soothing, cheerful colour. Honestly, it wasn't that bad, but the furniture was this awful frilly white set that made me feel like I was six years old again. It was hideous.

"Do you like it?" Lucia asked hopefully. She had come into the room and taken her place at my dad's side as he wrapped his arm around her waist and kissed her cheek. It took some serious effort not to cringe at them.

Again, I chose my words carefully. "I've never had anything this nice before."

Dad picked up some kind of touch-screen remote. "You still haven't seen the best part." He grinned as he began to push buttons. "I can show you how to use this later. It controls the TV, stereo, lights, fan, and windows."

"The windows? My windows are controlled by a remote?"

Dad puffed out his chest and with one last tap on the screen, the floor-to-ceiling sheer white curtains along the far wall slid open, revealing an entire wall of windows with a sliding door in the middle. Then, with another touch of a button, the shades on each window rose, flooding the room with light.

Dad opened the door and stepped out onto a wooden balcony that overlooked the whole city of Los Angeles as far as the eye could see. Beyond the balcony, the ground dropped out of sight. Apparently, the house was on the side of a cliff.

"You have the best view in the house. You'll have to come out here and look at all the lights after dark. It really is something to see."

Given California's reputation for earthquakes, I found the prospect of standing on that balcony a bit disturbing.

Dad came back in and once the sunshades and curtains were all back in place, he turned to me with a hopeful expression. He caught me eyeing the laptop on the desk with trepidation. It was silver and looked as thin as a pancake. I had always wanted one of those, but somehow it didn't seem so appealing anymore.

Dad walked over and flipped the laptop open. "I hope you don't mind the change. The computer you had in your apartment was ancient. I thought you would like this one better. I had your hard drive backed up before I got rid of it. I also got you a new phone as yours was destroyed." He picked up what looked like an iPhone in a hot pink case and handed it to me. "We added you to the family plan, unlimited everything, so don't worry about calling your friends in Massachusetts. It's not a problem at all."

I cringed. I hadn't contacted any of my friends since the accident. By the time I was able to call people, so much time had passed and I figured everyone had already moved on. I was coming here with my dad and wouldn't be back, so I didn't see the point of trying to keep in touch. Now that I am thousands of miles away, I really don't see any point.

My dad must have realised this too because he forced a weak smile and rubbed the back of his neck, like he was suddenly uncomfortable.

"Thanks," I said. "So, um, where are all my things?"

Dad's face relaxed, like I had asked an easy question on a much safer topic. "Everything from your bedroom, except for the furniture, obviously, is packed in boxes in your closet."

"In my closet? How big is the closet?"

Lucia found this funny. "Not as big as mine, but I doubt you have the same shoe obsession as I do."

I didn't want to tell her that my mother and I both had a shoe obsession. We had the same size feet and must have had a truckload of shoes between us. Not that I'd be wearing any of them ever again. No open-toe sandals or heels of any kind for me now, only special shoes that therapeutically support my burned feet and scream 'grandma'. They had fixed my hand, giving me enough movement to be able to write again, sort of. I was still working on making my handwriting legible, but they couldn't entirely save my toes.

"We left everything in boxes because we thought you'd want to unpack and arrange things yourself." Dad said. "But if you'd like help, we'll be happy to do whatever you need."

"No. I can manage. What about Mom's stuff, and the rest of the apartment?"

"I kept everything that seemed significant, photographs and some of your mom's belongings that I thought you might want. There isn't much, just a couple of boxes. They are with your things. I got rid of everything else."

"What about my books?" My heart started pounding in my chest. My bookshelves were not in this room, and I seriously doubted they were in my closet. "What did you do with all of my books?"

"All the books in the living room?" He paused to look at me, "I donated them."

"YOU WHAT?"

My dad flinched when I yelled and he got that panicked expression back in his eyes. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I didn't realise."

"You gave away all of my books?"

Maybe it was a stupid thing to lose it over, especially after all the emotional stress I had been through that day, but I simply could not handle the thought that all my books were gone. I had been collecting them for years.

Ever since I learned to read, it was my favourite thing to do. Mom gave me books for my birthday, for Christmas, and sometimes simply because she felt like it. She had been doing it for so long, it had become a tradition.

We had gone to book signings and conventions all over the northeast and had dozens of books signed by all my favourite authors. Every time I went to mom with that look in my eye she just laughed and asked, "Where to this time?" At every signing, we asked someone to take a photograph of us with the author and taped it to the inside cover of the book.

Now, the books, the photographs, and the memories... were all gone. Just like mom, they were gone. I'd never get them back, and I could never replace what I'd lost. It was like losing her all over again.

My heart broke into a million tiny pieces, shattered beyond repair. I burst into uncontrollable sobs, rolled over on my bed, and curled into a tight ball, wishing I could somehow block out the pain.

"I'm sorry, Valentina. I had no idea. You weren't awake to ask. I can get you new books. We can go this week and you can get whatever you'd like."

The thought of him trying to replace that collection made my stomach churn. "You don't get it!" I screamed. "Please, just go away."

I never heard the door click shut, but no one bothered me again that night. I cried for hours until I passed out from exhaustion.

 

Chapter Text

The one thing I will say about California is that everyone here is very attractive. On the one hand, it sucks because it will only make my scars stand out more when everyone around me looks so perfect all the time. And on the other hand, I do enjoy spending time with cute guys just as much as any other girl, and there is my new rehabilitation team, every one of them are gorgeous. Which is great and will make the time I have to spend with them much more enjoyable.

My dietician and nurse are both hot guys in their thirties. My dietician is also a part-time personal trainer. I've never been much of an exerciser, but the guy makes me want to join a gym. My physical therapist is only twenty-eight and is downright mouth-watering. He seriously looks like he belongs on TV and not in my living room, forcing me to exercise until I feel like crying. Physical therapy these past two weeks has been something I almost looking forward to. Almost!

I gasped at an unexpected surge of pain and held my breath to prevent a scream.

"Come on, Val, just one more. I know you can do it. All the way to your shoes this time."

I wanted to cry, but I did one more toe touch because Daniel smiled at me with so much confidence that I couldn't let him down. And I swear he batted his eyelashes. I pushed my fingers toward the floor, stretching my new skin in some of the tightest places. I knew physical therapy was supposed to be hard, the phrase 'no pain, no gain' literally applied here, but I just couldn't make my fingers reach my shoes. My whole body was burning. Tears pricked my eyes and I stood back up.

"I'm sorry. I can't. I feel like my body is going to rip open at any second."

Daniel frowned, not in frustration or disappointment, but in concern. The action was swoon worthy. "You reached your shoes once on Monday. Are you doing your exercises every day like we talked about?"

"Yes, but I think my skin hates the California air. It's been irritating me all week."

"Let me see." Daniel demanded. I pulled up my shirt a little so he could inspect my back and lifted my trouser legs for him to get a good look behind my knees. "Why didn't you say something sooner? I wouldn't have pushed you so hard. You're not scratching, right?"

"I'm trying not to."

"And sun exposure? No sunbathing on the back patio? No trips to the beach?"

"Huh! Yeah right!" I scoffed. "Parading around in public in a swimsuit is on the top of my to-do list! I haven't even left the house once since I got here. I'm practically a vampire now."

Daniel stopped inspecting my skin and frowned again. This time I was in trouble. "First of all, the beach is amazing and you'd love it. Next summer when your skin is stronger, I'll take you there myself." Delicious Daniel, in nothing but a pair of swim shorts? Hmm... That would almost be worth the stares. "And second, when is your nurse coming?"

"Not until Monday."

"That's not soon enough. Your skin is too dry. Your skin is still adjusting to the climate change. Cali's a lot drier than the East Coast."

"My hair would agree with you."

Daniel laughed and began rummaging through his backpack, seemingly on a mission. "Aha! I do have some with me." He pulled out a bottle of mineral oil and grinned. "Go change and I'll give you a rub down. Your mom has a massage table, right? I think she told me there was one the last time I was here."

I didn't realise I'd frozen until the playful smile on Daniel's face fell.

"She's not my mom!" I said, although that wasn't the reason my stomach was suddenly tied in knots. "And yes, she does have one, but you don't have to do that. I'm sure I'll be fine until Monday."

He has seen my scars already, but only an arm or a leg once in a while, it was very different to witnessing the whole picture at once.

Daniel looked me straight in the eye, as if he knew exactly what my hesitation was.

"Val." His voice was gentle but stern. "You'll be cracked and bleeding by Monday. We can't risk tearing your grafts. You don't want another surgery, do you?"

"No." My voice shook as I wrestled with my emotions.

"If you're uncomfortable with me, I can call Cody or you can have one of your parents do it, but it has to be done today."

As if I'd have my dad or Lucia do it.

I hated when the nurse inspected my scars, just as much as I hated the idea of Daniel seeing them, so there was no sense in asking him to call Cody. I took a deep breath and nodded.

"Sorry. You're right. It's fine. I'll go change."

"Good girl." Daniel smiled at me so sincerely full of pride that it tugged at my insides. "You're one of my bravest patients, you know that?"

I managed to laugh. "I bet you say that to all your patients."

Daniel grinned. "I do, but I actually mean it with you."

"I bet you say that to all of them, too!" With a roll of my eyes, I headed for my bedroom to put on a dreaded bikini.

When I finally built up the courage to walk out of my bedroom, Daniel had already set up the massage table in the living room. I held my breath, but when he looked up, he smiled as if nothing were different. There wasn't a second's hesitation. Not even a flinch. He simply patted the table.

That's why I loved doctors. The staff in the burn centre in Boston all treated me like Daniel. To them, I was just another person. During my stay there, I had even fooled myself into thinking that life wouldn't be so bad.

On my trip from Boston to LA, I had shoes, pants, and a long-sleeve shirt covering most of my body. The only scars that had been visible were on my right hand, and of course I walked with a limp. People stared as if I were an alien with three heads. They whispered and pointed and flinched. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to leave the house in a tank top and shorts.

Building up a little courage, I walked towards him, but when I came into the room Lucia saw me. She'd been carrying a couple of glasses full of lemonade and when she caught sight of me with all my scars exposed, she gasped and her eyes glossed over with tears. She had to set the glasses down and sit.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "Leon said it was bad, but I had no idea... I'm so sorry, Valentina." She looked up at me and flinched again. "Excuse me." she said, and practically ran out of the room and up the stairs to her bedroom.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Daniel gave me a minute to compose myself before gently taking my hand.

"Do you need help up?"

Normally I would have tried to do it myself, but this time I let him lift me onto the table. I lay on my stomach first because I wasn't ready to look at him. I couldn't, not after scaring my stepmother and sending her running from the room.

"I don't know why my dad paid for home care." I grumbled as Daniel began to soak my sensitive skin in mineral oil. "The burn centre is not that far away. I would much rather have gone there to do all this stuff."

Daniel was quiet for a moment before speaking, "I wish I could tell you that it's going to get better. It's never going to be easy, Val. People are always going to react... some worse than others."

"At least the step witches aren't home. Lucia may be tactless, but at least she tries to be nice. Witch One and Witch Two make the devil look like a kitten."

Daniel sighed.

"Look on the bright side. You'll always be able to tell who your true friends are. Someday when you decide to settle down and get married, you'll definitely have found yourself the best partner out there."

I snorted. As if there were any chance that someone would date me now, much less choose to be stuck with me for the rest of their life.

"Don't you dare laugh at the idea that someone would love you, Val. Turn over," he demanded. When I rolled onto my back, he tried to make a serious face but he wasn't very successful. "You are smart, witty, and strong. And you're beautiful."

"Again, you are my doctor and you have to say that."

Daniel didn't laugh. He looked straight down at me, as serious as I had ever seen him.

"Breathtakingly beautiful!" He insisted. "You have eyes that could haunt a man's dreams."

I wanted to make a joke, but something in Daniel's face made it impossible, so I just whispered a, "Thanks" as my face turned bright red.

"There are people out there that will be able to see past your scars to the girl inside," he said, "but you're not going to find them if you hide away in this house all day. Don't think I forgot about that information, missy. I'm warning you now, I am totally going to rat you out to Doctor Parish!"

I groaned. The sessions with the psychiatrist were almost more painful than my physical therapy.

"Don't give me that face! It's for your own good. Sitting around this house all day is not what you should be doing, and you know it. You can regress, Val. You don't want all your hard work over the last few months to go to waste."

"But I am doing my exercises every day. I promise."

"It's not the same. You need to be active. You need variety in your movements. You need to be doing all those things that you used to do without ever thinking about it. Besides, you'll get depressed, and then you'll stop working so hard. Then I'll look bad and your dad will fire me. You might want to get rid of me, but I promise you any replacement he finds will torture you just as much, but they won't be anywhere near as cool as I am!"

The man had a point. If only everyone were half as cool as Daniel.

My father came into the room then and silently examined my skin as Daniel finished moisturizing it. His brows fell low over his eyes and he pointed at my skin.

"Why is she like this?" He had witnessed many of my rub downs while I was in the hospital in Boston, so he could see the difference.

My father was looking at Daniel, so I let Daniel answer the question. "She's used to the humidity in Boston. You might want to have her nurse check on her more frequently until her body has time to adjust to the California weather."

Dad nodded. "I'll call Cody today. Is she okay to leave the house like this? I need to take her to register for school."

Ugh. Physical therapy, horrifying my stepmother to tears, dry skin, extra visits from my nurse, and still, my day just managed to get a lot worse. Amazing.

Daniel, who was self-aware enough to realise that talking about people as if they were not in the room, was beyond rude, looked at me while answering my father, "The fresh air will be good for you." He said as he winked.

. . . . .

My father enrolled me in the same fancy private school the twins attended. The closest I have ever been to private school was watching the teen dramas on TV. The school claimed a 98% success rate for their college placement program. My high school in Boston sported metal detectors and boasted a 63% graduation rate.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the school required uniforms. They went with the traditional white polo shirts, or turtlenecks in the winter, and navy-blue pleated skirts. I had spent the summer locked up in the house, and the few occasions my dad and Lucia had forced me out in public I had covered myself head to toe. Now they expected me to go to school wearing short sleeves and a knee-length skirt? Didn't they understand how mean teenagers were?

My father was all smiles as we got back in the car after our meeting with the principal. "So?" He asked. "What do you think? Are you excited? It's nice, isn't it?"

It was too nice. The school was caged in behind enormous iron gates and a guard shack, which was perched on a giant sprawling lawn. It was made up of several smaller buildings that were connected and by covered archways, reminding me of an old mansion. I could hardly believe the place was a high school.

As Dad navigated us out of the parking lot, my heart started fluttering in that familiar way I've come to recognise as a panic attack. I turned fully sideways in my seat and grasped his arm. "Dad, please don't make me go there."

He was startled by my sudden intensity. "Why, what's wrong?"

"School is going to be hard enough as it is. Please, please, please do not make it worse for me. That place is insane. At least in public school I know what I'm getting into, same crap, different school. The doctors said I need things to be 'familiar', but that..." I waved my hand toward the school behind us, "is NOT familiar! I can't do it. Please don't make me go there!"

My panic was one hundred percent sincere, but my dad had the nerve to laugh at me. He brushed my anxiety off as if it were nothing. "Don't be ridiculous. You'll be fine there, you'll see."

"Why can't I do some online classes? I could probably make up the time I missed and get my diploma in a few weeks instead of repeating my whole senior year!"

"You know why you can't do it online. Your doctors have all stressed how important it is for you to getting back into a normal routine as soon as possible. The longer you stay locked up, the harder it will be for you to live a normal life."

I scoffed at that. "You think I'll ever have a normal life again?"

"What do you want me to do, Valentina? I'm just trying to follow the doctors' orders. I'm trying to do what's best for you."

I wanted to scream. He didn't have any idea what was best for me. "Fine. Can I at least go to a public school, then?"

My dad looked appalled by the suggestion. "Why on Earth would you want to do that?"

"Uh, no uniforms for starters, and because kids are allowed to express themselves and be individual. There will be a lot more freaks. I would have a much better chance at blending in."

"You are not a freak!"

I shot my dad a disbelieving look, daring him to say it again. He didn't.

"Even if I weren't crippled and scarred, I wouldn't want to go to that school. I'm not like Lucia's daughters. I don't belong at some snooty, over-privileged, fancy rich-kid school."

"You are being very judgmental, Valentina. At least give it a chance before you decide you hate it."

"But..."

"Besides, no daughter of mine is going to go to public school when I can provide her with a better education."

I found that completely offensive, considering my entire education thus far had been from public school.

"It didn't seem to bother you last year!" I snapped. "But then, I guess I wasn't really your daughter last year, was I? Or all the years I attended public school before that!"

My dad froze, his expression sliding into a stern poker face. I could only assume that I had really pissed him off or hurt his feelings. Probably both, but it didn't matter at that point. I was too angry, too scared, and I missed my mom too much to care what the man who had abandoned us thought.

"You are already enrolled. I'm not sending you to public school. End of discussion."

I shut my mouth and flopped back in my seat, opting to stay silent and glare out the window the rest of the way home. End of discussion? Fine. I didn't care if that was the last discussion we ever had.

 

Chapter Text

Juliana POV

I slumped back in my chair and plugged my headphones into my phone. Maybe Dua Lipa's newest album would keep me from dying of boredom. I hated these meetings.

Once the music filled my ears, I breathed a small sigh of relief. Much better. Nothing calmed my soul like Dua Lipa's sexy voice. And she was so beautiful. I let my eyes drift shut and imagined her singing softly for me in my own private serenade. Maybe she'd go out with me. One of the idiots in this room had to know how to get in touch with her people. As soon as they stopped talking, if they ever stopped, I would ask. Maybe, they could do something useful for once.

A finger tapped me on the shoulder, but I ignored it.

"Juliana!"

Sighing, I yanked the headphones out of my ears. Those moments of reprieve never lasted long enough. I opened my eyes to find the majority of my management team glaring at me. My father, the popular film director Macario Valdés, sat directly across the large conference table, looking like he wanted to strangle me. Good.

This will be the last time I ever work with my father. If it hadn't been The Cinder Chronicles, I would never have taken the job in the first place. Family and business should never mix, especially not with my screwed-up family.

My new assistant, Mateo, set a piece of paper in front of me and then reached around me to pass the stack on to my co-star, Kaylee Summers. I groaned at the list of dates printed on the paper. Crumpling the schedule into a small ball, I leaned far back in my chair, aimed, and tossed it. The makeshift basketball dropped into the wastebasket across the room without touching a single side - SWOOSH!

"Ha! Two points!" Holding up a hand for a high five, I turned to Kaylee. "Did you see that? Maybe I found my calling too early in life. I think I should try out for the Lakers next season."

Kaylee gave me her usual disdainful look and left me hanging. Whatever. Mateo would be good for one. I turned to him next. He glanced nervously around the room but was ultimately too chicken to ignore my request and slapped my hand.

I laughed at the guy's nerves. "Relax, Mateo. I'm the only one in this room that can fire you, so when in doubt, indulge me, not them. They won't blame you."

"Are you finished wasting all of our time?" My dad snapped.

Rage swept through me, as it often did when my father was around. I swiped Mateo's copy of the schedule and waved it around. "This stupid meeting is a waste of everyone's time!"

My entire management team took great offense to my statement, but it was my agent, Joseph, who spoke up. "That is the outline for The Druid Princess publicity tour. You need to pay attention to it."

"Why? That's what Mateo is for." I threw my arm over my assistant's shoulder. "This guy has mad scheduling skills, that's why I hired him. He has probably made at least eight different backups of this list already and has them stashed away for emergencies. There's no way he'd ever let me miss a meeting. Believe me, I tried my hardest to miss this one!"

Joseph sighed. "You're here because your assistant can't approve the schedule for you."

"Oh! You need my approval?" I scoffed. "As if I have some kind of say in any of this?"

"Of course you do."

I wanted to laugh, except it really wasn't funny. I haven't had a say in anything since my first teen movie hit number one in the box office. Agents, managers, publicists, lawyers, image consultants, personal trainers, a million others... They controlled my life now, what I could and couldn't wear, what I could and couldn't eat, what functions I could and couldn't attend, what I could and couldn't say. Hell, they'd scheduled this entire publicity tour without once consulting me. What they had just handed me was an itinerary that was already set-in stone.

Scanning the list, I saw that there were weeks of interviews, photo shoots, public appearances, movie premieres, guest appearances on both radio and TV talk shows. LA, New York, Chicago...

I met Joseph's eyes and raised a brow into a challenging arch. "I'm sure you already have the flights and hotel rooms booked, so what the hell does it matter if I approve of any of this or not? What if I don't approve of any of it? The Kenneth Long Show? That guy's a total douche. I definitely don't approve of that!"

Joseph grimaced, but his face settled into a look of grim determination. "The Kenneth Long Show is primetime network television. It's the most popular talk show in existence. He has millions of viewers. You cannot pass up an interview with him because you don't like him."

"Fine, but what's this Celebrity Gossip crap? They're a damn tabloid."

My publicist, also a total douche, cleared his throat and jumped in to defend the schedule. "They're the largest tabloid in the world. If they like you, they can make you the most famous person in world, and if they don't, they can turn you into the biggest joke to ever come out of Hollywood."

"They're already watching you, Juliana!" My manager, Gary, added, scowling at me. "It's better to work with them and get on their good side than have them plastering stories like this all over the media every week!"

Gary threw the latest copy of Celebrity Gossip down on the table and slid it to me. I read the caption and smirked. Getting Adrianna Pascal to come home with me last weekend had been the most worthwhile thing I had done all year.

"You made out with world-famous rock star Kyle Hamilton's girlfriend at his own birthday party!"

Huh. We did a lot more than make out that night. I looked around the room with big, innocent eyes. "Were they still together?"

"You broke off their damn wedding!"

I shrugged. "The guy's an egotistical prick. Besides, if she really loved him, she would not have been fawning over me all night."

My father finally lost it. "This is not the kind of press you need right now!" He roared. "You think you're the first hot shot teen star to try and run with the big boys? You're not! Hollywood sees new assholes like you every year. If you can't get your shit together, your next big gig will be twenty years from now on some 'where-are-they-now' reality TV show!"

I glared at my father with more loathing than I thought physically possible. My dad has never respected me, never had faith in me. He made fun of every movie I ever made. He constantly said I couldn't handle 'playing with the big boys' ever since I told him I wanted to make my own way in the movie industry rather than just let him cast me in his movies. Now he was just waiting for me to fail so that he could throw it in my face.

"I've had enough of this bullshit." I pushed my chair back from the conference table, crumpling the second schedule into another ball. This time I was too angry to concentrate and missed the trash can.

Before I could storm out of the meeting, Lisa, the executive producer of the film, and the only person in the room besides Mateo I could actually stand, met me at the door and blocked my way.

"Juliana," she said, taking my hand. Her smile was completely patronizing, but I still softened to it. "We know you're frustrated. You've had some bad luck with the paparazzi over the last year, but this press tour is important."

Some bad luck? Ever since I was cast to play Jana, I'd become the paparazzi's new golden girl. They were hounding me constantly in order to sell their stupid magazines. They followed me everywhere. I could barely wipe my ass without having it plastered on every magazine cover in America. I hadn't had a moment's peace in over a year.

"It's important for all of us, Juliana, but especially for you!" Lisa said. "You've been handed a gift with this part. Jana is the role of a lifetime and you nailed it. Critics, and average moviegoers alike, are going to fall in love with your performance. If you play your cards right, you could have a shot at an Academy Award nomination."

That made me pause. Joseph jumped on my hesitation. - "She's right, Juliana. There's been some buzz."

Heads bobbed in agreement all around the conference table. Everyone smiled except for Kaylee, who probably couldn't stand that I had completely outshone her in this movie. There was definitely no Oscar buzz around her name.

Unable to help myself, I glanced at my father. The guy was one of the biggest names in Hollywood. As much as I hated the man, I couldn't stop trying to earn his approval.

Dad met my gaze with a serious expression. "You did really well."

The praise shocked me so much that I returned to my seat. "Thanks."

My dad nodded. "This movie could earn you a lot of respect around town. It could transition you out of your teen idol status and make you a serious A-list player." He lifted the magazine from the table and added, "but Hollywood's elite do not like people who bring this kind of drama with them. It doesn't matter how good of an actress you are... if they don't respect you or they think you're going to cause them trouble, they're not going to keep working with you!"

Unfortunately, he was right. If my team was serious about the amount of buzz I was getting for this performance, then I was going to have to step up my game a little. I was going to have to find a way to make people take me seriously. That wasn't easy to do when the world considered me nothing more than a piece of eye candy.

"What am I supposed to do?" The antagonism was gone from my voice, but not the bitterness. "I can't help it if people only want to talk about my abs and whether or not I'd consider dating a fan in interviews. It's not my fault that I'm too damn good-looking to be taken seriously."

"What if we get her involved in a charity?" Someone asked.

"Too gimmicky," someone else responded. "It's been done too much. People would see right through it."

"How about enrolling her in college? - another person suggested.

Yes! I could get on board with that. I've always wanted to go to college. I've been home-schooled with a private tutor my whole life. The closest I ever got to a real school was playing a high school student in movies.

"Hey, yeah, I could do that. I could go to UCLA, go Bruins! I could study English Literature."

Joseph shook his head, sending me a sympathetic smile. "That's a really good idea, but you wouldn't have time."

"But we've wrapped on The Druid Princess." I argued. "I don't have anything going on right now. I could totally do it. I can take a couple years off and go to school. That would keep me out of trouble."

Everyone in the room collectively shook their heads.

"Why not?" It pissed me off that they were so quickly dismissing the idea. "What would prove that I'm responsible more than getting a college degree? I'm smart enough. I'd get good grades."

Lisa smiled, but it was full of pity. "Of course you would, but there are five books in The Jana Chronicles series. When The Druid Princess hits theatres and breaks box-office records, which it will, the studio will green light the other four movies. They're already working on the next script. You'll be filming again by spring."

My heart sank. I should have known I wouldn't be allowed to do something as normal as go to college. I reached for my earbuds again. My opinion clearly wasn't needed in this conversation, and whatever scheme they came up with, I was sure I'd need Dua Lipa to cheer me up.

"What if she got engaged?"

I dropped my phone before the music had a chance to play. "Excuse me?" I gaped in horror at my publicist and waited for the idea to be laughed out of the room, but no one objected. "You can't be serious! Engaged?"

"Actually, it's brilliant!" Joseph said. "This nation loves a great romance. It satisfies the teeny boppers and it shows the world that Juliana Valdés is growing up. That she's ready to settle down from her bad-girl attitude and start taking life seriously."

I tried not to take offense to that. I have always been serious about my career. I've been working since I was a kid, and never had a chance to be a normal teenager because I'd been too busy taking life seriously.

"I'm too young!"

"It's more romantic that way, and no one will blame you when you break it off later."

"And who the hell do you suggest I get engaged to? Am I just supposed to go pluck some random girl off the street and give her a ring?"

"I'll do it."

The whole room went silent. Kaylee was texting on her phone and didn't look up to meet anyone's gaze, but she shrugged, knowing that she had the whole room's attention.

"This is my first movie. I could use the publicity!"

Fighting back my gag reflex, I cringed. If ever genetics had let down the human race, it was in the creation of Kaylee Summers. She was like those chocolate bunnies they sell at Easter, delicious on the outside, completely hollow on the inside, and too much of her was bound to make you sick to your stomach. It was bad enough I had to play nice with her at work. No way in hell could I keep up the pretence off set.

"I love it!" Joseph declared.

"Genius!" Gary agreed.

Even my father smiled enthusiastically and said, "It's perfect!"

"Hell no! If I have to get engaged, it's Dua Lipa or no one!"

Kaylee looked up from her phone long enough to laugh. "You wish!"

"The only one dreaming here, babe, is you."

Anger flashed in Kaylee's eyes, but her smile turned predatory. "What's the matter, baby? We hooked up once before, and I don't remember you having any complaints then. Come on, do this with me. We could have some fun with it."

I shuddered. "No way!"

Several people in the room sighed, and again it was left up to Lisa to coax me back into compliance.

"Juliana, think about it," she urged. "A real-life romance between the two of you would generate millions in free publicity. Your fans would eat it up. It would be great for the film, and your career."

"A real-life romance with her?" I repeated. "I think you're overestimating my acting abilities, Lisa."

That wiped the smug smile off Kaylee's face. "Asshole."

I returned the sentiment without shame. "Bitch."

"Behave, Juliana!" My dad interrupted. "This isn't just about you. We all need this. This is my first dive into more serious films. If my lead actor could earn an Academy Award nomination, I could get any kind of job I wanted after this, not just action flicks."

"It's not like it has to be real." Gary added. "And it won't last forever. Just a couple of months of being seen together in public, and then after the movie releases you guys can break it off. No harm done. You could get engaged quite quickly and just tell people you dated in secret during the filming. Secret love affairs are exciting. The world will go crazy over it."

Looking around the room, I felt the need to punch something. There was no way I was leaving this meeting single. Kaylee smirked at the defeat in my eyes.

"I'll make us a reservation somewhere nice. Oh, and my ring better be platinum and at least three karats!"

 

Chapter Text

The only woman on my rehabilitation team was my psychological therapist, but even she was still young and attractive. Having a woman to talk to was probably better though, because in these sessions I was actually required to form coherent sentences, which seemed almost impossible when I'm around the delicious Daniel.

Dr Parish started her interrogation before I had even settled myself into the big leather wingback chair in her office. "How was your week, Valentina? Any progress to report?"

I loved this chair, but I hated my weekly therapy sessions. They were awkward at best and I always left them feeling awful. "I finally caught up on all the episodes I missed of Once Upon A Time." That was the only progress I could think of. It was basically the only thing I'd done all week.

"You know I was talking about your family."

"Those people are not my family."

Dr Parish smiled at me. "I understand why you feel that way. However, they are your family and you need to accept that. You need to find a way to build a relationship with them."

"I can't build a relationship with people who don't like me and don't want me around. The only time I ever talk to the twins is when they call me to make sure I'm hiding in my room before they bring their friends home, and that they'll text me when it's safe to come out!"

The thing about Dr Parish is that she never loses her cool. I know that she must get frustrated, but somehow, she always looks and sounds genuinely sympathetic. "I'm sure you're misinterpreting their intentions. Perhaps when they call to tell you they are bringing their friends home, it's their way of trying to include you."

I snorted at this. Dr Parish is a smart woman, but she has way too much optimism. "Eva's exact words when she called me yesterday were, 'Hey, Step-freak, I'm bringing some of my friends' home, and they all have this, like, really bad fear of dogs, so make sure you lock yourself in your room this evening. I'll text you when it's safe to come out!' Call me pessimistic, but I don't think I misinterpreted that."

Dr Parish's eyes narrowed, but she said nothing.

"Oh, and the best part about it..." I continued, "was all the laughter in the background. She was with her friends when she called to tell me. She waited until she had an audience on purpose."

"Did you talk to your parents about your stepsister's behaviour?"

Again, I laughed without humour. "She has said worse to my face with both my dad and Lucia standing right there. They just force a nervous laugh like 'Oh, how sweet, the girls are joking around with each other.' They never say anything. They are in total denial. They give those girls whatever they want and let them do whatever they want. Renata at least has the decency to just pretend I don't exist as long as I stay out of her way, but Eva is a vicious, rotten, spoiled princess. I wouldn't be friends with her even if she did give me a chance. She's not the kind of person who is healthy for anyone to be friends with. She's a quintessential Mean Girl, the kind they make movies about."

Dr Parish sighed. She set down her pen and took her glasses off to rub her eyes. Obviously tired of going around in circles, she changed the subject. "Let's talk about your attempted suicide."

I groaned, but I still tugged at the sleeves of my shirt. I had scars all over my body, but the ones on my wrists were different. Those scars were my own fault. That moment in my life was a decision I truly regretted. Something I was ashamed of. "That was a mistake." I whispered. "I wasn't even that serious."

"I've read the reports, Valentina, and I've seen a number of attempted suicide cases. If you had something bigger than a steak knife, you would have succeeded. You almost did. You weren't messing around."

"Fine, maybe I was serious about it, then, but I wasn't thinking clearly. That was a really bad time for me, but I have gotten a lot better."

Dr Parish gave me a look that suggested she didn't believe me.

"I can walk again! I'm learning how to write with my bad hand again! The doctors in Boston told me that wasn't supposed to be possible. Do you think I would have worked so hard and put myself through so much more pain trying to accomplish those things if I still thought about ending my own life? I was overwhelmed after my accident and lost my head for a while, but I am not suicidal anymore! Why won't anyone believe me?"

Dr Parish got up from her desk and brought me a box of tissues. After I grudgingly took one, she sat down on the chair next to mine. "I do believe you, Valentina," she said. "You have a lot of work still ahead of you, but I know you've come a long way from that dark place. What you do not understand is that until your life is a lot more stable, it would be very easy for you to find yourself back there. At least living in your father's home, whether you feel comfortable yet or not, there is someone looking after you who loves you and has your best interests in mind."

That made me so angry I started to shake. "You think that man loves me? You think he has my best interests in mind? He doesn't even know me! The other day he enrolled me at the same school his daughters go to. It's this fancy private school like you see on TV shows about rich kids with messed up lives."

"It's probably a great school, Valentina."

"Maybe, but that doesn't mean it's the right one for me. He took me to see the place when he registered me, and I felt like I had gone to some alien planet. I went to a public school in inner city Boston. We had metal detectors, not a sushi bar. I am not going to fit in there. I don't even know how to interact with the kids there. We have nothing in common! Everyone there will be just like Eva and Renata. Plus, I have to wear a uniform, short skirts and polo T-shirts! It's going to be hell for me!"

When Dr Parish sighed, I tried to defend myself in a way that didn't just sound like I was whining. "Public school would be a lot more familiar to me. It would be more diverse. I would be able to wear whatever I wanted and my scars wouldn't be on display like some kind of freak show. I would be able to blend in more. Plus, there might even be a few other kids on a five-year plan there. You think kids go to a school like Beverly Hills Prep Academy and get held back? As if I don't have enough to deal with already, I'm going to be a full year older than all the other seniors. Plus, I already have an arch enemy who doesn't want me to go there and has promised to make my life hell if I get in her way."

I waited for Dr Parish to tell me I was misinterpreting Eva's threats again, but she didn't. She went back to her desk and started taking more notes. "Have you voiced any of these concerns with your father?"

I gave her another humourless laugh. "I had a massive panic attack when I saw the place. I understand why you don't want me to do home-school, so I asked if he would at least send me to public school. I gave him all the reasons I just gave you. I told him I thought it would help me adjust better if I was on more familiar ground and less anxious. I begged him. And do you know what he did? He laughed at me! I was in the middle of a legitimate panic attack. I was begging for his understanding. I was in tears, and he laughed. He told me I was being ridiculous and that I was going to love it there. He told me no daughter of his was going to go to public school when he could provide them with a better education."

As was common during my therapy sessions, I started crying again and had to get another tissue. "The man can't have my best interests at heart, because he has no clue what my best interests are. He doesn't know a thing about me, or what I need. He's just a snob who's now stuck with a freakish girl from a part of his past he tried to bury. I'm his deep, dark, disgraceful secret. He's more concerned about saving face with his friends than he is with me."

I blew my nose and got my tears under control. Once I could talk again in a rational manner, I spoke, "Look, I know you're trying to help me and all, but the fact is my dad's house is just not a healthy environment. It's awkward and stressful, and it's only making everything that much harder for me. My whole rehabilitation process would be so much easier if I could just move out on my own."

Dr Parish sat there for a minute, silently contemplating what I said. "If you could leave on your own..." she paused getting my full attention. "where would you go? Back to Boston?"

Finally, a topic that wasn't depressing. "I don't know!" I said honestly. "I lost my spot at Boston University, and all my friends have moved on. Things wouldn't be the same if I tried to go back, so I'd probably pick somewhere else."

"So where would you go?" Dr Parish asked again. "What would you do with your life?"

"First, I would finish high school in some online program. If I did that, I could start now and be done in a couple of months instead of having to repeat my entire senior year. Then, I would still go to college. I know I want to study journalism. I guess I would need to decide where I wanted to go. I could go anywhere, but I want to be an entertainment writer/reviewer, so I would probably stay here or go to New York. Probably New York because I'm partial to the East Coast."

I knew I'd said the wrong thing when Dr Parish's eyes narrowed. "You would leave, just like that? Go off to some college all by yourself in some town where you don't know anybody? And have no friends?"

"Lots of kids do that!" I kicked myself for sounding defensive. I knew that would work against me, but I couldn't help it. I hated how people were always pointing out that I had no one left.

"Lots of kids aren't recovering from a traumatic experience like you, and even then, most of those kids have a strong support system back home."

I scoffed. "And you think I have that here? You think my dad and his family are a support system?"

"No, I don't." She said simply.

I was shocked by her answer. Everyone I have met since the moment I woke up from my accident have tried to push my dad and his family on me as if the fact that my father and I shared the same blood meant that we were all going to automatically love each other and be instant-BFFs.

"Perhaps you're right that living with your father and his family isn't the best thing for you." She said slowly.

My heart perked up at this tiny ray of hope, but I tried to squash it. There had to be a catch somewhere. She wasn't going to sign off on my mental health, which is what I needed if I wanted to be free of my dad's supervision and living on my own.

Dr Parish put her notepad down and leaned back in her chair. "Valentina, I know you see me as your prison warden, but I hope you understand that I really do want what's best for you. It's my job to help you figure out what that is, and help you get to a place mentally where you can accomplish it. I want to see you succeed. I want to be able to sign your release papers for you, but you have to prove to me that you're ready for that."

So, she wasn't going to get me out of my father's house. My hope was appropriately extinguished. "What does that mean?" I grumbled.

"It means that if getting you a place of your own is really what's best for you, then that's what we're going to work toward. But I'm not going to let you do that until you can prove to me you won't be completely alone. I don't believe you're ready to be by yourself. I think that would put you in danger of falling into another severe depression. You need friends. You need a solid support system. If you don't believe your family will be that for you, then find others. Make some friends. Join a support group. Try to get back in touch with some of your old friends in Boston. Even if they have moved on and you don't live near them, you still need people you can talk to. If you can build yourself a real support system, Valentina, then I'll take you apartment shopping myself."

Dr Parish's promise stuck with me through the rest of the day. I needed a support system, and there was only one place I could think to start.

 

Chapter Text

Juliana POV

I tugged on the collar of my t-shirt as I pulled up to the restaurant. Of course, Kaylee picked The Ivy for our first 'date'. It was only one of the most well-known celebrity haunts in Los Angeles. Photographers camped out front on the sidewalk every night of the week, and tonight was no exception. The flashes started going off when we were still half a block away because the paparazzi all recognized my car. They were going to freak out when they realized I was dining with Kaylee Summers tonight.

"You ready to do this, baby?" Kaylee taunted from the passenger seat.

My stomach churned. Kaylee had been a little too eager for this whole charade from the beginning. She'd thrown herself at me when we first met and I made the mistake of bringing her home. It only took me a couple of days to realise how stupid that had been. She couldn't seem to understand that one night of fun to get the tension out of the way when filming was just that, one night of fun. It took me weeks to convince her I wasn't interested in anything more, and I'd had to parade dozens of other girls in front of her to get her to understand.

I glanced at her again. She covered her lips something shiny and then laughed. "You look like you've just been handed a prison sentence."

I almost smiled. That statement was amazingly accurate.

"I don't know why you're being so grumpy about this. Most people would kill to date me."

Even if Kaylee wasn't a conniving, self-centred, high maintenance bitch, who is dumber than a goldfish, I still wouldn't date her. I don't date anyone, at least not more than once. "I don't do relationships!"

"Why not? I think they're fun."

In order to be in an actual relationship, one was required to use their heart, and my heart didn't work like that anymore. It hasn't for over eight months now, but I wasn't about to explain that to Kaylee. "I just don't."

Kaylee stopped primping and turned in her seat to look me over with scrutinizing eyes. After a moment her lips curled up into a smug smirk. "How ironic. Hollywood's favourite heartbreaker doesn't date because she got burned by a girl."

Clenching my jaw, I cut my glance back out the front window. I didn't talk about Val with anyone, least of all Kaylee.

Kaylee laughed again. "Wow. Whoever she was, she certainly did a number on you!"

I glared at her. "This topic is off limits. Drop it, or I dump your ass on the curb and find someone hotter to amuse me for the night!"

Kaylee's smile disappeared and her eyes glinted with malice. "This relationship is going to skyrocket my popularity. I am not going to let you ruin it for me because someone dumped you. If you mess this up, I will ruin your career. By the time I'm done with you, you'll have to move to the North Pole in order to escape the drama I will bring to your life!"

As much as I hated to admit it, Kaylee's threat was real. This may have been her first film, but her parents were some of the most powerful people in town and she had even more powerful friends, hence the reason she landed a part she wasn't good enough for in the first place. Her father was the head of the studio that had green lighted The Druid Princess.

I had some star power behind me and acting skills that couldn't be ignored, so I had a little breathing room to stand up to Kaylee here and there, but if I ever pissed her off badly enough, I had no doubt that she could do some serious damage to my career. I was really stuck in this nightmare, at least until award votes were cast. If I could just get my nomination and show the Hollywood A-listers that I was worthy of being one of them, then I could dump Kaylee and they'd probably congratulate me for making such a smart choice.

I leaned back against my headrest, closed my eyes, and sighed.

"You amaze me sometimes, Kay. I've never met anyone who can pull off bitchy as naturally as you do."

"I don't have to be a bitch, Juliana."

I cracked a wary eye open, and Kaylee gave me a sultry smile. "You may not like relationships, baby, but you're in one now." She leaned over and spoke softly into my ear. "I can make these next few months a living hell for you, or I can make them very, very pleasant."

She went to work trailing sensual kisses down the side of my neck while her hand fell to a dangerous position on my inner thigh. Her long nails scratched through my jeans with just enough pressure to drive me crazy.

I sucked in a breath. I didn't want to give in to her, but this Kaylee was definitely more pleasant than the whiny, cruel version I would be stuck with if I didn't play along. Carefully, so as not to piss her off further, I pulled her hand away from my lap. "In two more seconds, I won't let you out of this car. Unless you want to skip dinner and get straight to dessert, I suggest you keep your hands to yourself."

Kaylee chuckled as she moved back to her side of the car and reapplied her lip gloss, again. "Tempting. But we need to be seen together before we can get to the fun stuff. Plus, I'm hungry."

"Right." - As if she was going to have anything more than bottled water and a few bites of lettuce. "Whatever."

I let out another breath and finally opened my door, immediately finding my 'public' smile, when people started shouting for my attention. All thoughts and feelings turned off. The numbness that helped me survive the last year took over. I welcomed it, embraced it.

The chaos faded out as I smiled for the crowd. Acting was a skill I did well, a game I loved. This date with Kaylee was just another act, so I would perform, and I would do a damn good job of it.

I walked around the car and opened the door for Kaylee. Once I helped her from the car, I slipped my arm around her waist. "Smile for the cameras, princess." I teased loud enough for our audience to hear and then placed a soft kiss on the sensitive spot of skin behind Kaylee's ear.

Kaylee shivered with pleasure. As we walked into the restaurant, she murmured into my neck. "Hmm, maybe you do deserve an award. I almost believe you want me right now!" See? I totally deserve an Oscar.

Twenty minutes later I was so bored that I nearly cried tears of joy when my phone dinged, notifying me of a new e-mail. It was probably just Mateo letting me know about some change in my schedule, but even that was more appealing than listening to Kaylee drone on about the details of our upcoming engagement. She had the proposal all planned out from the time and place I was going to do it down to the very last line I was supposed to say to her. Shoot me now, I thought when she mentioned needing to plan an engagement party.

I reached for my drink at the same time as I pulled my phone out of my pocket and then froze when I opened my e-mail.

You have 1 unread message.
From: Valentina
Subject: Jana?

"Holy shit!"

My glass slipped from my fingers and fell on to my plate, sloshing red wine all over both Kaylee and me. The restaurant staff came flying from all directions when Kaylee shrieked, but I hardly noticed. I couldn't take my eyes off of my phone.

"Holy fucking shit!"

"Juliana!" Kaylee screeched. "What the hell is the matter with you?"

I ignored her, and, with a shaking hand, opened the e-mail, praying this wasn't some kind of sick joke.

-----

To: Jana458@gmail.com
From: ValTheRealHero@yahoo.com
Subject: Jana?

Dear Jana,

It has taken me weeks to build up the courage to write this e-mail. I had no idea if I should contact you as so much time has passed. I never messaged you back that day because I was in a car accident. I was in a coma for a while and had to stay in the hospital for a long time after that.

-----

I couldn't hold back my gasp. I always figured it was something like that, but having it confirmed made the nightmare real in a way it hadn't been before.

Valentina and I had always been just anonymous e-mail friends, but the last time I spoke to her, I asked for her address so that I could mail her something. It was a huge step in our relationship, but I was at the point where I was willing to chance it. I needed more from her. Wanted to be more to her.

I took a risk, got her a gift I hoped would win her heart, and asked for her address. She called me a creepy Internet stalker, but I was sure she was kidding, until she never messaged me back. At first, I figured her phone had died, but when she didn't get back to me that day I briefly worried that I had scared her away. Then the next day she missed her First Sentence Friday post on her blog and I knew something was wrong.

I wrote her e-mail after e-mail and waited day after day for her to write back, or at least post on her blog again, but after a few weeks I gave up hope. I knew that even if I completely freaked her out that day and made her never want to talk to my creepy Internet-stalking ass again, Val would never have given up on her blog. Ever. Not unless she was dead. Which was the conclusion I finally resigned myself to when an entire month went by without word from her. For months, I mourned the loss of my best friend and the girl I'd fallen in love with, I was still mourning her loss up until five seconds ago.

Swallowing a lump that had suddenly risen in my throat, I read the rest of the e-mail.

-----

My mother died in the accident, so I had to move in with my dad and his family. He packed up my apartment and it was rented out again long before I got out of the hospital. I never got to go home. I never got to see any of my old friends. I never got to say goodbye to anyone. Not even my mother. I even missed her funeral.

I'm sorry it's taken me so long to write this e-mail, and I still don't know if I'll be able to hit SEND. It's just everything is so different now and thinking about the past hurt so much that I couldn't face it. I haven't contacted anyone from my old life. I thought about starting my blog again, but my dad got rid of all my books while I was in a coma and now, I don't have the heart to do it anymore.

I'm so sorry that I just disappeared. I'm sorry if I hurt you. I didn't mean to. I hope you can forgive me. I just want you to know that your friendship always meant a lot to me. (It still does.) I think about you all the time.

Miss you,

Val

-----

I sat in my chair, staring at the e-mail while the room spun around me. Val was alive. Val had e-mailed me. And she missed me. It was almost too miraculous to believe.

I swallowed again, but this time I was fighting off nausea as well as emotions. I was reeling over the fact that she was alive, but to hear that she'd been through something so awful, too? She lost her mother and had to move in with a father that had abandoned her years ago. The thought of Val going through all of that was agony.

The emotions spiralling out of control inside me were almost impossible to contain. I couldn't help the elation I felt, the relief and joy in knowing that she was alive, but at the same time, my heart was breaking all over again. I was sick with worry for her. She must have felt so alone all this time.

"Juliana!"

Kaylee's shrill voice snapped me out of my shock. Blinking a few times, I met her questioning glare over the table.

Someone else interrupted, saying, "Miss Valdés? Are you all right?"

I shook my head, trying to clear away the last of my daze, and looked up at the restaurant manager hovering over our table. The woman was holding out a cloth to me. It wasn't until she urged me to take it that I noticed the wine spilt on my clothes. I accepted the cloth and dabbed at myself. "I'm sorry about the mess."

"Don't worry about that," the woman said. "I'm more concerned about you. You look so pale. Are you unwell? Do you need some sort of assistance? Should we call a paramedic?"

"What? Oh! No. I'm all right. I was just startled. I'm so sorry." I pulled the valet slip out of my breast pocket and handed it to the restaurant manager. "Could you have the valet bring my car around? I'm afraid I need to leave. And it's urgent, so..."

The manager nodded, but the look of concern in her eyes intensified and she frowned. "Of course, Miss Valdés, but are you sure you're all right?"

Was I all right? If this woman only knew. I was better than I'd been in over eight months. The missing piece of my heart had just come back to me. Val had e-mailed me! And I hadn't responded yet...

"Miss Valdés?"

Waving the woman's concern off, I hit the reply button.

-----

To: ValTheRealHero@yahoo.com
From: Jana458@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Jana?

VAL!!!!! I AM FREAKING OUT RIGHT NOW! I am out to dinner with a friend. Give me ten minutes. Do NOT go anywhere!!!!!!!

-----

As soon as I hit SEND, I jumped to my feet and slipped the manager some cash and a card.

"This is my personal assistant's number. Would you please contact him about the bill, for dinner and for whatever mess I've caused? Thank you for everything, and again I'm sorry for the trouble."

I didn't wait for a reply. I made my way out of the restaurant as fast as I could and was already climbing into my car when Kaylee came scrambling out of the restaurant behind me.

"Juliana!" She hissed. She forced a smile at all the curious paparazzi and softened her voice. "Baby, are you sure you're feeling okay? Do you need me to drive?"

Oh, yeah. That.

I'd forgotten all about Kaylee, but the look she gave me over the top of the Ferrari made me remember the act I was supposed to be putting on for the public. Truthfully, I didn't care anymore if Kaylee had a tantrum and tried to destroy me. The only thing that mattered was that Val was alive and she was waiting for me to talk to her. But starting a fight would take longer than keeping Kaylee happy, so I flashed her a panty-dropping smile. "I'm fine, baby. I just feel terrible for ruining such a sexy dress, and I think it's important that I get it off you as quickly as possible."

Surprise flashed in Kaylee's eyes, but her whole face lit up and she beamed at me. "You're so naughty."

She giggled and then turned to say something to the men with their cameras, but I didn't wait around to hear what it was. I climbed in the car, buckled my seat belt, and rolled down the passenger window. "Babe, stop flirting with the cameras and get your sexy ass in the car now. I can't wait any longer!"

Kaylee shot another smile at the paparazzi and climbed into the car. As I sped away from the restaurant, she unleashed the tirade she'd been holding back while in public. "Have you lost your mind? What the hell was all that? You made us both look completely stupid, and you ruined my dress! Those photographers just got pictures of me with wine down my front!"

"I don't give a shit about your stupid dress. Val e-mailed me and I need to get home so I can talk to her."

Kaylee gasped.

I was driving too fast to take my eyes off the road, but I felt the heat of her stare. It was hot enough that I feared she might spontaneously combust. If she burst into flames and ruined my leather seats, I would be severely pissed.

"This is all because some girl e-mailed you?"

"Val is not just some girl. She's the girl. The only girl!"

"WHAT?"

"This is a damn publicity stunt, Kaylee. Our relationship is fake. Do not forget that!"

"Maybe, but if you think I'm going to let you sneak around with some tart while you're supposed to be dating me..."

"This isn't about you!" I snapped. "I just found out that the most important person in my life didn't die eight months ago. She's been in a freaking coma and she just e-mailed me to tell me that she's still alive! I'm a little freaked out right now, so don't give me any more shit! I need to talk to her."

Miracle of miracles, I managed to stun Kaylee speechless.

Five minutes later, I pulled through the security gate of my Hollywood Hills home. When I turned the car off and started to get out, Kaylee gaped at me. "You're just going to go inside and call this Val person?" She spat the name with loathing. "What am I supposed to do?"

As if I cared? I shrugged. "Call a cab."

"A cab?" Kaylee shrieked in horror. "You expect me to take a cab home? This was our first public outing together. You know we were followed after we left the restaurant. There is no way in hell I'm going to be photographed leaving your place right after we got here, alone and in a damn cab!"

Kaylee was fuming and clearly looking for a fight, but I didn't want to take the time to get into it with her. "Then come in. Stay the night for all I care, I'll take you home in the morning."

Kaylee followed me in the house, still raging. "You're damn right you'll take me home in the morning. After you take me out to a nice breakfast to make up for all this bullshit, and you'll even give me a something to wear like a real girlfriend would!"

Irritation swept through me. All I wanted to do was talk to Val, and Kaylee was worried about some stupid publicity stunt. I took off my jacket and pulled the t-shirt I was wearing over my head. "Enjoy it, princess." I grumbled as I threw it at her. "It's the closest you are going to get to me tonight. The guest room's down the hall on the right."

I stormed off to my bedroom, slamming and locking the door behind me.

 

Chapter Text

I did it. I e-mailed Jana. And less than five minutes later, I got a reply. The second I read her e-mail, my entire body relaxed. I was just so relieved. It was Jana! I'd spoken to Jana! She sounded the same as she always had, and she seemed eager to talk to me. Maybe I did have one friend left in the world.

A small piece of my dead heart came back to life, and I took what felt like my first real breath since the accident. My hands shook with anticipation as I logged into my instant messenger and waited. My stomach was a mixture of all kinds of butterflies, nervous, excited¸ fearful, happy...

The minutes ticked on. Ten minutes passed, then fifteen, and finally twenty. I thought I would go insane. I thought I would reach through the computer and strangle her for taking so long if she made me wait another minute. And then she was there.

Jana458: So sorry. It took me longer to get home than I thought it would.

ValTheRealHero: Home? You left your friend? You didn't have to do that.

Jana458: Are you kidding? Val, I thought you were dead!

ValTheRealHero: Are you serious?

My heart dropped into my stomach. She thought I was dead? I wondered if all my friends back home thought that, too. I wondered if I should let them know I wasn't. I didn't think I could handle the questions.

Jana458: What was I supposed to think? You disappeared mid-conversation! I wrote you a million e-mails. I checked your blog and your Twitter every day for months. I couldn't think of any other reason that you would just suddenly stop blogging.

I know you can't actually hear emotion in an e-mail, but Jana sounded upset. I felt awful that she had to go through all that. I know if the shoe had been on the other foot, I would have been crazy with worry.

ValTheRealHero: I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have let you worry like that for so long.

Jana458: Don't apologise to me, Valentina. You have nothing to be sorry for. I'm just glad you're okay. I still can't believe I'm talking to you. I nearly fell out of my chair when I got your e-mail.

Jana458: My date thought I was insane, by the way. Definitely not getting any from her tonight, and she's really hot. Totally your fault!

For a second, I burst into laughter. She was the same old Jana. Then I realised what she said, and my heart skipped another beat.

ValTheRealHero: You were on a date???? Jana! I can't believe you ditched her. What a jerk.

Jana458: Eh, she was too high maintenance, anyway.

ValTheRealHero: Jana!!!

Jana458: Get over it, woman. It was a stupid date. You were more important. That e-mail almost made me cry. Actual tears, Val! Why are we even talking about me? I can't imagine what you've been through. I know how close you were with your mom. And you had to move in with your dad? You haven't seen him in years!!! How are you? Is there anything I can do? You want me to fly out there and steal you away from him? Or at least punch him in the face? I can't believe he got rid of your books.

Already the world seemed brighter. Life wasn't nearly as bad as it had been half an hour ago. My overwhelming loneliness was gone. There wasn't really a light at the end of the tunnel yet, but at least I wasn't in the dark by myself anymore.

I should have known Jana wouldn't have changed. I should have e-mailed her months ago when I was stuck in the rehab centre and could move again. Oh, well. No use dwelling on the past. I have her back now, and that was all that matters.

ValTheRealHero: No punching. My dad is a big, bad U.S. attorney. He would bury you in court, get you thrown in jail, and probably even take your fancy talking car.

Jana458: Whoa, whoa, whoa, not my precious! Okay, okay, so no punching him or kidnapping you. But seriously, Val, what can I do? I feel helpless here chick. Talk to me.

ValTheRealHero: I don't want to talk. I am so sick of talking. The only people I talk to anymore are doctors, and all they do is make me talk. I don't need another doctor. I need a friend. I need someone to make me laugh and help me take my mind off everything. Don't treat me like I'm going to break. Yell at me and don't let me get away with anything when I start acting like a brat.

Jana458: Would I ever miss an opportunity to call you a brat?

ValTheRealHero: No. That's why I need you. My life is upside down right now, and I really need something familiar. I need normal.

Jana458: I can do normal.

I laughed a genuine, happy, light-hearted laugh. It was the first real laugh I'd managed since my accident. There was nothing forced or awkward about it. I hadn't done it because I was nervous about anything or trying to hide my real feelings. I just laughed because I was in a good mood (and because what Jana said was ridiculous).

Dr Parish was going to be happy. Maybe, if I was lucky, she'd stop hounding me about spending time with my dad and the step witches, but I doubted it.

ValTheRealHero: Sure you can, rock star. You wouldn't know normal if it bit you on your ridiculously good-looking face!

Jana458: You've never seen my face. How do you know it's good-looking?

ValTheRealHero: Because no ugly person could have an ego as big as yours!

Jana458: You're right. I'm gorgeous. I'm also probably way too amazing to accomplish normal, but I can definitely handle familiar. You've seen the cast for The Druid Princess, right? I've been going crazy not being able to talk to you about it.

I laughed again. This was familiar. My mind drifted back to the early months in the hospital. The doctors kept me in a medically induced coma for three weeks because my pain was too much and I was having so many surgeries. After they brought me out of it, there were still a number of weeks where I was groggy and incoherent, in and out of consciousness. The hospital staff told me that for weeks I would call out for my mom and Jana.

One day, one of my nurses recognised the name Jana and brought me an entertainment magazine. The cover boasted an article about Hollywood's 'It Girl' had landed the role of fantasy's most cherished princess. I guess the thought of teen sensation Juliana Valdés playing Princess Jana was so horrifying it brought me right out of my stupor and sent me into a tizzy, as my nurse called it. And that was before I learned who was directing.

ValTheRealHero: Ugh! Don't remind me!

Jana458: ?

ValTheRealHero: Why does Hollywood always have to ruin everything?

Jana458: You think it's going to suck?

ValTheRealHero: Kaylee Summers as the Princess Cali? She's not even an actress! She's a supermodel!

Jana458: Who knows, maybe acting is her calling.

ValTheRealHero: And maybe Macario Valdés just thought she was really hot. They don't even have her in a dress in the movie. She's decked out in some slutty, tight, leather getup like Xena: Warrior Princess. It's disgraceful. And forget any chance of them following the story. With Macario Valdés directing, you know it's going to be nothing but a bunch of over-the-top mindless action.

Jana458: Wow. So, you're really not a fan of Macario Valdés, then. I thought you were joking all those times you wrote scathing reviews of his movies on your blog.

ValTheRealHero: I thought you were joking every time you defended him. Macario Valdés is your go-to director if you want flashy car chases, big explosions, and half-naked women, which I know is your favourite kind of movie, but even you have to admit he is so wrong for The Druid Princess. And of course, he just had to go and bring his daughter on to play Jana! Why??? Why are they doing this to me???

Jana458: What!!! I thought you would be happy about that. Juliana Valdés will make an excellent Jana. She is awesome.

ValTheRealHero: LOL! I never knew you had a celebrity crush on Juliana Valdés.

Jana458: Remember what we said about you being a BRAT?? It's not a crush. I just think she's perfect for the part.

ValTheRealHero: Sure, she looks the part, but she's only ever done cheesy teen movies. Who knows if she can pull off the drama? Not that there will be any of that with her father directing.

Jana458: I will admit that Macario Valdés is wrong for the movie, and Kaylee Summers definitely has air for brains, but I don't think the movie will suck. They got Academy Award Winner Jason Cohen to adapt the script, and you're wrong about Juliana. She can do it. There's even some Oscar buzz in town right now.

ValTheRealHero: Teen Choice Award buzz, maybe! Best Kiss and Hottest Abs, definitely, but Best Actress? I'll believe it when I see it.

Jana458: Whatever, brat. She'll at least be nominated. I'm calling it now. She did an indie drama once, The Long Road Home. Watch it, and I promise I'll let you grovel for forgiveness once you realise how wrong you are about her!

ValTheRealHero: Ha! Okay. I'll check it out. I should go now, though.

Jana458: Don't go yet.

ValTheRealHero: Why?

Jana458: I don't know. I just don't want you to.

Jana could be so sweet when she wanted, but that's not why that little confession caused my chest to constrict. Nobody had wanted me around since my accident. My father brought me home, and he and Lucia tried to be nice, but it was obvious that I wasn't really a part of the family.

Sometimes I would come out of my room and it would take Lucia a second too long to force a smile. And why shouldn't she? I am my dad's forgotten past. I am a disruption in her perfect, beautiful world, and came with a lot of baggage. She puts up with me, and I didn't think she hated me, but she doesn't like me, either. The step witches definitely don't want me around. I've been so sure that nobody would ever want me around again.

ValTheRealHero: Afraid I'm going to disappear again?

Jana458: That's not funny. You scared the crap out of me, woman!!! I thought I had lost you forever. Are you sure you're okay?

Okay was a relative term.

ValTheRealHero: I'm much better now that I'm talking to you. I really missed you.

Jana458: I missed you more. You can't ever disappear on me again. I need you, Valentina, oh wise and beautiful mystic priestess of the Realm. I need your guidance and council.

ValTheRealHero: As if you ever listened to a word I said.

Jana458: I always listen. I just rarely agree.

ValTheRealHero: That is because you are foolish and shallow, young druid princess.

Jana458: You forgot beautiful.

ValTheRealHero: And conceited.

Jana458: Oh, how I've missed you constantly cutting down my ego.

ValTheRealHero: It's a nearly impossible task because it's so inflated, but I try my best.

Jana458: I suppose I should let you go now. If it's late here, it must be almost morning for you.

I hesitated to respond. Part of me was desperate to tell her the truth, to tell her I lived in LA now, and ask to meet in person. I wanted so much to have a face to put with her name. I wanted to hear the laugh behind all the LOLs she typed. I wanted to know what her voice sounded like when she called me woman every time she was frustrated with me.

The problem was, I knew once I met her, I'd want so much more than that. Mom had been scared I would fall for her someday, but I had already fallen for her. In fact, I was certain that I was hopelessly in love with her. I always have been.

Jana wouldn't want me. Who would when she could have any beautiful girl she wanted? I was pretty sure Jana would still be my friend if she saw my scars, but to what extent? Would she be embarrassed of me? Would she be like my stepsisters and not want to introduce me to her perfect looking friends? Would she be like Lucia and be afraid to look at me? Or like my father, stuck with an awkward acquaintance because she felt obligated?

If we met, we could never go back from that. It would undoubtedly change everything. I couldn't take that risk when she was all I had, so I said nothing.

ValTheRealHero: Thanks for ditching your date to talk to me tonight.

Jana458: Anytime. Talk again soon? You're not going to disappear on me again?

ValTheRealHero: Not if I can help it. I'll watch that movie and get back to you. Goodnight, Jana.

Jana458: Goodnight, Val. Thanks for writing to me. I'm really glad you're okay.

She signed off and guilt swelled in me. Not telling her felt like a lie. "Maybe someday!" I whispered to myself as I closed the laptop. I hoped it was true. I hoped someday I would find the courage to face her.

 

Chapter Text

My first day of school went pretty much as I expected it would. Everyone stared. I wore my winter uniform even though it was still hot out because it covered my skin, but it didn't matter that people couldn't see my scars. They watched me limp around on my cane and stared at my long-sleeves and tights, knowing exactly who I was and what I was hiding beneath my clothes.

Some people tried to be discreet, or tried not to look, but their eyes drifted back to me anyway. Those were the kids who would force a smile my direction or speak to me out of politeness when they had to. Other kids stared openly, laughed, pointed, and teased me in an attempt to make the kids around them laugh.

No one made an effort to befriend me. No one stuck up for me when I was being teased. Some looked as if they felt bad for me but were too afraid to intervene. I figured they were probably the kids who had been the target of the bullies until I came to school and took their places. Not even those kids invited me to sit with them at lunch. They were too afraid to be nice to me.

I did my best to ignore it all, but it was going to take time for me to get to the point where it didn't hurt, if that was even possible.

My stepsisters were absolutely no help to me. I had both of them in at least one of my classes and we all had the same lunch, but as I'd suspected would happen, they'd assumed the pretend-Val-doesn't-exist tactic. The only time we spoke the entire day was in the parking lot after school. Eva greeted me with a nasty glare as she opened the passenger door of their tiny two-door convertible. "Parking in the handicapped section is so embarrassing!"

Renata dumped her backpack on the backseat and climbed behind the wheel. "Whatever. It's the best space in the entire parking lot. It's so close we'll be out of here before the real traffic."

Eva scoffed at her sister and pulled the passenger seat forward, gesturing for me to climb into the backseat. Was she kidding? "You know I can't climb in there, right?"

Eva shrugged. "Then walk home. I'm not riding in the back the whole year."

I closed my eyes against the sudden sting of frustrated tears. This had been an awful day and I just wanted to get home. "I'm not trying to be difficult. I physically can't climb back there."

"Eva!" Renata hissed. "Would you just get in?"

"No. This is our car. We shouldn't have to be punished because the freak can't use her legs!"

She'd raised her voice enough to gain the attention of half the kids in the parking lot. If she was truly embarrassed of me, she was definitely handling the situation the wrong way. Renata obviously thought so, too. She glared at her sister and walked around the car to drop the keys in Eva's hand.

"Thanks." I mumbled when Renata climbed into the back and pulled the seat back so that I could sit down.

"Whatever."

Eva looked at us both, then shook her head in disgust. After slipping into the driver's seat, she gave her hair a flip and glanced at her sister in the rear-view mirror. "I can't believe you just gave her what she wants. Are you going to sit back there every day for the rest of the year?"

"Would you just go, already?" Renata snapped. "People are staring!"

The ride home was silent, except for the Top 40 playing on the radio. Lucia was home and waiting to greet us with a huge smile and a million questions. I wanted to go straight to my room and stay there until tomorrow, but my stomach won the battle against my willpower. I hadn't eaten breakfast or lunch, and I was going to be sick if I didn't get some food in me.

"How was your first day?" Lucia asked the three of us as we all wandered into the kitchen.

Deciding she really only cared about her daughters, I let them field the questions and headed straight for the fridge. "It was a nightmare!" Eva grumbled behind me. "Mom, she just walked around like a zombie, even though people kept laughing and pointing at her. It was like she had some nasty disease. She sat down in the cafeteria at lunch, and the kids at her table scattered like cockroaches. The place was packed, like, every seat was taken, but nobody would sit beside her. She had the whole table all to herself. It was so embarrassing!"

Unable to hold my temper in anymore, I slammed the fridge shut and turned around. "It was embarrassing for you?"

"Uh, duh!" Eva sneered. "Everyone knows you live with us! They kept asking us why our stepsister was such a freak all day. It takes you a hundred years to get anywhere, and you wore long-sleeves and tights even though it's, like, eighty-five degrees outside!"

Renata scoffed. "What else was she supposed to do? You've seen her legs."

I couldn't tell if she was defending me or insulting me, but Lucia seemed to think it was the former because she nodded as if she agreed. "Eva, show a little compassion. How would you feel if you had to walk around school with a limp and look the way she does?"

My jaw dropped. If this was her idea of sticking up for me, I'd rather she didn't. But she was so clueless I couldn't even say anything or get angry at her. What would be the point?

Lucia flashed me her most sympathetic smile. "It's fine to wear the long-sleeves and tights if they make you more comfortable, Valentina."

Gee, I felt so much better now that I had her approval.

"Oh! That reminds me." Lucia's face lit up with excitement and she pointed a finger at me. "I got something for you while I was out shopping today."

Both Eva and Renata threw me startled, questioning looks as Lucia disappeared up the stairs to her bedroom, but I just shrugged them off. I had no idea what she was talking about. I grabbed a V8 juice and a string cheese from the fridge and sat down at the counter.

Lucia was back before I had finished my snack, and she had several small bags in her hands. "I've been thinking a lot about your scars," she said as she plopped an ocean of cosmetic products in front of me. "I'm in the modelling business, you know, so beauty and skin care are kind of my forte. I talked to a bunch of my friends, and I got you some creams, oils, and moisturizers that are supposed to really help reduce scarring."

I wasn't sure how to react. The gesture was thoughtful in a weird Lucia way. It was almost sweet, even, until Eva scoffed. "I hate to break it to you, Mom, but no cream is going to fix her!"

I thought the same thing, but it still didn't feel good to have it pointed out.

Lucia frowned at Eva, and then down at my scarred hand. "Well, obviously it's not a cure or anything. You have so much scarring that it's not going to ever really go away, but some of these might help with all the weird blotchy patches and maybe smooth out a lot of the raised bumps. Those are really what stick out so badly. If we could smooth you over and even out the skin tone, your scars might not look so startling."

Oh my God, she thought I was hideous.

"There's always plastic surgery, too."

"Plastic surgery?" Did she really think I looked so terrible I needed surgery?

Lucia, completely missing the horror in my voice, nodded enthusiastically. "Oh, totally. I talked to a doctor friend of mine about you. I showed him some of your medical photos and he said..."

"You talked to someone without asking me?" I gasped. "You showed him my pictures?"

Lucia flinched, startled by my outburst. "I didn't want to say anything until I knew if he could help you. I didn't want to get your hopes up. But, Valentina, he said there are definitely things he can do to help you. You won't always have to look as bad as you do now."

And that was it. I couldn't take one more second of this conversation. "I can't believe you did that."

"I was just trying to help."

"By telling me that I'm so ugly it's startling, and that I need plastic surgery?"

Eva choked on a laugh and muttered, "Well, it's the truth."

"Eva!" Lucia snapped, horrified. "Don't you ever say something that rude again!" After glaring at her daughter, she set her frustrated gaze on me. "That's not fair, Valentina. You know that wasn't what I meant. I just want to help you look better, and if there are things we can do..."

"I've had enough surgeries, thanks."

Lucia closed her eyes and reached up to rub her temple. It made me feel like a jerk. She was so tactless, but in her own twisted, insensitive way she really was trying to help me. Too exhausted after my nightmarish day to fight with her, I tried to settle down. I slipped off my stool and grabbed the bag of products she'd given me. "I'll ask my rehab team about this stuff, okay? I have to get permission before I put anything on my skin."

Lucia calmed down too and nodded. As I walked away, she called out to me in a smaller voice. "I really was just trying to help, Valentina."

Ugh. And now I had to feel guilty on top of everything else. I stopped walking and turned to face her. "I know. I'm sorry. I've just had a horrible day and I need a break. I'm going to go soak in a bath for a while."

"Try a little lavender oil in the tub. There's some in that bag. It's very soothing for nerves."

. . . . .

I stayed in the bath until the water turned cold and had a good cry. It wasn't so much the stares from the other kids or being treated like a pariah that reduced me to tears once I was finally alone, it was more knowing that this was going to be my life from now on. Eva was right; nothing was ever going to fix my limp or my scars. The horrible day I had today was going to be on repeat forever.

Eventually, my father knocked on my bedroom door, then poked his head into the room after I answered. "Valentina. We're going out to dinner in fifteen minutes. Can you get ready to..." My eyes must have still shown the evidence of my breakdown, because he paled and came to sit on the edge of my bed. "Are you okay, honey?"

I didn't feel like rehashing my day with him, so I shrugged. "Fine. I just don't really feel up to going out to dinner."

"Of course not, Valentina." Lucia said, joining us. "You can stay home if you need to."

My dad glanced back and forth between Lucia and me a couple of times, and his frown deepened. "No, you can't." He said. "Sitting here alone tonight isn't going to make you feel any better. You need to come with us."

Before I could snap at him, Lucia placed her hand on his arm and said, "It might be best to let her stay. School didn't go well. The girls had a tough day, and they're all a bit emotional right now."

As if this were the most shocking news ever, my father threw me a startled glance. "Was it really that bad?"

I glared at him. "Of course, it was! What did you think it was going to be like?"

While I reached for a tissue, Lucia leaned closer to my dad and lowered her voice. "It sounded awful, from what Renata and Eva told me. Leon, maybe we should let her stay home and do online school."

"Yes, please!" Eva begged, coming into my room with Renata, as if I'd called some sort of family meeting.

Renata nodded in agreement. "I think that would be best for all of us."

Dad took in all of our expressions and then surprised us all with a furious outburst. "No!"

"But, Leon..."

"No, Lucia. You know why we can't do that. This is how her life is going to be from now on. She has to get used to it."

My empty stomach flopped in my gut. Not that I wanted to be coddled, but there was absolutely no empathy. No acknowledgement of how hard my day must have been for me. No attempt to comfort me in any way.

"You heard what her doctor told us. She has to learn how to interact with people. She can't isolate herself, or she'll only get worse."

"But she's never going to make any friends," - Lucia argued. "She'll be scarred for life." Lucia, realising that I already was scarred for life, cringed. "Emotionally, I mean."

Her faith in me was astounding. She thought I was every bit the freak her daughters did. That I was so bad I needed surgery, and I would never have any friends. I can't say I didn't worry about the same thing, but as the parental figure she was supposed to at least pretend it was possible. A little optimism from someone would have been nice.

"Maybe we could find her a special school, for other kids like her," Lucia suggested. "They have schools for kids with disabilities. Maybe she'd be happier if she was with her equals."

My jaw hit the floor. My equals? As if being crippled and scarred somehow made me, and other handicapped kids, lesser people? My lawyer father should have been all over that ignorant, discriminatory comment, but instead he looked at her with interest. "Maybe you're right. I'll ask her team about the possibility."

I was crushed. I knew he'd left me for these people a long time ago, but I still felt betrayed right then. He was my father. He should have been defending me. He should have at least been concerned for my feelings. "Hello!" I screamed. "I'm right here! If you're going to discuss me like I don't have a mind or feelings of my own, could you at least do it behind my back?"

Lucia paled and my father brought his hand up over his eyes, rubbing his temples with his finger and thumb as if his head hurt. "You're right, Valentina. I'm sorry. Why don't you and I go to dinner tonight and we can discuss this alone?"

"What?" Renata shouted. "Dad! That's not fair! We have reservations tonight!"

"I know, sweetheart, but Valentina has had a really bad day. I think we could both use some one-on-one time."

"We've all had a bad day! What about us? Everything's always about her now! Back-to-school dinner is a family tradition. You can't forget about your real family just because her life sucks!"

I couldn't handle one more second of this. "Relax, Renata. I don't want to steal your evening." I was too tired to keep up my anger at my dad. "You don't have to break tradition for me. Go have your family dinner, or whatever. I'm fine."

"Valentina." Dad sighed. "You're coming, too. You're part of the family."

I was wrong about being too tired to be mad. Rage bubbled up in me, giving me a second wind. "No. I was part of your family. Then you left me for this one!"

"Honey, that's not..."

"Don't, Dad." I interrupted before he could start giving me excuses. "We both know that if Mom hadn't died I'd still be nothing but a distant memory to you, so don't pretend you care about me."

For a moment my father looked as though I'd slapped him, and then he lost his patience. "I can't change the past, Valentina! I'm doing the best I can now, and that will just have to be good enough. You had better figure out a way to get over your anger because, like it or not, we are your family now. You're stuck with us, so suck it up and get in the car!"

I wanted to say no. I wanted to put my foot down and make him have to drag me, kicking and screaming. He had hurt me for ten years. He didn't get to walk back into my life and expect to just have my forgiveness. He hadn't even apologised. But the less fuss I made, the sooner I'd be able to get out of this house.

"Fine, whatever!"

My dad took another deep breath and forced himself to calm down. "Thank you. Hurry and change. We have to leave in ten minutes."

I frowned down at my jeans and long-sleeve T-shirt. I looked normal enough. "Why do I need to change?"

"Providence is only one of the nicest restaurants in Los Angeles." Eva bragged. "They won't let you in if you look like a Walmart ad!"

It wasn't until that moment that I noticed the twins were both dressed to kill. My dad and Lucia were dressed up, too. Great. My father's very presence commanded respect, and Lucia belonged on his arm like the perfect trophy wife. Eva and Renata completed the picture, looking like a couple of pampered heiresses. This family deserved their own reality show.

After Dad ushered everyone out of my room so I could change, I stared into my closet for an eternity, knowing I'd never find anything that would make me fit in with the Millers. As I slid the hanging clothes from one end of the rack to the other, I came across my mother's little blue cocktail dress. Mama and I didn't get the chance to dress up that often. We were never poor exactly, but we had to watch what we spent, and we had to save up if we wanted to do anything extravagant. One time, though, when I was about thirteen, she'd dated this professional salsa dancer for a few months, and he loved taking her out dancing, so she'd splurged and bought this dress.

I hugged the dress to my face and took a deep breath. It didn't smell like her anymore, but that didn't matter. It was my favourite thing of hers that she ever wore. She always looked so beautiful in it. I had cried with relief when I went through the boxes my dad had packed and saw that he'd saved it.

"I miss you so much, Mom." I whispered. "It's not fair that I have to do this alone. I need you."

Before I realised what I was doing, I'd slipped the dress over my head. It fit me so well, it felt like fate. The dress had spaghetti straps and stopped at the knee. The thought of leaving the house with my scars showing made me physically ill, but people were going to stare at me no matter what, so why not take a piece of my mother with me? I was going to need her if I wanted to survive this dinner.

I put on the string of pearls she always wore with the dress and twisted my hair up the same way she used to, then stared at myself in the mirror for a long time. If I ignored the scars, I almost felt like a human being again. I could see my mother staring back at me out of the glass. I looked just like her, except for the eyes.

"I love you, Mom." I whispered as I grabbed my cane and headed out to face the firing squad.

Slowly, I made my way to the front entryway where everyone was waiting for me. When I came around the corner, they all took one look at me and froze.

"Oh, no. You are not wearing that!" Eva cried.

I couldn't help feeling defensive. I loved this dress. "What's wrong with it? You're all wearing dresses."

"Mom!" Eva sent Lucia a pleading look.

"It's a beautiful dress, Valentina." Lucia said quickly. Her voice was so patronising I could have been five years old. "But are you sure you want to wear it?"

"Why wouldn't I?"

Lucia froze for a moment and then forced a pained smile on her face. "Well, honey, it's just that it's... a little revealing."

That was another slap in the face. I glanced at Eva and Renata and folded my arms across my chest. "It's longer than either of their dresses, and my cleavage isn't hanging out for the whole world to see."

"No, no, I didn't mean that." Lucia backtracked. "I know the dress isn't inappropriate. That's not what I meant."

I was an idiot. I couldn't believe it took me that long to understand what everyone's problem was. "Oh! You mean you don't want me to wear the dress because it shows my scars. You're as embarrassed of me as they are!"

Lucia shook her head frantically until her eyes filled with tears. She turned her head into my dad's shoulder, weeping. He threw his arms around her and glared at me over her head. "That is enough, Valentina. Just because you're having a hard time doesn't mean you can walk all over this family's feelings. You've proved your point. Now stop being difficult and just go change your clothes."

I hadn't known my heart could break any more than it already had. Even my dad, my own flesh and blood, didn't want to be seen with me if my scars were showing. "I didn't put it on to prove some kind of point! This was my mother's dress. I just wanted to have my family present at this family dinner. I shouldn't have to change just because you're too embarrassed to be seen with me. It's not my fault I disgust all of you!"

My dad cursed under his breath when he realised his mistake. All the blood drained from his face, leaving him pale as a ghost. His voice cracked as he whispered, "Valentina, I'm sorry. I thought..."

- "I know what you thought!" His apology was too little, too late. "You keep telling me that you guys are my family, but you're not. If my mother had seen me in this dress, she would have hugged me and told me she was proud of me for trying to be brave, not ask me to change my clothes. That's just sick. She wouldn't be embarrassed of my scars. She wouldn't care about them at all because she loved me. She was my family."

I turned around and headed for my room, wishing more than anything that I could have run there. I wasn't going anywhere with any of them now. My father really would have to throw me over his shoulder and carry me if he wanted me to leave the house.

 

Chapter Text

Juliana POV

I knew I should never have given Mateo keys to my place. How the hell was I supposed to avoid people when I couldn't lock out the one person determined not to let me skip my meetings?

"Juliana?" Mateo called out as he entered the house. He found me sitting on the living room sofa three seconds later. "You were supposed to be there over an hour ago. Kaylee threatened to remove my man parts if I don't have you there in twenty minutes."

I looked down at the IM box on my laptop and sighed.

Jana458: As much as I am enjoying this grovelling session, I have to go.

ValTheRealHero: Yeah, yeah, your Friday night awaits you, Miss Popular. Go have fun.

I smiled. I supposed I could enjoy myself now.

Val had finally watched my movie The Long Road Home like I had asked her to. She had been so surprised that she wrote a hilarious review entitled 'My Sincerest Apologies to Miss Juliana Valdés'. It was a movie review like the ones she used to write for her blog before her accident, except it was written in the form of a personal letter to me, apologising for thinking I was going to ruin Jana. It was brilliant.

After she sent me her review of The Long Road Home, I immediately wrote her back and insisted she start blogging again. I knew how much Val loved her blog, and it had killed me when she said she wasn't going to do it anymore. It may have taken weeks of begging, but Val had finally posted her review today. She gave a brief explanation that she had been in an accident and unable to keep up with her blog, but thanks to an argument with a certain 'obsessed fan' of hers, she was back and had to start with her thoughts on the cast of The Druid Princess. She'd started with her apology letter to Juliana Valdés.

When I found the post this afternoon, I signed on to welcome her back to the blogosphere, and we ended up getting into an argument in the comments section of her post about Princess Cali's costume. Quite a few of Val's readers had already found her post and were jumping into the debate as well. I was pleased to see that my side was winning, despite the welcome-back lovefest Val was getting from her fans.

Jana458: It shall be as my wise priestess asks. I wasn't really looking forward to this evening, but now I promise I will have lots of fun in honour of your return to the blogging world.

ValTheRealHero: You're a weirdo.

Jana458: I am not. You love me.

ValTheRealHero: Yes, you are, and yes, I do. Goodnight, Jana.

A violent longing filled me as I stared in shock at Val's reply. I expected her to come back with something about my overinflated ego, and instead she admitted she loved me. She'd never said something like that before. I knew it couldn't possibly be the same way that I cared for her, because only I was crazy enough to fall for a random stranger on the Internet, but at least she loved me in someway.

Jana458: Goodnight, Val.

I hesitated and then typed one last message.

Jana458: I love you, too.

I let out a breath as I hit ENTER. Maybe it was on instant messenger, and maybe I'd never met Val in person, and probably she thought I was joking, but I'd never said those words to a woman before. For me, this moment was huge.

A long whistle startled me out of my epiphany. I looked up to see Mateo standing behind me, reading over my shoulder with wide eyes.

Ugh. Time to get back to reality.

After a long stretch, I closed my laptop. Before Mateo could ask about Val and what I'd just written to her. "You win. I'm coming. We can't have you losing your man parts on my account."

. . . . .

"Careful!" Mateo warned as we entered the club. "Kaylee is pissed that you didn't show up on time tonight."

I smirked. Of course, she was pissed. Tonight, was her twenty-first birthday, and according to her, it was the night we were supposed to get engaged. She rented out the most exclusive club in LA for her party and invited every VIP she knew. And, from the looks of it, every paparazzi in the state of California, too.

If Mateo thought Kaylee was pissed now, he should just wait until I broke off the fake relationship instead of giving her the ring I was supposed to buy, and hadn't. "A word to the wise, Mateo: run while you still can!"

Mateo wasn't fast enough. Kaylee pounced on us both the second we came through the door. "Baby!" - she squealed, plastering herself against me. "What took you guys so long?"

Her voice was happy, but the fire in her eyes explained exactly how pissed she was. She'd brought an entourage of friends and birthday well-wishers with her, and after politely saying hello to them all, I took Kaylee by the hand. "Can we talk privately for a minute?"

Kaylee's whole face lit up. "Sure!"

She made a face at the crowd that suggested she thought she was getting a birthday surprise, then let me drag her off to a private table.

I didn't waste any time. As soon as I was sure no one could overhear us. "I don't want to do this anymore."

Kaylee rolled her eyes. "Yeah, you've made that quite clear since the moment it was suggested in that meeting."

"Let me rephrase." My patience was already wearing thin. "I'm not going to do this anymore."

Kaylee's eyes narrowed into thin slits. "The hell you're not!"

"Kaylee." I rubbed my temples and took a breath. I wasn't going to fight with her if I could help it. "Give me a break, okay? Things have changed for me since that meeting."

If Kaylee were a cat, she'd have arched her back and puffed up her tail. As it was, she stiffened and folded her arms across her chest. "You mean that girl?"

That girl? Val was so much more than that girl. "Yes, I mean Val. If I'd known she was alive, I never would have let anyone talk me into this stupid plan in the first place. Now that I have her back, I'm not going to ruin things with her by getting pretend-engaged to you!"

Kaylee began to tremble slightly from the rage building up inside her. She was going to explode any minute. "So you're just going to dump me for her? Are you going to ask her to be your fake fiancée instead?"

I was so horrified by that thought that I lost my temper. "I'm not doing this fake shit with you anymore! We have to break it off right now. I'm going to go to Boston to meet Val. I'm going to tell her who I am, and I don't want her to think I have a girlfriend when I do. I want to date her, and I refuse to keep it secret or make her wait for me while I prance around LA with my fake fiancée in front of cameras!"

I hadn't thought Kaylee's eyes could open any wider, but I was wrong. They grew so big they nearly popped out of her head. Her mouth fell open, too, and she leaned forward over the table that separated us. "Wait a minute." She threw a hand up, as if she were going to shake a finger at me. "She doesn't know who you are? You've never met her?"

My cheeks grew warm with embarrassment. I knew it sounded crazy, but I also knew what I felt. "My relationship with Val is... complicated."

- "Define 'complicated.'"

I didn't want to talk about Val with Kaylee. Kaylee would never understand. Val was the best thing in my life, and Kaylee would only want to tear that apart. Kaylee was like poison. I wasn't going to let her taint what I had with Val. "I don't have to explain myself to you!"

"Yes, you do!" Kaylee hissed. "You're breaking up with me. I deserve an explanation!"

I clenched my jaw and once again tried to keep my temper in check. "We aren't really breaking up because we aren't actually together!"

"We may as well be. It's what everyone thinks. What about the publicity? What about our careers? What about proving you're not just some arrogant player? What about our plan, Juliana?"

"If we make it amicable, say it was mutual and that we're just better as friends, it won't be so bad. You'll still get plenty of publicity when the movie comes out, and I'll just stay out of trouble. We'll be fine."

"Sure, we'd be fine." Kaylee agreed, spitting out the word fine as though it left a bad taste in her mouth. "But think of how much more we could be if we stick to the plan. We could become the next power couple! Between your father and mine, and the way the entire nation loves us, we could own this town. Fame is just a popularity contest, and we're the prom queens. We're supposed to be together."

Her anger died just a tad and her voice softened. "We could be great together. If you would just stop fighting this and do it for real, you'd see. I could make you happy, Juliana."

There was no way in hell Kaylee could ever make me happy, but I managed to keep that thought to myself. "I can't do that. I'm in love with Val."

The force of my statement shocked us both. I sucked in a breath and blew it all out of my lungs after that admission, but it felt so good to admit it out loud that I said it again. "I love her, Kay. I can't be with you, I can't even pretend anymore, when all I want is her."

Kaylee sat back in her seat and stayed quiet, surprising me with the amount of pain in her eyes. I expected her to be pissed off that she wasn't getting her way, but I never dreamed she'd be hurt by my rejection.

I reached across the table and placed a hand over hers. "I'm sorry."

After a minute, Kaylee looked up as if she were contemplating a new approach. She pulled something small out of her purse, an engagement ring, and held it out for me to see. She slipped it on to her finger, as if she just wanted to see what it looked like and sighed wistfully. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"

Oh shit. I was the one who was supposed to get the ring. What the hell was she doing with it? "Why do you have that?"

Kaylee pulled her eyes away from the diamond. The look she gave me caused a bad feeling in my stomach. "I'm not an idiot, Juliana. I knew you were going to try and weasel out of this tonight!"

In a flash, her entire countenance changed and she became the evil woman I had just pictured devouring my assistant. "I don't give a shit who you love. I'm not going to let you ruin this for me. I will, however, ruin you if you don't step up your game right now! I'll ruin your father, too. There are going to be four more Jana Chronicle movies, and directors can easily be replaced. My father owns the two of you, and Daddy gives me whatever I want! I'll make sure neither of you ever work a real job in this town again. And then, when you're finished in Hollywood and you finally run crying to your precious little Val, I'll destroy her too."

My heart stopped beating at the threat, and all my blood turned to ice. Kaylee could definitely do some major damage to both my father's and my career, though I doubted she could ruin them entirely. But she could destroy Val. It didn't matter that she didn't know who Val was, the second I met Val, the world would know, the world always knew everything I did. Once I moved beyond anonymous Internet friend status with her, I'd never be able to keep her secret.

Kaylee was cruel, and Val had been through so much. If Kaylee wanted to, she could find every crack in Val's armour and use her tragedies to break her to pieces without ever even meeting her. There was no doubt in my mind that if I scorned Kaylee now, she would do exactly that.

"Ah!" Kaylee said, with satisfaction. "I see we finally understand each other, don't we?"

"If you even think of dragging Val into this..."

"Oh, no, you've already dragged her into this, and if you want me to stay away from her, then you go all in. No more half-assed appearances and bad attitudes. You take all that sappy, pathetic puppy love in your heart and you make the world believe it's all for me. Make me believe it, Juliana!"

Kaylee jumped to her feet without warning, squealing loudly and hopping up and down with crazy, giddy excitement. "Yes!" she cried. "Yes, yes, with all my heart, yes! Of course, I'll marry you!"

She bounded around the small table and jumped on me before I even realised what was happening. She planted a kiss on my mouth while everyone in the entire room gathered around, clapping and cheering.

As soon as I could break free of the kiss, I took a few deep breaths and pulled Kaylee close so that I could whisper in her ear. "You have no heart, you bitch."

"Sure I do, baby, and it only beats for you!" She thrust her newly blinged-out hand out to the crowd for everyone to see and cried "We're getting married! Best birthday present ever!"

Kaylee gave me another evil smile and fluttered her eyelids "I love you so much."

She waited for me to say it back, but I wouldn't do it. I would never say those words to her, whether I meant them or not. "Good!" was what I replied instead, earning a hearty laugh from the crowd.

Rage flashed in Kaylee's eyes, but she couldn't say anything with everyone watching. She forced her smile a little brighter and kissed me again. I hated it, but I had absolutely no choice other than to kiss her back. I couldn't let her hurt Val. I wouldn't even let her figure out how I knew Val. I'd just have to wait to tell Val the truth until after Kaylee was finished with me. I could only pray Kaylee's plans didn't include a trip to Las Vegas and a legitimate marriage certificate.

 

Chapter Text

The weeks started to pass. Each day blended into the next, and nothing ever changed. I hated it, but I learned to deal with it. For the most part, I left people alone and they left me alone. When the kids at school did tease me, they were never too outwardly aggressive. They mocked me from a distance. I ignored it as best I could. I kept my head down, I did my work, and I never cried. At least, not in school.

I always managed to save my tears until I was locked in my bedroom. I would get it out of my system, and then I would e-mail Jana. She'd tell me some ridiculous story or say something completely moronic about a book or a movie, and I'd be compelled to argue. Either way, she always made everything okay.

Jana asked about my accident, and my mom, and living with my new family occasionally. I knew she was worried about me, but I just couldn't talk about it with her. She was my ray of sunshine. She was the only thing that kept me sane. I couldn't do anything to change that. When she asked, I told her I was doing okay, and that was it. She never pushed for more. When I said I didn't want to talk about sad topics, she said okay and then distracted me with things she knew would make me laugh.

She also talked me into blogging again. I had watched the Juliana Valdés movie she told me about and was pleasantly surprised. Jana had been right. There was more to Juliana Valdés than a pretty face. She had some depth, and there was a possibility, a slight possibility, that she might be able to save The Druid Princess from being total Hollywood crap. When I sent Jana my review, she'd liked it so much she insisted I post it. It took some coaxing, but eventually I did. After that, writing other reviews was easy. My followers welcomed me back with open arms, and another tiny piece of my broken heart fused back together.

The first time a box of books arrived at my house from a publisher, I was forced to explain myself to my father. He'd been relieved that I had a hobby besides hiding in my room. He went straight out and bought me a set of bookshelves filled with books, and a new e-reader. He even got me on some press list so that I could go to media screenings of movies for free. I still didn't like the guy, but even I could admit it was cool of him.

Between my blog and Jana, life had become somewhat bearable. Time passed this way until Halloween, and then my world took another spin. I was in my second class of the day and my teacher, Mrs. Teague, gave us the last ten minutes of class as free time. It wasn't a minute after I pulled out a book that I felt someone looming over my shoulder.

Jason Malone, one of Eva's on-again off-again playthings, was smiling down at me. "What's up, Val?" He asked when I'd finally given in and looked at him.

"Nothing." I knew this wasn't a friendly gesture. Jason had been one of my most obnoxious torturers this year. "What do you want?"

He laughed and stepped up to the side of my desk. "I was just wondering what you were doing for Halloween tonight. Are you planning to go to the dance?"

"No."

I turned my attention back to my book, hoping he would leave. He, of course, didn't. "Bummer!" He said. "They're having this contest to see who can come as the most horrifying monster. Your sister thinks you could win!"

I knew where this was going, so I didn't play into his game. I simply said, "She's not my sister."

"She said you wouldn't even need a costume. She said you could come in shorts and a tank top and they would just hand you the crown! She said people would run screaming at the sight of you!"

"Yeah, that sounds like her."

I scanned the room to check the time and saw Renata sitting a few seats over, watching Jason and me with a scowl on her face. I met her eyes and she quickly looked away, trying her best to pretend I didn't exist.

I wasn't surprised that she wouldn't make Jason stop, even though she was the only girl in the class that probably could have. She and I had two different classes together, and she'd watched me take this kind of harassment all year without ever saying anything. But at least she wasn't standing over Jason's shoulder, giggling and egging him on the way Eva would have if she were here.

Class was almost over now, thankfully, so I reached for my backpack. I guess Jason didn't like the fact that he hadn't upset me, because he took the book out of my hands before I could slip it in my bag.

"I'm curious, Val. Are you really as hideous as she says you are?"

"Give me back my book."

"You want it? Then show me your scars."

I had become a pro at not reacting to the things people say, but that was so shocking that I gasped. "Excuse me?"

Jason smirked, excited to see that he had finally hit a nerve. "You always wear those long-sleeve shirts and tights. The whole school knows what you're trying to cover up. Just let me see. I promise not to run screaming." He laughed. "Unless it's true."

I chose to get angry because when I was mad it was a lot easier to control my tears, and I would not cry in front of this jerk. "Go to hell." My voice quivered, but it didn't break.

"Is that where you went to get those burns? Why'd they send you back? Are you such a freak that even hell didn't want you?"

My whole body started to shake. I had to lay my bad hand flat on my desk to keep from balling it into a fist and hurting myself. Jason watched the action. "Come on, Val, let's see it."

He reached out, quick as a flash, and yanked my arm up, reaching to push up my sleeve. He didn't pull that hard. It never would have hurt a normal person, but I'd never regained full movement in my right arm. I wasn't capable of fully extending it. When Jason jerked it, I felt the skin tear near my elbow.

I screamed as fire shot up my arm and through my whole body. Jason dropped me as if he'd caught fire from me. I clamped my good hand over my arm, but it didn't stop the pain. For the first time since I started school, I cried in front of my classmates.

Renata reached me at the same time as Mrs. Teague. I saw the rage in Renata's eyes, but I was in too much pain to be shocked when she pulled Jason away from me and screamed at him. "You stupid asshole!"

"What is going on here?" Mrs. Teague demanded.

Renata shoved Jason and Mrs. Teague out of the way and knelt down beside my desk. "Are you all right?"

"No!" I lifted my hand off my arm and showed her the bright red stains seeping through my white turtleneck. "He tore the skin graft."

Renata swore.

Jason looked as if he were about to faint, and the rest of the class was freaking out. Even Mrs. Teague gaped down at me with wide, panicked eyes. Only Renata never lost her cool. "We need to call your nurse. Where is your phone?"

"Backpack." I gasped. "School nurse should have my pain meds. It really hurts."

Renata nodded. "Come on." She helped me out of my chair. Instead of handing me my cane, she pulled my good arm over her shoulders.

Mrs. Teague picked up our backpacks and my cane. "I'll take this stuff to the office." she said, and then snapped her fingers at Jason. "You, come with me now!"

 

Chapter Text

My father was on a rampage. The guy was a prosecuting attorney, after all. He lived to deliver threats. He was in the principal's office with the door closed, and I was down the hall in the nurse's office, but I could still hear his muffled, angry shouts. So far, he'd threatened to get Jason thrown in jail, sue his family, sue the school, and get Mrs. Teague fired.

After yet another roar, I cringed. "If I have to have another surgery, he's going to bring this institution to utter ruins."

My nurse, Cody, gave me a sad smile as he finished taping the bandage around my arm. "I wouldn't be surprised if you do need one. Your arm shouldn't have torn so easily. The scar is too thick inside your elbow. I want you to schedule an appointment with your surgeon when you get home today, and you need to take it easy for a while during your physical therapy."

When Renata called my dad and explained what happened, he'd called both my nurse and my psychiatrist and asked them to come to the school. I couldn't decide if it was a paranoid move, or if he just wanted to make more of a show for the poor staff he was terrorizing.

I felt enough like an idiot for being hurt so easily in the first place. Then there was the spectacle my dad was making. Add the special doctors coming to the school just for me, and I was even more of a freak than ever. But at least Cody was cool. It was nice to have one friendly face amidst this chaos.

"You'll have to give Daniel that message about taking it easy in physical therapy yourself! He'll never believe me and he loves to torture me!"

"I know!" Cody teased. "I've seen a few of your sessions together. The guy is a sick, twisted harbinger of pain."

Cody and I were both laughing when my dad came in the room with Dr Parish. "She's laughing?" Dad asked, surprised. A smile crossed his face. "You're a miracle worker, Cody."

"Nah, I just gave her a lot of good pain medication."

" So that's your secret?" Dr Parish asked. "I can't even get a smile out of her."

"That's because you suck all the fun out of everything!" I grumbled. Dr Parish was a nice enough woman, but I hated our sessions. "You're always so serious."

"Your mental well-being is serious, Val. I wish you would take our sessions more seriously."

"Is she all right?" My dad asked Cody, then looked at me. "Are you?"

"I'm fine."

"I'll need to come by every day to check on her until the wound is closed, but she should be fine in a week or so. She needs to have it looked at by her surgeon, just to be safe."

"I'll schedule it this afternoon. Is she okay to talk now? Her principal and the police would like to speak with her."

"She's on some pretty heavy pain medication, but her judgment shouldn't be too impaired."

"I wish it were!" I muttered as I followed my dad down the hall.

"In here." Dad held open the door to a small conference room. "Renata, you too!"

I looked back as Renata scrambled from a chair in front of the reception desk. I still couldn't believe she'd helped me. I met her eyes as she walked past me into the room, but she quickly looked away. Obviously, helping me out in an emergency didn't make us friends.

Before I walked into the conference room, the door to the principal's office opened. Two police officers escorted a dejected Jason out in handcuffs. A pair of highly pissed-off parents followed them. I tried to hurry inside the conference room, but Jason's mom saw me and stopped me. "Miss Miller?"

I suppressed a sigh and turned around. "My name is Carvajal, not Miller."

Jason's mom frowned but didn't ask. "My son has something he'd like to say to you."

She glared at Jason until he muttered an apology. His "I'm sorry" was about as sincere as my "It's fine."

He couldn't take his eyes off my bandaged arm. Cody had had to cut off my sleeve above my elbow in order to examine the wound, so my scars were now on full display. The fact that Jason was seeing them made me feel violated. "Looks like you got what you wanted after all." I said. I held out my arm so he could get a really good look. "So is it true? Am I really horrifying enough to win a crown?"

I was so angry that I'd forgotten about the other scars on my wrist until Jason gasped. I followed his wide-eyed gaze to the marks left by my suicide attempt, and so did his parents. We all echoed his gasp.

I wanted to disappear. I wanted to run and hide and cry until I shrivelled up and ceased to exist, but I couldn't. I couldn't show even more weakness now that he knew this secret about me. Instead of shrinking away in horror, I pulled up the sleeve on my other arm and let Jason see the full extent of my shame.

"Make sure you get a good look so you have lots of details to tell all your friends tomorrow. I can't wait to hear all the witty things you guys will come up with for this."

I shoved my wrists a little closer to him, and he flinched away from me. "Shit, Val. I'm sorry, okay?"

This apology seemed a little more sincere, but it didn't really make me feel any better. "You want to know why you've never been able to make me cry?" I asked. "Because you're trying to tear down someone who's already hit rock bottom. You can't make me feel any worse about myself than I already do. You're pathetic, Jason, you and all the other jerks in this school who have nothing better to do with your lives than pick on a cripple!"

I realised I might have gone too far when Jason's mom gasped again and burst into tears. I was surprised that my father hadn't tried to stop me, but when I glanced up at him he was glaring so hard at Jason that I guessed he didn't care how rude I was. He met my eyes and placed his hand gently on my shoulder. "Valentina, come on, honey."

My dad steered me into the conference room as the cops nudged Jason toward the exit. There was another set of cops sitting at the conference table with Principal Johnson and Mrs. Teague. Dr Parish and Cody were both there too, along with Lucia and Renata.

Once I sat down, the questions started flying. These people were all supposed to be on my side, my 'support system', as Dr Parish liked to call them, but it felt like the Spanish Inquisition. Eventually they dragged every detail of my encounter with Jason out of me. I left Eva's name out of the conversation, but when my father heard the bit about the costume contest, he was on his feet spouting more threats.

"I thought there was a zero-tolerance bullying policy at this school! I thought the students had to sign a personal conduct code to come here! I should have this entire institution put under investigation!"

My dad whirled around and leaned over my chair, invading my personal space as if I were one of his criminals. "I want the names of everyone who's been hassling you."

I accidentally snorted a laugh, and my dad's eyes flashed. "This isn't a joke!" He pushed a paper and pencil at me. "I want their names, Valentina! All of them!"

"I can't possibly list everyone who's been mean to me since I got here. That's half the school. I don't even know most of them."

"Half the school?" His face turned a scary shade of red. "Then just give me the ringleaders. I'll have them all expelled."

I sighed. "If you do that, you're only going to make things worse for me."

"She's right." Renata said, speaking up for the first time. "If you get people in trouble for teasing her, they'll hate her for being a narc."

"These kids have to be held accountable, or they will never stop!" Dad roared.

"Fine, you want a name?" Renata snapped. "Eva Miller!"

The entire room froze. Slowly, Dad stood up to his full height and turned to face Renata. "What?"

She shrugged defiantly. "You asked who the ringleader was. Eva is worse than anybody else in this school, hands down."

My dad's voice was eerily calm when he asked "Is this true, Valentina?"

I glared at my lap and said nothing.

"You want to know why Jason really did what he did today?" Renata asked.

"Renata, don't. She'll only start making my life hell at home, too."

Renata sat back and shut her mouth, but it was too late. Dad glared back and forth between us, making it very clear that we would tell him everything he wanted to know, and we would tell him now. "What did your sister have to do with what happened today?"

Renata broke first. "You know how she dumped Jason last week? Well, he asked her if they could get back together and go to the Halloween dance as a couple, and she said she'd only do it if he got Val to show everyone her scars."

I sucked in a breath. I hadn't known that.

Dad looked as if he was counting to ten in his mind so that he wouldn't explode. After a minute he asked, "How long has this kind of thing been going on?"

Again, the question was directed at me, but it was Renata who responded. "Since she got here, but it's been getting worse the last few weeks."

Everyone in the room was quiet. It felt as if we were all waiting for the axe to drop, only I had no idea whose head was going to get lobbed off. It was one of the police officers who finally broke the silence. "Well..." He cleared his throat and rose to his feet. "I believe we have all the information we need for now."

His partner followed his cue and added, "We'll be in touch, Mr. Millar."

"I don't want to press charges against Jason!" I blurted before the cops could leave the room.

They turned around and waited for me to say more.

"What do you mean you don't want to press charges?" Dad asked. "That boy assaulted you!" He looked at the waiting policemen, "We're not dropping the charges."

"Sir, your daughter is over eighteen. If she chooses not to..."

"I have court-ordered custody of Valentina," my dad interrupted. "I have every right to make that decision, and I damn well want to press charges!"

Both cops threw startled looks in my direction, and the room fell into its most awkward silence yet. The nicer of the two cops tried to give me a sympathetic smile. "If he has legal custody, then I have to go with his decision. I'm sorry."

They started to leave and I panicked. I lost my temper and screamed at my father. "Damn it, Dad! Stop worrying about your own damn pride for two seconds, and please just trust me for once! Please!"

My dad's anger vanished and he stared at me, dumbstruck.

"Jason grabbed my arm, that's all." I continued desperately. "I know it was crappy of him, and I know you're pissed about it, but he didn't know what could happen to me. He didn't mean to hurt me. I'm sure he'll get suspended, or whatever. That's punishment enough. If you send him to jail or sue his family, you really will just make things worse for me. Please don't cause me any more trouble!"

My dad recovered from his shock and pulled his face into a frown. He cast a withering glance at Renata and she nodded vigorously. "She's right. It'll make things worse."

It stung a little that Dad still needed Renata's confirmation and couldn't just take my word for it, but I was glad Renata stuck up for me.

My dad clenched his jaw and sucked in a harsh breath through his nose. "Fine!" He grunted. "We'll drop the charges. But you had better tell me if he ever gives you anymore trouble, Valentina." He looked at Renata, "That goes for you, too!"

We both nodded.

"We'll need you to sign some paperwork," one of the cops said.

"We'll stop by the station after we're done here." My dad shook the officers' hands, and they left.

Principal Johnson looked at me. "And so, the question left to answer now is, what do we do with you, Valentina?"

"What do you mean?"

"I'm not sure that this school is the best place for you." Principal Johnson said slowly.

My defences jumped into high gear. I hated this school with a passion, but it pissed me off that they wanted to throw me out of it. "You want to kick me out? But I didn't do anything. It's not like I egg people on. I don't even fight back!"

"We know that, Valentina." Dr Parish said quickly. "You're not in trouble. I think Principal Johnson is just concerned about you. Obviously, something isn't working here, and we need to figure out what's best for you."

Principal Johnson nodded in agreement. "Your parents and I believe a school for physically disabled children might be more suitable for you."

"A special school?" Renata cried, as horrified by the thought as I was.

Lucia had suggested this to my dad once before. Apparently, they had discussed it more seriously than I thought. I hated the idea then, and I hated it even more now. "How would locking me away in a school like that help me?"

"I don't believe it would." Dr Parish said. "I disagree with your parents and your principal on this matter."

"We just want you to be more comfortable." Lucia insisted. "You wouldn't be teased in a school like that. You wouldn't be the only one with a disability. You'd have some time to get used to your body, and maybe even make some friends."

Dr Parish shook her head. "That won't help her." She met my eyes and said, "You manage well enough physically, and mentally there's not a thing wrong with you. Sending you to a specialised school would only be indulging your social anxiety and self-depreciation. You might find a year of reprieve, but it wouldn't do a thing to help you in the long run. If anything, you'll only have a harder time adjusting after you graduate."

"But she can't just keep going on like she is, either!" My dad argued. "You said making her go to school would help her get better, but she's not getting any better!"

"I agree with Mr. Miller." Principal Johnson added. "Val is not adapting here. She makes no effort to assimilate. She doesn't speak to her peers. She doesn't participate in any school clubs or extracurricular activities. In the two months she's been here, she has only become more withdrawn."

Dr Parish sighed. "Could you both please address Valentina directly, and stop verbally attacking her? I understand that you are frustrated, but what happened today was in no way her fault. Remember that she is the victim here. She needs your support, not your anger."

My eyes snapped wide open. Go, Doc! I've never seen anyone talk down to my father like that. I smirked at the abashed looks on both men's faces as they felt the wrath of Dr Parish for the first time. The woman was formidable. Maybe my dad would understand a little more now why I hated my sessions so much.

She was tough, but effective. Both my dad and Principal Johnson apologised to me, and Principal Johnson gave me a pleading look. "I know you've been harassed by some, but you can't be getting it from every student here. Have you tried talking to anyone? Have you reached out to anyone at all?"

I hadn't, and everyone knew it. I gritted my teeth, hating that he had a point. "Fine. I haven't been making enough effort, but that's not a reason to kick me out of school!"

"Valentina, you promised me you would try to build a support system, and you're not doing it," Dr Parish said. "You're not recovering socially."

"You wouldn't either, if you had to deal with the crap I put up with here!"

Like always, Dr Parish was unfazed by my snarky comment. "If you are so unhappy here, then maybe we should transfer you somewhere else. I think you were right about public school being a more suitable environment."

Too bad Dr Parish hadn't been there at registration. "It's too late for that now. I don't want to transfer again. I hate it here, but at least I know it now. What if I switch schools and the curriculum is different? I'm already a year behind."

"Then how can we help you? Your depression is getting worse. You've said as much in your sessions many times."

Everyone in the room frowned. They looked disappointed in me, as if I were letting them all down on purpose. It made me so angry. "Of course, I'm depressed!" I shouted. "You would be too if you had to live my shitty life! It's hard enough just to get out of bed every morning!"

That was the wrong thing to say. The adults in the room exchanged so many knowing glances, it was as if they had an entire conversation in their minds. "Leon..." Lucia pleaded quietly, "it's time."

"Time for what?" Principal Johnson asked. I was glad he did because I wanted to know what the hell she was talking about, but I was too scared to ask myself.

My dad looked at me with a beaten expression. "Valentina, sweetheart, we've been worried about you for a while. You're not getting better, not adjusting, and I don't know what else I can do for you. I think maybe it's best if we send you to a place where you can get the help you need."

I stared at him, bewildered. I didn't think it was possible that this man could hurt me any more than he already had, but his words lanced my heart with a pain so sharp it took a minute to feel it. "You want to send me away?"

"I just want to help you."

I glanced from him to Lucia. She'd been the one to suggest it. Her voice had sounded desperate. I shook my head. "You want to get rid of me. You both do. You've never wanted me."

My dad swallowed. "You're sick, honey. You need help before you do something to hurt yourself again."

I sighed. It always came back to this. No one was ever going to let me live that down. "I'm not going to hurt myself. And I don't want to go to a hospital. I won't. You can't make me!"

My dad's face filled with pity. "I can make you, Valentina, and I will if it's best."

"But I'm not suicidal! I swear!" I sent an accusing glare at Dr Parish. "You know I'm not! Tell him I'm not going to kill myself!"

"I know you're not." Dr Parish said, and then repeated it to my father. "I don't believe Valentina is in danger of hurting herself." I breathed a sigh of relief, thankful she'd backed me up, but then she pinned me with a serious look. "I know you're not suicidal, but I agree that some time in a hospital might be a good idea for you."

"What?"

"Valentina, it's not a negative thing. You'd be surprised what a little time in a controlled environment could do for you. Wouldn't you like the help? Don't you want to feel better?"

To my horror, I started crying. "I don't want to go to a mental hospital and have one more thing for people to make fun of me about. I don't want to be cut off from the world again. I don't want to fall even more behind in school. Please don't make me."

The room was quiet except for the sound of my sniffles. Principal Johnson handed me a box of tissues. I didn't expect anyone to give me a chance, my hope had already been smothered, but my father spoke up. "All right, honey. If you don't think it's a good idea, then I trust you."

I pulled the Kleenex away from my eyes and blinked at my dad. "Y-you do?" He was the last person I would have expected to come to my defence.

My dad met my gaze with a silent apology. "Yes, I do." He turned his attention to Dr Parish and Principal Johnson. "A lot of this is my fault. I need to trust her judgment more. If I had just listened to her in the first place about attending public school, we probably wouldn't be having this trouble." My dad turned his attention back to the others. "Is there anything we can do to keep her in school and out of the hospital?"

I took a deep breath, but my lungs refused to release it as I waited for my fate to be decided.

"I would feel better if Valentina agreed to start meeting with me every other day instead of once a week, for now." Dr Parish said. She gave me a stern look "And we don't want your depression getting any worse, so for the time being you shouldn't be alone. Your bedroom has to be off limits except for sleeping, and even then, you have to keep the door open at all times. You also have to make an attempt to integrate more with your stepfamily and the kids here at school. No more keeping to yourself. Find someone to eat lunch with. Make friends."

"You could join a club." Principal Johnson added hopefully. "The other students need to see you making an effort to be social. You might be surprised how many kids are simply intimidated by the situation. I'm sure there are some who would be friendly if you broke the ice first."

"Maybe if Eva would let them." Renata grumbled under her breath.

I doubted it, but if joining a club would keep me out of a depression clinic, then I'd figure something out. Maybe they had a book club or something, or I could write for the school paper. That wouldn't be so bad. The no-bedroom thing was going to suck, though. After a few weeks of that, I might just be begging them to lock me away.

"Do we have a deal, Valentina?" Dr Parish asked.

"What if I can't? What happens if nothing changes?"

I jumped when a hand reached for mine. I looked up to find my dad smiling at me. "It will," he promised. "We'll get through this together, okay?"

He sounded so warm and full of confidence that I didn't know how to respond. I stared at him like an idiot.

"I know you don't believe me, Valentina..." he said, speaking softly now "but I do love you. I want you to be happy. I want you to feel comfortable in my home and with my family. I'm sorry my daughter has been making that difficult for you. We'll make sure that stops, and maybe for now you could just start spending some time with me before you worry about Lucia and the girls. You're my daughter, honey. I'd like the chance to get to know you a little."

He smiled at me again, and it was the first time since our reunion that I felt he was looking at me like a father. I could see worry, but also pride. He was looking at me as if he knew me, as if I wasn't a stranger or someone he was afraid of, but someone he really cared about.

I pulled my hand out of his grip and grabbed another tissue.

I'd always wanted my dad to look at me like that, but now that he'd done it, it scared me. Of course, part of me wanted to build a relationship with my father, but the heartbroken half wasn't sure I was ready to trust him. I wasn't sure I could forgive him for abandoning me.

"I wasn't there for you when I should have been... but I'd like to be there for you now. If you'll let me."

"Okay." I croaked. I felt my cheeks heat up, I quickly looked at Principal Johnson and then Dr Parish. "I'll try, okay?"

 

Chapter Text

I didn't have to go back to class that day, but Renata and Eva still beat me home. I went to the police station to officially drop the charges against Jason, and then my dad took me to the burn centre to meet with my surgeon. By the time we got home, it was after four.

I'd had a horrible day, and I was exhausted. I headed straight for my room when we walked in the door, but apparently my dad intended to follow through with Dr Parish's orders to keep an eye on me at all times. "Honey, remember what Dr Parish said today." His voice was strained with awkwardness.

"I was just going to change and get my computer."

Letting the lie slide, he glanced down into the main family room where the soft sounds of the TV were bouncing up the stairs. "Do you want me to ask Lucia and the girls to come hang out up here?"

I shook my head. "I can make it down the stairs."

I took my time exchanging my uniform for a soft pair of yoga pants and a loose long-sleeve T-shirt, but my dad was still waiting for me when I emerged from my room. If he was going to hover like that all the time now, I wasn't going to last a week before I found myself in a centre for suicidal teens. At least he made himself useful and carried my laptop and backpack down the stairs for me.

The twins were lounging on the long sectional sofa doing homework while watching Access Hollywood, and Lucia was in the corner of the room killing herself on a cross trainer. Red-faced and dripping with sweat in a sports bra and short shorts, she looked like a magazine ad for exercise equipment. Her face lit up as Dad entered the room. "So?" She asked hopefully. "Good news?"

Her voice gained the twins' attention. Renata glanced up briefly and then went back to her math book, but the look I got from Eva told me she had already received a lecture. Judging by the severity of her glare, some serious punishment had been handed down.

"Good news is the tear wasn't that bad." Dad said. "Bad news is, she's still needs to have surgery on her inner elbow. They said we could wait until after the holidays."

Lucia sent me a sympathetic look that I ignored as I sat down at the small desk in the far corner of the room.

"There's room on the couch, Valentina," my dad said, setting the laptop down for me.

"I'm fine here."

When Lucia cleared her throat, I looked over, but her gaze was directed at Eva. Eva rolled her eyes and released a dramatic sigh as she glanced over her shoulder at me. "Sorry."

Yeah, sure she was.

I wasn't the only one unconvinced. - "EVA!" Lucia warned.

Another eye roll. Another sigh. "I'm sorry, Valentina."

Yeah, still not convincing, but Lucia didn't push it. Instead, she changed the subject. "Valentina, would you like to go to the Halloween dance tonight? You can have Eva's ticket since she won't be going this evening."

Not that I didn't relish the fact that Eva was grounded but going to the dance sounded about as fun as spending another six months in rehab. "No, that's okay. I wasn't planning on going anyway. I've never really been a fan of dances." Not exactly true, I used to love going to dances, but considering I couldn't dance anymore, the appeal was sort of gone for me now.

"It's not a problem." Lucia insisted. "We've still got a couple of hours to find you a costume, and I'm sure Renata wouldn't mind taking you."

Well, if she wasn't going to take the hint... "Look, I appreciate the gesture, Lucia, but what would I do there? I can't dance with anyone. I wouldn't be able to stay on my feet for long. I don't have a date, or any friends to keep me company, and I wouldn't want to ruin Renata's night by making her sit with me. I'm afraid dances are just not in my future anymore. It's okay, though. I got to go to junior prom and senior homecoming before my accident. I was even a royal court princess, so I'm not missing out."

"You were a homecoming princess?" My dad asked. I would have been more offended by his surprise if there wasn't also a hint of pride in his voice.

Eva, Renata, and Lucia all looked just as stunned. Bitches. "Shocking, I know, but I was, in fact, I used to be normal. I had friends, went out on dates, had a life... some people actually liked me!"

I officially killed the conversation and we all fell into awkward silence. The only sound in the room was Billy Bush droning on about Juliana Valdés and Kaylee Summers getting engaged at her birthday party last weekend. Of course, they did.

I had a whole day's worth of missed schoolwork on top of my homework, but I noticed that Jana was signed into her messenger and couldn't resist shooting her a quick message.

ValTheRealHero: And fiction becomes reality...

Jana458: Do I dare ask?

ValTheRealHero: Juliana Valdés and Kaylee Summers got engaged. Once again, the princess falls for the warrior princess, only this is worse. At least Princess Cali could fight. What's Kaylee Summers good for?

Jana458: Sex?

I snorted, but quickly stifled my smile when I earned the attention of everyone in the room.

"Something funny?" My dad asked curiously.

I looked at my IM and rolled my eyes. "More like tragic and typical."

ValTheRealHero: That's probably all Juliana Valdés dates her for. I take back what I said about her having depth. She's obviously as much of a shallow moron as every other celebrity on the planet.

Jana458: Not including me, right?

ValTheRealHero: Are you kidding? You're the worst of them all!

Jana458: Ouch. Someone's in a mood today.

I let out a sigh. She was right. I shouldn't be taking my anger out on her. It wasn't her fault she was powerless to Kaylee Summers' perfect, swimsuit-model body any more than it was Juliana Valdés'. I mean, if I had the chance to make out with someone as hot as Juliana Valdés, I doubt I would turn it down.

ValTheRealHero: I'm sorry. You're right. I've just had the worst day ever and now I'm grumpy. I got grounded from my room and am being forced to live amongst the step-people.

Jana458: Don't you mean you got grounded to your room?

ValTheRealHero: Nope. From! I'm not allowed to be alone right now, which means no hiding from the step witches in my room. The Powers That Be have conspired against me and are forcing me to 'integrate' with my family OR ELSE.

Jana458: What does that mean, exactly?

I sat there, staring at the cursor on my computer. For the first time ever, I felt like telling Jana what was going on with me. I didn't know why. I was never the type who needed to cry for attention, but my fingers were hovering over the keys, itching to unload my problems. The thing is, I was really upset, and I knew Jana would listen.

All of a sudden, I just started typing.

ValTheRealHero: If I can't start getting along with my dad's family and make friends at school, they're going stick me in a mental institution.

It was the keyboard equivalent of randomly blurting something out.

Jana458: What? That's ridiculous! Why would they do that?

ValTheRealHero: Long story.

Jana458: I'm waiting...

I stifled a groan, already regretting my moment of weakness. Jana was always subtly trying to get me to talk. Of course, she was going to jump on this tiny nugget of information I had just given her. It had been just enough to give her the excuse to push me the way I knew she wanted to.

ValTheRealHero: There was this guy hassling me at school today and it got a little out of hand.

Jana458: What happened??? I'LL KILL HIM!!!!

ValTheRealHero: Nothing. It was an accident. But my dad and the principal found out that I've been getting bullied and they called my therapist. Now they're all worried that I'm going to try to kill myself again, but really, it was nothing I haven't been dealing with since school started. The only difference is that now they know about it.

Jana458: What do you mean try to kill yourself again????

I let out a curse and slapped my hand over my face. How had I let that slip?

I couldn't believe I'd admitted all that to her. I'd just told the world's most confident beautiful and popular person, who had the perfect life, that I was a suicidal loser who got picked on at school. She was never going to talk to me again.

I made a lame attempt at damage control, but it was probably too late.

ValTheRealHero: After my accident, things were really bad for a while. But I learned my lesson. It's okay, really. I'm a lot better now. Everyone's just paranoid, and they're all overreacting.

Jana458: Are they? You're not really having those kinds of thoughts, are you?

ValTheRealHero: No!!!

Jana458: I'm serious. I know you never want to talk about all your family stuff but promise me you're not thinking about that. Swear it!

ValTheRealHero: I promise, Jana. I swear to you it's not that bad anymore. My life's no picnic, but how could I ever want to end it when I have you to talk to every day?

Jana458: This isn't a joke, Val.

ValTheRealHero: I'm not joking. You are seriously the best part of my day every day. I'm so glad I have you to talk to.

Jana458: Then how about we actually talk for once? Call me? (310) 555-4992

I sucked in a breath. Call me. Those two little words practically stopped my heart. I read the ten-digit number over and over again. The sight of it terrified and exhilarated me at the same time. Before the accident I'd often fantasized about talking to her on the phone to all hours of the night, but I never had the guts to ask for her number, and she'd never asked for mine. Now here I was, staring at the key to finally hearing her voice.

Could I do it? Could I talk to Jana on the phone?

Jana458: Val?

ValTheRealHero: I don't know...

Jana458: We've known each other for almost three years. I think it's safe to move to the phone call stage of our relationship.

A simple phone call didn't seem like much, but it was actually huge. There was a certain level of intimacy that came with talking to someone on the phone, of hearing their voice. It would make Jana so much more than just a faceless Internet friend.

ValTheRealHero: It just seems different somehow. More intimate or something.

I knew she couldn't see me, but I blushed as I typed that last sentence.

Jana458: It is. That's why you have to call me. I need to know that you're really okay, or I'm going to go crazy. I need to hear your voice. Call me right now, woman. Please???

She seemed desperate. She needed to hear my voice? Could she really mean that?

"Valentina?" Lucia startled me so much, I let out a tiny squeak and jumped in my chair. "Are you okay? You look like you've seen a ghost."

I was so caught up in my conversation with Jana that I forgot I was in the same room as everyone. They were all staring at me now. The twins clearly thought I was a freak, and Dad and Lucia were both watching me as if they were afraid I was going to make a run for the kitchen knives any second.

"It's nothing." I muttered, blushing under their scrutiny.

Jana458: Val, my phone isn't ringing. Why isn't my phone ringing?

I looked back up at my father, who was watching me closely. He had that same sincerity about him that he'd had at the school this morning, as if he was truly concerned for me. I promised him I would try harder. I promised I would make more of an effort to be social. I was pretty sure calling Jana would qualify.

Deciding to be brave, I waited until my family stopped paying attention to me, then picked up my phone and dialled her number with shaking hands. She answered on the first ring. - "Hello?"

Her voice was deeper than I expected. Just that one word sent chills through me. But it sounded...confused. Why did she sound confused? She was literally waiting for my call.

- "Jana?" - I wanted to kick myself for how small my voice sounded.

- "Valentina! It is you. My beautiful and wise mystic priestess of the Realm, we speak at last."

- "Holy crap, your voice is sexy!"

I slapped my hand over my mouth. I did not mean for that to come out. It's just that she sounded like she could melt butter, or hearts, simply by speaking. Her voice was deep, rumbly and hypnotic. She didn't talk, she purred.

"So I've been told!" she teased, laughing, a low, rich sound ten times more dangerous than her speaking voice.

To my utter mortification, I once again gained the attention of everyone in the room. They were all gaping at me, and who could blame them after what I had just blurted out? Each of their startled expressions was slightly different. My father looked horrified, while Lucia had something akin to an excited gleam in her wide eyes. Renata was smirking, and Eva was looking at me the way she always did, with barely concealed loathing and contempt.

I blushed and closed my laptop, "Uh, Jana, can you hold on a sec?" I gave my dad a pleading look. "Can I take this in my room?"

Before my dad could answer, Renata frowned at me. "What kind of a name is Jana?"

"Oh my God, that's that girl who always leaves comments on her blog!" Eva cried suddenly. "Val has an Internet girlfriend! What a freak!"

She was so loud I was sure that Jana heard her.

"Eva!" Dad growled. I guess he already knew I liked girls too, I had mentioned I was bisexual on my blog but I had no idea if any of them had read it.

"What? Online dating is so gross! And with girls!" She turned to me "I hope you know Internet creepers don't count as real girlfriends, even if you do talk to them on the phone."

"Eva, that is enough!" My dad roared. "You've just added another week to your grounding! Go to your room! Now!"

"With pleasure!" She shouted back. "I was only down here because you were forcing me to babysit the suicidal freak, anyway!"

I wanted to die as I watched Eva stomp up the stairs. Jana, no doubt, heard all of that. She couldn't see it, but my face was so red it hurt. How could I possibly talk to her now? I was so nervous I was on the verge of throwing up.

"Val?" Jana asked when things got quiet. "Are you there?" she sounded hesitant.

"Welcome to my life!" I said with a sigh of defeat. "Sorry about that."

"It's okay."

It was definitely not okay. I was so humiliated. It was a miracle I wasn't crying. I think it was only because I was still in so much shock. "Look, thanks for giving me your phone number, but maybe this is a bad time."

My dad scrambled to his feet, waving his hands at me. "No! You don't have to end your call. We'll give you some privacy." He glanced at both Lucia and Renata. "Won't we, ladies?"

His blatant desperation for me to talk to someone, even a stranger from the Internet, was as embarrassing as Eva's outburst. Even worse, Lucia was just as bad. "Of course! You go ahead and talk to your girlfriend, Val!" she squealed. "We can keep an eye on you from the kitchen. I have to get dinner started anyway."

While I was busy dying from her use of the word girlfriend, she hopped off the cross trainer and hurried to catch up to my dad, seeming more than happy to finish her workout early. As they started up the steps, they both turned back to Renata, who had sprawled out on the couch instead of getting up.

"I was here first!" Renata said in response to their expectant looks. "There's no way I'm going anywhere near Eva with the mood she's in, and I really don't care about Val's love life. Besides, she's not supposed to be alone, anyway. What if she tries to throw herself off the balcony or something?"

Was there anyone in the world that didn't feel the need to humiliate me? I glared at Renata, and she just waved a pair of earbuds at me and shoved them in her ears. "I'll turn the volume up!"

My dad and Lucia both gave me such hopeful looks that I couldn't argue anymore. I rolled my eyes and made my way over to the armchair my father had been lounging in.

Once Dad and Lucia were gone, I glanced over at the couch. Renata was already doing what she did best, ignoring me. She was bobbing her head along with her music as she read out of a textbook. I doubted she could hear me, but I spoke softly anyway, just in case.

"Jana? Are you still there?"

"I didn't realise upping our relationship to phone buddies would come with a girlfriend title. Does that mean if we ever meet in person, we'll have to get married?"

Surprised, I burst into laughter. Renata glanced at me with one raised eyebrow but went back to her textbook without saying anything.

"Sorry, I don't do polygamy, and I'm pretty sure you're already married to your car!"

"Funny!"

The flat tone in her voice set me off giggling again, and then I sighed. "Man, it feels good to laugh. I really have had the worst day ever. Thank you for making me call you. I can't believe we're finally talking, though. I've always wondered what you sounded like."

"Me too. I even googled videos of people with Boston accents once."

I laughed again. "Shut up. No you did not!"

"I did, and you don't disappoint. Say car for me again."

"You're such an idiot!" I replied but gave in, "Car."

It came out cah, and Jana laughed. "I love it!" she said. "Speaking of Boston... You did not call me from there."

I managed not to gasp, but my stomach dropped. I'd completely forgotten about caller ID. How was I supposed to explain why we had the same area code? "Um yeah... no. I know. That's because my dad lives in LA. I've been here since I got out of the hospital."

I waited for her to freak out on me and demand we meet, but the line was silent for a minute. "Why didn't you tell me?"

I was surprised at how cautious she sounded. Maybe I'd hurt her feelings by not telling her I moved. Hopefully I could explain it without having to tell her what my accident did to me. "I don't know. It took me a while before I was brave enough to e-mail you at all. Then everything went right back to normal between us so fast that I never really thought about it. You've always just been an Internet friend, you know? I think I might have been afraid to ruin that."

She let out a breath that sounded suspiciously of relief. Maybe she was just as afraid of meeting in person as I was. The thought was as disappointing as it was relieving. "Yeah, I know what you mean. The fact that we've never met has always been my favourite thing about our relationship."

"Why?"

"I guess in person it's hard for people to see past the outer me, the looks, the money, the car, the connections, but since you can't see those things, you only see the real me. It's nice."

"Wow, Jana!" I snorted. I knew she was being serious, but that's what made it so funny. "That was so incredibly profound of you! I'm impressed!"

"You see?" Jana laughed. "You're giving me a hard time right now. Nobody who knows me in person would ever do that. Most people act so fake toward me. They say whatever they think I want to hear, and they do whatever I want them to."

"Well, it's no wonder you're so egotistical. Maybe you're right about the anonymity. I don't know that I'd be able to tell you how stubborn, argumentative, and shallow you are to your face. Or that you have horrible taste in movies. Especially not if you're as swoon worthy as you say you are. Then who would be left to keep you from turning into a true self-absorbed jerk?"

Jana laughed again, a huge, deep, bellowing laugh. I could picture her throwing her head back, her entire gut convulsing from the action. Not that I imagined she had a gut, of course. I doubt she has anything less than a perfect abdomen.

Jana sighed her way down from her laughing fit. "Oh, Valentina. You are the only girl in the world that ever says things like that to me. That's why, infuriating, self-righteous, opinionated, and obnoxious as you are, you are my favourite person in the whole world."

My lungs seized up, making it impossible for me to breathe. But somehow the burning sensation in my chest was the best feeling in the whole world, like turning your face to the sunshine or drinking hot chocolate after being out in the snow.

I prayed Jana wouldn't be able to tell I was crying, but luck seemed to have left me forever when my mom died. "Val?" Her voice went from lazy and relaxed to high alert. "What's the matter? Why are you crying?"

"I'm fine." I'm not sure she believed me with all my sniffling. "It's just, it's nice to have someone who cares. You are my favourite person, too. You're my best friend."

Jana was quiet for a moment. When she spoke again, she dropped all hints of the confident, sexy, funny girl I knew so well. "Are you sure you're really okay? I mean, you would tell me if you weren't, right?" There was true vulnerability in her voice. "I had a friend commit suicide once. Val, the thought of losing you like that..."

She stopped so abruptly that I would have thought the line had gone dead if I hadn't heard her clear her throat as if she was trying to get her voice back under control. "You do have someone who cares." She said softly. "No matter how bad things are at home or at school or whatever, you have me. You are my best friend, too. You have my number now. Save it in your phone and call me anytime, day, night, the witching hour, it doesn't matter. Okay?"

It took me a moment, and a series of deep breaths, before I could respond. "Okay."

"Promise?"

"I promise. As long as I always have you, I'll be fine." I kicked myself internally and laughed. "Wow, that sounded really cheesy! You see? That is why I didn't want to call you. I can filter my stupid mouth so much better when I have to type out my thoughts."

Jana laughed again. "Ah, but then you would miss out on all the sweet nothings I plan to whisper in your ear now that I know how much you like my ultra-sexy voice."

I blushed but refused to let her know that her flirting rattled me. "I never said ultra, you egomaniac. But you should definitely consider recording audiobooks for a living!"

"Hmm. That's not a bad idea!" Jana's voice dropped to that slow, seductive purr again as she asked, "Would you like me to read to you, Valentina?"

I was thrilled at the thought and couldn't quite mask my excitement. "Seriously?"

"Why not? Before you called, I was getting ready to have a movie marathon all by my lonesome."

"You are such a liar. Tonight, is Friday night, and it's Halloween. There is no way you don't have plans."

"I don't have important ones. It's just a stupid party that my sort-of girlfriend wants me to go to."

"Your 'sort-of' girlfriend?"

"Yeaaah." Jana stretched the word out in a long breath. "It's a long story, but I'm not that into her. I would much rather stay home and read with you. Besides, I can't hang up on you when you've had the worst day ever. What kind of best friend would that make me?"

I almost cried again. The offer was so sweet. And thoughtful. Reading was a passion Jana and I shared. We read and discussed books all the time. We'd even decided to read the same book at the same time before, but we'd never read one together. Jana had to know how much that would mean to me.

"It has to be The Druid Princess." I said.

Jana laughed. "It's already in my hands."

 

Chapter Text

When I went back to school on Monday, the whispers and stares were as bad as they'd been on my first day. It was nothing new. I kept my head down as I always did and prayed things wouldn't be worse because people blamed me for Jason getting suspended.

So far nothing traumatic had happened, but as I sat down at lunch in my normal seat at a small table in the corner of the cafeteria, a hush fell over the whole room. I'd just noticed the unnatural stillness when I felt someone standing behind me.

Slowly, bracing myself for whatever torture was about to ensue, I turned around to face whoever was behind me. I was shocked to see Renata standing there. Next to her was a girl I had seen around school, but who wasn't in any of my classes. She had violet eyes, obviously coloured contacts, and bright red hair with platinum blonde streaks in it. It was a combination I had never seen before, but it actually suited her very well.

Her hair was twisted up on her head and clipped into place with hair clips made of brightly coloured feathers. Her shoes, backpack, and fingernails were all works of art, the same way her hair was. I imagined she would be something to behold if she weren't constricted to the limitations of our school uniform.

She was pretty, but not the same gorgeous knockout type that Renata was. She was wild in a way that demanded respect. She was the kind of girl you couldn't help but follow down the hall with your eyes. The girl that guys feared, yet secretly wanted at the same time.

And she was smiling down at me.

"Val, this is Abby Euling." Renata said in a bored voice. "Abby, my stepsister, Val."

I still had no idea what was going on, but I was pretty sure Renata wasn't masterminding some vicious scheme, and Abby was holding out her hand to me, so I took it. As we said hello to one another, Renata reapplied her lip gloss and said, "My work here is done." and she walked away without another glance.

I turned my eyes back up to Abby and she gave me another warm smile as she sat down next to me and took a packed lunch from her backpack. "I hope you don't mind." I shook my head and Abby smiled again. "I think Renata is playing matchmaker with us!"

"She what?"

I turned around and saw Renata sitting at her normal table with all of the most popular people in school. She was laughing and joking around with them, not paying the slightest bit of attention to me, just like always. You'd never know something out of the ordinary had occurred if it weren't for the way Eva was still gaping at her in shock.

"I have dance class with Renata." Abby said. "We're not friends or anything, so I was surprised when she came up to me this morning and asked if she could introduce us."

"She did?"

I knew how incredulous I sounded. I could feel my face contorted in confusion, so I wasn't surprised when Abby laughed. "She said she thought we would have a lot in common!" she explained while rolling her eyes. "Considering she knows nothing about me, and I doubt she's made any effort to get to know you either, even though you are stepsisters, I can only assume she was pairing one outcast with another."

That surprised me. Not Renata's thinking that being outcasts would make two people automatic friends, but I couldn't imagine why a girl like Abby would have no friends. "You don't strike me as the loner type. You seem so confident and nice, and you're so pretty."

"And raised by two dads!"

I was still confused. "What does that matter?"

Abby did a double take.

Figuring she was the type who could take a joke, I smirked. "Massachusetts was the first state to allow same-sex marriages, so, no offense, but that makes you totally old news to me. I hope you weren't expecting special treatment or anything!"

Abby's eyes flashed, surprised, and a wide grin spread across her face. "I like you!"

I laughed, but it died quickly as I glanced around the cafeteria. "Picking on me I understand, considering this is the town where image is everything, but you'd think people would be more open-minded about your situation."

"You'd think." Abby agreed. "I'm sure at Hollywood High I'd fit right in, but at a pretentious private school like this one I'm an easy target. It also doesn't help that I'm here on scholarship. My dads are humble costume designers. They make enough to afford our two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood, but that's about it."

Now that made perfect sense. "And the picture becomes even clearer. I was raised by a single mother. And I'm bisexual!"

Abby rolled her eyes again. "So, you're saying not only are we both members of the LGBT+ community and seen as social outcasts, but we're both poor, too?"

"Exactly!" I joined her with an eye roll of my own, but then sighed and glanced at Renata. "It may have been a shallow and judgmental perception, but it was still thoughtful of her to try to help."

"True." Abby followed my gaze to my stepsisters' table. Renata was laughing with a friend, while Eva was sitting in some guy's lap, some guy who was definitely not Jason. "But then, Renata's always been the lesser of the two evils."

I nodded in agreement. "Sometimes I think she wouldn't be so bad if she didn't have her sister poisoning her mind, and a completely clueless mother teaching her what's important in life."

At Abby's questioning look, I said, "Designer clothes and an eight-hundred calorie a day diet."

Abby laughed again. "I think Renata was on to something. You might just be a kindred spirit!"

. . . . .

The ride home from school was a tense one, thanks to the rage bubbling just beneath the surface of Eva's Marc Jacobs Daisy-scented skin. When we got home, she stomped inside, slamming the door in Renata's face. By the time I managed to climb out of the car and get into the house, the two of them were laying into each other.

"...humiliated us like that!" Eva was screaming.

"All I was doing was cleaning up the mess you made. You're the one who embarrassed us!"

"It's bad enough we have to be associated with her. Now she's BFFs with Charity?"

"So what? Let them be freaks together. They aren't hurting anyone."

"Not hurting anyone? What if they start making out in the cafeteria? We'll be the sisters of the crippled lesbian freak!"

"Um, her name's Abby, not Charity. And I'm bisexual, not a lesbian." I said, setting my backpack on the counter as I headed past the two of them into the kitchen.

Renata rolled her eyes. "People call her that because she's the school charity case."

"Nice." I scoffed. "You know Eva, just because her dads are gay doesn't mean she is. Even if she were, why would you care? It has nothing to do with you."

Eva glared at me so hard her eyes became bloodshot. "Stay away from me!" she hissed, storming off to her room.

Once we heard the door slam, Renata shook her head as if disgusted with her sister. "She'll cool off in a few weeks."

I stared after her as she headed down into the family room to get started on her homework. It had been such a strange day. I didn't understand Renata at all. In the few months I had lived here, she had gone from being rude to simply ignoring the fact that I existed, to actually coming to my rescue on Friday. Then, this morning she risked the wrath of her sister to help me find a friend. It was a really sweet thing to do. I couldn't figure out why she'd done it, while she wasn't outright hostile toward me anymore, and never commented on my sexuality, she still clearly didn't like me.

After raiding the fridge and not finding anything desirable, I grabbed a couple of my usual V8 fruit juices and made my way down to the family room. Instead of heading for the desk in the corner, I sat down on the couch and held out one of the drinks to Renata. "Want one?"

She frowned at me, but warily accepted the juice. "Thanks."

We did our homework in silence with the TV once again muted on some entertainment news show. Eventually, Renata sighed. "Some girls are so lucky. Can you imagine having that perfect body?"

Startled from my work, I looked at the TV just in time to see Juliana Valdés on the screen, heading into some club with a scantily-clad Kaylee Summers hanging all over her.

There was another dreamy sigh from Renata. "She has to have the hottest body in Hollywood."

I couldn't disagree. She was tall, had long silky black hair, milk chocolate eyes, and a body so perfect it hurt to look at it. She was one of those actresses who could play the pretty girl next door, or the sexy bad ass, depending on how she dressed. At the moment, she was sporting a leather jacket and unruly hair that made you want to defy your parents, jump on the back of her motorcycle, and drive off into the sunset after getting her name tattooed somewhere on your body.

She always smiled as if the world were her oyster. Since she announced she was a lesbian, countless girls had fallen victim to that look. The thing that I liked best about her, though, was how she seemed so sarcastic. In every interview I had ever seen her do, she was playful and cocky, but witty. She bantered with those talk-show hosts as if they were the ones in the hot seat. The girl had some major intelligence hiding behind that pretty face.

I matched Renata's wistfulness and said, "Yeah, I'd definitely have her babies if she gave me the chance!" Clearly, I had spent too much time talking to Jana lately, but I didn't think Renata would mind my comment.

Renata snorted but stopped laughing when she realised it was me she was joking around with. Things got awkward again fast. We both went back to our work, but this time I couldn't keep quiet. "Thanks for helping me yesterday in class and for talking to Abby."

Renata shrugged as if she didn't think it was worth talking about, but I couldn't let it drop. "Why did you do it?"

Renata considered not answering my question. "Mostly because Eva's being such a jerk. I was mad about having you here too at first, but it's really not that bad. You stay out of our way and keep a low profile at school. She's the one making it worse by constantly trying to turn the whole school against you, or at least making them too afraid to be nice to you. I'm sick of the drama. All of our lives would be easier if you weren't such a freakish loner, and you'd have a lot more friends if Eva would just back off. And about the other thing she said, I have no problem with your sexuality. I already knew, I saw it on your blog."

Once again, she turned back to her work. I went back to mine too, but after another ten minutes or so I had another question I needed an answer to. "What exactly did I do? Why do you both hate me so much?"

I knew Renata wouldn't deny the implication that she hated me. She was a very direct person. Most of the time the stuff she said was shallow, judgmental, or just plain ignorant, but at least she always told you what she really thought. She wasn't afraid to say what was on her mind, and I had to admire that about her. "Different reasons." she said. "Eva feels threatened by you."

"What?" I laughed incredulously. "That's ridiculous."

"Not really. First of all, you're Dad's real daughter. She's worried that he's going to start playing favourites." After a short pause, she said, "I'd be lying if I weren't jealous about that, too."

I was shocked. Renata and Eva were jealous that Leon was my dad? As if that made some kind of difference. It had never stopped him from loving them more than me before.

"Second, you have scars and you limp, but you're actually really pretty aside from that. Some of our friends have said as much. Plus, everyone thinks you're really funny."

"What? How can people think that? Nobody knows anything about me."

"When we learned about your blog, Eva told everyone at school about it, trying to show them what a nerd you are." Renata smirked. "Her plan totally backfired because everyone loved it. Half of our friends follow you now."

The kids at school followed my blog? I didn't know what to say to that. It seemed impossible. Renata saw the look on my face and shook her head. "You're not nearly as hated as you think. Yeah, there are a few people who've been really mean to you, but everyone else admires you."

"They admire me?" There was no way she'd get me to believe that.

"You are tortured at school, but you never let it get to you. You never complain, and you never get anyone in trouble. All anyone could talk about today was how cool it was of you to drop the charges against Jason."

"Plus, you keep to yourself so much that you're, mysterious. People are intrigued by you. They're starting to like you. Rob Loxley even has a crush on you. That's why Eva got so mad and made Jason do what he did. She thought Rob was going to ask her to the dance, and instead he asked her if she thought you would go to the dance with him."

I was shocked. I didn't see how what she was saying could be possible, but she wouldn't make up a story like this just to be cruel. Eva would, but not Renata. Renata was a lot of things, but she wasn't a liar.

Renata went back to her homework, giving me the chance to process everything she'd just told me. After a minute she didn't look up from her work but spoke, "If you want me to give Rob your number, I will. He's a pretty decent guy. Kind of quiet for my taste, but you guys might hit it off."

I didn't respond right away, and Renata didn't seem to care if I answered her or not. I didn't know how to feel about someone having a crush on me. I wasn't ready to be in a relationship. I couldn't go outside in short-sleeve shirts, much less have some guy wanting to see me or touch me. A boyfriend couldn't even hold my hand when I walked because I have to use my cane in my good hand, and I didn't think I could let someone hold my scarred hand.

"I don't know." I finally answered. "I'll think about it."

"Whatever."

That was the end of our conversation until Lucia called us for dinner. Renata turned off the TV and started to pack up her stuff. I didn't want to risk annoying her, but as long as she was somewhat open to talking to me, I needed one last answer.

"Hey, Renata? I know we'll never be like actual sisters or anything, but I don't want to be enemies forever, either. You told me why Eva hates me, but what's your problem with me?"

Renata stopped shoving books in her backpack and looked at me. All of her usual indifference was gone, and I could see anger in her eyes. "I wouldn't have a problem with you if you weren't always so mean to Mom and Dad. They're good parents. They've gone out of their way to do everything they can for you. Dad almost lost his job because he spent so much time in Boston while you were in the hospital. They renovated your room. They give you everything you need. They always do nice things for you, hoping it might make you happy. They try so hard to help you, and you throw it back in their faces all the time."

Her words hit me like a bucket of freezing cold water thrown in my face. Of all the things I could have imagined, I never would have thought she was just being protective of my dad and Lucia. And the thing is, after she'd said that, I realised that there wasn't just anger in her eyes but hurt.

"You treat our parents as bad as Eva treats you." she said. "Especially Dad, and he doesn't deserve that. He's a good man. He may not be my biological father, but he's my dad. He's raised me since I was seven years old, and he's never treated me like I wasn't his real daughter. He's loved me like I was his own."

All the conflicting emotions in me were so confusing. I was shocked, for one thing. I never realised I was acting so horribly. I wasn't even sure if I really had, or if Renata was just being defensive and exaggerating. But if I had... I wasn't that person. I didn't treat people like that. I always considered myself to be kind. I didn't like being compared to someone like Eva.

At the same time, I was also angry. Part of me thought Renata had no right to think anything at all about my relationship with my father. It was none of her business. But more than anything, I was hurt because she had the relationship with him that I should have had, and she acted as if there were nothing wrong with that.

"That's not true." I whispered. "He has loved you much more than if you were his own child, because I am his child and he didn't love me at all. Did you know he didn't even say good-bye to me when he left? I was eight years old. I came home from school one day, and he was just gone. There was no note, no phone call, nothing. I never saw him again!"

"I grew up without my father because he was here giving you hugs, and tucking you into bed at night, and loving you like a real daughter instead of me. Talk about having something thrown in your face all the time. How do you think it makes me feel to have to live here and see how happy you all are together? Do you have any idea how much it hurts every time I hear you and Eva call him Dad? To know that he loves you, really, truly loves you? I'm his daughter, and he only took me in because he had to."

I took a breath and put my books back in my backpack. I couldn't handle this conversation any longer.

"I'm not saying you don't have a reason to be angry." Renata said, "but you asked what my problem is with you, and that's it. We were happy before you came here. Now my parents fight a lot more, and Eva and I barely speak except to yell at each other. I get that you have problems, and I understand that this sucks for you, but it doesn't change the fact that you're making everyone in this house miserable. You are ruining my family."

I apologised as I shouldered my backpack and stood up. "I'm sorry." I tried not to sound bitter, because I really was sorry. "If I had any idea how to change that, I would."

I turned to leave and saw Lucia standing on the stairs, watching Renata and I with a troubled expression. From the puffiness of her eyes, I was sure she'd heard that entire conversation. "I'm sorry." I mumbled again as I made my way past her.

 

Chapter Text

Juliana POV

When the Patriots scored yet another touchdown, I decided I needed another drink. As I wandered into the kitchen and cracked open another beer, I thought of Val. Val was from New England. She was more of a baseball fan, apparently being from Boston means you're born with Red Sox pride in your blood, but if she followed football at all, she was probably laughing right now. I took a long, refreshing swallow of ice-cold Corona and sent her a quick text.

[JANA] If you're a Patriots fan, I might have to disown you.

Her reply was almost instant.

[VAL] LOL! You're safe. Not a big football fan. But if I ever learn you root for the Dodgers, we can't be friends anymore.

A second text followed that one, saying,

[VAL] Why? Who are they beating right now?

I smiled at the question. Val didn't care about football, but she was still willing to talk about it with me. I started to type a reply, but then realised that after three years I finally had her number and could talk to her now. "The Packers are down three touchdowns and a field goal." I said when she answered my call. "It's very demoralising."

"Green Bay? Are you seriously a cheesehead?"

She laughed and I smiled again. Her laugh was my new favourite sound in the whole world. "I have never had, nor will I ever have, the urge to wear a foam cheese hat, but yes, I am a Green Bay fan."

"Why?" Val asked. "Are you from Wisconsin? Oh my God, please say yes. That would be too funny. Please tell me the whole California bad girl act is all a ruse and you're secretly the daughter of a dairy farmer."

I laughed. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I really am Los Angeles born and bred. My mother lives in Green Bay, though. She married a very enthusiastic Packers fan so, over the years, since LA doesn't have a football team, I've adopted Green Bay as my own."

"That is a little disappointing. I am sorry your team is losing, though. I'll send you some good-luck vibes."

"I appreciate that."

I smiled again and took another sip of my beer. A loud cheer erupted from the living room where a bunch of my friends were watching the game. Hopefully that meant Green Bay finally scored, but now I wasn't that interested in going back to find out.

I slipped outside onto the back patio and shut the door behind me. Val was quiet on the other end of the line, and suddenly I had no idea what to say to her.

I'd never really been in the 'friend zone' with a girl before, the thought of a girl not wanting me that way was absurd, but I was worried that's where I fell on Val's radar. She had no problem telling me she cared about me, and she teased me all the time, but she never flirted with me, even when I flirted first.

I was shocked when I found out she had moved to Los Angeles and didn't tell me, and she'd been so hesitant to call when I gave her my number. It was almost as if she didn't want to be anything more than Internet friends. Three years and she'd never even asked my real name. Granted, I never asked for hers either, but that was only because I had no idea how she was going to handle the 'I'm Juliana Valdés' conversation when it finally came up.

Talking on the phone changed our relationship a little, and I wasn't sure quite how to tread the water now. I felt nervous and a little stupid. The feelings were so foreign to me that I almost didn't recognise them as self-consciousness. I'd never been self-conscious with a girl before.

"So..." I had to clear my throat when my voice didn't produce sound correctly. "What are you up to? Is it okay that I called? It's not weird or anything?"

"No, it's not weird. I like it. You can call me whenever you want. Even if it's just to complain about the Packers losing Monday Night Football."

The teasing in her voice melted away my nerves. "How are things? Better than Friday? Are you surviving the stepfamily?"

"I guess. Things are kind of strange, but not in a bad way. My one stepsister is still Freddy Krueger, but I had a talk with the other one and she really isn't as horrible as I thought. We came to an understanding, at least. I think. Anyway, happier subjects. Make me laugh. You're the only one who ever does."

My heart sank a little at the request. Why did Val refuse to let me in? All her talk about mental institutions and suicide the other day really freaked me out. I knew she was having a hard time adjusting to her new life with her dad, but I had no idea her depression was so serious. I couldn't stop worrying about her.

I wished there were something more I could do to help than make her laugh, but if that was what she said she needed, then I couldn't let her down. I racked my brain for something she'd find amusing, but it wasn't easy because I wasn't really in a laughing mood anymore. Not when she was out there in need of someone to love her, and the only person I was allowed to be seen with right now was the freaking spawn of Satan.

And I was suddenly inspired. "Have you ever read The Taming of the Shrew?"

"I haven't read the play, but I've seen the old Elizabeth Taylor movie."

"My girlfriend is the shrew, only there's no taming her."

Val laughed. I was glad to have successfully cheered her up, but I wished I were joking. "I'm serious. I think she might actually be the devil reincarnate."

"She sounds a lot like my stepsister."

"Worse. I promise. Much, much worse."

"Then why are you dating her?"

"Because she's really hot and the sex is good?"

I knew that would work. Val's disgusted groan made my smile come back. "Nice, Jana! How completely shallow of you."

Val was teasing, but she also believed me. She really did think I was shallow and egotistical. Yeah, I sort of was, but that was only because the girls I knew were all like Kaylee and not worth giving my heart to.

I hated that my reputation might disappoint Val. She wasn't interested in players like me. I was proud of her for that, but it rankled me at the same time because that was probably the reason I was just a friend to her. I couldn't tell her everything, but I was suddenly desperate to make her understand that there was more to me than the player she believed I was. "Honestly, it's not her looks. It's more complicated than that. She's kind of this high-profile girl."

"Celebrity or supermodel?"

I smirked.

"Heiress?"

If she only knew how right she was. Kaylee was all three of those things, but I couldn't tell Val that. Kaylee and I were in the media too much right now, and I didn't want Val to figure out who I was on her own. That wouldn't be easy for her to swallow. I wanted to be there when I explained. "No comment," I said, and she burst into laughter.

"Ha!" She shouted. "I knew it! Miss VIP with her fancy women. You should try dating a nice, quiet librarian or something. Then you might not have to call your girlfriend a shrew!"

"Actually, that could be hot, hair in a bun just screaming to be let down, some nice, thick glasses, a tight skirt, and a silky blouse with lots of buttons for me to rip open? I would totally make love to her up against the stacks in the classic literature section."

There was a choking sound and then Val said, "Um, okay, that was definitely an over share!"

I grinned at her bewilderment and dropped my voice to that low, soothing tone I knew she liked. "Are you blushing right now, Valentina?"

"I'm pretty sure even my grandmother is blushing in her grave after that visual, Jana."

That visual? My smile widened even further. Had she just pictured herself as my fantasy librarian? Friend zone, my ass. Juliana Valdés is never just a friend to any woman. I had to take advantage of this opportunity.

"Have you ever thought of becoming a librarian, Val? You'd probably make a really good one, what with your love of reading and all your haughty indignation. Or I could totally picture you teaching in a boarding school, handing out detention slips and spanking all the naughty children with a ruler."

"Spanking naughty children with a ruler?" Her voice was so flat that I burst out laughing. "You are hopeless, Jana. How about we get away from the cheesy porno dialogue and go back to the complicated 'no comment' shrew you mentioned. Tell me why you're really dating her, if it's not just the sex."

"You're no fun." I pouted, but then sighed for real. Kaylee was such a mood killer. "All right, fine. So, she's basically The Boss's Daughter, right? And, of course, she's totally in to me."

"Oh, of course."

"Yes, of course. Stop interrupting me, woman!"

"Stop making me."

Infuriating girl! I had the sudden urge to shake my phone. "Anyway... She's got a lot of clout, so my dad and a bunch of other people are really putting the pressure on me to keep her happy."

"That's awful!" Val's voice sounded equally amused and appalled. "How can you let them tell you who to date?"

"It's complicated."

Grimacing, I chugged the last of my beer. I knew I sounded ridiculous, but how could I make her understand? "My life is complicated. There are a lot of people who think they own it. Especially my dad. I don't really have a lot of control over anything."

"Do you ever stand up for yourself?"

"When I can."

"And you don't think the choice of who you date is one of those times?"

"Not this time. This chick is really important. If I broke it off and she had a tantrum, which she definitely would, she could really screw up a lot of things for a lot of people. Me, more than anyone. I'm stuck for now. I'm hoping that if I can just be a big enough jerk, she'll get tired of me and dump my sorry ass."

"That is seriously crazy, Jana. You know that, right?"

"I know." Shaking away all depressing thoughts, I headed back into the house and tossed my empty beer can in the trash. "But it's not the most horrible thing in the world." It was only temporary, after all, and I had Val to keep me sane until it was over.

"Because at least she's super hot and the sex is great?"

I chuckled at Val's sarcasm. "Right. Although, maybe it's not as great as I thought. You've really got me stuck on this librarian idea. I bet I could..."

"Okay, this is where I hang up!" Val interrupted.

Laughing again, I opened the fridge. All this talk of hot librarians, Val as a hot librarian, gave me the munchies. "Why?" I asked as I spotted some fresh strawberries. My brain immediately went to feeding them to Val, and then I thought of other things I could do with Val. "You don't want to work out any dirty fantasies with me? It's your fault I'm having them. What are you wearing right now, anyway?"

"HA!" Val laughed. "No! We are not going there. Not ever, Jana."

"Why not?"

"Just, no, you perve!"

Val was trying to hide it, but I had her completely flustered and I loved it. Asking her to call me was the best decision I'd ever made. "Your loss!" I teased. "I could have rocked your world, baby."

"What the hell are you doing?" Kaylee suddenly shrieked, startling me so badly I dropped the strawberries all over the floor.

Shutting the fridge, I turned around to find Kaylee so red-faced I was sure she had heard a lot more of that conversation than just my last statement. For some reason, that made me want to laugh. I had to bite down on the inside of my cheek to keep from doing so. "I gotta go." I said into the phone. "I totally just got busted by the shrew."

"The what?" Kaylee screamed.

On the other end of the line, Val giggled. "Congratulations. I'll keep my fingers crossed that you get dumped!"

At hearing that, I couldn't hold back my laughter any longer. "You're the best. I'll call you later."

I hung up the phone and met Kaylee's glare with big, innocent eyes. "Problem?" I didn't wait for her answer before I bent down to clean up the mess of spilled fruit.

Kaylee's heels clacked across the tile floor as she crossed the kitchen. They came to a stop in front of my face, and the right one began tapping obnoxiously. "What do you think?" she spat.

"I think we're not in public, Kay, so I can do whatever the hell I want."

"There is a whole room full of people out there. Any one of them could have heard you."

"But they didn't."

"I did."

I pulled the last AWOL strawberry from beneath the fridge and stood up. After chucking the container in the garbage, I noticed Kaylee was still standing there, waiting for an answer. The only one I could think of was "Good." I knew she hated that response when I gave it to her at the club in front of all her friends, so I adopted it as my new favourite retort.

"Why do you insist on being difficult?"

Snorting, I pinned her with an stubborn look. "Maybe because I'm being blackmailed into a fake engagement with the Wicked Witch of Hollywood?"

Kaylee glared again and then stomped her foot as she huffed in annoyance. "Your father is here, and he brought Zachary Goldberg with him!" she said, storming out of the room.

No way. I followed her out of the kitchen and, sure enough, there was my father and one of the most prestigious film directors in LA standing behind the sofa with beers in their hands, cheering on the Green Bay Packers.

"Hey, Dad. What are you doing here?"

Even more shocking than my father's presence was the huge, happy smile he greeted me with. "There's the woman of the hour!" I tried to hide my shock as he jovially clasped his arm around my shoulders. "Daughter, you know Zachary Goldberg, don't you?"

Still stunned, I shook hands with my idol. "We've never met, but it's an honour. I've followed your work since I was a kid."

A hand slipped around my waist and forced my smile to stay up as I introduced Kaylee. "Ah, yes." Zachary said, leaning in to kiss Kaylee's cheek, the customary LA greeting, which I detested and avoided at all costs. "My congratulations to the happy couple. Between the surprise engagement and your upcoming movie together, the two of you are the talk of the town right now."

Kaylee subtly squeezed the arm she had around me in an 'I told you so' manner. "All good, I hope." she said, as if she were the first person to ever come up with that oh-so-clever response.

I tried not to roll my eyes at the cliché. If Kaylee could be half as smart as she was evil, she'd be a genius.

Zachary was polite enough to laugh with her. "It's all very good," he promised, shifting his eyes to me. "Especially regarding you, Juliana. I've heard all sorts of buzz about your performance in The Druid Princess. Your father was just showing me some of the footage this afternoon. Very impressive."

I tried to contain my surprise, but my head was spinning. Zachary Goldberg was one of my all-time favourite directors. He had a true talent for drama and had been nominated for more Academy Awards than Steven Spielberg. Praise from him was hard earned. "Thank you, sir."

"Call me Zachary, Juliana. Please."

"Okay, Zachary. Well, welcome. Make yourself at home. I hope you like the Packers, because any Patriots fans have to watch the game from outside, and they only get the cheap beer."

Zachary laughed heartily as he shook his head. "I wish I could stay, but I've got the wife at home waiting for me. You know how it is." Zachary glanced between Kaylee and me, grinning. "Well, maybe not yet, but you'll find out soon enough."

Forcing a laugh, I pushed my acting skills to the limit. "I'm looking forward to it."

Zachary believed the lie. "I just wanted to stop by and meet you in person. I'd love to set up a meeting with you sometime soon. I've got my hands on a brilliant adaptation of Scarlet, and I think if I had you signed on, I could get the green light."

My jaw nearly dropped to the ground, but this time I didn't bother to try to hide my excitement. "You're doing Scarlet?"

Zachary's eyebrows climbed up his forehead. "You're familiar with the story?"

Was I familiar with it? "I love the story! I've read the books. I would kill to play the lead."

Zachary chuckled. "I knew you were the person I wanted to talk to. Are you available to meet sometime this week?"

"I, hold on." I turned to where my friends were all still engrossed in the game. "Hey, Mateo!"

I had invited my assistant, and the poor guy was such a Boy Scout that the few females present kept mauling him. He hadn't stopped blushing since he arrived, and he looked really relieved to be needed right now. "What's up, Juliana?"

"Do we have time to meet with Mr. Goldberg this week?"

"We'll make time."

"I'll come, too!" Kaylee jumped in. "I can bring my father." she told Zachary. "He's a big fan of Juliana's, you know. I'll bet the three of us could talk her into signing on."

Zachary licked his lips and gave Kaylee the biggest smile I'd ever seen on a grown man. "That would be fantastic, Kaylee."

From the way Zachary's eyes lit up, I wondered if that hadn't been part of his plan all along. Everything in Hollywood was always a power play. Getting the millions upon millions of dollars needed to fund a major motion picture was never easy no matter who you were and getting the green light for a classic period piece like Scarlet was damn near impossible.

"I'm not familiar with the story," Kaylee said, "but it sounds pretty exciting."

"Oh, it is. And you would look stunning in an eighteenth-century costume. I'm sure we could find a place for you in the film somewhere, if you were interested."

"What a generous offer, Zachary. Thank you."

I watched the two of them schmooze each other with a sense of astonishment. I may hate Kaylee, but even I have to admit the power that I, as Hollywood's hottest up-and-coming actress, and Kaylee, the heiress of the city's largest motion picture studio, had together.

Kaylee was right. We could own this town together if we really wanted to. The problem was: I didn't want to. Not if Kaylee and I had to be a couple to do it. As flattered and excited as I was about possibly working with my favourite director playing another of my favourite characters, I was worried that Kaylee was going to like the power we had a little too much and not want to let me go after the awards season was over. Somehow, I was just getting sucked in deeper and deeper.

 

Chapter Text

My little heart-to-heart with Renata didn't change anything between us, but I was eternally grateful to her for introducing me to Abby. Abby and I didn't have a lot in common, she was a prima ballerina and obsessed with anything fashion related, while I was content reading books and hadn't been to a mall in over a year, but we still got along like sisters who'd been suddenly reunited after being separated at birth.

She ate lunch with me again the next day and insisted I come home with her after school and do my homework at her house. Knowing what was waiting for me at home, I was grateful for the offer.

She lived in a smallish apartment in West Hollywood. It was old, cramped, a little disorganized, actually, it looked like a craft store had exploded inside, but it felt more like home after being there for three seconds than my dad's house probably ever would.

"Ignore the chaos," Abby said as she picked up a pile of hot pink tools out of the entryway and hung it over the back of a chair. "I've tried to explain to my dads that gay men are supposed to be neat freaks, but they refuse to listen."

Her dads were in the dining room, lost in a sea of brightly coloured fabrics, sequins, lace, and feathers. One was sitting behind a sewing machine while the other was standing, pinning a sleeve to a gorgeous dress on a sewing mannequin. They both looked up and grinned when we walked in, their smiles as bright as the dress they were working on.

The one standing pulled a pin out of his mouth and said, "Honey, if we wanted to be stereotypes, we would have become hairdressers."

"Says the man wearing a teal boa." Abby laughed and, waving a hand at the man, said, "Stefan Euling, aka Dad. Dad, this is Val." Next, she gestured to the man at the sewing machine. "And that is Glen Euling. He also answers to Dad."

After saying hello, I watched Stefan work for a moment. The strand of feathers around his neck matched the sequins on the dress. "It's for the hem of the dress, right?" I asked. "You're making a ballroom dress?"

The man grinned at me as though he had never been prouder of anyone in his life. "Good eye!"

"My mother dated a professional salsa dancer once. I was never graceful enough for the sport, but I loved the dresses."

"They're the main costume designers for that reality TV show Celebrity Dance Off," Abby explained. "As you can see, they like to bring their work home with them."

"No way!" I squealed. "I love you guys! The dresses are the only reason I watch that show! Is that dress for one of the dancers? Is it for Aria? It looks like an Aria dress."

Abby rolled her eyes at me. "You've just made two new friends for life."

"It is for Aria," Stefan said. "You really are a fan, aren't you?" His eyes roamed over me from head to toe with a critical eye, and then he said, "Dress size 1-2, right?"

I looked down at my school uniform, a little startled that he'd guessed right. The outfit wasn't really form-fitting to begin with, and I'd untucked the shirt the minute I climbed in Abby's car. "To my dietician's dismay," I answered, nodding. "He's always trying to get me to gain more weight. How did you know?"

Glen laughed. "He always knows. The man has a gift for sizing people up. If the majority of our clientele weren't women, I'd be insanely jealous."

"A little jealousy is healthy for a man," Stefan teased. "Keeps you in line." Before Glen had the chance to argue, Stefan smiled at me and said, "Would you like to try the dress on? I need to make a few adjustments, and you're almost exactly Aria's size. You'd be the perfect stand-in."

A surge of excitement rushed through me at the thought of putting on the dress, but it was soon replaced with horror as I pictured myself in the sleeveless, backless gown.

"I promise not to poke you," Stefan urged.

"Oh, it's not that." I gulped and it felt as if I'd swallowed one of the pins he promised not to stick me with. "It's just, um, I was in a car accident and I...um..."

"Val, nobody here is going to care about your scars, I promise," Abby interrupted. She sounded firm but kind, and the look in her eyes said she wasn't going to let me say no.

"But it's such a beautiful dress. I'd just spoil the effect."

"Hogwash!" Glen looked up from his stitching with a disapproving frown. "You have the face of an angel. Those eyes are stunning. If anything, that dress doesn't deserve to wear you."

I blushed at the smile he flashed me.

"Val," Abby said softly, "true beauty comes from inside a person. If you feel beautiful, then you'll look beautiful to others no matter what's on the surface." She pointed at the dress hanging on the mannequin. "That dress would make anyone feel beautiful. Just try it on, please? For me? Because if you don't stand in for them, they're going to make me do it, and I have a much more important task to deal with right now."

"What task?" I asked, distracted from my panic attack.

She held up a handful of fabric scraps and something that looked suspiciously like a bejewelling gun, a wicked gleam in her eyes. "I'm going to give your cane a little cosmetic surgery."

Ten minutes later, I stepped out from behind a changing screen in a dress made for a queen. The skirt flowed to the floor, covering my legs, but my entire back, shoulder, and right arm were exposed. I cleared my throat to get everyone's attention, then held my breath and tried not to shake too much as they appraised me.

They all took in the sight of my scars, I couldn't blame them; it would have been impossible for anyone not to look, but none of them stared too long before moving their eyes to the rest of me.

Glen rose from his seat at the dining-slash-sewing table and came to stand in front of me with his arms folded across his chest. Stefan joined him, and the two of them began slowly circling me like a couple of lions stalking a gazelle.

"Oh, we are good," Glen finally said, breaking into a wide grin.

Glen twirled his finger as if he wanted me to turn around. I turned and came face to face with a full-length mirror. I gasped at what I saw in the reflection. Glen scooped my hair up and twisted it up on my head, pulling a few strands down around my face. "What did I tell you?" he asked. "An angel."

He was right. I looked amazing, and I wasn't even wearing any makeup. The dress, along with the way Glen and Stefan stood behind me, smiling almost reverently at the girl in the mirror, made me feel beautiful for the first time since my accident.

My eyes glistened and I turned around, grinning at Abby for all I was worth. "I love your dads."

"You won't be saying that hours from now when your feet are aching and you have to pee and can't because you're covered in pins," she teased, but the smile on her face betrayed how much she loved and was proud of her parents.

"Hours?" I asked as Stefan helped me up onto a stool.

Stefan waved us off as if we were being ridiculous. "A small price to pay for such a work of art," he said, shoving a handful of pins in his mouth.

He and Glen both got down on their knees at my feet. While Glen held out the bottom of the dress and pulled the material tight, Stefan unwrapped the strand of teal feathers from his neck and reached for a pin. He took particular care in finding just the right placement before carefully attaching the feathers to the hem of the dress. They were like a couple of surgeons operating on a patient. I really could be standing here for hours.

"You're not related to my physical therapist, are you?" I asked. "He likes to find unique ways to torture me, too."

That set all three of them into peals of laughter. Glen looked up at me with sparkling eyes and pointed at Stefan. "I wouldn't get him laughing like that, if I were you. He was lying about his ability to not poke you."

We all laughed again, but despite Glen's warning I felt no stabs of pain. After that, Stefan and Glen went to work on the dress while Vivian began hot-gluing pieces of fabric to the metal shaft of my cane. It was either going to look like a beautiful patchwork quilt or something out of a Tim Burton film. After a minute of comfortable silence, Abby said, "So, I sit next to Rob Loxley in seventh period..."

I blushed, recognizing the name as the guy Renata said had a crush on me. Abby didn't notice. Her concentration was solely focused on the project in front of her.

"Really nice guy," she said. "Cute, too. Quiet, though. He hasn't said much to me all year and then, suddenly, out of the blue, yesterday and today he became Mr. Chatty."

My face was really heating up now. "Hmm, weird."

Abby glanced up at me for a second, then went straight back to work cutting and gluing. "I tried to think what could possibly have happened in the last two days that he would suddenly take an interest in me, but nothing has changed. Nothing, except that I've become friends with you."

She finally stopped what she was doing and gave me a look that said we both knew what she meant. There was no point in denying it. "Renata said he likes me. She offered to give him my number. I told her I'd think about it."

"You'd think about it? Why?"

"I don't know."

"He's a decent guy, Val. He wouldn't care about the scars or the cane. Especially after I make it look so cute."

"Maybe, but that's not the only problem. I'm not in the best place mentally right now. I don't know that a relationship would be a good idea."

Abby frowned. "That sounds suspiciously like an excuse. Are you sure you're not just scared?"

"I'm terrified," I admitted.

Abby considered this and then shook her head. "Well, who says you'd have to get into a relationship? Maybe you could just be friends. You're the one who told me you're under doctor's orders to make more friends."

"Yeah. I guess. Maybe."

"You could invite him over here for a movie night this Friday along with some of the kids from your dance studio," Glen suggested. My face turned an even deeper scarlet as I realised he was trying to help play matchmaker. "It would force your father and me to have to finally clean up around here."

Abby jumped up as if she could snatch the idea out of the air and make it happen. "Ooh! I like it!" I wasn't sure if she was more excited at setting me up with Rob or the idea of her dads cleaning up a bit. "What do you think?" she asked me.

I was saved from having to give an immediate answer, even though I knew she would eventually get her way, because my phone rang.

"I'll get it!" Abby chirped, happily reaching for my backpack.

"That's okay; I'm sure it's just Jana. She can leave a message."

"Jana? That's the girl who's not your girlfriend, but texts you like a little girl experiencing her first crush?"

I laughed. It was a fair comparison. "I've recommended she seek help for her phone addiction many times, but she never listens to me about anything."

"Well, we can't let her go to voicemail, then, because she'll just keep calling back until you answer."

"Abby!" I warned, but she'd already scooped up my phone.

"Relax. I'll put it on speaker. You can cut me off at any time." She answered the phone, doing her best imitation of a perky secretary. "Thank you for calling Valentina's phone. I'm afraid the priestess is currently busy lending her body to a couple of ruggedly handsome men right now and is unable to take your call. Would you care to leave a message with her ever-so-helpful assistant slash best friend?"

I choked back a laugh, but Jana didn't miss a beat. "Great voice inflection and enunciation, but there were two things very wrong with that little speech. First of all, I am Valentina's best friend. Me. Not you, whoever you are. Me, me, me."

Abby glanced up at me with a questioning look, amused at the hint of the temper tantrum in Jana's voice. I rolled my eyes, but I was grinning like an idiot.

"And seeing as how I am Jana, ass kicking princess of the Realm," Jana continued on like a dork, "it is my right to discipline anyone who tries to steal her from me. I warn you now, the punishment for such a heinous crime is death by flesh-eating worms."

I cracked up, but Jana didn't hear me because Abby barked out a louder laugh. "Flesh-eating worms?"

Jana remained one hundred percent serious. "Hell yes, flesh-eating worms. It's a very slow, painful, and grotesque way to die. Highly undignified. I wouldn't recommend it. If I were you, I would just stick with the assistant title, and maybe, if you prove to be worthy, you can be Valentina's second best friend." She paused a second, then added, "Distant second."

Abby laughed again. "Gee, thanks. Are you finished?"

"Not even close. There's still the issue of the two soon-to-be-dead men you mentioned manhandling my woman."

Abby's eyebrows shot up and her smile turned wicked. "What's the matter, Princess Jana? Are you jealous?"

"Of course, I am. Princesses don't share. But besides that, whoever they are, they aren't good enough for Val."

"How do you know?" I called out, unable to hold back any longer.

"Ah, there's my girl."

Jana's voice warmed in a way that had Abby turning on me with wide eyes. I tried my best not to blush, but I knew I'd be having a long conversation with her as soon as this phone call ended.

"How do you know they aren't good enough for me?" I demanded again, just to get Abby's attention off of me.

"Because no one is worthy of you, Val. Man or woman, plus all men are dogs. Absolutely no sharing your body with anyone. Ever. I forbid it. Well, except for Juliana Valdés. You have my permission to let her ravish you in the most unimaginable ways."

Abby gave me a strange look, and even Glen and Stefan were blinking up at me after that brilliant comment. All I could do was laugh and shake my head in shame. "Your crush on Hollywood's Golden Girl is disturbing, Jana. It really is."

"You know you'd like it. Admit it."

"I know you would."

"I think I would too," Abby offered.

"She's very pretty!" Glen called out, winking over at Stefan.

"Very pretty," Stefan added, and we all burst into laughter.

Oddly, Jana didn't seem to appreciate the Juliana Valdés lovefest. "Wait a minute. Who was that?" she demanded. "Are there really guys manhandling you right now?"

"Of course not." I laughed. Then, because I simply couldn't resist, I added, "They're being very gentle. Stefan hasn't even poked me yet."

"Valentina!"

Her horror was so genuine that I doubled over laughing until I had both Stefan and Glen yelling at me to hold still. "I'm sorry!" I called out, still lost in giggles. "I'll stop teasing. You know you're the only person in my life."

"As I should be."

"Actually, that's not entirely true," Abby said. The sudden thoughtfulness in her voice made me nervous. "You say you're her best friend, right?"

"I am," Jana promised vehemently.

"Then maybe you can help me convince her to go on a date with this guy from our school. He's really sweet and he's crushing on her pretty hard, but she's too scared to give him a chance."

I felt the blood drain from my face. I didn't want to hear her answer. It would kill me when she declared she was happy for me and encouraged me to go for it. Which was what I was sure she would do. And, of course, she did. Sort of. I think.

"Val..." Her voice softened in that way it does sometimes, as if she would be holding me tight in her arms right then if it were at all in her power to do so. "What could you possibly have to be afraid of? Any guy would have to be out of his mind not to fall head over heels for you."

Stefan sighed and Glen placed his hand over his heart. Abby practically melted in her chair. Me? I did the most embarrassing thing ever, I cried. Not like noticeable sobs or anything, but my eyes misted over enough that Abby brought me a tissue.

"You know, it doesn't have to be Rob she goes out with," Abby said into the phone. My gut just about exploded from stress when I realised what she was about to do, but before I could stop her, she said, "Val and I are having a movie night at my house this Friday. You could come in Rob's place."

My heart stopped. How did I not see that coming from the second Abby answered the phone? How could I let it happen?

Jana had never asked to meet in person. Not once. She'd never even hinted that she'd like to. The only time the topic ever came up was when she found out I moved to LA, and then she said how much she liked that we'd never met.

I know I said I didn't want to meet her, either, but of course I did. I loved her so much. I wished everyday that we would meet in person someday and fall madly in love. I was just afraid she wouldn't want me because my body was broken and scarred. That, or she'd start treating me the way my dad and Lucia do: as if I were broken and not just my body.

If Jana ever started treating me as if I were made of glass, it would kill me. But then, Abby didn't walk on eggshells around me, and if this Rob guy could have a crush on me the way I am, then maybe Jana could, too. Granted, I wasn't one of Jana's supermodels, but she cared about me. That had to count for something. Maybe this was a good thing. Maybe Abby was giving us the push we both needed.

I held my breath as I waited for Jana's answer. She didn't say anything for so long that Abby checked the phone to make sure she hadn't dropped the call. "Hello?"

"I can't."

I shut my eyes to keep tears from sliding down my cheeks. She didn't want to meet me. Deep down, I'd already known it. We'd tiptoed around the subject before, but neither of us had come out and said it outright. I'd told myself she was just nervous like me and that we'd get there eventually, but her "I can't" sounded so final. I was sure she heard the quiver in my voice when I finally responded. "It's okay."

"I have to go out with the shrew on Friday," she explained, almost as an afterthought. "We're having dinner with her dad and some other people. I can't get out of it."

Abby, trying to be helpful but completely missing what was really going on, said, "So we'll do Saturday instead. Are you busy then?"

"I..." Jana's voice broke off and she let out a frustrated breath. "Shit! Val... I... I can't."

She sounded downright tortured, and I was suddenly terrified. "It's okay," I said quickly. I didn't want this to make things awkward between us forever. "Don't worry about it. I totally get it."

"I'm sorry."

"It's okay."

A heavy silence settled on the room. Abby and her dads didn't dare move. They had no idea what was happening, but they knew enough to wait it out in silence. Jana was the first to speak. She cleared her throat and asked, "Is it okay if we read tonight?"

She sounded strange. Hesitant. It was a far cry from her usual confident self.

Even though I knew the answer, it took me a minute to say yes. I was far more upset than I wanted her to know. My heart was breaking, but I knew I'd never be able to give her up even if it was going to hurt every time I spoke to her from now on. "Of course."

She let out a breath of relief. "I found a new book that I think we'll like. That's why I called. I thought we could give it a try together."

"Sounds like fun."

"Good. Call me later?" She still sounded unsure.

"Wouldn't miss it."

I gestured for Abby to hang up before my voice cracked. As soon as the phone was off, Abby looked up at me in a panic. "I screwed up. I don't know how, but I know it was bad."

"It's a long story."

My body sagged so drastically that Stefan had to jump up and steady me. He helped me off the stool, declaring my work done for the day. Abby offered to take me home after that. All of them could see that my conversation with Jana and her official rejection, had exhausted me.

 

Chapter Text

When I got home it was only a little after four, so I was surprised to hear my dad's jovial voice coming from the kitchen. "That is not funny!" he declared, but he was laughing as he said it.

In response, I heard both Eva and Renata cry with laughter. The mood was light and cheerful. At first it made me smile, as it would anyone, because good moods are generally contagious, but the smile quickly faded as I realised I had not heard any of them sound so natural since I arrived. They were enjoying themselves like a happy family would. It was obviously a familiar tone for them, too, playfully teasing each other and enjoying one another's presence. It was like that now because I hadn't been there. Renata was right. I was ruining their family.

I stood frozen in the doorway, unable to walk into kitchen and make my presence known. I didn't want to be the thorn in everyone's side, didn't want to be the mood crusher. I didn't want to ruin this family. Eva aside, they weren't bad people. They deserved to be happy. The second they realised I was home, all the playfulness would stop. That thick, heavy blanket of awkwardness would return and settle over us all again like the inevitable, inescapable fate that it was.

I decided not to go in. I didn't have anywhere to go, but I figured I could at least do my homework on the front porch or something for a while and give them a little bit of a break from me. They obviously needed it.

Before I could make my escape, Lucia came around the corner and spotted me. Her eyes flashed, and it took her a second too long to put a smile on her face. "Back from your friend's house already?"

"Something came up."

"Everything all right?"

"Yeah, it's fine."

She hesitated but didn't ask anything else.

"I can leave again if you want me to."

Lucia flinched when my words registered. "What?"

I pointed a thumb over my shoulder at the front door. "If you want me to stay away for a while, give you guys some time, I can do my homework on the porch or something."

She actually looked conflicted for a moment before shaking her head. "Why would you say something so ridiculous?"

She sighed when I raised an eyebrow at her, calling her out. "I'm sorry, Valentina. It's not you. I just hate to see Eva having such a hard time. She's been a different girl since you got here."

Lucia sounded as if she was asking for my sympathy, but Eva was being a baby. Everyone in the house was struggling with this arrangement. Eva needed to suck it up just like the rest of us were doing. "I don't try to antagonise her."

Lucia let out a breath and sat down on the bench by the front door. She surprised me when she patted the space next to her. Warily, I sat down beside her and waited for her to speak. "My ex was not a nice man. He was abusive to the girls and me. I met Leon when he was doing some pro-bono work in Boston for a battered women's shelter where I was living with the girls, hiding, actually, from their father."

This news was startling. All these years I never had a clue how my dad met Lucia. The way my mother talked about her, I always figured she was a waitress at Hooters or something.

But the story did sound very much like my dad. He was always trying to be the hero, always saving someone. He was so smart and got the best grades at one of the top law schools in the country. He could have been an amazing, highly paid corporate lawyer, but he always wanted to help people. He was a public defender before he got his job as a state-appointed district attorney. Hearing Lucia's story, I could finally see why they were together. He was her heroic knight in shining armour, and she was his beautiful damsel in distress.

Dad was a modern-day Hercules, and it only made his abandonment hurt that much more. I had always wondered how such a hero, who spent so much time helping others, could be the villain of my story. How could a man like that just walk away, leaving Mom and me on our own?

"Leon swooped into our lives like a guardian angel," Lucia said, pulling me from my thoughts. "He saved us, and we all fell in love with him. Eva, especially, has really grown close to him. She's always been daddy's little girl. I think she's afraid you're going to take her dad away from her."

"I don't think she has to worry about that," I muttered, pulling myself to my feet. I didn't want to hear any more of this. It was salt in my wounds. He had chosen to play the hero and be the best dad in the whole world. He had just chosen to do it for someone else's family. I had to swallow back a sick feeling in my stomach.

Lucia rose with me and set a hand on my arm. "No, she doesn't," she agreed. "Leon has room in his heart for you both, but Eva doesn't know that yet."

I doubted it, too.

"I'm sorry she's been mean to you, Val, and we're putting a stop to that, but could you at least try to be nice to her, or talk to her sometimes?"

That made me angry and I pulled myself out of her grip. "I may defend myself when she forces me to, but I'm never just mean to her."

"You're never friendly, either." I froze, shocked by the directness. Lucia's face softened into something desperate. "I know she doesn't deserve it, but one of you girls is going to have to be the bigger person and be kind first. I hate to admit it, but from what I've seen of you, you're the stronger one in that respect." She gave me a watery smile that was equally sad and proud, and possibly even a little jealous. "You're just like your father that way."

I had no idea what to say to that. I didn't even know how I felt about it. Did I like being compared to my father, or complimented by Lucia, even if the compliments were given with a grain of grudging salt?

I sat back down again. This entire conversation blindsided me and I needed a minute to recover. I think Lucia could see that because she patted my shoulder and went to join her family after saying, "When you're ready, everyone's in the kitchen trying to decide our dinner plans. Special night tonight, so we're celebrating. You'd better not wait too long if you'd like to have any say in the matter."

My heart sank. After that conversation, and what happened with Jana earlier, I didn't think I had it in me to make it through another family dinner debacle like the last one. I was trying to figure out if the cramps excuse would work in this house when I reached the kitchen.

As expected, the girls' faces both fell and the laughter stopped immediately. My dad looked surprised but seeing me didn't kill his mood. His voice stayed chipper, his eyes bright. "You're home early."

"So are you."

"Court adjourned. I decided to take the rest of the day off to celebrate."

"I take it your case ended well?"

My dad puffed out his chest, and his grin broke out into a wide smile. "We nailed the bastard."

I managed a smile for him. It was small, but at least it was sincere. "I'm glad."

My dad had been on this particular case since before my accident, and his team had struggled, thanks to my dad having to spend so much time in Boston with me. I was really relieved he'd won his case, and not just because he'd been prosecuting a man accused of kidnapping and killing three girls.

"So, sweetheart, we're going to dinner to celebrate, and we're having some trouble agreeing."

"Providence!" Renata insisted.

"No," Eva groaned. I think it was the first time I'd ever agreed with her on anything. "We did sushi last time."

"How about Italian?" Dad suggested.

"No!" Renata cried, horrified. "Nowhere with breadsticks and white cream sauce the day before a photoshoot! You will kill me!"

My dad's snicker made me think he'd only suggested Renata's biggest food weakness just to rile her up.

"I want Mexican," Eva said. "We never get to eat Mexican."

"That's because there aren't any decent Mexican places around here," Renata argued.

"Gloria's," Eva replied, as if everything was settled.

"I said around here. Gloria's is in Culver City. It would take us two hours to get there this time of day."

"Mexican does sound good," Dad chimed in, rubbing his belly. He smiled at me in a conspiratorial kind of way. "Though no restaurant will ever compare to your mother's cooking."

My blood froze in my veins at the mention of my mother. Dad didn't seem to notice that he'd given me a heart attack. He was smiling at Eva and Renata. "Valentina's mom was the most amazing cook in the world. If there was one thing I missed after we split, it was Elena's green chili enchiladas."

He may as well have shoved a butcher knife into my heart. Actually, that probably would have hurt less and healed faster. I sucked in a painful breath right about the same time Eva laughed and said, "Oh, burn!"

"Dad!" Renata hissed.

It took him a minute to understand. I watched him go back over the conversation in his head, and then all the blood drained from his face. "Oh, no! Honey, no! That came out wrong. Of course, I missed you, too."

That had to be a lie. He couldn't have thought of me all those years, because even now, with me standing right here, I'd still been nothing but an afterthought. Renata had to spell it out for him.

I was about to run for my room, Dr Parish's rules be damned, but when I whirled around my eyes locked with Renata's and I couldn't leave. Renata wasn't making any kind of mean face, if anything, she felt bad for me, but just seeing her made me remember what she had said. I couldn't run away.

After a deep breath, I turned back around and forced myself to speak. I couldn't say it was all right or that I was fine, because anyone would have heard the lies in my voice, so I chose to completely change the subject. "Would you like me to make enchiladas for you?"

The Easter Bunny could have come down the chimney armed with machine guns and opened fire on the house, and everyone would have been less surprised. Dad tugged at his ear as if it were playing tricks on him. "What?"

"I used to really enjoy cooking," I explained awkwardly. "Mama taught me how to make her enchiladas suizas when I was twelve. If you'd like to have them for dinner, I can make them."

The entire family was still so shocked that I felt stupid for making the offer. My face heated up from embarrassment and I quickly tried to backtrack. "I mean, if you guys want to go out for dinner, it's fine. Do whatever you want. We probably don't have everything we need to make them, anyway. I'm going to go change."

My retreat set my dad and Lucia into motion again. "I can go to the store and pick up whatever you need," Lucia blurted the second I moved to leave. Her whole body was shaking, as if she were having a hard time containing her excitement. "There is a supermarket right down the hill."

I glanced at my dad, waiting for him to make the decision. He bit his lip and hesitated a second, but then quietly asked, "You would really make your mother's enchiladas for us?"

I nodded, but then looked down at my right hand and shrugged. "I mean, one of you would have to do most of the cooking, I won't be able to do much chopping or anything, but I can walk you through it."

My dad started to smile, then pulled back his emotions into a neutral mask. Maybe he was afraid to make a big deal out of this and have me change my mind. "I'd like that," he said, swallowing really hard. "I'd really like that a lot."

Twenty minutes later, my dad and I were standing in the kitchen wearing matching pink and white polka-dotted aprons. Dad had pulled all the different ingredients out of the grocery bags and spread them out on the countertop as if we were starring in our own show for the Food Network. He was holding up a soup spoon and a dessert spoon from the utensil drawer with a giant frown on his face when Lucia held up her phone and said, "Smile!"

Dad stepped next to me, puffed out his apron-clad chest, and grinned proudly. I smiled too, but probably looked really nervous because this was the first picture, we'd taken together in over nine years. I was surprised after Lucia snapped the shot how badly I wanted a copy of it. I felt too shy to ask her to text it to me though, but I hoped she might do it without me saying anything.

The second we were done posing, my dad went right back to staring at his spoons. "How do you know which one of these is a teaspoon?"

I shot Lucia a look and she laughed. "No. I'm afraid he's not kidding."

"The key to good enchiladas suizas," I said, taking the spoons from my father and placing an onion and knife in his hands instead, "is getting the sauce just right. It's a delicate balance of cream and kick, which is why I will be measuring the ingredients, and you will do the chopping. If I remember correctly, the only thing you ever cooked was Froot Loops."

Dad resigned himself to his place at the chopping board and sighed. "Yes, but you have to admit I had that dish mastered."

"He still does." Renata plopped onto a barstool and watched the scene in the kitchen with no small amount of curiosity. She smirked at my dad. "He just has to hide the evidence from Mom. She doesn't allow 'sugar' cereal in the house, so he stashed his Froot Loops and Lucky Charms in the cupboard above the dryer in the laundry room and only eats them when she's gone."

"What?" Dad gasped. "I do not! How did you know about that?"

Renata and I met each other's eyes and both burst out laughing. Lucia kissed the pout on my father's face. "We all know about that, honey," she teased, joining Renata and me in our laughing fits. Soon, Dad was laughing, too. He laughed so hard the tears running down his cheeks might have been from crying and not just the onion he was chopping.

The mood stayed light as we continued to cook, and eventually Renata asked what she could do to help. She freaked at the idea of cooking the chicken or frying up the tortillas, apparently as wary of the stove as my dad, so I put her to work grating the cheese.

Lucia sat at the counter the whole time, but refused to lift a finger, something about having too many cooks in the kitchen. She was clearly enjoying having someone else do the cooking for once, though she eyed the butter, heavy cream, and cheese with a trepidation that made me laugh.

Dinner turned out to be a success. The food was great and the atmosphere was the lightest it had ever been since I had come to the Miller house. Even Eva ate her dinner without slinging a single insult in my direction.

My father scraped the last bite of his plate, then leaned back in his chair and groaned. "Valentina, you are amazing. I think those were even better than your mother's."

Something inside me warmed at the first genuine compliment I had received from my dad. Still, I had to shake my head. "Not even close. But Abuela showed me the secret to her sopaipillas before she died, and those I did manage to cook better than Mama. Maybe this Christmas we could..." My voice trailed off as I was hit with a crippling pang of grief. I brought my napkin, an actual cloth one, up to my eyes and muttered an awkward apology.

"What's wrong with her?" Eva muttered.

Renata tried to deflect Eva's question by asking, "What's a sopaipilla?"

Dad jumped on the life raft Renata threw him. "The way her mother used to make them, they were like deep-fried pumpkin doughnuts dipped in maple syrup. They were delicious. We used to have them for breakfast every Christmas morning with hot chocolate. Val was always more excited about the sopaipillas than she was about her presents."

"It was tradition," I whispered, falling into a lifetime of memories. "Last year was the first Christmas I didn't have them."

"Well, you'll just have to eat twice as many this Christmas to make up for it," Dad said.

My head snapped up and I felt ridiculous when my eyes pooled with tears. "Really? We could make them on Christmas? That would be okay?"

"Of course."

"Yeah, that definitely sounds like a tradition I could get behind," Renata said. "Usually all we eat for breakfast on Christmas morning is whatever chocolate we find in our stockings."

The mood was saved, but still seemed fragile somehow. It probably had something to do with the way Eva was glowering into her lap. We all noticed, and were trying our best to ignore her, hoping she wouldn't explode.

Dad tried to move the conversation along. "Abuela really told you the secret?"

I grinned. "You have to use unrefined sugar instead of regular brown sugar. It's hard to find, but makes all the difference in the world. I never did tell Mama what it was. Abuela made me pinkie swear. It was our secret. Drove Mama crazy."

Dad laughed, and I smiled, too. It was so surreal to be sitting here reminiscing with him about my mother. When she died, I felt as if I couldn't talk about her because I had no one to talk about her with. There was no one else in my life that knew her. But Dad had been married to her for over eight years. It'd been so long that I hardly ever made the mental connection that he was the man from my childhood memories.

"Abuela...," Renata said, pulling me from my daydream. "That means grandma, right? She's your mom's mom?"

I nodded.

"Does she live in Boston?"

I released a heavy breath. "She died when I was fourteen. Granpa died when I was eleven and Mom was an only child, so it was just the two of us after Abuela passed. I didn't have any other family."

"Yes, you did," Eva snapped. "You had a dad."

My dad had been reaching for his glass and missed, spilling wine all over the tablecloth. Eva was too busy glaring at me to notice. "You're not an orphan, Val."

"I never said I was," I mumbled.

The good mood was officially gone. There would be no salvaging it. The only question was exactly how bad was the coming train wreck going to be? You never knew with Eva.

"How come you never told us about her?" Eva asked Dad suddenly. "We didn't even know she existed until the police called after her accident."

I hadn't known that. I looked up for some kind of confirmation of this. My dad wouldn't meet my eyes, so I glanced at Renata. Her grimace said all I needed to know. Eva was telling the truth. He never told them he had a daughter. I really had been nothing to him.

I didn't realise I was crying until I sniffled, and suddenly everyone's eyes were on me. "I knew about you," Lucia whispered quietly. "He used to tell me stories about you when we first started dating."

"Did he tell you he was still married when you started dating?" I asked the question sincerely. Not because I wanted to hurt anyone's feelings, and not because I wanted to throw their mistakes in their faces, but because I needed to know.

Lucia must have seen the desperation in my face, because she shut her eyes and nodded. "Yes."

"How come you never told us about her?" Eva demanded again. "If you loved her so much and have all these fun memories of her, you'd think you would have mentioned her every now and then, or kept a picture of her around here somewhere."

My dad couldn't come up with an answer to this, so Eva turned her anger on me. "Why didn't you ever call or send him your school pictures or anything?"

"Eva," Dad pleaded.

His plea didn't matter. Not to Eva, and not to me. I didn't need him to fight my battles for me. I was so sick and tired of Eva twisting the knife in a wound that was painful enough without her help. I sat up as straight as my body would allow, squared my shoulders, and looked her in the eyes.

"I sent pictures, drawings, cards, and letters telling him how much I loved him and missed him and begged him to visit me for years. He was the one who never wrote me back or called. For the first few years all I got was the random birthday card or Christmas card, but even those stopped coming after a while, so I gave up. There's only so much rejection a girl can handle before her pride takes over."

Eva glared at me, but didn't have a snarky reply. It was my dad who broke the silence. "I'm so sorry, baby."

His voice was barely audible. I pretended not to hear it and glanced at Lucia. "May I please be excused?"

Tears spilled from Lucia's eyes and rolled down her pale cheeks when she nodded.

The last thing I heard before I escaped to my room was Renata shouting, "Are you happy now, Eva? You ruined everything!" and then stomping upstairs.

 

Chapter Text

I broke Dr Parish's rule and retreated to my bedroom to hide. There were several knocks on my door that night but when I didn't answer them, people took the hint and left me alone. Jana was apparently denser than my stepfamily. She called, and when I didn't answer, she called again. And then again. Then she got online and made my computer start beeping at me with instant messages while my phone continued to ring.

ValTheRealHero: Sorry, Jana. I'm not in the mood to read tonight.

Jana458: We don't have to read. We can just talk. Call me?

ValTheRealHero: I can't. Not tonight.

Jana458: Is this because of earlier?

I stared at the screen with my fingers poised over the keys to type a response, but I had no idea what to say. I was in no place to deal with Jana at the moment. This day had completely wrecked me. I'd taken a huge step in trying to be part of my dad's family tonight. I had offered up a piece of myself to them, and in turn it opened the lid on all the memories I'd been suppressing for years.

For a while, it had worked. For a few minutes I had my dad back, the dad I remembered from my past. Eva's question had taken him away again. She'd opened up those old wounds while I was in the middle of reliving the happy memories, it hurt like a fresh cut. Normally I would let Jana cheer me up, but I didn't even have her tonight. She had rejected me this afternoon too, just like my dad had all those years ago.

Jana458: Val?

Jana458: I'm so sorry.

Jana458: Val, please talk to me. Let me explain.

ValTheRealHero: You don't need to explain yourself. I'm the one who should apologise. I'm sorry Abby put you on the spot like that. I only met her a couple of days ago. We hadn't had the 'Jana' conversation yet. She didn't know what she was doing when she asked you to come Friday. If I'd known she was going to do it, I would have stopped her. I'm sorry.

Jana458: You have nothing to be sorry for. It's me, Val, not you. I know how that sounds, but it's true. You know how much I care about you, right? You have no idea how much I wanted to accept your friend's invite. I just...

My phone rang again, but I didn't pick it up. I didn't want her to hear me cry.

Jana458: Can we please not do this over the Internet?

ValTheRealHero: Do what?

Jana458: Have this talk.

ValTheRealHero: We don't have to talk about anything. I understand. It's okay.

She called me again, and I ignored it again.

Jana458: No, you don't understand. It's not that I don't want to meet you; I just can't. My life is really complicated. I don't want you to get hurt because of it.

ValTheRealHero: Are you saying that because you have a 'sort of'  girlfriend who you hate, but can't dump?

Jana458: That's a big part of it.

ValTheRealHero: But Jana, I don't care about that. Well, I mean of course I care, and I want you to break up with her because she makes you miserable and you deserve better, and I want you to be happy. But I don't mind that you have a girlfriend. That wouldn't hurt me. I'm not asking to date you. I just think it might be nice to finally meet my best friend.

Jana458: But that's just it. You're my best friend too, and if we met everything would change. It could ruin our relationship. I'm not ready to take that chance. My life is too crazy right now, and I need you too much. I need our friendship. You are the most important thing to me right now. The one thing that keeps me grounded. I can't lose you.

ValTheRealHero: You're not going to lose me. Things would change between us a little, I'm sure, but it would only make us better friends. There's no way it could ruin our friendship. Nothing could do that.

Jana458: I know you think that, but you don't understand. You're so sweet, Val. You are still so young and naïve, and my lifestyle is so different from yours. You couldn't handle it.

This was a really bad time to have this conversation. I was already emotional thanks to Eva, and Jana could be so infuriating. I lost my temper and dialled her number. She picked up almost instantly and sounded relieved. "Hey!"

"You're kidding me with this, right? You know how arrogant that makes you sound, don't you? You're what, twenty? Twenty-one?"

Okay, she'd sounded relieved until he realised I only called to yell at her. "It's not arrogance. It's just reality. And FYI, I'm twenty-two."

"Oh, twenty-two, excuse me. You're so old and wise. Those three-and-a-half years or whatever you have on me must be vital ones if I'm still so young and naïve compared to you."

"I didn't mean that as an insult," she said with a tired sigh. "You're not immature, hell, you're way more mature than I am by far, but you're so innocent in some ways. You'd be like a goldfish in a shark tank in my world. You'd get eaten alive. People like my own damn girlfriend would rip you to shreds. I can barely handle the bitch, and I'm a master at the game."

"Screw you, Jana! I'm not some kind of baby. I've been through more than you can possibly imagine and I've survived so far."

I was up now, barefoot and pacing my bedroom. It was making my toes hurt, so I braved the risk of earthquakes and stepped out onto my deck. I leaned against the railing, taking the majority of the weight off my feet, hoping the view and crisp air would calm me down.

The line was silent for a long time and then Jana quietly said, "That's different, Val. I know you've been through a lot. And you're right, I have no idea what that must have been like for you. I'm sure you're tougher than most people in some ways, but trust me, if I sucked you into my bullshit, it would crush you. And if we met in person, you would get sucked in. It would be unavoidable."

"Thanks for the faith, idiot."

Jana sighed again. "I'm sorry. I know you are frustrated. I know I sound like an asshole, but I swear to you if there were any way I could make it work, I would. My life is too insane and I don't really have any control over it. You would get hurt, and you would end up hating me for it. Will you please just trust me on this? Can't you let what we have right now be enough? Please?"

Ugh. She sounded genuinely desperate. There was no way I'd be able to say no to her, but I couldn't just give in and let her have her way, either. "Fine. Whatever. I have to go."

I hung up on her.

She called me back.

I turned off my phone.

By the time I went back inside and climbed into bed, Jana was back on instant messenger.

Jana458: Come on, Val. Don't be like that.

Jana458: I'm not trying to be a jerk.

Jana458: Hello???

Jana458: Val!

Jana458: Stop ignoring me, woman!!!

I should have signed off and put my laptop away. Instead, I responded.

ValTheRealHero: I'm sorry, but I am just so pissed at you right now.

Jana458: I know, and I'm sorry. I understand if you need some time. Just don't stay mad forever, okay? I'll miss you too much. I need you, Valentina. I need this friendship.

I read her message and pulled my pillow over my face so I could scream into it.

ValTheRealHero: Ugh! I hate how you do that!

Jana458: Do what?

ValTheRealHero: Make me love you even when I'm so mad at you!!!!!

Jana458: I love you too, Val. More than anyone in the whole world. I'm sorry you're mad at me.

ValTheRealHero: I'm sure I'll get over it. Eventually.

Jana458: I know. That's why I'm not worried. Go have your girly freak-out and call me when you love me again.

ValTheRealHero: I hate you.

Jana458: No, you don't. Goodnight, Val.

ValTheRealHero: Goodnight, Jana.

. . . . .

I was devastated that Jana didn't want to meet, but in a way, I was also relieved after our talk. For one thing, I no longer had to stress about the 'what ifs'. It was nice to understand what she was thinking, why she'd never asked to meet.

Her reasoning was stupid, but at least she wasn't rejecting me. Not really. She was afraid of losing me. Which, if you thought about it, was actually really sweet. It also happened to be exactly why I was scared of meeting her all this time. For me to not understand her hesitation would make me the biggest hypocrite in the world.

The other thing my conversation with Jana did was free me from that small hope that someday we would have a happily ever after. I told myself all the time that Jana and I would never be anything more than friends. I reminded myself every time I spoke to her that she dated other girls all the time. But of course, like any normal girl in my position would do, I hoped that she secretly loved me and held my breath waiting for the day she would finally admit it. Now I could stop waiting and start trying to get over her. At least, that's what I told myself I would do when I finally met Rob Loxley after school the next day.

Abby came home with me after school because she'd never had a friend who'd lived up in the hills before, and she wanted to see the house. She flipped when I showed her the remote-control windows.

"Ridiculous, right? The view is pretty amazing, though."

"Whoa!" Abby barged out onto my patio and spun around. "Is this for real?"

I laughed at her reaction. I couldn't blame her. My private balcony was big and had a view all the way to the ocean. It wasn't as large as the deck off the family room where the fire pit and the hot tub sat on the side of the cliff, but there was room for a round patio table with four chairs and a hammock.

"This is awesome! I'd live out here all the time."

"I don't go out there much," I admitted, laughing. "With my luck, we'd have an earthquake and I'd plummet down the cliff and live through it."

Abby frowned at me as she plopped her bag down on the small patio table. "Criminal."

She lifted her face to the sun and sucked in a deep breath. The sight made me smile. If there was one thing I loved about Southern California, it was the weather. It may have been November, but it was still seventy degrees outside. It would be strange to have Christmas without snow, but I had no doubt I'd get used to it quickly and without complaint.

"Get your butt out here, Val."

I sat down in the seat across from her, but I left the French doors hanging wide open so that I could dive for safety at the first sign of any trembling. We'd just pulled our homework out when Renata barged into my room and threw herself into the hammock. "What's up?" she snapped, glaring with all her might into the house toward my open bedroom door.

Abby and I followed her gaze. We couldn't see anything, but we could hear the laughs of several different people in the kitchen. As was quite common, a handful of the twins' groupies had followed them home today. Eva's grating voice stood out above the others. I couldn't understand what she was saying, but the anger in her tone was unmistakable.

"Did you just get us involved in some kind of sibling war that will no doubt eat us alive as collateral damage?" Abby asked Renata.

Renata huffed. "I don't care. I am not hanging out with her while she's being such a jerk. She's pissed at me because she got chewed out after what happened at dinner last night. As if any of that was my fault!"

"Well," I said, turning back to my trig homework, "you are welcome to stay, so long as we don't have to listen to any of the drama."

Renata glanced at me, surprised, and I managed a smile. "Abby and I were just discussing the possibility of a  marathon this Friday night at her place. That new comedy came out on DVD last week, and the V is for Virgin movie is on Netflix now. I haven't seen it, but it's supposed to be fun."

"I'm in," Renata said without hesitation just as Dylan Traxler, Renata's latest fling, became our next surprise visitor.

Dylan was gorgeous and popular, but he didn't bat a single eyelash at whom Renata had chosen to hang out with. He saw the empty space on the hammock next to her and landed like a fly on sticky paper. "What are we in for?" he asked as he laid back and pulled Renata with him.

"Movie night at Abby's this Friday." She glanced at Abby for approval. "Or is this a girls-only thing?"

"Co-ed is fine," Abby answered, doing a decent job of masking her shock. "But small. My place is tiny."

"Cool," Dylan said. I took that to mean he was 'in' too.

Other than a shared glance, Abby and I managed to act as if we had chill parties involving popular people all the time. Before either of us had to figure out what to say next, Dylan's friend Luke moseyed into my room.

"Switchin' it up, huh, Ren?" he asked, joining us on the patio. "Personally, I was hoping for a Miller twins catfight, but I'll settle for a little love from the elusive stepsister."

He pulled out the chair to my right and straddled it. Grinning, he nodded at me in an extremely bro-dog kind of way. "Sup, Val? Word on the street is you are secretly a pretty cool chick. What's up with the loner status?"

I decided to forget the fact that Luke used to tease me about my limp when I first got to school. "Well, you know, having a fan club is kind of a hassle so..."

Luke laughed, and then his eyes caught sight of something in the house behind me and he lifted his hand. "Yo, Rob! Party's out here today, bro."

I had just enough time to share another look with Abby, who seemed every bit as bewildered by our hijacked study time as I was, before Rob Loxley walked out onto my patio, one hand in his pocket and the other holding an energy drink.

I didn't quite know what to make of Rob. He was no earth-shattering hottie like the guys Renata and Eva dated, but he was decent looking. He was a little short for a guy, only a couple inches taller than my five six. But since I'd never wear high heels again, I didn't see his height as a problem. He had really short brown hair, green eyes, and a clear complexion. He was still in his school uniform, but he'd loosened his tie and untucked his shirt. It looked good. He wore casual as if he'd invented the concept.

I'd heard him described as both quiet and nice, but there was something about him that suggested those two things didn't equate to shy. Maybe it was the nose that sat a little crooked on his face as if he'd broken it once, or the arms so lean his veins stuck out. The guy was little, but I bet he was ripped beneath his shirt. Scrappy seemed an accurate description. He also had an air of confidence that couldn't be faked. He was comfortable with himself. Quiet and nice, he might be, but he was very intimidating at the same time.

Rob sat down next to me and then went to work sipping on his energy drink. He let his eyes drift over the balcony railing to the city below us, clearly enjoying the view. He didn't speak, and it left me flustered. I had no idea what to do or say. When I looked to Abby for help, Luke laughed. "My homeboy Rob is a man of few words, but the dude is seriously awesome. He's a superstar soccer player. Captain of our school's team, and he's being recruited by a ton of colleges."

Rob rolled his eyes at Luke's bragging, but the corners of his lips twitched as he fought back a smile. He was modest but still loved the attention. I liked that.

"So, what's up, Val?" Luke continued when neither Rob nor I said anything. "Are you dating anyone? Ren said she thought there might be someone."

I couldn't be sure, because I was too busy blushing, but I think Rob kicked Luke under the table.

"There's no guy." I didn't know if I was more embarrassed by the question, the answer to it, or the fact that my face was on fire and everyone could see it.

"What about Jana?" Renata asked suddenly.

I didn't think she was paying any attention to our conversation, but her eyes were on me now, along with everyone else's. Thank you so much, Renata. If it had been Eva that asked, I'd have known she brought Jana up to torture me, but Renata looked honestly confused. Rumour had already spread that I was bisexual but talking about her in front of this lot was difficult.

"Jana is just a friend," I mumbled. "We've never even met in person. She's just someone who knows me from my blog."

Abby, like an awesome friend, tried to get the attention away from me. "We're having a movie night at my place Friday night, Luke." I met her sympathetic smile with a grateful look. She winked at me and then smiled at Luke. "Nothing special, just a handful of people, some snacks, and the latest Juliana Valdés movie. But if you and Rob want to come?..."

Now it was my turn to kick my friend under the table. I tried to take back my grateful look by glaring at her, and she winked again. I risked a glance at Rob, horrified that he might have seen her wink and think I'd asked her to say something. He met my gaze and slid me a wry grin. "Is it just me, or are we being set up?"

I wasn't sure if he'd asked to be set up, or if his friends had just picked up on his interest, but either way he was waiting for me to answer him. "It would seem so," I mumbled, feeling my face reach new levels of red.

Rob's eyes never left my face as he took another sip of his drink. After a moment, he said, "I'm okay with that."

Again, I had no idea how to respond... unless my eyes doubling in size counted as a response.

"Is it cool if I come to your party on Friday?"

I blushed again. "It's not really a party. Just a couple of us hanging out and watching movies."

"Those are my favourite kind of parties."

He wasn't going to let me off the hook. I took a deep breath, willing myself to keep it together. I tried to appear a lot more relaxed than I felt as I shrugged. "Then I guess you'd better come."

He smiled and it lit up his face, making me realise that he was cuter than I'd given him credit for. "Good. It's a date."

 

Chapter Text

I hadn't expected Renata and her popular boy fan club to suddenly become my best friends, and they didn't, of course, but Dylan and Luke both nodded and said hello when they passed me in the halls, and Rob even started sitting beside me in the one of the classes we shared and sometimes joined Abby and I for lunch.

I was still mostly an outcast, but the animosity toward me seemed to be gone, with the exception of Eva and her most loyal friends. It made life at school a little more comfortable. Unfortunately, the tension at home got worse. Eva hated that Renata and I were becoming friendlier with one another. The angrier she got, the less Renata wanted to be around her, and suddenly Eva was the one hiding in her room all the time instead of me.

It was nice having Abby and Renata and even Rob to talk to, but I missed Jana. By Friday night I still hadn't spoken to her. It had only been three days since our fight, but it felt like forever. I wasn't sure why I hadn't contacted her yet. Being stubborn, mostly. I wanted her to be the first to break. Even though she said she cared about me, not wanting to meet me hurt.

I knew I needed to get over her, so I tried to forget about her and enjoy myself at Abby's house. Our movie night was a success. Everyone was relaxed and in a good mood. We stuck to our plan to rent a Juliana Valdés flick. Since it was a teen comedy, the guys all liked it, too. There was a lot of laughter and popcorn throwing.

Everything was perfect, except for the fact that I couldn't make myself like Rob. He was a really nice guy. He was cute, interesting, smart, and I could tell that he really liked me, but there was nothing there for me. I liked him, and would love to have him as a friend, but there were no butterflies when I looked at him. He sat next to me during the movie with his hand resting on his thigh as if he was waiting for me to pick it up or give him any indication that I wanted him to take mine. I cradled the popcorn bowl and pretended to be oblivious.

I managed to hide my misery well enough, because even though I didn't flirt with Rob he seemed in good spirits when he left Abby's house. Renata talked about how excited she was for me all the way home.

The following Friday I turned nineteen. I hadn't said a word to anyone about it, hoping the day would come and go with no one being the wiser. I was dreading it for several reasons. The first, and most obvious, was that it marked the anniversary of my mother's death. The morning of my eighteenth birthday Mom woke me up with an off-key serenade to the tune of 'Happy Birthday', and announced that she was pulling me out of school for the last two days that week. She was taking me on a weekend ski trip to Vermont. She promised me an expensive dinner and a candle to blow out in the dessert of my choosing once we got to the resort, but I never got to make a wish.

Then, of course, I was also dreading the day this year because either my father had forgotten or just ignored my birthdays for the last four or five years. The first time he forgot my birthday, I was eleven. The last time he remembered it I was fourteen. No matter how hard I tried, I never stopped being disappointed each year he forgot, so Mom was determined to help me forget about my father by making the day the most special one of the year for me, no matter what it took.

For years now my birthday had been a big deal. This year would be different. This year there was no one to make sure it was special. I wasn't even sure if my father knew when it was anymore, and I wasn't about to ask him. Things were awkward enough between us.

I told myself I could get through the day. I was determined to treat it like any other, but by the time I came out of my room dressed for school I was already so weighed down I felt as if I couldn't breathe. When I came out into the kitchen and found a bouquet of yellow roses so big it had its own centre of gravity sitting on the counter with my name on it, I nearly burst into tears. As I stared at the flowers, a heavy arm fell around my shoulders. "How are you doing this morning?" my dad asked solemnly.

I couldn't have spoken even if I knew how to express myself. I shrugged beneath the weight of his arm.

My father suddenly crushed me to his chest in a hug that was as much for his sake as it was for mine. For a moment I stood frozen in shock, but I quickly melted against him and squeezed back with everything I had in me.

"Happy birthday, kiddo," he whispered, his voice thick with emotion.

"I didn't think you'd remember."

"I've missed enough of your birthdays."

My dad squeezed me even tighter, and I let him. The seconds began to pass. Neither of us spoke, and neither of us let go. The feel of his arms around me, his concern for me, and the warmth and love in his embrace completely did me in. I buried my face in his chest and let him hold me as I cried.

After a few minutes of ruining my dad's shirt, I finally pulled back enough to look up at him. His eyes shone with unshed tears as he forced a heart-breaking smile down at me. "I didn't think you'd want a lot of attention today, so we didn't plan a party. No surprises, I promise, but I hope you'll let us take you to a birthday dinner somewhere, at least. You could bring your friend Abby along too, if you'd like."

"Can I get back to you on that? I'm not even sure I can make it through the day right now."

My dad swallowed back a lump in his throat and then nodded when he couldn't speak.

"Would you like to stay home from school today?"

I jumped at Lucia's voice and pulled back from my father as if I'd been caught doing something I shouldn't. Pain flicked across my dad's face, but he buried it quickly. He looked at Lucia and then back at me. "She's right. If you aren't up for classes today, you don't have to go."

I met my dad's eyes, then glanced around the kitchen. Lucia and Renata were both standing there with small, supportive smiles. I guess the secret was out. They clearly knew this wasn't just my birthday. Even Eva sat at the bar with a subdued expression. Wiping my cheeks dry, I shook my head in answer to my dad and Lucia's suggestion. "I think moping around here alone will make it worse."

"I'm sorry we can't go visit your mom's grave. Maybe we could take a trip back to Boston over Thanksgiving break next week, if you'd like that. For now, I could take the day off from work and we could go do something, just the two of us."

"You don't have to do that. I think it'll help if I stay busy. School will be a good distraction."

My dad looked disappointed again, so I added, "It would be nice to go visit Mom and Abuela and Granpa sometime, though. It doesn't have to be Thanksgiving, but whenever there's a good weekend."

"I'd like to go with you," Renata said.

I looked at her, surprised and touched. She smiled back tentatively. "You could show me around Boston, maybe visit a few of your old friends." Her smile morphed into a mischievous grin. "I could get them to tell me their best stories about you. A sister needs blackmail material, you know. Even a step one."

That did it. I laughed. Renata surprised me even more by giving me a light hug. "Happy birthday."

"Thanks." I said, and shyly retuned the hug. "A trip to Boston sounds fun. If we wait until the summer, we can go to Nantucket and I can show you how East Coasters do the beach. And I'll take you to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park."

Renata grinned. "I'll be sure to wear my Dodgers jersey."

Dad's misty eyes bounced back and forth between Renata and me. "I'll book a hotel today. We'll make a whole vacation out of it."

Eva broke up the moment with a sigh just before it could get awkward. I waited for whatever snide remark she had prepared, but all she said was, "Are you guys ready to go? I don't want to be late."

. . . . .

When we got to school, Rob was waiting for us in the student parking lot with a single red rose. As I accepted it, he planted a soft kiss on my cheek and whispered, "Happy birthday."

"Thanks."

I brought the bud to my nose, wishing it would hide my blush while Rob took my backpack and slung it over his shoulder with his own book bag. As we headed toward the school, he glanced at me. "You weren't going to tell anyone, were you?"

"I wasn't. How did you know?"

"I told him." Renata rolled her eyes at my frown. "You can't let what happened last year take over your birthday for the rest of your life. You need some good to help balance out the bad."

I smelled my rose again and a smile crept over my face. I was surprised at how right Renata was. "Thanks."

As the three of us stepped into the main breezeway and merged into the crowd of students, we could tell instantly that something wasn't normal. There was some kind of buzz in the air. It took me a minute to realise that I was the focus of the excitement. It was the oddest combination of emotions ranging from fascination, to confusion, to utter contempt. People were staring and whispering, some of them excited, others unable to hold in their disgust. As we neared my locker, I started to make out some of the whispers.

"It's her!"

"I can't believe she knows her."

"She's not that pretty."

"What does she see in her, anyway?"

I had no idea what was going on. I glanced at a group of younger girls who looked so excited they could barely contain their giddiness. One of them caught my gaze, and that energy finally burst. "Hi, Val!"

Once the first greeting came, a chorus of others followed it.

"Hey, Val!"

"Happy birthday, Val!"

"You are so lucky, Valentina!"

"Don't you just love Juliana Valdés?"

"Happy birthday!"

I glanced at Rob first, but he was just as mystified as me, so I turned to Renata for an explanation. She threw her hands up in surrender. "Don't look at me. I only told Rob and Abby. I have no idea what's going on."

It was seriously like we'd left Los Angeles and landed in some alternate dimension. "Juliana Valdés? Can I believe what? What's going on? What is everyone talking about?" I asked, though I knew neither Renata nor Rob had any answers.

Mitchell Drayton, the most gorgeous guy in school, who also happened to be the snobbiest because he had an agent and had landed a few bit parts on a couple of TV shows, walked right up to us. "Hey, Ren," he said to Renata and then turned his devastating smile on me. "Hi, Val. Are you having a party or anything for your birthday? Do you need a date?"

Rob stepped a little closer to my side and glared at him. Mitchell glanced at the rose in my hand, and then gave Rob a once-over. He took a step back, chuckling to himself. "Sorry, bro. Didn't realise I was stepping on anyone's toes." To me, he said, "I'm having a party tomorrow night with some of my actor friends. You should come. Bring Rob and Ren too, if you'd like. Eight P.M. Ren knows where I live."

My mouth hung agape and my heart pounded as I watched him walk away. Every teen movie that was worth anything started out with a scene like this, everyone being unusually nice to the poor, unsuspecting outcast right before she gets publicly humiliated. "Do you think Eva is trying to play some kind of prank?" I whispered.

"No way." Renata sounded confident, but I wasn't so sure. She noticed my scepticism and shook her head. "Seriously. Did you notice the lack of snottiness this morning? Mom read us both the riot act last night and told us that if either of us so much as frowned at you today, we would be grounded until we were thirty."

Great. Not that I didn't appreciate the gesture, but that had to have pissed Eva off more than anything. I was lucky she hadn't exploded already.

"It's not Eva," Renata insisted.

"Well, it's definitely something," Rob muttered, frowning at a couple of guys who were staring at me.

"I'll figure it out," Renata said as we reached her homeroom. "Lunch together today?"

"You know where to find me."

Renata disappeared into her classroom, and Rob scowled at everyone we passed as he walked me to mine. He was as sceptical about my stepsister as I was, because he said, "It had to be Eva. Abby wouldn't have said anything. I'll figure out what's going on."

He stopped us at the door to my classroom and grabbed my hand so that I couldn't walk away. A girl whose name I didn't remember accidentally bumped into my shoulder as she walked past us into the room. "Watch it!" she snapped. When she realised it was me in her way, her eyes narrowed. "You think you're so special now? Well, you're not!"

Another girl walked in behind her, smiling viciously. "I bet she paid her to do it."

They walked to their seats, cackling.

More confused than ever, I looked at Rob again. "You going to be okay until lunch?" he asked.

The worry in his eyes made me smile. "I guess you don't remember what it was like for me when I first got here," I teased.

His face grew dark, a storm of emotion brewing in his eyes. I felt terrible when I realised he knew exactly what I'd been through these past months, and how much it upset him. "Hey." I gave his hand a squeeze. "It's all good. I'm fine. Thank you for my flower."

He finally smiled. "You're welcome."

 

Chapter Text

Abby was bubbling over with energy when she came into the cafeteria at lunch. "Juliana Valdés wished you happy birthday on Twitter!" she squealed. "What the hell?"

"I know. Renata told me in second period and 'What the hell?' was my thought exactly. I don't get it."

The looks and greetings all made sense after I heard the news. Juliana Valdés had made me the centre of attention when she publicly wished me happy birthday that morning. The excitement and jealousy, and even Mitchell's party invite, all made sense now. But that was about all I understood.

"How did she know it was my birthday? How does she know I even exist?"

"Because you're brilliant," Rob said, sitting down next to me.

"What?"

"She's a fan of your blog."

"No!" Abby shrieked. "Let me! Please? I've been dying to show her all day!"

Rob laughed and waved his hand in a be-my-guest gesture, making Abby's whole face light up. I was afraid she was going to pull a muscle when she smiled because her mouth stretched across her entire face. "It all started with this."

Abby really had been waiting to tell me the story. She already had her phone cued up to a specific post on Juliana Valdés' Facebook page. "'Happy birthday to my favourite blogger and number-one fan, Valentina!'" Abby read aloud. "'Your words of wisdom are unparalleled.' And look!" she squealed. "She posted a link to your review of some movie she was in!"

I looked, and sure enough there was a link to my review of the movie The Long Road Home, the apology letter I'd written to Juliana Valdés.

"That's not all," Abby said. She began scrolling up Juliana Valdés' Facebook page. There was post after post of her sharing Valentina's Words Of Wisdom posts.

"She's been quoting me on Facebook?"

Abby nodded so enthusiastically that she looked like a bobblehead doll. "All day! She's been doing it on Twitter too, and now other people are doing it. 'Valentina's Words of Wisdom' is trending right now!"

This I had to see. I pulled up my Twitter on my phone and nearly had a heart attack. "No way!"

"What?" Rob and Vivian both leaned in and read over my shoulder.

"Yesterday I had just over six thousand followers on Twitter. Today I have over twenty-five thousand!"

Rob laughed. "That's what happens when Hollywood's golden girl tells the world to listen to you. I hope your personal information isn't attached to your blog anywhere."

"No. I have a separate e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook page for all my blog stuff, and a PO Box for publishers to send books to. I should be safe, but this is insane!"

"Right?" Renata said as she finally joined us.

With Renata there, we started over from the beginning. She'd brought an entourage with her to get the scoop, Dylan and Luke and a few other friends who were curious enough about the story to brave being seen talking to me at lunch, but there simply wasn't a story to tell. I don't know Juliana Valdés and I have no idea how she discovered my blog.

"I have a question," Rob said, finally joining the impromptu Q and A session. "How did Juliana Valdés know it was your birthday? She could have come across your review on her own, but how did she know today was your birthday? I read your blog. I know you haven't mentioned it."

I'd wondered that myself. In fact, that was the most mind-boggling part of this whole ordeal. "I don't know. Honestly, I was surprised that anyone knew it was my birthday. I didn't even think my dad knew it was coming up. The only person I've talked to about it was..."

And suddenly, everything made perfect sense. The entire table fell quiet, waiting for me to reveal the big secret, but all I could do was smile. "Of course. I should have known."

"Who?" Abby demanded.

I sighed. "It was Jana."

"The girl from the Internet?" Rob asked.

I nodded.

My heart sank and soared at the same time. Jana and I hadn't spoken since I told her I was pissed and hung up on her, but I knew she still cared about me. She knew what today was. She was the one who mentioned it a few weeks ago.

She remembered the day because she had been texting me at the time of the accident. She said she was dreading the day, and as it got closer it felt as if it was haunting her. I was really surprised until she explained. For her, it was the day she lost me. When we talked about it, I confessed that it had been my birthday. She promised she would find a way to distract me today and make sure that I enjoyed my birthday and didn't just think about the accident.

"She kept her promise," I whispered to myself, fighting back sudden tears.

Abby waved a hand in front of my face, trying to regain my attention. "What promise?"

"She knew what today was. I mean, what it is besides my birthday. She promised she'd distract me so that I wouldn't think about it. Even though I yelled at her and haven't spoken to her yet, she still kept her promise."

Abby sighed. "That's so romantic. You have to forgive her, Val." She had been urging me to do that ever since I gave her the details of our argument. "You've got to call her back."

Rob didn't seem to agree. "How do you know she did this?"

"She's the only one who could have. She's the only one who knew it was my birthday, and her dad is some big shot in the film industry, so she could have managed to get in contact with Juliana somehow. I've always known Jana has connections in show biz. I should have figured it out sooner."

"How do you know? You've never even met her. She's probably a liar."

I shook my head. "She's been feeding me Hollywood insider information since we met. She always knows stuff before it hits the papers. She must have got her dad to call in a favour or something."

"Maybe she knows Juliana," Abby said. "I mean, if they were friends, it would explain why she likes her so much."

"True," I agreed. "She's mentioned knowing a few celebrities, though she's not a name dropper, and I've never asked which ones. I guess they could be friends. Knowing Jana, it wouldn't surprise me."

That made everyone around us whisper and giggle. One girl even said, "I can't believe you know someone who is friends with Juliana Valdés!"

"I don't, really. I'm not sure how Jana did it. She could know Juliana, or her dad could just know a guy who knows a guy who knows her."

"That was a pretty cool thing to do, though," Rob said. It took me a minute to realise he meant Jana making sure I was distracted today.

A smile crept across my face. "Yeah." I was going to have to call her later and apologise for not talking to her all week.

"Just how close are you with this girl?" Rob asked. The suspicion in his voice was embarrassing.

"She's my best friend."

"But you've never met in person, right? You're just, like, pen pals or whatever?"

I finally understood the reasoning behind Rob's line of questions, and my heart sank a little. I stared at my lunch, having no idea what to say to him. He seemed to understand because he said, "This is the part where you kick me to the curb, isn't it?"

I forced myself to look at Rob. He didn't seem crestfallen or anything, which I hoped meant his interest in me hadn't been as strong as everyone else believed it was. I didn't want to hurt him.

"I'm sorry. I'm in no position to be dating anyone right now. Technically, I am single. There is nothing going on between Jana and me, and there never will be, but I love her anyway. I hate that I love her, and I try not to love her, but I fail miserably."

Rob studied me for a minute in that quiet, intense way of his and asked, "Are you sure there's nothing between you? You're sure she doesn't like you, too?"

I nodded. "She has a girlfriend and she specifically told me she doesn't want to meet in person. She likes that we don't know each other."

Rob's face pinched up slightly as if Jana's request pissed him off, but he didn't say as much. "So we need to get you over her. Would it help if you had someone else, a boyfriend, to help take your mind off her?"

I blushed when I realised exactly what Rob was saying, what he was offering me, but I immediately shook my head. "That's really sweet, but I don't think that would be fair to you."

"Do you like me?" Rob asked.

I nodded reluctantly. "I do, but..."

Rob didn't let me finish my sentence. "Are you attracted to me?"

My face flamed at the question. I dropped my eyes to my lap and chewed my bottom lip so hard it hurt, but I managed a small nod.

"Then that's enough."

When I looked up confused, he smiled. "You don't have to be in love to date someone. We don't have to be serious. We don't even have to be exclusive if you don't want. You could just give it a try. Go out with me and see if something sparks."

I considered his offer. I did really like Rob. He seemed like a laid-back guy. Maybe he wasn't really looking for anything serious, either. It didn't seem fair, but I did need to try to get over Jana, and the more people I had in my 'support system' to show Dr Parish, the sooner I could earn my independence. Still... "I don't know. I think I would feel like I was using you."

Rob picked up a slice of pizza from his lunch tray and grinned at me. "Use away, Val. Maybe it won't work out, maybe it will. Either way at least you tried, and we get to have some fun together."

He bit into his pizza and his eyes twinkled with mischief as he chewed. Once his mouth was clear, he said, "You look like you could use a good rebound guy, and I just want to make it very clear, right now, that I am always down to be a pretty girl's rebound guy."

I finally managed a smile that reached my eyes. "Good to know."

"So, what do you say?"

I'd be an idiot if I didn't at least try. "I guess we could give it a shot. My Dad wants to go out for my birthday tonight. He already asked me to invite Abby." I glanced at Renata. "Do you think he'd mind if Rob came, too?"

Renata shook her head. "He'll be cool. It's my mom you have to worry about. She gets all crazy excited when Eva or I date anyone. She's going to freak that you have a boyfriend!"

I blanched at the term and Rob laughed. "So, no title, then?"

Abby snorted. "Other than Rebound Guy, anyway."

I grimaced, but Rob laughed again. "It has a nice ring to it."

. . . . .

By the time I got home from school I was mentally exhausted. I wanted nothing more than to relax to the sound of Jana's deep, rumbling voice. I knew I needed to call her. I missed her, and she deserved my thanks.

My dad had recently lifted the ban on my room, so I escaped to the sanctuary as soon as I got home from school. As I was shutting the door, I heard Eva speak for the first time all day. She'd been silent on the rides to and from school, obviously striving for the 'Thumper method' of not getting in trouble, 'if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all'.

As soon as I was out of sight, she pounced on Renata like a starving lion. They were in the kitchen, Renata rummaging through the fridge for her daily after-school snack, and their voices carried easily across the great-room style main floor to my bedroom.

"How did she do it?" Eva demanded.

Since she was talking about me, I left my bedroom door open a crack and shamelessly eavesdropped on the conversation.

"She didn't," Renata answered. "She was just as surprised as the rest of us. Jana did it. It was her birthday gift to her."

"Jana?" Eva gasped. "The creepy Internet girl?"

I heard the fridge shut and the sound of a can opening. "She's not creepy," Renata insisted. "She's actually kind of cool."

"How do you know? Have you talked to her?"

"No, but I hear Val talk to her all the time and their conversations are completely normal. Plus, I read her Instant Messenger feed once when she went to the bathroom and left her laptop open on the couch."

"Ah-ha! Did you read anything good?"

I was surprised by the confession, but I found it hard to be mad at the invasion of privacy because of the smile I heard in her voice. "It was highly entertaining. They banter back and forth like a romance novel heroine and her dastardly pirate captor."

There was silence for a minute, and then Renata said, "She's witty, Eva, funny, smart, nice, and generally pretty cool. You'd probably like her if you'd just give her a chance."

I was shocked to be so defended. I knew Renata didn't have a problem with me anymore, but now she sounded as if she were truly my friend. Eva wasn't nearly as moved by her speech. "Why should I? She's never given me a chance."

"How could she? You've been horrible to her since the second she got here. If you ask me, she tolerates you a lot better than you deserve."

Eva's scoff sounded vicious. I didn't need to see her face to imagine the daggers she was throwing at Renata with her eyes. I was also sure her claws were fully extended now. "I can't believe how far you've turned on me. She's not part of this family, and you're siding with her over your own twin! I'm your sister! Not her!"

"She is part of this family, Eva. You need to accept it."

"I'm not accepting anyone who's trying to take over my life!"

Renata must have been just as confused as I was because there was no immediate reply. What did Eva mean? In what reality was I trying to take over her life? Because it surely wasn't this one.

"She's already taken my room, my sister, and the boy I like! She doesn't even want Rob, and he follows her around like a lovesick puppy! Mom and Dad fawn all over her, and now Juliana Freaking Valdés is wishing her happy birthday!"

"None of that is Val's fault!" Renata shouted. "She couldn't have the upstairs bedroom because she's freaking handicapped. Would you want to have to limp around the way she does? Have you ever seen her do her physical therapy? It hurts her so bad she cries. Making her walk up the stairs every day to get to her bedroom would be cruel."

"Fine, but Rob..."

"She can't help how Rob feels. She's been honest with him about her feelings for Jana. He's the one who insists on trying to win her over anyway. I think she did the right thing agreeing to go out with him."

Eva scoffed again.

"She didn't steal me from you either," Renata continued. "I just can't stand to be around you anymore because all you do is whine about Val. And Dad should be sucking up to her. He abandoned her. If anyone stole anything from anyone, we stole Dad from her. It's a miracle she can forgive any of us!"

Renata paused, probably to take a breath. It was quiet for a minute. I wondered if Eva would respond, but she didn't. It was Renata who broke the silence. Her voice was much calmer now, but I could still hear the intensity in it.

"Not everything has to be about you all the time. I'm glad Jana managed to pull off the Juliana Valdés thing because it gave Val something to think about other than the fact that today is the one-year anniversary of the worst day of her life. Can't you just be happy with the fact that something good happened to someone who needed it?"

Again, Eva didn't say anything. Not that I expected her to. Renata must have been finished unloading all of her frustration because I heard the TV downstairs click on and heard a door slam somewhere on the floor above me.

I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for Eva. She is a self-centred troll, but she still has feelings. I had never even tried to see things from her perspective before. Renata and Lucia both mentioned that Eva felt threatened by me. I hadn't believed them, but obviously they were right.

I wasn't going to cow myself and put up with Eva's crap, our situation wasn't my fault, and I didn't deserve to be punished for it, but it was nice to understand where her animosity came from. I supposed I could try to be a little more sensitive to her feelings.

I finally shut my door and decided to soak in a hot bath.

 

Chapter Text

Juliana POV

FantasyCon is the world's biggest fantasy convention, Comic-Con for Lord Of The Rings and Dungeons and Dragons fans. It's held annually at the Los Angeles Convention Centre in November and was the first of many publicity appearances I would have to make to promote the release of The Druid Princess.

I loved FantasyCon. I'd come every year since I was sixteen, and this year I got to be involved as more than just a spectator. It was the only stop on The Druid Princess publicity tour I was looking forward to, but it turned out to be one of the worst days of my life.

Today was Val's birthday and the one-year anniversary of her accident. All day long I had to smile and greet fans and play up my fake romance with Kaylee when all I could think about was Val and what she must be going through right now. I couldn't even be there to comfort her because she still wasn't speaking to me.

I couldn't blame her for being mad. I hurt her deeply when I refused to meet her, but I didn't have any other choice. I figured she'd take a couple of days to cool off and then call and forgive me, but those couple of days turned into almost two weeks.

I checked my instant messenger for the millionth time. Val still wasn't signed on so I did the only other thing I could think to do and sent another 'Valentina Words of Wisdom' tweet out to my fans. This time I quoted something she'd said almost three years ago about the brilliance of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Dragonlance series.

I promised I'd keep Val distracted today, but since she still wasn't speaking to me this was the only thing I could think of. Hopefully, it was working better for her as a distraction because all it was only reminding me how much she would love to be here. I hated that she was missing it.

"Would you put that damn thing away?" Kaylee muttered when she noticed the cell in my hands. "It's rude."

I pocketed the phone. Kaylee wasn't pissed that I was texting; she was just mad about what I was texting. Her anger made me smile. It was the little things in life that made me happy.

Suddenly in a slightly better mood, I greeted the young teenage girl and her mother that were now standing in front of me. "Kaylee's right. Forgive me. You have my undivided attention now."

"Oh, it's okay!" the girl promised as she handed me a photo to sign. "You were just posting another 'Valentina's Words of Wisdom' quote, right?"

I grinned. The last time I checked Val's Twitter, there'd been a twenty-thousand strong jump in her followers so far today. She was going to freak when she saw it. "I was. Have you been reading them?"

"Oh, yes!" the girl cried. "Val is so funny! I can totally see why she's your favourite blogger. I started following her this morning, too. I think it's so sweet what you're doing. I would die if I got a birthday present like that. I'm sure she loves it."

"I hope so." I chuckled again. "What's your name, sweetheart?"

"Connie."

"Well, Connie," I said as I signed her photo and handed it back, "would you like to help me wish her a happy birthday again?" I shifted my gaze to the girl's mom. "Would it be all right if I take a picture with Connie and post it on my Instagram?"

"Oh!" the girl turned to her mother and tugged on her sleeve. "Please, Mom! Can I? Please, please, please?"

When her mother laughed and nodded, I gestured for the girl to come around to my side of the table. My day got a little better again when I asked Connie's mom to take the picture so that Kaylee could be in it, too. Kaylee had no choice but to smile pretty.

I sent Kaylee a wink and read the caption out loud as I uploaded it. "Kaylee, Connie, and I wish Valentina the best birthday ever from FantasyCon 2019! Join us in the fun! #HappyBirthdayVal!"

The look on Kaylee's face as I posted the picture to the Internet almost made my fake engagement worth it.

. . . . .

After the autograph session was over, Kaylee and I were supposed to go straight to our next event. It was a celebrity knight's tournament. Me and a bunch of other actors from other fantasy movies and TV shows were all dressing up as our characters and competing in a NERF sword fighting competition to win a kiss from the fair princess Cali.

The event was the coolest idea ever, and I was going to rock it. I'd always kicked ass in my swordplay lessons before filming The Druid Princess. I just wished Val could be there to enjoy it, too. She was the biggest Merlin fanatic, and I was competing against Prince Arthur in the first round.

After changing into my Jana costume, I checked my phone again. I'd just dedicated my first match to Val and a link to her review 'Merlin and Arthur: The Best Bromance on TV', when I finally got a text from her.

[VAL] You kept your promise.

The message lifted a weight off my chest. Val did know I was behind the  posts. She knew I was thinking of her, and she was finally talking to me again.

Glancing around the luxury hotel suite Kaylee and I had been put up in for the duration of the convention, I plopped down on the bed. I was already running a little late, but my duel wasn't up first and I couldn't go anywhere without talking to Val.

[JANA] I tried my best.

I texted back.

[JANA] Did it work?

[VAL] Yes.

[JANA] I'm glad. Val, I am so sorry. Please forgive me.

[VAL] You're forgiven. You know I can never stay mad at you.

[JANA] Good. So do I have permission to call and wish you a happy birthday?

[VAL] Only if you sing to me.

I cracked a smile and immediately launched into a semi-decent rendition of "Happy Birthday" when Val answered her phone. "You should definitely stick with reading," she teased when I was done, even though I stayed in tune the whole time.

I couldn't laugh with her. "Val..." I cleared my throat. My voice was surprisingly strangled. "How are you today?"

Her reply was quiet, but not as weak as I feared it would be. "Surviving better than I expected." There was a pause and the sound of water, and then Val let out a soft sigh. "The bath is helping," she said, effectively scrambling all thoughts in my brain.

"Did you say you're in the bath?"

"Mmm-hmm. Soaking in lavender. My stepmom swears it's therapeutic, and I'll never admit it to her, but she is right. I am so relaxed right now."

I choked back a startled cough. "Damn it, Valentina, what are you trying to do to me, woman?"

"What are you talking about? Oh!." Val laughed. "You perve. How can you be turned on? You don't even know what I look like. I could be four hundred pounds, hairy, and covered with warts, for all you know."

Yeah, right. "You aren't. I saw your picture on your blog back when you used to post about those trips with your mom. You're hot. You have that sexy half-Latina thing going on."

I hoped she'd respond to my flirting for once, but she just said, "You're so full of it. Those pictures of me in all my brace-face glory back then were hideous. I'm average at best. At least, I was before. Now there aren't many guys that would look twice at me, not for the right reasons."

I sat up. What did she mean by before? Before her accident? Had something happened to her that she'd never told me about? She was in the hospital for a long time, but she'd never explained her injuries to me. She always said she didn't want to talk about it. "Val, what do you mean?"

"Nothing. It's not important."

The hell it wasn't. "Val..."

"What I'm trying to say," she interrupted, "is stop fantasizing about me and let me enjoy my bath. I need it, after the day I had. Your little stunt made everyone who's been ignoring me for months suddenly either want to be my best friend or gouge my eyes out in an envious rage. I thought Rob was going to start hurting people on my behalf."

I forgot all about Val's injuries. "Rob? Is that the guy your friend mentioned? Are you guys dating now?"

"Kind of, I guess. I mean we're not exclusive or official or anything, but he finally asked me out. He's coming to my birthday dinner tonight."

I squeezed my phone so hard I nearly cracked the screen. Some high school punk was taking her to dinner for her birthday and she didn't think that was serious? Bullshit. Birthdays were a big deal. Guys feared women's birthdays. Always. Whether Val thought so or not, this Rob guy definitely had major intentions if he was willing to spend her birthday with her. But at least Val hadn't sounded all that enthusiastic. "I can tell you're jumping for joy. Do you actually want to go out with this guy?"

Val sighed. "I don't know. I haven't dated anyone since before my accident. I'm not sure I'm ready, but I've got to start living again sometime, right? At the very least, Rob deserves a chance."

It took all the acting skills I possessed to sound like a politely concerned friend instead of the jealous asshole I was. "Don't you dare settle for second best, Val."

"It's not that. He's good-looking and really sweet. He's one of the most popular guys at school because he's some kind of super soccer player, but it doesn't bother him at all that I'm a social leper. I promise he's a good guy."

An athlete? My little fantasy-loving book nerd was going out with a jock? That was so wrong. "Good isn't great," I said, a bit of a growl escaping me. "You're not a B-list kind of girl."

Suddenly there was a pounding on the hotel room door and Kaylee shouted my name. When she started fiddling with the lock, I cursed her for having a key and bolted for the bathroom. I wasn't done with this conversation yet, and I sure as hell wasn't going to end it for Kaylee.

I hated that we had to share a room this week, but our management team was paranoid about the secret that our relationship was a sham would get out, so they had insisted. I got the bathroom door shut and locked just as Kaylee walked into the suite. "I know you're in there!" she shouted, banging on the bathroom door. "What the hell are you doing?"

It was bad enough that I had to hear all about Mr. Fantastic Soccer Dude. Dealing with Kaylee on top of that news was asking too much of my temper. "What do you think I'm doing? I'm hiding from you!"

"Hilarious!" Kaylee jiggled the handle and pounded on the door again when it wouldn't open. "Get your ass out here now! We're late!"

"You're late! I don't have to be there for fifteen minutes."

"I am not showing up to this stupid thing alone! Get off the damn phone and get out here now!"

She'd never leave me alone. Muttering a string of curses, I sighed into the phone. "The cavalry finally found me. I've got to run. I'm at this crazy work thing this weekend. I'm actually locked in a bathroom at the moment because I'm supposed to be somewhere, but when I saw your text, I couldn't wait to talk to you."

"That's okay. You can call me later."

I was relieved to hear a smile in Val's voice, and even more grateful that she was asking me to call her later. It meant she wasn't mad anymore. I really was forgiven. These last two weeks without her had been some of the longest of my life.

"Maybe we can read tonight for my birthday?" she suggested.

I groaned. I would have liked nothing more than to curl up in bed tonight and read with Val for her birthday, but there were so many people in town for the convention that there was this huge party going down tonight and there was no chance in hell Kaylee would let me miss it. "That sounds like heaven, but I'm at this conference through Sunday, and the nights have been running really late. I don't think I'll be able to get away. Can we talk Monday?"

"Sure."

I heard Val's disappointment and tried to swallow my own. "Good. I can't wait. I've really missed you. You have no idea how much. After just one day I had to delete your number out of my phone so that I wouldn't lose all dignity by calling you a billion times to beg for forgiveness."

Val laughed at the same time Kaylee pounded on the door again.

I yanked my hair in frustration. "I really have to go. Love you, Val. No more silent treatment, okay? These last two weeks were hell. Happy birthday. I'll call you Monday."

"Thanks. Love you too, Jana. I will be waiting with bated breath for your call on  Monday."

Her parting words warmed my heart. They would be enough to help me survive the rest of the weekend. With my smile back, I went to face the shrew and hopefully kick Prince Arthur of Camelot's ass in a NERF sword fight.

 

Chapter Text

After talking to Jana, I felt rejuvenated enough to go out for my birthday dinner. My father had reservations at the Chart House, a steak house on the waterfront in Malibu. Steak isn't my favourite, but my dietician would be pleased because I'd lost a little weight recently from stress, and he'd demanded I start a higher calorie diet with more protein. In fact, he was probably responsible for my father's restaurant choice. Anyway, at least it wasn't sushi. Ick. On the plus side, the restaurant was beautiful. Seeing the sun set over the ocean was worth the drive.

Dinner was pleasant, seeing as how my dad adored Abby, was still thrilled by the new camaraderie between Renata and me, and didn't ask Rob any horrible so-you're-dating-my-daughter questions. Even Eva hadn't pouted too much.

The only embarrassing moment was when Lucia gushed over Rob because he'd pulled out my chair for me. Poor Rob had turned bright red. I was sure I looked the same. Both Renata and Eva hissed at their mom, wearing frighteningly identical glares. Thankfully, Lucia got the hint and tried not to act too mom-ish from then on.

After dinner everyone was stuffed, but Dad insisted we order a few of their signature hot lava cakes, this was a birthday party, after all. Not one to say no to fudgy goodness, I happily agreed. As we waited for the dessert to arrive, Renata started bouncing in her chair. "Can we do gifts now?"

"There are presents?" My cheeks heated up again. I hadn't expected any gifts.

"Good ones," Renata said. "You're going to love them. Can we give them to her now? Please, please, please?"

It was like watching a kindergartner on Christmas morning. We all laughed at her. "All right." My dad conceded and handed me a long envelope that he'd pulled from the inside breast pocket of his suit jacket. "This is from the family. It was Renata's suggestion, so if you don't like it, blame her!"

Renata rolled her eyes but grinned so big she looked like she might burst. "Just open it!"

Her excitement was contagious, and I tore into the envelope as fast as my damaged fingers would let me. I nearly screamed with excitement when I saw what was waiting for me. As it was, I squealed a little, causing several other restaurant patrons to frown at our table. I was holding tickets to this year's FantasyCon in my hands. I seriously couldn't believe it.

"Are you kidding? I know this makes me a huge dork, but I have wanted to go to this every year since I was, like, twelve! Oh my gosh, I can't believe I finally get to go! Thank you! I love it!"

The convention runs for five days, but the best day was always the last day, Sunday. I had, in my hands, five Sunday passes.

The day after tomorrow I would get to spend all day immersed in the worlds of my favourite books and movies. I would get to meet a ton of my favourite authors and actors, get sequels to books that still haven't come out yet, hear guest lectures, and get sneak peeks at a couple of upcoming movies. There was even a rumour that they were going to play ten whole minutes of The Druid Princess!

"Those aren't just FantasyCon tickets," Renata said. "We got you seats for The Druid Princess discussion panel. I looked it up. The writer of the books and the director, producer, writer, and cast of the movie are all going to be there! They're having a private meet-and-greet for all panel attendees, so you're going to get to meet your BFF Juliana Valdés! Can you believe it?"

Renata was squealing now, enough that Dad told her to take a breath. I myself was in shock. As soon as my brain started functioning again, I realised just how many tickets I had. "You got me five tickets? Do you know how much these must have cost?"

Renata waved dismissively. "Whatever. Dad owed you anyway."

I decided not to think about that and asked another question before things could get awkward. "But why so many?"

Renata flashed a wicked smile. "Well, obviously you didn't want to go by yourself, and I thought it would be rude to get you only two tickets and make you have to choose between your friends."

"You mean you were afraid I might not pick you," I teased.

Renata didn't deny it. "Hello! Juliana Valdés!"

I laughed again. "Okay, but why five? Did you have a specific guest list in mind?"

"Well, obviously you, me, Abby and Rob, and I thought..." Renata hesitated, biting her lip nervously.

"Who?" I asked. I honestly had no idea who else she could mean.

"I thought you could invite Jana." Renata blushed, and hurried with the rest of her explanation. "I mean, The Druid Princess is totally your thing. I thought it would be the perfect excuse for you two to finally meet."

I was shocked. Renata wasn't just trying to indulge one of my biggest passions, or hers, with this gift; she was doing so much more than that. She was trying to give me my best friend. It was one of the most thoughtful things anyone had ever done for me. I was so overwhelmed by the gesture that I couldn't speak.

"What do you think?" Renata asked nervously.

"This gift is amazing, Renata. Thank you so much for thinking about Jana. That means a lot to me. I'd love to be able to go to this with her, but she's out of town for the weekend at some work thing. She called to wish me happy birthday, and we could only speak for a couple minutes. She was so busy she said she wouldn't have time to talk until Monday."

"Bummer." Renata's face fell into a pout for only a second before she perked back up. "Whatever. We'll get her when the movie comes out. I mean, there's no way you guys aren't going to watch it together."

My heart ached at the thought because I knew it was a hopeless cause. Jana and I would never meet. I wouldn't get to watch the movie with her, even though there was no one else in the world I would rather see it with.

I needed to change the subject before I started to cry. "Well, anyway, Jana can't come." I looked at my other stepsister, who was studiously ignoring everyone by playing with her phone. "Why don't you come with us, Eva?"

Everyone at the table froze. Abby, Rob, and Renata gaped at me with incredulous, shocked faces. My dad and Lucia were just as surprised, but they both watched Eva, holding their breath but with hopeful expressions. Eva was just as startled as everyone else. "Me?"

I ignored her unfriendliness and shrugged. "Sure. Why not?"

The glare she hit me with was impressive, even for her. "I don't need a pity invite. What makes you think I would even want to go to some repulsive convention full of freaks with you and your friends, anyway?"

The looks of disappointment on both my dad's and Lucia's faces angered me more than Eva's insult. I wanted to say something rude back but when I glanced around the table again at my new family, I didn't have the heart to make matters worse.

"It's not a pity invite," I said, forcing all the nonchalance I could manage into my voice. "Consider it more of a truce. A peace offering."

Eva's eyes narrowed as she waited for me to explain.

"Renata and Rob are your friends too, and I know you like Juliana Valdés. Come with us and have a good time. I'm not asking you to like me, and I don't want you to come because I feel sorry for you. I'm inviting you as a way to apologise. I can't help that I've intruded on your life and I can't remove myself from it either. What I can do is try to make up for it by giving you the chance to steal the limelight from Kaylee Summers. As much as it pains me to say it, I think you are prettier than her. If anyone could manage it, you could."

Dad and Lucia were still frozen in place, unable to believe what was happening, but Renata, Abby, and Rob all laughed.

"She's definitely aggressive enough," Renata agreed. She grinned at her sister and said, "You're like a barracuda."

Eva scoffed, but I could tell she was trying not to smile. "It doesn't matter. I'm grounded until Christmas."

"If you'd like to go with your sisters to the convention, I suppose I could unground you," Dad said. "Assuming you can behave yourself."

Eva looked as if she was grinding her teeth as much as I was at being referred to as sisters, but neither of us corrected her. Eva narrowed her eyes and asked, "Ungrounded for just the day?"

My dad and Lucia shared a look. Dad shrugged and Lucia nodded to Eva. "Ungrounded, as in early release. You can be done with your punishment as long as your behaviour stays acceptable."

I got the feeling getting let off the hook wasn't something that happened often in this family because both Renata's and Eva's eyes popped open in shock. Eva recovered faster than Renata and shrugged in my direction, feigning indifference. "Fine, whatever. I'll go to your stupid thing."

The server came with our cake, and while everyone was distracted my dad reached over and squeezed my hand. "Thank you," he mouthed.

"Thank you for my gift," I said in return. "I love it."

We all dug into our dessert, thankfully, there was no singing involved, and after a few minutes of comfortable silence, Rob turned to me. "So you're not interested in winning Juliana Valdés for yourself?" He was teasing, but there was true curiosity in his voice. "She's already a fan of yours. All you'd have to do is tell her it was your blog she's been quoting all day."

"Oh, no!" I laughed. "That is not happening. I already have one rich, arrogant, womanizer messing with my heart. I don't need another one."

"All right, all right, enough of this," Abby interrupted. "It's my turn to give you your gift."

Abby placed a large gift bag overflowing with colourful tissue paper in front of me.

"You got me a present? You didn't have to do that."

"Oh, yes I did. Hurry up and open it before I tell you what it is."

When I pulled the tissue paper away and saw folds of beautiful white lace, I gasped. "Did your dads make me a dress?"

I pushed my chair back and stood up as I pulled the gown out of the bag and held it up to my body. It was beautiful! It was a floor-length gown made of chiffon and white lace. It was the most elegant dress I'd ever seen. More than that, though, I recognized it. "Wait. Is this...?"

Abby nodded. "I am not good with secrets; ask anyone. I almost spilled the beans about Sunday so many times, but Renata would have killed me. When she told me what your dad was getting you, I went straight to my dads to help me with your costume. They were excited to help."

"This is amazing!" I hoped my eyes conveyed my gratitude, even though I felt like panicking. The dress was gorgeous, but it was sleeveless and backless. It would show so much of my scars. I knew I'd felt beautiful when I'd tried on that gown at her house, but I didn't think I could show my scars off at the convention no matter how much I wanted to dress like my favourite character.

"Look in the bag," Abby said, reading my thoughts.

I gasped again when I pulled out a gorgeous white cloak that matched the dress, and a pair of long, formal white satin gloves. "I know the gloves aren't an official part of Valentina's costume," Abby said, "but they match, and will cover your scars perfectly. And here!"

Suddenly a hostess stood behind me, although I hadn't seen anyone flag her down. The girl was holding a beautiful walking stick. It was about six feet tall, made of wood, and carved to look like intertwined tree branches. On the top, a large, pale-blue crystal-like orb was encased in the branches. It was an exact replica of Valentina's magical staff. I gingerly accepted the gift from the hostess, who wished me a happy birthday and then returned to her post. "It's beautiful."

Abby pointed to the bottom of the staff. "It's also fully functional."

There was a thick rubber foot on the bottom, same as you'd find on crutches... or my cane. I gasped again and tested my weight against the staff. It would work perfectly.

"As much as I love Candy Cane," Abby said, she'd named my cane Candy after giving it a facelift because I said it reminded me of the board game Candy Land, "this just goes so much better with the outfit."

I took a few steps to try it out and then whirled around to face a table full of smiling faces. "This is amazing, Abby! Thank you! Thank your dads, too!"

"Sunday you won't just be Valentina's Carvajal; you'll be Valentina, the beautiful and mysterious mystic druid priestess."

"There's a costume competition," Renata added, "and we are so winning."

"We?"

"Yeah. Abby helped me with my costume, too. I'm going as the Princess Cali."

"And I'll be going as the evil Queen Nesona," Abby said. "My dress rocks. We're going to look fabulous!"

I squealed again. This was going to be so awesome. It was like a dream come true for a fantasy geek like me.

"I'll tell my dads about Eva when I get home tonight. They won't have any trouble finishing another Princess Cali outfit by Sunday."

I snorted. "Yeah, shouldn't be too hard. There's not really much to that costume."

Renata stuck her tongue out at me. "I think it's hot." She'd heard my rant on the stupid warrior-girl's lack of clothing before. "Twin Princess Cali's will definitely catch the judges' attention. Not to mention, Juliana Valdés!"

Rob laughed. "I get to hang out all day, just me and four amazingly hot girls dressed up like medieval princesses? Sweet!"

Abby looked at Rob with a mischievous glint in her eyes that made him sit up in his chair. "What?"

She grinned at him with a sweet smile that was all too innocent. "There is a price to pay for the honour of escorting us to the convention."

Rob frowned. "What price?"

"Nothing too bad," Renata chirped. "Just a tunic."

"A what?"

"And tights." She giggled.

Rob processed this and then his face paled. "Oh, no! No way!"

All of us laughed, even Eva.

"Yes, way," Abby said. "You didn't think that the Mystic Priestess, the Fair Princesses Cali, and Evil Mummy Dearest were going to show up without their champion druid warrior, did you?"

"Um, yes, I did."

I sort of felt bad for him, but not enough to let him get out of wearing a costume. "If it helps, you get to have a sword," I offered.

"You can't already have a costume for me," he argued. "How would you know what size to make it?"

Abby laughed. "My dad has a gift for sizing people up. You met him the night you came over to watch movies. Not to mention there are so many helpful pictures of you on Facebook."

At Rob's confused frown, Abby smirked. "All those after-school practices you do without a shirt have proved too tempting for the girls in our school!"

Wow. I was really going to have to befriend some of the girls in our school. Or maybe start watching some soccer practices.

Abby purred appreciatively, making Rob blush so fiercely I was sure his face would never be a normal shade again.

"Sorry," I whispered, offering him my hand under the table for support. He snatched it up as if it might make him invisible and shot me a grateful smile.

"Just think of the outfit as a uniform, and you'll be fine," Renata teased.

"The costume will fit," Abby promised, "but you should come over to my place early in the morning Sunday, just in case they need to make any quick alterations. Actually, all of you need to come over early because my dads asked their friends from the show to come over and do our hair and makeup."

"No way!" Renata, Eva, and I all shouted together.

Both my dad and Lucia erupted with laughter. "Nothing like a makeover to get a girl excited, eh?" Dad teased, sending a sympathetic smile Rob's way.

Rob sighed and squeezed my hand again. "Fine. Because it's Val's birthday, I will be her Prince Charming for the day."

"My Warrior." I leaned over and kissed Rob's cheek. "You're the best."

He gave me a rueful smile with a look that said I owed him, then turned back to Abby. "I draw the line at makeup!"

 

Chapter Text

FantasyCon was everything I'd ever dreamed it would be, and my friends and I looked amazing for it. Abby's dads were so good, we didn't look as if we'd stepped off the movie set, we looked as if we'd found a way to transcend worlds and come straight from the Realm itself.

None of my friends were actual fans of fantasy like me. They weren't familiar with the references, authors, and concept artists we met, like I was, and they didn't almost faint when they got to meet Richard and Kahlan from Legend of the Seeker the way I did, but that didn't matter. They got a kick out of all the other people in costume and took no small amount of pleasure in laughing at my geekiness. That was okay. It was still one of the most amazing days of my life.

The Druid Princess panel discussion was an experience all its own. It made me so excited for the movie I didn't think I'd be able to wait until its Christmas release. After it was over, the people with tickets for the meet-and-greet lined up to get their autographs from the panel members.

Abby, Renata, and Eva had scarcely breathed since we walked into the room and saw Juliana Valdés sitting just a few feet from us, and poor Rob was reduced to a drooling mess at the sight of her and Kaylee Summers. My star struck friends indulged me though, and waited patiently for me to meet The Druid Princess author, L.P. Morgan, first.

He was paired at a table with the movie's screenwriter, Academy Award winner Jason Cohen, and I almost died when I got caught up in a discussion with them and a few other diehard Jana Chronicles fans about the adaptation process and how they were handling the sequels. I got to take my picture with them both, and they even let me record our discussion on my phone for my blog. It was seriously a dream come true! I was on cloud nine when I was finally pulled away from them and carted off to meet Juliana Valdés and Kaylee Summers.

"I can't believe you got all fan girly on those two skeezy old men when Juliana Valdés is sitting right over there," Eva said as we waited in line for our turn to meet the guests of honour.

Not even her attitude could kill my mood today. "Juliana Valdés is hot, but L.P. Morgan is my hero. The man is a genius." I hugged the hardback book I'd brought with me to have him sign. I wished it could have been my mother's copy of the book from when she was a girl, but I would still treasure this new book. I squeezed it again, releasing a dreamy sigh. "I can't believe I finally got to meet him."

Eva shook her head. "You are so weird."

Abby threw her arm over my shoulder. "Yeah, but we like her anyway."

"So, Val, are you going to thank Juliana Valdés for your birthday present?" Renata asked.

"No." I repeated myself when everyone looked at me as if I were crazy. "No. I don't want her to know who I am."

"Why not?"

Because she probably knows Jana, and then she'd tell her she met me. "I just don't want to, okay? Please don't say anything."

"She probably knows Jana," Abby said, voicing my exact thoughts, except she made it sound like that was a good thing. "You could get her to tell you Jana's name, and then we could find her on Facebook and see if she's as hot as she sounds."

"I don't need to confirm that. Jana doesn't want to meet me. Ever. I don't want to know how good-looking she is."

Abby and Renata both frowned at me, but Rob came to my rescue. "Guys, leave her alone. Jana's an idiot anyway for not wanting to meet her. We should be helping her get over her, not encouraging her."

Eva scoffed, but I wasn't sure if she was annoyed by what he said, or miffed that he'd slipped his arm around my waist. She continued to glare at me until we finally reached the front of the line and came face to face with Juliana Valdés.

Juliana Valdés was hot on TV. In person, she was downright mesmerizing. Those eyes that somehow smouldered while they twinkled... and that smile...

"You five look incredible!" Juliana said, breaking the silence for us when her physical presence had rendered us all speechless. "By far the best costumes I've seen this year. I hope you entered the competition." Her eyes moved to Eva and Renata and immediately travelled the lengths of their bodies. "Twins," she purred when she was done ogling. "You fair maidens are the most beautiful Cali's I've seen since this convention started."

I couldn't stop the snort that escaped me. If she really was friends with Jana, it was no wonder why. They were two peas in a pod.

I blushed when Juliana glanced at me curiously, but I was more concerned with the hurt look on Renata's face and the glare on Eva's. I quickly swallowed my laughter. "Sorry."

Renata shot me a "what the hell" look and I cringed. I was having a fairly progressive day with Eva so far, but insulting her in front of Juliana Valdés was not going to put me in her good graces. "I'm sorry," I said again, more repentant this time. "Of course she's right. You know you're both gorgeous. I was just laughing at the cheesy line."

"Cheesy line?" Juliana asked. Her voice suggested she was offended, but her twitching lips and laughing eyes told a different story.

I hadn't meant to insult her, but it was too late to take it back, so I had to defend myself. "Yes. It was cheesy. And I'm sure you've probably said that exact same thing to every girl you've met this week. I find it amazing that you can still deliver it with a straight face."

Juliana blinked at me in surprise. Next to her, Kaylee Summers laughed. "Well, look at that baby!" Condescension dripped from her tone, thick as molasses. "Someone else who's not impressed with your bullshit."

I was afraid I'd offended her for real this time, but she smiled as if I presented a delicious challenge. "She wouldn't be dressed as Valentina if she were easily susceptible to charm," she told Kaylee, while never taking her warm brown eyes off of me. "I meant the compliment, though. Your friends really are two of the most beautiful Princess Cali's I've seen this weekend." He sent a quick wink at Eva and Renata, causing them both to blush. "Just as you are the loveliest Valentina I've met so far."

I snorted again. "I'm probably the only Valentina you've met."

Juliana's grin widened into a heart-stopping smile. "You're still enchanting. Those eyes..." She paused for a moment, staring rather intently at my eyes, and frowned. "Have we met before?"

"Ha! No. We haven't met."

"Are you sure? You look familiar. I swear I've seen those eyes before."

I gulped. It was possible she'd seen a picture of me on my blog. I hadn't posted one since the last time I went on a book trip with my mom. That was months before my accident. I looked a lot different now, older with no more braces, but my blue eyes, brown hair and fair skin were unmistakable.

I forced myself to smirk. "I'm pretty sure I'd remember meeting a famous movie star." She still looked sceptical, so I added, "Especially one who uses such cheesy pick-up lines."

Finally, Juliana laughed. She poised a Sharpie over a glossy headshot, ready to sign an autograph for me. "All right, I give. What's your name, beautiful?"

My cheeks flamed despite my best efforts. I pointed at her picture and shook my head. "That's okay. I don't need one of those. I just wanted to bring you this."

I handed her a copy of The Druid Princess. Unlike the nice hardback I had L.P. Morgan sign, this one was one of the cheap mass-market paperback versions that had replaced the original cover with the cast of the movie. She happily accepted the book, then looked up at me. "And who am I making it out to?"

I suppressed an eye roll. "I don't want you to sign it. I want you to read it."

Juliana squinted up at me. "Come again?"

I sighed. "You're playing one of the most cherished characters of all time. I don't care how many academy awards Jason Cohen has won for his writing; there's no way the screenplay could do the book justice. I know it's too late to help you with the first movie, but there are four more to go. I really, really want you to understand who Jana is, so I'm begging. Please. Read the books. I swear, they're worth it."

Every stranger within earshot gaped at me like I was a total freak, except for the other diehard fans that clapped and cheered. Renata and Eva wore matching horrified expressions. Even Rob and Abby both looked a little taken aback.

Juliana Valdés' expression was hard to describe. She appeared to be having the time of her life. Her smile had somehow, impossibly, gotten bigger, but she also looked baffled, and she stared at me with something resembling suspicion in her eyes. "You think I haven't read the books?"

That's exactly what I thought. "You mean you have?"

She laughed. "Why do you think I demanded to play the role? I agree wholeheartedly that Jana is one of the most cherished characters of all time. I couldn't let someone else play her. I can't wait to film Reign of Glory. That was my favourite book in the series."

I snapped my mouth shut, unsure when it had fallen open, and my lips quickly curved into a big smile. "Reign of Glory was good," I agreed, "but The Druid Princess is still my favourite. I'm a sucker for a good origin story. Jana's is so tragic and moving, yet it brings such a sense of hope to a desperate kingdom. Not to mention the mystery of who she is has been described masterfully in that book."

"No doubt," Juliana agreed. "The Druid Princess is my second favourite. But I love it when Jana finally gets to go back home, not as a useless farmer, but as a kick-ass druid warrior. The girl kicks ass like a master. The action in Reign of Glory is epic."

Now I did roll my eyes. "Battle scenes. Seriously? I bet you also love what the movie producers have done with Princess Cali's outfit, too!"

Something changed in Juliana then. Fire filled her eyes, a truly heated passion that I didn't quite know how to explain. Her suspicion melted into a knowing smirk and she flicked her gaze back over Eva and Renata before giving me a rakish grin. "I definitely didn't complain."

As I groaned, Juliana sat back and folded her arms over her chest, appraising me with amusement. "Tell me something. Why did you dress as Valentina? Was it because she's covered from head to toe? Are you some kind of prude?"

I scoffed and Renata slapped her palm to her forehead. "Oh, great! Now you've done it. She'll be griping about this for weeks."

As Juliana considered Renata's words, I clenched my staff and resisted the urge to smack her upside the head with it. "I am not a prude. I just don't appreciate Hollywood sacrificing the integrity of something just to get perverted people, like you, to buy tickets. In the books the Princess Cali was a warrior, but she was still a princess. Your dad turned her character into some useless, slutty bimbo. It's so demeaning to women! We can be beautiful while fully clothed, you know."

"So I see," Juliana teased, blatantly checking me out.

I swear I felt her eyes travel the length of me, like a caress. I fought back a shiver.

"So why Valentina?" she asked again.

"Because she's the greatest character in the books."

Renata recognised one of my rants coming on and tried to push me aside before I got started. "Okay, Val, there are still other people waiting. We don't want to take up all of Juliana's time."

"She's right, Juliana," Kaylee said, not bothering to hide her annoyance. "Just sign the girl an autograph and send her on her way."

Juliana ignored her girlfriend. "You think Valentina is the greatest character in the books? What about Jana? She's the hero. She saves the entire kingdom."

The question was clearly a taunt. She was riling me up on purpose. As much as I tried not to let her bait me, I couldn't resist arguing. "Sure she does, because she had Valentina to guide her. Without her, she would have been nothing."

"Nothing?" Juliana scoffed. "She had her magic. She still would have rocked it."

"Yeah, but she would have come into her power and become just another self-entitled, snobbish, idiot princess, drunk on her own power." Not too unlike the one sitting in front of me.

From the look on her face, Juliana knew what I was thinking. "As it was," I pressed on before she could call me on it, "she still chose to marry the hot chick when she was truly in love with Valentina."

"But Valentina became a priestess. She took a vow of celibacy."

I groaned. I had this very same argument with Jana like a million times. In fact, it was the very first argument we'd ever had. The first time she left a comment on my blog, it had been to defend Jana's decision to marry Cali even when she was truly in love with Valentina.

"She became a priestess because Jana rejected her. She broke her heart!"

"She didn't have a choice!" Juliana yelled back, getting as passionate about our argument as I was, clearly a true fan. "She may have loved Valentina, but she was a commoner. Cali was Crown Princess of the Flatlands. Their union created peace between the two kingdoms. Jana did the noble thing, putting her own feelings aside for the good of the kingdom."

"Noble?" I groaned again. "What she did wasn't noble at all. It was an act of cowardice. She did what was expected of her because it was easier. A real warrior would have fought to be with the woman she loved, social class be damned."

Juliana reared back in her chair, stunned by what I said, but I wasn't going to take it back. Her shock disappeared quickly, though, and that satisfied, knowing smirk settled back on his face. I didn't get the joke, but whatever it was, Juliana Valdés was clearly enjoying it. She arched a brow at me and folded her arms stiffly over her chest. "I thought you just said Jana was one of the greatest characters of all time."

I matched her stubbornness. "Every great character makes mistakes. Jana was wise by the end and able to rule over her people only because Valentina taught her how to think beyond herself. She was a great character, but..."

"I know, I know," Juliana interrupted with an over-the-top sigh. "Valentina was the real hero."

I froze. As I looked into Juliana's eyes, she stared back at me with a knowing smile, waiting for me to catch up. Punch line delivered. The message came through loud and clear, and my heart stopped beating. There was no way! It couldn't be possible!

"What made you say that?" I was hardly able to speak loud enough to be heard.

Juliana's face smoothed out and she shrugged her shoulders. "It was what you were going to say."

"Yes, but how did you know? Why did you say those particular words?"

We both knew I already knew the answer. Juliana leaned forward in her chair, watching me with a new intensity. Her grin turned positively wicked and she whispered, "Say car for me."

Next to me, someone gasped. I thought maybe it was Renata, but I couldn't be sure. I was still in too much shock to think clearly.

Jana! I was talking to Jana! Jana didn't know Juliana Valdés. Jana is Juliana Valdés!

I felt as if lightning had struck me. The shock was so great that it knocked me back a few steps. I stumbled into Rob, who grabbed me when my knees tried to give out. He held me around the waist to steady me, which was good because I wasn't sure I could stand on my own.

Then, I stared, incredulously, as famous Hollywood heartthrob Juliana Valdés jealously watched Rob's arms slip around my waist. The hint of malice in her expression was so subtle that I doubt anyone besides me noticed it. Well, and maybe Rob, because his grip on me tightened a tiny bit, and he practically growled as he said, "Are you okay, Val?"

"I'm fine." Things were so very, very not fine. Juliana was Jana! I'd been talking to Jana! I was looking at Jana!

Jana's eyes snapped back to mine. "Val?"

To anyone else, I'm sure it sounded as if she were simply asking so that she could sign an autograph, but I heard her surprise. We had never asked each other what our real names were. She probably assumed Val was only a screen name, like Jana was.

I nodded, dazed. "Valentina," I whispered. My mouth had gone dry. "My mom really loved the books, too."

Juliana's entire face sparkled with delight at learning my real name.

"Juliana!" a shrill voice hissed in an angry whisper. "Baby, you're starting to cause a scene. Stop flirting with her and sign a damn autograph already."

I broke away from Juliana's stare to find Kaylee Summers giving me a glare so nasty it could have brought Eva to tears. So many things clicked into place. Jana complained so many times about her life being crazy, complicated, and out of her control because she was a famous movie star. And the girl she was being pressured to date, the shrew, was her co-star, Kaylee Summers. Her fiancée.

The realisation stunned me all over again. "Congratulations on your engagement," I muttered to her, choking back bile. "I'm sure you'll make a beautiful bride."

I didn't realise I was shaking until Rob crushed me to his chest. "Are you okay?"

I buried my face in his shoulder and shook my head. I was definitely not okay. My heart was breaking. It had broken before, when my dad left, and again when I learned my mother was dead. It had even broken a third time when Jana had refused to meet me. But it had never broken like this. "I need to get out of here."

Rob didn't ask questions.

As we turned to walk away, Jana called out to me in a panic. I looked back and wished I hadn't. Her eyes bore into mine, begging for understanding. Her pain and frustration were so plainly on display that I felt it all the way to my soul. Or maybe that was my own agony.

After a noticeable moment of the two of us staring at one another, Jana pulled her eyes away from me to scribble her name on a photo. When she gave it to me, she didn't let go right away. She cast her eyes down to the picture we were both holding, as if she wanted me to look. My eyes dropped and I almost gasped again. Instead of an autograph, she'd written:

I can explain.
Meet me at the Dragon's Roost at Six.
Jana

"It was truly a pleasure to meet you, Val."

I jumped at the sound of her voice. When I looked back up, she mouthed the word 'please' and let go of the photo.

"Thanks," I muttered, and then let Rob drag me out of the way so that everyone else could have the chance to get Juliana's and Kaylee's autographs.

Somehow, I felt like I had been run over by a train.

 

Chapter Text

Juliana POV

Valentina was the most incredible woman I'd ever met. She was witty and spirited and not the least bit intimidated by my fame. And she was so beautiful! I'd noticed her before the discussion panel even started. Aside from the fact that she and her friends really stood out among the crowd with their amazing costumes, I'd seen hundreds of Cali's and Jana's over the past five days, and even a few Queen Nesonas, but Val was the first person to dress as the infamous druid priestess.

She intrigued me immediately, and I kept an eye on her throughout the whole discussion panel. I could tell she was a diehard fan and found myself getting impatient for her to come talk to me after the panel, when she headed straight to L.P. Morgan first and then stood there for nearly twenty minutes having what was clearly the discussion of her life with him and Jason Cohen. It killed me not to be a part of that conversation.

Once she was finally standing in front of me, I saw for the first time how truly striking she was. The other girls with her were all pretty, but Val was so different, with her fair skin and those big, blue eyes that popped out beneath the hood of her cloak.

I didn't know why I never considered the possibility that my Valentina would come to FantasyCon now that she lived in Los Angeles, or that this mysterious, beauty could be her, but it didn't take long to figure it out. The thought crossed my mind when the first words out of her mouth were an insult. It was just so Val to not be impressed with my harmless flirting. Then she dropped that damn book in my lap and insisted I read it. Only Val! And, of course, her comment about Cali's costume confirmed it.

She was brilliant, amazing, everything I ever dreamed she'd be... and she was in the arms of another guy. Now I understood why Kaylee was so crabby with me all the time. When that scrawny soccer bastard put his hands on Val, I wanted to jump over the table and strangle him. Here I was, finally in the moment I'd dreamed of having for years, and all I could think about was the way that guy held Val as if she belonged to him. And she was letting him! When Val finally came out of her shock and realised that I was Jana and that I was 'engaged' to Kaylee, she'd thrown herself into that lucky jerk's arms and asked him to be her knight in shining armour. The asshole was even dressed up as a warrior.

I was supposed to be her warrior! Val was supposed to be mine!

I asked her to meet me, but I saw the look on her face, the horror in her eyes, and wasn't sure she would show up. If she didn't, I was going to track her down, even if I had to break down the door of every damn house in LA.

Kaylee confronted me the second we were back in our suite after the meet-and-greet. "Juliana," she began in that sickly sweet voice that grated on my nerves until they were raw, "let me explain something to you about being in a relationship. When you are supposedly in love with someone, you don't flirt with every damn pair of eyes that strikes your fancy! What the hell was that?"

Stripping off my top, I headed into the bathroom to examine myself in the mirror. Should I put my hair up, or not? I know Val said loose hair was sexy. But if we ended up getting close, and I very much hoped we would, having it up would probably be better.

"That back there was the end of this publicity stunt!" I said after Kaylee followed me into the bathroom, waiting for an explanation.

I briefly met her eyes in the mirror, then began to experiment with different hairstyles. "I'm done, Kaylee." My mind had been made up the second I recognised Val, and once I had decided that I was finished with this charade, I was filled with serenity. "We can end it however you want. You can tell people it was you, or you can say I dumped you and play up the heartbroken angle, I don't care. Whatever you want, but it's over. I'm not doing it anymore."

"Excuse me?"

I stopped combing my hair. "That wasn't just any woman back there, that was Val!"

Kaylee didn't say anything for a moment, but her eyes narrowed and her lips pursed together tightly. She was remembering the meet-and-greet and seeing my interaction with Val through a new light.

"That was Val? You can't be serious." She laughed a hard, humourless laugh. "That sarcastic little bitch is what you've been fussing about all this time?"

I dropped the comb whirled on Kaylee, backing her against the wall behind us. "Don't ever talk about her like that. I'm done with you, Kaylee, and I'm going after her. You can either make this easy or complicated, but if you try to pull any shit, I'll come clean about the relationship being a sham from the beginning. I'll tell everyone how the spoiled little princess threw a Lindsay Lohan-style tantrum and blackmailed me into a fake engagement. I'll tell everyone how you threatened to ruin my career, get my dad fired, and sabotage the film all because you're crazy and obsessed with me."

"Obsessed with you?" Kaylee scoffed. "You're not worth the drama. There are hundreds of people out there better-looking and richer than you who would be grateful for the chance to be with me."

"Good. Go torture some of them."

Ignoring Kaylee's glare, I finally decided to leave my hair down, misted myself with a perfume I hoped Val would find irresistible, and went to find something fresh to wear.

"No one will believe you, you know," Kaylee argued, following me into the bedroom. "Not with your reputation for being such a player."

What a joke. "Trust me, Kay, everyone in town already knows you're a cold-hearted bitch. Mentally unstable diva wouldn't be too far of a leap."

I rummaged through my things and found a dark t-shirt and leather jacket that women always seemed to like. Hopefully, Val would, too.

"What about the Zachary Goldberg film? The contracts are still in negotiations. Nothing's signed yet. I can still make my father back out."

"You're overestimating your importance, babe," I said as I slipped the t-shirt over my head. "You may have persuaded your father to hear the proposal, but I was at that meeting, too. He loved the script and has the most prestigious director and the hottest up-and-coming actress already signed up. The project is gold."

I patted myself down and checked the mirror one last time. Satisfied with what I saw, I slipped my wallet and phone in my pocket. It was already six, so I called the restaurant to tell them I would be a little late and not to let Val go anywhere.

"I can still ruin your career," Kaylee said darkly. "I can drag your reputation through the mud. I can have the paparazzi so far up your ass you'll need surgery to have them removed."

Her anger rose as she became more desperate, but she no longer had any effect on me. I was beyond caring. "Do your worst. Whatever damage you do won't be permanent."

"You'll lose your Oscar!"

A few months ago that might have bothered me, but what was a damn statue worth if it meant I would lose Val? I shrugged. "Maybe. But even if you ruin my chances this year, I've got time to prove to people I'm for real. I've got four more Jana Chronicles movies and a project with Zachary Goldberg coming up. I only needed you to make me look good in the first place because I was an immature asshole, but I'm not that person anymore. I have Val now, and she won't just make me look like I'm serious. With her, I am."

Kaylee stood there, staring completely dumbfounded, as she finally realised she'd lost this argument. In one last desperate attempt to get what she wanted, she crossed the room and placed her hands delicately on my chest. "Juliana..." She gazed up at me with lust-filled eyes as she slid her arms up over my shoulders and pressed her body against me. "Baby, please don't go."

As Kaylee brushed her lips over my jaw, I wondered how I'd ever found her tempting. I grabbed her arms off my shoulders and untwined myself from her grip. "Sorry, Kay. There's only one woman for me now, and you are not her. You don't even come close."

For the first time since I met her, Kaylee's true emotions cracked the surface and she was unable to hide the hurt my rejection caused. I felt bad for exactly two seconds. Then, a knock on the door made my stomach explode with butterflies. "It's Mateo."

"Juliana, you can't do this!"

Ignoring Kaylee, I opened the door, suddenly in the biggest hurry of my life. Mateo stood there with an excited grin on his face, holding up the book I'd asked him to get and a large green cloak. "I have the things you asked for."

"My hero!"

"Good luck."

"Juliana!" Kaylee shouted again.

"Sorry, Kay, I gotta go." I wrapped the cloak around my shoulders and pulled the hood over my head. The cloak was more Lord of the Rings than The Jana Chronicles, and hopefully the disguise would be enough to get me through the convention centre to the restaurant, unnoticed. "Mateo's going to pack up my stuff and check me out of the room. Play nice and leave his man parts intact."

Kaylee glared for all she was worth and I blew her a kiss in return, giddy from my new freedom. "See you on the set of the sequel, Princess."

. . . . .

The Dragon's Roost was a restaurant inside the convention centre. I stood back across the aisle from the entrance, scoping out the scene. I wished I'd picked a more private place to meet, but I panicked when Val started to walk away from me and the only place that came to mind was the café where I'd eaten lunch that afternoon.

Considering the event was packed, dining options were limited, and it was prime dinnertime, the restaurant was crowded. There was a line at the hostess stand twenty people long. At least I'd reserved a booth in the back ahead of time, and so far, my Elven cloak of invisibility had done its job. I blended right into the crowd of fantasy lovers. No one in the world besides Val and Mateo had any idea I was coming, so as long as Val and I didn't cause a scene, we should be fine.

I was fifteen minutes late, but I wasn't the only one. Just as I was about to head inside, five people in amazing costumes who I instantly recognised walked up next to the hostess stand and stopped.

"I don't think I can do this," Val said as she peered nervously into the restaurant.

My stomach flipped. She was standing just three feet from me. Too tempted to get a read on her feelings, I leaned against the front wall of the restaurant and pulled my hood just a little lower over my face. I kept my head down and pretended to be very interested in texting someone while stealing as many glances at her as I could.

"Of course, you can," the redheaded girl in the Queen Nesona outfit said.

The brunette with the short hair just frowned at her. "Why not?"

It was a very good question.

A crazed laugh bubbled up from Val's throat. "Why not? Because she's Juliana Valdés! She's America's favourite bad girl. She's dating Kaylee Summers, for heaven's sake!"

The redhead snorted. "Yeah, because that was a healthy relationship."

I choked back a laugh. Apparently, Kaylee and I weren't as good at acting as we thought.

"People like her do not hang out with girls like me, Abby."

Val's fierce declaration was startling. How could she think that?

"But she's Jana. She's your best friend," the brunette argued.

I wanted to hug her for pointing that out, but Val's response was frantic. "Because she doesn't really know me! It's different online. If I meet her now, everything changes. What if she's disappointed and I end up losing my best friend?"

Impossible. I found it ironic that she was the one worried about losing me now, when it had been the other way around the day I refused to meet her.

"There's no way she'll be disappointed," the redhead, Abby, promised, "but if she is, then I'll be your new best friend and we can feed her to the flesh-eating worms."

I smiled at that. It was easy to see why Val liked Abby.

The Cali with the short hair put her arm around Val. She had to be one of Val's stepsisters, Val had mentioned they were twins, and she was obviously the good one. The evil one was standing back from the others, wearing a very Kaylee-esque scowl.

"She's clearly nuts about you," the good sister said. "She was flirting like crazy with you even before she figured out who you were. In front of her fiancée!"

Well. At least someone appreciated my charm. Obviously not Val, though, because she groaned and said, "She flirted with everyone. It's her job to be friendly with fans."

Her annoyance was amusing, but my attention was drawn by a loud scoff from Mr. Fantastic. Thankfully, he wasn't glued to Val's side anymore, but he was still standing close enough to make me crazy with jealousy.

"That was way beyond friendly, Val. She was seconds away from jumping over the table and punching me in the face just for standing next to you."

Soccer Boy was really perceptive. I had been close to doing exactly that, but not because he was just standing next to her. The evil sister agreed with me. "You mean hanging off her," she muttered. "You may as well have pee'd on her!"

It was funny, and completely true, but Val paled and her other stepsister was pissed. "Eva, don't be so mean!"

"It's Val's fault," Eva argued. "She's been stringing Rob along for weeks because of her precious Jana, and now she doesn't even want to meet her. What a tease!"

Before I had time to try and decipher what that meant, Val snapped. "Of course, I want to meet her!"

"Then what's your problem? Obviously, she wants to meet you too, or she wouldn't have asked you to come."

"I hate to agree with Eva," Abby said, "but she did ask you to meet her, and she didn't have to do that. If you don't talk to her, you know you'll regret it for the rest of your life."

"But she doesn't know about me," Val blurted suddenly. "I've never gone into detail about my accident. She doesn't know I'm... I'm..."

I glanced up so sharply that I would have been discovered if all of Val's friends hadn't been too shocked by her confession to notice me. The looks on their faces ranged from pity, to sad, to sympathetic, and, of course, a very satisfied smirk from Kaylee Jr.

"You've never told her?" Abby asked quietly. "Even after all this time?"

Val looked as if she wanted to cry as she shook her head. I was going to go crazy if I didn't figure out what the hell they were talking about. Val needed to go inside already so I could talk to her myself.

"Jana was the one person I never had to talk about my condition with, so I didn't. I didn't think it would matter. I didn't think I would ever meet her."

The nice sister shook her head. "It won't matter. She's going to love you anyway."

Well, that was the truth.

Eva laughed and it came out as a cackle. "Sure, she is!" she cried. "She's going to give up Kaylee Summers for you. It'll be the real-life version of Beauty and the Beast, only backwards!"

I nearly dropped my phone because I was clenching it so hard. Val wasn't joking when she said her stepsister had a lot in common with my girlfriend. I was damn near ready to break cover and give her a piece of my mind, but Rob beat me to it. "Shut up, Eva! I'm so sick of your attitude!"

Eva looked so shocked to be yelled at that I wondered if anyone had ever dared do it before. Probably not. Only, Rob didn't stop there. "You want to know why I didn't ask you to the dance? It's because it doesn't matter how hot you are; every time I look at you, all I see is a cruel, selfish bitch."

The entire group was stunned by Rob's outburst. Even me. Damn the man for earning some of my respect.

Eva's eyes filled with tears and she stalked off without another word. I almost felt bad for her, but quickly forgot all about her because the second she left, Rob took Val's face in his hands and plastered a passionate kiss on her. If he hadn't said what he said next, I would have decked him. "You are beautiful, Valentina," he promised. "And I am jealous as hell right now because you are going to go in there and make Juliana Valdés fall madly in love with you. I have no doubt."

Too late, I thought, smiling to myself. I decided I couldn't begrudge Rob the kiss since the guy really seemed to care for Val, and it was the only one he was ever going to get.

"Go get her," Rob told her, and then gave her a gentle nudge toward the front door.

I tugged my hood down again and slipped away when the group took a step closer to me. I waited a few minutes because Val looked like she might need a moment to compose herself after all the drama, a minute later I stepped inside, determined to finally claim my druid priestess.

 

Chapter Text

I felt slightly sick to my stomach as I entered the restaurant. I knew what my friends all believed, but the idea of someone like wanting someone like me was too insane to accept, even if I could make myself understand that she was the girl I'd known for years.

I was so lost in thought that I didn't see anyone approach me until a man spoke, "Miss Valentina?"

I drew back a step, startled. "Yes. That's me."

"Welcome. Your table is ready for you." The guy flashed me a brilliant smile. "Right this way, please."

I was a little baffled by the special treatment. Then again, it made sense when the man said, "Miss Valdés is running a few minutes late. She asked me to convey her sincerest apologies, but she should be here in just a few minutes."

"Okay. Thanks."

The restaurant was all one big, open dining floor with tables in the middle and booths lining the outside edges. It wasn't the best place for privacy, but I could tell the manager had tried his best because he led me to a booth in the far back corner. We wouldn't be tucked away entirely, but we wouldn't be in the middle of everything, either. I was grateful for the effort.

The manager fussed over me for a minute, lighting a small candle in the middle of the table. Before he left, I had to ask. "Excuse me, but how did you know who I was?"

The man smiled again. "When Miss Valdés called ahead for a table, she described what you would be wearing. She also said I'd know for certain it was you by your 'stunning blue eyes.'" The man didn't move his hands, but the air quotes were definitely there in his tone.

"And was I right?" a quiet voice asked. A voice that made me shiver.

Jana slid gracefully into the booth across from me and smiled from beneath the hood of a heavy cloak, a cloak a lot like my gorgeous white one, except hers was dark. Her face was shadowed, but the flicker of the candle on the table caused her eyes to gleam in the soft light. Those eyes never left my face as she thanked the manager for reserving us a table and ordered dinner. They burned into me like lasers.

The manager hurried off to give our orders to the kitchen, leaving us alone, well, as alone as two people can be in a crowded restaurant, with my best friend, who just happened to be a famous movie star. For a moment, all we could do was stare at one another.

"Val."

She said my name with reverence and deep satisfaction. My response sounded nervous and unsure. "Jana?"

"Call me Juliana, Val. Please."

She paused, waiting for me to respond.

"Okay... Juliana."

She grinned, and the effect was devastating. "I've always wished I could tell you my name. Every time you called me Jana, it felt like a lie. I hated that you didn't know me."

Finally, the shock cleared from my head. Her words caused reality to crash down on me with vengeance. "Then why didn't you ever tell me?" I was unable to keep my spiralling emotions in check. "How could you not tell me this?"

Her smile faded a little. "If I'd told you, you wouldn't have believed me."

"Maybe not three years ago, but two weeks ago when you said we could never meet? You could have just told me you were famous and way too busy with your big movie and your psycho fiancée to spend time with me."

Jana flinched as if I had slapped her. She seemed stunned by my anger, but what had she expected? Her face crumpled with regret. "Val, that wasn't it. You don't understand."

"No, I finally do." My head spun as everything fell into place with perfect clarity. "It all makes so much sense now. Everything. That's the last piece of the puzzle I've been missing this whole time. Your relationship with Kaylee is a scam. It's a publicity thing, isn't it?"

Juliana grimaced. "I didn't want to have any part of it, but I was in a vulnerable position and everyone insisted it would solve my problem. Plus, there were a lot of people that had a lot to gain if Kaylee and I were together. At the time, I didn't have an excuse to say no. I didn't have you back yet."

Her confession startled me. I wasn't sure what she meant, but it was very hard not to read into it and see things I wanted to see. Impossible things.

She reached both hands across the table, in a gesture asking for mine. When I didn't give her my hands, she pulled hers back and started fiddling with her glass of ice water.

"When you and I first started talking, I'd done a few TV shows and a Disney movie. I was pretty unknown. When I made the jump to teen comedies, everything changed. The fame was crazy. Landing The Druid Princess took my star status from crazy to insane. I can't go anywhere without being mauled. I don't have any real friends. Nobody knows how to treat me like a regular person anymore, and I hate it."

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before continuing. "You disappeared right as my life started to spin out of control. I didn't handle it well. Suddenly I had a whole world of friends, but not a single relationship that mattered. I shut down. Stopped caring. By the time you contacted me again, my entire life was superficial. I was basically dead inside, the world's biggest asshole. That first night we talked again felt like waking up from a foggy dream. You took away the numbness. You made me remember how to feel, how to care about someone other than myself."

Her speech took my breath away. The thought that I could mean so much to somebody, that I could affect someone in such a way, wasn't just shocking, but overwhelming. My heart pounded in my chest, and butterflies bounced around in my stomach like lottery balls. I had to look away from her before I could regain the ability to speak. "Are all actors so... passionate all the time?" I focused on my water glass as my face heated from embarrassment.

I expected her to laugh at me, but she didn't. Her voice sounded as serious as ever. "When it comes to the things we love, we are."

Startled, I looked up into her eyes again. The emotion I saw there was indescribable.

"Aside from my mother, you are the only person in my life that matters to me," she insisted, attempting to penetrate my soul with her gaze. "When I found out you were still alive, I tried to call everything with Kaylee off. I told her I wasn't going to go through with it. I was going to fly to Boston and tell you who I really was."

"Seriously?"

Juliana nodded. "But Kaylee already had the ring, and she caused this huge scene, acting like I just asked her to marry me. There were people everywhere, people I have to work with and reporters. I was stuck. After that, she blackmailed me into playing along. She threatened to ruin my career and get my father fired from the Jana Chronicles sequels. She's evil, Val, ruthless, and she especially hated the idea of you. I didn't want to get you involved, but I always planned on explaining everything as soon as I could. We were supposed to 'break up' after the awards season was over. I was just trying to wait until then to keep you out of the insanity and away from Kaylee. I didn't want you to get hurt."

"Um..." I didn't even bother to hide how flustered I was. "I suppose you're forgiven, then."

Jana let out a breath. Her entire body sagged as relief flooded her from head to toe. She reached her hands out to me again, curling her fingers in a clear 'give me' gesture. There was something so vulnerable about her that I couldn't refuse this time. I gave her only my left hand, knowing I wouldn't be able to extend my right far enough to reach her. She didn't seem to notice. She simply took my one offered hand in both of hers. Her touch felt like fire, even through my satin glove.

"I am glad that we met," she promised. "I'm glad fate stepped in and did what I wasn't brave enough to do."

Again, I had no idea how to respond. Had it really been fate? Did she actually believe in fate? And the way she was looking at me...

She let go of my hand and sat back when she realised how much she was overwhelming me. In the blink of an eye, she reverted to her calm, casual, playful self. "I have something for you."

It took a minute for my brain to switch gears with her. By the time I caught up, she was pushing a book across the table to me. I gasped, recognising it instantly even though I'd never seen it before. It was a first-edition copy of The Druid Princess.

Taking the book with caution, I reverently ran my hand over the cover. It was in good condition yet well-worn at the same time, as if its previous owner had cherished it, read it over and over again while taking care not to damage it. I knew that if I opened the front cover, I would find it signed to me by L.P. Morgan. It was perfect.

"As soon as I met you earlier, I had my assistant drive to my house to pick this up," Jana said as I studied my new treasure. "That's why I was late. I was waiting for him to get back."

I pulled the open book to my face and breathed in its rich scent, not caring if the action made me look like a freak. I'd always loved the smell of books.

"Do you remember that day?" Jana's voice, nothing more than a whisper now, sounded haunted.

I couldn't speak above a whisper, either. "Just bits and pieces, but I remember this."

I flipped to the inside cover and touched the inscription. Even though I'd just met L.P. Morgan for myself this afternoon and had another book with his signature in it, this was different. It was infinitely more special. I swallowed back the emotions that were suddenly threatening to explode from me.

"I was worried that giving it to you would remind you of that day, but I really want you to have it."

I met her solemn gaze with glistening eyes. "I love it. Thank you."

The moment was broken between us when a young waitress appeared with our food. As she set our plates down, she noticed who was sitting there, hiding beneath her Elven cloak of invisibility. She gasped and nearly dropped Jana's plate in her lap. It slipped to the table with a loud clang, embarrassing, but luckily harmless since nothing spilled. The girl was mortified. "I am so sorry, Miss Valdés! Are you all right?"

Jana didn't miss a beat. She flashed her a smile she was likely to dream about for the rest of her life and said, "Ah, no worries. If a girl as pretty as you had taken me by surprise, I'd have done the same thing."

I suppressed a groan for our waitress's sake. She ate up the attention like a starving child and blushed an attractive pink. "Th-thank you, Miss Valdés. Is there anything else I can get you?"

How strange would it be to have everyone know your name and reduce people to such clumsy, stuttering messes all the time? I could understand why she'd always liked the anonymity of our relationship so much if this was how everyone treated her. I'd only been with her for fifteen minutes, and I already knew I would hate fame.

Jana glanced at the food on the table and started to shake his head, but then looked at me and changed her mind. "Actually, would you mind taking a picture of us?"

The way the girl's face lit up, you'd think she had just offered to take her home in her Ferrari. "Sure!"

I tried not to smile at how the girl's hands shook as she accepted the phone. I must have failed to hide my amusement because Jana gave me a subtle wink. It was no wonder she had an ego bigger than the moon.

The girl stepped back to get both Jana and me in the shot, but before she could take the picture, Jana got up from her seat and slid into the booth next to me. She threw her arm around me and tucked me snugly into her side.

I stopped breathing.

No, I came completely unglued.

Geez! I was worse than the waitress!

Everything about her flooded my senses. The smell of her perfume, a sweet, fresh scent that was one hundred percent delicious, sexy, and feminine, followed by the feel of her. She was no longer just an Internet persona. She wasn't just a face from a movie anymore, either. She was real. She was warm, and strong, and very, very touchable. I clasped my hands together in my lap so that they couldn't betray me in any embarrassing way.

"Hang on." Jana pulled the hood from her head, then eyed mine. "Do you mind if I just..." She didn't finish her sentence before reaching up to push the cloak off my head. "Don't want that beautiful face of yours hidden in the picture."

She fussed with my hair for a minute, smoothing it down. Her fingertips grazed my cheek as she tucked a random lock of hair behind my ear. It took everything I had in me not to gasp. "There." I could hear the pride in her voice. "You're ready for your close-up, Miss DeMille."

The play on the famous Gloria Swanson line barely registered with me. My skin was still tingling where she had touched me. I looked at her in a daze.

She smiled arrogantly, as though she knew exactly what she was doing to me and liked the effect she had on me. "You didn't seem so scared of me earlier when you were busy making fun of my pick-up lines and calling my character a coward."

"You were just Juliana Valdés then, and there was a table of space between us," I murmured, blinking over and over again as if doing so might magically clear the fog from my brain. No such luck.

"I was just Juliana Valdés?" With a shake of her head, Jana laughed, a deep, throaty chuckle that promised trouble. "Only you, Val!"

Suddenly she ducked her head and put her lips to my ear. When she spoke, her breath blanketed my neck, warm and sensual. It sent a chill through me that raised goose bumps on my arms. "Smile for the camera, Valentina," she whispered. "I promise I won't bite." But even as she promised this, her teeth gently nipped my ear.

Now I did gasp, and she laughed again. "Not hard, anyway," she amended.

She leaned back up and winked at me before turning her glowing smile to the girl waiting to take our picture. Her eyes were as big as saucers. I'm not sure whose face was a deeper red, hers or mine.

"Um, are you guys ready, then?"

"Smile pretty, Val," Jana chirped, giving me a gentle squeeze. "This is going to be my new desktop picture for my computer."

The waitress kindly waited to take our photo until I broke from my stupor enough to manage a smile. Then she handed the phone back to Jana and hurried off to the kitchen to relay the story to the rest of the restaurant staff. Her cheeks were still flushed as she disappeared from our sight.

 

Chapter Text

As soon as our waitress was gone, I elbowed Juliana. Hard. "Moron! I can't believe you just did that!"

She doubled over, but only because she was laughing so hard.

"I'm not one of your little playthings, you perve! Quit invading my personal space and go back to your side of the table. Your dinner's getting cold."

I shoved her and she laughed even harder. She reached across the table and pulled her plate in front of her, she wasn't going anywhere apparently. If anything, her grip on me tightened.

"I didn't peg you for shy, but I like it. You're utterly irresistible when you blush. See?" Grinning, she held her phone up so I could study the picture. Sure enough, I resembled a tomato. "Look how adorable we are together. It's the perfect picture for your first Jana and Val feature."

"My what?"

"On your blog." Jana took a big, sobering breath. "Remember how you used to do those 'Up Close and Personal' posts on your blog whenever you and your mom met a new author?"

For a brief moment my lungs seized up at the memories, but Jana pulled me tightly to her, and I found I could breathe again. Her voice turned soft, shifting with our moods. "I had an idea a while ago. I thought that if we ever did meet in person, we could start a new feature on your blog. It would sort of be like your old one, except instead of collecting authors' autographs in books, we could collect photographs of us with different celebrities."

Shocked by the thoughtfulness of her idea, I stared at her. She met my gaze with a sad smile. "I know it wouldn't replace all the books you lost, nothing could replace those, and I wouldn't want to try, but I thought maybe you could start a new collection." She swallowed nervously and added, "With me."

I didn't know what to say.

"I could whisk you off to different events or movie sets all over the world and introduce you to the actors of the movies you review. We could call it 'The Adventures of Val and Jana.' We could even get an artist to draw us as characters for it, like our own comic. That would be so awesome."

When I didn't respond, she shifted in her seat and ran her hand through her dark locks. I felt bad for making her nervous, but I was so shocked all I could do was gape at her.

"What do you think?"

"Are you serious?"

"Of course."

I let out a nervous bark of laughter. "Don't be ridiculous. That sounds amazing, but I couldn't let you do all that for me."

For some reason, her nerves disappeared. Her expression softened into something that made my heart flip in my chest. The smile on her face wasn't one of amusement or even happiness; it was so much more than that. It was as if somehow, by saying no, I had just made all of her dreams come true. "But that's just it," she said. "You can let me do that for you. Any other girl would let me. Hell, most of them would expect me to. But for you, I want to."

She released her hold on me so she could turn and face me fully. She took both of my hands in hers. "Do you have any idea how much I care for you?"

My stomach lurched up into my chest as she pulled my hands to her lips and kissed my gloved knuckles. "I would take you anywhere, Val, give you anything you wanted. All you'd have to do is let me."

It was my wildest fantasy come true. No, it was every girl in the world's wildest fantasy. Except it was too good to be true. I knew it was. She made it sound so easy, but nothing about either of our lives was that simple.

I pulled my hands from her grip and put a few precious inches of space between us. "What about Kaylee? Need I remind you that, real or not, you have a fiancée right now?"

She shook her head. "That's done. I ended it the second the meet-and-greet was over. I mean, the media doesn't know yet, but Kaylee definitely does." She smirked at a memory. "She was DEFCON 1 level pissed."

I couldn't believe it. She'd dumped her supermodel girlfriend for me. My heart was ready to give in, but my brain was screaming all kinds of warnings at me. Talk about DEFCON 1. I was on such high alert the hairs on the back of my neck were standing at attention. I had to keep this logical. "What about your career? You said Kaylee threatened to ruin you."

Jana shrugged. "She'll try her best. She might do a little damage, but nothing I can't recover from. Nothing that wouldn't be worth being with you."

My heart fluttered again. It was winning the wrestling match against my head at the moment. My resolve was crumbling to bits. "And the bosses you talked about?"

"Agents, managers, publicists, lawyers... There's a whole list of people who control my life."

That's what I thought. "You think all those people are going to be happy about you breaking up with your co-star for me?"

Jana hesitated long enough for me to see the truth she was trying to deny. She glared down at her plate. "We'd be fine." She sounded as if she were trying to convince herself. "They only wanted Kaylee and me to hook up because it would generate some free press for us and douse some of the flames on my reputation."

I raised a brow at Jana and she grinned sheepishly. "In my defence, I only went through so many girls because none of them ever came anywhere close to the only one I really wanted." She kissed my hand again. "As the world will soon discover."

Talk about needing to douse some flames, I was tempted to dump my ice water on my face to cool the heat rising from it.

Juliana chuckled. "The breakup will be bad news because Kaylee won't be classy about it, but the public will like the idea of me dating a normal, non-famous girl. The fans will go crazy over it. Our story would get a ton of press. My management team will have to be okay with it."

Aside from the panic the idea of 'getting a ton of press' gave me, I knew her team of people, the ominous 'they', would never approve of me. The kind of press I would give Jana would only hurt her. I didn't want to harm her career any more than I wanted to expose myself to the world. I was the last person that should ever be in the spotlight.

Jana started to look excited, but I couldn't share her optimism. "I don't think so, Jana, erm, Juliana. I'm the last person your people, especially your fans, would ever accept."

She opened her mouth to argue, but I didn't let her get a word out. I had to say this before I lost the nerve because she needed to know. She deserved to know. "There are things you don't know about me, too. Things I never told you, because, like you with your fame, I was afraid of you treating me differently."

Wariness and determination battled it out on her face as she waited for me to elaborate. I really, really didn't want to. After having her this close, saying all the things I always dreamed she'd say, it was going to kill me when she decided she didn't want me anymore. And I was under no illusion that she would. How could she, at least, not in the kissing-my-knuckles-and-nibbling-my-ear kind of way?

"Ever since my accident, everyone treats me differently, too. Suddenly I'm that girl. The one everyone stares at and whispers about. I'm the girl with all the baggage. The one whose mom died. The crippled girl with the scars."

"Crippled?" Jana jerked in surprise. Her eyes swept the length of me and she frowned. She couldn't see anything wrong.

"Didn't you notice when I walked away from you after we met at the meet-and-greet?"

Her brows scrunched on her forehead as she tried to remember our earlier encounter. "Things were a little hectic then. I was thrown from having met you at all, and I was trying to pay attention to you and my fans at the same time. Besides, how was I supposed to notice anything except how that guy you were with was all over you?"

I almost snorted. If I weren't in the middle of something as painful as revealing the truth about myself, I would have lectured her on the idiocy of jealously. Instead, I shut my eyes and took a deep breath. "My staff isn't just a costume prop. Today, it was doubling as my cane. My friend had it specially made so that I could leave my regular cane at home."

"You use a cane when you walk?"

I nodded. "The doctors told me it was a miracle when I learned to walk again after my accident. I'm grateful that I can do it, but the action isn't pretty. My limp is very pronounced and causes me a fair amount of pain. And I'm slow. That's why I was almost as late as you tonight. It took me that long to walk here from the meet-and-greet. I'm handicapped, Juliana."

Her face fell as my news started to sink in. Her eyes raked me over again, focusing on my lap, but of course there was nothing to see. Yet. "You said you were hurt, but you never mentioned..." Her voice trailed off as she was overcome with emotion.

I figured my condition would upset her, but I hadn't expected the amount of devastation she displayed right then. She didn't even know the worst of it yet. "Juliana..." I gulped, hating to see her sadness. "If you can't deal with that, then there's no way you can handle the rest."

Her head snapped up. "The rest?" she asked, horrified. "There's more?"

Despite my best efforts, tears finally pooled in my eyes. "There's so much more."

I closed my eyes again because I couldn't stand the look on her face, and I felt a thumb wipe a tear from my cheek. The gentle action, so sincere and caring, only made more tears fall.

"What else is there?" she asked in a voice as soft as her touch.

I shook my head, refusing to open my eyes. "I don't want to tell you."

Jana wrapped me in the safety of her arms. Hugging me tightly, she rested her head on mine. "Whatever it is, Val, it won't make a difference to me. I won't think any less of you."

Her promise hurt my heart. I knew she meant it, but she had no idea what she was facing. "Yes, you will."

Unable to stand it any longer, I carefully pulled the long white glove off my burnt arm. "Looks are important to you," I said as I worked the material off my fingers. "You always date the most beautiful girls in the world."

With one final tug, the glove slipped off and I held out my exposed hand for her to see. Juliana tried to hold in her gasp, but her sharp intake of breath was unmistakable.

"I'm not beautiful," I said, pulling away, pre-empting her rejection. "Maybe I was once, but I'm not anymore."

"Val," she choked out in a strangled attempt to speak.

Gently, she took my damaged fingers and caressed the scarred skin. I stiffened when she picked up my hand, but I didn't pull away. She was the first person other than my doctors I had ever let touch my scars. I didn't know how to feel about it. The moment was torture, both good and bad. The sensation was amazing, but my heart ached.

She kept my hand loosely in one of hers while her other hand drifted up my arm, realising that the scars kept going. When she finally spoke, her voice trembled. "What happened to you?"

"The car caught fire. Over seventy percent of my body was burned."

"Seventy percent..."

Our eyes met and suddenly I was desperate to do something I'd never done before. I wanted to show Jana my scars, as much as I could, anyway. Now that I knew her true identity, I wanted her to know everything about me, too. I didn't want any more secrets between us.

We were tucked in the booth in the back of the restaurant, and since she had scooted in beside me she was blocking me from the rest of the room. I was pretty sheltered and no one was paying us any attention, so I reached for the tie at the base of my throat that kept my cloak in place. With shaking hands and my eyes glued to my lap, I pulled the cloak off my bare shoulders and let it fall to the seat behind me.

Jana said nothing. I wondered what she was thinking, but I refused to look at her face. She was a very expressive person, and everything she couldn't say would be written on her face. I wasn't ready to see that. I was too raw.

I lifted my hair and turned so she could see my back, knowing the low cut of my dress would allow her to get an idea of the kind of damage I'd suffered. "It goes all the way down my right side and covers everything from the waist down. My feet are so burned that my toes are deformed."

"Val." Her voice did more than tremble now. I knew if I looked, I would see her crying.

I turned back around, but still couldn't look up. I couldn't face her. "I've never shown anybody this besides my doctors and Abby," I mumbled. "I always keep my scars covered. People are cruel to me. They stare, laugh, and say awful things. I'm bullied at school, and those kids have never even seen anything but my hand and the way I walk. And what's worse..."

I took a breath and turned my arms over, exposing my wrists and the different set of scars there. Jana choked on another gasp and took my wrists into her shaking hands.

"Are you..." She swallowed. "Are you okay?"

There was no point in being dishonest. She knew the answer already. Still, I reassured her as best I could. "I'm not suicidal anymore. I promised you that, and I meant it. I'm not in danger of hurting myself, but I'm not always okay, either."

I finally looked up and was unravelled by the pain I saw on her face. Tears streamed unabashedly down her cheeks. My own eyes welled up to match hers. "I can't hide this. Your fans, and all those people in charge of your career, they would find out, and they would never accept this. They would never accept me. Even if they did, I'm not sure I could handle all of the attention. I couldn't deal with the entire world knowing everything I've been through, everything I've done."

Juliana shut her eyes and lightly squeezed my wrists as she took a deep breath. "No one could blame you for this. You went through something horrific. You lost everything dear to you, including your own body." She brushed her thumbs slowly over my scars. "This is nothing to be ashamed of. What matters is that you survived and got better. Look how far you've come."

I pulled my hands out of hers, unable to take any more of her touch, it was all too overwhelming. Juliana watched me closely as I used my napkin to wipe away the tears that had escaped down my face. There was something different about her now, something in the way she looked at me. Her innocence was gone. She knew the truth, and now saw me the way everyone else did, like she expected me to break any moment. She finally saw me as a damaged, frail creature that she would have to handle with caution.

I had just changed everything. I knew from the look in her eyes that things would never be the same between us again.

 

Chapter Text

Jana pushed her plate away, her appetite gone. We'd been eating in silence for a good ten minutes, but neither of us managed to take more than a couple of bites. She looked at me, trying to figure out something to say. Her pity ripped my soul to pieces. "Please don't look at me like that."

"I can't help it. How am I supposed to react to this? I can't believe you've never explained any of this to me. Didn't you trust me? Didn't you think I would want to help you though this? You'd rather do it alone?"

The hurt in her voice made me feel ashamed. My panic rose with my need to make her feel better. "Of course, I trust you. You've helped me more than anyone else."

"That's not the same." Anger clouded her voice as she struggled to keep hold of her emotions. I knew exactly how she felt.

"Please understand," I begged her. "I didn't want you to treat me differently. I know you know what that's like." Juliana frowned at her plate. "I didn't have anyone, Juliana, no family, no friends. All I had was a man who had abandoned me ten years earlier, and his family who resented me because I was his deep, dark secret. The only thing that's kept me going these past few months was you. You didn't treat me like I was crazy or fragile. You weren't afraid to joke with me and make me laugh. I couldn't lose that."

I looked into her eyes again and completely lost it. Her horror and pity made me angry. "I knew if I told you the truth it would change everything! I knew you'd look at me exactly the way you are now!"

"It's a lot to take in, Val! You have to give me time to process it. My heart is breaking right now."

My eyes started to burn again. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

Jana placed her hands on my shoulders. Her grip was featherlight though she looked as if she wanted to shake me. "No, Val, it's breaking for you. I knew losing your mom had to be hard, but this... I can't even imagine..."

"Please don't." I turned my face away from her. "I don't want your pity."

Jana released my shoulders and placed a hand under my chin. She turned my face back to hers and I was startled by how close she suddenly was. "It's not pity," she promised with all the fierceness of the powerful druid princess she played in the movie.

She brushed my hair back and wiped away my tears again. "I don't know how I feel right now," she said. "I'm overwhelmed."

She took my hands and lifted them up between us. So slowly it felt as if time had crept to a standstill, she brushed his lips over the back of my good hand and then my bad.

I gasped at the feel of her lips on my scars. The touch was more intimate than anything I'd ever experienced. My eyes fluttered shut, causing my tears to get tangled in my lashes.

"I wish there were some way I could take all of this away for you."

She pressed her lips firmly against each of my knuckles, one at a time, as if she were attempting to kiss them better. A violent sob racked my chest and escaped me in the form of a whimper.

"Val." As Jana whispered my name with a new kind of desperation, her hands came up to my face. I knew she was going to kiss me, and even though I was in emotional agony, I wasn't about to stop her. This was Jana, my best friend in the whole world, the girl I have been in love with for years. I wanted this kiss more than I had ever wanted anything in my life.

Her lips gently claimed mine, like she was savouring every second of this moment, taking in every sensation and filing it away in her brain for safekeeping. Her mouth brushed back and forth over mine, exploring and seeking permission. I gave it, opening to her with a soft sigh that robbed her of any restraint.

Passion overwhelmed her and she crashed our mouths together in a kiss worthy of the silver screen. Her fingers dug into my hair as her tongue became intimate with my own in a heated dance. My hands, rested lightly on her chest, rising up and down with her wild breathing. Her heart pounding beneath my palms, while mine beat just as hard.

The moment was magical. A fairy tale. And just like a fairy tale, it ended too soon. The clock on our bliss struck twelve as a bright flash went off in our faces. It was followed by an endless succession of flashes and shrieks.

Juliana and I pulled apart to find our booth surrounded by several men with cameras. Behind them a crowd of fans gathered, creating an impenetrable wall of bodies. Mayhem swept the restaurant. Girls shrieked, and people filmed us with their cell phones. The men blocking our booth, filming us and snapping endless photos, were shouting all kinds of questions at Jana.

No. Not Jana. Juliana Valdés.

It was in that moment that "Jana" faded away and I finally saw the woman I had been kissing as Hollywood pin-up Juliana Valdés. The heat that had so fully enveloped me only moments before turned to ice. I broke out into a cold sweat as I took in our audience.

Juliana must have been used to this kind of thing because she didn't freak out until she read the panic on my face. Then she finally glanced up at the chaos. Her eyes flickered back and forth several times from my frightened expression to the crowd of people, and the blood drained from her face. "Val, I am so sorry. I shouldn't have kissed you here... I wasn't thinking."

With another look out at the crowd, she cursed under her breath and pulled out her phone. "Mateo," she said urgently into the phone, "are you still hanging out around here? Good. Can you get convention centre security over to The Dragon's Roost? Val and I are going to need an escort. Yes. And hurry, it's going to get ugly. Thanks, man."

I couldn't breathe and started to shake. I knew I was beginning to hyperventilate as anxiety took over, but I didn't realise just how panicked I was until Juliana grabbed me by the shoulders and bore her eyes into mine. "Everything's going to be okay, Val," she cooed in that that low, soothing voice she usually reserved for our reading sessions.

My eyes drifted back to the crowd and she took my chin in her hand, forcing my gaze back to her. "Hey, look at me. Right here. Right into my eyes."

I tried to do as she said. I tried to concentrate on nothing but those beautiful, dark eyes, but I couldn't push the sounds out of my ears.

"Who's the girl, Juliana?"

"What about Kaylee?"

"Have you been cheating?"

"Tell us her name!"

"Are you in love?"

"How do you know her?"

"Juliana!"

"Juliana!"

Juliana ignored them all. Her attention was for me alone. "You're okay, Val. This is normal. I've been through it a hundred times. We're going to be fine, all right?"

Her hands slid from my shoulders down the length of my arms and she took my hands in hers again.

"You, girl! Where'd you get those scars?"

"What happened to you?"

"Juliana, what's wrong with your new girlfriend?"

At the mention of my scars, a new horror surfaced in my mind. I wasn't wearing my cloak or my gloves. I yanked my cloak back up over my shoulders, but it did nothing to make me feel better. It was far too late. Right this minute, images of me were being recorded and would be all over the news before I even got home. My worst nightmare had come true.

Juliana had to tie my cloak for me because my hands were shaking so badly. After that, she pulled me into her arms as if shielding me from the vultures currently ripping apart my soul.

I buried my face in her chest and sobbed until I heard the angry shouts of people trying to push the crowd back. I started to lift my head, but Juliana held me and stroked my hair. "Hang on, Val. It's almost over. It's going to be okay in just a minute."

I knew what she meant, but her words sounded like a lie to my ears. This was not going to be okay in a minute. I wasn't sure it would ever be okay again.

I tried to make myself stop crying as I listened to the commotion. Most of the uproar was now coming from the restaurant manager who'd helped me when I first arrived, but I could hear several other deep voices shouting for people to vacate the premises.

"Juliana!"

"Mateo!" Juliana blew out a breath. "Thanks for getting them here so fast. Would you stick around and speak to the manager? Clear up the bill and tell them I'll call later to make sure everything's been taken care of."

"You got it. I'll even give them your apologies."

"How did I ever live without you?"

"Very disorganised."

Juliana laughed, and then a deep voice said, "Miss Valdés'? We'll take you to the security office, but I'm afraid it's all the way across the main hall."

Juliana sighed and pulled my face away from her chest. "You ready to make a run for it?"

I was definitely not ready, but I nodded anyway.

"We'll be fine, Val."

Juliana climbed to her feet and held out a hand to me. I slowly pulled myself up. Reaching for my staff, I took one step in the direction the towering giant of a security guard was ushering me and froze. The convention centre security had forced all dinner patrons back to their tables and managed to clear the restaurant of everyone else, but a large crowd was gathered outside, waiting for us.

"Juliana," I whispered in horror, "I can't do that. What if just you leave? I could wait here and call Renata after the chaos dies down."

"Not a chance."

"But..."

"I am not leaving you to deal with this alone." Juliana glared at me, but her anger really had nothing to do with me. She glanced out at the cameras that were still flashing and shook her head bitterly. "It wouldn't work, anyway. I'm supposed to be engaged. You and I just created one of the biggest scandals Hollywood has seen in a while."

She tried to smile for me, but it fell flat. "At a convention with this many celebrities, every paparazzi in LA is here. Those photographers want to know who you are. If I leave, some of them will follow me, but the rest would wait for you. They'd wait as long as it takes, and then they'd follow you. They'd follow you to your car, and then they'd follow you all the way home and camp out on your front lawn."

My eyes grew wide as the reality of what was happening hit me. Whether I liked it or not, my life would never be the same again.

"Welcome to fame, Val," Juliana mumbled, regret heavy in her voice. "I'm sorry it happened like this, but we'll get through it together, okay?"

She held out her hand to me, but I couldn't take it. I looked out at the crowd that seemed to have doubled since I stood up.

"Miss Valdés'," the security guard interrupted, "the longer we wait the larger the crowd will gather. There are thousands of people in this convention centre today."

Juliana held out her hand to me again.

I shook my head, trying not to panic. "I can't."

"Val, I really am sorry, but you don't have a choice. We've got to go."

"You don't understand!" I snapped. "I mean I physically can't. I can barely walk. I'll never be able to push my way through that crowd."

Juliana blinked as if she were only now remembering there was anything wrong with me. She looked at the way I was holding my weight on my staff and her face paled. That pain-filled, heartbroken expression reappeared. I couldn't stand to see it, so I turned away from her and realised that I'd gained the attention of everyone in the restaurant. My outburst had them all frozen with their dinner forks halfway to their faces.

Glancing around, I saw a hundred different pairs of eyes all focused on me, already judging. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, willing myself not to cry again, but my tears returned anyway. "I can't fully extend my arm, either," I muttered, face flaming with embarrassment. "If I fall or someone grabs me, I could tear my skin grafts. It happened recently. I'm scheduled for another surgery in January because of it."

I didn't open my eyes until I felt Juliana's tender touch as she wiped the wet streaks from my cheeks. "I'm so sorry, Val. I don't know how they knew we were here. I should never have kissed you in public. This is my fault. I just didn't think."

"It doesn't matter now. Let's just get out of here." I couldn't meet her eyes as I added, "Someone is going to have to carry me."

It was so humiliating. Juliana was so perfect, so loved and adored by so many, there were literally hundreds of people gathering outside to see who she was with, and I couldn't even walk out of here by her side.

"That's not a problem, Miss, I can..."

Juliana growled at the security guard who had spoken. "I can do it." She scooped me into her arms as if I weighed almost nothing and cradled me tightly against her chest.

Two men who both looked like they could easily play defence for Juliana's beloved Green Bay Packers huddled up on either side of us. "Ready, Miss Valdés'?"

"My things?" I asked.

"Mateo?" Juliana called.

"I've already got them."

Juliana gave me a small grin. "He really is awesome."

When I couldn't return her smile, she dipped her head towards me and kissed my temple. "I'm so sorry, Val."

She nodded to the security guys and headed out into the convention hall. A crowd of people with cameras swarmed us the second we walked out the door. They shouted and flashed their cameras as they all struggled for better positions with clearer shots. I buried my face in Juliana's shoulder trying to shut them out, but a strangled shriek caught my attention. "Val!" Renata screamed. "Val! Let me through, you big oaf! That is my sister! Val!"

"Renata?"

I couldn't see her, but Juliana nodded to one of the escorts next to her and said, "Those four."

Seconds later Renata, Abby, Rob, and Eva were pulled into the huddle behind me. "Are you all right?" Rob hollered above the noise.

"This is crazy!" Renata shouted.

I nodded in answer to both of them and then buried my face in Juliana's shoulder again. I didn't look up until we were safely escorted into the convention centres security office.

 

Chapter Text

The second Juliana set me down on a sofa in the office, Renata threw her arms around me in a fierce hug. "Are you okay?"

"No." My tears returned with her hug. "I want to go home. How are we ever supposed to get out of here?"

A man who introduced himself as the building's head of security stepped in front of us. "Did you drive here?"

Renata nodded. "We left our car with the valet."

"We'll have them drive your car around to the back entrance where the delivery trucks unload. It's not far from here and that whole area is blocked off to the public. You should be able to leave unnoticed, but we'll send a police cruiser with you just to be safe."

I breathed a sigh of relief. If we could leave today without being followed, then it might not be too late to retain some semblance of privacy. Nobody knew who I was. Even Juliana didn't know my last name or where I lived.

Rob handed our valet ticket to the man and he read the number into a handheld radio. After a quick reply, he smiled at us again. "It'll be here in about ten minutes."

I sank back into the sofa as far as the cushions would give, exhausted now that the adrenaline had left my system. My nerves were so frazzled I wasn't sure I'd ever recover.

Juliana sat down next to me and pulled my hand into hers. She didn't speak, but leaned over and kissed my cheek. A few minutes later her assistant Mateo arrived. "Everything at the Dragon's Roost is taken care of," he informed Juliana as he set down my gloves, book, and walking staff that I'd left behind in the restaurant. "The manager was pretty mortified that you guys were disturbed like that and refused to let you pay for your meal. He sends his sincerest apologies."

Juliana nodded. She looked as tired as I felt when she stood and handed Mateo a set of keys. "One last favour, and then I demand you take a few days off. Would you mind getting Precious home safe?"

I loved the astonishment that washed over Mateo's face. I imagine I would look the same way if Juliana ever asked me that.

"Precious?" Abby asked, confused.

She glanced at me to see if I knew what she meant, and I smiled my first smile in what felt like hours. "Her Ferrari. She named it Precious." I sighed when no one got it. "As in 'my precious'... Gollum... The One Ring...?"

Still nothing. I threw my head back and groaned. "How can I be friends with so many people who don't understand that reference?"

Juliana laughed.

"She's a huge Lord of the Rings nerd!" I explained to my Tolkien-challenged friends.

"Fan!" Juliana corrected, her grin dissolving into a pout. "Not nerd. And like you can talk, Miss I-saw-the-movie-twelve-times-in-the-cinema."

Everyone chuckled and Juliana winked at me before turning her attention back to Mateo. "Would you switch cars with me? Drive Precious home and hang out for a bit until I can bring your car back? There's a bonus in it for you."

"Sure."

"Of course, if you get one scratch on her, you are totally fired!"

Mateo gulped as he stared down at the keys in his palm. "Right. No problem."

Juliana laughed and punched Mateo's shoulder lightly. "I'm messing with you, man. You know I'd never be able to function without you. Just take care of my baby. I won't be too long. I only want to drive Val home and make sure she's all right, but the paparazzi are too familiar with my car."

When I realised what she said, my heart lurched and my playful mood vanished. "I'd rather you didn't," I croaked in a shaky voice.

Everyone in the room froze, and both Abby and Renata came to my side while Juliana frowned at me, confused. I gulped, hoping I'd be able to do what needed to be done without hurting her too much. "I'm sorry, Juliana." The statement was heavy and everyone in the room understood its full meaning.

"Are you sure about this?" Renata whispered.

It wasn't what I wanted, but I was sure it was what needed to happen. What would people say when reporters splashed pictures of my hideous scars all over the media for the entire world to see? What would happen when they discovered my identity? My pain and suffering, my accident, losing my mother, and my suicide attempt would all be showcased to the whole world as nothing more than gossip and cheap entertainment. I didn't think I could live with that.

"I'm sure." I took a few breaths and then forced myself to meet Juliana's gaze. She deserved that much at least. "I could have dealt with almost anything, but this..." I shook my head. "You were right when you said I couldn't handle your world. I can't. I'm sorry, Juliana. I'm not the right girl for you."

Juliana's eyes flew wide open. She crossed the room to me in two long strides, both Renata and Abby scrambled up so she could sit down beside me. She took my hand again and pleaded "Don't do this" with all the passion that made her famous.

Her emotion twisted my insides. I understood exactly why she'd become an actress. Her eyes said so much more than words ever could. Right now, they were telling me how confused, hurt, and even scared she was. I couldn't stand it. Somewhere underneath the exterior was my best friend, the single most important person in my life. I never wanted to cause her worry, and I especially never wanted to hurt her.

The dam behind my eyes threatened to break again. "Two weeks ago, it was you begging for what we had to be enough," I said. "Now I have to ask the same."

Juliana shook her head furiously. "You think there's any way we can go back after today? We can't Val. We belong together, and you know it."

She wasn't making this easy, but I squared my shoulders, determined. "It wouldn't be that simple."

Juliana raked her hand through her hair so violently I feared it would leave a bald spot in its wake. "I know fame is a lot to deal with, I know it's asking a lot of you, but I swear I would make it worth it."

I believed she would try, but I knew she wouldn't really have control of the situation. She complained all the time about not having any control over her life. I knew for a fact that who she dated mattered, hence the reason she'd been with Kaylee Summers.

Dating a girl like me would completely ruin her image. It already had. I just destroyed everything she was trying to accomplish with her fake relationship when I had 'cheated' with her in public. People were not going to forgive me for that. Her world would never approve of me. I was a nobody. I was worse than a nobody. I was crippled and deformed, scarred and ugly.

We really were Jana and Val. I was the commoner, and she a princess. Even if she loved me, eventually she would make the choice expected of her, the noble choice, as she so often told me. She would choose Cali. Maybe it wouldn't be Kaylee Summers, but it would be someone famous. Someone beautiful. Someone worthy of her.

"I can't do it. People tear apart even the most beautiful Hollywood starlets for having a less-than-perfect nose, or an extra ounce of fat. Even if you can overlook my flaws, the rest of the world never will. I can't handle the things they'll say about me. I'm not like you. I'm too self-conscious. Too vain. Too weak."

"Valentina, you are not weak. It might not be easy, but we'll deal with it together. Give us a chance. Please!"

I closed my eyes again and fought against more tears. What I needed to say would be the hardest words I would ever have to speak, but they had to be said. "You are still my best friend. You know I love you more than anything. I will always be there for Jana, but I can't be a part of Juliana Valdés' life. I'm sorry."

I gulped back my emotions and looked to my other friends. "Abby?"

Abby knew what I wanted. She brought me my walking staff and helped me stand up. Juliana stopped me before I got to the door. "I know you're a little freaked out about the fame thing, but..."

"I'm not a little freaked out, Juliana." My last shred of control finally broke and I screamed at her. "I'm terrified! I'm on probation with my therapist right now. I'm one anxiety attack away from being locked up in a mental hospital. One bully attack away from being kicked out of school, and I'm already a full year behind from spending eight months in the hospital."

"Eight months?" Juliana whispered in horrified surprise.

I stopped yelling and the hopelessness I felt seeped into my voice. "Yes. And I still have years of recovery ahead of me. I have my thirty-seventh surgery scheduled for January. I'm still grieving over the loss of my mother, still struggling to accept everything that's happened to me. I'm barely surviving. I don't think I can handle the kind of pressure you're asking me to take on."

When Juliana replied, her voice was small. It was the first time I'd ever heard her sound insecure. "It's not always like that. What happened today was unfortunate, but..."

"Unfortunate?" I choked on a sob that caught me by surprise. "Today was so much more than unfortunate. Only my family and Abby have ever seen my scars like that, and no one besides my doctors have ever touched them. Do you know how huge of an emotional step that was for me? Do you have any idea how vulnerable I was with you today? You shattered every emotional defence I had. You broke me wide open so that I was more exposed than I've ever been."

"I didn't mean to..." Juliana scrambled for words. "I was just so overwhelmed by everything. I didn't realise..." She paused a minute to steady her voice. "Val, I am so sorry."

I felt awful for making her feel guilty. "Please don't apologise, Juliana. Tonight, you made me feel beautiful, special, and loved when I didn't think I'd ever feel like that again. I'm grateful to you for that."

"I'm only upset because right when I felt the first real ray of hope since my accident, those camera guys came and stole it away. The first thing they asked was why you were with me, and what was wrong with me. That moment between us was one of the most beautiful and special moments of my entire life."

Juliana stepped up and wrapped her arms around me. "Mine too, Val."

I finally broke down into a bawling mess. "But that moment is about to be broadcast to the whole world for people to mock and judge and gossip about. My pain and suffering is about to become the nation's entertainment. I can't handle that, Juliana. I don't know how to deal with it. I'm sorry."

I broke free from her grip and looked at the security guy. "Is our car ready?"

The man glanced nervously back and forth between Juliana and me, and then nodded.

"Val, wait. Please."

Juliana tried to argue, but I quit listening. I couldn't bear it. Renata seemed to understand my need to get away. "Not here, okay?" she said to Juliana. "You guys can figure this out, but not now. Let her call you after she's settled down."

"But..."

"Let her go," she said sternly and gestured for the security man to show us to our car.

 

Chapter Text

I eventually managed to stop crying, but I still sniffled all the way home. It was the only sound made in the car the entire drive. When we pulled up into my driveway, Eva was out of the car and slamming the front door shut before the rest of us even had our seat belts off. I hadn't heard her say a word since Rob told her off. I wasn't sure if she was still mad about that, or just really hated Juliana's don't-leave-me-we-belong-together speech. I assumed it was all of the above and doubted she'd ever speak to me again.

Before either Abby or Renata could hand me my walking staff from the trunk, Rob scooped me up into his arms and carried me up the front walk. I was so heartbroken and exhausted that I didn't argue. By the time we got to the front door, my dad and Lucia were standing there, clinging to one another in a worried embrace.

"What happened?" Lucia gasped.

I didn't have it in me to explain.

Rob looked at Renata. "Why don't you two tell them. I'm going to take Val to her room."

Rob nudged the door shut behind him as he carried me into my room and set me on my bed, which I thought was breaking a house rule, but I didn't mention it. He sat down next to me and didn't say anything. The silence was comfortable, but I still broke it. "Thank you."

Rob reached for my hand. He hesitated a second when he realised the closest one was my scarred hand, but then he picked it up anyway. "Are you okay?" he asked as he started running his fingertips over the back of my hand and then my palm, exploring the feel of my skin.

For some reason, I was relieved by his actions. There was no repulsion from him, and now there was no more fear of him touching me. It was as if we'd reached a new level of trust and acceptance. If we could share this moment with no awkwardness between us, then he was truly my friend.

I sat there a minute, watching his fingers on my skin and enjoying the peace in the atmosphere. "You're a good friend to me, Rob. I don't deserve it."

Rob laced his fingers in mine and smiled. "Yes, you do."

His answer came so easily and was so sincere it hurt my heart. "Rob... I really appreciate you trying to help me move past Jana, and maybe someday I'll be ready to do that, but I don't think I can date you right now. I'm sorry."

"Don't be." Rob sighed, but he still smiled at me. "It's not your fault. I didn't get it, Val. I thought you just had some infatuation with the girl because the mystery was exciting. I thought you'd eventually decide that a real flesh-and-blood boyfriend was better than a phone buddy, but what I saw today was not infatuation. Not for either of you."

Rob placed his other hand over the top of our intertwined fingers. "It won't matter how long I wait for you. I could wait forever and it wouldn't do me any good. You belong with her."

I blushed and choked out another apology. He chuckled this time. "It's okay, Val. I can be just your friend. And as a friend, I think I have to tell you not to give up."

I looked up, startled, and he smiled at me. "You guys are in love. Don't give that up because you're scared. It'll be hard, but anything worth it always is, and you'll have your friends to help you."

"He's right, you know." Abby smiled from the entrance to my bedroom. I hadn't heard the door open. "You'll always have us."

Renata stood next to her, face beaming with a bright smile. "You'll have your family, too." She grabbed the remote for the TV, and she and Abby climbed on to the bed. "Come on, we'll check out the damage together."

It took ten minutes of watching the news before the story came up. An anchor-man and woman sat behind a desk and the picture displayed on the screen behind them was of Juliana and I kissing. Besides making me blush in front of my friends, seeing that picture hurt. It teased me with the memory of her kiss. It made me remember how wonderful everything had been for a moment, and at the same time reminded me that I could never have her.

"In entertainment news," the young, sharp-looking woman said, "The Druid Princess star caused a bit of an uproar at FantasyCon this evening when she was seen kissing a woman who was not her fiancée, The Druid Princess co-star Kaylee Summers."

As if a picture weren't bad enough, the screen cut to someone's video footage of my kiss with Juliana. Beside me on the bed, both Renata and Abby sighed. Rob sighed in response to their sighs.

On the TV, Juliana and I snapped apart. My panicked face blinked up into the camera, like a frightened child. I seemed so young and pathetic, freaking out while Juliana tried to comfort me. The image became even sadder when I scrambled to cover my scars with my cloak and then started sobbing into Juliana's chest.

The image on the screen changed to one of us leaving the restaurant, me in Juliana's arms, under the protection of our hulking security guards.

"The lovebirds had no comment for the cameras," the anchor-woman said, "but later Juliana's management team issued a statement saying, 'It wasn't what it seemed. Juliana was working with a charity organisation that grants wishes. The girl was a fan who had nearly burned to death in a terrible accident and had been granted a wish, a kiss from Juliana Valdés. Miss Summers was aware of the situation and fully supportive. The two, although they still have not set a date for their wedding, are as happy as ever and excited for the upcoming premiere of The Druid Princess next month.'"

All the air left my lungs, and my eyes burned. They told people I was a charity case?

"What?" Renata gasped.

She stared at the TV with wide eyes. Abby was gaping at the screen too, shaking her head in disbelief. "There has to be an explanation."

"There is," I muttered. "Damage control."

"But we saw you guys together. Val, the way she looked at you... I don't think she would have..."

I cut her off before she could defend her. "I'm sure she didn't want to, but she does whatever she's told. She was only dating Kaylee in the first place because her management team made her. Her team obviously thought leaving Kaylee for an ugly nobody was bad for her career."

"Val." Rob frowned.

I shook my head, not wanting to let Rob contradict me. "Just turn it off."

Renata reached for the remote, but paused when the anchor-woman said, "Juliana may have been a little camera shy, but we managed to catch up with Kaylee and she had plenty to say on the subject."

"I'm sure she did," the older man next to her joked with a chuckle that set my blood boiling.

"This can't be good," Abby muttered.

The screen changed to a picture of a woman holding a microphone out to Kaylee. Kaylee stood poised and perfect for the cameras. "Oh, please," she said when asked about Juliana kissing me. "Do you really think Juliana would cheat on me for some little girl like that?" She waved a dismissive hand. "She met her for one of those make-a-wish-come-true charity things. The girl's a really big fan of her. She agreed to it because she has some blog she likes. She spent the whole day Friday tweeting about it."

"So, you were okay with them kissing?" the reporter asked.

Kaylee's responding glare made the reporter take a step back. As soon as she could bury her annoyance, she plastered a smile on her face. "Obviously, I wasn't very happy about that," she said, "but I forgive her. I'm sure she just felt sorry for her. I mean, you saw what she looked like, with all those scars. And she can't even walk. That's why she had to carry her out of there. Trust me, I'm not worried."

"She did not!" Abby shouted, outraged.

"She's evil!" Renata agreed.

Rob's fingers slipped into mine as Kaylee Summers' face flashed on the screen with a smug smile. I squeezed the offered hand for all it was worth.

On screen, Kaylee continued her phony gush-fest. "Juliana is just too nice. She has a hard time saying no, especially to her fans. She's always trying to please everyone." She sighed as if she thought Juliana were silly. "She's always trying to be the hero."

"It sounds as if she was the perfect choice to play the heroic Princess Jana, then," the reporter said.

"It's true," Kaylee agreed. Then, suddenly, the easy smile slipped from her face and she stared hard at the reporter. "And if that stalker ever tries to come anywhere near my fiancé again, she'll learn why I was the perfect woman to play the fierce warrior princess Cali. Juliana is mine!"

Renata finally turned the TV off.

Rob, Abby, and Renata immersed me in a group hug. I was grateful to them, but when they tried to console me with words, I asked them to leave. I'd had a long day, and I just wanted it to be over.

. . . . .

Juliana's lie may have saved her reputation, but it destroyed my life. I woke up the next morning to an e-mail inbox full of hate mail. Juliana and Kaylee fans alike didn't take kindly to the psycho stalker who almost broke up the 'perfect' couple. My blog, Twitter, and Facebook were littered with profane, hurtful comments.

At school it was worse because I wasn't just a stalker. To my classmates, I was a pathetic liar. Everyone accused me of lying about being friends with her. Never mind the fact that I never claimed to know her at all.

Rob and Abby were both waiting for Renata and I in the parking lot when we got to school. Their grim faces told me everything I needed to know about how this day was going to go, not that I hadn't guessed. All three of them walked with me through the breezeway, glaring and yelling at anyone who approached me. Their presence didn't stop the bravest people from laughing and shouting horrible things, but at least they kept their distance.

Renata was the first to reach my locker and, with a startled gasp, she whirled around and threw her back against it, covering the front from my view. "Why don't we just go to class? Who needs books?"

"I appreciate the gesture, Renata, but I have to get in there, so I'm going to see whatever it is, anyway."

Renata shook her head.

"Ren, whatever it is I'm going to hear about it sometime today."

When Renata finally stepped aside, Abby echoed her gasp and Rob made a noise that sounded an awful lot like a growl. My lovely classmates had been so kind as to decorate my locker permanent marker-style with words like psycho, stalker, whore, loser, ugly, freak, and cripple.

I told myself they were just words and that they weren't true. I told myself my classmates were jealous and that they didn't know the truth. I told myself that I had three friends standing with me who supported me, and that was all that really mattered. Still, no matter what I told myself, seeing my locker like that hurt.

When I closed my eyes against the sting of tears and sucked in a deep breath through my nose, a hand came down on my shoulder. "Let's call Mom and Dad," Renata said. "They'll let you go home today."

"What would be the point?" I asked. My voice shook as I fought to keep control of my emotions. I opened my locker and swapped out the books I needed for my first class. "If I'm not here today, they'll just wait until tomorrow to harass me, or the next day, or the day after that."

As I slammed the locker closed, Rob's arm came around me. I leaned into him, letting his presence comfort me. He kissed my forehead and then began escorting me to my first class. "We're here with you, Val."

I squeezed him back and took another breath. "Thanks."

If only the three of them could have been with me the entire day. Renata was in my second class, but none of them were in my first class. I was on my own for the walk from first to second period.

I kept my head down to avoid the nasty looks as I walked down the hall. I didn't notice the group of guys trailing me with the desire for malice until it was too late. "Hey, freak," one of them greeted me. That was the only warning I got before he kicked my cane out from under me.

I crashed to the ground amidst a roar of laughter. Luckily, I broke my fall with my good arm, managing at least not to do any more damage to my skin grafts. My reconstructed hip that caused most of my limp slammed against the floor, sending a shooting pain through me so intense that my eyes welled up with tears.

A girl from my first hour class who'd been particularly mean all year draped herself against the guy who'd just kicked my cane and laughed. "Where's Juliana Valdés to carry you to safety now, Val? Oh, that's right, she's with her real girlfriend, because she doesn't really care about you. You're just a pathetic stalker."

I reached for my cane so I could pull myself up but some other jerk kicked it across the walkway out of my reach. "Oops, sorry!"

I couldn't get to my feet from the ground without something to pull myself up on, so I was literally stuck there until someone decided to take pity on me. It was completely degrading, and the meanest thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.

With the exception of when Jason tore my skin graft, I never cried in school and I didn't want to start now. That's what these people wanted, to reduce me to tears. I didn't want to give them the pleasure, but I was so humiliated that I couldn't stop my eyes from welling up.

"Oh, no," The mean girl taunted. "Is poor little Val going to cry again like she did on TV last night?"

Unable to take it any longer, I finally gave them what they were waiting for. I buried my face in my hands and began to sob.

A girl standing by who'd witnessed the scene picked up my cane and tried to hand it to me, but another random jerk plucked it out of her hands and began to play keep-away. "You guys, cut it out!" The girl bent down, and after asking if I was okay, informed me that her friend went to get the principal. It was nice of her to stand up for me, but I still couldn't stop crying.

"What the hell is going on?"

Relief washed over me at the sound of Rob's voice. He dropped to the ground and wrapped his arms around me. "Val, what happened?"

"I don't know why you're bothering with her, Rob." I didn't look to see which guy was talking. I figured it was better if I didn't know. "Did you see her scars, dude? Nasty. I heard they cover her whole body. Do you seriously want to hit that?"

The arms around me disappeared and seconds later there was a loud crack and a lot of shouting. The commotion only lasted thirty seconds at best before several teachers broke up the fight, but it was long enough for Rob to bloody the nose and lip of the guy who'd kicked my cane out from under me.

Instead of trying to figure out what happened right there, the teachers sent everyone present, eleven of us in all, to the principal's office.

The girl who stood up for me and two other people tried to help me up, but Rob shooed them away and wouldn't let anyone near me. He helped me to my feet and handed me my cane, but my hip hurt so badly I couldn't put any weight on my leg. For the second time in as many days, I had to be carried away.

. . . . .

The four guys involved in playing keep-away with my cane and the three girls who egged them on laughing, and saying rude things were all suspended for three days. Rob and the guy who'd kicked my cane out from under me both got a week's suspension for fighting, and they were discussing the possibility of expulsion for my 'assailant', since his intentions had been malicious and resulted in me getting hurt. My fate had yet to be determined.

When my father showed up in the office, Lucia, Daniel, Cody, and Dr Parish in tow, I threw myself into his arms and soaked his shirt with tears. "Dad, take me out of this school. I don't even care if I ever graduate. I'm done."

My dad hugged me tightly and ran a hand over my head. "Okay, kiddo. We'll find another way for you to finish."

He barked at someone over my head, probably Principal Johnson. "I'm removing my daughter from this school. I expect a full refund for her tuition, and I'm having this place put under review."

"Mr. Miller, what happened today was inexcusable," Principal Johnson said, "but don't you think that is a little extreme?"

My dad let go of me and whirled on the man. "Extreme? This is the second time my daughter has been assaulted on this campus during school hours! Where the hell was your staff, and why can't you keep your students under control?"

Principal Johnson sputtered and stepped toward Dad with red cheeks. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Miller, but this is an excellent school and my staff is extremely capable. Until your daughter came here, our track record for student altercations was almost spotless."

"Are you saying this was Val's fault?"

"I'm saying trouble seems to find your daughter. You can't blame that on this institution."

"The hell I can't! You are responsible for what happens here, and I'm going to make sure you're held accountable for this."

While the two of them continued to argue about this, Cody and Daniel bombarded me with questions and made me do all kinds of movements and stretches. After their brief examination, they decided I had a bruised hipbone and would have some extra stiffness that I'd have to work out with Daniel in physical therapy. Otherwise, I was okay.

Physically, anyway. Mentally, I was broken, and it didn't take Dr Parish much effort to get that bit of truth from me. "Val, talk to me. How are you feeling right now?"

That one simple question made me explode into another round of sobs. "How am I supposed to feel right now? How can people be so cruel? And why? Why would anyone treat me this way? What have I done to any of these people to deserve this?"

"Nothing, Val. You didn't deserve this. No one would deserve this."

Dr Reassurance didn't help. I felt as if my chest had burst open and spilled all the pieces of my broken heart on the floor. "Things were getting better here but the second they had some new material to tease me with, the torture started all over again, only worse! Is this going to be my life from now on? Am I always going to be tortured because I'm different?"

My question quieted the entire room. Everyone watched in silence as I broke down. And I didn't just fall apart a little: I broke completely. Whatever was left of me, of my heart, my mind, my soul, shattered. I was swallowed by an ocean of hopelessness.

"I can't do this anymore," I sobbed. "Why even keep trying when there's no point? I'm so tired of hurting. I'm tired of fighting. Tired of trying. None of it ever does any good. I wish I died in that accident with Mama."

My father was at my side again and pulled me back into his arms. "Val, don't say that."

"But it's the truth."

The room fell quiet again, with nothing but the sound of my sobs to break the silence. When Dr Parish recommended I be hospitalised a few minutes later, I was so heartbroken I didn't put up a fight. Anything had to be better than this.

 

Chapter Text

Juliana POV

There was a loud pounding that just would not stop. I rolled onto my back with a groan. After wiping at the drool on my face, I risked opening my eyes. It was dark. Dark was good. Now if I could only get rid of the noise.

"Juliana!"

I frowned. Since when did my inner monologue sound like my assistant?

"Juliana! Don't make me get the hotel staff to open this door!"

I blinked again and looked around. I was alone in a dark hotel room in... Las Vegas? My brain started to wake up and connect the dots. After Val rejected me, I had driven to Vegas to get hammered. How long ago was that? A few hours? A day?

"Juliana!"

Well. However long I had been here, it was long enough for Mateo to come looking for me. Damn my overzealous assistant. "I thought I told you to take a few days off!"

With another groan, I rolled out of bed and stumbled my way to the door. I immediately shut my eyes against the violent stream of light that poured into the room from the hallway. "Why don't you just come in and beat me to death with a sledgehammer? Enough with the damn pounding."

Throwing the door open for Mateo to enter, I grumbled my way back to bed.

"Here." Mateo chucked a bottle of aspirin at me as I crashed back onto the bed. "That ought to help."

"It will if I chase it with a bottle of Scotch. You don't have any of that in your magical man purse, do you?"

"Someone's a grumpy drunk." Mateo pulled a bottle from his messenger bag and tossed it to me. Water. Damn.

I chugged the water, along with a handful of painkillers, and then frowned at Mateo. "I am a very lovable drunk, thank you very much. I'm just a lousy morning-after."

"Try two mornings after."

Two days? I tried to think and it made my head hurt. "Has it been that long?" I rolled over and snuggled up with my blessed pillow. "What have I been doing for two whole days?"

"Not answering your phone."

"I don't even think I've left this suite since I got here."

"I'm sure," Mateo replied. "If you had, you would have seen the news, and I doubt if you knew what was going on you'd be living your own personal Hangover sequel."

"That sounds ominous." I pulled the covers all the way up over my head. Maybe if I couldn't see Mateo anymore, my assistant would disappear and let me go back to sleep. "So, Kaylee's on the rampage, then? Is my life ruined yet? Am I the most-hated person in America now?"

Mateo yanked my covers all the way to the floor. "Not you." There was enough irritation in his voice that I finally noticed the sense of urgency. "Val!"

I sat up so fast my head spun. "What do you mean? What happened?"

Not waiting for Mateo's answer, I swiped my phone off the night table and dialled Val's number. "That's not going to work," Mateo said, just as the operator informed me that Val's number was no longer in service.

Fear caused adrenaline to pump through my body, instantly pushing the last of the fog from my brain. "What's going on? Why isn't Val's phone working? Is she okay?"

"I don't know. I haven't been able to get a hold of her. I tried the phone number, e-mail, and instant messenger you have listed in your contacts, and they're all out of service."

I was ready to wring the answers from Mateo if he didn't explain everything right this damn second. I was so upset over Val refusing to be a part of my life that I forgot I had made her an overnight celebrity. Had her identity been discovered? Was she being harassed? Had Kaylee done something?

"Talk to me, Mateo. I know it's bad if you followed me all the way to Las Vegas in your piece of shit Toyota."

"Actually, I flew here. I thought you'd want to go straight home and wasn't sure if you would be in any condition to drive."

Judging from the look Mateo gave me as he assessed my rumpled state, he was probably right. "Good thinking."

Mateo smirked. "I thought so. I also used your credit card to book the flight and upgraded myself to first class."

Even in the midst of my panic I had to smile at that. "You're really starting to get the hang of this job."

Mateo pulled out his laptop and patted the table space next to him. "I learn fast. Pull up a chair. You're going to want to sit down for this."

. . . . .

I had been pacing the hotel suite for ten minutes, still too enraged to speak. This was a nightmare.

I knew there was going to be a media frenzy over the incident on Sunday, but I thought Val would be safe. No one knew her real identity. I didn't even know her identity. But I knew that something was going to happen. How could I just take off and not wait around to see what the fallout would be?

Val's personal identity hadn't been leaked, but, thanks to Kaylee, her online one had. Her Facebook and Twitter had been deleted and her e-mail address was no longer valid. Her blog was still there, thank the Lord for some miracles. I would have been heartbroken if all of her posts for the last three years had been erased forever, but the comments feature had been disabled and she hadn't posted anything since Saturday.

I didn't have to imagine the kinds of things people posted on her social media for her to delete everything, because there were plenty of other places on the Internet for me to read it. A charity case? An obsessed fan? A psycho stalker? And those were just the nicer things. I wouldn't repeat the nastier stuff.

And it was my own damned people who started the rumours. Val must hate me. In fact, I knew she did, because even if she had to delete her online persona, the public didn't know her cell phone number and instant messenger ID. She didn't have to get rid of those, but she did. She'd made it impossible for me to contact her.

She didn't just delete her online presence, she deleted me from her life. It was unacceptable. I had to do something. I couldn't let her write me off without giving me a chance to explain. I needed a plan, but I wouldn't be making that plan with the people who usually helped me.

I stopped pacing and turned to Mateo, who still sat at the table in front of his laptop, waiting for me to come back from my internal rant. "I have a lawyer, right? I probably have a whole team of lawyers, right?"

Mateo nodded. "Candice Regan and Associates."

"Candice Regan." I committed the name to memory. "Get me Candice Regan on the phone."

Mateo tapped on his iPad for a minute, then dialled my cell phone. "Yes, I have Juliana Valdés on the line for Candice Regan. Then I suggest you interrupt her. I really don't think Miss Valdés is in the mood to wait. Yes, I'll stay on the line, thank you."

Mateo handed the phone over just as an older woman's cheerful voice came on the line. "Juliana! What a pleasant surprise. I haven't spoken to you directly in ages. What can I do for you?"

"My entire management team," I said slowly, trying to control the anger still raging inside me. "I want them all fired by the end of the day, and I don't want to be sued for it."

"Fired? Well!" Candice sputtered a second and then said, "But they're all under contract, Juliana."

"Which is exactly why I called you. Are you aware of the story they ran with Sunday evening?"

"The charity case with the wish for a kiss?"

I gritted my teeth. It wasn't this woman's fault. I shouldn't yell at her. Still, when I spoke, I sounded downright dangerous. "It was bullshit. All of it. Val is not a fan. I was not working with any charity, and I wasn't even still engaged to Kaylee when I kissed Valentina. My so-called team made up the story with Kaylee in a meeting I wasn't present for. They ran it without my knowledge or approval, against the protests of my personal assistant, who told them I'd never allow it."

Candice was too flustered to speak.

"There has to be a breach of contract in there somewhere."

"I'm certain we can find something, but if not?"

"They are still fired," I said firmly. "It'll just cost me more."

"If they really acted without your permission, it shouldn't be a problem."

"I've been unavailable. The first I heard of any of it was fifteen minutes ago."

"In that case, give me a couple hours and I'll let you know what I find."

"I appreciate it. I'll wait to drop the news until I hear from you."

I hung up and Mateo smiled. "That had to feel good."

"Not as good as firing them will."

"So, what's next?"

I thought for a minute. "I've been with my agency since I first started out. My career has come a long way since then. I think I'm due for an upgrade, wouldn't you say?"

"Definitely. Am I calling CAA, ICM, or WME?"

"All three." I started pacing again, trying to stay focused, even though my thoughts kept drifting to Val. "Inform them of the situation, the whole situation, and tell them if they want me, they've got until tomorrow morning to come up with a plan as to how they would approach this mess. Tell them I'll sign with whoever has the best idea. And Mateo?" he looked up at my pause. "Do make sure they understand that Val is my top priority here, and not my own damn career!"

Mateo absorbed that statement and shook his head as if he thought I had lost my mind. "This should be interesting," he murmured as he began tapping away on his tablet again. "I'll have it all set up by the time you're out of the shower."

I looked down at the pyjamas I had been wearing for two nights, apparently, and ran a hand through my messy hair. "I take it that's supposed to be a hint?"

"More like a friendly request," Mateo said, never lifting his eyes from the glowing screen in front of him. "You stink, boss."

I laughed all the way to the bathroom.

 

Chapter Text

The rehab centre in Beverly Hills was quiet, luxurious, and surprisingly peaceful. There were only a handful of 'guests', as they called us, including a famous singer whose album was stored on my iPod. If it were not for the mandatory therapy sessions, I would have thought they sent me to a spa resort for vacation.

I had daily visits from Dr Parish and joined the other patients for a group therapy session every other day. My dietician came once after I arrived and had a meeting with the clinic's kitchen staff about my diet, and my nurse, Cody, came on his regular weekly visits.

Delicious Daniel came to work with me every day like Dr Parish. Even though I had banged up my hip, this wasn't necessary, we'd been on a three-days-a-week schedule before, but I think he felt sorry for me and wanted to keep me company. He is awesome like that. Of course, I think it also had a little to do with that beautiful popstar I mentioned who was staying at the centre as well, who liked to hang out in gym where Daniel and I did our therapy sessions. Daniel denied this accusation, but always blushed when I pointed out that he was staring again.

I was glad for Daniel's company, because other than my doctors, I wasn't allowed any outside contact with anyone. The point of being there, Dr Parish informed me, was to get some rest and relaxation in a stress-free environment. The No Visitors rule was because my family was a major stress point for me, and the No Friends, No Phone, No TV, and No Internet rules were meant to be a shield from the whole debacle. While I missed my friends and was bored out of my mind, I can't say I hated missing all the media attention.

The total seclusion had to end at some point, though, and that point was about a week after I checked in. Dr Parish allowed my father and Lucia to visit under the condition that our time together be supervised. The visit was basically family counselling, which Dr Parish recommended my father and I start doing regularly. I was shocked that my father agreed without hesitation.

"If that's what we need to fix things between us, then of course I will," he said when he saw my surprise. "I do love you, Val. I've loved having you back in my life this past year. I know an apology isn't nearly enough, but I am sorry for leaving you."

"I understand people get divorced," I whispered, "but you never even said good-bye. You never called. You never came to visit. Why did you just abandon me?"

I had been really good about not crying since I arrived at the clinic, but my eyes started to burn.

My dad sighed in defeat, then began his explanation with a warning. "I wish I had some really good excuse that would make what I did okay, but I just don't. The truth isn't pretty, honey. I don't want to hurt you any more than I already have."

I could hear his desperate, unspoken plea to let it drop, but I needed to know. "Not understanding is what hurts the most."

"Without understanding, Val won't be able to forgive you, Mr Miller," Dr Parish said gently. "It's what keeps her from being able to move on. If you can't be honest with your daughter, you will never be able to build a true relationship with her."

My dad's body seemed to cave in on itself. If Lucia hadn't been sitting with him, holding him so tightly, he might have collapsed from despair. "I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, Val, and they all started when I met your mother. I should never have married her."

I swayed in my chair. Dr Parish had to get me a glass of water before I could speak. My hands shook so hard I spilled a little as I drank. "W-hat?" I stammered once I could finally think again. "How can you say that? Did you even love her?"

"I grew to love her in some ways, but not in the way you're asking, and I don't think she ever loved me either."

I started gulping my water and my father turned to Dr Parish with a look of fear. "Are you sure this is a good idea? Are you sure she can handle this right now? Her mother was her hero, her best friend. This won't be easy for her."

"Just tell me." If he didn't explain it soon, I would lose my mind.

Dr Parish regarded us both calmly and then met my father's look with a gentle sternness that only doctors and mothers were capable of. "Whatever it is, Mr. Miller, you and I are both here to help her cope."

My dad swallowed and then turned back to me. His whole body sagged the second he looked at me. "I was in my last year of school at one of the top law schools in the country. It was a brutal and competitive program. I studied nearly every second I wasn't in class. My life was so stressful. Meeting your mother was like a breath of fresh air. She was so fun and exotic. We went out every now and then when I could find the time, and we had a great time together, but things were never serious between us. We were never in love. We were never even a couple."

My dad winced when my eyes bulged, but he pressed on. "I was shocked when your mom told me she was pregnant. The last thing I wanted at that time was a child. I was getting ready to take the bar. If I passed, I had a job lined up that I knew from my internships would be really demanding on my time."

My stomach rolled with sudden queasiness. "Did you ask her to get an abortion?"

My father looked at his lap. I heard his swallow from the opposite side of the room. After a minute, he met my eyes and whispered, "Yes."

I felt the blood in my veins freeze and had to remind myself to breathe. It wasn't easy to do. My heart was hammering in my chest and the water I had sipped felt like it wasn't going to stay in my stomach. He had never wanted me. Not ever.

"Your mother was raised religious. She absolutely refused to terminate the pregnancy and asked me to marry her instead. I offered to pay for everything, and help however I could, but I didn't want to get married. Your mom and I weren't a good fit. We were too different. We weren't in love. But your mom insisted."

"Your Abuela and Granpa were religious fanatics. They were outraged by the whole baby-out-of-wedlock thing. They said if we didn't get married, they would disown your mother. You know how close she was with her parents. She was hysterical. Plus, she would have been on her own, and she was going to have a baby. My baby. I may not have been raised with religion, but I was taught to take responsibility for my actions."

"So, you married her."

My dad let out a breath and nodded. "So, I married her."

I was an unwanted pregnancy and a shotgun wedding. My parents never even loved each other.

My dad read the look on my face and grimaced. "It was bad right from the start. I resented her for trapping me, she resented me for feeling trapped, and I blamed the baby..." Dad swallowed again and corrected himself. "I blamed you for my unhappiness."

I closed my eyes against my tears, but they escaped down my cheeks anyway.

"I was wrong to feel that way, Val. Your mother and I were to blame for what happened, not you. I'm sorry it took me so long to realise that."

My father and Dr Parish gave me a minute to compose myself. Once I could speak, I asked a question I wasn't sure I wanted an answer to, but had to know, nonetheless. "Did you ever love me, Dad? I know I was little, but I don't remember things being that bad. I remember you laughing and playing with me sometimes. Was all that just a lie?"

"Honey, life isn't black and white," Dad replied. "I did love you, but I couldn't ever get past my issues, and neither could your mother. She held the abortion thing over my head the entire time we were married. She never forgave me for not wanting you, and she would never let me forget it. It always made her angry whenever you and I got close. She said I didn't deserve you. She drove a wedge between you and me on purpose, and with her making it difficult, it was easier for me to distance myself. I worked as much as I could, and I let you and your mother do your own thing. I stayed out of your way."

"What kind of wedge?" I asked, completely unable to picture my mother doing something so mean.

"She raised you as if you were only Mexican. She completely ignored the fact that you were half white, my half. She immersed you in a culture I didn't understand, taught you a language I didn't know. She practically raised you with your grandparents and ignored all of the family traditions I was accustomed to. We only visited my family twice the entire time we were married. It was hard because they lived out West, but your mother didn't exactly make any effort to see them, either. Most of the time I went to visit them by myself. She didn't want you to be a part of my family. You haven't seen them since you were three."

"Your family?" I asked, confused.

My father sighed. "You have living grandparents, Val, my parents. And an aunt and uncle and three cousins."

I gasped. This was news to me. "I do?"

It all made sense, of course, my dad having parents and a sibling and all that, but in all the years I could remember, I couldn't recall ever hearing about them. My mother definitely never mentioned them. After my father left, she barely ever said two words about him except to blame things on him or curse him in Spanish.

"I guess I should have thought to tell you this before now, but yes. My parents and my younger brother Jack all live up in the Bay Area outside of San Francisco. They were down to visit not that long ago, while you were still in the rehab centre in Boston. Whenever you're ready, I can take you to visit them, or have them come down to LA. They're curious and excited to meet you, just like I was when the hospital called me."

I flinched at that confession, unsure how I felt about it. "You were excited to meet me when the hospital called?"

The disbelief in my voice made my dad's shoulders hunch, weighed down by guilt. "Yes, Val. You are my daughter. We might not have had the greatest relationship, but I raised you for eight years. That's not something a person just forgets. I have thought about you over the years. I knew you were probably happy, because I knew how much your mother loved you, but I have wondered what you looked like and how you turned out.

"When I came to Boston, I was very curious to see what kind of young woman you had grown into, and I was terrified that you weren't going to survive and I would never get to find out. This is going to sound terrible, but I was excited for the opportunity to spend some time with you without your mother around to poison you against me. When I took you in, I hoped it could be a chance to start over."

We'd had some start.

"I would still like that," my dad said quietly, "if you'll give me a chance."

At that moment his words hit me hard. I heard the plea in his voice and realised that the rocky relationship I had with my father was mostly my fault. I knew he was trying, but I wasn't giving him a chance to get close to me. It was strange. I wanted him to love me, to want me and know me, but I'd never let him in.

"I'd like that too," I admitted. "I'll try to be better, but I think it's going to take me time."

Dad nodded. "I understand."

"Do you?" I asked, unable to keep all of the antagonism out of my voice. "I'm so angry, Dad. And I'm hurt. You left me. I grew up without a father. When I came here and saw how happy you were with Lucia, Renata and Eva, it ripped me apart. They call you Dad while I feel like I should call you Mr Miller. Do you have any idea how that makes me feel? I want to build a relationship with you, but I hate living in your home because I am so jealous of your family."

Dr Parish got up and walked the infamous Box of Tissues to me. I grabbed one and then took three more for good measure. I was about to snatch the entire box, but then Dr Parish turned and held it out to my father and Lucia.

I was shocked to see my dad's eyes glistening. I'd never seen him cry before. "I'm sorry, Val. I can't help loving my family. When I met Lucia," His voice gave out and he took a minute to compose himself. "When I met Lucia, I fell in love for the first time in my life. I hadn't known what I was missing, how unhappy I really was, until Lucia filled the hole in my heart."

Lucia blinked a few tears free from her eyes and squeezed my dad's hand. I wanted to be mad at her. I wanted to hate her, to hate them both, but any idiot could see how in love they were. How could I begrudge them that? How could I not want my father to be happy? He didn't deserve to be miserable for life any more than I did.

"My years in Boston were a bunch of painful memories," Dad said. "Lucia and the girls were so happy to have me in their lives. It felt so nice to be needed and loved for a change that I decided it was better if I started my life over. Your mother hadn't wanted me to be a part of your life even when we were married. There was no way she was going to let me be a part of it after the divorce. I know it was wrong, but after that, it was so easy for me to leave and put the two of you behind me. I'm sorry, Val. I made a mistake. I made a lot of mistakes. It's too late to take any of them back, but I want to make them up to you, so tell me how I can do that. What do you need from me?"

I took a deep breath. If we were being honest with each other, then there was only one thing I needed from him. "I need you to let me go."

Dad's face pulled into a frown, and Dr Parish started taking notes again. "Can you explain what you mean, Val?" she asked.

"I mean I need my freedom. When I'm ready to leave here, release me from my dad's custody. I am an adult, but I'm not allowed to make my own decisions. Instead, someone who is practically a stranger to me is making them for me. I know he's trying his best, but what might be best for him and his family isn't necessarily what's best for me. I need people to trust me."

Dr Parish encouraged me with a smile to go on, but she nodded toward my dad. She already knew how I felt. She wanted me to say this to him.

My dad didn't look away when I met his gaze. He even tried to mirror Dr Parish's encouraging smile, but I could see that this was hard for him. I saw his disappointment.

"I'm trying to get better," I told him, "but being with your family is holding me back. I feel like I can't breathe in your house. I feel like an outsider, an intruder. I feel like I'm only causing you all trouble, and that I'm not wanted there."

"Val, of course it's been an adjustment, but I do want you."

"You do," I agreed. "But does Eva? Does Lucia?"

Dad looked startled when I said Lucia's name, and he turned to his wife. She didn't automatically say yes, and it stunned my dad. "I'm trying," she promised me. "It's not that I don't like you. I think you're a wonderful girl. I just wasn't expecting... it's been so hard on my girls..." She reached for the tissues. The box was going to be gone before the hour session was up. "I'm sorry, Val. I never meant to make you feel unwelcome."

"It's okay," I told her. "I understand. I do. Honestly, I don't blame you. None of us asked for this to happen. That's why I think it would be best if I moved out. Abby said I could come stay with her until I find my own place, and Renata has mentioned moving in together next year if I'm allowed to leave your house for college."

"Honey..."

I looked at my dad again and tried to give him an encouraging smile of my own. "If you really want to build a relationship with me, that's great. Let's get to know one another. Let's go to dinner sometimes or the movies. Let's talk. But please don't do to me what Mama did to you. Don't trap me. Don't force me to be part of a family that, let's face it, isn't mine. If you want me to love you, then don't make me resent you."

Everyone was quiet for a minute. Even Dr Parish's ever-scribbling pen was still. Then my dad let out a breath so big I watched his body deflate with it. "Are you sure that's really what you need?" he asked.

I didn't hesitate. I didn't need to. I knew. "Yes. It's what I need. It's what Eva needs too."

I held my breath and let it out when I saw my father's decision in his eyes. "All right. Let's just focus on getting you better while you're here, and when you're ready to leave, we'll work something out. Is it too much to ask to let me help you come up with a plan? I'd feel more comfortable if you'd let me at least be a part of the decision-making process."

I felt a huge weight lift off my chest. This time when I smiled for my dad, I felt it reach my eyes. "I think that sounds like a reasonable compromise."

 

Chapter Text

I always tried my best to hate my appointments with Dr Parish, but I had a smile on my face today. After an entire month, I was facing Dr Parish for my last session in the rehab centre. I was being released this afternoon.

"That smile looks good on you, Valentina," Dr Parish said when I sat down across from her.

The comment made me smile wider. "It feels nice."

Dr Parish matched my grin. "You're excited, then? No anxiety about leaving the centre?"

I'd be lying if I said no, so I didn't. I'd learned over the last four weeks that I got a lot further with Dr Parish when I didn't fight her. Her questions and thoughts were never meant as accusations. She really did want to help me, but she couldn't when I would never be completely honest with her about how I felt.

It took being honest with my dad for me to learn that. After our first therapy session together, something shifted between us. He and I still have a long way to go, and it hasn't been easy, but we're cooperating now to try and make things work. It's changed our entire relationship.

I was working with Dr Parish too and making progress. A lot of progress. I'm a stronger person now than I was.

"Of course I'm nervous about having to go back out into the real world. My accident, my scars, losing my mother, and my shaky relationship with my father are all still there. I know it's going to be harder to deal with them once I leave, but I think I'm able to face those things now. I'm ready to face them."

For once, Dr Parish's pen didn't move after I spoke. Instead, she smiled again. "And you're sure you want to leave your father's house? You can't run from your problems, Val, I know you know that. I just want to make sure that moving in with Abby isn't an attempt to escape a hard situation."

I pulled my shoulders back and met her eyes. "It's not." I was sure of myself. "I'm not running from anything; I'm running to something. You said I need a support system. Abby and her dads want to be that for me. I want to be there, and they are excited for me to come. I'm not running from my dad or his family, I'm just giving each of us our much-needed space."

Dr Parish gave me a look that I had to roll my eyes at. "Okay, maybe I'm running from Eva a little, but I'm still going to have counselling sessions with my dad, and Renata is one of my closest friends. I'm still going to be a part of their family. I've agreed to stay through Christmas, and I'm going to meet my relatives. My grandparents and my uncle and his family are coming to LA for the holidays so that we can get to know one another."

Dr Parish's face brightened. "That's good. I think that will be a very good thing for you." She took a moment to appraise me and then set her notepad down and sat back in her chair. "Well, Val, it sounds like you've got a pretty good support system built and a solid plan, at least for the immediate future."

"I do. I promise, I am ready."

"I believe you are. There's just one last issue I want to address today."

I cringed. Whenever she said that, it was never happy news.

"Let's talk about Juliana." My heart sank. "That is a problem you're still running from."

I didn't try to deny it. I was running as far and as fast as I could from Juliana. I hadn't spoken to her since FantasyCon. After my father dropped me off here, he had gone on a deleting rampage. My Facebook, e-mail, instant messenger, Twitter, and even my PO box for my blog were all gone. I couldn't bear to let him delete my blog, so he left it up, but deleted all the horrible comments and changed the settings to not allow any future comments. He had even changed my cell phone number because he had been worried about the kids at school leaking it as a cruel prank.

Renata told me he had gone to the school and spoken to the entire student body in an assembly, explaining what would happen to anyone who decided to leak my identity to the media. He even brought one of his good friends from the FBI to explain how they would be able to find out who did it if it happened, and what kind of legal action would be taken. Knowing how Scary my Big-Bad-Prosecuting-Attorney-Dad can be, he probably had half the school peeing in their pants.

So far, my identity had not been leaked.

Whether he had intended to or not, my father had also made sure that Juliana had no way to ever contact me again either. I still knew Juliana's e-mail, phone number, and IM screen name, so I could find her if I wanted to, but I wasn't sure that was the best idea.

"Have you figured out what you plan to do about her yet?" Dr Parish asked. "Are you planning to get in touch with her?"

My heart hurt just thinking about her. How would I ever be able to keep up a friendship with her? "I don't think I can."

"She is your closest friend, Val, and the strongest link in your new support system. You need her."

"But now that I've met her in person, I don't think I can go back to the relationship we had before."

"So don't," Dr Parish said simply. "Let it evolve."

"But I can't have a real relationship with her."

Dr Parish frowned for the first time all day. I couldn't complain though, we'd never made it this far into a session without a frown before. "You can have a relationship with her. You're just afraid to."

"Is it so wrong to want to protect myself? Juliana warned me that her world would hurt me, and she was right. I was with her for an hour and look at what happened. I became the nation's biggest laughingstock. People hated me so much that Juliana had to lie about our relationship in order to salvage her career. She had to pretend I meant nothing to her, that she didn't even know me. That's not going to change. I don't want to ruin her career any more than I want to hear how ugly and pathetic people think I am for the rest of my life."

Dr Parish pursed her lips together as she thought. Eventually, she sighed. "No, you're right. That would be a very unhealthy and stressful situation for you. But what if that wasn't the case? What if your relationship with Juliana could be a positive thing? What if you could be good for her image instead of bad for it? Would you consider it then?"

I snorted, which caused Dr Parish to frown at me again. "Fine," I groaned. "If by some miracle people accepted me and I could be with Juliana, then I would forgive her in an instant and I would run straight into her arms and never let go."

"The fame wouldn't bother you?"

I snorted again. "Are you kidding? It would be a nightmare. I would hate it. But I would find a way to cope with it because Juliana would be worth it." I scoffed and added, "That's assuming she would still want me, which she probably doesn't. She saw my scars, found out the truth about me, and then I was the one who couldn't accept her for who she was. I was the one who ran away. I can't even blame her for letting her managers make up that story about me. I mean, it was just like her engagement to Kaylee, I rejected her, so she didn't have a reason to say no."

I got another no-nonsense look from Dr Parish. "Do you honestly believe that? That she wouldn't love you anymore because you got scared after going through a very traumatic ordeal the first-time you guys met? Do you really believe she didn't understand that you were overwhelmed?"

In truth, I didn't know what I believed. But I was afraid, I was too scared to call her. I completely freaked out on her. She asked me to give her a chance, and I told her I could never be a part of her life. She probably hated me now.

I was beginning to think that Dr Parish was a bit of a mind reader, because she always saw right through me. This moment was no exception. She sighed and stood up. "Will you come with me, Valentina?"

I was a little surprised when she walked to the door and opened it for me. We'd only been talking for fifteen minutes and she never let me out of a session early. "Where are we going?"

"There's something that I think you need to see. We have kept you away from all the media this month, and after today you won't be able to hide from it anymore. I think it's best you get a heads up about what you're going to be facing before you leave the centre."

I swallowed down some chunks that tried to come up from my stomach. I knew it was going to be bad, but if it was bad enough that Dr Parish wanted to show it to me before I left, that meant it was bad enough that she was worried it might cause me to relapse.

I didn't want to do this, but she was right. Better to get it out of the way now. I followed her out of the small visitor's room we used for our sessions and down the hallway toward the recreation room. When we got there, I was shocked to see the room packed full of everyone I cared about, my dad, Lucia, Renata, Rob, Abby, both of her dads, and even the rest of my rehabilitation team.

I nearly cried. My dad and Lucia had come weekly for our counselling sessions, and Abby and her fathers had been allowed to visit me once with my dad when we discussed the possibility of me staying with them. But other than that, I hadn't seen any of them in a month.

I glanced up at Dr Parish with a questioning look, and her frown turned back into a smile. "They're your support system, Val. They wanted to be here for you through this."

Great. This was going to be worse than I thought. I pushed back my anxiety because if I lost it before I even saw anything, Dr Parish was likely to send me back to my room and lock me in for another few weeks.

We walked into the room and Renata was the first to see me. She pounced like a crazed kitten, squealing, and crying and hugging and laughing until Cody pulled her off me, claiming she was going to break me.

First, there was a round of hugs and catching up. We talked, we laughed, we cried. Daniel tried to make me do a few stretches, to which I told him he could take his stretches and shove them someplace very inappropriate until my next PT session, and then, finally, we sat down in front of the television and Dr Parish pulled up a DVD menu.

As I sat down on the couch, I could sense everyone's anticipation, but it didn't match my own. There was an undercurrent of excitement in the room that I couldn't explain. "What's going on?" I asked, unable to help the nerves that were starting to flutter in my stomach like a net full of butterflies. "What kind of video is this?"

Renata flashed me a cryptic smile as she claimed the spot on the couch next to me. "You'll see."

Abby beat Rob to the open space on the other side of me, but she pulled her feet up underneath her so that Rob could sit on the floor next to me with his back against the couch. He sat next to my legs and draped his arm up over my lap while Abby and Renata both rested their heads on my shoulders.

I smiled at my three closest friends' obvious need to touch me. They were as comforted to have me back as I was to have them. After everything that had happened, the four of us had formed a special bond. We were as close as friends could be, and I knew we would be for the rest of our lives. It seemed like a miracle that I could have my father back and luck out with two amazing friends, and the very best stepsister anyone could ever ask for.

My good mood evaporated when Dr Parish searched through the DVD menu on the TV and selected a pre-recorded episode of a primetime talk show with popular comedian Kenneth Long. The summary read: special guest . The second I saw her name, my heart began to pound and my breath became shallow.

Dr Parish gave me one last supportive smile and then hit PLAY. Immediately, Juliana beautiful face came up on the screen. It was the first time I had seen her since FantasyCon, and I was filled with much more emotion than I had expected. My heart literally throbbed with longing.

I must have started trembling or something because Abby squeezed my arm and said, "It's okay." Renata followed her saying, "Trust us." Even Rob squeezed my leg and smiled up at me, asking me in his usual quiet way to just go with it.

I took a deep breath and held it as I watched Juliana walk onto the stage and shake Kenneth Long's hand. After waiting out the screams of the audience, they fell into easy discussion about Juliana's upcoming movie, The Druid Princess.

Watching this interview tore at my heart. I couldn't figure out why everyone was so determined to put me through this torture until the conversation turned to me. "I hear you demanded to play the role of Jana as soon as the movie was announced," Kenneth said.

Not one to ever act humbly, Juliana raised her chin and puffed out her chest. "You bet I did. I was born to play that role. Jana is one of my all-time favourite characters."

"So, it's true that you're the book's biggest fan?"

Juliana's attention faded out for a moment. Her smile turned sad and distant. "I think there's only one other person who loves the book more than I do."

The way Kenneth jumped on the statement, I was sure that he'd been instructed not to bring up the subject of me. But since Juliana opened the can of worms first, it was fair game. "Would this be the fan that you met last month at FantasyCon? The one who wished for a kiss from Juliana Valdés?"

My throat went dry, but I felt Rob's hand give my leg another reassuring squeeze.

Juliana pulled herself out of her own head and forced a smile. "That's exactly who I meant. Actually, if you don't mind, I'd like to talk about her for a minute. Is it all right if I set the story straight?"

Juliana had obviously veered off script. A shocked Kenneth Long fumbled his reply. "Uh... yeah... o-of course! I think the viewers would love to know what really happened. We're all very curious after seeing that kiss, and then hearing of your breakup with Kaylee and the abrupt replacement of your management team. It was quite the scandal, Juliana, even for you."

No matter how much I didn't want it to, my heart responded to the news. "Breakup? What breakup? She's not with Kaylee anymore?"

Both Abby and Renata shushed me and pointed at the TV.

"Just watch!"

On screen, Juliana pulled out her beloved phone and handed it to Kenneth.

Kenneth held it up. "Can we get this put up on the screen?"

A stage tech grabbed the phone and a few seconds later the picture of Juliana and I in the restaurant was plastered on a giant screen. The audience cooed at the picture's adorableness and my face turned as red as it was in the picture on the TV.

"She's beautiful," Kenneth said.

Juliana nodded, staring up at my face on the screen behind her. "Very beautiful." Her voice growled the slightest bit as she said, "She is not a fan I met through a charity organisation. Her name is Val, and she's my best friend."

 

Chapter Text

It felt as if time had stopped. At the very least, my heart had. Juliana had just announced to the entire world that I was her best friend. She'd told the world the truth. Part of it, anyway. I was shocked and instantly filled with hope. Could this have been the base behind Dr Parish's strange questions about Juliana? About me helping her reputation instead of hurting it?

I felt everyone's eyes on me, but I couldn't look away from the screen. Juliana's confession was obviously the first the world had heard of this story because the audience gasped, and Kenneth was at another loss for words.

Juliana's energy was high when she finally fell into the story. "I met Val through her blog over three years ago, after I came across a post she'd written about my favourite book series." She flashed the audience a devastating smile. "You guys might have heard of it, The Jana Chronicles by L.P. Morgan."

Cheers erupted, and after the noise died down Juliana continued on. "She had this insane theory that Princess Jana should have chosen Valentina instead of Princess Cali, which of course I absolutely had to argue with. I wrote a very nice and polite letter to the editor explaining how completely misguided her theory was."

Juliana chuckled, but I scoffed. "Nice and polite? She called me a pig-headed, naïve feminist romanticist!"

Everyone in the room laughed, and even I had to smile because a secretive smirk crept over Juliana's face. No doubt she was thinking about the exact same thing I was.

"When she wrote me back, it was love at first fight," she said, earning another gasp from the crowd.

My gasp was louder, and everyone in the room with me snickered again. My face had barely recovered from its last blush, but that didn't stop me from turning bright red again.

"Love?!" Kenneth exclaimed.

Juliana laughed and nodded. "It was for me. We started e-mailing back and forth and she quickly became my best friend, even though we'd never met in person. She knew everything about me except for my true identity."

Kenneth leaned so far over his desk toward Juliana that I was afraid he might fall out of his chair. "So, you knew this girl for three years and you had never met?" he asked, incredulous. "She had no idea you were a famous movie star?"

Juliana shook her head. "We only knew each other by our screen names." She smiled to herself again. "Jana and Val."

The way the audience crooned over that made me want to die so that I could be spared this embarrassment.

"Val, being the huge fan of the books she is, came to The Druid Princess discussion panel at FantasyCon. There was a meet-and-greet after the panel. Val and I had no idea we were both going to be there. When we met, she thought she was talking to Juliana Valdés, and I thought I was meeting a random fan. We each realised who the other was when we started discussing the book and fell into our age-old argument." She shook her head as she laughed this time. "We only got to talk for about a minute, but I was done for. I broke up with Kaylee right after the meet-and-greet. It wasn't fair to Kaylee, and I'm sorry that I hurt her, but I didn't have any other choice. I couldn't stay with her when I was in love with someone else."

Juliana's smile vanished and was replaced with barely concealed anger. "I am the one who asked Val to go to dinner with me that night. I kissed her because I couldn't help myself. I have been in love with her for years. I was trying to convince her to date me when the cameras interrupted us. Kaylee lied about us still being together because she was mad at me. She wanted to hurt Val. I fired my management team because the statement they issued about Val being a fan with a wish was a complete lie, and they issued it without my permission."

There was another round of gasps from the audience and even a few cries of outrage. Kenneth Long's mouth dropped open. I knew how they all felt. I was as shocked as they were. "She didn't know?" It seemed impossible. "All this time, I thought she'd let them do it. All this time, I was so hurt." I couldn't believe it. "I was so stupid! If I had just talked to her and let her explain."

"Val, you never had a chance," Abby said. "You went to bed after the news report and came straight here from school the next day."

She was right, but I still felt horrible. "I need to call her. I'm being released today, that means I can use my phone now, right? I need to talk to her."

"Wait!" Renata said. "Watch the rest first."

"I miss her like crazy," Juliana was saying. "Between Kaylee and my old management team, they turned Val into a joke. People have been so cruel to her. They've said awful things. There are entire hate websites dedicated to her. There've been death threats."

"Death threats!" I gasped.

"It's okay, Val," my dad promised. "They were all unwarranted, just people ranting. Your identity was never leaked."

"Val's blog was important to her and it was ruined. She hasn't posted on it since that statement was issued. She's also changed her phone number, e-mail address, and instant messenger screen name. She's deleted her Facebook and Twitter accounts. She had to disappear." She raked a hand through her hair and shifted in her seat as she murmured, "I've lost her again."

The entire audience fell into silence.

"What do you mean, you've lost her again?" Kenneth asked.

Juliana, now unable to sit still, reached for the infamous coffee mug that guests are always given on all those talk shows. The way she chugged it, I wondered if it was filled with whiskey.

"Just over a year ago, Val was in a terrible car accident," Juliana explained. "I was actually messaging her at the time of the accident, and no, she wasn't driving. Never text and drive! We were talking, and she was there one minute and gone the next. At first, I thought her phone died, but then she never contacted me again. She just... disappeared."

My chest constricted as I watched Juliana drift off into a memory and shudder. When she spoke again her voice was so soft, but it didn't matter because the audience was silent. They were completely enraptured by her story. "I never knew what happened to her. I assumed she was dead."

The audience murmured at this, and Kenneth finally re-joined the conversation. "You assumed? You never found out?"

Juliana shook her head. "I had no idea who she was. I didn't know her real name. I didn't have any idea how to find her. It was almost ten months before I learned about the accident. She'd been in a coma and spent over eight months in the hospital recovering from her injuries."

Juliana waited out the gasps of the crowd before she continued. "When she wrote me that first e-mail, it was like she'd come back from the dead. I completely freaked out. I should have broken it off with Kaylee right then. I knew I would never care for Kaylee the way I felt about Val, but I wasn't sure how Val felt about me. We had never talked about meeting in person."

"Plus, there was the whole issue of my true identity. I didn't know how to bring it up when she'd just been through such a horrible tragedy. She lost her mother in that accident and received permanent injuries and scars. I wasn't sure she would want a relationship, especially not one that would be as complicated as dating a movie star. But when we came face to face that day at FantasyCon..."

Juliana clenched her fist and pounded her chest as if she'd been shot through the heart. The audience swooned over the playful gesture. I swooned over the gesture.

"There are only two kinds of women in the world for me now, Kenneth: Val and Not Val. I'll never be able to settle for anyone but her, and now I've lost her again."

Another murmur swept the audience and Kenneth asked the obvious question. "What do you mean? Why have you lost her again?"

Juliana reached for her mug again. The stupid thing had to be empty by now. She took a sip of the mystery drink and whispered, "She thinks I did it." She cleared her voice and spoke up. "Why wouldn't she? It was my management team who told that lie about her being a fan with a wish. My people who said I'd been working with a charity. My fiancée who confirmed it and said we were still together. Val's life was ruined, and she believes I did it to save my own reputation."

My chest caved in on itself. I had thought that, but after hearing it come from her mouth, I realised how absurd it was. How big an idiot I was for even thinking it. "Guys, I have to call her!"

"Shh!"

The shush came from everyone in the room.

"Couldn't you just call her and explain?" Kenneth asked.

Juliana sighed. "I was upset because had Val rejected me. I turned off my phone and drove to Las Vegas because I needed to clear my head. It took me two days to realise what had happened, and by the time I found out, it was too late. She had already disappeared!"

Kenneth digested this while Juliana went for her mug again. This time when she brought it to her mouth it really was empty. She held it upside down and shook it as if that might make more coffee or water, or whatever was in it, appear. As she set it on the table, Kenneth yelled off screen for someone to bring her another one.

While Juliana gulped her second cup, Kenneth brought them back on topic. "Can we go back a second," he asked, "to the part where you said Val rejected you?"

My heart started thumping so hard I wondered if everyone in the room could hear it. "It's okay, Val," Abby whispered. "I promise."

"My fame was an issue for her," Juliana explained. "She was afraid people wouldn't accept her because of her handicap and her scars. People have been so awful to her since her accident that she doesn't believe she's beautiful anymore. She doesn't realise that her scars make her even more beautiful to me. They show her strength."

"She's been through so much, survived so much, lost so much, and yet when I asked her out, she was worried about me. She didn't think people would accept her. She was worried she would hurt my image, be bad for my career. She was afraid she was not good enough for me, but really, it's the other way around. I don't deserve her. She's the strongest, most amazing woman I've ever known."

Rob's hand found mine and squeezed. "I second that," he muttered.

"Me too," Abby whispered.

Renata nodded and smiled at me with glossy eyes.

My throat clamped up, and I'm not sure if it was because of Juliana, or my friends, or both. Someone reached over my shoulder to hand me a tissue. It was Lucia. She and my dad had been standing behind the couch with their arms wrapped around each other. They both smiled down at me with moist eyes.

"Wow," Kenneth said after a moment. "You really weren't kidding before. This is love with a capital L."

Juliana fidgeted as if she were trying very hard not to get up and start pacing. She sat forward on the very edge of the couch and shook her head firmly. "It's more than love, Kenneth. I think she's my soul mate."

I was glad this comment sent the audience into a frenzy because their shrieks and cheers covered most of my startled cry.

"I need her," she said, "but I can't find her. I still don't know her last name. I don't know where she lives. We were interrupted before we got that far."

Abby nudged me with her elbow and said, "Only because you skipped the introductions and went straight to the making out."

"Abby!" I gasped, and everyone laughed at me.

"Not that we blame you," Renata added with a dreamy sigh.

When I looked back at the screen, Juliana was raking her fingers through her hair again. She looked like a nervous wreck. "She's taken herself out of my life, and I can't accept that. Val belongs with me."

Juliana turned her attention from Kenneth and looked directly into the camera. I recognised the passion that filled her. She had that same expression on her face when she pleaded with me to give us a chance. "Val, wherever you are, if you're out there listening, I love you. You are my entire world. You've always said you thought Jana was a coward for doing what the people expected of her instead of following her heart. Well, I'm not a coward. This Princess Jana chooses her Valentina. I choose you, Val, and I'm not going to let you be a coward either. I'm not going to let my fame scare you away. We are Jana and Valentina, woman! We're supposed to get our fairy-tale ending!"

The audience erupted into wild cheers.

As my mind raced and my heart began to beat erratically, Juliana pulled something out of the inside pocket of her jacket. I couldn't believe it when she held up the long white gloves, I'd taken off for her that day. I didn't even realise I left them.

"These aren't glass slippers," Juliana said, dangling the gloves in the air, "but if I have to try them on every girl in LA to find my princess, I will."

The crowd went so crazy it took a very, very long time to settle them down. Kenneth even had to stand up and whistle loudly. Of course, once it was quiet enough, he was still laughing so hard it took a few more seconds before he regained his composure. "I think you have your first group of willing candidates right here," he teased, gesturing to the audience, which made the women shriek again. "Shall I line them up for you?"

Juliana smiled again and shook her head. "Hopefully it won't come to that. I have a plan."

Kenneth rubbed his hands together eagerly. "This sounds exciting."

Juliana took a deep breath. I instinctively took one with her and held it in my lungs as I waited to hear whatever crazy scheme she was going to attempt on my behalf. "I still need a date to the premiere of The Druid Princess," she said, pausing to let her fans get the squealing out of their systems. "I want to go with Val. This is our movie, our story. I took the role for her as much as I did for myself. The Druid Princess is the entire reason we met. It would be a crime to go see this movie with anyone other than her."

Juliana began to fidget again, but this time her restlessness was from excitement instead of stress. "Even if Val won't come with me, I still need to find her, so I will accept anyone as my date that can tell me how to get in touch with her."

"How can you do that?" Kenneth asked over the excited murmurs of the audience. "You'll get a million people claiming they know her."

Juliana shook her head. "Val left something at the café that night besides her gloves. Something very important to both of us. Something I gave her. I'm positive that anyone who knows what that gift is would know how to get in touch with Val. Even if Val doesn't want to come herself, even if she doesn't want to have anything to do with me ever again, I want to make sure she gets this gift back."

"My book," I whispered. My first-edition autographed copy of The Druid Princess. "I can't believe I left my book."

"I knew it was a book!" Renata squealed. "What are the two details? I've been dying to know!"

"Details?" I asked, confused.

Abby shushed us. "Shut up, Renata. She'll tell us in a minute. Let her watch."

Juliana pulled something else out of her pocket and held it toward the camera. "This is a ticket for the seat next to mine at the premiere of The Druid Princess. I'm going to leave it with the reception desk at the studio's main office for the first person that can tell me exactly what item Val left behind the night we met. You have to be specific. You need to know two very important details in order to receive this ticket."

She sent a pointed gaze at the camera again, and I knew the look was for me even before she spoke. "Or you could stop being stubborn and call me woman. My e-mail, Messenger, and phone number are still the same as they've always been." One side of her mouth curved up into an infuriating, irresistible smirk. "Forgive me, Valentina, oh wise, mystic priestess of the Realm, and let me give you the ending you've always wanted."

The audience lost it again and the show cut to commercial. That must have been the end of the interview, or at least the exciting part of it, because Dr Parish clicked off the TV and suddenly it was over.

The room fell into silence as everyone waited for my reaction, but I couldn't give them one. I needed time to convince myself that it wasn't a dream. She hadn't lied. She said my scars made me even more beautiful. She called me her soul mate!

My heart was bursting.

"You're going to that premiere!" Renata demanded, mistaking my silence for hesitancy.

Before I could get a single word out, everyone in the room chimed in their encouragement. Even Dr Parish nodded. She pointed at the dark TV where Juliana had just publicly confessed her love to me. "That woman will cherish you and love you. She'll do more for your self-esteem than I ever could." She sighed then, very uncharacteristically, and said, "Besides, she's too gorgeous to refuse."

I was shocked. That was the most unprofessional thing I'd ever heard Dr Parish say. "Ha!" she squealed suddenly, pointing at me. "A smile! I finally made her smile!"

The rest of my rehab team burst into laughter. "I don't know if it counts," Daniel teased her. "I think it was the thought of Juliana Valdés that made her smile, not you."

Now I wasn't smiling, I was blushing again.

"You're going to go, right?" Abby asked.

Of course, I was going to go. I was terrified of sharing her fame, but she was right, running from it would make me a coward. After what she did on that show in front of the whole world for me, and as many times as I had called Jana a coward, I had to date Juliana if for no other reason than she would never let me live it down otherwise. She'd never let me win another argument ever again, and that was so not happening.

"When did that air? It's almost Christmas. Did I miss it?"

"It aired two weeks ago. The premiere is in three days."

"Two weeks?" I asked, horrified. "She did that two weeks ago and thinks I've just ignored her all this time? She must hate me!"

Renata rolled her eyes. "She could never hate you and you know it. Here." She handed me my phone. Juliana's number was already up on the screen.

When she started to hit the CALL button, I shrieked and snatched it from her. "No, don't!"

Everyone looked startled. Renata and Abby exchanged a glance and then Renata's expression became desperate. "But Val, you have to go with her!"

"Oh, I'm definitely going." I laughed. "But it will be so much more fun to surprise her at the premiere, don't you think?"

"That's cruel," Rob said.

"No, that's dramatic. Juliana's an actress. She lives for drama!"

"It's definitely more romantic," Renata agreed. "So, what are the two things?"

"It was a first-edition hardback of The Druid Princess, and it was signed to me by the author."

"Aww, that's so sweet." Renata giggled. "Geeky, but sweet. And perfect. We can send Dad to go pick up the ticket tomorrow while we go shopping for a dress."

Stefan cried out in horror. "Shop for a dress? Valentina, don't you dare!"

"Ooh! Ooh! Yeah!" Abby leapt off the couch and started bouncing up and down. "Let my dads make your dress!"

If I weren't handicapped, I would have joined Abby in her giddy dancing at the thought of having another dress made by her dads. I loved my Valentina costume, but I thrilled at the thought of seeing what they would come up with having me in mind.

I glanced at Stefan and Glen hopefully. "Do you think you would have time?"

Stefan and Glen looked offended by the question, but before they could answer, Lucia said, "They don't need time." When she gained the entire room's attention, she smiled at me and said, "You already have the perfect dress."

There was only one dress she could possibly mean, but surely she wasn't talking about my mother's dress.

"It looks beautiful on you," she said, knowing I understood her. "And on a night that's so important to you, what would be more appropriate than to wear something that belonged to your mother?"

I wasn't surprised by the way Renata and my father nodded their approval, but I didn't understand why Lucia would suggest it. "You want me to wear my mother's dress? In front of hundreds of people, and TV cameras?" I asked. "It's revealing, remember? People would see my scars."

Lucia's smile turned pained. "Val, I've never been embarrassed of you. I'm sorry that you misunderstood my concern. I've only ever been worried about your feelings. I know how cruel people are. I'm a model. I've been to hundreds of auditions where I was criticised for my imperfections, my thighs and butt weren't firm enough, my nose was too big, my boobs were too small, eyes too far apart, I needed to lose a few more pounds... there was always something."

The world was truly unjust if Lucia didn't look good enough for it. She had to be the most gorgeous woman I'd ever seen. I couldn't imagine people criticizing her for the way she looked. I couldn't see a single flaw.

"When I first started out, it was hard not to take every single comment to heart. I obsessed about everything everyone said about me. I got depressed. I developed an eating disorder. I self-destructed because I was insecure about my looks."

Her eyes misted over. "I just didn't want you to feel that way. I didn't want people to be cruel to you. You were dealing with so much already, losing your mom and having to adjust to a new family. I didn't want you to be hurt if people stared or said mean things. I was trying to protect you. I'm sorry I hurt your feelings."

"It's all right." I looked her over again and wondered if she looked any different now than she had when she first started modelling. Obviously the 'boobs too small' comment had driven her to the unnaturally perfect chest she had now, but I wondered how much else she'd changed. I didn't think it was much. "You still model," I said, "but you're perfectly confident now."

"People still criticise me sometimes, but I don't need to listen anymore." Lucia smiled at my dad with more love and sincerity than I'd ever seen anyone accomplish. "Your father makes me feel beautiful, and that's enough." She turned her smile back to me. "Maybe Juliana Valdés' will be the one who does that for you."

What Lucia said made sense. I thought back to the night Juliana and I met, how she stole my breath when she kissed my scarred knuckles. She told me I was beautiful then, and I believed her.

"If she makes you smile like that," Rob said suddenly, "then she's worthy of you."

I hadn't realised I was smiling, but my cheeks heated again under everyone's stares.

"Okay, fine," Abby said. "Since I can't help with the dress, then at least let me do your hair."

"And I'll take you for a manicure," Renata offered. "If you aren't comfortable going to a salon, I'll give you one myself. I'm pretty handy with a bottle of nail polish."

 

Chapter Text

My entire body shook as I stood in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom. My nerves hadn't given me a single moment's reprieve in three days. Sometimes I was so excited I thought the wait might kill me, and other times, I was sure it was the fear of what was coming would actually kill me.

I had caught a little of the news over the last few days. The city of Los Angeles was anticipating tonight's premiere. Local news anchors, talk-show hosts, radio DJs, every one speculating whether Princess Jana's Valentina would show up. 

The craziest part was that they were all excited. They wanted me to show up. Juliana's interview had been a stroke of genius. She turned the two of us into a modern-day fairy tale, the ultimate romance. I'd gone from the most-hated woman in America to being a national sensation overnight. I was no longer a crazy obsessed stalker, but a beautiful, smart, funny, strong survivor. The public loved me now.

Of course, it was also genius on Juliana's part because it guaranteed she would get what she wanted. If I didn't make it to the premiere, the nation would hate me all over again a million times worse than they'd hated me before. So fickle, the American people were. They were also enthusiastic. There was such a large crowd gathered outside the theatre in Westwood, where the premiere was being held, that the police had to shut down traffic for two city blocks. All those people were waiting for me.

"I think I'm going to throw up."

"And mess up my lipstick?" Abby asked from where she was sprawled on my bed, flipping through a magazine. "I will kill you!"

Renata smirked as she tucked the new silver and pearl comb my father had given me into my hair. "Juliana's going to ruin her lipstick the minute she sees her, anyway."

Abby snorted and I blushed. For, like, the twentieth time that day. You'd think after the hundreds of jokes that had been made at my expense over the last three days, I'd be desensitised to them by now, but no. Any reference to Juliana at all and I still went completely middle-school shy.

Abby smiled at Renata in the mirror, a wicked gleam in her eyes. "Juliana is allowed to mess up the lipstick. She, is not!" She studied my face again for a moment, then frowned. "I totally hate you for looking so good in that shade of red."

I looked at my lips. The bright red she had painted on me was killer against my fair skin and looked even better coupled with the blue of my dress. Add to that the way my blue eyes were accentuated, I looked mystical. Mysterious. Perfect for a magical priestess.

My hair softened the picture. Renata decided to leave my hair down and gave my naturally straight hair some "umph." Umph turned out to be, like, thirty gallons of product. My light-brown hair fell in waves around my shoulders and down my bare back with one tiny section pulled delicately away from my face by my comb.

My new hair comb was beautiful and very elegantly matched my mother's pearl necklace. My father surprised me with it this morning saying that he wanted to be there in spirit with me tonight too, like Mama would be. I cried like a baby and both Renata and Abby flipped out, screeching about puffy eyes. You'd have thought it was my wedding day and not just a first date.

Granted, it was a really big first date.

"You know?" Abby said thoughtfully as she looked me over. "The strangest part of this is how perfectly Candy Cane completes the ensemble."

I smiled. "I told you it would work."

After I agreed to go to the premiere the other day, the first thing Abby did was demand to see my dress. She offered to give Candy Cane another facelift and turn it blue, but I wouldn't let her. I liked the way the rainbow of colours added to the personality of the dress. My spirited mama would have loved it.

"Girls!" Dad bellowed from across the house. "The car's here!"

Sheer terror had my knees locked up in an instant. I stopped breathing, too.

"You're going to be fine," Abby said. "It's just Jana. You are just going to see a movie with your best friend. That's all."

"Yeah." Renata snickered and turned my head so that I was looking at the huge poster of a bikini clad Juliana that she had tacked to the back of my bedroom door. "And Jana looks like that and wants to have your babies."

"Not helping," I breathed.

Eva appeared in the doorway and sighed. "Juliana Valdés is so wasted on you."

Both Renata and Abby glared, but I refused to get angry. Eva was not going to ruin this night for me. "That's probably true," I agreed, surprising her with my playfulness. "Still, I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth."

It could have been my imagination, but I swear Eva's lips twitched once. She ran her eyes up and down my body and I waited for the nasty, snarky comment, but this time she surprised me. Shrugging, she leaned against the doorframe, hovering at the threshold to my room as if she didn't want to leave and yet didn't want to come in at the same time. The silence got awkward pretty fast.

I was actually surprised to see her. She hadn't said a word to me since I got home. She'd done a good job of never being in the same room as me. She didn't look happy right now, but for the first time since I met her there was no hostility. She was actually trying to make an effort for once. It was probably Dr Parish's doing. My dad and Lucia had been making Eva see my psychologist for a few weeks now. About time if you asked me. The girl had as many issues as I did, if not more.

"You look good," Eva said suddenly.

I tried to play it cool and failed miserably. I'd never had a decent poker face, though. "Um, thanks?"

"You know," she added, "for a freak."

I knew she was teasing, but neither Abby nor Renata appreciated the humour. "Did you need something?" Renata snapped.

Eva glared at her sister, but then met my eyes and a look of determination swept over her face. I couldn't tell what the look meant, but it wasn't anger. Her determination wasn't defiance. It was something else. Resolve.

"It was me who gave up your location that day," she said. "I took a picture of you guys with my phone at dinner and sent it to a couple of celebrity gossip sites. It's my fault you guys got ambushed."

I wasn't surprised she'd been the one, I'd always had my suspicions. What surprised me was the confession. She wasn't throwing the info in my face, she was apologising. At that moment she looked as comfortable in her skin as I felt in mine. It was as if feeling remorse and admitting wrongdoing was a brand-new experience for her.

I was glad no one jumped down her throat. If anyone had, I'm pretty sure she would have become defensive and the moment would have been ruined. She and I needed to get past our issues with one another.

"I didn't mean for all that to happen," she said.

I shrugged with what I hoped was nonchalance. "The lie Juliana's people told wasn't your fault."

She shook her head. "But they wouldn't have told it if the paparazzi hadn't shown up at dinner."

"Maybe not that night," I agreed, "but it would have happened eventually if I kept hanging out with her."

Abby snorted. "Uh, you guys weren't hanging out, you were making out."

Renata burst out laughing. "Good one!"

I smacked them both and looked back at Eva, shocked to see that she was smiling. "Anyway, I'm sorry," she said, trying to wipe the grin from her face.

"Thank you."

She turned to leave and I stopped her. "Are you going to ride with us to the theatre tonight?"

She shrugged again, managing to keep a bored look on her face, but I could tell she was touched by the invite. "I may as well. I've got nothing better to do tonight."

I smiled and said thanks again.

"Whatever," she replied. She started to saunter away but then stopped and said, "When you guys come up for air tonight, ask Juliana if she can hook me up with Logan Lerman."

"You mean if they come up for air," Renata teased.

"Guys! Seriously? Shut up already!"

I wasn't kidding, but for some reason all three of them laughed at me.

We came out of my room to find Dad and Lucia waiting in the kitchen. To my surprise, Rob was sitting at the bar. His eyes fell on me and he jerked upright so fast he nearly fell off his stool. The way his Adam's apple bobbed, it looked as if he had just attempted to swallow a baseball. "You look amazing," he rasped.

Chalk up another blush for the day. "Thanks." I approached him and gave him a hug. It took him a little longer than normal to let go. "What are you doing here?"

"I had to come see you off. Couldn't let you leave for your big date without wishing you luck."

I hugged him again, this time with much more feeling. Rob had a way of calming my nerves. It was all his cool confidence and calmness about everything. I was worried things would get awkward between us, but Rob was always so easy going. He had settled into the role of 'just friends' with ease after he realised how much Juliana and I really meant to each other. I was so grateful I got to keep him as a friend. I was going to have to find him a girl of his own sometime.

"You want to come in the car with us?" Renata asked. "Dad rented a limo so we could all drive over with her."

"There is some concern that she'll hijack the car and make a run for it if we let her go alone," Abby added.

I rolled my eyes at her, but she might have had a small point.

Rob's only response was a smile and an offered arm. I accepted it and did my best not to hyperventilate as we all piled into the limo.

It took us over an hour to get through traffic since we had to wait in the long line of cars arriving at the premiere. Then, suddenly, too suddenly, the car stopped and the door opened to a roar of noise and endless flashing lights. I looked outside and the first thing I saw was red.

"It's the red carpet!" Renata squealed, bouncing with excitement after noticing the same thing I had. "You're about to walk the red carpet!"

There was a man in a suit waiting to help me out of the car. It was now or never. I gave a quick round of hugs, saving my dad for last. "Good luck, kiddo," he whispered in a voice clouded with emotion. He cleared it and then projected in a macho tone, "Remember, young lady, home by one."

Renata groaned. "A curfew? Seriously? Dad, may I remind you that she's nineteen and as of yesterday legally no longer in your custody?"

I hadn't cared, but I loved that Renata felt the need to argue on my behalf.

Dad sighed. "Cut me a break this once, huh? I haven't gotten to play the big scary dad for Val yet, and I'm not even getting to meet her date."

Laughing, I gave his shoulder a pat. "I'm sure you'll have a chance to intimidate her soon enough," I grinned at the girls. "I plan on asking her to come help me haul boxes on moving day."

Abby, Renata, Eva, and even Lucia all giggled.

"Good, I look forward to it!"

I laughed and gave my dad a hug, surprising us both when I kissed his cheek. "You'll love her," I promised. "And I'll be home by one."

My dad hugged me again and had to clear his throat before he replied. "I love you, kiddo. Go knock 'em dead."

With that, I took a deep breath and then climbed out of the car. The man waiting to help me ran his eyes over me, pausing for a moment on my scars and cane. His face lit up in a wide grin when understanding hit him. "I hope you're ready for this," he whispered, waving his hand in the direction I was supposed to walk.

"Not in the least," I assured him as I took my first step toward a brand-new life.

The red carpet extended the entire block leading up to the theatre's entrance. It was lined the entire way with bright lights, thick velvet ropes, and heat lamps. I smiled to myself when I saw the lamps. I had tried to get out of the limo with my coat on, it was the week before Christmas, after all, but Eva threw a hissy fit. She snatched the coat, insisting that no one walked the red carpet hiding their outfits. It turned out she was right.

Photographers and reporters with video cameras and microphones stood along the outside of the velvet ropes, and behind them was a crowd of people so big I felt as if I were standing on the pitcher's mound at Fenway Park.

There were a number of people walking up the carpet ahead of me. I recognised a few of them, and others were unfamiliar. Kaylee Summers was smiling pretty for the crowd, clinging obnoxiously to an actor I recognised from a popular movie about vampires. Somehow, it seemed fitting.

I didn't see Juliana anywhere.

My stomach churned at the idea of having to get from where I was standing to the doors of the theatre that seemed miles away. I wasn't sure I could do it, but I no longer had a choice. The people closest to me had already taken notice and were starting to whisper.

I took one step, and then, slowly, another. My joints weren't thrilled with the cold weather, so my gait was off a little more than normal. My limp caught people's attention and the murmurs turned into cheers. "It's her!" someone cried. "It's Val! She came!"

At once, a wave of deafening noise erupted and worked its way from my end of the block to the entrance of the theatre and back across the street until it was loud enough it could have been heard in Boston.

People screamed and shouted. They reached out as if to touch me. Cameras flashed in my face, blinding me. The frenzy was so much more than I could have imagined. Overwhelmed, I stumbled back from the ropes. A man twice the size of my father, wearing an expensive suit and some kind of earpiece, caught me. "Are you all right, Miss?"

I gazed at the crowd, unable to think. "This is crazy."

The man chuckled and set me back on my feet. "No one will cross to this side of the ropes. You'll be safe."

The people on the carpet ahead of me all stopped to see what the commotion was. They watched me with curious eyes. Some of them smiled while others didn't seem to appreciate my having stolen the attention from them. Kaylee looked as if she wanted to shred me to pieces with her bare hands.

"You'd better get moving, Miss," the security guard said, giving me a gentle nudge. "The show starts in fifteen minutes."

I nodded and started to walk again, but when I did the cheers grew impossibly louder and I felt as if the chaos had swallowed me up. I was afraid I was going to panic, but then I saw a commotion on the carpet ahead of me that made everything around me fade away.

Juliana pushed her way through the crowd of celebrities toward me. I could tell she was calling my name, though I couldn't hear her over the noise. Her movements were frantic, they matched the feeling inside my chest. I thought I would burst if I didn't have my arms around her in the next five seconds. And then she was there, coming to a stop a few feet in front of me. I didn't understand the distance she kept between us. I wanted to close it. Needed to close it. I needed to feel her, and smell her, and get lost in her eyes.

"You came," she breathed. When she spoke, a hush fell over the crowd. People were desperate to hear what we were saying. My focus drifted toward the audience for a moment but then snapped back to Juliana when she said, "After the show, when you didn't call me, I thought..."

She thought she'd never hear from me again.

She couldn't say the words, and I didn't make her. "I... went away... for a while... after what happened."

I wasn't sure if Juliana knew exactly what I meant, but the look of guilt and devastation on her face suggested her thoughts were on the right track, if not exactly correct. I hoped my smile would reassure her that I was okay. I would have that conversation with her, but not right now.

"I only got home three days ago," I said. My smile turned wry. "My therapist played your interview in front of everyone I know. I was the only one who hadn't seen it. I had no idea what was going on and everyone stared at me the whole time. I had to watch that interview with my father standing over my shoulder. It was so embarrassing."

Juliana crossed her arms over her chest and raised an eyebrow. "My love for you is embarrassing?"

Miracle of miracles, I managed to keep a straight face. "There is such a thing as subtlety, Juliana. You could benefit from a few lessons on the subject."

I had been doing well, but when Juliana's face fell into a pout I burst into laughter. "I loved it."

Juliana finally stepped forward and pulled me into her arms. "You're such a brat. I can't believe you made me sweat it out until the last possible second."

I shrugged. "After seeing that interview, I figured we were striving for dramatic. Surprising you seemed like the way to go."

Juliana chuckled and scanned the near-riot my arrival had caused. "It was definitely that. You managed to cause quite the scene." She grinned at me then in a way that melted my heart. "I bet I can do better."

I smirked. "Of course, you do."

The wicked glint in her eyes was the only warning she gave me before she pulled me into a deep kiss.

Our first kiss had been tender. It had been a kiss to get to know one another. This kiss was entirely different. This kiss was hungry. Juliana kissed me as if she were trying to fuse our souls together for eternity. She wasn't doing this for show. It had nothing to do with the hundreds of people watching and going crazy around us. It wasn't possessive, either. She wasn't staking a claim on me. She wasn't even trying to prove her feelings to me. She was simply taking what she needed.

I could feel her yearning, her ache for me, and it turned me into a puddle of mush. Whatever she needed, she could have it. I would gladly give it. She could have all of me. In fact, by the time we separated from the kiss, she did have all of me.

"I love you so much, Val," she whispered.

I didn't know what was cuter, her smitten expression or the bright red lipstick smeared all over her face. "I love you too, Jana."

She gave me another quick kiss and then slipped her arm around my waist and led me toward the theatre doors. When we got there, she stopped and turned us toward the crowd. "Say 'cheese', Val," she teased.

I stood there and smiled until my face hurt, but it wasn't hard to do since I was so deliriously happy. Juliana could totally tell too, because every time I looked at her, she chuckled as if I were the most amusing thing in the world.

I must have missed the signal, but eventually Juliana decided it was time to move on. As we turned to leave, a man on the other side of the velvet ropes thrust a microphone at us. "Juliana! Juliana! Can you give us a statement before you go inside?"

Juliana stopped walking.

A hush fell over the crowd. The atmosphere turned almost reverent as the world waited to hear what Juliana Valdés would say. I hoped, for her sake, whatever she came up with was good. I had a feeling this moment of ours was going to go down in Hollywood history.

Juliana looked at the man and then back at me. Her grin spread the entire length of her face and he said, "How about, 'And they lived happily ever after'?"

 

THE END

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Hey!! I'm back with...

 

PART TWO!

 

😍

 

Decided to add on to this story rather than start a new one.

 

Chapter Text

My eyes drooped as I lay stretched out on the plush couch, head propped up on the armrest, staring at the computer on my lap. It was getting late, and the words on the screen were all starting to blur together. I must have been closer to sleep than I thought, because I jumped when my instant messenger dinged at me.

Jana458: I miss you.

I snorted. She was such a goofball. Shaking my head, I couldn't help typing a response.

ValTheRealHero: Ha! You're such a dork.

Jana458: I'm serious.

ValTheRealHero: That makes you even more of a dork.

Jana458: No, it makes me romantic. You're such a brat.

ValTheRealHero: And you're annoying. Leave me alone. I'm busy.

Jana458: But I miss you. I need you. Right now.

When a hand began to lightly tickle my sock-covered foot, I glanced over my laptop and huffed in exasperation at the woman typing on her phone at the other end of the couch.

"Seriously, Juliana," I groaned. "I have a test tomorrow. You told me that if I came over, you'd let me study. So far, I haven't done much studying."

"You've already passed two practice exams. How much more studying do you need?"

Juliana, having had enough of my ignoring her, stole the computer from my lap and set it on the coffee table. My heart spiked as she crawled across the couch toward me, mindful of my scarred and damaged legs. 

I still couldn't believe that of all the women in the world, she had chosen me. We were an official couple for a week now, and the novelty of dating one of the country's sexiest movie stars still seemed strange. Especially at moments like this, when she was trying to melt me with her smouldering bedroom eyes.

She stopped inches from my face. Her perfect body hovered above mine, waiting for permission to fall against me. Just waiting. Building tension without even touching me.

Shivering, I sucked in a sharp breath. My head swam as she filled my senses. Her body heat warmed me. Her perfume, subtle but sweet, hit me as I breathed in, triggering my hormones as if it had been designed to do so. It was probably called Eau de Bottled Lust. 

"Juliana, come on. Seriously."

"Valentina," she whispered softly. Dangerously. "Forget about your test already, and kiss me."

That did it. The woman knew my weakness. With a groan, I lifted my arms around her neck and pulled her mouth to mine. She was more than ready for the kiss. We connected with passion, and she kissed me deeply. It was as if she had been waiting her whole life to kiss me, and not just the last couple of hours.

"It's really not fair when you use your audiobook voice on me," I breathed as soon as she released my lips.

She smirked against my mouth. "I know." Her head moved to the side of my face, her lips finding something new to torture: the soft spot of sensitive skin just behind my ear. "Why do you think I used it?"

My eyes rolled back in my head, and I buried my fingers in her soft, dark hair. Juliana took that as a sign to turn our kiss into a full-on make-out session. She lowered her body on top of mine, angling herself slightly to the side so she wouldn't squash my small, frail body under her weight. I nearly gasped, both from pleasure and fear.

Having her body pressed against mine and her hands wandering over the top of my clothes was a new experience for me. We had only been dating for a week now, but even for that week, I have been pretty shy about getting physical. I was never serious with anyone before my accident, and after... well... I'd been downright scared of dating. Terrified, even.

I pushed away my nerves for a few minutes, letting my desire rule my actions. Juliana felt so good, and as anxious as I was, I craved her as much as she wanted me. As she readjusted our bodies, making us comfortable on the couch that suddenly felt way too small, my hands found her chest.

I had touched her amazing, award-worthy breasts once or twice before. I'd rested my hands there while she held me and kissed me, but I had never been in a position to explore them before. Fuelled by lust and not thinking clearly, I dragged my fingers down her stomach, feeling her defined abdomen.

I shuddered again. She was perfection.

Juliana seemed to like me touching her, because she paused for a moment, as if surprised. And then something inside her just snapped. She found my mouth again, devouring me in a heated kiss.

My heart pounded, and it became hard to breathe, but in the best possible way. My hands found the hem of her shirt and slid beneath the material. When I felt her blazing hot skin, I came back to myself. I squeaked in surprise and stilled my fingers. Juliana moaned in response. "Yes, Val. Do it. Feel me. I want you to touch me."

I wanted to. I wanted to more than anything, but I hesitated, surprised and a little embarrassed by what she said. Her words had been a desperate request more than a command, but they had been so direct. Juliana had a lot more experience in the dating department. There were only three years' difference between us in age, but sometimes it felt like twenty. Every time things got physical between us, I felt like an innocent little schoolgirl dating a full-fledged grown-up.

When I didn't move, Juliana pulled her shirt over her head. She covered my trembling hand with hers and guided my fingers to her body, splaying them across her stomach. This time, we both shuddered.

Her skin, so soft and hard at the same time, burned beneath my touch. It felt as if she were on fire, and it made me nearly combust as well. I quit being shy. I let my hands roam, exploring every inch of her stomach, chest, and shoulders.

My lips found her neck and drifted to her shoulder as my hands moved to her back. Her whole body tensed, and, with a low moan, she pulled me against her, being a lot less gentle with me than normal.

Her hands slipped under my shirt, doing some exploring of their own, but when her fingers slid over my scars, they doused my desire as if I'd fallen into an icy lake. Gasping, I scrambled to sit up, and Juliana immediately sat back, giving me space. Her eyes bore into mine, filled with concern. "Did I hurt you?"

My face heated with embarrassment. "No."

"Then what..." Her voice trailed off as she solved the mystery. Her expression turned pained. "Your scars?"

I took a deep breath and chewed on my lip.

Juliana took my damaged hand in hers and rubbed her thumb over the back of it. "Your scars are part of you, and I love all of you." Her thumb stilled, and she met my eyes with a searching gaze. "You believe that, don't you?"

"Of course I do. I just..." My throat closed up, and my eyes started to burn. I hated that this bothered me. It shouldn't have. I knew she didn't care about the scars. I knew that. But I cared. Her body was flawless and beautiful. Mine was... not.

"Val," Juliana rasped. Her voice was too full of emotion to take on that low, rumbly quality that makes me melt, but this new, strained voice was just as overwhelming. She squeezed my hand. "I love you so much."

She had said those words often this week, and they nearly burst my heart every time. Now, with the emotions flying high between us, they nearly brought me to tears. I had spent the last year thinking I would never be loved again. Juliana had proved my insecurities unfounded a thousand times over. 

"I love you, too," I whispered, swallowing back the raw feelings that were choking me.

Juliana tucked a loose strand of my hair behind my ear, caressing my skin as she did so. 

"You are the most beautiful woman I've ever met. Stay with me tonight, and I will spend every minute until I take you home in the morning proving to you just how beautiful you are. Every. Single. Minute. Val. You have my word."

She was doing the smouldering gaze thing again. The desire in her eyes would have melted most women, but it spiked fear in me. 

"I'm sorry." I shook my head, trying to keep the movements slow so that she wouldn't guess just how panicked I was. "I'm not ready for that."

Seeing through my flimsy façade of calm, Juliana sat back and let the lust fade from her eyes. "Okay."

She didn't question me. She simply accepted that I had hit the brakes. She was the most perfect woman in the world. My heart swelled with love, and yet guilt wracked me, too. So much so that I felt the need to try and explain. "It's not just because of the scars."

Juliana surprised me by chuckling. "Yes, I can see that."

Her playfulness evaporated my guilt, but it tripled my embarrassment. I covered my flaming face with my hands and lay back on the couch, groaning. Juliana had no sympathy. Her chuckle turned into real laughter.

I glared at her through my fingers. "Are you seriously laughing at me right now? Thank you so much, you jerk."

She pulled my hands away from my face, and I swatted her arm. She caught my hand in hers, grinning down at me, her eyes sparkling with delight. "What? I think it's adorable."

Now that was just hard to believe. I sat up again and gave her my most challenging stare, the one I saved for when we argued about books and movies. "I'm not ready to sleep with you, and you find that adorable?"

Juliana rolled her eyes but kept grinning. "Val, I know you. I know you've never dated anyone seriously. I know your grandparents were very strict Catholics, and that your mom was paranoid about you getting involved in a relationship too young."

"Yeah, and now I know why," I grumbled. Considering I was an accidental, unwanted surprise that caused my parents eight years of strife, my mother's paranoia made perfect sense. Unfortunately, it had turned me into an inexperienced prude and maybe even made me a little afraid of sex.

"Whatever the reason," Juliana said, her smile turning from playful to serious, "I know this is all new for you. Yeah, I hoped you'd agree to stay tonight, had to give it a shot, but I'm not surprised you turned me down."

"And you're really okay with that?" I bit my lip again, uncertainty creeping into my thoughts. "I know that's not what you're used to."

Juliana shook her head, giving me a rueful smile. "You are nothing like what I'm used to. That's exactly what I love about you, and you know that."

"Yeah, but..."

"But nothing. Stop feeling self-conscious. I consider myself the luckiest woman in the world to have found a woman who loves me instead of the movie star. I'm not going to screw something this special up by pressuring you into things you aren't ready for. I promise."

Her words were so romantic. She was being so amazing, and understanding, and supportive. Still, I had to go and ruin the moment with an obnoxious snort of laughter. "That sounded a little too perfect. I really hope it wasn't a line from one of your movies."

One thing I'd learned about myself this week, for all the sappy romance in books and movies that I loved, I couldn't handle it in real life, not when it was directed at me. I loved it; I just had a hard time believing I deserved it. I was no silver screen princess. I wasn't a heroine from a novel. I was just a normal girl with a million flaws, too much emotional baggage, and a broken body.

Juliana sighed. "One of these days, Val, you're going to learn how to take a compliment."

She rose to her feet with a yawn and a stretch. She was still only in her bra, I watched her muscles expand and contract beneath her golden skin, I regretted killing the mood. My eyes snapped back to her face when she cleared her throat. She flashed me a cocky smirk, which I answered with a sheepish grin. "Sorry. Just taking advantage of the free show. Most girls have to buy a ticket to get this view."

Juliana cocked a brow at me. "Who said this show was free?" She was kidding, but her voice quickly turned heavy, and her smile disappeared. "Being my girlfriend comes at a very high price."

She wasn't kidding. The past week had been insane. The world was obsessed with Jana and Val. The only peace we had were in the privacy of our own homes. And considering my house came with an awkward family who gawked a lot, and usually a bunch of my stepsisters' friends all hoping to meet Juliana, we had spent most of our time together hiding in her house.

"You're worth it," I promised, sliding my arms around her waist. She squeezed me tightly against her, and I basked in the feel of her chest against mine.

"I hope you still think that after the newness wears off." The worry and insecurity in her voice broke my heart. 

"I'll always think it," I assured her. Then, wanting to lighten the mood again, I brushed my fingers over her stomach and said, "Especially when you have a body like this."

Juliana's eyes flashed with desire. She released a growly purr of approval as she lowered her mouth to mine. "So it's my body you love me for, is it? Not my brains? Or my sense of humour? Or my charming personality?"

"Mmm. Nope. Just your body." I ran my hands along her sides and over her shoulders before sliding them around her neck. "And maybe your kissing abilities."

"Maybe?"

She sounded genuinely hurt, but then, she was an actress, so she should sound sincere. I knew she was only trying to provoke me, so I shrugged. "Eh. It could be your money, I guess. It's hard to tell exactly what does it for me."

Juliana snorted but didn't bother with a witty comeback. Our time for the night was coming to an end, and she apparently would rather spend it kissing me than bantering. I indulged her until the alarm went off on my phone. We both sighed. "Time for Cinderella to get home."

Juliana slipped her shirt back on, a travesty, though necessary, I supposed, if she was going to drive me home. After handing me my cane, she collected her purse and keys. 

"You know," she said as we headed out to the garage, "I'm pretty sure Prince Charming got to keep Cinderella at the end of the movie."

I laughed as she helped me into the car. Once she was seated behind the wheel, I said, "I'm pretty sure Cinderella didn't have an overprotective father she was trying to reconcile with."

Juliana cracked her neck and tightened her grip on the steering wheel. "Your father doesn't deserve the respect you give him."

I resisted the urge to sigh as she opened the garage door and pulled out onto the winding, narrow road she lived on. There was a lot of tension between Juliana and my father. The day after the premiere, my dad got a background check on Juliana. He didn't seem to mind I was dating a girl and saw no issue with the the gross invasion of her privacy; all he cared about was the recurring theme in the results, women.

Needless to say, my dad wasn't too thrilled with the idea of such a notorious womaniser dating his daughter. Juliana, on the other hand, didn't think my father had any right to an opinion where I was concerned. Balancing the two dominant personalities was proving difficult.

"This is almost the last time you have to worry about it," I said, patting Juliana's hand. "After Christmas, you'll help me move out. Then I'll just have to respect Abby's dads' rules." I giggled at the thought of them issuing me with a curfew. "Given the way both Steffan and Glen adore you, I doubt they'll care what time you bring me home."

Juliana turned onto Mulholland Drive and zipped along the familiar road until she reached the hill where my father and Lucia called home. It was a little mind-blowing to think that all these months I had lived less than three miles from Juliana and never known it.

"What if I didn't bring you home?" Juliana asked.

"What do you mean?"

She shot me a quick glance before turning her gaze back to the dark, twisty road. Her brows were pulled low over her eyes, and her leg bounced nervously. "I mean, what if, when I help you move out, I bring your stuff to my place instead of Abby's?"

 

 

Chapter Text

'Did she just suggest I move in with her?I laughed, but it quickly died. When it became obvious she wasn't joking, my jaw fell open. "Are you serious?"

She pulled into my dads small driveway and parked in front of the gate, but didn't open the window to enter the security code. Instead, she turned in her seat to face me. "Hear me out."

"Hear you out? Juliana, you just asked me to move in with you! We've been together for a week!"

"I've been in love with you for three years, Val. We're more than just a one-week-old couple."

I opened my mouth to argue but couldn't find any words. I had to settle for frowning. "No. I can't. That's crazy."

Juliana shook her head. "It's more than just wanting you there. If you're really going to move out of your dad's house, then you should at least consider coming to live at my place. If you aren't ready for us to 'live together', we could be roommates instead. You could have your own room, your own bathroom. You could even label your own food if you wanted, and I would only steal it when you annoyed me."

I laughed despite myself, but wariness quickly crept in. She was being awfully insistent. "Why?" When she hesitated, I knew my suspicions were founded. "What aren't you telling me?"

She sighed. "I'm worried about you living at Abby's."

I laughed. "What on earth for?" The notion was ridiculous. "Abby and her dads love me. They're excited to have me living there. I'll be much better off there than I am at my dad's house."

Juliana cut me a serious look. "It's not Abby's family I'm worried about. It's the security at her apartment."

Abby lived in a typical LA-style apartment complex in West Hollywood. It was built back in the sixties and modelled after a two-story motel. There were only eight units in the complex, four downstairs and four up. Each of them had front doors that opened to the outside. The complex didn't even have parking, much less a gate.

I frowned. "Her apartment building doesn't have any security. Unless you count the dead bolt on her front door."

Juliana's grim face seemed to say, 'That's exactly my point!'

I smiled when I realized what she was worried about. "It's not a bad neighbourhood. Maybe it's not the Hollywood Hills, but Glen and Steffan assured my dad it's completely safe. They've never had a problem. Abby said it's a great neighbourhood, and she loves her neighbours."

Juliana sighed. "I'm sure it's a great place for Abby and her dads, Val, but you're different now."

"What do you mean?"

Juliana rubbed her hand over her face and then reached to take mine. She brought it to her lips, forcing a pained smile at me. "I told you dating me comes at a cost. It won't take long for the media to realize you've moved, and it'll take even less time for them to figure out where you've moved to. You'll have no privacy at Abby's. You'll be stalked all the time by everyone from paparazzi, to fans, to tourists."

"Oh come on, the novelty of us will wear off soon. It won't be that bad."

Juliana laced our fingers together and let our hands fall to her lap, but she didn't return my smile. "You don't understand. Celebrity hype like mine doesn't wear off. I've had trouble this past year with obsessed fans. A lot of trouble. I've had to get a few restraining orders. I've had a number of people try to break into my home. That's why I moved to the place I'm at now. The security is state-of-the-art."

"Whoa. You seriously had people break in?"

Juliana's face was serious. "This level of fame is intense, Val. Fans don't see celebrities as real people. They won't respect your privacy or your personal boundaries. I don't want you to have to deal with that on your own."

I began to think twice about staying at Abby's. Sinking back in my seat, I stared out the windshield at the gate to my father's house. I'd always considered gated homes pretentious, a way for rich people to feel self-important. I never considered some of them might need the security. Or privacy.

But move in with Juliana? That was a huge commitment. Yeah, she said we could live like roommates, but could we really? I wasn't so sure. And I just wasn't ready for a live-in relationship. Not even close.

"I see what you're saying, and it's really thoughtful of you. Thank you for being so concerned about me, but I don't think moving in with you is necessary."

When Juliana frowned, I kept talking so she couldn't argue with me. "Things are just crazy right now because we created huge drama with the whole 'Cinderella' thing. I'm sure it'll die down soon. We'll be old news by New Year's."

Juliana searched my face. I detected disappointment in her gaze and tried not to let that sway me. I couldn't accept her offer. Not if my current amount of anxiety was anything to go by. I tried to hide how panicked I was. I loved her, but the thought of moving in with her terrified me. It was also insanely appealing. And maybe that was what was so scary. It was too much, too fast.

Giving up for the moment, Juliana finally rolled down her window to punch in the security code to open the gate. As she pressed the buttons, a bright flash went off, and a dark figure jumped out from behind the trees.

Juliana, of course, said nothing to the guy. She always encouraged me to do the same, but I wasn't very good at it. "Seriously?" I asked, leaning around Juliana to scowl at the man. He continued to click away, blinding me with his flash. "You don't have anything better to do than stalk my house at one in the morning, hoping to get a picture of us?"

"Val, don't bother." Juliana sounded tired, and I knew it wasn't because of the late hour.

I couldn't see the man outside, but I could picture his smarmy smile as he laughed and said, "Are you kidding? Juliana Valdés having to get her girlfriend home before curfew? That's front-page news. You're gonna earn me some serious cash tonight, sweetheart."

The guy's condescension irritated me so much I was tempted to jump out of the car and smash his camera. "It's a self-imposed curfew, thank you very much."

"Val..."

"My father worries about me, so while I'm still living under his roof, I make sure to be home at a reasonable hour."

"Val..."

"I'm not a child."

Okay, so maybe the guy's comment stung because it hit a little too close to home. I may have been granted all of my legal rights as an adult now, but I hated that I'd lost them for a year. And I hated even more that the world knew it.

The first night Juliana brought me home after the premiere of The Druid Princess, a couple of extra-crafty paparazzi managed to follow us back to my house, and my identity had been discovered. It had only taken hours after that for the papers to report all about my accident, my disabilities, the loss of my mother, and my unstable mental health. The custody thing with my father because of my attempted suicide had all come out, too.

Juliana rolled up her window and pulled through the gate, watching her rear view to make sure the paparazzi stayed off the property. Once her window was closed, I slammed my head back against my headrest and groaned. "That guy was being a jerk on purpose, trying to get a rise out of us. I hate that it worked."

Juliana squeezed my hand. "Learning to ignore them takes practice."

"I know. It's just embarrassing. I mean, the guy's right. I'm coming home for curfew."

"True. But you were right, too. You're doing it out of respect for your father, which I think is beyond admirable."

"Yeah, well, I doubt that bit of information is going to make it into his headline."

"Who cares about his headline? You know the truth. I know the truth. Your dad knows the truth."

I huffed in frustration, trying to let my anger go. Nothing was damaged but my pride, and that only hurt if I let it. "You're right. Sorry. I'll get used to it."

Juliana gave me an apologetic smile. "Have I told you how grateful I am that you're willing to deal with this for me?"

I gave her a wry smile. "Like you gave me much of a choice? Do you know what would have happened if Juliana Valdés personal 'Cinderella' hadn't shown up to claim the glass slipper, or in our case a pair of gloves and an autographed book?"

"It was definitely an underhanded move." She chuckled. "I don't feel bad. Living without you was unacceptable, so I had to guarantee myself victory."

I snorted, and after checking to make sure the gate was all the way closed behind us, opened my car door. Juliana jumped out of the car and rounded it to help me stand. I waved her away. "It's okay. I got it."

"Val..."

"Call me vain, but my ego is already bruised enough for the night. Let me at least stand up on my own."

She backed up, not offended that I was grumbling at her offer of assistance. She knew me too well. She smiled at me and shook her head as I slowly pulled myself from the car. "Stubborn woman."

"It's a good thing, too, otherwise you'd be helping me into my wheelchair right now."

"I know." Juliana shut the car door for me and walked me to the front door. "I love that you push yourself to get stronger. But it also hurts my ego when you won't let me rescue my damsel in distress."

She was teasing, but my heart still melted a little. "You've already rescued me plenty," I said as we reached the front porch. "You're my brave druid princess. Literally, Princess Jana."

Juliana's grin turned goofy, and she stepped back to give me a courtly bow. I had no doubt it was authentic, something she'd learned in preparation for her role as the cherished Druid Princess. "M'lady," she mumbled as she bent at the waist and dropped her lips to my hand. "Fair Priestess, I bid thee good night."

I couldn't help the giggle that escaped me. I loved it when her inner fantasy geek came to the surface. It was so utterly dorky, but she was my dork. I curtseyed as best as my body would allow. "And to you as well, Your Highness."

Juliana let go of my hand and snaked her arm around my waist, pulling me tight against her. "Screw the Old World manners. If you refuse to come live with me, then I need a real kiss to get me through the separation."

Laughing, I wrapped my arms around her neck. "Who am I to deny a Princess?"

"As the powerful mystic priestess, you're the only one allowed to deny me anything, but I wouldn't recommend it. I tend to get cranky when I don't get what I want."

"Mmm. That's because you're a celebrity. You're a very spoiled lot, you know."

Juliana chuckled, pulling me just a little bit tighter. Her hands started to glide up and down my back, as if she were attempting to memorize the feel of me before she had to let go. "Yes," she agreed shamelessly. "Very spoiled, indeed. And self centered. And needy. I'm afraid I'm going to be an extremely high-maintenance girlfriend. Are you sure you're up for the task?"

I pretended to think about it. "It'll be difficult, but you do drive a Ferrari, so..."

"Ah. So it's the car you really love me for."

Grinning, I glanced behind us at the fine Italian automobile Juliana referred to as 'Precious'. It was ostentatious, but I couldn't deny it was fun to ride in. "It's definitely the car."

"And the truth finally comes out." Juliana shook her head, and her gaze landed on mine with a new look that was hard to label. "Say it again for me."

I understood the look now. It was love. Pure and simple. The woman standing in front of me, holding me in her arms, was head over heels in love with me. How in the world did I ever get so lucky?

I tried to suppress a smile as I rolled my eyes, but I was only half successful, and I couldn't deny her request. "Car," I said, throwing a little extra H into the word, exaggerating my Boston accent.

Juliana's face lit up with delight. "You are so cute."

I was in the middle of rolling my eyes again when she finally captured my mouth with hers. I forgot about everything the moment we connected. My only thoughts were of her. I would never get tired of the feel of her lips, the minty taste of her mouth, or the way she made me tingle all over from head to toe and left me lightheaded because she took my breath away. She could light a fire inside me with a single touch and make me weak in the knees with just one look. Kissing her was magical.

I must have had some of the same effect on her, because when she finally released me, she was panting, and her eyes looked feverish.

"Do you think that will get you through the night?" I teased.

Juliana sucked in a long breath and licked her lips before answering. She looked as if she was considering dragging me back into her car and keeping me forever. If she tried, I'm not sure I would have stopped her. But she remained a proper lady and took a small step back. "Don't be surprised if I show up at sunrise."

"Don't you dare. This 'Cinderella' needs a lot of beauty sleep."

"Fine. After your test." Juliana sighed and leaned in for one more kiss. This one was soft and quick. A chaste good-bye kiss. The perfect farewell. "Goodnight, Val. I love you."

I quietly opened the front door and turned back to Juliana with a smile. "I love you, too. I'll call you tomorrow."

Juliana hopped down from the front porch and slowly started walking backwards towards her car. "I miss you already."

"Good-bye, you dork."

 

Chapter Text

Juliana POV

Val's parting kiss had been incredible, but it hadn't helped me walk away from her last night. And it definitely hadn't helped me sleep. I lay awake forever, and when I finally did pass out, I dreamed. I dreamed vivid, sexy dreams all night. They were so hot and so detailed that when I woke the next morning to the smell of fresh coffee being waved in my face, I thought maybe the dreams were real and that taking Val home had been the dream. I rolled toward the waiting cup with a low moan of pleasure. "You made me coffee? You seriously are  the perfect woman."

"I didn't make it, and I'm actually quite far from being perfect or a woman, but I'll still take the compliment."

Fantasy dead, I pulled my eyes open and groaned. "Matty?"

My personal assistant leaned over my bed, flashing me a bright smile as he held out a warm paper cup from my favourite coffee house. "Morning, boss."

Accepting my defeat, because though I didn't have a clue why Mateo was here, I knew he would not let me stay in bed, I sat up and rubbed the sleep off my face before accepting my coffee. "What time is it?"

"Not early enough to warrant a lecture from you."

"Meaning...?"

"Almost nine."

I groaned again, eliciting a chuckle from Mateo. "Rough night?" he asked.

I sipped my coffee, unsure how to answer as I remembered all of my sexy dreams. They'd left me frustrated, but they hadn't exactly been unpleasant. "Depends on how you look at it."

Mateo quirked a curious brow. The twenty-six-year-old Christian virgin was so innocent he probably didn't want the details, but I couldn't resist at least giving him the right idea. He was too fun to tease. "Let's just say I've spending a lot of time with Val but having to leave her home every night has left me a little frustrated and is affecting my sleep."

"Oh." Mateo's cheeks turned pink, and his eyes popped open so wide I forgave him for waking me up. He tried to cover his shock and act like he was used to this kind of conversation by clearing his throat and shrugging. "So... you and Val haven't... gone there yet?"

God, he was too easy to embarrass. I rose to my feet with a laugh and clapped him on the shoulder. "I wish, buddy. Val is as pure as you."

Mateo chuckled good-naturedly. I ribbed him a lot about his goody-goody moral ways, but he knew I was teasing. I actually really respected him. Not only must his way of living be extremely hard to uphold, but he was also just such a good guy, trustworthy, hardworking, loyal. The best personal assistant I'd ever had.

"We need to find you a girlfriend, Matty. A good one like mine, who has a thing for Boy Scouts."

"No, what you need to do is get dressed quickly. I've got family coming into town today. I have to go to the airport in an hour, so I can't stay long."

I glanced down at my pyjamas with a smirk. "So no showering first this time?"

"You're not sweating out two days' worth of booze this time, so that won't be necessary." Mateo laughed as he headed out of my room. "Hurry up, boss. Time's a wastin'."

As he wandered down the hall, I called out after him. "You are way too cheerful in the mornings, Matty!"

It wasn't until I threw on a T-shirt and followed Mateo to the kitchen table that I thought to question his presence. I asked the million-dollar question as I popped a couple slices of bread into the toaster. "So what are you doing here? I swear I don't have any meetings scheduled today that I'm forgetting about."

Mateo glanced at me from behind the laptop he already had open on my kitchen table. "No, you don't have any meetings scheduled yet. That's the problem."

His reason for being here finally clicked, and my good mood vanished. "Forget it!"

"Juliana." Mateo leaned back in his chair and rubbed a hand over his face. "Your entire team is hounding me day and night."

"So don't answer their calls. That's what I'm doing."

A very rare look of annoyance flashed across his face. "I know you're ignoring them. That's why they're calling me. I would like to enjoy my holiday, boss, so I'm not leaving until I have something to tell them. Preferably a scheduled meeting time."

I returned his look of irritation and reached for my toast. After tossing the hot bread onto a plate, I went for the bottle of raspberry jam in the fridge. Mateo continued to pester me as I covered my toast with the jam. "You can't avoid this. Hiding out like you've been doing all week isn't going to make it go away."

Damn the man for having a point. This past week hiding out with Val as if the world didn't exist had been amazing. I'd known it would come to an end; I just wished it didn't have to be so soon. Mateo was right, though. The media frenzy wouldn't go away until we addressed it.

I leaned against the counter, eating my toast, frowning at Mateo while he held a no-nonsense stare and waited for me to break. It didn't take long. "Fine." He was very good at that I-mean-business stare. "Schedule a meeting."

"They'd like you to come in today, if possible."

I snorted. "Of course they would."

Ignoring my sarcasm, Mateo opened up both of our calendars on his laptop and scanned our days. "How about right after lunch? One o'clock work for you? I'll be back from picking up my relatives by then and can get away for a while."

"Fine, whatever. The sooner we get it over with, the sooner we both get to enjoy our holiday."

Mateo glanced up from his laptop, all hints of annoyance replaced with a sarcastic grin. "Very astute observation, boss."

I tried to mimic his I'm-serious-and-you-will-do-what-I-say stare but lost my composure and cracked a smile. I would never admit this to Mateo, but his sass is one of the reasons he got the job. I can only handle so much ass-kissing. I'm well aware I can be difficult at times. What makes Mateo so good is that he always seems to know when to give me what I want, when to push back, and when it's okay to give me shit.

With the tension broken, I rolled my eyes and threw the crust of my toast at him. "Shut up."

He dodged the flying food, chuckling, which made me laugh. "Fine. One o'clock."

"Great. And you'll bring Val with you, or should I send a car for her?"

I froze, with my second piece of toast halfway to my mouth. Why had this caught me off guard? It shouldn't have. My team was hounding me about Val, after all. Of course they'd want me to bring her in so they could talk to her.

Abandoning my toast and coffee, I sat down across the table from Mateo and folded my arms. Now it was easy to hold a serious stare. Mateo sat up straight, matching my attitude. "Juliana, you know this would be easier if you just brought her with you."

"No."

"Why not? This is about her as much as you."

"Because they're a bunch of pushy bastards. They will railroad her into agreeing to things she doesn't want to do. All they'll have to do is tell her it's best for me, and she'll sign on no matter what it means for her."

Mateo closed his laptop, which was a sign that he was really serious now. "Like it or not, Juliana, she is in this. Up to her eyeballs in it, in fact. She won't be able to avoid it forever, and when it catches up to her, she's going to have some real choices to make. If you don't bring her in with you, then your management team, along with everyone else in town, will bypass you and go straight to her. Do you really want her to meet with people and make decisions without you?"

My jaw clenched. Hollywood people could be nice enough, but they were all sharks in sheep's clothing. Val was a strong, smart woman, but she wasn't used to playing their game. No way did I want her having to navigate this business on her own.

"You're absolutely right that your team will try to use her as much as possible," Mateo said. "That's why you should be there when they do. At least if you're together, you can tell her when they're trying to work her over."

Damn him again. Why did he always have to be right? Letting out a breath of defeat, I scrubbed my hands over my face and then raked them through my hair. "All right, all right, fine. Let's schedule a meeting with Val. But not yet. After the holidays. After New Year's."

Mateo's posture eased up a little, and he gave me an apologetic smile. "I don't think they want to wait that long. You guys are in the headlines now. You're the biggest story of the year. With the movie releasing in two days, they want to take advantage of all this free publicity."

I huffed in exasperation. "The Druid Princess is the biggest release of the holiday. The studio has put millions of dollars into advertising. How much more publicity does it need?"

"Not the film, Juliana, you."

"I don't care about the publicity. I don't want the attention."

I shot to my feet with a groan and headed for my coffee again. It wasn't as hot now, so I chugged it as if it held the answers to all my problems.

"You do want it this time," Mateo insisted. "And so does Val."

I was still frowning, but I leaned against the counter again and gave him my full attention. He jumped on the window of opportunity but spoke cautiously, as if he was afraid I might explode if I didn't like what he said. "How you and Val deal with this attention will affect your future, and you know it. The world loves you guys right now. You're a real-life fairy tale. People are dying to see the two of you live out the happily-ever-after you promised them."

"Forget the world. I want that. But if the freaking media doesn't leave us alone, no one will get that happily-ever-after, because Val will dump my famous ass."

Mateo's snort of disbelief was only mildly reassuring.

"She's not like everyone else, Matt. She doesn't care about the money, and my fame is a problem in her eyes, not a fun perk. She's fragile. If this gets too crazy, she'll throw in the towel. She'll have to. And I'll have to let her."

"If you would just make a couple of appearances together, do an interview or two and a photo shoot, that would satiate the public, and things would die down."

"Tell that to Kim and Kanye."

Again, Mateo spoke right over my cynical mutterings. "It would help you both in other ways, too. Val is exactly what you need for your career. This relationship will completely erase your last year of debauchery."

I cocked an eyebrow at Mateo, trying my hardest not to smile. It wasn't easy. "Debauchery?"

His cheeks turned a little pink, but he stood his ground. "Do you have a better word for all the partying and womanising?"

I held his gaze a moment longer but then cracked. "Fine. Debauchery."

"Right. And after a few appearances with Val, as in love as you guys are, no one will remember your previous reputation as an arrogant, immature womaniser."

My eyebrow went up again, and this time it was Mateo who relented. "Okay, one or two might. But no one else will; I guarantee it. You'll be the mature down-to-earth A-list actress who chose to be with a physically-disabled woman when she could have anyone. You'll be admired by all of Hollywood. And a woman like that might just win herself an Oscar, whether she earned it on-screen or not, that's simple Academy politics. Not that you haven't earned it, but no one in the Academy would hesitate to vote for you. And no director will hesitate to consider you for a role in the future. Play your cards correctly right now, and you'll be earning thirty million a picture for the Jana Chronicles sequels and turning down roles you'd beg for right now."

A year ago, that would have been a persuasive argument. "It's not me I'm worried about. I'll earn my A-list status eventually, I don't need to use Val to get there."

"She might want to use this opportunity, though. You should at least explain to her what is going on and what it means for her. From what you've told me, she's an extremely independent woman and isn't going to want to live off of her father's money forever, or yours. This could be a very lucrative time for her. It could help her with her future and even give her something to focus on. It could give her positive reasons for living with the fame and maybe help her make sense of how much her life has just changed."

I shot Mateo a glare, hating that last accusation, and got his Super-Assistant-Stare-Down again. "Like it or not, Juliana, the moment you gave that 'Cinderella' interview on The Kenneth Long Show, you changed her life. There's no going back for her, so help her move forward. Help her make the best of a hard situation. Ease this transition for her by being straight with her. You know no one else will."

I rubbed my head. All this thinking about the future first thing in the morning was giving me a headache.

"Sorry, boss, I know it's not what you want to do, but it is what you need to do. I would let you keep ignoring them and turn off my phone over the holiday if it wasn't."

My hands dropped to my sides as all the fight left me, and I met Mateo's gaze again, frowning. "Do you ever get tired of being right?"

The corners of Mateo's mouth twitched. "Not really, no." I snorted. "So, will you bring her with you this afternoon?"

I relaxed a little. I still had some time. "I can't. She's taking a test today."

"Oh." He blinked a couple times and stopped to think. Mr. Always Had An Argument Ready had no defence for that one. "Good for her. Okay... then... how about..." He looked at his laptop again.

"Not until next week."

"Julianna..."

"No. I've waited three years to be with this woman, the press can wait another week. Val and I have only had a week to get to know each other in person, and it's still a little strange. I want to keep her to myself a few more days before I have to share her with the whole damn world. It's a holiday. I intend to enjoy it. I'll talk to Val about everything after Christmas, and we can schedule a meeting then. That should be enough of a promise to get the team off our backs for a few days, and if not, stop answering your phone."

Mateo appraised me through narrow eyes and eventually nodded, accepting the compromise. "Fair enough." He leaned back in his chair, and after stretching, looked at his watch. "I've got about forty minutes still. Do you want to go over everything you need to discuss with Valentina? It might help her feel less overwhelmed if you've got a plan to take care of it all when you drop it on her."

That was a good idea. I couldn't imagine how it was going to feel to Val when she realised she was now a bona fide celebrity. "Yeah. Let's."

"Okay. And while we're at it, there's something I wanted to run by you, too, an idea I had for Valentina."

I frowned. His words didn't match his sudden tension. "Why did you make that sound ominous? Is this going to require more than a piece of toast?"

Mateo sighed. "Because you're not going to love it, but it's a good idea that I think Valentina will be excited about."

I gave him my best frown, but he stared back with determination. Curse the man and whatever brilliant yet inconvenient idea was running through his head. "Right. Omelettes it is. You want one?"

Mateo shook his head and began pulling up e-mails or files or whatever he does on that laptop of his. "I had breakfast a couple hours ago, boss. Thanks, though. You knock yourself out. I can type up a list while you eat."

"Deal."

Half an hour into our planning session, I was full. I'd had a second cup of coffee, and I was feeling a lot more confident about having to explain to Val she was Hollywood's new It Girl. I'd even forgiven Mateo for his brilliant plan that I both loved and hated. Life wasn't so bad.

Then, with one ring, my phone destroyed all the progress I'd made with my good mood. Okay, it wasn't the phone so much as it was the person calling me. I thought about sending him to voice mail, but my father was a lot like Mateo in that if I ignored him too much, he'd show up and lecture me in person.

With a sigh that Mateo found curious, I picked up the phone. "Hey, Dad."

"Well, what do you know, Christmas is the time for miracles. The prodigal daughter answered her phone."

"Like you said, it's Christmas. I was feeling generous."

Dad laughed, despite my dry tone. Probably because he couldn't see my eye roll.

"What's up, Dad?"

"I've just been informed that you and Valentina haven't RSVP'd for my party yet. I've got a lot of people asking if the reclusive Jana and Val will be there."

I smirked. Val said she wouldn't mind going, but I was more than happy to cancel on him. I did not want to have to attend Dad's annual Christmas Eve party, where he would use Val's and my current hype to boost his own popularity. He'd find a way to take credit for us somehow and would probably spend the evening insulting me and sexually harassing my girlfriend.

"Sorry. We agreed to dinner at home with her family for Christmas Eve."

"What? Seriously? I throw my party every Christmas Eve. You know that."

"And you know that we decided to cancel any and all crazy plans this year. That includes huge parties where there will be lots of people wanting to get in our faces and ask us a ton of questions. I told you that. Val even cancelled on her extended family that was planning to come down for Christmas to meet her. And I cancelled my trip out to Mom's. We just need some time to lie low and adjust to all the changes."

"Come on. Cancelling your trip to Wisconsin I get, but my party? It's just one night. You're seriously going to leave me hanging?"

"Yes."

While I waited out my father's dramatic sigh, Mateo glanced at his watch and signalled that it was time for him to go. I nodded, and he began to pack up his laptop.

"Fine," Dad said. "Christmas Day, then. Come see the movie with me in the afternoon."

"The point is to keep things low-key this year, Dad. Val's been through a lot recently, and she's overwhelmed with the fame thing."

"Really?" He sounded genuinely surprised. "I'd never guess."

"You haven't seen her away from the cameras."

"Exactly my point, Juliana. I met her for a few minutes at the premiere, and that's it. Come to the movie Christmas Day. It'll be low-key, I promise. I've rented out a whole theatre, and I'm keeping the guest list small."

My father's definition of small and Val's would be much different. "Dad, we already promised Val's family we'd go see it with them Christmas Day. Val wants to see it with her stepsister."

"So bring her. Bring the whole family." His voice cheered up at the thought of having more people to impress. "I'm sure watching it with all of us in a private viewing will earn Valentina some cool points with them, right?"

You'd think so. But considering how much her father was against her dating a celebrity, I wasn't sure that would be the case. There was something terrifying about having to introduce my dad to Val's family, but I knew her family was planning to see the film Christmas Day anyway, and having our own private viewing would be nice. "All right, I'll ask them. But no promises. I'm not sure they'll be up for it."

"Oh, please. Of course they'll say yes. I'll put you guys down for it. Don't bail on me. And after the movie, you and Valentina should sneak away and do Christmas dinner with me. Just the three of us. I'll have it catered."

I sighed. "Dad, I think her family..."

"You're already giving them Christmas Eve. They can spare the two of you for a couple of hours Christmas evening."

"But..."

"Come on, Juliana. It's Christmas. Our first movie together is releasing, and it's going to be a huge hit. I want to celebrate with you, and I want to spend some time with this woman who is apparently more important to you than your own parents. Yes, your mother called and chewed me out when you cancelled your trip to Wisconsin. As if that was my fault. Like I conspired with you to ruin her Christmas or something."

I winced. Mom was the other person whose calls I'd been avoiding the last few days. I'd planned to spend Christmas with her this year, but after Val showed up at the premiere, I cancelled my trip because I couldn't leave Val home to have to deal with all the media attention on her own. Mom had begged me to bring Val to Wisconsin, but I just couldn't do it. I'd only just finally got her the way I wanted her. I couldn't bring myself to share her yet. Mom said she understood, but I could hear her disappointment. If she'd called my father, then she must have been really upset.

"Juli, can't you at least pretend you'd like to spend some time with your old man, for once?"

And here came the guilt trip. Typical of him. But it worked, because he had a legitimate complaint. I was his only child, and I really didn't spend much time with him. That was because he was a bit of an asshole, but still, he loved me. Or... I was his favourite trophy, anyway, and he liked showing me off. But I think that amounted to love in his eyes. "All right, look, I will commit to the movie in the afternoon, and I will talk to Val about Christmas dinner. Fair enough?"

Dad sighed. "I suppose if that's all I'm going to get, it'll have to be."

I ignored the jab and forced cheer into my voice. "Great. Text me the details about the movie, and we'll see you Christmas Day."

As soon as I hung up, I leaned forward and banged my head against the kitchen table with a long, tortured groan. Mateo, who was already packed up and on his feet, chuckled. "I feel your pain, boss. I'm the youngest, and the only boy in my family. I have six older sisters, who are all in town for the week. All of them are happily married, with housefuls of children, and I haven't had a steady girlfriend in two years. As if that's not bad enough, I'm about to go pick up my grandfather, who believes I've let the family down because I'm twenty-six and have yet to produce an heir to carry on the family name, and a grandmother, who will doubtlessly have a dossier of suitable marriage candidates in her hand when she gets off the plane. It's going to be a long week."

Six older sisters? That explained so much about Mateo. His story also made me feel better about my own problems. Laughing, I climbed to my feet and walked him to the door. "Good luck with that! Anytime you need a break, shoot me a text. I'll be happy to play the role of the spoiled, demanding, celebrity employer. It just so happens I might need someone to bring me a six-pack and watch the football games with me."

Mateo opened the front door, flashing me his signature Boy Scout grin. "Oh, I'm counting on it, boss. Have a Merry Christmas."

"You too. Enjoy your gift."

"What gift? You already gave me a Christmas bonus."

Glancing over his shoulder at the crappy beat-up Toyota parked in my driveway that was at least a decade old, I grinned. "You'll see."

Chapter Text

I aced my exam, but couldn't think of a single acceptable Christmas gift for Juliana. Now, it was the day before Christmas Eve, and I was at the mall. This was supposed to be a fun, relaxing day with my friends, but between the noise, the chaos of frantic people desperate to finish their last-minute shopping, and the fact that Eva and her new boyfriend Jason had crashed the party and come with us, I was quickly getting stressed. And sore. We'd been here for hours now. This was the most physically demanding activity I'd done since my accident. When we passed an empty bench, I stopped the group. "Sorry, guys. I have to rest for a while."

I slowly sat down on the bench, sighing in relief when the weight was taken off my feet. Eva shrugged and turned her attention to Jason, but Renata and Abby both frowned in concern.

"You okay?" Abby asked.

"Yeah. I just need to sit for a few minutes. Why don't you guys go help Renata find a gift for Dad and then come back?"

"You sure?" Renata asked.

"Yeah, I'm sure. You guys go ahead. I already got him a gift, and I really do need to sit for a while, or I'm going to have to go home early."

"I'll stay with you," Abby offered, sitting down beside me. "I'm done with my shopping, and I have no idea how to help Renata with your dad."

Renata shot me a hopeful expression, as if I might suddenly have the answer to her problem. She'd been having trouble this morning deciding on a gift. I shrugged. "I got him a briefcase."

Renata's frown deepened. "He's going to love that." She glanced at Eva. "What'd you get him?"

Eva gave her sister an evil grin. The two of them had a competition every year to see who could get their parents the better gifts. Eva had been very secretive about Dad's present, but since Christmas was only two days away now, she finally spilled. "I got him a copy of the new Janice Bishop novel. The one that doesn't come out until March."

"WHAT?" Renata screeched. "He's not even going to care what I get him now! How did you manage that?"

Eva shrugged a shoulder and smirked in my direction. "Val. Publishers give her whatever book she wants."

"That's cheating!" Renata's eyes bulged, and she shot me a wounded look. "You helped Eva with Dad's gift?"

"I didn't." I shook my head, confused. "I didn't even know Dad liked to read."

Renata rolled her eyes. "Why do you think he was so excited when he found out you were a book blogger? It was something you guys had in common."

This news settled in my heart, creating both warmth and sadness. "He never said anything."

Renata shrugged. "He probably just felt awkward. He was so scared of you when you first got here."

I felt bad about that but not too much, because I think I was as equally terrified of him. "I've never seen him read. What kind of books does he like?"

Eva snorted. "The ones where the good guys always catch the bad guys."

That made me smile. Dad hated nothing more than losing a case. From what I'd heard, it didn't happen to him often, but it was devastating for him when it did. I could easily picture him reading about the underdog detective catching the notorious criminal against all the odds. "I've never even seen him pick up a book."

"He doesn't have a lot of time for it," Eva said, "but it's his favorite hobby."

She shot Renata another smug smile, and Renata sighed, defeated. "There's one author whose books he always makes time for, Janice Bishop. He's going to flipwhen he sees the early copy." She scowled at Eva. "You totally win this year."

"I know." Eva smirked at me. "Thanks for the hookup, Val."

I shook my head emphatically when Renata shot me another wounded look. "I swear I didn't."

"But you always leave your e-mail open on your laptop," Eva pointed out, "and your e-mail address goes a long way with publishers."

My jaw fell slack. "You used my e-mail? You pretended to be me?"

"Eva!" Renata gasped. I wasn't sure if she was more horrified that Eva had done it or just mad that she hadn't thought of it first.

"What? Sorry. That was before I thought Val would help me if I asked her to. It was just one e-mail. And I was totally professional about it. They were excited to hear you're interested in testing out a new genre. They said if you like it, they have a lot more books where that one came from. Oh, but I think you have to post a review about it now."

Renata punched her sister, while I slapped a hand over my face. But, really, no harm was done. I would have helped her if she'd asked, and now I was curious to check out the books my father liked so much. I was desperate to find things we had in common. There didn't seem to be much.

"Fine. Whatever. Just... please ask in the future, okay?"

Eva rolled her eyes. "Fine."

"I can't believe this." Renata groaned. "I've been stressing over Dad's gift all day, and you knew all along I didn't stand a chance!"

Eva's eyes lit up. "On the bright side, now you can get him that bottle of cologne he's been not-so-subtly hinting about for weeks."

Renata rolled her eyes but still nodded. "I guess. I've got nothing better, and I'm ready for lunch. We can hit up Sephora and then go eat."

The thought of going into a shop with all of those smells which would make my head pound worse than it already was made my stomach roll. "Or... you guys can go get the cologne and then come back and get me to go to lunch."

Both twins nodded, no questions asked, and headed down the crowded mall. Once they were out of earshot, Abby nudged me with her elbow. "Did you really need the rest that badly, or did you just need a break from Eva and Jason?"

"Both."

Eva and I, although we were making an effort to be civil, were still not friendly by any stretch. And Jason was the guy who had accidentally torn my skin graft near my elbow back before Halloween. Needless to say, hanging out with either of them was never high on my list of priorities. But Jason was Eva's boyfriend now, and both he and Eva were making an effort to smooth things over with me. It was awkward, but I was trying to play nice, too, because I wanted the rift between Renata and Eva resolved. Technically it wasn't my fault that they weren't close the way they used to be, but it felt that way.

"She actually hasn't been that horrible today," Abby mused. "I think Jason mellows her out."

"That, and Mom and Dad have been sending her to weekly appointments with my therapist."

Abby snorted. "Good. If you ask me, that girl had plenty of issues long before you ever showed up. Anyway, enough about her. How are you? I've hardly heard from you this week. Things must be going well, huh?"

She waggled her eyebrows suggestively, and though I knew she was only playing, I still blushed. "It's been good." My face flamed even brighter, causing Abby's eyes to nearly bug out of her head. "Not that good," I amended. "We've just been hiding out. Things have been crazy. We both needed the peace and quiet and some time to get to know each other face-to-face."

Abby burst into laughter. "Yeah, face-to-face. And body-to-body."

"Shut up! We haven't done anything more than kiss."

I pushed her in the side so hard she nearly fell off the bench. She laughed even harder. "Hey, I'm not judging. I'm living vicariously. Are you seriously still only kissing?"

I shrugged. "Not that she wouldn't love taking it further. She asked me to move in with her last night."

Abby gasped. "No way!"

"Way. We were talking about moving day, and she asked if she could bring my stuff to her place instead of yours."

My spunky redheaded friend sat beside me, wide-eyed and utterly speechless. I understood her incredulity. I was still reeling from the shock of her request. "I said no!"

Abby shook herself from her frozen state and chewed her lip a moment before saying, "Are you sure that's what you want? I'd understand if you want to ditch me."

She was completely sincere, and as much as I would have considered her feelings in the matter, I didn't need to. "No." I shook my head. "I can't move in with her. I'm not ready for that."

Abby let out a puff of air, as if she'd been holding her breath. "Good." Her face exploded with exhilaration, and she grabbed my hands. "I love Juliana. I really do. But I am so excited for you to come be my roomie."

Her enthusiasm was contagious. "Me too. I'm going to need my friends time even more now. Juliana is so intense. I don't want to get completely wrapped up in our relationship and forget about everything else. Juliana might be ready for that, but I'm just getting to a point where I can finally start living my life again. I don't want Juliana to be the only thing in it."

"Oh, don't worry. I'm not about to let you ditch me, even if you have left me alone at school and snagged the most amazing girlfriend in the world. Now that Juliana has transitioned to girlfriend status, that makes me your new best friend. You need me even more now."

I laughed. She was joking, but in a way, she was also right. "Yes, I do. And after lunch, I really, really need you to help me figure out my gift dilemma."

"We'll figure something out."

"You guys ready to walk again?" Renata asked, returning with a small Sephora bag added to her pile of booty. "'Cause I'm starving."

"Me too." I hadn't eaten much for breakfast this morning, and I'd definitely burned through those calories by now. "Not the food court, though. Let's go somewhere dark and quiet, where we can hear each other talk and no one will stare at me or ask for an autograph while I eat."

I'd been recognised a number of times today. It was so weird every time some stranger stopped me. I think it was starting to get on all of our nerves.

"Good idea," Renata agreed. "I know just the place."

The restaurant we wanted was downstairs, and since the elevator was out of service, I was forced to use the escalator. Escalators weren't my best friends. I could use them, but I had to be really careful getting on and off of them. It was a slow, mildly-embarrassing task, but even as difficult as escalators could be, they were still better than a long flight of stairs.

As I finally placed my weight onto the moving step, I was shoved aside and nearly lost my balance. Abby had to grab me to keep me from falling and severely hurting myself.

"You know what you need?" Renata asked, glaring at the jerk who'd muscled his way past me onto the escalator.

"Magical force fields?" I grumbled, rubbing my throbbing hip. "A personal shopper?"

Seriously, I use a cane. I limp. You'd think people might give me a wider berth but no. Those four feet Mr. Pushy got ahead of me on the crowded escalator must have been really important to him.

"A Taser gun," Renata answered, pretending to shoot the man in the back with her finger. "So you can fry jerks like him."

I laughed, but I wasn't sure she was kidding.

"Hey, buddy!" a strange voice called out from behind me, grabbing the attention of the guy who'd pushed me out of his way. I glanced over my shoulder, just in time to see a hottie holding a bulging Macy's bag glare at the jerk in front of me. "Do you treat all women so disrespectfully, or is it just the beautiful ones with disabilities?"

Mr. Pushy's face paled when he glanced at me again and noticed my cane. "Sorry," he muttered. "I thought you were just talking to your girlfriends and not paying attention."

"Nope. Just slow because I'm handicapped."

"Sorry." The man grimaced again, and as soon as he reached the end of the escalator, he took off as if his pants were on fire.

Both Renata and Abby snickered. "Serves the jerk right," Renata said.

Abby high-fived my defender. "Right on, dude."

After I carefully stepped onto solid floor, I turned to the guy behind me. He looked college age, had tousled honey-blond hair, and was wearing a rumpled T-shirt and basketball shorts. He'd definitely just rolled out of bed and found something semi-clean off his bedroom floor before coming to the mall, but somehow it was still endearing. Might have been the striking green eyes or the boyish smile that saved him.

Behind him, Renata was pulling swoony faces and fanning herself. I'm pretty sure she mouthed the words I want.

Swallowing a laugh, I smiled at my rescuer. "Thanks. You didn't have to do that, but thank you."

He glared in the direction Mr. Jerk had run off. "Yeah, I really did. I can't stand people like that. Sorry. I hope I didn't offend you by mentioning your disability, but that guy needed to realize what he'd done."

"It's okay. I think you taught him a pretty good lesson."

Abby laughed. "Yeah. Did you see his face when he saw you leaning on Candy Cane? Classic."

"I missed it," Renata said. "I was too busy noticing Val's hero." She grinned at the stranger. "So, Mr. Knight in Wrinkled T-Shirt, do you have a name to go with all of your nobility? Or do you prefer to remain anonymous while defending women from inconsiderate shoppers?"

The guy glanced between the three of us, as if we were overwhelming him, but then he laughed and stuck his hand out to Renata. "I'm Erik."

After brief introductions, Erik took in Renata's and Abby's bags and eyed my empty hands with a grin. "Either you're all done with your Christmas shopping, or you're the worst procrastinator I've ever met."

I sighed. "I only have one left, but I'm having trouble figuring out what to buy."

Erik nodded sympathetically. "Shopping for your parents can be tricky."

I swallowed hard, but it had been long enough now that I was past breaking down into tears when my mother was mentioned. He was wrong, though. My mom had always been the easiest person in the world to shop for. Not like Juliana. I shook my head. "Wrong guess."

"Sister?" he asked hopefully. "Brother? Best friend?"

"Girlfriend," I admitted.

He winced. "Damn. Strike one." He looked to Renata and Abby with a flirty pout. "Don't tell me you're both shopping for your partners, too?"

I smiled despite myself. He was adorable. And he had both of my best friends gazing at him wistfully. "We're both single," Renata said. "So the real question for you is, do you prefer brunettes or redheads?"

It always amazed me how forward she could be. But I guess when you looked like Beverly Hills Barbie, you had a reason to be confident. I used to resent girls like her, but after getting to know Renata, it was more fun to sit back and watch her work her magic. She'd have a date with the guy by the end of lunch.

Erik's eyes bounced between the two of them, and his grin grew. "Can I keep my options open for a little while? At least through lunch? My treat?"

"That's fair," Renata replied. "We were just headed to the Piazza Lounge."

 

Chapter Text

I didn't mind the extra company we'd acquired. Erik did a good job of keeping both Renata and Abby entertained, which gave me an opportunity to text Juliana.

Val: Hey, stranger. Surviving another day without me?

Juls: No. I'm lonely and miserable, woman. I can't believe you ditched me two days in a row.

I laughed. No doubt she was annoyed. She only ever called me woman when I was driving her crazy. But there was something adorable about her grumpy text. I could just picture her checking her phone every ten minutes for the last few hours, getting crankier every time she had no waiting message. She had been that way since I first started e-mailing her. If I waited too long to respond, she'd message again, yelling at me for ignoring her.

Back when we first started talking to each other, I figured he was just some lonely girl who didn't have many friends or much of a life. But I quickly realised it was the opposite. She had a million friends and a crazy life. She got everything she wanted when she wanted it. She wasn't lonely and friendless; she was spoiled and had no patience. Once I figured that out, I would keep her waiting every now and then just to drive her nuts.

Juls: Oh, and I forgot to tell you this yesterday, but my father called me. We have to hang out with him for a while on Christmas Day.

Val: Why do you make it sound so awful?

Juls: Because it is. Trust me. But at least he's rented a theatre for a private viewing of the movie so we won't have to deal with the public. He's invited your whole family to go, if you think they'll be up for it.

Val: That's generous of him. I'm sure they'll be okay with that. They were planning to go, anyway. They'll probably think it's cool.

Juls: All right. He mentioned doing Christmas dinner afterward, just the three of us, too. I tried to get out of it, but he seemed pretty desperate. He doesn't really have anyone else of real meaning. I think he feels it during the holidays. I couldn't say no, so I'm sorry in advance, but you're going to have to add dinner with my dad to the to-do list this week.

He made it sound like the end of the world, but I was less afraid of meeting her family than I'd ever been of meeting mine. Her dad seemed like a bit of a sleaze, but I could tell that beneath the animosity Juliana held for him, she still cared for the man. At heart, Juliana was still just a kid who wanted to make her father proud. I also got the impression she was a total momma's girl, which I found beyond adorable.

Val: You're a good daughter. And it's okay. I'm sure it'll be fine.

Juls: Okay. Thanks. So, how's your day going? Still shopping?

I groaned internally. I didn't need to see her face to know she was smirking right now. She knew I was having trouble with her gift, and she was being such a pain about it. The woman enjoyed torturing me way too much.

Val: You know I am. You are IMPOSSIBLE to shop for. Can't I at least have a hint?

Juls: I told you I don't need a gift. You are my gift. Now that I have you, there's nothing else in the world that I want.

Val: UGH! You're driving me crazy right now. Did you get me a gift?

Juls: Of course I did. You're going to love it.

Val: Juliana!!! You suck!!! Just tell me what you want for Christmas!!!

Juls: I told you. All I want for Christmas is you.

I gave up. No doubt she was singing the popular Christmas song right now. At the very least, she was humming it in her mind. She'd been singing the song to me all week every time I asked her what she would like for Christmas.

Val: AGH!!!! FINE!!!! I have to go. I'll call you after I get home.

Juls: Looking forward to it. Good luck with the shopping. 😉

I groaned again and shoved my phone into my back pocket. Abby laughed as she slid into one side of the booth we'd been ushered to. "I take it Juliana's still not being helpful?"

When Erik slid in next to her, I sat across from them. "Helpful? Please. She's being a downright pain in the ass. I don't know why she loves to torture me so much."

I scooted all the way in so that Renata could sit next to me, but she squeezed in on Erik's other side. When I cocked an eyebrow at her, she gave me a sheepish grin and nodded toward Erik.

Eva studied the seating arrangements and only hesitated a second before sliding into the booth next to me, letting Jason take the end. Before things could get awkward, Erik smiled across the table at me and asked, "So Juliana would be the girlfriend you can't figure out a gift for?"

I sighed. "Yes."

"Maybe I can help. An outsiders view?"

"Ooh. Good idea," Renata said.

"Okay, fine." I really did need help. "What would you give your girlfriend for Christmas?"

"That depends," Erik said. "How long have we been going out?"

"A week," I said, while both Abby and Renata answered, "Three years."

Erik's eyebrows rose high up his forehead, and rightly so. He waited for an explanation. I was going to change the subject, but I was so confused about my current relationship that the idea of a guy's perspective was totally appealing. "It's complicated. We've known each other online for three years, but we only got together in person a week ago."

"Hmm." Erik fell into thought as if he was really taking this task seriously. I found myself holding my breath for his answer. "Were you together as an online couple before you met?"

I shook my head. "Just friends, but we fell in love."

"And it's definitely a relationship now...?"

"Yes. Exclusive."

"You've told each other that you love each other?"

"Yeah."

He frowned. "So...why are you having trouble finding her a gift? Don't you know her really well by now?"

I groaned at the question and fell forward, banging my forehead on the table in front of me. "I know everything about her," I whined, leaving my forehead against the cool tabletop. "The problem is, she's really rich and already has everything she could possibly ever want or need. Whenever I ask her to give me a hint, she says she doesn't need a gift. She just sings me that stupid song: 'All I Want for Christmas is You.'"

Eva snorted. "You're making this way harder than it has to be. I know exactly what you should do." All of us looked at her, waiting for this miraculous answer to my dilemma. She slid me a sly look and shrugged her shoulders. "Give her your virginity."

Erik choked on the ice water he was sipping, and Jason burst into obnoxious laughter. Both Renata and Abby yelled at Eva, but she had only been teasing, so their scoldings came with laughter. I wasn't angry, but they had no idea how sensitive a topic that was for me. Since I didn't want them to know just how deep my insecurities went, I forced myself to laugh along with them. "Shut up, Eva! That's not happening."

"Actually, that's not a bad idea," Renata said.

"Renata!" I gasped at the betrayal and threw my napkin at her. "I'm not going there with her after only a week."

She rolled her eyes. "You guys aren't a week-old couple, and you know it. Maybe you guys don't have to go all the way, but a nice, romantic evening together taking the relationship to the next level, whatever that is to you, might be the best gift you can give her."

My blush deepened. I scrubbed my hands over my face, but it did nothing to remove the redness from my cheeks. "Oh my gosh, you guys, can we, like, not have this particular conversation in front of Jason and some guy we met five minutes ago?" I glanced at Erik with a grimace. "No offense."

He laughed. "None taken. But if I could just weigh in here a little, I think your friends are right."

I laughed once. "Of course you do. You're a guy."

He shook his head. "No, seriously. If she really does have everything already, then maybe she's not teasing when she says all she wants is you. Maybe she's giving you the hint you've been asking for."

We all sat there for a moment, contemplating Erik's suggestion. It made a lot of sense. Maybe that's what Juliana really did want. She'd asked me to move in with her, for heaven's sake. Maybe she was desperate for a deeper connection.

"That was very insightful," Renata crooned, grinning at her prey. "You must be a pretty sensitive guy."

He shrugged, a light blush dusting his cheeks. Yeah, Ren definitely had this one in the bag.

I looked to Abby, and she surprised me with an apologetic shrug. "I think he's right, too, Val. You know how much Juliana loves you. And you know she worries about you getting tired of..." She glanced at Erik and censored her words. "...her crazy lifestyle now that you're together. This week has been intense for you guys. She's probably pretty stressed about it. And you know a girl like her isn't used to feeling vulnerable. Maybe this is her way of reaching out to you. Maybe she needs a more solid commitment from you, and she's just afraid of asking for it because you two are so new."

"Maybe," I agreed.

Eva shrugged. "So, what's the problem? It's not like you've really only known each other for a week. You guys have been in love for years. You know everything about each other. What would it hurt to make things a little more serious?"

My stomach twisted into knots. Everyone seemed to agree with Eva on this one, but anxiety had my hands trembling beneath the table. "It's not that easy, you guys. You're right: we've loved each other for years. But that's what's so scary about our relationship. It's intense because we're ahead of ourselves emotionally. On one level, Juliana and I are brand-new to each other. But in other ways, we're like a couple that's been together for years. A couple like that would be ready for things like sex and living together, but I'm not. I feel like I'm in both relationships, the old and the new, and I don't know how to merge the two."

"Something tells me Juliana will have no problem combining them," Renata muttered.

I nodded. "Exactly. And if I give her the kind of gift you guys are talking about, then I'm going to find myself in over my head. She's three years older than me. She lives on her own and has a stable career. She's been with like a billion women. I'm basically a naive little girl dating a grown-up woman. She might be ready to jump right in, but it's going to take me some time to get used to us being an us."

Renata sighed, and Abby slumped back in the booth. "So, we're back to square one. How about a personalised license plate that says Precious?"

I laughed, grateful that the conversation had gone back to trivial and away from my love life. I didn't have the heart to tell her that she already had the license plate.

"Forget Precious," Abby said. "It needs to say Sorry, ladies, I'm taken."

Erik laughed. "I don't think you can fit that on a license plate."

"We'll get it tattooed on her forehead, then." Abby said, winking at me. "Trust me. The woman needs it!"

I rolled my eyes.

"Enough about Juliana and Val," Renata interrupted. "Let's move on to finding me a boyfriend. Now that Eva and Val are both in steady relationships, I've got to get a move on. I can't be the only single sister in the house. That's not cool." She leaned around Erik to grin at Abby. "Would you mind horribly if I call dibs and ask Erik to take me out sometime next week?"

Erik's eyes bulged so wide all of us girls cracked up. "He's all yours," Abby teased. "No way am I getting involved in a Miller sisters competition."

 

Chapter Text

Renata convinced Erik to stay with us after lunch to finish his shopping, but it turned out everyone was done except me. The group decided an intervention was necessary and began dragging me into store after store. I didn't put up any fight. I was getting desperate, and six brains were better than one.

"Oh!" Eva came to a halt so fast Abby crashed into her from behind. "Yes. This."

I groaned when I saw all of the underwear in the windows. "I seriously doubt Juliana wants underwear for Christmas. Plus I think she has a contract with a brand."

Eva looped her arm through mine, grinning. "For once, I completely agree with you. With your skin tone, we can go much brighter. I'm thinking passion red."

So shocked by her friendly playfulness, it took me a minute to realise she was leading me into the store. I put on the brakes really fast and pulled my arm from hers. "Eva, we are not going in there. There are guys with us."

She turned to Jason and Erik with a frown. "Do either of you have any objections to going in there and helping Val pick out something sexy to wear for her hot-as-hell girlfriend?"

My face flamed when Erik smirked and shook his head. "It would be my pleasure."

"Do I get to help pick something out for my sexy-as-hell girlfriend, too?" Jason asked.

Eva shot him a slow wink, and he smiled from ear to ear. "Sweet. I'm in."

"Eva, come on. I'm not getting Juliana lingerie for Christmas."

She started dragging me into the store again. "Stop being such a prude, Val. When else are you going to have the opportunity to have two different guys' opinions while you pick out something sexy?"

"It doesn't matter. I already told you, I'm not going there with Juliana."

"You might, if you owned something as sexy as that." She marched over to a wall of very fancy lace bra and panty sets and picked up a ruby-red bra. "Trust me, Juliana will love this."

"I love this," Jason said, grinning as he picked up a pair of skimpy panties, he went with traditional black.

I snatched the bra from Eva, glaring at Jason. He didn't seem to care. He smiled at me again and held up his find against Eva's body. "I know what I want for Christmas, babe."

Erik cleared his throat, and when I whirled around to face him, he smirked. "Your sister's on to something. I don't think you can go wrong with that." He pointed to the bright-red bra still dangling from my fingertips, then reached for a pale-pink cropped bustier and shortie panty set. "Or this would look great, too. I've always been a fan of pink."

I narrowed my eyes. "Seriously? I don't even know you, and you're trying to pick out underwear for me?"

His grin doubled, taking his cuteness factor up a notch in the most infuriating way. "I'm just trying to be helpful."

Renata placed a hand on his arm. She smiled for him and them flashed that grin at me. She must have recognised the fire in my eyes, because she laughed and said, "Hang on there, Señorita Snark. Let's keep the temper in check. This isn't his fault."

"No, it's Eva's!"

I shot Eva a glare. Yeah, I was trying to play nicer with her now, but this was embarrassing, and I was really annoyed with her. My attitude only fueled hers. She flashed me a saccharine smile.

"I take full responsibility. Someday, you will thank me for it. And here. You have to try this on." She held up a bright-blue lacy teddy with a matching thong and garter. "This was made for you. It matches your eyes."

I started to argue, but before I could, Abby took the teddy from her and held it up to me. "Oh, Val," she crooned. "You know I hate to agree with Eva on anything, but she's right. This would look stunning on you. You have to get it."

"No way. I'm not buying that."

"But Val, it's perfect," Renata said. "It's beautiful and tasteful. It's so you."

I gritted my teeth. They were right. It was very pretty and much more tasteful than the things Erik and Jason had picked up. Unable to help myself, I took the garment from Abby, imagining what Juliana might think if I were to wear this for her.

Juliana would love this gift, but could I wrap it up and hand it over? It wasn't just a joke. A gift like this came with a promise. Was Eva right? Would I be ready to make that promise if I felt beautiful enough? Because that was really what was holding me back with her. I loved her, and if this week together had taught me anything, it was that I wanted her. But I was scared. Afraid she wouldn't find me beautiful.

I rubbed the silky material between my fingers. It was amazingly soft. I could almost envision myself wearing it, but then I caught a glimpse of my scarred hand, and the moment was ruined.

I glanced around the store at all of the playful underwear. Before my accident, I used to love this store. I'd never been brave enough to venture to the naughtier side we were in now, but what girl doesn't appreciate cute underwear? Now, though, the shelves and bins full of pretty things meant to make you feel sexy and the walls plastered with pictures of beautiful, flawless bodies seemed to laugh at me. "I can't wear something like this," I muttered, setting the beautiful teddy down.

"Why not?" Eva asked.

I glared at her again. Why did she always have to push? "Why do you think?" I gestured to my body. My clothes were covering my scars, but she'd seen them before. She knew what I was hiding. "How about the obvious reason?"

"Um..." Erik interrupted hesitantly, as if sensing how real this conversation suddenly was. "Sorry. What's the obvious reason? If I can be a little forward here, you're absolutely beautiful. Your girlfriend is one lucky girl, and I'm sure she would love to see you in that."

My anger faded into a deep depression. Erik was trying to be nice. I even believed he was sincere with his compliment. I only wished I believed it. With a sigh, I held up my bad hand and pushed my sleeve up my arm. Erik's eyes widened slightly, but he otherwise didn't react to my scars except to curiously take in the sight. "I was in an accident, trapped in a burning car. These scars cover over 70 percent of my body. God was merciful enough to leave me my face, but..." I glanced down at my body and gulped. "Over 70 percent. Think about it."

Renata was suddenly there, wrapping me in a warm hug. "Val, you know Juliana doesn't care about that."

"She says that," I muttered, soaking in my sister's support before facing the small group of people I'd suddenly made feel very awkward. "Even if she doesn't mind my scars, I'm dating a girl who is physical perfection. Before me, she dated girls as beautiful as she is, models and actresses. Those women probably wore stuff like this for her all the time." I picked up the teddy again, trying to picture it covering my scarred body. I couldn't imagine it.

I waved a hand at the pictures all over the store. "Take a look around you. There's not one picture of a woman in this store with a single flaw on her. Not even a freckle. Those models are all perfect. You think that's coincidence?" Holding up the teddy, I started shaking it angrily. "Wearing something like this isn't going to make me look sexy. All it's going to do is make it seem like I'm trying too hard to be something I'm not."

I sucked in a breath and let it out slowly, forcing back the threat of tears. I lost the grip on my emotions with that last admission, but I couldn't help it. They may not have meant to, but they were forcing me to face one of my greatest insecurities. "I'm going to go get some air. There are some benches right outside. I'll wait for you guys there."

I only got one step before Abby stopped me. Her eyes were glossy, and her voice shook when she spoke. "Val... true beauty comes from within. You know that. You are the most beautiful person I've ever met. Why else do you think you managed to snag someone like Juliana? And you didn't just snag her, girl, you have that woman so wrapped up in you she can't even see other women anymore. They don't exist for her anymore. You are that woman's everything, and you know she'll think you are beautiful no matter what is under your clothes."

"Maybe. But I don't feel beautiful."

"That," Eva said, stepping into the conversation with a confidence that broke the tension, "is because you refuse to wear things that make you feel sexy." She added the pink bustier and panties to the teddy in my hands. "Dress for success, Val. Even if you're not ready to show yourself off to your woman, you've got to start dressing sexy to feel sexy. Do you know what I'm wearing right now?"

Both Jason's and Erik's heads snapped in her direction, their eyes doing elevator moves up and down her body. Jason snaked his arms around her and began kissing her neck. "What are you wearing, babe?"

She swatted him away with a smirk. "That's my sexy secret. But look at how much confidence I have."

I seriously doubted her confidence came from her underwear, but it was pointless to argue.

"I can't believe I'm going to say this a second time," Abby said, "but I agree with Eva. If you can't start feeling sexy, you'll never be ready to go there with Juliana. You should start treating yourself like you deserve to wear this kind of stuff. Because you do."

"She's right," Renata said. Her mouth curved up into a crooked smile, and she plucked the black lace panties from Jason's hands, adding them to my pile. "It's time for you to start feeling as sexy as you are, so woman up and buy yourself a new thong."

Everyone laughed, and while I was completely mortified that Jason and Erik had witnessed this conversation, I also loved my friends more than anything in the world. Even Eva, in her overbearing too-aggressive way, was trying to make me feel better. I think. Or she was trying to embarrass me in front of these two guys because she knew I was a prude and liked to razz me about it? Either way, she was successful. I did feel a little better. Not enough to buy myself a thong or a teddy, but better.

"Fine. Maybe you guys have a point, and I promise I will start making more of an effort to be proud of myself. But let's start with some cute short-sleeve tops or a skirt, okay? I'm not ready for this." I lifted the pile of lingerie in my hands for emphasis, and then set it down, flicking the tacky black thong at Jason. "Besides, how is anyone supposed to feel sexy with a string tucked up their crack?"

Everyone laughed again, but as we started to leave the store, Renata grabbed the teddy. "Fine. If you won't, I will." She shot me a smirk and headed for the cashier. "Merry Christmas, Val."

"Good idea," Eva said, grabbing the pink set Erik had picked out. "I wasn't actually going to get you a gift, but I'm feeling generous now."

I rolled my eyes, but then I saw Erik's grin, and I blushed. "I really do like the pink one," he said. "If you ever get tired of your girlfriend, give me a call."

Abby snorted. "Yeah, I don't think that's going to happen. You're going to have to stick with Renata."

Erik's eyes drifted toward the sales counter where the twins were making their purchases. Renata's gorgeous locks fell to her shoulders in ringlets, and her long legs were on display thanks to the short skirt she had on. "Not a bad deal," he said.

He was still checking her out as she approached us. He slid his arm around her shoulder and tucked her to his side. "So, beautiful, I've got to get going, but before I leave, do you have plans for New Year's Eve yet? I've got an invite to a killer party, and I still need a date."

Renata shrugged nonchalantly. "I have plans, but maybe I could be convinced to ditch them for a better offer."

"Well then, I'll just have to convince you that mine is the better option. Give me your number, and I'll text you later."

He handed her his phone, and as she programmed her number in for him, she shot me a sly wink. I shook my head with a laugh. I never would have guessed I could be so close with a girl like Renata, but I really did love my new stepsister.

. . . . .

I came home from the mall empty-handed, but at least some good came from our hours of shopping, Renata was glowing as we came into the house that evening. She'd played it cool with Erik, but the second he was gone, she went nuts with excitement, claiming he was the nicest, funniest, hottest guy she'd ever met. I was happy for her. Renata needed a good guy, and even though Erik had picked out a sexy bra and panty set for me, I could admit he was cool and that it would be okay if Renata started dating him.

Dad and Lucia were down in the family room watching Love Actually, but Lucia paused the movie when she heard us come in, and they came upstairs to greet us. "How did it go?" She plucked a bag from Eva's hands. "Can I see the goods?"

"Mom!" Eva shrieked, yanking the bag away from her. "Your present is in there. Stop trying to peek. You're as bad as Dad."

Renata laughed. "Yeah right. No one is as bad as Dad." She shot me a sardonic look, clutching her own shopping bags as if her life depended on it. "There's a reason we wait until the last possible minute to shop for our parents."

She glared at Dad, who was inching closer to her as she spoke. "What?" he asked, with an expression so innocent I burst into laughter.

"Did either of you peek at the gifts I got you?" I asked.

One look at Dad's face, and I knew. "Dad!" I whacked his arm.

"What? You left the bag on the kitchen counter. I thought it was groceries."

Sure he did. "I left it on the kitchen counter for five minutes, because I couldn't carry everything at once, and I warned you not to look."

"Come on, Val. You can't leave a surprise for me on the counter, tell me not to look, and then leave the room. What did you expect?"

It was odd to see such a formidable attorney who was used to cross-examining ruthless criminals sputtering without any defense. It humanised him a little, and even though I was busting him, I still cracked a smile. "Ugh. You're as bad as Juliana! I should take it back and get you something else."

"Don't do that. I've needed a new briefcase for a while, and I love the one you picked. I was tempted to ask if I could have it two weeks ago." Dad grinned at whatever exasperated look I gave him. "I really do love it. Thank you in advance."

"Whatever. I need to go rest for a while."

Dad's face fell. "Did you overdo it at the mall today?"

"A little bit." I shifted my weight off my bad leg with a sigh. Both of my feet ached, and I was throbbing all the way from my toes to my hip. "Daniel will probably say the exercise was good for me, but I'm going to have to soak in a hot bath for a long time tonight if I want to be able to move tomorrow."

"Use some Epsom salt, if you're swelling," Lucia said. "And don't forget the lavender oil. If you're really sore, try mixing some bergamot and eucalyptus in there, too."

Lucia was big on essential oils. I used to think she was just a California fruitcake, but I can't deny her tricks have been heaven for my body. "I will, thanks."

It took me a while to get in the tub. I was sore enough that I was moving like a ninety-year-old woman. I really had overdone it physically. Walking is something I can barely do, and it wears me out. We'd been at the mall all day. I'd often had to sit down and wait for the girls while they browsed. But even resting periodically, I'd done a lot more walking than normal.

This was the first time since my accident that I'd been on my feet most of the day, and my body was voicing its protests. Still, it had been worth it. Wandering the mall with my two best friends, shopping, gossiping, and picking up boys made me feel like a normal teenager again. Well, minus the handful of times I was recognised. The fame thing was not normal no matter how you looked at it. I wondered if it would ever feel less strange.

So exhausted from my day, I accidentally dosed off after my bath. After getting dressed, I lay down on my bed just to rest for a minute, with my hair still twisted up in a towel, and didn't wake up until the next morning.

 

 

Chapter Text

I woke to the sound of my phone receiving an incoming text. It took me a minute to comprehend where I was, and that I'd fallen asleep after my bath. Yawning, I untangled the towel from my head. My hair was dry and tangled as it hadn't been brushed after my bath. I would have to wet it again if I wanted it to be manageable. Filing that thought away for later, I stretched and blinked several times when I realised it was morning.

My phone dinged again, another text, and then it dinged again. And then it rang. As odd as that was, I ignored it. I was still too groggy, and it was probably just Juliana whining that I hadn't called her last night. She could wait long enough for me to brush my teeth. Or maybe she could wait another half an hour...

I rolled over and snuggled under the covers, but that only lasted about two minutes before Renata barged into my room. "VAL! Get up! You have to see this!"

"Go away," I groaned. "I'm sleeping."

"No, seriously."

She grabbed my laptop and climbed onto my bed. I yawned again as she booted the thing up. "What is it?"

"Don't you check your phone?"

"Not this early in the morning. Juliana can wait until I'm out of bed."

"You might want to call her back."

What the heck was so urgent? I grabbed my phone while Renata pulled up the Internet browser on my laptop.

My texts were from Abby and Rob. Both seemed urgent and told me to check out a website called Get Real Hollywood right now. There were multiple exclamation points used. Even Rob's text used one, so I knew something big had happened.

As I rubbed the sleep out of my face and slowly sat up, I was beyond stiff after having rested on my sore muscles, Renata shrieked. "No way! No freaking way!"

"What is it?" I asked.

She was too focused on the laptop to explain, but I could tell her shock was not from any kind of good news. She looked a scary combination of horrified and pissed.

I moved my legs over the side of the bed with a groan. Daniel was going to kill me in my next PT session for overworking my body so much. Probably right after he told me it was good for me and recommended I do it more often.

My phone started to ring, but I ignored it. Whoever was calling was only going to tell me to look at the website Renata was gawking at. "What's going on?"

"That sneaky rotten bastard!"

"Renata!" I snapped. It was the only way to break her concentration.

Renata's face was stark white except for the angry red splotches on her cheeks and the back of her neck. When she met my confused and curious gaze, her eyes misted over. "Val, I am so sorry."

She moved my laptop onto my lap. I looked at the screen in front of me, but it took me a moment to understand what I was seeing. "Hey, that's me. Is that lunch at the restaurant yesterday? What...? Where...? How...?"

"Erik," Renata whispered. "He's some big-time celebrity gossiper."

"What do you mean?"

She clicked out of the video and went back to the home page for Get Real Hollywood. It was a celebrity news website. Erik's picture was in the upper left corner with a short bio. The lead story was front and centre, and huge: Jana's Valentina Gets Real About Her Physical Relationship with Juliana and Her Own Insecurities. The video of me at the lunch table in the mall yesterday was right beneath it.

"We were totally duped," Renata said. "He must have known who you were from the start. That's probably why he stuck up for you. He was probably following us for a while, looking for an opportunity to talk to us. We fell right into his trap."

I wasn't ready to believe this yet, still in the denial stage of my shock. "How was he recording this?"

Renata shrugged, staring once again at the video playing on the laptop. "I don't know. He must have had some kind of hidden camera on him."

"Is there audio?"

Renata's grimace answered the question for her. She clicked on the video, and my voice rang out loud and clear. "...whenever I ask her to give me a hint, she says he doesn't need a gift. She just sings me that stupid song: 'All I Want for Christmas is You.'"

My stomach rolled. Bile clawed up my throat, and I had to swallow it back down as I realised exactly what Erik had captured on video and posted for the entire world to see. "How much did he get?" My question came out shaky.

Renata scrolled forward through the video and swallowed. "It looks like the whole conversation at lunch... and everything in the lingerie store."

I cringed. "Everything?"

Renata nodded.

I fell back against the bed, so shocked that I didn't even notice the physical pain the movement caused. That conversation at lunch had started with Eva telling me I should give Juliana my virginity for Christmas and only got more personal from there. I felt ill. The room started to spin, and my eyes began to sting. "Ren..." My voice started to shake.

"I know," she whispered, equally distressed. "And we only made it worse for you. Val..."

My phone rang again, and when I saw Juliana's name on the caller ID, tears pooled in my eyes. Unable to answer the phone, I threw it across the room and slapped my hands over my face. The phone went to voice mail and immediately started ringing again. Renata retrieved it and held it out to me. "Talk to her, Val."

I shook my head. "I can't. If she's calling me, she's already seen this. She heard that whole conversation at lunch about her being a grown-up and me being her silly little prude of a girlfriend. She saw me refuse to buy sexy underwear and confess that I wasn't ready to sleep with her because I'm insecure about my body. She heard all that! And the whole world is currently hearing it!"

Renata wiped a tear from her cheek. "Val, I'm so sorry."

"It's not your fault."

"Still, I feel..." She stopped when the phone started ringing a third time. "You need to talk to her."

"I can't. Not yet. I need a minute to freak out."

Across the house, there was an earth-shattering shriek, and then seconds later my bedroom door burst open. "Did you see it?" Eva cried.

One look at me answered her question. She began pacing. "That asshole! I'm going to kill him!" She glared at me. "Did you know who he was? Did you let me make a complete ass of myself on purpose, knowing he was filming all that?"

Was she kidding?

"Shut up, Eva," Renata snapped. "Not everything is about you!"

My tears vanished, and, for once, I probably managed a scarier glare than her. "Oh no, this is totally about you, Eva!" I argued, making her the easy target to vent some of my anger. "I totally called Erik up and invited him to come secretly film us making fools of ourselves at the mall. And I totally confessed to him that I'm not ready to sleep with Juliana because she's perfect and my body is a horrific mess because I wanted the whole world to know that. And I totally asked you to bring up my sex life and drag me into a lingerie store. You got me. That was all my big, evil plan to make you feel stupid!"

Eva glared again, but she wasn't pissed off at me. Her angry look turned to one of frustration as she plopped down into my desk chair with an angry huff. "This is a nightmare!"

"On the bright side," Renata said, glaring at the laptop so severely I feared for its safety, "Dad is going to destroy him in court. That jerk messed with the wrong family."

"NO!" Eva and I shouted together.

Renata flinched, startled to be so heartily opposed.

"Dad will kill me if he sees that video!" Eva said.

Yeah, I might have looked stupid and insecure, but Eva came across a bit slutty. She would never be allowed to date again if Dad saw this video. "And he'll want to have some kind of awkward father-daughter talk with me," I added. "If he doesn't just launch into another lecture about his disapproval of me dating Juliana."

Renata scoffed. "I hate to break it to you both, but Dad is going to see this anyway. It's going to be everywhere. If he jumps on it now, maybe he can get a cease and desist order before it makes it into Kenneth Long's monologue."

A loud knock made me groan again just as Dad's nervous voice rang out. "Girls? Are you all decent? I found the website on Eva's computer. Can I come in...?"

Renata frowned at Ana. "You woke the whole house screaming and then left your laptop open when you came running down here? Good job. Way to keep Dad from finding out about it!"

"Girls?"

"Go away, Dad!" Renata yelled.

Apparently go away means come on in in Dad speak, because he opened the door and poked his head in. When he saw that we were all at least covered, he stepped fully in the room. "Dad, please," I begged. "I don't want to talk about this."

Whatever expression I wore on my face was enough to make my dad pause. His face fell, and he sighed. "Sweetheart, you've chosen to date a celebrity. As long as you're seeing Juliana Valdés, things like this are going to happen."

I didn't want to fight, but the man knew exactly how to push my buttons. "This wasn't Juliana's fault!"

He rolled his eyes. "I beg to differ on that, but it's a moot point. What I'm saying is, you can't let these things control your life. It's already happened. There's no use hiding from it."

Ha! I beg to differ on that.

While we were locked in a stare down, the doorbell rang. I didn't need three guesses to know who was here. I didn't even need one. Sure enough, once Lucia answered the door, Juliana's voice rang out loud and clear and full of concern. "Val?"

When she appeared at the threshold of my room, I lay back down and pulled my covers over my head. "UGH. Val's not here right now. GO AWAY, PLEASE."

"Valentina," Juliana cooed. "Relax. It's going to be okay."

For once, her voice did nothing to soothe me. "No, it's NOT!" I was so worked up my voice cracked on the last word. "How could I be so stupid? I said stuff, Juliana! We got caught up in our conversation, and I wasn't thinking. I said some really personal, embarrassing stuff. I'm sure you've seen it all. We joked around in a lingerie store. Renata and Eva bought me Christmas presents when I wouldn't buy anything for myself. The whole world is going to see that."

I sucked in a breath as a sob hit me. I swallowed it. I didn't want to cry. But no matter how hard I tried, I still sniffled. I'd been tricked. I felt violated.

When the weight shifted on my bed, I knew Juliana had traded places with my father. She plucked the blankets off my head and gently pulled me into a sitting position. When she wrapped her strong arms around me, I broke. I collapsed against her chest, letting my tears flow. "How could he do that to us?"

Juliana squeezed me tighter and quietly said, "May we have a minute alone, please?"

I didn't look to see if they listened. I knew they would. When Juliana used her serious voice like that, she tended to get her way. I'm sure my father shot her a nasty look, and I didn't hear the door click shut because he, no doubt, refused to shut it all the way with Juliana in the room. But when Juliana pulled my face away from her chest and tucked my hair behind my ears, I knew we were alone.

I took one look at her pain-filled eyes and broke down as if I were at a confessional. "I'm so sorry. We had no idea who he was. He..."

She shook her head and spoke over me, unwilling to let me keep apologising. "You have nothing to be sorry for. It wasn't your fault. The guy's name is Erik Clarke. He's notorious around town for stunts just like this. He doesn't get the celebrities as often because we all know to look out for him, but he tracks down the families and friends of the celebrities and gets them talking. He gets all kinds of dirt on people."

Great. "Some luck. What were the odds I would end up next to him on an escalator the one time this week I went out in public without you?"

Juliana's face fell, and she shook her head again. "It wasn't luck. You were spotted at the mall. He knew you were there without me, and that you most likely wouldn't know who he was. He took advantage of you."

Juliana grunted that last little bit and had to stop speaking to take a breath and calm down. I knew the feeling. I was just as pissed. "And I completely fell for it, because I am a stupid, naïve little girl who only thinks she can handle adulthood."

"Don't do that. Don't belittle yourself. That was not adulthood. That was fame. Being new to it doesn't make you stupid." She huffed in frustration. "I'm sorry, Val. I was really hoping you'd have time to adjust to everything before something like this happened."

"How do you live like this? I mean, geez. As if I didn't feel stupid enough before? Everyone knows about the suicide attempt and the legal custody my dad had. I have a freaking curfew. Which they also put on the front page this week. Now I'm the naïve little virgin girl scared to have sex with my girlfriend. The nation thinks I'm a joke. UGHHHH! I am a joke!" I gave my hair a good yank.

"Val, stop. Look at me." When I didn't, she repeated herself, throwing some force into the command. "Look at me!"

I met her gaze.

"Tabloids are always going to twist the facts to create the best headlines. That doesn't make what they say true. Anyone can be made to look their worst if you can pick and choose only a few key facts from their life. What those people don't know, but I do, is that you are a strong, smart, kind, and compassionate woman. You are not a joke!" Juliana brought her hand to my face and softened her voice. "You are the best thing that's ever happened to me. Do you understand me? No matter what anyone says or prints, I love you. I will always love you."

Juliana's declaration, though I'd heard it before, was exactly what I needed in that moment. I couldn't find words to express the amount of gratitude in my heart, so I leaned forward and pressed my lips to hers. The kiss was frenzied. I kissed her as if her lips on mine would make all of my problems disappear.

Juliana returned my frantic kiss with calm strength. Her gentle touches and the way she held me were confident and loving. They filled me with a sense of security, easing away the torrent of emotion I'd been racked with. After I calmed down, Juliana broke the kiss and gave me a soft, teasing smile. "Feel better yet?"

I did. I felt a million times better. Better enough that I could match the playful glint in her eyes and tease her back. "Nope. I don't think so. I'm going to need a lot more of that before I'm better."

When I wrapped my arms around her neck and kissed her again, she laughed but indulged me for a minute longer. Only, now that I was no longer on the brink of an emotional breakdown, Juliana's response was much more heated. The kiss became less about soothing me and more about her own set of needs and desires. She was the one to break it again, but this time she had to rip herself away and suck in a deep breath. "That's enough of that," she said, trying to cool her lust. "At least while your family is out there waiting for us to come out."

I sighed. Time to get back to reality. "Okay. Let's go get this over with. They've all seen that stupid video this morning, so it should be nice and awkward, and my dad, no doubt, has an awesome lecture ready and waiting!"

I started to move, but Juliana stopped me. "Val..." Wariness crept into her tone and expression. "About what you said in that video..."

And just like that, all of my anxiety was back. "No." I shook my head frantically. "Don't. Please."

"But...

"Please? I am embarrassed enough right now. I really don't want to have this conversation."

She frowned. "We need to have this conversation. Actually, this particular conversation is one you should have had with me in the first place, not with your friends."

My face flamed, and I dropped my head, unable to meet her probing gaze. "Girls will always need their girl talk."

"I know, but I can't stand the thought of you worrying that I won't find you attractive. I promise you, that is not the case. Far, far, far from it. And if you're feeling scared, or confused, or overwhelmed with our relationship, or you don't know what I'm feeling, the best way to fix that is to talk to me about it."

Ugh. See? And this was exactly one of those things that set us apart. "Said the mature grown-up to her clueless baby of a girlfriend," I grumbled.

"Val."

"I know. Sorry. I'm wallowing in self-pity." She quirked an eyebrow at me, and I caved. "Fine. We can talk about it. But not right now, okay? Just give me some time to get over the shock and stop feeling so stupid."

Juliana raked her eyes over me, trying to figure out if I was serious about being too overwhelmed or simply trying to get out of the conversation. I must have passed the test, because she let out a breath and nodded. "Okay. Not now. But you promise? After you're feeling better, you'll talk to me about this? About us?"

I hesitated simply because I felt like being defiant. But I did want to figure things out between us so I could stop feeling so stressed out and so... so... I don't know... immature, I guess. Talking was inevitable. "I promise."

"Good." She pressed a quick kiss to my lips and pulled me back into a hug, seemingly in no real hurry to get up. I happily snuggled against her. "Then I just need to say one last thing," she said. "About everyone's favourite sound bite..."

My heart missed a beat or two when it dropped into my stomach. I pulled out of her embrace to gape at her in horror. "What sound bite? There's already a favourite sound bite?"

Juliana laughed, a real, gut-bursting laugh, and squeezed me close again. "My girlfriend accused me of being with a billion women. That's not disappearing from the front pages anytime soon!"

I was glad when she pulled me back into her arms, because she couldn't see that my face was on fire.

"I'd just like to set the record straight though, while I may not know the exact number, I assure you it's not a billion!"

She was being obnoxious, but her tactic worked, and she successfully cheered me up. "Whatever." I cracked a smile and let a soft laugh escape. "Fifty... a billion... if you've lost count, it's all the same."

We laughed together, which felt amazing, but the moment ended quickly. Sighing, I stole one last kiss. "Thank you for coming."

 

 

Chapter Text

When Juliana and I finally emerged from my room, everyone was in the kitchen. Lucia was making a pot of coffee, fretting as she glanced back and forth between everyone in the room. Eva was sitting at the dining table, texting on her phone with a scowl on her face. Dad was leaning stiffly against the counter, his arm elbow-deep in a box of Lucky Charms. Guess he was done pretending he didn't sneak contraband into the house. Apparently, he needed the comfort food to settle him down.

Renata was going to need more than some marshmallow cereal to bring her down from her rage. She was pacing back and forth, muttering to herself under her breath. At once, she stopped mid stride, whirling on Dad. "Why aren't you making any calls right now?" she demanded. "That stupid entertainment creep should be on his way to jail already. Nobody messes with the Miller family and gets away with it!"

I looked over just in time to see Dad cringe. The expression he made my heart skip a beat. "What?" Renata asked. She knew there was bad news coming, too.

Dad glanced back and forth between us and sighed. "Erik Clarke didn't do anything wrong."

"WHAT?" Renata roared.

My heart sank into my stomach.

"Morally," Dad said, talking over Renata's shouts of protest, "what he did was despicable. Legally..." His shoulders drooped. "He's done nothing outside of the law."

I blinked in disbelief. Could that really be true?

"He filmed us without our knowledge!" Renata ranted. "How is that not illegal?"

Dad shot her his calm-down-now-or-you'll-be-sent-to-your-room look. "Everything you girls said and did yesterday was in public."

"But it wasn't meant for the whole world to see."

Dad shook his head. "It doesn't matter. Public is public. Clarke's first amendments rights protect him on this matter. This is his business, ladies. I'm sure he knows exactly what the laws are and was very careful not to break them. You're not his first angry victims by any means. He's long since figured out the system. I did make a call. Clarke's got his own team of lawyers, and my friend says they're some of the best. He gets sued often but usually settles out of court, and he's never been slapped with any criminal charges."

Renata plopped down at the table beside Eva, arms folded tightly, face pulled into a petulant frown.

"So much for seeing that pretty face behind bars," Eva said.

"Lucky for him," Renata muttered. "He'd make a lot of the inmates very happy, I'm sure."

I cracked a smile at that. "Definitely too bad we can't get him thrown in jail, then."

Eva laughed, and Juliette huffed. "Fine. We'll just have to settle for suing him."

"My lawyers are already looking into that," Juliana offered. "I called them on my way over."

She was trying to be helpful, but Dad's eyes narrowed again.

Anger rose up in me, Dad really didn't have a reason to hate Juliana so much but I choked it down. Things were bad enough. I didn't need to get into a fight with my dad on top of it. "I'm sorry to change the subject," I said, "but I really need to take some painkillers and sit down for a while."

My request set everyone into motion. Juliana pulled out a chair from the kitchen table for me, while Lucia grabbed a bottle of Tylenol from the cupboard. "Not those," I said. "I'm going to need the heavy-duty stuff today."

She put the Tylenol back and reached for a bottle of prescription painkillers that I only ever used when I really needed it. After yesterday's all-day mall excursion, I needed it. Dad grabbed me a V-8 from the fridge and brought me the medicine. "You're still sore from yesterday?"

"Yeah. I'm going to have to take it extra easy for a few days."

Dad's brow creased. "Should I call Daniel?"

Daniel was my gorgeous and cool, but ruthless, physical therapist. I liked the guy, and I had to admit I'd come a long way since working with him, but still, I didn't want to have to see him more than was necessary. "No way. Do you know how painful it would be if he made me do my exercises right now? He promised me a torture-free holiday. I'll be fine until next week."

I swallowed the pill my dad gave me and smiled. Once Dad wandered into the kitchen to dump a bunch of sugar into his coffee, Juliana pulled out the chair next to mine and sat with me. She threw an arm casually around the back of my chair, and the simple gesture went a long way in helping me relax. "So..." she said, "have this morning's events convinced you to reconsider my offer at all?"

Renata plopped down across from us with a curious expression. "What offer?"

"Nothing," I said, while Juliana answered her loud and clear.

"I asked Val to move in with me instead of Abby. I'm hoping I can convince her before moving day."

Renata choked on surprise, and, as I knew would happen, my father heard this and completely overreacted. "WHAT?" he roared, slamming his coffee mug down on the counter so hard he nearly shattered it. He spilled coffee all over the counter and his shirt, and Lucia was forced to clean up the mess while my father fumed.

There was a reason I hadn't mentioned Juliana's offer to anyone. I knew it would make my dad flip. Juliana knew it, too. I couldn't believe she'd brought the subject up in front of him. After shooting Juliana an annoyed glance, I turned around to face my dad. I tried to look and sound completely calm, hoping I might rub off on him. Doubtful, considering the dark red shade of his face. "Relax, Dad. I didn't say yes."

"Yet," Juliana interjected stubbornly.

I glared at her again. Surprisingly, she returned the annoyed look before locking her eyes on my father. Just as my dad with her. He looked ready to murder Juliana. "How dare you suggest such a thing to her? You've only been a couple for a week and she's barely nineteen!"

Juliana was completely unruffled by the outburst, save some eye twitching and teeth grinding that suggested she wanted to tear into my dad. She resisted the urge, though, and sat up straight in her chair to give the scary prosecuting attorney a confident, challenging stare. "I know you don't understand my relationship with your daughter," she said calmly, "but Valentina and I have been best friends for years. The way we know each other, love each other, is not new, and it's not casual. I'm not going anywhere, Leon, no matter how much you disapprove of me, and if Val wants to move in with me, that is her choice, not yours. She's an adult."

I was stunned. Maybe even more stunned than my father. Juliana had called him by his first name on purpose. She had spoken to him as an equal. She had made it very clear to him that while I might be someone Dad thought he could push around and treat like a child, she was not going to accept it. And she'd completely pulled it off. Eva's boyfriend Jason would have peed himself if my father had thrown that kind of hostility at him. But not Juliana. She might only be twenty-two, but she'd been thrown into an adult world at a young age and forced to grow up. She was a woman now, in her own right, a mature, confident one, who was used to having people answer to her, not the other way around.

Dad was not happy to be put in his place. "You smug little..."

"And, not that it's any of your business," Juliana continued, talking over my father and his would-be insult, "but my offer to Val was about more than just our relationship. If she's going to move, her privacy and safety have to be taken into consideration."

"What do you mean?" Lucia asked before Dad could yell some more.

Juliana barely spared her a glance before meeting my father's eyes again. "Like it or not, Val is a celebrity now. Abby and her fathers are wonderful people, but their apartment isn't equipped to handle Valentina's fame."

My father swallowed whatever argument he was about to spew and frowned at me. In turn, I shot Juliana a nasty glare. I wanted to kill her for bringing this up with my family after I'd already turned down her offer. She ignored my anger as easily as she'd ignored my father's outburst. "I'm serious about this, Val. I know you think things will die down, but you have to trust me. I've been dealing with this my entire life. I know what it's like. And with the stunt Erik Clarke just pulled, it's only going to get worse."

"Oh," Lucia said, grabbing Dad's arm with a worried frown. "She's right, Leon. We never thought about that."

Dad, still glaring and clenching his jaw, nodded slowly and turned his furious gaze from Juliana to me. "If your safety is at risk, I don't want you going to Abby's."

Great. Now he was going to try and stop me from moving out. But I was going to do it anyway, but now he would be pissed. Thanks a lot, Juliana. "She's being paranoid, Dad."

The argument sounded weak, even to my ears. I was starting to see Juliana's point. Erik Clarke had shaken me up. I had been completely blindsided, and I'd never once suspected him. If someone was willing to ambush me with hidden cameras like that, I could only imagine what the paparazzi would do when they realised I had moved to Abby's apartment. I don't know if my safety would be in jeopardy, but I definitely wouldn't have a moment's peace.

I sighed, not willing to accept defeat but not in the mood to argue anymore, either. "Look, now is not the time for this discussion. I haven't agreed to anything, and it's Christmas. Can we please drop it before we get into a huge fight and ruin the holiday? We're all worked up because of the Erik Clarke thing. Let's wait until we can discuss this rationally. It's breakfast time, anyway. Maybe if we eat, we'll all be less grouchy. How about I whip up some spinach quiche?"

There was a tense moment of silence before everyone gave in and accepted the obvious subject change. Lucia was the first to move. "Val, sweetheart, you're not feeling great this morning. You take it easy, and let me handle breakfast. I may not be able to recreate your amazing quiche, but I can handle egg-white omelets." She glanced around for approval, and when everyone nodded she got to work.

Dad was still glaring, so Lucia shoved an apron at him. "Would you mind helping me? I need some onions and some bell peppers chopped. Leon."

Dad sucked in a breath, sent Juliana one last death stare before pulling the apron over his head, muttering under his breath.

I glared at Juliana and didn't hold back my irritation when I snapped, "May I speak to you privately?"

Juliana turned her unrelenting gaze on me. "Yes. Let's talk."

I dragged her back into my bedroom and rounded on her the minute the door was closed. "Are you kidding me? You had to go and bring that up in front of my father, when not just me, but the twins, are also all over the media right now?"

Juliana's eyes flashed for a brief second, letting me know that she was just as upset as I was, even if she hid it better. "That's exactly why I brought it up. You blew me off too easily. You aren't taking this seriously. I'm worried about your safety."

"Fine. Maybe I don't really grasp the whole fame thing well enough yet. But still, you can't just spring something as huge as living together on me all of a sudden when I'm about to get out of the car, and then blurt it out to my family before we got the chance to really discuss it, just because you were mad that you didn't get your way."

She rolled her eyes. "That's not why I mentioned it."

"Bull."

She turned and leaned against my desk, folding her arms tightly over her chest. I gave her a challenging look, and she huffed, throwing her hands in the air. "Fine. I was mad! Sue me."

I scoffed. "Jerk."

"You didn't even think about it, Val. I asked you to live with me, something I've never even come close to doing with anyone before, and you blew me off without blinking. Worse. You shot down the idea like it was a freaking warplane coming to drop nukes on you."

I felt like crap when I realised she was upset because she felt rejected. "Juliana..." My shoulders slumped, and my anger deflated. What could I say? I wasn't ready for what she wanted.

"It's not like I'd try to take advantage of you," she muttered, pinning me with the full force of her Oscar-Award-worthy expressive eyes. "Don't you trust me?"

I had to look away from her. I couldn't handle the hurt and confusion in her gaze. I sat down on the edge of my bed and wrapped my arms around myself, feeling strangely vulnerable. When I had a good grip on the whirlwind of emotions swirling inside me, I looked back up. "Of course I trust you. It's not that I think you'll pressure me for anything; it's just that you're so intense. Everything about you is intense. So is this relationship. And the fame is downright crazy. It's overwhelming. Trying to add living together on top of everything..." I blew out a breath, upset by the very idea of it. "It's too much all at once."

Juliana pushed herself away from my desk and raked her hands through her hair. "I'm sorry," she said, with a frustrated shake of her head. "I was raised with this. My father was well-known in the industry long before I was born. I've been famous my entire life, even before I started acting. I can't imagine how hard getting thrown straight into all of this must be for you."

"No. You can't. I can't even grasp it. That's why I need a little time and space. Just some breathing room where I can escape it, if I need to. Just until I get used to it. That's all I'm asking for."

With another long breath, Juliana sat beside me on the bed. "I'm sorry this is overwhelming you, but Val, my life is intense. There's no escaping that. I'll do my best to buffer you from it when I can, but there are going to be things about this relationship that will force you out of your comfort zone. I can't help that."

"Yeah, but..."

"I know what you're hoping for, but moving to Abby's would not be an escape. The insanity would follow you there, and it would only be worse because you wouldn't be prepared for it. Plus, you'd bring it down on Abby and her fathers, too. You would pull them into this bullshit, whether you wanted to or not."

I closed my eyes and sucked in a breath. That was something I hadn't thought about. If the paparazzi was going to start hounding me at Abby's the way they did here, then they would doubtlessly hound Abby and her dads, too. They didn't need that.

"Why do you think I never told you who I was?" Juliana asked softly. "I knew this would happen, and I didn't want this life for you. But I'm selfish, and now you're stuck with it. You don't have to do that to Abby. Moving in with me might not be something you're completely ready for, but you may just have to learn how to swim straight from the deep end. I want you to live with me, but I need you to be safe, and if that means asking you to do something you're not fully comfortable with, then so be it. Sacrifices are going to have to be made if we're going to work."

I wanted to be mad, but she was being so reasonable. It was really annoying because I couldn't argue with her when she had clearly thought this through, she was being rational, and, most importantly, being straight with me. She might try to protect me from her world, but she never sugar-coated things. I was glad she seemed to be of the ignorance-is-not-protection opinion.

Things weren't always going to be pretty or easy for us. Juliana knew that. She didn't like it, but she always warned me ahead of time. I was grateful for that. I had read a million books where the hero kept the heroine in the dark in an attempt to shield her from bad things. Those heroes were idiots. Their lies always ended up hurting the heroine.

Juliana didn't try to hide the bad things. She wanted me to be prepared so that we could face them together. She trusted that I could handle it. For that alone, I owed her the courtesy of trying my best to make good on that trust. For her, I would find a way to handle the things that came at us.

"All right," I said, quietly letting out another breath. "We don't have a solution to this yet, but I acknowledge that it is important, and in the future, I will take your suggestions much more seriously. I promise, no more blowing off anything you say just because it makes me uncomfortable."

Juliana frowned. "That's not a promise to move in with me."

"No, it's not," I agreed with a wry smile. "But it's an I'm-willing-to-sit-down-and-discuss-the-issue-to-try-to-find-a-reasonable-compromise."

Juliana didn't respond right away. She studied me with her searching gaze, which I assumed was trying to figure out why I was so hesitant to live with her. I figured she needed some kind of reassurance even if she would never admit to feeling insecure, so I stood up, pulling her with me, and slipped my arms around her waist. "I love you, Juliana Valdés."

As if my words were magical keys that unlocked the tension in her body, she sucked in a breath and wrapped her arms around me, melding her body to mine. "I love you, too, Valentina Carvajal."

"Good," I said, snuggling into her embrace as much as possible. "Then, could you do me a favour and not try to use my family against me to get your way in the future?"

Juliana sighed, but she chuckled, too. "I was unhappy that I didn't get my way, I'm definitely not used to being told no, but I swear I didn't mean to do that."

"Liar."

"Fine. I didn't only mean to do that. It was for your father's benefit as much as yours."

"Nice."

She groaned and hugged me tighter. "I'm sorry. Your dad just gets to me."

"I know." I sighed in full understanding and placed a small kiss to her neck. "I'm sorry he's been a jerk to you. I think he's overwhelmed, too, and nervous about what this could do to our family, but that's not an excuse to treat you so horribly. He doesn't deserve your patience, but would you try to play nice as much as possible? He's frustrating, but he's the only parent I have left. Please? For me?"

Juliana pulled back and lifted my chin so she could see my face. I managed my best puppy-dog pout, and she cracked instantly. "Wicked woman," she said as she lowered her mouth to mine. "You are not allowed to give me that look ever again." She moved her lips to my neck. "It's not fair."

"You use your audiobook voice on me constantly." She kissed me beneath my ear, and I shivered. "Talk about unfair."

The dangerous, low chuckle that escaped her set my insides on fire. "Oh no. We are not doing this right now," I said, though I made no attempt to escape her attention. "Not while my whole family is out there and knows we're back here fighting."

"We were fighting," Juliana murmured, as she continued to rain kisses on my neck. "Now we're making up."

Her mouth finally reconnected with mine in a tender kiss that left me unable to do anything except melt in her arms.

"I'm sorry, Val," she whispered between kisses.

"Me too," I gasped.

Truth be told, I couldn't remember what we were fighting about.

We gave it a minute or two longer, but then forced ourselves to re-join my family. Dad and Lucia were still cooking, and both Renata and Eva were at the table, with omelettes in front of them. Both girls smirked the second they saw us. "All finished with your lovers' spat?" Eva teased.

I didn't think I was particularly flushed or anything, but Renata scanned my face and snorted. "Looks like they worked it out just fine."

I was dying, but Juliana seemed to enjoy the attention, and being the stupid actress that she was, she had to play up to her audience. She walked between the two of them, resting an arm on the backs of each of their chairs, and ducked her head down near theirs. "We worked things out, all right," she murmured, low enough that my dad and Lucia couldn't hear her. "You remember the make-up scene in my movie Senior Trip? It was like that but hotter!" With a slow, provocative wink, she added, "It's okay to be jealous!"

Eva nearly snorted juice out of her nose while Renata inhaled her omelette and started hacking up a storm. Their reactions were justified. How that movie got a PG-13 rating with that scene in it was beyond me. "Oh my God. Juliana!" I hissed, slapping a hand over my face. "Shut up! We did not!"

All three of them laughed at my mortification. "Yeah, you wish," Eva told Juliana. "You're dating Val. I'm sure it was closer to something out of your movie V is for Virgin."

Juliana frowned, but the corners of her lips twitched. "Burn," she admitted with a grudging nod. "Well played."

Renata, finally done choking on her breakfast, dissolved into a fit of giggles and held up a hand to Eva for a high five. "Nice one, sis."

"You are all idiots!"

I rolled my eyes and headed into the kitchen, needing some juice and to escape the three stooges.

Juliana wrapped her arms around me from behind just as I reached the kitchen counter and placed a small, soft kiss to side of my neck. As far as apologies went, it was pretty nice. I suppressed a shudder and leaned back against her chest. "Smells good," I said.

Lucia and my dad looked up from their places near the stove, and Dad said, "Well, you kids sit down, if you're hungry. How do you like your omelettes, Juliana?"

Juliana and I were both surprised by the invitation. Either my father had been lectured by Lucia while we were gone, Lucia had a major soft spot for Juliana, or Dad actually felt bad for losing his temper at my girlfriend. It was probably the former, but either way, I'd take it.

Juliana glanced at me and then shook her head. "That's okay. I didn't mean to intrude on your family time. I only came to make sure the girls were okay after I saw that video."

Judging by Lucia's smile and Dad's soft grunt, Juliana had earned a few brownie points by including the twins in her concern. I'm not sure it was genuine in Eva's case, she wasn't her biggest fan, but I was sure she felt bad for Renata, and that was enough for the worry to come across as sincere.

"Well, you're here," Dad said gruffly. "May as well eat."

Juliana looked down at herself and then shook her head again. "Thank you, but I suppose if the fire's out, I should run home and shower and put some real clothes on."

I realised for the first time that she was in her pyjamas and slippers and had bed hair, having sped straight over here when I refused to answer my phone this morning.

"What?" She asked, noticing the grin on my face.

"Nothing. Just... thanks for coming over this morning."

She matched my smile and kissed my cheek. "Thanks for not picking up your phone so I had an excuse to come over."

"Gag," Renata said, as she walked past us to put her empty plate in the sink. "I'm going to get out of here and go shower before the lovebirds make me puke."

Laughing, I smoothed down the side of Juliana's hair that was sticking up. "Come on, I'll walk you out."

As we reached Juliana's car, she slid her arms around my waist and pulled me against her. "You could come with me," she murmured, into my ear. "My shower's big enough for two."

She was teasing, and she wasn't. She knew I would say no, but at the same time, the offer was real. With her mouth so close to my skin like that, her invitation was a lot more tempting than she knew. Suppressing a shiver, I swatted her on the arm. Unfortunately, my hand clung to her bicep when I hit her, which didn't help to convince her that I wasn't interested. "That's not happening."

Her mouth moved down my neck, raising goose bumps on my skin. "Forget the shower, then. How about a nice, long drive up the coast? Maybe we can find a deserted overlook to relax and... talk?"

I laughed, but it quickly morphed into a groan. "You have no idea how good that sounds. Go home now, before you convince me and I ditch my family all day, making my father disapprove of our relationship even more."

Juliana's mood flipped like someone had thrown a switch. "Who cares what he thinks about it? As soon as you move, it'll be none of his business anyway."

Her frown turned to a dark glare, so I wrapped my arms around her neck and forced her lips to mine. The kiss put a smile back on her face. "Just hurry back," I said.

Laughing, Juliana found my lips again. "Are you sure I should? With all the Erik Clarke drama, I don't know if I could keep from fighting with your father if I spent the whole day here."

"I don't care. With all the Erik Clarke drama, you're the one I want to spend the day with. Not him. You're the one who makes me feel better. Please come back soon."

I used the face she had warned me not to use again, and she sighed. "As you wish."

Yes, she was totally quoting The Princess Bride.

As she opened the car door and climbed behind the wheel, she shot me a grin and said, "You won't even have time to miss me."

I tried to keep quiet. I tried to swallow the words wanting to tumble out of my mouth. I really, really tried. But I couldn't do it. After she closed her door, I gestured for her to roll down the window, and said, "I miss you already."

Her chest shook with laughter as she turned on the car. "Now who's the dork?" She called over the roar of the engine. "Love you, woman. I'll be back soon."

 

 

Chapter Text

Juliana kept her word and was back within an hour. Thankfully, no more arguments arose. We spent the day playing board games. Unbelievably, Juliana had never done that before. She was an only child, with no siblings to play with, so had never had the opportunity. She had also been auditioning for parts on TV by the time she was ten, and essentially missed out on a normal childhood of any kind, so things like Cluedo and Monopoly were a new experience. It was surreal watching her, she was almost childlike every time she took her turn.

My personal favourite was watching her play The Game of Life. It's like the stupidest game ever, but she was thrilled with every turn. She joked about finally having the time to go to college and kept landing on the baby spaces. She ended up needing two of those little cars to carry all her people around. The dork actually named them all and gave them all positions on the family football team.

Not even my dad could resist the charm of Juliana Valdés getting to be a kid for the first time in her life, and the two of them teamed up together against the sisters for a few rounds of another game. Then they played a few hands of poker while Lucia and I cooked Christmas Eve dinner.

It was a perfect day. Well, it was, until we turned on the TV after dinner. Lucia and Dad shooed us kids all off while they did the dishes. We migrated back to the family room and turned on the TV. Eva plopped down into Dad's armchair, and Renata sat on the end of the couch nearest her, while Juliana and I claimed the other end. We'd just snuggled up together when Eva turned on Celebrity Gossip. I used to love the show, but it was quickly losing its appeal. The show was more of a tabloid rag than a respectable entertainment news show. Juliana wasn't a fan, but she didn't protest, and Eva didn't offer to change the channel.

As soon as the opening credits were over, my picture filled the screen. "Juliantina are making headlines again tonight, and we've got the full scoop," the show's bubbly blonde host announced. "Erik Clarke of the website Get Real Hollywood is here with us to dish the dirt on the reclusive couple."

Juliana's grip on me tightened, and my stomach rolled. "We'll change it," Renata said quickly.

Unfortunately, Eva was the one holding the remote, and she had a different idea. "No way. I want to see what the jerk has to say."

"Eva!" Renata hissed, glancing in my direction.

I was with Renata. I had no desire to see what was coming, but Juliana said, "No, it's better to hear it so we know what we're going to have to deal with." Her jaw clenched, and she muttered, "And so I know how much to kick his ass the next time our paths cross."

We all sat quietly, mentally cursing Erik Clarke, Okay, Eva and Juliana cursed him out loud, while the commercials played. When the show returned and Erik was sitting on a couch with the blonde host, my whole body tensed up. "I'm right here," Juliana whispered in my ear as she rubbed my arms. "It'll be okay."

I wanted to believe her, but it was pretty hard to do with Erik's smug smile staring at me from the TV, as if he had a giant secret he was about to share.

"Erik!" The host was so excited she could hardly contain her excitement. "Welcome to Celebrity Gossip! Thanks for coming in today. You managed to get the scoop of the century, and we're all dying to know how you did it. Juliana Valdés is not known for being very friendly with the media, and so far, her new girlfriend, Valentina, has proven to be even more elusive. Not a single press statement or interview has come from the couple since their relationship was made public. How on earth did you manage to get this interview with Valentina, and how did you get her to open up like that?"

Erik shot the woman a sly grin. "I have my ways."

Renata, Eva, and I all scoffed while Juliana muttered more words best not repeated.

"All right. Keep your secrets," the host teased. "But tell us... how was she in person? That interview was so heart-breaking and real. Was she like that off camera, too? What are your thoughts after having met her?"

I scoffed again. "Of course it was real. I didn't know I was being filmed. How can that lady possibly believe that footage was an actual interview?"

"She knows it wasn't," Juliana grumbled.

"But it's too good a story to ignore, and it'd be too tacky to admit the truth on camera, so she's playing dumb," Renata said.

Judging from the way Juliana's teeth ground inside her head, I guessed she'd been thinking along the same lines.

Erik leaned forward, the wide smile that had won over my friends and me plastered on his face. "You know...? I can't say this often about the celebrities I meet, but I was really impressed by Valentina. She's a very cool woman. She's fun, witty, friendly, down-to-earth, and an all-around stand-up person."

Juliana let out a quiet breath of relief that I wouldn't have heard if I weren't snuggled up next to her. I was relieved to hear a positive review as well, but having Erik tell the world he thought I was cool didn't make me feel any better about what he did.

"She's... raw," Erik continued, "genuine. There's no pretence with her. That's what I like. Real. That's why I run my website the way I do. Hollywood is so fake. I like to see the people behind the image, and most of the time, it's not a pretty picture. It's nice to see someone like Valentina, for a change."

Oh, please. First of all, I wasn't really a part of Hollywood. Well, I guess now I was, but I hadn't been part of it long enough to be changed by it. And second of all, like he could talk about being fake? He's the biggest phony in the city.

"At least he's not trashing you," Renata offered with a grimace.

I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, he liked me so much he felt the need to exploit me."

"Oh, I'm sure he liked you. He just likes money more," Renata said, ever so helpfully. She shot me a wink and added, "I like you, too, but I have to admit, I might sell you out for that kind of money!"

Eva shook her head in disgust, but a small laugh escaped me, and my mood lightened. I was grateful to Renata for breaking the tension. Sighing playfully, I grinned at my stepsister. "Sadly, I might sell me out, too. He's probably making enough money with this to pay for college."

Juliana's chest shook with silent laughter, and she kissed my cheek. Some of the tension bled out of her as if she was relieved that I wasn't falling apart as we watched this interview. She had a lot to do with that. I'd be freaking out a lot more if she weren't sitting here holding me and lending me moral support.

On the screen, Erik was still chatting about me with the blonde host. I started paying attention again just in time to hear her tease him, saying, "Sounds like someone might have a little bit of a celebrity crush."

Erik flashed the woman a crooked smile. "I definitely would have asked her out if she weren't so obviously head over heels for Juliana. She's a lucky woman. And interestingly enough, meeting Valentina gave me some newfound respect for her."

"Really?" the woman asked. "How so?"

Erik shrugged. "Well, obviously the woman has a reputation."

The woman smiled. "You mean, those billions of women she's been with?"

Juliana snorted at the same time Erik laughed, and I groaned. "I'm never going to live that one down," Juliana teased.

I had a feeling I wasn't, either. My face flamed, but Juliana didn't seem upset. She was more amused by everyone's favourite sound bite, if anything.

"She was a Casanova, for sure," Erik continued, "and moody and standoffish with the press. After all of that publicity crap with Kaylee Summers leading up to the release of The Druid Princess, I was sure she was the biggest arrogant douche bag to come out of Hollywood in years, but if she's smart enough to want a woman like Valentina, and you consider the way Valentina and her friends talked about her, I'm betting there's a lot more to Juliana Valdes than she lets the world see."

"No shit, Sherlock," Juliana grumbled.

I shook my head. "No, not really," I teased. "Arrogant, moody Casanova just about sums you up."

"Oh, gee thanks," Juliana said.

I flashed her a wide grin, and she poked me in the ribs, making me squeal. "You're a brat."

"I am not. I am an all-around stand-up woman. You heard it yourself. And look!" I pointed to the screen. "Erik Clarke respects you now. I'm so awesome that just dating me has improved your reputation."

"And you're so humble about it. It's nice to know your newfound fame isn't going to your head."

"Well, yeah. I've got to puff up my ego as much as possible if we ever want to have some balance in our relationship."

Juliana smirked, but the light in her eyes had a giddy quality to it, as if she was thrilled with our banter. I knew the feeling. I was having enough fun that I didn't really care that I was the topic of the interview currently being played. Maybe fame wouldn't be as bad as I feared. Maybe Juliana was right, and that if we stuck together through it, everything would be fine.

As if she could read my thoughts, Juliana's face softened into a loving and proud expression. Her gaze dropped to my mouth, and that was the only warning I got before she pulled me all the way into her lap and kissed me senseless. It was such a heated kiss that I forgot about the world around me until we were smacked in the head with a pillow.

"Gross," Eva said.

"Yeah, get a room, horn balls," Renata added.

My face heated hotter than Juliana's kiss, and I tried to pull away, but Juliana wasn't ready to let me go. Eyes hooded, she continued to brush her lips over mine while teasing the twins. "What's the matter? You guys pay money to watch me do this on-screen."

"That's different," Renata argued. "That's Movie Screen Juliana, which is so not the same, and Movie Screen Juliana doesn't make out with my sister!"

Juliana grinned at me. "I would, if she was willing to get in front of a camera with me."

She looked a little too eager about that idea, so I set her straight immediately. "Never going to happen."

She shrugged and pressed another soft kiss to my lips. "That's okay. This works, too."

I am definitely not a PDA kind of girl, but as Juliana captured my mouth in another passionate lip-lock in front of my stepsisters, I found that I didn't care about the audience. "Sorry, Reni," I breathed as I wrapped my arms around her neck. "I can't seem to stop. I think she's got powers of compulsion or something."

Juliana waggled her eyebrows at me. "Guess my secret's out."

She started to kiss me again, but Dad and Lucia chose that moment to come downstairs. I felt my father's annoyance before I saw him. "What's going on here?"

I wanted to shrivel up and die of embarrassment, but Juliana smiled as though she didn't have a care in the world. "We're surviving fame together."

The words warmed my heart so much that I didn't stop her when she gave me one last kiss before turning her attention back to the TV. My dad wanted to say something, probably tell Juliana to get her hands off me and get out of his house, but he got distracted by the television. Erik "The Sleaze" Clarke was still on-screen. 

"She makes an interesting point," he was saying. "Hollywood is very stuck on perfection. It's all about image, and that image has to be flawless. But it shouldn't be that way. Personally, I would love to see Valentina Carvajal in some sexy lingerie."

My dad sputtered at his candidness, and my humiliation grew. Juliana gave me a reassuring hug and leaned her head against mine. I tried to relax, but it was hard, considering Erik was now talking about seeing me half naked.

"I've got a poll up on my website, so you can go vote for yourself. Blue or pink. I think the blue was winning last time I looked, but I'm still a fan of the pink. I think she should model the winner for the whole world to see."

I gasped at the thought. "Are you kidding me?" I screeched. No way could he be serious! Except he was.

This wasn't so fun anymore. Juliana was tense again, too, and glaring at the television.

"Oh! That would be so fun!" the host said, clapping in excitement. "I'd love to see that!"

"Right?" Erik said, leaning forward as he got more excited. "Aside from the fact that she would look gorgeous, scars or no scars, it would just be cool if she did it. She could sort of say, Screw the world. I may not be perfect, but I'm beautiful the way I am."

"Oh!" the host said. "That would be great."

I scoffed. "Oh, yeah. That would be so great."

"It's just a shame that she doesn't know how beautiful she is," Erik said. "She seems so confident in every other way." He turned his attention to the camera. "Guys, if you agree with me that Valentina is beautiful, and if you'd like to see her model the winning outfit, bearing her scars with pride, hop on my blog, and let us hear it. Vote for your favourite, and then give Valentina some encouragement in the comments section. Let's see if we can help Juliana out a little and give her girl a boost of confidence, eh?"

I couldn't believe this was happening. I hated Erik Clarke for doing this to me. "The nerve of that..." I let out a frustrated scream. "He's joking about my insecurities! And now the whole world is going to treat my condition like it's a fun game! It isn't a game! It's my life!"

I got to my feet and turned off the TV because I couldn't hear one more second of this garbage. I was so angry, I started pacing.

"Val, just ignore it," Juliana said. "He's a sleazy paparazzi scumbag."

"How?" I roared. "He may be a sleaze, but he's getting attention. You think the world is going to ignore that? They won't. This is going to get thrown in my face over and over again. People are going to be asking me to show off my scars for the rest of my life. I can't believe he did that!"

The room fell silent. I was ready to explode, and everyone could see how close I was to losing it. Juliana seemed to know I didn't want to hear any comforting words. She stayed silent as she got up and stopped me from my angry pacing. She let her strong embrace speak for her as she pulled me into her arms.

"Screw him, Val," Renata said. "We'll figure out a way to extract revenge on him. You have a huge following. There's got to be some way we can make him pay for this. Humiliate him publicly, like he did to us."

"Renata," Dad warned with a tired sigh. "There will be no retaliation. People will have fun with the voting, but then they'll all forget about it. This will blow over. If you try to get back at him, it will only make it worse."

"That's what a guy like him wants, anyway," Juliana said, glaring at the dark TV. "If Val or I speak out about this, then he gets even more publicity. Your dad's right; the best thing to do is completely ignore it."

Renata and I both huffed, but for different reasons. My vindictive stepsister was mad that she couldn't make the jerk suffer. I just didn't believe this was going to blow over as easily as they seemed to think it would. But I was completely biased on the issue, so hopefully I was wrong. Only time would tell. The situation was completely out of my control.

My anger dissipated as defeat sunk in, and I suddenly felt drained. "You know what? It's been a long day, and it's getting late. I'm going to go to bed."

Juliana looked into my eyes, trying to judge my mental state to figure out what her next move should be. I was tempted to ask her to take me to her house for the night so that I wouldn't have to stew in my own thoughts alone this evening. But I knew I would have to face her, and she'd want to talk about this. She would also revisit this mornings conversation and want to talk about the things I had said in that video. She already made me promise I would discuss it with her but I wasn't ready for that. Especially not now.

I walked her to the front door, and though I didn't ask her to take me home with her, I did make the opposite offer. "If you want, you could stay, since you're coming back tomorrow morning anyway."

She raised an eyebrow. "Stay... where... exactly?"

My lips twitched. "The guest room. Or the couch. My father would flip if you stayed in my room."

She thought about it but shook her head. "I better not. He seems to hate me a little less at the moment. Best not push my luck, because if I stayed, I would definitely find my way into your room before morning."

She opened her mouth to say something else and then thought better of it. Perhaps it was an invitation to come to her place instead that I was half praying for and half dreading. Instead, she gave me a small smile and shook her head again. "It's okay. I'll just come back in the morning."

"You sure?"

She nodded. "You don't have to wait on me to exchange gifts, but you do have to save me some of your sopaipillas."

My grin turned sincere. "No promises. If you arrive late, I'll eat them all myself."

She chuckled and then dropped a soft, sweet kiss to my lips. "You going to be okay?"

I let out a sigh. "Yeah. I guess. It's not the end of the world."

"That's my girl." Her proud smile was tinged with sadness. "I love you, Val. I'm so sorry you have to go through this with me."

"You're worth it," I promised, leaning forward to instigate another kiss.

 

Chapter Text

Christmas morning, I was startled awake when my bedroom door flew open and the most excited scream came from the grumpiest Miller. "Get up," Eva said.

I rolled over with a groan, refusing to look at the clock because it was still dark, so whatever time it was, I didn't want to know. "What?" I moaned. "What's wrong now?"

"Nothing's wrong. It's Christmas. Get up, lazy, and come downstairs."

"Seriously?" What was wrong with this girl? "We aren't five anymore. Can't we do this in an hour or two?"

She yanked the covers off me and threw them on the floor. "Get up."

She was gone before I finished rubbing the sleep from my eyes. I wanted to stay in bed, but the wench had deprived me of my covers, which was unacceptable.

Eva's voice hollered from across the house. "COME ON, VALENTINA!"

"I'm coming, you deranged psycho!" I yelled back as I forced myself out of bed.

"It's still bloody dark," I muttered to myself as I put on my robe and slippers.

This was not how Christmases had worked for me in the past. Before my Granpa and Abuela passed, Mama and I would go over to their house and stay up late, laughing and celebrating with loud music, dancing, games, and food. We'd party until we dropped on a couch somewhere, and then we'd all sleep in late Christmas Day. When we finally did get up, we'd turn on the Christmas carols and sing along while we made a breakfast feast that could feed an army. After they both died, the only thing that changed was that Mama and I could pass out in our own beds once we were too tired to keep our eyes open any longer.

I was glad to see I wasn't the only zombie in the crowd. Eva was the only one completely bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Everyone else looked half dead. But they seemed in good spirits, so I smiled along with the rest of them and told myself I would go back to bed soon. "You guys could have warned me about Buddy the freaking Christmas Elf!" I said through a yawn as I made my way down into the family room. "I can't remember the last time I was up before eleven o'clock on Christmas morning."

Dad's chuckle was one of understanding, it may have been over a decade ago, but he'd been through plenty of Carvajal family Christmases. He shot me a small, knowing smile and hugged me before I claimed my spot on the couch. "Merry Christmas, baby girl."

There was a little extra emotion in the greeting, so I knew Dad was also feeling a little sentimental this year. "You too."

"All right, now that Valentina's finally here..." Eva was in such a good mood that she flashed me a gorgeous smile. A real one. Not one of her evil smirks but a genuine, excited grin. "Dad, open mine first, before we all dig in!"

She ran over to the Christmas tree and began sorting through the mound of packages, looking for a specific one.

I had never seen so many presents in one place before. The Miller family managed to single-handedly boost the economy between Black Friday and Christmas. Not that I thought they were selfish. After all, there were so many presents because they all enjoyed giving gifts and had been generous in their shopping. I had just been raised in very different circumstances and wasn't very good at handling anything excessive. This family was all about excess.

Eva found what she was looking for and handed Dad a book-size package with a tiny squeal of excitement, then stood there anxiously waiting for him to open it. Renata groaned and scowled at both Eva and me. "You both still suck."

"Renata!" Lucia scolded with a laugh in her voice.

Renata's glare turned into a pout as she looked at Dad. "I got you a stupid bottle of cologne. Eva wins. Even Val's briefcase is better, and she didn't even know there was a competition."

Dad and Lucia both burst into laughter. Clearly, this rivalry was a well-known family tradition.

Dad needed no other prompting to tear the wrapping from the gift. His face lit up with delight at first, but his brow quickly fell in confusion. "I didn't think Janice Bishop had a new book coming out for another few months."

Eva puffed up her chest. Her smile grew to something that could rival one of Juliana's. "She doesn't."

Dad examined the book a little more closely, and his eyebrows flew up when he read the small type at the bottom of the book that the publisher had printed on the front cover labelling it as an advanced reader copy. "This is the one that isn't out yet?" he asked, stunned. "How did you...?"

When he looked up, Eva grinned again. "Val helped me get it."

Renata scoffed, and I rolled my eyes when Dad turned his surprised eyes on me. "You helped Eva with this for me?"

"In a manor of speaking."

Eva winked at me as if we were co-conspirators. It was so strange. "You love it, though, right, Dad?" Eva asked.

He laughed and opened his arms for Eva to fall into. "Of course I love it! This is fantastic. And now, because I have the whole week off, I can actually sit down and read it without falling asleep after five minutes. Thank you, honey." He hugged her again and then turned to me. His face clouded over with emotion. "Thank you, Valentina."

"I really can't take credit. It was all Eva," I said, causing Renata to scoff again and Eva to finally smirk. "I didn't even know you liked to read. You never mentioned it."

Dad shrugged, and a tiny layer of pink rose on his cheeks. "I'm not quite the aficionado that you are, but I enjoy a good book when I have the time. Janice Bishop is excellent." He held up the book so that I could see the cover. "She weaves fascinating mysteries, and her knack for detail is unparalleled. You should try them sometime. I know they aren't your usual read, but they're good. I've got a couple lying around the house somewhere. Murder in Motown is even being made into a movie right now. It comes out this March, I think."

I nodded. "I think I've seen the preview. I'll check it out, and maybe I can get us some press passes to see the movie early, if you'd like that."

Dad's face lit up again. "Really? You'd take your old man to one of your special events?"

There was so much pleasure oozing from his voice that I felt bad I hadn't offered to take him to a screening before. I hadn't thought he'd care, but he was almost as giddy as a true fanboy. Eva and Renata were right about him. And Eva definitely earned her victory in the gift-giving competition this year. "Sure," I said, shrugging off the slight awkwardness between us. "If you want to."

Dad nodded. "I'd like that."

"Okay, okay, okay, awesome," Renata cut in. "Father-daughter bonding is great and all, but the rest of us want presents now, or I'm going back to bed."

Dad laughed and nodded his head toward the tree, which had a mound of presents stacked beneath it. Renata and Eva both dashed for the pile of gifts and began tossing them to their respective recipients. Presents I had no clue were coming my way began to pile up around me. There were multiple gifts from each of them to me, apparently Eva had been lying when she said she hadn't planned to get me a gift, and there were also a bunch from my extended family.

My grandparents and my uncle's family had shipped a ton of gifts down to us after I asked to cancel our meeting this year. I felt bad for asking them to wait, but I didn't know how my sudden fame would go, and I didn't want my cousins exposed to it. My youngest cousin, Christopher, was only eight. He didn't need to be hounded by paparazzi. Apparently, they hadn't held any resentment against me for cancelling their Christmas plans, because there were gifts from all of them with my name on them. It was more gifts than I had ever received at one time in my entire life. Maybe more than I had received combined my entire life.

For me, growing up, Christmas had always been about baby Jesus and the food. I usually got two gifts. One from Mama, and one from Granpa and Abuela. After they both passed, there were two gifts beneath the tree every year. One from me to Mama, and one from her to me. It was small, intimate, and familiar.

Christmas with the Millers felt like the opposite. No one had lit a candle, said a prayer, read the Christmas story from the Bible, attended a mass, or set out a nativity. I wondered if Eva and Renata even knew Christmas was about the birth of Christ. I didn't hold it against them, I knew they weren't religious, it just gave the holiday a completely different feel.

Unable to dig into my gifts the way they all were, I sat back watching them and just took in the moment. It wasn't bad. I just needed to come to terms with the differences and accept the loss of my former life.

Everyone was laughing, smiling, and fawning over their gifts. There were hugs and kisses, along with teasing and banter. It was moving, and yet, none of it was me. It was nothing like any Christmas I had ever had. These people were a family, but somehow, right then, they didn't feel like my family. Logically, I knew that they were, and I'd been getting better at feeling as if I belonged, but at that moment, I felt like an outsider. And I really missed my mom. I missed Abuela and Granpa. I missed my family and my old life.

"Valentina... you aren't opening your gifts," Lucia said, bringing the room to a halt.

All eyes turned to me and my pile of unopened presents. I couldn't speak around the lump in my throat, so I just shook my head. Dad's head snapped up. "Sweetheart, are you okay?"

My eyes glossed over, and Lucia jumped up to bring me a tissue. Everyone waited while I composed myself. "I'm sorry," I whispered. I couldn't meet their expectant gazes. "I'm fine."

"Sweetie, you don't look fine," Dad said. "You're pale."

"I'm okay. It's nothing."

"It's not nothing, Valentina," Lucia insisted. "Please tell us what's wrong."

She waited expectantly. As did my father. Renata looked concerned, and Eva looked at my unopened presents and then at me as if I were nuts.

"I'm sorry. It's nothing. I was still in and out of consciousness last Christmas, so this is the first one without..." Without Mama. I couldn't say it out loud. "Sorry. I didn't expect it to be so hard."

I totally killed the happy mood, but Renata immediately jumped to the rescue. "Well, it won't be different for long. Don't think I forgot about the sopaipillas you promised to make for me."

I barked out a surprised laugh that bordered on hysterical because of the emotions I was struggling with and threw my arms around Renata. I was eternally grateful for the kindred spirit I had found in my stepsister. Somehow, she always understood me and knew exactly what to do or say to make me feel better or break the tension that I constantly created.

At my whispered thanks, she squeezed me tightly back. I sunk into her embrace and let out a breath. I could get through this. I didn't have Mama, but I had Renata. And I had Juliana. Or, I would in a few hours, when she finally woke up.

After we broke apart, I felt much better. I took a deep breath and got a hold of myself. "Sopaipillas do sound good. Maybe I'll go start those."

"Don't you want to open your presents first?" Renata asked. "There's one in there I'm dying for you to see."

Her excitement was contagious, and I finally smiled. "Whatever it is, I'm sure it can't top the tickets you got me to Fantasy Con for my birthday."

"True. That was pretty epic."

"So is this," Eva said, tossing me a box. "You should open it."

I had a feeling, judging by the size, shape, and weight of the box, that I knew what was inside it. Eva's amused smirk confirmed it.

"Well, there's not much need for me to open it, is there?" I shook it and heard the faint sounds of material sliding around inside. "The whole world already knows what's in here."

"Whatever." Eva took the present back with a roll of her eyes. "It's not really for you, anyway. I should have put Juliana's name on it."

"Evangelina!" Dad sputtered.

Renata laughed as she tossed a similar-size box to her sister. "I did put Juliana's name on mine."

Dad groaned. "You're both going to put me in an early grave. You do not need to be encouraging that young woman."

"Dad, relax," Renata said. "We're just giving Val a hard time. And you don't have to worry. Juliana is a good girl. Plus, Valentina has her so whipped she'd probably take the Abstinence Challenge for her if she asked her to."

"Which she probably would," Eva added.

I stuck my tongue out at her and nearly fainted when she returned the gesture. Dad was just as surprised by the playful banter as I was. I think that's the only reason he let the subject drop without another lecture on modesty and self-respect like the dozen he'd spouted off since he saw the Erik Clarke video. He simply eyed both gift boxes with a grimace and said, "The Abstinence Challenge is not a bad idea. I think you should all take it. And please, Valentina, do not open those in front of me!" He shuddered.

I blushed, but Eva, Renata, and even Lucia all broke into fits of giggles. Torturing Dad was one of their favourite pastimes. The poor man was always so outnumbered.

"Hey, I wonder which one she'll like better," Renata said suddenly. A hopeful look bloomed on her face. "The blue is killing it online. I bet I still have a chance of winning with at least one person."

"No way. Juliana was not part of the competition!" Eva argued immediately.

Renata's grin doubled. "Well, she is now, and I am so going to win!"

"That doesn't count. I didn't even pick the pink one. Erik did. I picked out the blue one."

"But you didn't buy the blue one. I did. You're giving her the pink."

Eva scoffed.

"I'm so asking her," Renata said, whipping out her phone and presumably sending Juliana a text about which lingerie outfit she liked better. After she hit send, she gave Eva a smug smile. "You know she's going to say the blue, and when she does, I so win her. And I won Mom, too, which means I win overall!"

"You do not. Mom said she liked ours equally, and Val hasn't even opened hers yet. Don't be a sore loser."

Dad and Lucia laughed at the twins, and again, I got the feeling that this argument was an annual occurrence. I couldn't believe they were getting so worked up over who was the better gift giver. It was amusing to watch them, though, so I joined Dad and Lucia with the laughter until something else occurred to me. "Hey, wait. What do you mean the blue is killing it online? Did you seriously look up that stupid poll on Erik Clarke's website?"

The twins stopped arguing and both shrugged with chagrin. "We were curious," Eva said defensively.

Renata cringed and suddenly blurted, "I totally voted for the blue. I'm sorry! I couldn't resist!"

My mouth fell open. "You traitor!" The insult was hardly harsh when I couldn't stop myself from laughing.

"Oh come on, you know you planned to look eventually," Eva said. "And you are going to freak when you see how big of a response it's getting. It's huge. Erik Clarke's video has over 34 million views, and people are going crazy over it. You're gonna have to do it."

"What?"

"It's turned into some kind of cause or something," Renata said. "People love the idea of you taking a stand and saying that you don't have to be perfect to be beautiful."

When my jaw fell slack again, it wasn't out of play this time. "Seriously?"

Lucia smiled proudly at me, as if I had something to do with it. "There are only a handful of people in the world who really fit the media's idea of beautiful, Valentina. With over seven billion people in the world, that's a lot of imperfect people. Plenty of them would love to see someone stand up for them."

I scoffed. "Yeah, I'm one of them."

Lucia smiled, as if she understood, but some of the light left her eyes.

In the sudden quiet that fell on the room, Renata's phone chimed. When she read her incoming text, her eyes bulged, and she slapped a hand over her mouth to cover a laugh. Eva snatched the phone from her hand, read the text, and smirked.

I groaned internally, imagining all the different answers Juliana could have given to Renata's question. The possibilities were endless. Before I could ask, Lucia snaked the phone from Eva's fingers. Like Renata, her eyes got really wide. "Well." She slapped a hand over her cheek, as if to cover a blush. "I think it's probably safe to say you girls tie for Juliana's gift this year."

The curiosity was killing me, so I took the phone. Renata had texted, 'Quick question. You must answer truthfully. It's life or death. Blue or pink?'

Juliana's response was, 'I couldn't possibly answer such an important question based on colour alone. Nor could such a decision be made quickly. I'll need to see them in action, and I'll need to be able to take my time studying them in a very intimate, hands-on fashion in order to form a true opinion. Convince Val to model them both for me, and I will give you the truthful life-or-death answer you seek.'

My face-palm prompted my Dad to read the text, too. The phone was in his hand before I realised it was gone, and the growl that escaped him had me half convinced he'd turn into a wolf on the next full moon.

"Oh, relax, Leon," Lucia said, swiping the phone from his hand before he crushed it, and handing it back to Renata. "It wasn't that bad. How did you expect her to respond?"

"How about with a little respect for my daughter?" Dad snapped. "Valentina is too good for that arrogant girl."

The insult had me seeing red, but surprisingly, Lucia beat me to Juliana's defence. "Oh, please. She may be a little arrogant, which is hardly surprising considering her upbringing, but you know that she respects Valentina every bit as much as you respect me."

Dad scoffed. "I would never say something so..."

Lucia cut him off. "Would you like me to open up my texts and read you the conversation we had a couple weeks ago when you had to work late and cancel our dinner plans?"

"Lucia," Dad gasped, flushing red.

To my horror, the colour was from an embarrassed blush and not anger. GROSS.

Eva and Renata agreed with me and started squealing and screeching in mutual disgust. "I think it's time to make sopaipillas," I muttered, rising from the couch as quickly as I could.

"Good call," Renata agreed, escaping the room before I could even make it to the bottom of the stairs.

Eva was right on her tail. "I'll help, too." She shuddered as she ran out of the room. "Ugh."

Unfortunately, I couldn't move as fast, so I had to hear the rest of their argument.

"She is a normal twenty-two-year-old woman with a healthy sexual interest in the woman she loves. There's nothing wrong with that. You were that age once. You remember what it was like."

"Yeah, I do!" Dad roared. "I was just as arrogant she is. I thought I was infallible, too! And look what happened! I was irresponsible. I made the biggest mistake of my life because of my healthy sexual interests, and I have regretted it for the last twenty years! I know Valentina can't get pregnant while dating that girl, which I am still having a hard time processing! But if she gives herself physically, she'll end up getting hurt. The consequences will be too much for her. Look at all the therapy she needed after the accident and her mother's death, we can't imagine how devastated she'll be when that woman decides she's bored with her and leaves!"

Ouch. It wasn't really surprising anymore whenever my father accidentally reminded me that he considered me a mistake that he regretted, but it never failed to hurt. It also hurt that he couldn't accept Juliana or be happy for me. I continued my slow ascent up the few family room stairs, ignoring his comment because it wasn't worth getting involved. He was caught up in his argument with Lucia and hadn't even realised he'd hurt my feelings. Pointing it out might make him feel bad, but it wouldn't keep him from accidentally doing it again in the future. That would be kind of hard, considering he genuinely regretted the fact that I existed, and would never accept my relationship with Juliana.

"Leon, I am so tired of this argument, and I'm sure that Valentina is even more so. You are being completely irrational when it comes to that young woman. Don't punish Juliana because Valentina fell in love with her. Although Juliana and Valentina have just started their relationship, they are sure of their feelings. You know how level headed, responsible, and modest your daughter is, those girls are not just experimenting. They are not you and Elena. They love each other in a way I've never seen before in two people so young."

Dad barked out a disbelieving laugh. "You honestly believe she loves Valentina? A girl like that? With her looks, and her money, and her fame, you really think she's going to settle down at twenty-two and remain faithful to Valentina forever? She's not the type. Valentina said it herself, she's already been with too many women to count."

I reached the top of the stairs and made my way into the kitchen where Eva and Renata were sitting on barstools, waiting for me. They met my grimace with matching awkward smiles. I couldn't force one in return with my father's voice still wafting through the house.

"She's a shiny new toy to her right now," Dad continued. "Valentina is a wonderful girl who makes her feel special. She may fancy herself in love with her at the moment, but it will never last. Heartache and permanent consequences are all she's going to get from that relationship. I know what it's like to have to live with that, Lucia. I don't want that for her."

Okay, that pissed me off, I opened the fridge with too much force, causing all the jars in the door to clank against one another. "That's ironic," I snapped. "Considering he already gave me a life of heartache and permanent consequences!"

As I started slamming ingredients on to the counter, Eva sighed. "Well, I will say one thing, Val, I certainly don't blame you. If a someone like Juliana Valdés ever fancied themselves in love with me, you bet your ass I would risk permanent consequences. Hell, I'd beg for them!"

Renata and I both laughed, but on the inside, I was stunned. Who would have ever thought that Eva would be the one to come to my rescue with a good icebreaker?

 

 

Chapter Text

Juliana showed up not long after Dad and Lucia's argument. I imagined it was just enough time to shower and make herself presentable after receiving Renata's earlier text, which I assumed woke her up. When she buzzed the gate, I had just set the dough for the sopaipillas aside to rise for an hour and gone back to bed with Dad's new book.

The twins had been right about Dad's excitement over the advanced copy. It was by far his favourite Christmas gift. I was still mulling over his reaction. He'd gotten all giddy over it, the way I do about my favourite books. It was a new side to my father that I had never seen before, and it comforted me in a way I never thought would be possible. To be able to connect with my dad over my biggest passion felt like a godsend for our feeble relationship.

When the doorbell rang, I only had a couple more pages to the end of the chapter and didn't want to get up. Eva must have answered the door, because my dad and Lucia had disappeared into their room right after their argument, whether to fight some more or make up, I did not want to know, and Renata had gone back to sleep once she realised how long the sopaipillas were going to take.

Juliana wandered into my room just as I flipped to the last page in the chapter. She immediately lay down on my bed, snuggling up next to me as if she liked the idea of falling back to sleep. Plucking the book from my hands, she flipped it to the back and scanned the summary. "Serial killers, huh? That's new."

I nodded. "Apparently, Janice Bishop is my dad's favourite."

"Janice Bishop... that name sounds familiar."

I took the book back and reached over Juliana to place it on the bedside table. She caught me in her arms when I tried to lie back down and pulled me against her chest. I happily nestled in. "She's pretty big-time in the crime thriller genre," I explained. "Got several books turned into movies. Dad said they're filming another one right now. Murder in Motown?"

Juliana's eyes lit up with recognition. "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. My friend Brett is working on that one. Said it's a good script."

"Your friend Brett?" Eva asked, appearing in my bedroom doorway. "As in... Brett Kessler?" She covered a yawn and plopped down in my desk chair. "He's hot. If you're not going to hook me up with Logan Lerman, Brett Kessler would be an acceptable alternative."

Juliana laughed, but I was still stuck on the fact that Eva was choosing to hang out with us, and that Renata wasn't even present. What was going on here? Not that I was complaining, but it was as if she had finally let go of whatever resentment she'd held for me since the moment she learned I existed. That, or she was just really bored because it was the holiday, and she was stuck at home with the family. It was either hang out with us or watch A Christmas Story or James Bond marathons.

"I told you, I don't know Logan," Juliana said. "I could set you up with Brett, but your father would probably kill me for it, seeing as how he's twenty-five and you're seventeen."

Eva frowned as she swivelled from side to side in my desk chair. "Well, what good are you, then?"

Juliana laughed again. "I'll tell you what. If your parents okay it, you and Reni can come with Val and me to my agency's New Year's Eve party. It's usually huge and A-list only. That way, you can ogle the hotties as much as you want, I can keep an eye on you, and your father doesn't murder me."

Eva stiffened and narrowed her gaze on Juliana. "Are you serious?"

"Sure. Why not? Val would probably appreciate the company."

I didn't know how much I would appreciate Eva's company, but if she remained as tolerable as she'd been the last two days, it wouldn't be so bad, and I'd definitely like having Renata there.

"Seriously, though, your parents would have to agree, and your dad basically hates me, my lifestyle, and pretty much everything I stand for, so he'll probably be a hard sell."

Eva chewed on her bottom lip as she considered this. "Mom will be super easy, though. I'll start with her, and we can work on him together. I'm sure she'll help. You should have seen her rip into Dad on your behalf this morning."

Juliana jerked in surprise and looked to me for an answer.

"It was the usual," I said. "Dad was being judgy, stubborn, and unreasonable. He thinks I'm just a shiny new toy to you, and as soon as I lose my appeal, you'll go back to all your women, leaving me with nothing but a long life of heartache and permanent consequences."

Juliana sighed. "Val, it doesn't matter. Even if he never gets it, you and I know that's not what this is."

"I know." I snuggled up against her again. Not that I could get any closer, but I liked making myself comfortable in her arms. She was perfect for snuggling against. "I didn't burst into tears this time when he called me a mistake that he's regretted for the last twenty years. I didn't even bother to argue with him or tell him that he'd hurt my feelings. There's no point. I think that's why Lucia lit into him so bad."

Eva laughed. "I think she's sick of his whining. We're all getting tired of it. He's just being stubborn. Dad can never admit it when he's wrong, but he is wrong about you."

Juliana and I were both stunned speechless at Eva's compliment. Then she smirked and said, "I don't know what his problem is. It's obvious to the rest of us that Valentina has you completely whipped for life."

After a heartbeat of surprise, Juliana laughed. "That is very true," she admitted with a sorry shake of her head. "This woman has completely destroyed my bad-girl player reputation I worked so hard to build for myself." She squeezed me and kissed my temple. "Thanks a lot, Val."

The bell on the front gate rang, halting our conversation before I could get out a good snarky reply. Eva and I frowned at one another. "Is Jason coming over?" I asked.

She shook her head. "Abby and her dads?"

"No. Not that we'd planned."

"Family?" Juliana asked curiously.

Eva and I both shook our heads. "Our grandparents and uncle's family all stayed up north. They're not coming down until spring break. We don't have any other family in Southern California."

"Who would show up on Christmas Day without calling?" Eva asked.

Across the empty house, we heard Dad's deep voice answer the intercom. "Hello?"

"I have a delivery for Valentina Carvajal."

"On Christmas?" Eva asked, voicing my exact thoughts.

I tried to remember if I had books coming from a publisher or something, but those wouldn't come on Christmas. My stomach fluttered with excitement and anxiety, mostly anxiety, as Juliana climbed off my bed and helped me up. She hadn't brought a Christmas gift with her that I noticed, and she'd talked about nothing but how much I would love my gift all week. She's not one to think small. If it was something that had to be specially delivered on Christmas Day, the possibilities were endless. "What did you do?"

She seemed genuinely surprised by the accusation. "Me? I didn't do this." She smirked. "If we were at Mateo's house, that'd be a different story. But I left your present at home because you've been so stressed about exchanging gifts, I figured I would wait until you were ready."

That was incredibly sweet of her. If I weren't going crazy with curiosity right now, I would kiss her for being so thoughtful and understanding. Instead, I laced my hand through hers and headed for the front door. "Well, if you didn't do it, what could it be?"

Renata and Lucia were up now, too, and we all followed Dad outside after he opened the gate for the delivery guy, equally as curious about my unexpected arrival.

The truck that pulled into the driveway was a dark SUV with a custom paint job advertising a twenty-four/seven courier service. By the time I reached the vehicle, the delivery guy had unloaded six boxes from his trunk, and it looked like he had at least that many more to go.

The delivery guy was a hefty man probably close to forty years old. When he saw me, his face lit up with recognition, and he gave me a friendly smile. He set the box in his arms down next to the rest of the stack on the driveway and pulled a clipboard from the front seat of his car. "Miss Carvajal, if I could just get your signature?"

"Yeah, sure." I took the offered pen and scribbled my name on a line at the bottom of a delivery slip. "What is all this?"

The man took the clipboard back and tore off a carbon copy of the delivery slip. When he handed it back to me, there was a slight blush in his cheeks. He glanced quickly at Juliana and then cleared his throat. "It's, uh, from that lingerie store. The... uh... one from your video."

"It's what?" I blanched.

I watched the guy unload another box from the trunk of his car. There had to be over a dozen total. "Why are they here? Who would send this to me?"

The deliveryman set the box down and offered an apologetic shrug. "Sorry. I just got paid to pick it up from the store and bring it here. I don't know the details."

My dad stepped up to my side, glaring down at the boxes as if he could scare them away. "The store sent them to her?"

The man nodded as he reached into his trunk for the last box. "Yeah. It wasn't a private third party. At least, I don't think so. The company footed the bill for the delivery. Oh, and they wanted me to give you this, too..." He grabbed a red envelope the size of a Christmas card out of the front seat and handed it over with a grin. "Seems to me it's a Christmas gift. I don't usually work holidays, but the store manager called me last night and offered me triple my normal rate if I would deliver it today."

I let out a long groan, scrubbing a hand over my flaming face. The lingerie store was sending me Christmas presents now? As if the ones Eva and Renata got me weren't enough? "This is crazy."

"Crazy awesome," Eva said, picking up one of the boxes and giving it a shake. "Do you know how much this stuff costs? They must have given you the whole store. Can we open it? Whatever you don't want, I'm totally claiming right now."

The blood drained from my dad's face, but before he could say anything, Lucia clapped her hands and added a giddy, "Oh, me too! I hope there's some stuff in there my size."

Juliana, who had a box of her own in her hands and looked as if she was considering opening it, whirled on Eva and Lucia. "Hold on now; no one get too excited yet."

Yeah, I thought. Because I'm sending everything back.

Juliana and I weren't exactly on the same page. She shot Eva and Lucia a wicked smile and a wink and said, "I get first dibs on Val's behalf. And maybe there'll be something in here for me too."

Renata burst into laughter.

Choking on mortification, my jaw fell open, and I gawked at the excited gleam in my girlfriend's eyes as she pulled her keys from her pocket and used them to break through the tape on the box she was holding. "Juliana!" I hissed.

She ignored me. "You ladies can have whatever's left after we go through it."

"Oh my gosh, JULIANA! You are not opening that!"

She finally looked in my direction, wearing a mask of innocence. I was not buying it for anything. No way. I thrust a finger at her. "Stop. No one is going through that, because I'm sending it all back."

I turned to the deliveryman, who was still standing there with pink cheeks. "Is there any way you can take this all back? Give the store my warmest regards and tell them thanks but no thanks?"

"I... well, um..." The man rubbed the back of his neck, seeming surprised and unprepared for the question.

Juliana stepped over to him before he could answer. "That won't be necessary." She slipped what looked like a freaking hundred-dollar bill into the man's hand. "Thank you for bringing this over. You can take off now. We'll sort the details ourselves. Have a Merry Christmas."

The man blinked at the cash in his hand, gaped at Juliana, glanced at me, looked back at Juliana, looked back at me...

Juliana was crazy if she thought we were going to look through this mound of lingerie together, but she did have a point in that it was Christmas and this guy should be home with his family instead of dealing with my drama. Sighing, I forced a smile to the man. "She's right. We'll take care of this. Thank you. Go home to your family, and have a wonderful Christmas."

He didn't waste any time. "You too! Merry Christmas!"

After the courier was gone, everyone grabbed a box or two and brought them into the living room. It took two trips to get them all inside. I sat down on the couch and just stared at the pile of boxes, still stunned by what had just happened.

Juliana sat down beside me and took my hand in hers. "I'm sorry, I should have warned you. This sort of thing is common for celebrities."

I slanted her a dry look. "People send you lingerie often?"

Her lips twitched. "Yeah, it's not often lingerie, but free stuff, yeah. People send their products, hoping I'll wear them or endorse them."

"But underwear?" my dad grumbled. He was still glaring at all the boxes. "Lingerie? How could they possibly think this is appropriate?"

Juliana shrugged, as if receiving a roomful of lingerie was the most normal thing in the world. "Intentionally or not, Valentina gave their store a lot of free publicity. They're going to make a lot of money from this. Of course they want to send her their gratitude. That's all this is."

Dad grunted. He continued to frown, but the rage in his eyes died.

"It's just like when publishers and studios send her books and movies for review," Renata said.

"Exactly," Juliana agreed. "With celebrities, we get a lot of clothing, accessories, skin care products... things you can be seen with."

"Sweet!" Renata said. "Bring on the freebies."

Eva opened a box and peeked inside. "Nice." Thankfully, she didn't pull out whatever was tucked away, but she did give a low whistle. After closing the lid, she smirked at me. "Next time you get caught on camera, you should say how much you love Louis Vuitton."

Juliana chuckled. I rolled my eyes. Hopefully, there wouldn't be another next time like the Erik Clarke debacle.

"Open the card," Renata demanded.

She looked so curious she was about to tear the envelope from my hands and do it herself. I had completely forgotten about it. Glancing around the room at all the curious eyes, I supposed I had no reason not to. I took a deep breath and braced myself for whatever explanation it contained.

As if knowing I needed the support, Juliana slipped her arm around me. I didn't necessarily want to read this with the whole family watching, but I knew they'd never leave me alone if I didn't. After a quick scan of the contents, my jaw dropped again. "It's from the owner of the company."

"What did he say?" Lucia asked, sounding as excitedly curious as Renata had.

I read the note aloud.

Dear Miss Carvajal,

Season's Greetings from all of us at Lindon's Lingerie Boutique! I was so moved by your interview with Erik Clarke that I wished to send my sincerest compliments and this small token of appreciation. You are a truly beautiful woman who would only enhance the sex appeal of anything Lindon's has to offer. I would be proud to have you representing my products. It would be my honour to have you join the team and model my upcoming spring line. I am prepared to offer you a generous contract. Please consider it.

With Sincerest Regards,

William C. Lindon

Founder and CEO of Lindon's Lingerie Boutique

I was grateful for Juliana's arm around me, because I was so stunned I felt light-headed. Her touch was the only thing keeping me sane at the moment. There was a collective gasp around the room, and my poor father looked as if he were having an aneurysm.

Eva was the first to break the silence. "Are you freaking kidding me? They want you to be a Lindon's model?"

The disbelief in her voice would have been completely insulting if I didn't feel the exact same way.

"No. Absolutely not," Dad insisted.

I wasn't the least bit annoyed that he was trying to make decisions for me since I agreed with him one hundred percent. No freaking way was I going to do it.

"Hang on, Leon," Lucia said. She sounded ecstatic. "Don't just dismiss this so easily."

Dad and I both gaped at Lucia. She shrugged and looked at me with imploring eyes. "Do you know what kind of an opportunity this is for you?"

"I don't care what kind of opportunity it is," Dad roared, all his earlier rage back with a renewed vengeance. "My daughter is not going to parade around in her underwear in front of the entire world!"

"Leon, be reasonable!" I was shocked when Lucia raised her voice at him again, for the second time today. She was not usually so confrontational. But she was also a professional model, and I could imagine this job had major significance in her eyes. "Being a Lindon's model is one of the most coveted gigs anyone could land. I could only dream of getting a chance like that. It's a respectable job that would open all kinds of doors for her, and it would pay enough to give her financial stability, despite all of her medical needs."

When Dad's face turned a scary shade of purple, I joined the argument before he could have a heart attack. "It doesn't matter, because I'm not doing it."

Dad let out a breath of relief, but Lucia shook her head emphatically. "Valentina, you really should consider it."

"I'm sure it's a great opportunity, Lucia, but I wouldn't even feel comfortable wearing any of that stuff privately. There's no way I'm going to model it."

"But sweetheart, think about what it could mean. This is something this world desperately needs. You could do so much good for so many people by taking this job."

So Lucia had jumped on the bandwagon with the online commentators. Not a big surprise, I guess. Being a model, she'd gotten a lot of criticism over the years, and had, at one point, nearly destroyed herself trying to mould herself into the world's idea of perfection.

I agreed that the world could use a few models that were more average looking, but I wasn't average looking. Beneath my clothes, my body was covered with hideous, angry scars. They were raised, blotchy, discoloured, and pulled my skin in awkward directions. It wasn't beautiful. I didn't care how many people tried to tell me otherwise.

None of them meant it, anyway. It was just the popular or polite thing to say. It was an idealistic fad at the moment, but it wasn't sincere. And in Lindon's Lingerie Boutique's case, it was worse than that.

"This job offer wasn't sincere," I said, shaking my head. "It's damage control because I badmouthed the store for only using perfect models. They probably already have a handful of feminist groups gearing up to sue them. Offering me this job is the easiest way to smooth that over. Not to mention the publicity they'd gain from it. It's nothing but a gimmick. A gimmick that exploits me and my physical condition."

Lucia sighed. "Just because it's a good opportunity for them doesn't mean it's not a worthy cause. If the lingerie is uncomfortable for you, there are plenty of other, more modest, ways to accomplish the same thing. Swimsuits, for example. Those aren't suggestive the same way lingerie is."

I wasn't sure how modelling bikinis was much better than lingerie, but I didn't bother to argue.

"I'm sorry, I just can't. I don't want to show the world my body. I hate my body. There's no way I could do it."

The light finally left Lucia's eyes, and she nodded her acceptance. She looked disappointed, but she seemed to understand. I was surprised at how much I hated to let her down. I wished I could be the courageous hero she wanted and stand up to a world of judgmental, shallow people, but there was just no way I could do it. I was nowhere near brave enough or strong enough.

"That was a dumb statement for you to make," Juliana said suddenly, squeezing my hand. "You look perfect."

Though she wasn't trying to make a joke, I didn't think, I snorted a laugh. Juliana grunted and nearly growled her next words like a warning. "Valentina, I wasn't trying to be funny. I was complimenting you."

"Sorry?"

I gave her a sheepish smile, still having a hard time containing my giggles, and she sighed. "You are so unromantic."

"Unromantic?" I teased. "Or just not cheesy?"

Juliana scoffed. "I am not cheesy."

That opinion was worth a decent argument, but now wasn't the time, and despite the corny compliment, Juliana had succeeded in cheering me up, because cheesy or not, she meant it. Knowing there was at least one person who loved me exactly the way I was went a long way to protect my damaged soul. Making me laugh never hurt, either.

"If you say so." Pecking her cheek with a playful kiss and giggling at the irritated frown I got in response, I turned my attention back to my family and the room full of lingerie boxes. "Anyway... let's just... figure out what to do with all of these and forget this happened. We have to leave for the movie in a while."

Juliana squeezed me tight. "Just set them aside for now. I can have Matty help me bring them back to my place tomorrow. I have double closets in my master suite, so we can just put it all in your closet for now, and you can go through it later. Or better yet..." She grinned wolfishly at me. "You and I can go through it together, and you can try out the modelling thing with a private audience of one before deciding how to answer Lindon's offer."

I wasn't sure what was more shocking, that Juliana was asking for a sexy underwear show in front of my entire family, that she thought I might actually consider Lindon's offer, or that she already considered the extra closet in her bedroom mine.

"Juliana! Oh my gosh! No! I'm not going to model any of this stuff for you, and there is nothing to decide. I'm not taking that job!"

When Juliana smiled triumphantly, I knew I'd been had. And she'd gotten me good. I totally believed she was serious that time. Curse her and her brilliant acting skills. "You idiot!" I swatted her arm, and she burst into laughter. "That's not funny. I thought you were serious!"

"And the Oscar goes to..." she laughed.

"And you say I'm a brat."

"You are. And you were being a brat first. It was my turn."

The woman had a point. And when I realised that, a smile cracked through my scowl. "Okay. Fine. I was. But now we're even."

Juliana's face lit up brighter than the sun, and she pulled my lips to hers for a quick kiss. "I love you, woman."

Someone in the room, my guess was Lucia, sighed, and I flushed all the way from the top of my head to the tips of my toes when I remembered we had an audience. Dad was watching Juliana with hawk eyes that promised death if she ever stepped out of line, but at least he wasn't shouting and kicking her out. "Sorry," I muttered, stealing his attention. "So um, yeah, I'm just gonna go shower and get dressed." I scowled at Juliana. "Behave! Which means no opening all this junk and throwing it all over the place. Please."

 

Chapter Text

Juliana POV

Val and I made it to the theatre before her family. The plan was to watch the movie together before going to my dad's for dinner. As we walked into the lounge on the first floor of the entertainment complex we ran into my father and a few of his friends. "Juliana!"

He was sitting on a couch with two other men and two women. Well, one woman and one almost-woman. The fake redheaded bombshell dressed like she was ready to go clubbing and barely looked old enough to order alcohol.

Unfortunately, we were a little early, so we would have to sit and chat for a while. I was tempted to walk right past them into the theatre and pretend I hadn't heard my father call my name, but he rose to his feet and shouted at us as he waved us over. "Juliana! Valentina!"

"Damn."

Val chuckled at my muttered curse and squeezed my hand. "Could he be any worse than my dad?" she whispered.

"The same. Just a different kind of awful."

Val gave me the most intriguing smile then. It was wry and mixed with something that said she thought I was adorable. I wished I knew what she was thinking, because I couldn't imagine what she thought was cute about me disliking my father.

"It's all good," she said. "We can do this. Game faces!"

She flashed me a dazzling smile that would convince even the severest sceptic she was thrilled to be here mingling with strangers. I matched it with my own million-dollar smile and teased her. "You could be an actress with those skills."

She snorted. "Yeah. Maybe I'll try it after I get bored with my lingerie-modelling career."

I was grateful for her light attitude. It went a long way in calming me down. There was nothing I loved more than my sexy little mamacita's feisty, snarky, sarcastic humour.

Bright smiles perfectly in place, we walked over to greet my father and his friends. Well, I bet the redhead was more like his 'special friend', but I really didn't want the details.

"Aw, you see?" he said to his friends, who all stood to greet us as well. "I told you they would be here."

Keep the smile in place, Juliana. He's just a proud father who likes to show off his kid. It's nothing more. "Hey, Dad."

"Hello, Mr. Valdés," Val added.

After a quick pat on the back, Dad brushed me aside and took Val's hand. "Please, Valentina, call me Macario," he crooned as he kissed her cheek.

Never relinquishing her hand, he guided her to the seat next to him on the sofa, barely leaving any room for his date on his other side. The redhead didn't seem to mind all that much, considering she was already eying me.

Suppressing a groan, I sat down next to Val and forced a smile at the three strangers on the opposite couch. When they all gave me their attention, Dad immediately made introductions. "This is Lloyd Wright and Michael Hobson. They're both from New Gate Films. Juliana, you know Maya Sutherland. Valentina, Maya is my brilliant agent." He lifted an arm around his date and somehow managed a dignified smile. "And this lovely little thing is Tracey Reno."

After polite greetings and handshakes, Tracey giggled like a ditzy schoolgirl and reached across Dad to place her hand on Val's leg. "I heard your great news this afternoon. Congratulations! I have to admit, I kind of hate you right now. I would kill for the opportunity to be a Lindon's girl. That's as supermodel as it gets."

I stiffened, and Val's face paled. "You heard about that?" I asked, since Val didn't look like she could speak at the moment.

"Of course." Tracey waved away the question as if the answer should have been obvious. "Mr. Lindon himself went live on Facebook saying he thinks you're beautiful and that Erik Clarke's idea was a fantastic one. He's the one who announced that he made you the offer. Everyone's talking about it."

"Fantastic," Val grumbled.

Tracey completely missed the sarcasm.

I cringed. I wasn't surprised by the power play, but I should have thought to warn Val that this might happen. Lindon's had to comment on the situation as a way to do damage control. They had to be fairly sure Val would reject their offer, and if they didn't say anything before she did, making the offer wouldn't have done them any good.

I told Mateo I would sit her down for a good business-type talk after his family left, but at this rate, we were going to have to do it sooner. Like tomorrow morning. Hopefully, Mateo was serious about me stealing him away from his family for a while. For now, the best I could do was change the subject so that Val wouldn't mention turning down the offer and have to defend herself to a group of strangers.

I sat forward and took Val's hand as I looked at the two people sitting across from me. Dad had already said they were from New Gate films, but I could have guessed they were from some studio or another. There are only two types of people in Hollywood: the creatives and the suits. The creatives physically make the films, and the suits control the decision making since they're the money.

There's a reason the execs in the industry are called suits, and it's exactly the one you'd imagine. Most of us embrace casual in both appearance and behaviour in the workplace. Suits don't seem to understand the concept. I mean, here we were, seeing a movie on Christmas Day, and these two stuffy pricks were sitting here in their designer sharkskin suits and power ties.

"So... New Gate, huh? Why am I not surprised?"

I let plenty of arrogance seep into my voice while still seeming polite. All part of the game. These men were here with an agenda, whether I wanted to do business or not. I couldn't be rude and burn any bridges, but I couldn't entirely accept their underhanded attempt to get a meeting with Val, either. Letting people in Hollywood think you're a pushover is one of the worst things you can do.

"I seem to recall that name coming up in a number of phone calls with my agency recently."

"Actually, Juliana," Dad interrupted, wearing an innocent smile that wasn't fooling anyone, "they came to see the movie and chat with me about possibly directing a film adaptation of Drive Hard."

Val coughed, and I had to bite the inside of my cheek, because I knew that cough was only to cover up a laugh. "The video game?" she asked primly.

Val was never prim about anything. The tone was too polite. She was definitely trying to keep from laughing.

Dad's face lit up with pride. "One of the biggest sellers on the market. It's about time they make the film."

Val leaned toward my dad and placed her hand lightly on his forearm while flashing him a smile so beautiful I almost got jealous. "Mr. Valdés, Macario, I honestly don't think there is any other director in the world more right for that project than you."

Now I was the one coughing to cover a laugh. No one sitting there with us could have ever suspected how much Val loathed the majority of my father's work. No doubt she believed Drive Hard would be the biggest, flashiest, most ridiculous piece of trash to come out of Hollywood this century, and I was sure she wasn't lying when she said she thought Dad would be the perfect director for the film. Only I caught the condescension hidden beneath her compliment, and that was only because I knew her so well.

I couldn't help elbowing her softly. She cut me a glance, and her grin turned wry. I had to rub my hand over my mouth and jaw in an attempt to literally wipe the smile from my face. When she saw me struggling to keep my composure, she gave me a subtle wink and turned her smile on the suits from New Gate. "Seriously. Macario Valdés is definitely the man for that job. If you haven't offered him a contract yet, you'd better get on it."

The woman was incorrigible. I poked her in the ribs a little harder, tickling her in warning that she'd better cut it out before she made me laugh and got us both busted. She was so going to get it when we finally had a moment to ourselves.

The urge to snicker vanished when Lloyd and Michael smiled back at her like a pair of sharks circling a bleeding fish. "Well, I suppose if Valentina has departed such words of wisdom, then we'd better get that contract written up first thing after the holiday," Lloyd said.

Michael nodded. "And since we're on the subject of contracts and proposals, Miss Carvajal, it's very fortunate that we've run into you today."

"Yes," I said in a clipped voice. "Fortunate indeed. And purely coincidental, I'm sure." Sarcasm and disdain dripped from my voice. I wasn't happy, and I wanted these jerks to know it. They needed to sweat a little.

Dad sat up a little straighter and lost that casual, easy going edge he'd had before. "Relax, Juliana. This isn't an ambush."

"No. It's Christmas. This is hardly the appropriate time to be discussing business, and you promised us low-key if we came today."

Val patted my leg and whispered, "Juliana, it's okay."

It really wasn't. Mateo was right that people were finding their own ways to get to Val since I wasn't returning their calls. That they would bother her on Christmas Day, when they knew she would be with her whole family, was appalling. I'm sure she was the only reason they were here. And I'm sure my father was more than happy to help them corner her when they dangled the Drive Hard project in front of him. Jerks.

"What proposal could you possibly want to talk to me about?" Val asked.

I kicked myself again. I knew what was coming, and it was yet another surprise I hadn't warned her about ahead of time.

"We're interested in acquiring the film rights to your story," Michael said.

"Film rights!" 

Val gasped as I grumbled, "You, and everyone else in town."

When Lloyd and Michael both looked at me, I said, "Don't play dumb. You know everyone is trying to get this project. Studios a lot larger than New Gate."

Val turned her incredulous gaze on me. "They are?"

I sighed. "Yeah. They're all asking me because you don't have any contact info set up yet. I was going to tell you about it; I've just been waiting because you were so stressed about your exams and your family coming. We need to sit down and go over all of this. I just wanted to wait until after the holidays."

I shot a look at Lloyd and Michael as I said that last bit. Neither seemed very sorry. But at least Val wasn't acting upset that I had kept this news from her. She looked stunned, but she was calm and pensive as she slowly processed the information. "Yeah, okay. That's probably a good idea. Film rights." She shook her head, blinking at her lap as if she still couldn't believe it. "That's crazy."

She pulled herself together and smiled at me. "Thanks for not dropping that on me last week. You're right. I was stressed enough."

She leaned over, puckering her lips, and I can't tell you how thrilled I was when she gave me a quick, grateful kiss. She's so shy about the physical stuff and gets very embarrassed when the subject of our relationship is brought up. This tiny, chaste acknowledgement of what we were to each other felt like a huge step.

Val took a deep breath, let it out, and then shook herself from her daze. "All right. Let's definitely sit down and talk about all this Hollywood stuff soon. Maybe after New Year's we can escape to your place, order in some take-out, and have a powwow?"

Despite that idea sounding like heaven, I winced. "Actually, with the Erik Clarke drama and the Lindon's stuff, I'm thinking we shouldn't wait that long."

Maya finally jumped into the conversation. "Oh, I agree," she said. "This is something you should act on quickly."

I glared at the hungry gleam in her eyes. I had been so focused on Lloyd and Michael that I'd forgotten Maya would have an angle of her own. "Valentina," she crooned in a sugary-sweet voice that set my nerves on edge. "You have no idea what a hot topic you and Juliana are right now. You need to act quickly if you want to take full advantage of that. I could really make some amazing things happen for you."

Val frowned. "What do you mean?"

Maya handed her a business card. "I would love to represent you."

I tried not to grind my teeth down to the nerve endings. Val glanced at me, astonishment once again showing in her expression, and took the card from Maya. "You want to be my agent?" she asked, confused. "For what? I'm not taking Lindon's offer. I'm not going to become a model."

"You aren't?" Tracey gasped. "Why on earth not? Are you crazy?"

I feared Val would get mad and lose that infamous Latina temper of hers, but she just rolled her eyes at me and smiled sweetly at the woman she clearly considered an idiot. "I'm just not interested."

Tracey's jaw dropped, and Maya stole Val's attention again. "You'll still need representation for a number of other opportunities that will come your way now. Film rights being one of them." She flashed a big smile at the New Gate guys, who grinned back as if the deal were already set.

"Yes," I said, grinding my teeth so hard my dentist would lecture me the next time I went in. "Valentina is going to need representation, but again, you aren't the only agent looking to represent her."

Val sighed. "I guess we have a lot to talk about, huh?"

I pulled her tightly to my side. "I'll help you sort it out. It won't be so bad."

"Okay."

Maya bristled. "I may not be the only agent wanting to represent you, Valentina, but I am the best."

I snorted. That was quite arrogant of her, considering she knew who my agents were, and they actually were the best in town. "Whatever. You've made your offer. She has your card. She'll add it to the pile." I shot a stern look at Lloyd and Michael. "I have your offer and contact information as well."

They both frowned but kept their mouths shut and didn't interrupt when I told all three of them, "I promise Valentina will look over everything that's been thrown her way this week, and someone will get back to all of you on her behalf, once she's had time to consider her options and knows what she wants to do. In the meantime, she and I are going to head into the theatre now. Her family will be here soon, and we'd like a few moments to ourselves before they arrive."

I stood, and Val smiled to the group as she rose with me. "Thank you for the interest. I promise I'll get back to you after I've learned a little more about what's going on. Have a wonderful Christmas. It was lovely meeting you all."

Dad stood, too, and took Val's hand. "You're still coming over for dinner after the show, right?" he asked, bouncing his gaze between both of us.

"I don't know," I said, as Val nodded. "Is it really going to be just the three of us? Or will there be other agents and producers waiting to have an advantageous chat over dinner? Some reporters, maybe? Or photographers?"

I didn't want to be a bitch, but I was pissed at my dad. He had basically exploited his connection with Val to get into talks with the New Gate people. I wasn't surprised. My father is as Hollywood as a person can get. He's always working every angle. But I was still pissed.

"Oh, Juliana." Dad sighed playfully and then grinned at his companions as if he considered me a silly little girl whose antics he found amusing. "Always so sceptical and reclusive. You really should loosen up a little. You'd get further in this business if you weren't always so rigid."

I gave him my million-dollar fake smile. "It's a cutthroat industry, Dad. We all know that. I just don't appreciate being worked over by my own father, and I'm not about to let Val get taken advantage of. I also value my privacy. What little I have left."

Dad backed off. For all that he was, he wasn't an idiot, and he knew he was pushing my buttons. "All right, all right. You kids go do your thing." He turned his smarmy smile on Val and leaned in close to stage whisper in her ear. "You make sure to help her relax a bit during the movie, eh? She's always so cranky."

Oh God. I just hoped Val didn't realise the sexual undertones of his suggestion.

Val kept her smile up like a pro. "Really? That's odd. She's never cranky with me." She shrugged. "Must just be you."

I choked on a laugh. She'd just insulted him to his face but had delivered it with so much innocence he was forced to play along. I had never been so proud of the woman in all my life.

"Hmm." Dad's smile tightened. "Perhaps you're right. But you know how fathers and daughters can be sometimes."

"Of course." She shot him a sweet smile and an innocent bat of her eyelashes. "Don't worry. I'll make sure she has a good time today. And we'll both be there for dinner. Promise."

Dad's tension eased. "Great." He gripped her hand and held up his phone when she tried to walk away. "How about a picture before you guys disappear? A picture with the mysterious Valentina will give me all kinds of street cred with the younger crowd, which I could really use if I'm going to be directing a video game adaptation." He laughed boisterously and winked at her. "Plus, I need proof for Juliana's mother that I'm being a good father and paying attention to my daughter and her new girlfriend."

"Dad."

"It's true." He shot me a pout. "She's sent me a dozen warning texts this week about Christmas being the time for family and that I needed to put in an effort with the two of you."

I groaned. He probably wasn't lying about that. "Fine. If it'll make Mom happy."

Dad handed his phone to Maya, who was, no surprise, more than willing to take the picture that would get her client even more exposure. Then, he squished in close enough to Val that I almost punched him and slid his arm low enough around her waist that her eyes bulged.

"Dad," I growled.

The asshole had the nerve to chuckle as he kissed her cheek and let her go. "Thank you, love. We'll see you guys in there. I look forward to meeting your family, so make sure to introduce them at some point."

When I started dragging Val away, she seemed more than ready to go. It wasn't until we were sitting in the theatre that she leaned over and whispered, "I think your dad grazed my butt on purpose when he put his arm around me."

And that was it. Everything went red. I stood, with every intent to go kick my father's sleazy ass, but Val yanked me back down. "Chill. There's no need to go all Druid Princess on him. Just, next time, you get to stand beside him for the pictures."

Whatever combination of curses I grumbled made Val burst out laughing. I took a deep breath. If she was fine and laughing about it, then I didn't need to go make a spectacle of myself by punching out my father in public. But I wanted to. "I'm sorry. There's really no excuse for him."

"Hey, at least he seems to like me, right?"

She was teasing, but it wasn't funny. She didn't realise my dad would have no problem trying to take my girlfriend to his bed if he thought he could manage it. She would be no exception.

I tipped my head back and groaned as I scrubbed my face with my hands. "Not funny, woman. Do me a favour, and keep your distance from him, if you can. Please? In fact, let's keep him as far away from your family as possible, too. Especially your stepsisters. Your dad hates me enough as it is. He'd lose his shit if my father hit on the twins."

Val sighed but smiled and leaned her head on my shoulder. I lifted the armrest between us, and she snuggled in close, instantly relaxing all of my muscles. I let out another long breath and leaned my head on top of hers.

"What a week we've had, huh?" she asked. Her voice got softer, as if matching the sudden shift in mood.

I squeezed her gently and kissed the top of her head. "I wish I could tell you it won't always be like this, but my life is a three-ring circus, and you've just signed on to star as the main attraction."

"As long as they get someone awesome to play me in the movie," she teased, surprising me with her light response to the situation. "Oh, and your dad is so not allowed to direct it. Sorry. But, just, no!"

"Deal. Thanks to your glowing recommendation, he'll be too busy making Drive Hard anyway."

Val laughed again, and this time I laughed with her.

 

Chapter Text

Watching the movie after having spent most of the last week with Juliana made it a little hard to see Jana up on the screen instead of Juliana, and it was really weird to watch others drool over my girlfriend. It was still fun, though.

I was surprisingly not jealous at all when someone in the audience hooted and hollered when Jana was left in her underwear or when I had to watch the kissing scenes between both Jana and Valentina and then between her and Cali. Though, admittedly, the scenes with her and Kaylee Summers were harder to stomach than the others. But that was just because I hated her. Not because of Juliana's acting.

I was relieved to see that this part of her job wasn't going to bother me. I'd known going in that it was all just acting, but I still wondered if it would upset me. It didn't. It was impossible to be jealous when I knew how much Juliana loved me. Knowing what she really thought about Kaylee helped, too. But, again, that could have just been my petty side speaking.

Macario had been true to his word, and the guest list was small. And although he had bought out the whole 4:30pm showing, only a third of the seats were filled. None of the other cast members were there, thank heavens Macario had enough sense not to invite Kaylee, but a couple of the guests were very recognisable from other films. I was surprised to see Susanna Salazar, a very popular teen pop music star, there. I guessed her parents were friends with Macario.

After introducing herself to me and saying hi to Juliana, whom she was obviously very familiar with already, she was surprisingly interested in talking to Renata and Eva. When I asked Juliana about it, she explained that it was hard for famous teens to meet other people their own age. Susanna was probably starved for attention from girls her own age who wouldn't just fangirl on her. And thanks to Juliana's presence over the past week, the twins weren't as affected by celebrities anymore. As soon as Susanna realised Eva and Renata would be cool, she clung to them as if they were her new best friends.

By some small miracle, Macario and my family managed to meet without the world coming to an end. Oh, I was sure my father would have plenty to say about Macario's date once they got home, but Macario managed not to hit on any of the Miller women, and my father didn't tell him I was too good for his daughter, so I considered it a win.

Overall, things were great, until we all left the theatre. Word had spread during the movie that Juliana and I were here. We didn't think anything of the completely packed complex, Christmas Day was always a big day for the movies, after all. And when the fans lined up in the lobby waiting to get into the next couple of showings started screaming and shouting at us, it seemed normal enough.

Juliana and I waved and said hello, smiled for a few pictures, and told them we hoped they enjoyed the movie as we walked past them. That was no big deal. I could handle that. But as we made our way across the lobby, the theatre manager stopped our whole party. "Forgive me, Mr. Valdés," the man said to Macario, forcing a nervous smile, "but word has gotten out somehow about your party being here. I'm afraid we've had to call in police for crowd control."

"Oh." Macario paused, as if surprised, and glanced outside the front doors, where a huge crowd had gathered. After taking in the situation, he smiled again and patted the guy's shoulder. "Thank you for the heads-up. Most of us have parked with the valet. Will they still be able to bring our cars around?"

The manager sagged in relief to see that Macario wasn't upset and blaming him for the leak to the press. "Oh, yes, of course," he gushed. "You may have to wait a few minutes longer than normal, but the police will be able to get you safely out."

None of the unrecognisable people had anything to worry about and left after a few quick good-byes. The few other celebrities in the party waited inside with us after handing their valet slips to the manager, but they all seemed rather blasé about the chaos.

"How come they aren't upset?" I whispered to Juliana.

Juliana certainly looked concerned, but when she glanced at the other famous people, she shrugged. "They probably expected it. With so many of us in one place, people were bound to notice. I'm the idiot for not realising Dad would have invited other celebs. When he promised me a small, low-key guest list, I naively thought it would just be us and a few of his closest non-famous friends."

Juliana shot an annoyed glare at her father, who was laughing with Susanna's parents. Susanna looked thrilled to have the attention. She was grinning as she greeted fans in the lobby and posed for pictures while she waited for the valet to bring her car around.

Cell phone flashes were going off like crazy in the crowded lobby, and outside the front doors to the theatre, it looked like last week's premiere all over again, minus the red carpet. My stomach churned. "Will we be safe?" I asked. I hated to sound worried. I wanted to be strong and prove to Juliana that I could handle her world, but memories of being swarmed at Fantasy Con and having to be carried to safety made my body shake with anxiety.

Juliana's jaw clenched at my question. Her brooding scowl turned impossibly darker. She was really not happy.

I felt terrible. I knew Juliana was only upset right now for my sake. She was used to this kind of thing. Without me, she'd probably be as blasé as the other celebrities, instead of seconds away from punching someone.

"It's a short walk from here to the valet stand, and the police are here. They'll keep you safe," she promised.

My dad was hovering closely enough to overhear Juliana's promise. He looked as angry as Juliana, only his anger was not directed at Macario. "She had better be safe," he grumbled.

When Juliana returned his glare, I gripped her arm trying to keep her calm. Now was not the time for the two of them to butt heads again. "Juliana! Dad! Both of you, calm down," I hissed. "Fighting about it is not going to make things any better. Worry about it after we're all home."

The warning seemed to put them both in check, and the tension eased up a little. Juliana's phone rang, and she glanced at the display as if she didn't plan to answer it, but when she read the name on the screen, she frowned and put it to her ear. "Hey Matty, what's up?"

She ducked her head and plugged one ear so she could hear whatever her assistant was telling her. While they talked, I turned to my dad. He, along with the rest of my family, was standing there taking in the spectacle around us with a stunned expression. "Dad, I'm sorry. Macario promised us low-key. We're not sure how..."

"Juliana's dad posted about it on Instagram," Renata said, holding out her phone. "It's all over the Internet. Eva and I started getting texts from kids at school before the movie started, asking if we were with you guys."

"What?" Juliana gasped, whirling toward Renata with wide eyes.

Renata frowned at her incredulous expression and held out her phone for us to see. Sure enough, Macario had posted the picture he'd taken before the movie with Juliana and me on his Instagram feed. It wouldn't have been a problem, except in the caption he mentioned the name of the theatre we were at and the showtime of the movie. When Juliana read that, she sucked in a sharp breath and started trembling with rage.

"It's okay, Juliana."

"No, it's not," she growled. "It was bad enough that he ambushed you before the movie with his agent and those producers, but to pull this shit on us just to get more publicity? DAD!"

Macario shook the hand of another of his guests and then floated over to us, looking completely serene. Juliana held up Renata's phone to Macario and glared so hard her face turned bright red. "Are you kidding me with this?" She hissed.

Macario frowned. "What? I told you I was going to post the picture."

"I don't care about the picture. You posted our location. You planned this all along!" She waved toward the mob outside. "This is the whole reason you even invited us today, isn't it?"

Macario rolled his eyes. "Of course not. I invited you because you're my daughter. And I didn't plan this; don't be so dramatic. I just wasn't thinking when I posted the picture. I don't have the same problem with fans that you do."

Juliana scoffed.

I didn't believe Macario, either.

"It's not that bad," Macario said, giving up his attempt at innocence after seeing our disbelief.

I glanced outside at the crowd again. Susanna's car had just pulled up to the valet, and when she and her parents left the theatre, the roar of noise outside was so loud Eva and Renata exchanged nervous glances and moved closer to Dad and Lucia.

Macario winced at the noise and shook his head at Juliana and me. "You'll only be outside for a minute, and that's totally worth what this is going to do for ticket sales. You should really stay for a little while and take advantage of this opportunity. You and Valentina haven't made a public appearance since the premiere. For the two of you to come surprise the fans on opening day is amazing publicity. The media will love it."

Juliana shut her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. She let out a breath and shook her head as she tried to calm down. "You're unbelievable, Dad. You know what? Forget dinner tonight. We're not coming. I'm not, anyway. I suppose Val can, if she wants, but I doubt she does after the way you've just spent the afternoon exploiting her for your own gain."

I shook my head. "Not really. My family wanted us to have dinner with them anyway." I looked to my dad and Lucia. "You guys don't mind if we join you, right?"

"Of course not," Lucia said.

"What?" Macario looked genuinely offended. "You guys don't have to bail on me. Valentina, honey, Juliana's just being overly sensitive. I swear I didn't..."

"The New Gate people, Dad?" Juliana asked. "Seriously? You're going to tell me you didn't invite them today just because they wanted an in with Val, and because you wanted the Drive Hard deal?"

Macario groaned. "I didn't mean any harm. I thought she'd be excited by their offer, and what else could I do? They were already in talks with Ridge Davies when I contacted them about the project." He pointed his pout in my direction. "Valentina, sweetheart, I'm sorry if that upset you. That wasn't my intention. And I can't thank you enough for that wonderful endorsement. I don't think you realise how much pull you have in the industry now. I really wasn't their first choice for the film. If I get the contract, it'll be because of you."

"Glad I could help," I said drily.

I wasn't as pissed as Juliana was. From what Juliana had told me about her father, I wasn't all that surprised. But I was upset on her behalf. Juliana was making a big deal out of it for my benefit, but I also knew it was bothering her a lot more than she would admit to anyone. I can't imagine how it would feel to be used for my fame by my own parent.

Ignoring my sarcasm, Macario rolled his eyes at Juliana again and held his elbow out in an offering for me to take. "Well, there's no use crying over it. What's done is done. You may as well go mingle with your fans while you wait for your ride."

When Juliana's whole body tensed again, I gripped her arm tighter and pulled her close to me. "Actually, we'll wait here with my family. They aren't used to this type of thing."

Macario frowned, looking at my family as if just realising they were still there. He immediately flipped into smarmy mode, but before he could say something to my father that would surely piss him off, Dad shook his head and said, "There's no need to wait with us, Valentina. Our cars are here, and your public is waiting. You and your girlfriend can go mingle with your fans."

I was so shocked, and hurt, by his disdain that I couldn't hold back a snarky reply. It was a miracle I managed to not shout at him. "My girlfriend has a name," I snapped, gritting my teeth. "And she had nothing to do with any of this. Nor did I. We only came to the theatre today because you all wanted to see the movie, and we thought Juliana's father genuinely wanted his daughters company on Christmas. We didn't mean to be such an inconvenience to you." Glaring daggers at him, I ground my teeth and shook my head. "Maybe we'll skip Christmas dinner with you guys, too. You've clearly had enough of us and our drama for one day."

I tried to give Juliana a smirk. "Looks like we should have gone to see your mother in Wisconsin, after all."

Her face softened at my joke. "I'm sure she'll call us tomorrow to say I told you so."

The half smile she managed was just enough to make me relax. Sighing softly, I took a breath and spoke in a calm voice. "Dad, I'm really sorry about all of this. You guys all go ahead. You're better off leaving separately anyway. You won't be recognised that way, and no one will bother you."

"Actually," Juliana said, "Renata and Eva should probably come with us."

When everyone gaped at Juliana, waiting for an explanation, she grimaced. "My assistant called a few minutes ago. He saw the news and said people are talking about them almost as much as Val." She shrugged. "They were in Erik Clarke's video, too, and I guess people are intrigued by the stepsisters angle."

Renata's jaw dropped, and Eva's eyes bulged. Dad flinched, as if the news of his daughters' new fame literally shocked him.

Juliana ran a hand through her hair. "Mateo called a limo service for us so that we can all stay together. He said things are crazy enough out there that it would be best to let a professional driver worry about the crowd since you guys aren't used to it. I'm really sorry."

It took my dad way too long to respond to this, and when he did, he couldn't speak. He simply clenched his hands into fists and stomped off toward the bathroom. I had never seen him so angry.

"Well," I muttered, "there goes my relationship with my father. Wonder how Dr. Parish will try to spin this one."

"Val, I'm so sorry."

I smiled sweetly at Juliana and kissed her cheek. "It's not your fault."

When Dad came back, he was still not speaking to anyone, not even Lucia. Juliana and I decided to give him space and went to talk to the fans lined up waiting to see the film. Not that we were in the mood for it, but thanks to Macario, who was schmoozing the crowd and kept calling out for us to join him, we really didn't have any other option. Blowing them all off would have made Juliana look bad.

It took nearly half an hour for the limo to arrive, and when it showed up for us, two police officers came to escort us out. "Just hurry to the car," Dad growled at the twins. "Don't say anything. Don't even look at the cameras."

"Val and I will go out in front of you," Juliana murmured. "That should take the attention off the rest of you."

Her valiant effort only earned her another nasty glare from my dad. I wanted to scream at my father. He was being totally unreasonable. None of this was Juliana's fault. None of it.

"You ready?" Juliana asked.

I nodded as I sucked in a deep breath. "At least they have the crowd barricaded off this time so you won't have to carry me."

Juliana's shoulders sagged, and she barely choked out my name. "Val..."

I shook my head. "It's part of the package." I forced a smile. "I knew what I was signing up for."

She pulled me into a hug and then wrapped her arm around me before nodding to our police escort to open the doors.

The noise that had greeted Susanna had been crazy, but it was nothing compared to the chaos that erupted when Juliana and I left the building. The sidewalk from the main entrance to the drive-up loop where the valet waited was only about ten to fifteen yards, but when both sides of it were lined with a mob of fans and reporters being pushed back by the good old LAPD, the walk to the waiting limo felt like an eternity. Especially because I was the world's slowest person.

I tried to hurry and almost asked Juliana to carry me after all, because this crowd was crazy. The theatre people had dragged a bunch of velvet ropes out to line the sidewalk, and the police were making sure the crowd stayed behind it, but I didn't exactly feel safe. This crowd was a lot rowdier than either the group at Fantasy Con or The Druid Princess premiere had been.

These people had over two and a half hours to gather here. Every paparazzi in town was here as well as all the local news teams. There were a lot of random people there, too. They shouted how brave I was and how proud they were of me and how beautiful I was.

That wasn't so bad, but aside from the normal excited shouts, this particular crowd had a much more obnoxious side to it. The first woman to make me realise we were in for some trouble pushed herself against a cop and shouted, "Forget Valentina, Juliana! If she won't fill your needs, I will!"

"So will I!" someone else shouted.

"Me too!"

"You can have us both!"

Juliana ignored them all and kept me securely tucked into her side. She remained one hundred percent focused on the car ahead of us.

Then, a group of college guys jeered and threw panties at me as we passed. "I got you a present, too, Valentina!"

"Model these for me, sexy!"

"Forget the panties! Show us everything, baby!"

Next to them, someone else shouted, "Forget that ugly, deformed bitch! Give me the sexy stepsisters!"

"Hell yeah!" someone else chanted.

"I got dibs on the slutty one!"

A gasp behind me had me looking over my shoulder. Eva had stumbled to a stop and was gaping at the guy who'd just called out to her. When he caught her attention, he grinned at her and said, "Hey, Eva, why don't you ditch your lame boyfriend and date a real man?"

His friend elbowed him and laughed. "At least show us what you're wearing under your clothes this time, you skanky little tease."

He made a really crude gesture with his fingers and tongue that made Eva gasp again and bury her face in her father's chest. The crowd hooted, laughed, and whistled when Dad wrapped his arms around her. "Go!" I shouted to him. "Hurry and get her into the car!"

My shout pushed my poor stunned family into motion, and they hurried ahead of us. "Damn, Valentina," someone shouted as they climbed into the car, "your stepmom's a total MILF. Can I get her number?"

My eyes burned as we kept walking, but I refused to cry. If they saw that they could upset me, things would only get worse. I kept walking with my head held high and a stony expression on my face, but I was sure Juliana felt the way my body trembled. We picked up our pace, moving as fast as I was capable.

The worst of it hit us when we neared the limo. A man who was probably pushing fifty had been standing against the red velvet rope nearest the car, and because he was so calm, the police were focused on other people. As we approached him, he smiled at me in a way that made me shiver. His leer alone made me feel dirty. "You want to see how sexy you are, baby?" he called to me.

Before anyone could stop him, he hopped over the little velvet rope and jumped in front of us. He opened his jacket to show me that he already had his pants open and was fully exposed. "Here's your proof. See what you do to me, baby?"

It happened so quickly that I still caught a glimpse of him grabbing himself before I whirled around and hid my face in Juliana's chest. I tried to block out the lewd sounds the man made as the police knocked the pervert to the ground, but I couldn't, and that was enough to break through my control. I started to cry as we waited for the police to tell us it was okay to get in the car.

The man was still shouting horribly crass things at me as Juliana climbed into the limo behind me and shut the door. I was shaking so hard that Juliana had to buckle my seatbelt for me as we pulled away from the theatre. She held me in her arms as tightly as our seatbelts would allow and whispered apologies to me over and over again. That she blamed herself for that mess only made me feel worse.

Across the car, Renata watched me with concern, and both Eva and Lucia were crying. Dad had them both tucked into his sides and was holding them tightly, comforting them as best he could. The glare he flashed Juliana and me over the top of their heads assured us his calm façade was solely for their sakes. He blamed Juliana and me for this.

 

Chapter Text

No one spoke the entire drive home. It wasn't until we all piled out of the limo, and Juliana told the driver he could leave since she planned to stay with me for a while, that my father finally exploded. 

"Actually," he said to Juliana, "you can climb right back in that fancy car and leave. You're no longer welcome in my home."

"Dad!" I gasped.

Lucia, Renata, and Eva stopped heading for the house and turned to see what was happening. Juliana asked the driver to wait a few minutes, and the man nodded, then kindly rolled up his window to give us a little privacy. When Juliana turned back around to face my father, she looked surprisingly calm. I knew it was taking some serious effort, though.

She stepped away from the car, holding her hand out to me while never taking her eyes off of my father. My heart melted at the way she reached for me. Even with my father telling her to leave and never come back, she wanted me at her side. I happily indulged, sidling up next to her and leaning into her when she put her arm around my waist.

"Mr. Miller," she said, her low voice filled with apology, "I can't tell you how sorry I am for what happened today. My father was completely out of line, and you have my word that I will never involve your family with him again. He and I will be having a long discussion later."

My father wasn't moved in the least by Juliana's apology. "Well, that's good for you," he spat. "But I still don't want you anywhere near my family ever again. It was not your father's fault that my girls were exposed to that horror today."

"Yes, it was, Dad. Macario posted our location online. He..."

"Stop making excuses for her, Valentina!" Dad glared at me so hard that Juliana stiffened, and her grip on me tightened. "It wasn't Macario Valdes that made Erik Clarke come after you girls at the mall the other day. It wasn't Juliana's father that destroyed your life and stole all of your privacy. You girls were bombarded today because of her!" He thrust his finger at Juliana. "All of this has been her fault, and it ends now!"

Maybe claiming that Juliana had ruined my life was what broke the seal on Juliana's temper, but I suspect it was the fact that my father was yelling at me, taking his anger and frustration out on me, and, in not so many words, blaming me for what happened because I was dating Juliana.

"My fault?" She roared. "I may be famous, and I may draw attention to Val, but what happened to her today was not my fault. Have you seen that video? I'm not the person who suggested Valentina give up her virginity for Christmas. I didn't drag her into a lingerie store and pressure her to push the boundaries of what she's comfortable with!"

"Juliana," I whispered, trying to settle her a little but she didn't stop. 

"Who dragged Val into that store and picked out a bunch of lingerie for her? Who was joking around with her boyfriend about letting him pick out sexy underwear for her at seventeen years old? Those perverts were attacking your daughters because of Eva's bad choices! If she hadn't been at the mall with Val last week, Erik Clarke might have got a cute video of Val joking around in Barnes & Noble or Wizards of the Coast. I'd have been outed as a big nerd, and that's it. Nobody would be asking Val to take her clothes off to make a statement for the world or throwing thongs in her face or exposing themselves to her. Today would have been nothing more than a few fans wanting to take pictures of us, and your family would still be blissfully obscure. If you want to blame someone for today's mess, blame Eva. This was her fault, and, in fact, she's been the cause of every horrible thing Val has endured since moving into your home. If you're so concerned with your daughter's well-being, where the hell were you for the last few months while your other daughter tortured her and made her life miserable, huh? Or is it only the twins you're really concerned about?"

"Juliana!"

I tugged on her arm to get her attention and snap her out of her rant. She flinched and took several deep breaths when she met my gaze. "Sorry."

"It's okay. I know you're upset about all of this, but it wasn't Eva's fault. She didn't mean for this to happen. She was ambushed and tricked as much as I was."

I cast a glance toward Eva. She, Renata, and Lucia were all gaping at Juliana. Eva's face was paler than I had ever seen it. She noticed me looking her way, and instead of glaring at me like I expected, cast her gaze to the ground.

"I'm sorry," Juliana said again. After another breath, she raised his voice a little louder and said, "Eva, I'm sorry. Valentina is right. It wasn't your fault, either. I shouldn't have blamed you; I'm just frustrated. I never wanted this to happen to Val or to any of you."

"Then you shouldn't have dragged her into your life," my dad snapped. "As long as you're dating her, you're going to keep hurting her. You're going to keep dragging her into the media, and you'll never be able to control it. And now your fame is hurting the rest of my family. I don't care whose fault today was. The truth is, if you weren't dating Valentina, none of this would have happened. I can't stop her from seeing you, but I sure as hell can make you stay away from the rest of my family. I want you off my property, and I want you to stay away from my family. If you don't, I'll have a restraining order slapped on you, and I'll have you thrown in jail any time you come near any of them."

"DAD!" I couldn't believe this was happening. Yeah, my dad is a prosecuting attorney, but I never dreamed he'd use that to hurt someone I loved. "You're being unfair."

"No, Val," Juliana said. Her anger was gone. She was calm again. She shook her head as she stared at my father. "The man has a right to protect his family. I will respect that."

I wanted to punch my father right in his smug face. My jaw quivered as I fought the urge to cry. "Juls, this is not your fault." I took a breath and tried to get my voice to stop shaking. "Don't let him make you feel like you deserve this kind of treatment. You don't."

When Juliana gave me a soft, sad smile, my heart stopped. I assumed my father had finally gotten to her and that she was going to break up with me for my own good. "Juliana," I whispered, as all the blood drained from my face. "Don't listen to him, okay? I don't care about the fame. I swear. You've brought far more good to my life than anyone besides my mother ever has. I need you."

She surprised me by pulling me into her arms and kissing my forehead. "I need you, too, Valentina. Don't worry; I am way too selfish to give you up."

Thank heavens the woman was spoiled.

She squeezed me tightly and then pulled back to look into my eyes. "I will respect your father's wishes, because he has every right to ask me to leave. But..." She hesitated, a rare flash of insecurity crossing her face. She swallowed and reached up to tuck my hair behind my ear. "Will you come with me?"

"Of course." How could she think I wouldn't? Like I wanted to have Christmas dinner with my father after what he just did?

"No. I mean... will you come with me permanently? Will you agree to move in with me now?"

My dad gasped. "What?"

We both ignored his outburst. "You see what I mean about Abby's place not being safe for you, right?" Juliana asked. "I love Abby and her dads, and I wish you could go there because I know you would be happy and comfortable there, but you just can't. I'm so sorry."

"I know," I admitted with a shudder. "I won't go to Abby's."

After what happened at the theatre today, there was no way I was going to live somewhere where anyone could walk right up to my home and peek in the windows. Or break through them. And there was no way I would even consider bringing that kind of drama to Abby or her fathers. It was bad enough Renata and Eva had been sucked in.

"So will you come?"

Before I could answer, my father took over the conversation. "No, she most certainly will not go with you," he growled. "She's staying here."

Juliana closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying once again to keep a lid on her temper. "Your father's place is better than Abby's. I'll understand if you want to stay here. But I would feel better if you came with me." She frowned. "Especially since I've just been banned from the property."

At the reminder, I glared at my father. He jutted his chin out and folded his arms, unwilling to relent in the slightest. He was as impossible as this situation. "Fine." I looked back at Juliana and forced a small smile. "Okay." I blew out a breath as the enormity of what I was agreeing to settled in. "Okay, yes. I'll come with you."

Juliana's eyes widened just the tiniest bit, as if she'd been sure I was going to stay at home. "We're in this together," I said, squirming with sudden apprehension. I wasn't ready for this, but I didn't have another choice. "I need you, and if you aren't welcome here, well, then..." I took another deep breath, trying to settle my nerves. "Staying here isn't an option."

The expression on Juliana's face right then was worth everything I had been through this week. It was a face I had only seen once before, when we had dinner together at Fantasy Con. It was the wonder-filled look of a girl who thought all her dreams had just come true. Her tiny, overwhelmed smile took my breath way. As did the light touch of her fingers when she took my face in her hands. 

"Thank you," she rasped, and brought my lips to hers in a soft kiss. "I promise I will be a perfect gentlewoman." She paused, thought about it, and a ghost of a smile crossed her face as she tacked on, "Most of the time."

A quiet, semi-hysterical bark of laughter bubbled up from my chest. Juliana registered my fear and leaned her forehead against mine. 

"Don't be nervous," she whispered. "This isn't about me, okay? It's about what you need. You have nothing to fear from me."

"Okay." Nodding, I gave myself a mental pep talk. I trusted her. I did. But I was still scared and completely overwhelmed by the idea of moving in with her. "Okay, just give me a few minutes to pack a bag. I can worry about everything else later."

She let go of me, and I took a small step back. I was really doing this. I was moving in with Juliana Valdés. With Jana.

I met my stepsister's eyes. "Hey, Reni?" I said quietly. "Will you help me pack a few things?"

Renata looked as overwhelmed as I felt. She looked sad but understanding and gave me a small smile as she nodded. I got one step before my dad stopped me. Judging from the look on his face, he still didn't quite believe what was happening. 

"Valentina, no. Renata, don't bother." He shot her a warning glance and then shook his head at me again. His mouth flopped open and closed several times, until his face finally flushed with anger and he found his scowl again. "You are not moving in with her. You've known her less than two weeks. I will not allow you to take this... relationship to the next level! It's... it's... preposterous! Out of the question!"

And there it was again. The real reason he had an issue with Juliana. Before I could say anything Juliana stepped up to my father and met his glare with a calm, confident stare. "This isn't your decision to make."

Juliana spoke respectfully, but Dad was not about to take any kind of orders from her. "The hell it's not! She's my daughter."

"She's an adult," Juliana said. "And she's better off with me."

Dad pulled in a breath so sharp it whistled in his nose. "You think you can take better care of my daughter than I can?"

Dad was grinding his teeth so hard I think he spit that whole question out with his jaw locked shut. Juliana matched his rigid posture and leaned toward him, looking very much like a pit bull straining against a tight leash. "I have no doubt," she growled. "Apart from her mother, I have already been the most important person in her life for over three years now. You may have brought her into this world, but you don't deserve to call yourself her father."

Dad's face went from red to purple. "How dare you suggest I don't deserve..."

"How dare you presume that you do!" Juliana shouted. "You have no right to lecture her about her choices or try to tell her what to do. She is ten times the adult you ever were. You want to lecture Valentina and me about our relationship? HA! At her age, you managed to knock a woman up who wasn't even your girlfriend, and then you blamed your child when the woman refused to get an abortion. Like it was Valentina's fault you couldn't keep it in your pants!"

Everyone gasped except me. I couldn't breathe enough to gasp. I was simply frozen in astonishment as I watched this train wreck. I didn't try and stop Juliana. She'd had a problem with my dad's attitude since the first time they met. Dad had been awful, judgmental, and unfair to Juliana from the get-go, and frankly, she deserved to rail on him for a change.

"You didn't even have the balls to divorce your wife before you started sleeping around on her. Nor did you bother to say good-bye to your daughter when you finally decided to abandon her. You left her for ten years, you bastard. You're nothing but an irresponsible, unfaithful coward who never wanted his daughter in the first place. You have no idea who Valentina is or what she needs. So, no. You don't deserve her, and you're damn straight I can take better care of her than you. I already do! I love her! Whether you accept it or not!"

Juliana's chest heaved as she worked to regain control of herself now that she'd spoken her peace. When she saw my stunned expression, she held her hand out to me again. She didn't apologise this time for the things she'd said in anger. I didn't think she'd ever apologise. She wasn't the least bit sorry.

"Fine," Dad spat when I took Juliana's hand again. This time, he glared at us both. "If you want her so badly, then take her, you arrogant son of a bitch. And good riddance."

I sucked in a breath, and my knees nearly buckled from the pain that ripped through my chest. Candy Cane was the only thing that kept me on my feet until Juliana wrapped her arm around me and held me upright against her chest.

"Valentina may have signed up for your bullshit," my father continued to rant, "but my family didn't. I don't want them exposed to it anymore, so get the hell out of here, and don't ever come back."

I waited for tears to come, but they didn't. At the moment, I was too numb to cry. He had hurt me too deeply this time. My dad checked himself when he saw whatever look of devastation was on my face, but it was too late for him. An apology would mean nothing to me after that.

"Your family?" I asked. I sounded as dead as I felt. "So once again, it comes down to you and your family, and me. Two separate things. And you're only claiming one of those things."

After he realised his mistake, his face fell and he choked out my name in a strangled apology. I pinched my eyes shut and shook my head, not wanting to hear his excuses. "No, I get it. Good riddance to me. I'm trouble, and your real family didn't ask for it. You sure as hell didn't. Isn't that right?"

"Valentina, I didn't say that."

"You didn't have to!" I screamed.

My voice cracked, and Juliana hugged me even harder. She was holding me so tightly I could barely breathe, but I wished she could squeeze me even more. I was breaking apart, and she was the only thing holding me together. 

"Don't worry, Dad," I said, voice trembling with both anger and despair. "You just got what you've always wanted. You're free of me. Absolved. The flawed,  unwanted, burned, crippled, lesbian daughter is no longer your problem anymore."

"Valentina... I didn't..."

"No." I nodded toward Lucia and the twins. Eva still looked pale, and both Lucia and Renata had tears streaming down their faces. "You go take care of them. They're the ones you really love. They're the ones you picked, after all. Now it's my turn to make a choice. I haven't needed you for years, and I don't need you now. Juliana was there for me when you weren't. She wanted me when you didn't. She loves me unconditionally, whereas you are incapable."

I paused, a small part of me waiting for my dad to correct me. He didn't. It was another razor-sharp cut to my heart, but not a surprise. I nodded my acceptance of the truth and whispered, "If you can choose a new family, then so can I." I pulled my face away from Juliana and looked at her. "If you'll have me?"

Juliana's eyes fell shut as she pulled me back to her chest. She trembled slightly as she held me. "Forever," she promised fervently. "You know that."

I nodded, and my eyes finally brimmed over with tears. I was so raw from being gutted by my father that Juliana's complete and utter devotion to me felt equally as sharp as my heartbreak. I was so overwhelmed by her love that I couldn't breathe. The warring feelings of my father's rejection and Juliana's acceptance were so intense I felt ready to collapse. Shaking so hard that my teeth clattered, I stuttered out my next request. 

"C-can w-we p-please g-get o-out of h-here?"

Juliana ushered me towards the back of the waiting limo without a word. As she opened the door for me, I refused to look back, even after my dad called out to me in a desperate plea. "Valentina, wait."

It was Juliana who responded. "No!" Her voice was as cold, hard, and as sharp as ice. "Valentina is done! That was the last time you will ever break her heart!"

The statement sounded like a threat. One that not even my father, a man who laughed at threats from some of the state's most vicious criminals, dared argue against.

"Let's go, Val."

At her soft nudge, I climbed into the car. She scooted in beside me, gave her address to the driver, and silently held me all the way to her house.

After we walked through the front door and it closed behind us, the reality of all that had just happened finally slammed down on me. "He did it again," I whispered. I took a step and stumbled as my body started to go into shock. "He gave me up. He told me to go. He chose his new family over me. Again."

Juliana looked as tortured and heartbroken as me. "Val, I'm so sorry."

She wrapped me in her arms, and this time when I buried my face in her neck, the dam holding back my emotions finally broke. I collapsed into violent sobs and barely felt it when Juliana scooped me into her arms and carried me to her bed. She laid me down and then climbed onto the bed beside me. I curled into her and let myself shatter into a million pieces.

"I'm here," Juliana whispered as she held me. "I've got you, Valentina, and I'm never going to let go. Not ever."

And she didn't. Not while I cried in her arms for hours, and not after I finally passed out. She stayed there in that bed, holding me tightly all night long. We missed dinner; we never bothered to change out of our clothes. Juliana didn't even get up to pee. She literally held me without letting go, until long after the sun came up the next morning.

 

Chapter Text

Juliana POV

When I woke up early the next morning to the feel of Val snuggling up to me as if subconsciously seeking the warmth of my body, I realised I was one incredibly lucky woman. Her father's loss was my gain. Val wouldn't have agreed to move in with me if she'd had another option. I knew she wasn't ready to live with me, even if I didn't understand why.

Maybe I was an ass for being grateful that her hand had been forced, but I couldn't feel bad about getting my way. She was safer here, and I just plain wanted her with me. I wanted her in my bed every night. I wanted her to be the first thing I saw when I woke up every morning. I wanted her with me always, spending time together, laughing together, making decisions together, and making love. I would marry her this instant if I thought it would help her, but I was confident laying that option on the table would only freak her out more.

Val woke with a deep breath and a stretch that brought me back to the land of the living. I brushed a kiss to her forehead before giving her a cautious smile. I wasn't sure what state of mind she'd be in. "Good morning."

She looked at me in a groggy daze and then gasped when she realised we were snuggled up in bed together. Her eyes bulged, and she slowly ran her hand over my stomach, as if she needed to confirm to herself that she'd been sleeping on my chest and was too mortified to look. Her fingers brushed over my belly button, and she squeaked. She was too adorable.

"Don't worry. I only took off my top because it was very hot last night, and the only clothing I removed from you was your shoes."

Her eyes finally dropped to my bra covered chest, and she scrambled off me, needing a few inches of space. I instantly felt cold and missed the feeling of her pressed against me, but I let her go. She sat up, chest heaving. "Oh my God, I left home yesterday," she mumbled frantically. She turned to face me, eyes wide with panic. "I disowned my father and left home. I didn't even pack a bag. I don't have any clothes or even a toothbrush, or..."

"Hey." I sat up and pulled her into my arms. "It's okay. Everything's going to be okay. There's no need to panic. We can get you whatever you need." She started to tremble, so I gently lifted her chin and forced her to meet my eyes. "Everything's going to be okay, Val. I'm here for you. We're in this together, and we'll figure everything out. One step at a time, okay?" She sucked in a breath. "Okay?"

Finally, she nodded.

"Okay." I gave her a smile. "First of all, I'm pretty sure I've got a spare toothbrush around here somewhere, and second, you can borrow anything you need, although, I'm completely okay with clothing being optional."

As I had known it would, that snapped her from her panic. "Yeah, right," she said with an obnoxious snort. "Nice try."

I laughed. She was too easy. "Had to give it a shot."

She rolled her eyes but finally managed a smile. And when I propped the pillows up against the headboard, leaned back and opened my arms, she crawled into them without hesitation. She settled against my chest, resting her head against my shoulder, and we simply held each other for a few minutes.

I was so comfortable my eyes drifted closed again. I must have drifted off completely, because it took me a second to catch up when she finally spoke. "So what now?" she asked.

Groaning, I nuzzled in good and close until I had her right where I wanted her. I had no plans other than to stay right where I was for the entire day. Well, eventually we would have to add food to the equation. "Now... nothing," I muttered. "I'm good."

She laughed softly, so I gave her a lazy grin. "I'm serious. Now I really do have everything I want. I was only teasing when I said I wanted you for Christmas, but since you decided to take me literally, I fully accept, and there're no take backs. You're stuck with me now."

"Haha, you're so funny."

I could practically hear her eye roll, and it sparked that side of me that always took her sarcasm as a personal challenge. "I'm not joking."

If my tone of voice hadn't clued her into my sudden change in mood, the heat in my eyes as I pulled her mouth to mine certainly did. I was pleasantly surprised when she returned my kiss with enthusiasm. She leaned into me and locked her arms around my neck, making it way too easy for me to scoop her up onto my lap.

With her bad hip, I wasn't sure if she could straddle me like I was aching for her to do, so I settled her on top of me sideways, cradling her against me. Her arms unlocked, and she sunk one of her hands deep into my hair while the other fell to my chest.

Goose bumps exploded on my arms when Val allowed herself, for only the second time, to explore my body. She was timid with her touch, barely grazing my skin with her fingertips, and though I wanted so much more, I buried my need deep inside because I didn't want to scare her into stopping. She needed to set the pace.

She ran her hand between my breasts and reached my abdomen, then followed the trail from my navel to the waistband of my jeans, brushing her fingers back and forth over it as if she enjoyed the feel of my skin. It felt so good that my eyes rolled back in my head.

Never in my life had a woman held so much power over me physically that a simple touch could make me come unglued. I let my head fall back against the headboard of the bed and sucked in a deep breath.

Her fingers immediately disappeared from my body.

"Please don't stop," I murmured. "You have no idea how much I love it when you touch me."

I opened my eyes just in time to see her blush deeply. When I met her gaze, she turned her head away and bit her lips. I lifted her chin with a finger and waited for her to look at me. Her cheeks remained deep crimson, but she eventually met my eyes. "Only what you're ready for," I promised, holding her beautiful blue eyes with mine. "Never anything more than that. Okay? You say stop, I stop."

We stared at each other for a heartbeat longer, and then she wet her lips and gave me a tiny nod. "Okay," she whispered.

She pulled her bottom lip into her teeth and sat frozen, as if she didn't know what to do next. I took her hand in mine, kissed her palm, and then placed it on my torso, guiding her fingers over my skin and brushing her thumb over my bra because she'd been too shy to touch me there before. A shiver rocked her, and she swallowed audibly.

I fought to keep control of my excitement. I never had to do this before. Not once in my life had I ever had to be the initiator with a woman or encourage one to touch me. I lost my virginity when I was barely sixteen, my seventeen-year-old co-star at the time threw herself at me. I, being the stupid and eager teenager that I was, and in the process of coming to terms with my sexuality, let her bring me into a world I wasn't prepared for.

I was too young and not mature enough to realise it, but my mother was in Wisconsin by then, and I didn't have a father worth a damn to give me any kind of wise advice. After it happened, I felt overwhelmed. My head was all over the place, at that point I was sure I liked women, but the whole situation was confusing.

That first time had pretty much set the bar for my sex life. I discreetly slept with a few women that year. I came out to the media, and the world, when I was seventeen. When I turned eighteen women of all ages would throw themselves at me, and I let them do what they wanted because it felt good, and I was lonely and looking for a deeper connection of some kind. As the years went by, I became more confident and now I had no problem being in charge in the bedroom, but I didn't want to become my seventeen-year-old co-star taking advantage of someone younger and inexperienced.

Still gliding Val's fingers across my skin, I quietly asked, "Do you want to stop?"

She looked at me again, and I waited. My body was screaming at me for more, but this was about her, not me. She bit her lip again and shook her head once.

"Can you say it for me?" I asked, needing verbal confirmation so that I could be sure I wasn't pushing her too far. "Out loud?"

She took a breath.

I waited some more.

"I don't want to stop," she whispered.

Sexier words had never been spoken.

Pressing her hand firmly against my chest in a prompt to leave it there, I let go of her and lifted my hand to her face. "Good," I said, kissing the corner of her mouth. "Because I really, really, really don't want to stop yet."

I grazed her jaw with my lips and then began trailing kisses down the side of her neck. She shivered again but quickly rediscovered some of the earlier courage she'd had before she clammed up.

After a few blissful minutes, I was ready to crack. Having her touch me like this, feeling both her vulnerability and her desire, was maddening. I needed to taste more of her, feel more of her. I scooped her off my lap and laid her back on the bed, never breaking the heated kiss we were locked in.

She gasped softly when I leaned over her, settling a good deal of my weight on her, sinking us down into the mattress. Her following shudder of pleasure told me it was the right kind of gasp, so I intensified the kiss and let my hands wander.

Val was still dressed in the long-sleeve blouse and skinny jeans she'd worn the day before. They covered her from neck to toe. I knew the clothes had to stay on, but she gave me more freedom to roam over the top of them than I had expected her to. She didn't put on the breaks until I rolled fully on top of her and settled myself against her.

"Juls." She gasped in a way that made me sure she liked what she felt, even though it overwhelmed her. "Okay. I'm ready to stop."

I took a deep breath and lifted myself off her immediately. I gave her one more firm kiss and then propped myself up on my side next to her. She lay on her back, staring up at the ceiling, trying to catch her breath. She looked amazing with her hair mussed, lips swollen, and face flushed.

I took her hand and brought it to my lips before tangling our fingers together and holding them against my chest. I just couldn't seem to let her go. The kissing had stopped, but I still needed her in some way. She looked at our hands and then brought her free hand up to her flushed face. 

"I'm sorry," she whispered, looking away from me in shame.

I never wanted to see that look again. I didn't want her to feel bad about not being ready for sex. That's not something she should ever feel sorry for. If she did, then I was still putting too much pressure on her. I could say all of that to her, but I didn't want to sound like I was lecturing her, so I decided humour was the best route. 

"I'm not sorry. I got to second base."

I flashed her a naughty smile and wriggled my eyebrows. The tactic worked. For a split second, she was shocked, but then she rolled her eyes and cracked a smile.

I rubbed her blushing cheek and then ran my thumb over her swollen lips. "Valentina, you are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," I murmured. I gave her a soft kiss and pulled back again. My eyes drifted to the top of her head, and I couldn't help adding, "With the most outrageous bed head ever!"

"Oh, shut up."

I caught her hand again when she smacked me. "I'm serious. You are beautiful, and I can't believe I will get to wake up next to you every morning now."

Val's face paled, reminding me that there was still a little more drama to sort out. She and I needed to clear some things up. I sighed. "I guess now is the right time for that conversation you promised me the other day?"

 

Chapter Text

Juliana POV

Val knew exactly what I was talking about. She closed her eyes and groaned up at the ceiling. "I don't know what to say. I know you don't care about my scars, and you say you want to be patient with me about the sex, but..."

"Forget the sex and the scars. This isn't about that."

Val frowned. I gave her a small smile and tangled our fingers together again. "I know you're shy about the scars and the sex. You aren't ready to share either of those things with me, and that is okay; I get it. I support it. I don't want you to worry about that. When you're ready to go there, we will. That's easy."

Val blushed, because that's just what she did whenever the topic of sex came up. But her face stayed confused. "What else is there?"

I wasn't sure I could put it into words. The other morning, I had flipped on the news as I made breakfast, and when the anchors mentioned 'Valentina's first public interview since the premiere', I nearly spilled my coffee all over the counter. I hadn't a clue what they were talking about. She hadn't given any interview that I knew of. When they dropped Erik Clarke's name and website, I almost put my fist through the wall. I knew that bastard's game, knew he was good at it, and I could only imagine how much my feisty, fun, playful, trusting Valentina would give a guy like him.

When I watched that video, I felt like I had been smacked in the face with a two-by-four. It wasn't the things she said that upset me; it was the things she hadn't.

"Not being ready to get intimate right away is natural, Val. But when you spoke on that video, you sounded scared and confused about us."

She shook her head. "I'm not."

I wanted to believe her, but there was something stopping me. She was still holding back. "But you are," I insisted. "In some ways, at least. I can feel it. You're scared of living with me. There's something about us, about our relationship, that you aren't sure about or comfortable with."

She bit her lip, and it made my gut clench. I was right. There was something really bothering her. My mind automatically turned to my insane life. She promised the fame didn't bother her, but after everything that happened yesterday, maybe she was worried that she'd made a mistake being with me.

"Val... honey, whatever it is... please tell me." I braced myself. I couldn't let her stay with me if she didn't want my lifestyle. I loved her too much to hold her prisoner. I never wanted to let her go, but if it was what she needed... "I don't want anything unsaid between us. I don't want you to hold back. Whatever you're feeling, I want to know it. And I promise you, whatever it is, we will find a way to fix it. If I have to give up my career and we have to move to Alaska and live under a rock, or undergo plastic surgery so that we're completely unrecognisable, we will."

She cracked a smile and squeezed my fingers. "Your insecurity is adorable," she said, shocking me. "And it's appreciated, too. Makes me feel more normal." She shook her head. "I told you, the fame doesn't bother me. What happened yesterday at the theatre sucked, but it was nothing in comparison to having you by my side last night when my father rejected me. It could never erase the way you stepped up and claimed me as yours when he didn't want me. Or overpower the way you held me all night last night while I cried for hours. Fame is a very small price to pay for that, and I will gladly stand beside you in any spotlight if that's what it takes to be with you."

Holy shit, the woman was going to kill me. My chest tightened up so much I couldn't breathe, and my pounding pulse roared in my ears. I never could have imagined feeling this way. I thought I understood love. I have cared about Val for so long that I was certain I knew what love was, but this... this was so much more than anything I could have imagined.

I cleared the emotion from my throat. "Then what is it? I can't stand the thought of you being scared or confused about anything, especially when it comes to us. Please talk to me."

Val must have detected my bubbling emotions, because she scooted forward and pressed her lips to mine. After a quick kiss, she nestled herself comfortably beside me. She rested her head on my shoulder and laid her hand on my chest. I was tempted to pull her thigh across me like it had been when I woken up this morning, but I might not stop there, and now was not the time for me to try and start something again.

"I'm not unsure about us," she insisted, once she was good and comfortable. "In fact, we might be the only thing I am sure about right now." She lifted her head up to look me in the eye. "And I'm not scared of you."

I raised a brow at that.

She shook her head. "I'm not. I promise. It's not that. It's just..." She sighed as she started absently brushing her fingers back and forth across my collarbone. The light scratch of her fingernails had my goose bumps coming back.

"Just what?" I whispered in a strangled voice.

"I think... you and I are just in different places right now."

Needing the physical connection as much as she did, I started running my hand up and down the length of her arm. "What do you mean?"

"I know you're ready for our Happily Ever After," she said. "You want to play house together and do the whole adulting thing."

I smiled at the mental picture she'd just put in my mind. She had no idea how badly I wanted that with her.

"I love that you want that life with me, and I want it with you, too, I do."

"But...?" I asked.

"But... I'm just not ready for it yet." She sighed again. "I've never been on my own. I haven't had any time to be an adult yet. I'm not ready to be a full blown grown-up."

I was starting to see what she meant, and she was right. There was a difference between becoming an adult and being a grown-up.

"There's supposed to be a transition between being a teenager living at home with your parents and the house with the white picket fence, two kids, and a dog."

"Cat," I said, chuckling.

"What?"

"I like cats," I admitted sheepishly. "Kittens are cuter, and then they grow up to be feisty, badass cats."

Val lifted her head off my chest to look at me, pursing her lips together until finally a laugh burst through her defences. "Okay, big, bad movie star. We'll get you a fluffy wittle kittie someday."

My grin doubled. I was so taking her to the humane society this week.

"Anyway," she said, rolling her eyes at me before dropping her head onto my shoulder again.

"Sorry." I really wasn't that sorry. I didn't mean to make light of this whole moment, but I was just so happy. She was talking about this future together that I never thought I would get. Once I became a real superstar, I always figured I would end up like my dad. I assumed that would be my only option. Val's house with the kids and the white picket fence had my mind racing with all kinds of possibilities. Maybe it was possible to have my career and the typical American dream.

"I think what I really need is that transition. I haven't even been very well since the accident, physically, mentally, or emotionally."

Suddenly feeling like an idiot for teasing her, I dropped my playful attitude and kissed her temple so that she knew I was taking this seriously. She breathed in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I need time to adjust. I need some stability for once, in an environment where I feel safe, comfortable, and in control."

"I can give you that," I promised.

Her cheek lifted against my chest, and I heard a smile in her answer. "I know you can. That's kind of the problem. I'm afraid you'll do your job a little too well. While I'm the baby bird finally flying away from the nest, you've already built your own and are looking for a mama bird to lay some eggs in it." I laughed at the metaphor and got a frown for it. "You've been on your own for years and are finally hitting that real grown-up stage."

I snorted. "My father should be happy to hear that. He's been calling me an immature ass and telling me to grow up for years."

"Maybe he should look in a mirror," Val muttered under her breath.

I laughed again and hugged her to me. "Hey. I get what you're saying, and maybe there's some truth to it, but I can wait. What's a few more years of being an immature ass?"

Val smacked my chest. "Shut up. I'm being serious."

"I know." I covered her hand with mine and held it against my chest. "And I mean it, too. I wasn't kidding about living more like roommates, if that's what you need to feel comfortable with this. I can do slow. Hell, it took me three years to work up the nerve to give you my number."

"Yeah." Val scoffed. "And then it took you a week to ask me to move in."

The woman had a point. I'd held off for so long because I was afraid of telling her who I was. I had a good thing and thought revealing myself would ruin it. Once I learned it wouldn't, well, my instinct was to make up the lost time for those three years. "Okay, fine. That wasn't slow. But I can be patient now. I'm completely content with our current situation."

"Of course you are. You got your way, you spoiled brat!"

I smiled to myself, unable to stomp out my pride. I had gotten my way. I got exactly what I wanted, and I was deliriously happy because of it. I hadn't done it on purpose, so I wasn't going to feel bad about it.

Val looked up and caught my smug grin. Her face fell flat. "You are impossible."

"That's why you love me."

I don't think she wanted to smile at that, but she did. I ducked my head down and kissed her. "I understand what you're saying, and I promise I will follow your lead from now on. You have complete control of this relationship, woman. I know how you are." When she cocked a brow at me, I smirked. "You're not the only one who knows what they've signed up for. But don't worry. I happily relinquish my proverbial pants. You are welcome to wear them too."

I got smacked again. Harder this time. It was totally worth it.

"You are such an idiot, Jana."

That did it. She called me Jana, with her Boston accent slipping through extra heavily, like it does every now and then, and my mouth was on hers faster than you could say cah.

She indulged me for a minute but then let me go and sat up. I guessed the time for morning make outs had passed. That was okay. We had all day, forever, really, to find more opportunities. Mid morning, afternoon, evening, and bedtime make outs worked for me, too. If she wanted to take a break for some breakfast and a cup of coffee, I wouldn't complain.

"So..." She blew out a big breath and ran a hand through her messy hair as she looked around my room. She hadn't seen it before since it was upstairs. I'd given her a tour of the main level of the house the first time she came over, but we hadn't bothered to come upstairs because that was a difficult task for her. I wasn't sure what we were going to do about that, but one thing at a time.

The room wasn't anything special. It had the same modern décor as the rest of the house. Cool winter tones with a splash of bright colour here and there. Bed, California King size, night tables on either side, TV mounted to the wall, sliding glass door to the master balcony, a chair in the corner... very basic.

"Home, sweet home, I guess," I muttered with a shrug. "Nothing fancy. I bought the place already furnished just over a year ago and never bothered to make any changes to it."

She nodded as if that explained a lot. "It's nice; just kind of... impersonal."

"Yeah, it's not really what I would have picked, but I was in a hurry to get out of my old place, and this one had all the things I was really looking for. It's secluded, has a tall privacy fence all around the property, you can't see anything but the roof of the house from the road, and there are cameras and a state-of-the-art alarm system all along the property line."

"So, no stalkers peeking in your windows or paparazzi taking pictures with their super zoom-in cameras from nearby trees?"

"Exactly. I'm sorry there's not a bedroom on the first floor. I hadn't even thought of that before."

She shook her head. "We'll figure something out."

"Or I could just carry you to bed every evening," I said with another suggestive waggle of my eyebrows to make as light of the offer as possible. That might end up being our only option for now, but I knew she would loathe the idea. If she was really going to live with me now, perhaps it was time to call the real estate agent again.

There was something very appealing about the idea of Val and I house hunting together, picking out something we both liked, arguing over colour schemes and negotiating on the must-have features. No doubt she'd want a huge kitchen and a nice master bathroom, while I really only wanted a garage large enough for a future car collection and a great back patio for entertaining guests. But I knew better than to mention any of this to Val, considering I had just promised her not to be too grown-up. House hunting for our first house together, where we would someday start a family, definitely fell in that category.

She broke through my daydreaming with a sigh. "Just one more thing to add to the to-do list, but that one can be dealt with later. For now..." She closed her eyes and shook her head. After a moment, she rubbed her temples and let out another heavy breath. "I don't even know where to start."

"How about we don't start?" I suggested, lying back on my pillow and propping my arm under my head. When she shot me an unimpressed look, I grinned and tugged her back down with me. "What if today we just lie in bed all day and pretend nothing outside this room exists? Life's going to start back up soon enough, but it doesn't need to start today. I think we earned a lazy day after yesterday."

Val smiled as if she liked the idea as much as I did and snuggled right back up next to me, but then a frown spread over her face. "Life starts back up for you, maybe. I don't really have a life. The exams are out of the way now, so I've no school, no job, no goals for my future..."

She made that sound like a bad thing. I thought it sounded like heaven. "You have time to figure all that out."

"I suppose I could start with college. There's a new semester starting soon. I could take a few classes at community college just to keep me busy while I figure out what I want to do."

I cringed. I was going to have to burst that bubble, and, yet again, it was because of my life. "Maybe that's not the best idea yet. After how bad things got yesterday, I think it's going to take a while for all of this hype to die down."

She stiffened beside me and spoke in a clipped tone laced with frustration. "So what am I supposed to do? Stay tucked away inside this house like a prisoner? Am I the princess locked away in her tower? Is that what life's going to be like for us now?"

"Not forever," I promised, pushing her hair out of her face. It seemed to calm us both down whenever I touched her. "Think of it more like we're Bonnie and Clyde lying low for a while. And we can still go out, but just randomly. You probably don't want to have anything so routine like a school schedule until we aren't the main story of every news broadcast. It will die down, like you said; it just might take a while. Besides, we have to get you all settled in, and you've got a surgery coming up in a few weeks, anyway. You've got plenty to worry about right now. School can wait a semester."

Val shot up as if she'd just woken from a crazy nightmare. "Oh crap!" She looked at me with panic swirling in her eyes. "My surgery! I can't let my dad keep paying all of my medical bills. Not after I cut ties with him."

That was what she was so worried about? "Val. Calm down. That's not a problem at all. We'll just have everything transferred into my name. I can take care of any debt that's still outstanding, and I'll have Mateo look into adding you to my insurance policy. I bet if we're living together, I can add you, and if not, well, we'll just pay whatever as it comes."

Val's face paled, and I could see her trying to come up with a way to refuse my offer. "Juliana..." Her frown deepened as she struggled for words. Eventually, she settled for frantically shaking her head. "I can't let you do that. It's too much."

"Val, I made fifteen million dollars for The Druid Princess alone, and my agents have already assured me they can get me thirty apiece for the next four films. And that doesn't even include any of my savings or investments or other sub rights and royalties. Trust me. It's not too much."

She glared at me. "You know what I mean."

I ignored the glare. Val had been raised by a single mom and always had to live frugally. She was fiercely independent because of it. I admired her for that, and I knew it had to be incredibly hard for her to be so dependent after her accident, first on her father, and now on me. I wished I had another answer for her, but I didn't, and she really didn't have another choice. We both knew she had to let me do this; I just wished I knew how to make it an easier pill for her to swallow.

"Would it help if I say I want to do this for you? Or, that if you don't let me, I'll probably just spend all that money on another ostentatious car or two to keep Precious company, or other meaningless stupid stuff that will only make me more spoiled than I already am? Not to mention all the presents upon presents I would end up getting you because I'm a filthy rich celebrity who has nothing better to do with her millions of dollars."

Val scrubbed her face with her hands, as if that might ease some of the tension building inside her or somehow miraculously solve her problem. When it didn't, she glared at me. "You fight dirty."

I grinned. Score another victory for me. "I'm sorry. I know you don't love the idea, but I really am glad I can help you with this."

"I know." She sighed, defeated. "I'll let you, because I have no other option right now, but I wish I didn't have to ask this of you."

"You didn't. And I can't think of anything I'd rather spend my money on than your health and well-being. In fact, this sounds so wrong, but I'm kind of thrilled that I get to pay all of your medical expenses."

She scoffed. "Not wrong. Perverse."

I sat up and scooped her into my arms, placing her between my legs and pulling her back against my chest. I rested my head on her shoulder and just held her for a moment. "Thank you for letting me do this."

Slowly, she relaxed. "Thank you for doing it. It's not that I'm not grateful; I just don't want to be your responsibility. You're my girlfriend, not my caregiver. I want to be your partner in this relationship, not your dependent. Does that make sense?"

My heart warmed. "It does, and I respect that attitude more than you know. I've been used for my money many times. That you don't want me to spend so much on you only makes it that much easier to do. But I don't want you feeling like our relationship is out of balance. We're in this together. I want to be partners, too, not your sugar mama." She snorted, and I laughed softly. "Okay, I actually wouldn't mind being your sugar mama, but we'll figure out a way to get you on your feet. Right now, I might have to carry a little more of the responsibility, but we'll get a plan in place for you so that it doesn't always have to be that way. Or..." I squeezed her tight and kissed the side of her head. "We could always pretend we're back in the fifties. I can worry about the money and the bills, and you can do all the cooking and the cleaning and stuff." That got a laugh, so I added, "I mean, I have a cleaning lady who comes once a week, but I can always fire her and show you where the toilet brush is."

"Hmm..." Val said. "Maybe we should keep the cleaning lady, and you can show me where the aprons are instead. I can handle cooking."

She grinned and offered her lips. I kissed those beauties and then moved mine to her ear. "If I get you an apron, would you consider cooking me breakfast wearing just that? Because that would be the sexiest..."

"OH MY GOD, JULIANA! I am not going to give you any nude cooking shows! SO STOP!"

I burst into laughter. "You are so easy."

"Please. Like you were teasing."

"I was."

"Only because you knew I'd say no."

"So?"

"So nothing! You are such a perv."

I rolled my eyes. "I hate to break it to you, woman, but I am completely normal. You're just a prude." She scrunched up her face into a pout that made me laugh. "An adorable prude, but a prude all the same. There isn't a man or woman in the world that wouldn't love to watch their girlfriend cook breakfast wearing nothing but an apron."

"Fine. If you're so keen on the idea, why don't you cook me breakfast in just an apron and see how you like it."

Hell yeah. That was all the green light I needed. "DEAL!!"

I was up and out of bed so fast she only managed a surprise squeal before I bolted out the bedroom's double doors.

 

Chapter Text

Juliana POV

Val squealed as I left the room and headed downstairs. "Juls! Oh my god, Juliana! I was joking! Don't you dare!"

One of the things I do like about my house is that it's very open. The whole front half has huge vaulted ceilings. The staircase leads up to a loft that overlooks both the living and dining rooms. It makes the place feel a lot bigger than it is.

At the moment, it also meant that Val could hear me banging around in the kitchen from the master bedroom. By the time she got to the loft railing and leaned over it to yell down at me, I had already removed my jeans and purposely left them hanging over the back of the living room couch where she could see them from upstairs.

"Juliana?" The same voice that had just spouted a string of Spanish that I was pretty sure would earn a film an 18+ rating now sounded as if it were auditioning to play a mouse in an animated feature. Not a grown mouse, either, but a tiny little scared mouse. "Juliana, you aren't really naked right now, are you? Please tell me you have something on."

Have I mentioned how much I love that she's shy? I was grinning like an idiot when I called up to her from the kitchen. "You know, I don't think I actually have an apron. We'll have to pick one up next time we go shopping. But if you come downstairs and sit at the bar, you probably won't be able to see much with me behind the counter. I'm making some coffee. It's excellent stuff. Some kind of fancy French roast."

"I'm not coming down until you put your pants back on!" she called out in a haughty voice.

I smirked. "I'm have my underwear on, babe. And I know for a fact that you've seen both of the teen comedies I did a couple years ago. Which means you've already seen me like this. The pants are staying off. Come downstairs! I'll make you some eggs and toast."

"That is different, and you know it!"

"Do you need some help? I can come get you if you want."

That earned me a frustrated groan. Damn, she was fun. "I'm going back to bed. You can bring my breakfast up when you're done being a brat."

My bedroom door clicked shut a few seconds later. I chuckled and rummaged around until I found a tray. Breakfast in bed sounded like a wonderful idea. I got right to work and managed coffee, juice, scrambled eggs, toast, and yogurt for two. I sighed a little as I slipped my pants back on. Another time, I would be stubborn and leave them off, but she just got here, and I didn't want to push her too much. I wanted her to have fun and relax with me, yes, but I also wanted her to trust me and feel comfortable and safe in my home.

"I'm wearing my jeans," I called as I entered my room. The dishes clanked quietly on the tray as I walked to the bed. Val wasn't in it.

"That's good," she called from out on the balcony, "because it's a little chilly out here, and I stole your robe."

Her voice was playful again as it drifted inside from the open sliding glass door. I carefully set the tray down on my bed and went to my closet. Lucky for her, I had more than one of almost everything. I found another robe, and then took Val her breakfast outside.

The sun was shining, and there were only a couple of puffy white clouds in the otherwise blue sky above the canyon my house backed to. It was a little chilly, but just enough to nip at any exposed skin and make the robe feel warm and comforting.

Val was sitting at the small patio table outside my bedroom door, with her eyes closed and her face turned to the sun. A small smile played on her lips, as if she loved the feeling of the sun rays hitting her face. She was swimming in my bathrobe, and her hair was a disaster, but she'd never looked better.

I could get used to this.

I set the tray on the table in front of her and kissed her cheek. "You are positively bewitching right now."

Her cheek lifted beneath my lips as she smiled. I waited for her to make a joke or call me cheesy, but she simply looked at the food in front of her and said, "Thanks for breakfast."

Not only did she accept my compliment; she rewarded me with a kiss. I laughed as I sat beside her and split up the food on the tray. "That was much better."

She slanted me a wry look. "I liked that one."

"Good to know."

I sipped my coffee while Val salted and peppered her eggs and dug right in. We'd both skipped dinner last night. After a couple wonderful moments, I decided to get to the heart of it. "So today... do you want to go get some of your things, or do you want to just go shopping for some stuff and give it a week or so before you try to contact your family?"

Val scowled at her plate. "I don't know, maybe I could just borrow your things for now. I'll call Renata later and feel things out. Part of me never wants to go back there, but I have some things, like my mom's things, that I definitely want to keep."

"Okay. Well, why don't we..." I forgot what I was about to say when the ringtone for the front gate started to sing. "Who the hell...?"

Val set her fork down. "What's going on?"

I held up my phone before unlocking it. "I have it programmed to ring whenever someone buzzes the front gate."

"Someone's here? Who?"

I grinned. I'm not much of a techie, but I have fun with my security system. "Check this out. When I answer it, it'll show me the feed from the surveillance camera down there."

I answered the 'call', and a little screen popped up on my phone, showing me the last person I ever expected to see. "Mom?"

"Hello? Juli, honey, is that you? Hello?"

I nearly dropped my cup of coffee. My mother was here? I couldn't believe it. My mother hates to travel almost as much as she hates my father. Traveling to the city where my father actually lived was the worst of both worlds, in her mind. She never came to L.A., if it was at all avoidable. She always made me come see her. She hadn't been to visit me in L.A. in three or four years.

"Mom, what are you doing here?"

When I spoke, she turned toward the sound of my voice coming from the small speaker on the gate box. She found the camera and gave me a petulant frown. "What do you think I'm doing here? I'm surprising my daughter for Christmas." She reached out her window and pressed the buzzer several more times before finally huffing in annoyance. "Juliana, sweetheart, this thing is not working. The gate won't open."

I shook my head and swallowed a laugh. "That's the buzzer, Mom. It's like a doorbell. It doesn't open the gate."

"Oh. Well, how in the world am I supposed to open the gate, then?"

I glanced at Val. She was watching my phone with fascination while biting her lips, as if trying not to laugh. I was glad to see her excitement. Though the timing wasn't ideal, I was sure Val was going to love my mom, and I couldn't wait for them to meet. I shot her a wink and laughed at my mom. "You can't open the gate. I have to let you in."

Mom balked, as if personally offended. "Well, would you mind letting me in? We had to be at the airport at 4:00 a.m. our time, it was the only flight they had for two days. We have been traveling for hours, and I would like to come in, put on a fresh change of clothes, and rest someplace comfortable."

"We?" I squinted at the tiny screen on my phone, trying to see past my mom to the passenger seat. "Is that Panchito with you?"

"Well, of course he is. Who else would it be?"

"Hey, Panchito!"

"Hello, Juliana," my stepfather called out and then muttered, "You see? I told you we should have called first."

"For heaven sakes. How were we supposed to surprise her if we called first?" She turned back to the camera. "Are you surprised, honey?"

"I..." Not surprised. I was stunned. Speechless. "Yeah. I'm surprised."

"Too surprised to open the gate for your dear old mother?"

Beside me, Val slapped a hand over her mouth. Laughter spilled from her eyes.

I'm sorry, I mouthed.

"You'd better open the gate soon, or your mother's going to put you in time-out when she finally gets in to the house," she whispered back, laughing.

I rolled my eyes, but Val wasn't far off, so I hit the code to open the gate and hung up the phone. I set it on the table and just stared at it for a moment. "Did that really just happen?"

"She seems fun."

"Fun." I blew out a breath and raked a hand through my hair. "If we survive, yes." I looked at Val, wondering how to properly prepare her for what was about to hit us. My mother was... a handful. "I love the woman," I promised. "And you will, too, but she's..."

"Enthusiastic?"

I snorted. "Tenacious."

The doorbell rang four times in a row, eliciting a groan from me. "So much for a peaceful week." I shot Val another look. "I apologise in advance. You have nothing to fear, but you will quickly see why the apology is necessary."

The doorbell rang again, as did my phone. "I'm coming, Mom," I grumbled when I answered it. "Let me just throw on a shirt, and I'll be right there."

"Throw on a shirt? Juli, it's ten thirty. Are you still in bed?"

"No. Sort of. Just hang on a sec. I'll be right there."

Val followed me inside, our breakfast forgotten for now, and laughed as I put on yesterday's rumpled shirt. "Shut up," I warned. "It's not funny." At her evil grin, I added, "You mock me now, but her attention is only on me because she doesn't know you are here yet. She's not really here to see me."

That wiped the smile off Val's face. I should have felt bad when she bit her lip and tried to run her fingers through the tangled mess of hair on her head. But I didn't. She didn't have anything to worry about except being smothered to death by motherly affection, and I got the feeling Val wouldn't mind that after the year she'd had. I kissed her forehead before heading out the door. "You look fine, and she's going to love you. Promise."

My mother was standing with one eyebrow arched, her arms folded tightly across her chest, a designer boot tapping impatiently by the time I got the front door unlocked. I wanted to be annoyed with her, but the second I saw the tiny brunette spitfire of a woman, I was a little kid again, giddy with excitement. "Hey, Mom!"

I threw my arms around her, and she melted, suffering from the same anticipation as me. "There's my baby!" she squealed, squeezing me in as tight a death grip as she could manage.

I let her go and gave Panchito a quick, slightly awkward hug. I liked the guy, but we'd never spent enough time together for him to really feel like a father figure. "Good to see you, Panchito. I hope the trip wasn't too strenuous."

Panchito snorted, casting a glance at my mom, and I laughed. I could only imagine Mom having to fly coach on a crowded flight at an ungodly hour in the morning. Panchito was probably exhausted and very eager to pass Mom off to me.

I pulled back and just looked at them again after they shuffled into the entryway and I shut the door. "Wow." I was still trying to recover from the shock. "I can't believe you're here. Thank you for coming."

"Are you kidding?" Mom's giddiness was gone, and her you're-in-so-much-trouble face was back. "After you cancelled your trip on us last minute? What else were we supposed to do? We had to wait until after Christmas, of course, Panchito couldn't skip out on his kids, but Juli, I can't believe you ditched your mother on Christmas."

This time, I didn't hold back my groan. "Mom. I told you why I couldn't go. I couldn't leave Val when I had just thrown her into the spotlight."

Mom huffed. "I hoped you would be able to convince her to come to Wisconsin. Did you even try?"

I rolled my eyes. "You know I didn't, and I told you why. It's not that she didn't want to come. She was just too overwhelmed with everything. We needed some time to ourselves."

My mom harrumphed her disapproval and led me by the arm to the living room couch, still in a lecturing mood. "Honestly, Juliana, what kind of ungrateful daughter are you? My only child declares to the entire world that she's found the love of her life, and she couldn't take the time to call her own mother and let her know about it first? Then you don't even bring her to see me for Christmas?"

I laughed. Guadalupe was a formidable woman, stubborn, opinionated, and determined. I think that's why she ended up married to my dad all those years ago. Also probably why they ended up divorced less than three years later. How she ever settled in a place like Green Bay, Wisconsin, with a quiet math professor I would never know, but I was glad she was happy. She wasn't trilled that I had ended up in the movie industry, like dad, but she was always supportive. My mom has always been my biggest supporter especially when I came out, she told me everything would be fine, she loved me for who I was and hoped I would be truly happy.

"Mom. Give me a break. We've only been dating for a week!"

"Love, Juliana. You used the word love. People don't fall in love in a week. You had three years to tell me about this mysterious young woman, and you never breathed a word of her. I am your mother. I thought you trusted me."

She had a point, but I didn't feel guilty for not telling her about Valentina. I never told anyone about her. Val had been too special from the very start. She'd been my secret. Mine alone. To completely geek out on you and borrow the words of Gollum, she'd been my precious. She'd been my One Ring that I needed to keep secret and safe.

I hadn't been embarrassed that I was talking to a stranger online. It was more that my life had never been typical, and Val was so... normal. Not that she was ordinary. I always knew she was special. But she had a normal life. She was a link to a world I would never qualify for but one I secretly longed to be a part of. She seemed too good to be true, and I was afraid if I told anyone about her, she would disappear. Now that I knew she wasn't going anywhere, I was ready to show the entire world what a treasure I had found.

"Okay, okay, I get it. I should have told you about her. And if you will quit lecturing me long enough to let me get a word in, I'll introduce you to her."

Mom's jaw dropped. "What are you...? Is she here?"

I relished the look of shock on my mom's face, it was her turn to be surprised, after all.

 

 

Chapter Text

Juliana POV

Smirking at my mom, I looked up to the loft railing above us where Val was simply watching the scene unfold with amusement playing at the corners of her lips. Mom followed my gaze and squealed. "Oh, Valentina, hello, dear!" She clasped her hands to her mouth and waited out a bout of emotions. "I'm sorry, I'm just so excited to meet you. Come on down and give your future mother-in-law a big hug."

I slapped a hand over my face and groaned. Future mother-in-law? Not that I didn't think it was an accurate title, but I'd just been accused of being too grown-up and ready for things Val wasn't. Things like marriage. Which my mother was mostly likely going to mention every five minutes for however long she planned to stay.

Luckily, Val's attention was focused on something else. "It's nice to meet you, too," she said. "And I would come down, but, um..." She grimaced and met my eyes. "Your stairs are kind of steep, and there's no handrail. I don't think I can manage them on my own."

The blood drained from my face and I hurried up the stairs, kicking myself the entire way. I was such an idiot. I never even considered that she hadn't come downstairs because she couldn't. She must have felt awful having to say that out loud in front of my mother. "Shit, Val, I'm sorry," I whispered when I got upstairs.

She shook off my apology, but her smile was forced. I seriously could kick my own ass right now. "Do you need me to carry you?" I hated to ask, but I wasn't sure how much help she needed, and I didn't want to make her ask.

She sucked in a breath and shook her head. "I can make it; I just need to borrow this." She took my arm and linked hers through it.

I continued to mutter apologies as I walked with her to the top of the stairs. "I'm such an idiot, Val. I didn't even..."

"It's okay, Juls. It's not your fault."

It felt like my fault. How the hell was she supposed to live here when she couldn't even get to and from her bedroom on her own?

Val stopped at the top of the steps and frowned. She started chewing her bottom lip again.

"You okay?"

She gave me another grimace. "Um... well, it's just..." She eyed the steps again and sighed. "That's going to take me a while, and it's going to hurt, and I haven't showered or anything yet. If I'm just going to have to come right back up..."

I didn't let her finish. "Mom? Panchito? Could you please come up here for a minute?"

The relief that washed over Val's face made me want to kick myself again. "That's it. I'm calling the real estate agent this afternoon."

Val's eyes bulged. "Don't be ridiculous. You can't move just because I have a hard time with stairs."

The hell I couldn't. "Watch me."

She didn't like my answer, but I was prepared to be stubborn about this. I never wanted to put her in this position again. And I definitely didn't want her to have to live somewhere where she'd have to either be carried, something she hates, or caused a lot of pain just to get to bed at night.

We were still glaring at each other when my mom and stepdad reached the loft. Mom's brow was creased with concern. "What's wrong, honey?"

"Nothing's wrong. Stairs just aren't an easy task for Val. She wanted to meet you, but she's not quite ready to come down for the day."

Mom's eyebrows disappeared up under her bangs. "Well, why didn't you say so in the first place? Where are your manners?"

I half expected her to smack the back of my head, but she turned to Val instead. "Sweetheart, it is so wonderful to finally meet you. I'd love to say I've heard all about you, but Juliana has been extremely tight-lipped about the two of you." She shot me a scolding look and pulled Val into a hug. "I suppose that doesn't matter anymore. You're here now, and we have all the time in the world to get to know one another. You must be quite the woman to make my baby girl give up her horrid, philandering ways. And just look at you!"

She pulled out of the hug and scanned Valentina from head to toe. "You are positively..." She paused, cocked her head to the side as she looked closer at Val's appearance, and her smile fell into a frown. "Well, you look like a bit of a train wreck, actually, and... have you been crying?"

"Mom!"

Even Panchito voiced a warning this time. "Lupe!"

Mom ignored us both and dragged Val over to the small sofa along the wall of the loft. "What on earth happened to you? You look positively a mess. Please tell me my daughter normally takes better care of you than this."

The horror in my mom's voice made Val crack a small smile. "Juliana takes excellent care of me," she promised as the two of them sat down. Mom still clung to one of her hands and was now fussing with her hair as well. "She brought me here on the spur of the moment last night because I had an awful day yesterday. She let me cry on her shoulder like a little girl for hours until I passed out, and she even made me breakfast in bed this morning, hoping to cheer me up."

That was my girl. Earning me brownie points with my mom, even though I had only brought her breakfast after she'd demanded it in retaliation for me torturing her with my immodesty. Still, I had been trying to cheer her up, and I had totally done all the other stuff, so I think the high praise was earned.

My chest swelled with pride when my mom's face softened. She smiled at me as if I were still her little girl that she could tuck into bed at night and sing lullabies to. I couldn't help the grin that spread across my face in return. My mom's approval was hard earned. "It's good to hear she has some manners," she teased.

I shrugged. "I had this insanely crazy mom who put the fear of God in me when it comes to treating women right."

Panchito chuckled, and Mom rolled her eyes at both of us. "Well, somebody had to. Your father certainly wasn't going to do it!" She turned her attention back to Val with a sigh. "I'm so glad she's finally found herself a nice girl to look after her. I can tell how happy you make her." Her eyes misted over, and she sniffled. "I saw what happened on the news last night. It was awful. I'm sorry you had to go through that. I'm sorry her life has made yours harder, but thank you for sticking with my baby through all the craziness."

Val gave my mom a watery smile and surprised her with a hug. She whispered something to her that I couldn't hear but that had my mom gripping Val fiercely. "God bless you, sweetheart."

I shot Panchito a look, and he just shrugged back with a look that said, 'You know your mother'. When they pulled back, Mom grinned at me. "This one's a keeper, Juliana," Mom declared.

I smiled at Valentina. "I know."

She let me pull her to her feet and kissed my cheek when I slid my arm around her waist. Mom stared at the two of us as if she was trying not to cry. "Well." She clapped her hands together, and in the blink of an eye transformed back into the formidable woman I knew her to be. "I suppose we should all get cleaned up and go to lunch to celebrate. Or did you two already have other plans with Valentina's family? I would like to meet them while I'm here."

Val and I both cringed. When I gave her a questioning look, she sighed, knowing we were going to have to explain. Mom was bound to find out sooner or later. I hugged her to me closely and let her do the talking. "Actually... I cut ties with my family last night."

Mom gasped softly and clasped her fingers over her mouth. Panchito stepped next to her, wrapping a supportive arm around his wife while looking at both Val and me with concern. "What happened?" he asked.

"My dad was mad about my stepsisters being harassed. We fought. It got pretty ugly. He chose his new family over me, like he did when I was eight." Val shrugged as if it were no big deal, but she was trembling again. "He told me if I was going to keep dating Juliana, then I should leave, so I did. I didn't even pack a bag. Hence the train-wreck-slept-in-my-clothes-cried-my-eyes-out-all-night look I'm sporting this morning. Juliana is pretty much all I have right now."

At that last declaration, I took her fully into my arms and held her tight. I was suddenly as overcome with emotion as she was.

"It was because of what happened yesterday at the theatre?" Mom asked quietly. When her worried gaze met mine, I knew what she was thinking, that my fame had cost Val her family.

Val could also sense my mom's fear and quickly shook her head. "It may have been the catalyst," she said quietly, "but my problems with my father were much deeper than that."

"Oh, you poor dear," Mom whispered. She snatched Val away from me, pulling her into another firm hug. "Well, welcome to the family, then, honey. We're happy to have you. Aren't we, Panchito?"

"Of course."

I smiled at the way Panchito's face softened when he nodded at Val. He was a softy for the girls, he was always always kind and respectful towards me. It was probably a good thing he never had daughters, because they would have had him wrapped around their little fingers. I had no doubt Val would manage the feat before he and my mom went back to Wisconsin.

Panchito is a good guy. He's a quiet man, and very kind hearted. But he's also sharp as a tack and appreciates a healthy dose of wit. And, obviously, since he married my mother, he likes strong, opinionated, feisty personalities. He'd probably love Val every bit as much as my mom. In fact, the pair of them would probably make some great stand-in parents for her, if she needed.

"I've always wanted another daughter," Mom said. "Even after I married Panchito, I only inherited boys, Panchito has three from his first marriage. They're all a little younger than Juliana, so I haven't had the chance to gain any daughters yet."

My head was beginning to hurt. "Tone it down a little, Mom." Val looked like a startled deer about to bolt. "We've been dating for barely two weeks. We aren't exactly picking out wedding rings or anything. You're going to scare her away."

Mom appraised Val's overwhelmed expression and then frowned at me. "Oh, don't be ridiculous, Juli. No one here was thinking anything about rings or marriage." Her gaze narrowed on me. "Unless... you were."

Her eyes flashed with a hunger I recognised even if I'd never seen it in her before. "No Mom. Don't even go there."

She pulled her shoulders back and lifted her chin in the air. "I didn't. You did!" The smug grin she shot me was downright man-eater. "Honey, if you're considering..."

"Mom!" I snapped, sharp enough to startle her into silence. Her eyes rounded like baseballs, but she closed her mouth and waited for me to speak. That may have been a first. Val was gaping at me, too. The feverish look in her eyes was a mixture of shock and panic. I groaned. How had this conversation derailed so quickly?

Rubbing the tension out of my temples, I let out a long breath and looked at my mom with my sternest gaze. "No one is saying anything about marriage, okay? I just meant that you needed to back off a little because you're being extremely intense, and Val has already had to deal with enough drama in the last twenty-four hours. Relax, or you're going to smother her, and she's too polite to say so."

Mom and I stared at each other for a moment, and when she opened her mouth to speak, I cocked a stubborn brow at her. "Resist the temptation, Mom."

"Well, you were the one..."

"Stop right there!"

"But if you guys are..."

"No!"

"Honey, I just think..."

"No thinking. The subject is over!"

I folded my arms and waited out the frantic excitement in her eyes. She stood there a few more stubborn moments, bouncing her gaze back and forth between Val and me. When she turned to Panchito looking for help, he shook his head. "You heard her Lupe. You should let it go."

"Well." She huffed hotly, then grumbled under her breath. "I was not being too intense. Of all the ridiculous..." She shook her head and smiled at my girlfriend. "Valentina. Sweetheart. What do you say we let these two do what they really want to do today, which is catch up, complain about me and talk about that Green Bay football team, while you and I go shopping? If you didn't even get to pack a bag, you're going to need a few of the necessities until you can arrange for your things to be sent here."

"No," I said, before Val could answer.

I cringed at the startled looks they both shot me. I was still too worked up. I hadn't meant for that to sound quite so forceful. "Sorry. Shopping is fine; I just don't want the two of you to go alone right now. Not after everything that happened yesterday. There's too much hype around Val right now, and it's just not safe. We can all go shopping together, after we get some lunch or something, if you want to, but I'll call a security guard to trail us if we go anywhere too public."

Val nodded. Last night had really shaken her. Mom reluctantly agreed after catching Val's shudder. "Oh, all right. I suppose that's reasonable. Juli, honey, be a dear and go help your stepfather bring up our luggage from the car while I take care of Valentina."

Without waiting for me to answer, she started dragging Val toward my bedroom, treating her as if she were four years old. "We'll draw you a nice hot bath, and I'm sure Juliana has something that you can wear for the day. You'll feel worlds better once you've been able to freshen up."

I watched them go, wondering if I needed to intervene, but Val glanced back at me with a reassuring smile that allowed me to let her go. Mom was still babbling as they finally disappeared from my sight.

A hand came down on my shoulder with a playful pat, startling me from the daze my mother had left me in. "Look on the bright side," Panchito said with a chuckle, "your mother's got someone new to fuss over this week, which means you're off the hook."

When I barked out a surprised laugh, he added, "Don't worry too much. Your mom knows what she's doing, and from the looks of it, your girl could use a little extra TLC for a few days."

He had a point. "Can't argue there. It is her first Christmas without her mom, and I know she's missing her pretty badly. Her relationship with her dad's been a real struggle this whole year, but I know how much she was hoping things would work out. She was pretty devastated last night. Mom might actually be the perfect distraction for her."

Panchito smiled, proud of his wife. "Well, let 'em be, then. Let your mother do her thing and look after her for a while."

"Yeah, I guess you're right."

Panchito nodded his head toward the stairs. "Let's go get started on those bags."

I laughed as I led him downstairs. "Did she pack the whole house?"

"Only half of it." Panchito smirked. "She ran out of suitcases."

 

Chapter Text

Juliana's mom was amazing. I understood why she had apologised for her in advance and had been worried about her barging into the picture after everything I'd been through the night before, but the truth was, she was exactly what I needed. She was so much like my mom, energetic and enthusiastic, with a true excitement for life. She was domineering, stubborn, opinionated, and outspoken, but she had a huge heart and was completely accepting. She had been ready to love me long before she ever met me.

It was strange, though, because in ways, she was also a lot like my father. She was a go-getter. She was organised and efficient, something my free-spirited mama never could have managed. I don't think she'd ever had to support herself, but she still worked hard doing charity work and working for the alumni and boosters organisations at Panchito's university. She'd been raised with money and had always run in important circles. I bet she would get along really well with my elitist father. She just wasn't snobby or judgmental about it. Lupe and Panchito were both great, and frankly, I was relieved that between Juliana and I we had at least one set of parental figures we could look up to.

Juliana left with Panchito to pick up her car from the movie theatre while I was in the shower. When I was ready, Lupe helped me down the stairs, and by the time we reached ground level, I was rethinking letting Juliana call her real estate agent. "Is it always like that?" Lupe asked when I had to go straight for a bottle of painkillers I kept in Juliana's kitchen cabinet.

I nodded as I swallowed the medicine. "Stairs are the hardest physical activity I'm capable of. That I can manage them at all is a bit of a miracle. For a long time, the doctors didn't think I would walk again, but I've got a wicked stubborn streak, and I wasn't going to be stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of my life."

I went to the refrigerator to see what I could scrounge up for lunch. Juliana and I had a late breakfast, but most of it went uneaten. Lupe had brought our dishes down the stairs while I was in the shower, and was insistent that I get a proper meal in me. "Ooh. There is still some shrimp. How does shrimp pasta salad sound?"

"Delicious." She blinked and glanced at me curiously. "Do you cook?"

I grinned as I pulled different ingredients from the fridge and set them on the counter. "It's one of my favourite hobbies. My mother loved it too. It was something we always did together. Mama worked a lot of hours in order to pay the bills. She came home late a lot, and eventually I started waiting on dinner so that we could cook together after she got home. It helped her feel less guilty about being gone so much. After that, cooking sort of became our thing."

Lupe smiled at the story, and I realised that I had just openly talked about my mother without any sadness or fear of making things awkward. It was such a nice feeling. I never mentioned Mama at home because I knew it was a sore subject for Dad. I figured it was pretty awkward for Lucia, too, and Eva seemed to have some kind of issues there as well. Renata was the only one who ever asked me about her, and unless we were alone, I would always give the shortest answers possible.

Here in Juliana's home, Mama was not a taboo subject. It was an unexpected but welcomed breath of fresh air. Another benefit of leaving my father's home. Maybe I could start to accept Mama's death a little better and really begin to overcome my grief. I made a mental note to remember this for my next therapy session with Dr. Parish, so she couldn't accuse me of running from my problems when I explained how I cut ties with my father. I was not looking forward to telling her that, but at least I had another week before our next appointment.

While I set a pot of water on the stove to boil and pulled out a frying pan, Lupe began rummaging through cupboards and drawers. A wry smile crossed my face when I realised what she was looking for. "I don't think Juliana owns an apron."

"Oh." She slid a drawer closed and reached for the chopping board. "I'll just be careful, then." She laughed in exasperation as she started cutting up one of the avocados I set out. "That girl. She's so much like her father. I was worried that she would never settle down. I'm amazed that there is anything in her fridge besides old take-out."

I laughed and threw some shrimp into a frying pan with a little olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice. "There wasn't the first time I came over. I made her take me grocery shopping. I couldn't stand to see a nice kitchen like this go to waste." At Lupe's sigh, I added, "She's not hopeless, though. When I cook, I put her to work without complaint."

"That comes from being raised by me." She shot me a wicked smile and winked. "She's used to taking orders."

"I should probably thank you for that, since I'm a lot better at giving them than taking them myself."

We both laughed and continued to enjoy ourselves as we cooked until the front door opened and an unfamiliar voice called out to us. "Hello?"

Lupe and I were both startled by the intrusion. After the insanity at the movie theatre yesterday, and all of Juliana's platitudes about how she needed such heavy security, we were both freaked out. "Who's there?" I called back while Lupe reached into a cupboard and grabbed a frying pan.

I recognised the young, well-dressed man who walked into the kitchen just in time to stop Juliana's mom from beating the poor guy with a cast-iron frying pan. "Wow! Lupe, wait! It's okay. That's Juliana's assistant."

Mateo jumped back, raising his hands in surrender. "Whoa! Sorry! I didn't mean to startle you. I didn't realise anyone would be here, or I would have knocked. Juliana never has company, and she always says to just let myself in in case she's in the middle of a workout, or oversleeping, or hiding from a meeting she doesn't want to go to."

My adrenaline was pumping through me at an alarming rate, but I managed to laugh. It wasn't hard to imagine Juliana oversleeping through something important or purposely not answering her door. "Does that happen often?"

My laughter made Mateo relax. "Yeah," he admitted, with a shake of his head. "Often enough."

He held his hand out to me with a sheepish smile. "It's good to see you again, and to meet, officially."

I cringed as I shook his hand. "Yeah, we didn't really get introduced last time, did we? It's Matty, right?"

"I prefer Mateo, if that's all right. My Nana is the only person who calls me Matty. Well, and Juliana, because annoying me seems to amuse her!"

I laughed again. "That sounds like her."

Mateo shrugged. "It's all right. There aren't that many people Juliana genuinely likes, so I figure the teasing is a positive thing."

I smiled at that. "Very true. She really isn't much of a people person. And the torture is definitely a positive thing. She only messes with people she likes. She adores you. Can't get through a single conversation without mentioning your name."

Mateo's smile turned wry. "How many of those times is she using it in the phrases 'I'm sure Matty won't mind' or 'Matty can do that for me'?"

"Only six out of ten," I promised, with a grin. "The rest of the time it's 'We need to find Matty a good woman' or 'We should invite Matty to that. He needs to get out more'."

Mateo shook his head as he set his messenger bag on the counter. "I can see why Juliana likes you."

The compliment surprised me, but it was easy to return. "Ditto, Matty!"

He chuckled at the taunt and flashed a nice smile at Lupe when I gestured to her. "Have you met Juliana's mom before?"

His eyebrows lifted in surprise as he shook her hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

I went back to finishing up the lunch prep while they got acquainted. "So what brings you by?" I asked once there was a lull in conversation. "I really hope Juliana wasn't demanding your presence the day after Christmas."

"She did mention needing to sit down with you this week to go over a few things, but actually, I text her this morning. She promised I could use her as an excuse anytime I needed to escape the house over the holiday, so I asked if this afternoon worked to have our meeting. She said it was probably best to do it as soon as possible. I decided to take that literally and came straight over."

I laughed. "You needed to escape that badly?"

Mateo nodded gravely. "My sisters are all home for Christmas."

"All of them? How many do you have?"

"Six."

"Whoa."

"Yeah. And right now they're all at home helping my grandmother make online dating profiles for their poor single baby brother."

As soon as his words registered, I burst into laughter. "Right. In that case, make yourself at home. Just don't tell Juliana what they're up to. She's likely drive over there and help them!"

Mateo's answering sigh was adorable. He was adorable. I could see why people were always trying to set him up. "You hungry?" I asked. "I made plenty."

Mateo's face lit up. "Are you sure? I don't want to intrude if this is a family thing. Juliana didn't mention her parents were coming."

"Juliana didn't know we were coming," Lupe said. "We decided to surprise her. And it's no trouble at all. With Valentina's new predicament, squaring away a plan for her was already on the agenda for the day. Why don't you find some place settings for the table, and we can all discuss it over lunch? Juliana and Panchito should be back any minute."

Mateo hopped up off the bar stool immediately. "Sure thing." As he started opening cupboards, he asked, "New predicament? You mean the Erik Clarke thing?"

Knowing there was no way to avoid the conversation, I started moving lunch to the table and told Mateo all about the fight with my dad and how I would be staying with Juliana until I could figure out a solid plan.

"You don't plan to stay with Juli?" Lupe asked, startled.

Her face fell with both disappointment and concern when I shook my head. I hated dashing her hopes of the wedding she'd been mentally planning since Juliana's slip of the tongue earlier. "I love Juliana, Lupe, don't worry about that. I'm just not quite ready to live with her yet."

Her frown grew even bigger, so I hurried on with an excuse she wasn't likely to question. "Besides, this house isn't going to work for me. As soon as I can figure out how to pay for it, I'm going to need to find an apartment or something that's a little more handicap accessible."

"That might not be as difficult as you imagine," Mateo said, excitement lighting his eyes. "Juliana mentioned needing to go over some things. Did she tell you what kind of things?"

"We didn't get into it, but I did hear something about film rights for my story and needing to get agent representation."

Mateo nodded as he set five plates out on placemats. "Film rights are only one of a hundred offers you've received that could bring in some revenue for you."

My jaw dropped. That number had to be exaggerated. But Mateo didn't seem like the type to embellish anything, and he had this focused way about him at the moment, like he'd gone into some kind of business mode. Fitting, considering he'd shown up wearing a nice pair of slacks, a white dress shirt, and a tie. It looked natural on him and made me wonder if he knew how to relax. His clean-cut appearance only added to how serious he seemed at the moment. "That many?" I asked.

He nodded, as if that number was insignificant. "Give or take a few, yeah. Don't worry; I've got a list for you, and I've prioritised it as best I could. Juliana and I will go over all of it with you."

"Whoa." I had to sit.

I claimed one of the chairs at the table, and Lupe brought me a glass of lemonade without being asked. "Don't worry, Valentina. Juliana knows what she's doing with all of this. She will make sure it doesn't overwhelm you. And I'll help as much as I can until we have to go home."

Mateo moved onto the silverware and gave me a confident smile as he placed a set of utensils around the plate in front of me. "It's not as bad as it sounds. And most of it will pay extremely well, so even if you only agree to a handful of the offers on your plate, you should have no problem getting yourself into an apartment, if that's what you want to do. Plus, I had this idea for turning your blog it into a viable business, if you're interested in that."

"Really?" I perked up at the idea of turning my blog into more than just a hobby.

"Yeah. If you did it right, you could be set for life."

With the table all set and lunch made, Lupe excused herself to go freshen up for lunch. Once she wandered upstairs, Mateo sat down at the table across from me. "Do you really think I could start making money from my blog?" I asked. "Like, turn it into a career?"

Mateo barked an incredulous laugh. "Are you kidding? You've already done it, Valentina. You just need to start cashing in on it."

"What do you mean?"

"With the following you've gathered since your online identity was leaked at Fantasy Con, you're being contacted by advertisers left and right. People are desperate to throw their money at you."

"They are?" My jaw fell to my lap again, and my heart picked up its pace.

Mateo smiled. "They're approaching Juliana because you don't have any contact information listed, which means I'm getting the e-mails."

"No... yeah... sorry about that. I had to go completely dark after the whole Kaylee thing, and I just haven't had the time to start everything back up since I got out of the hospital. I planned to sort it after the holidays."

"Well, when you do, your possibilities are endless. I was thinking you should convert your blog into a full-fledged entertainment e-zine. Keep it mostly entertainment review-based, but you could add subjects like music and video games to your review line-ups. You could also create an entertainment news column and hire a reporter to keep current headlines running like Variety does. And you could do celebrity interviews. You've got the following already and every Hollywood connection you could possibly need. At the very least, you should consider creating a YouTube channel and doing some kind of weekly review show. If you did, and you set it all up correctly and monetized it, you could be pulling in more than enough to live off of with your first video upload."

I slumped back in my chair as my brain tried to keep up with Mateo. I had been blogging for so long, and I loved it. If I could turn it professional and somehow support myself from it. He was basically telling me my dream was at my fingertips.

Even better than just loving the work, it was something I could easily do even with all of my physical limitations. I'd never have to worry about trying to go get a job and wondering if I could physically do it. This was something I could do right from the comfort of my own home, on my own schedule. And I could take it with me if, in the future, Juliana ever had to leave for months at a time to film on location and wanted me to come with her. It could be perfect.

"That's it," I murmured, stunned. "It's perfect. The perfect thing for me to do. It's the solution to my problems and answers that big, gaping question mark that is my future."

I met Mateo's eyes and was surprised to see so much encouragement shining back at me. He seemed as enthusiastic as I was about this. "You could definitely make it work," he said. "It wouldn't even be hard for you."

I shook my head as my brain continued to spin. I wish I had his confidence. "I guess... theoretically, but..." As excited as I was, the idea of making it happen was overwhelming. "I have no idea how to do any of that. I mean, writing reviews is one thing, but converting my blog over to a legitimate e-zine, that would mean major website reprogramming, hiring a few people to run some of the different columns, someone to handle marketing and advertising... essentially, it would be starting up my own business. My own company. I might have the following to get it successfully off the ground, but I'm not equipped to do any of that. I wouldn't have a clue where to even start."

"Well... actually..." Mateo rubbed the back of his neck and a light layer of pink rose in his cheeks. "I... uh... sort of... already wrote up a business proposal for you... if you're interested."

It took me a minute to say anything. I was so surprised, and Mateo looked so nervous it. It was adorable. "A business proposal?" I finally asked. "What do you mean? What kind of proposal?"

"Well..." Mateo took a deep breath and forced his shoulders back. "I graduated from UCLA with a master's in business management last spring. My focus was entrepreneurial studies, so taking something like your blog and turning it into a real company that brings in revenue, that's exactly the kind of thing that I want to do. This specific project is perfect for me because I already know the entertainment industry so well. Working with Juliana has given me a specific skill set that would be extremely helpful in this case."

"So you're talking about a partnership agreement. We go in together and split the profits?"

He gave me a shy nod. "Yeah. You'd be the creative head of the company, editor-in-chief of the content, and I'd be your business half, the behind-the-scenes guy. I don't have the experience yet, but I know I could do it, and I have every confidence that you could as well. You're entertaining and likable, and you're smart. You have a gift for creating content that people want. Honestly, I think, together, we could be really successful."

Something fluttered in my stomach. I could never do something like this on my own, but with Mateo's help... Mateo was like Superman. Juliana always said so. If anyone could help me make this happen, he could. And he was right about being the perfect man for the job. He knew the entertainment industry a lot better than me, and with his education...

"I already spoke to Juliana about it," Mateo said. "I'm not trying to go behind her back or anything. I just noticed what was happening and figured it's a great opportunity for both of us."

I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that conversation. What Mateo was talking about would mean a full-time job for both of us. Maybe not right away, but once we hashed out a formal plan, there'd be a lot of work to do. Mateo would eventually have to quit working for Juliana. I smirked a little as I asked, "How'd that meeting go?"

Mateo cringed, but his eyes sparkled with amusement. "Pretty much how you're imagining it."

"Lots of pouting? Whining about having to find a replacement?" Mateo nodded. "She used the word traitor, didn't she?"

Mateo's shoulders relaxed, and he shook his head, chuckling. "Several times. But, she also gave me her blessing, because she knows how much you'd love an opportunity like this, her words."

I had no doubt that was true. This was the opportunity of a lifetime for me. I was sure Juliana knew that. I wouldn't have to be dependent on her, and I would get to build a career doing something I loved and was passionate about.

A long silence stretched out between us as I thought over the idea again and again. Maybe I was just excited, but I couldn't find any downsides to this other than Juliana losing her favourite assistant. Though, that might be good for her. Mateo was right that Juliana didn't care for many people, but she really did love Mateo. If Mateo wasn't her employee anymore, their relationship could morph into the real friendship that Juliana kept trying to make it but Mateo wouldn't allow because he is too professional.

When I met Mateo's gaze, he squirmed in his chair. He seemed to be holding his breath as he waited for my reaction. "I accept," I said. "Where do I sign, partner?"

Mateo laughed nervously, and the pink tint returned to his cheeks. "Well... um... you should really read the proposal first and talk it all over with Juliana before you accept. And I know it's on the bottom of a very large stack of other offers and opportunities for you, so I know..."

"Stop trying to talk me out of it." I laughed. "I've always wanted to do what you're talking about, it's what I planned to go to college for, and I have no doubt you could handle it."

When Mateo blushed, I smirked. "Juliana calls you Super Mateo behind your back. I had to talk her out of getting you your own personalised superhero costume for Christmas!"

Mateo's blush faded as the side of his mouth quirked up. "Seriously?"

I laughed. "Yes. She was thinking about making you wear it as your work uniform."

The fact that Mateo's eyes went wide showed just how well he knew Juliana. Anyone else would have thought I was joking. I wasn't. Juliana had contacted her favourite comic book artist and was having the two of us drawn as superhero characters for a new webisode series for my blog. We were calling it The Adventures of Jana & Val. She had the guy make a drawing of Super Mateo as well. It took a lot of effort to talk her out of having a real super suit made up for Mateo.

"I appreciate the assist on that one," Mateo said, grinning at the thought. "But maybe you should have let her do it."

I cocked a brow. "You have a thing for running around in skin tight rubber suits, pretending to be an Avenger?"

"Not especially, but... do you know what she got me for Christmas instead?"

That sounded ominous enough I was almost too afraid to ask. "No... what?"

He rolled his eyes. "I'll give you a hint. It's parked in the driveway and cost as much as she paid me this year."

"A car? She didn't!"

Mateo's flat look told me all I needed to know.

Juliana and Panchito came home before I could ask anything else. Panchito entered first, and a smile burst out on his face as he inhaled deeply. "It smells wonderful in here."

"Yes, it does," Lupe said, coming downstairs, having heard her husband arrive. "Valentina is a closet gourmet chef, and she's made a spectacular lunch for us all."

Panchito grinned as he headed for the dining table. He eyed the food and took another deep breath. "It looks delicious. You need to keep this one, Juliana."

Juliana had come in the door right behind him and proudly kissed my cheek at his stepfather's advice. "I plan to."

"Welcome back," I said. "I take it Precious is once again safe and sound in the garage, where she's supposed to be?"

"Yup. All is right in the world again. And I saw she's got some sexy company at the moment." Juliana took a seat beside me and flashed a wide smile at Mateo. "How'd she handle the turns in the canyon on the way here?"

Mateo's face fell flat, and he cocked an eyebrow into a high arch. "A car, Juliana?"

I wanted to be on Mateo's side in this argument, the gift was completely inappropriate, but Juliana's giddy excitement stopped me from voicing any objections. "Not just any car, Matty. That's an Audi A8. That is a pimp ride!"

Mateo shook his head. "Thank you for the generous thought, but I can't accept it. It's too much."

"Too much is a relative term, my friend." She picked up her napkin and placed it in her lap with a flourish. There was a bounce in her every movement, as if surprising Mateo with the car had made her ridiculously happy. "And besides, I can't take it back. I paid cash for it and put the title in your name, so technically, it's already yours."

Mateo barked out an incredulous laugh and pinched the bridge of his nose as he shook his head. "You are insane, boss."

Juliana took that as a compliment, grinning even more as she sat straighter in her seat. "Maybe, but you like me anyway. And the only way to get rid of that car now would be to sell it, but that would be a waste. I cherry-picked that one for you personally, and, dude, your Toyota is on its last legs."

"But..."

"Look. You work hard, you deserve it, and you need it. Just enjoy it. Take good care of her and don't name her something stupid, and I'll forgive you for leaving me for my girlfriend."

Juliana winked at me before she gave her startled assistant a stern look. "I know you already told her about your traitorous plans. I can tell. She's glowing." She looked at me, and her stern gaze fell into a pout. "He's going to be a really crap partner, you know. Absolutely horrid."

Mateo snorted, and I tried to keep from smiling at my girlfriend's tantrum. "Is that so?"

"Damn straight, it is. He's bossy, straight laced to the point of madness, and completely anal-retentive. He's going to drive you nuts!"

"Gee thanks, boss."

"Juliana!" Lupe scolded. "Stop being so rude. Mateo seems like such a nice young man."

Mateo received another pointed look from Juliana. "Except he's a traitor who's leaving me for my girlfriend. And speaking of traitors..." Now I was getting the pointed look. "The love of my life has just stolen my wonderful assistant."

My composure finally cracked. "I'm sorry I have to steal your wonderful, genius, irreplaceable assistant." I giggled. "But better me than somebody else, right?"

When I flashed her an innocent grin and batted my lashes, she tried to hold her pout but caved. Her answering smile was sardonic. "You're lucky I love you."

The quasi threat made me smile for real. "I know. And thank you. It's an incredible opportunity. I'm really excited about it."

Juliana sighed in resignation. "I know. It's a good opportunity for Mateo, too, and to be honest, I'm not sure I could trust anyone else with your future like that. You guys will be a great team."

 

Chapter Text

The next week went by quickly. A few texts with Renata resulted in me getting some of my things brought over to Juliana's house. (Thank heavens for Abby and her dads, who were willing to be the go-between.) Then, my new rehab team was informed of all the changes in my situation, and my appointments with all of them resumed.

My team informed Juliana that because of my physical disabilities, I couldn't stay in her home permanently, which I already knew. She had called her real estate agent the same day she met my physical therapist and asked her to come straightaway so that she could speak with Daniel about what kind of place would be best for me. She was more than happy to bend over backwards for her millionaire client.

I told them I wanted to find myself an apartment in a secure building with enough security to keep me both safe and give me privacy. Juliana, of course, hated that idea and pouted like a big baby over it. She promised she would find a new home that was suitable for me as soon as possible.

Lupe had her own opinions on the issue, which mostly consisted of her taking Juliana's side that I shouldn't waste the time and money on my own apartment, and that when we bought our first home together, we needed to think about our children's futures. Hints about the schools in Wisconsin were dropped several times.

I loved the woman dearly, but she was every bit as exhausting as Juliana had warned me she would be, and when she and Panchito left on New Year's Eve, I felt like I was ready for a vacation. We waved good-bye to them from the driveway as they left, and once the gate closed behind them, we came back inside and fell to the couch together in an exhausted heap. "Finally, we have the place to ourselves," Juliana murmured.

I laid my head down on her lap, and, with a moan and a stretch, curled up beside her, ready for a nice, long nap. "I could sleep for days."

Juliana began running her fingers through my hair. "Sounds good, but it'll have to wait until tomorrow."

I groaned again. "Do we really have to?"

She laughed. "It'll be fun. I promise."

"If you say so."

Tonight was her talent agency's annual New Year's Eve party. It was a big deal. Mostly A-list and a very swanky, fancy affair. This was Juliana's first invite to the bash. She'd only been with the agency since she switched after the Fantasy Con debacle, and before that, she hadn't been considered important enough to merit an invitation.

She was proud and thrilled to have shed her teen sweetheart status and be considered a real star. I was proud of her, too, so I would go to the party and wear my best smile, but secretly I was terrified.

This would be my first public appearance with Juliana in her world aside from the premiere of The Druid Princess. I had been in enough shock that night even though Juliana had only introduced me to a handful of people and the conversation hadn't extended much beyond 'Hello, it's nice to meet you'. Tonight would be different.

"We don't have to go if you really don't want to," Juliana offered after I slipped into a fretful silence.

"Of course we do. You're looking forward to it, and it would be rude of us to skip it. I'm sure it'll be fun. I'm just nervous."

"You don't have to be," Juliana said. "Most of them will be kissing your ass anyway, Miss Popular Entertainment Reviewer."

I snorted, but she raised a challenging brow at me. "Val, you have power in my world now. Do you not remember what you did for my father at Christmas?"

I let out a half amused, half disgusted groan. "I can't believe I'm partially responsible for a Macario Valdés Drive Hard monstrosity!"

Juliana laughed. "There will be plenty of people who will enjoy it. Drive Hard is actually a really awesome video game. And, you have to admit, Dad is the perfect director for that type of movie."

I rolled my eyes. "Yes, he'll sexy it all up with the perfect amount of half-naked women and giant explosions, and teenagers across the world will flock to it in droves, you included."

"There's nothing wrong with a good action film."

"Not when they have things like plot, story, and character development, no. Then they're great. But boobs and guns alone does not a good movie make."

"I dare you to impart those words of wisdom to Dad sometime, Yoda." Juliana flicked the tip of my nose. "And fair warning. You'll be my date to the premieres of all of Dad's films from now on, so you better start mentally preparing yourself now."

I groaned again. "You think he'll disown me, too, once he reads the review I give him?"

Juliana burst into loud, boisterous laughter. "You probably won't have to worry. He's egotistical enough that he'll just assume you love it and won't bother to actually read your reviews." She shook her head and laughed again. "But the media will eat it up. 'Jana's Valentina Trashes Father's Film.' It'll make a great headline."

The amusement in her voice made me grin. "Well," I said, "as long as you know it's coming ahead of time and aren't offended when it happens, then it doesn't really matter."

Juliana chuckled. "I would be shocked and worried if it was anything less than scathing. Now about this party tonight and that extremely sexy dress hanging in your closet... are you going to need any help getting into it?"

"HA! Most likely. But Abby and Renata are coming over to do my hair and makeup, so I think I'm covered."

"Renata's coming?" Juliana asked. "Your father's giving her permission to come to the evil movie star's house?"

My throat closed up at the surprise in Juliana's voice. "Yeah. I guess maybe he thinks if he lets Renata come over, I'll start answering his calls."

Juliana was quiet for a moment and hesitantly asked, "And will you?"

"No." I scoffed.

Juliana relaxed again. She would support me in whatever decision I made where my father was concerned, but I knew she was glad I had cut ties entirely. She had seen my father hurt me too many times and was afraid if I let him back into my life, it would only happen again. She wasn't the only one afraid of that, which was the main reason I had been ignoring all of my father's calls for the past week.

"Well, I'm happy you and Renata can still be friends," Juliana admitted.

"Me too. I miss her."

"Don't tell her I said this, but I do, too. She's fun to tease. Even Eva's not so bad, in her own way."

My jaw fell open at that shocking statement, and Juliana smirked. "She's sassy. I like that in a woman."

She gave me a very pointed look that I rolled my eyes at. "Whatever. Help me get upstairs before Reni and Abby get here. It's going to take a long time to make me worthy of an A-list party."

. . . . .

Soon enough, I was dressed and being poked and prodded, painted and sprayed.

"Stop fidgeting, or I'm going to poke you in the eye with this mascara wand," Renata warned.

It was the first time I had seen her since my fight with my father, and her support couldn't have come at a better time.

"Sorry. I'm just nervous."

"You have nothing to be worried about," Abby promised. "Not while you're wearing this dress."

She had a point about the dress. I had panicked when Juliana first informed me that this party would be a formal thing, so to ease my anxiety, she had commissioned Abby's dads to make me a dress. What they'd given me wasn't a dress but a work of art. It was a bright red, beaded, one-shouldered, floor-length gown that clung to me like a glove.

The one sleeve it did have went all the way to my wrist. Forgoing the other sleeve and leaving my good shoulder bare, it gave the dress a dangerously sexy vibe that made the gown look as classy and beautiful as anything anyone would be wearing that night, and yet it covered almost all of my scars. It was truly brilliant, my eyes had misted over the first time I tried it on.

"Are you ladies finished yet?" Juliana called, knocking on the door for the third time. "The suspense is killing me. I want to see my beautiful girlfriend."

We'd locked ourselves in Juliana's guest room, and she'd been pacing outside the bedroom door since she'd finished getting ready.

"Oh my gosh, she is so romantic," Abby crooned as she unleashed another cloud of spray on my hair.

She'd gone for a classic twisty up-do to leave my neck exposed and show off the bare shoulder even more. A hint of my scars peeked out around the neckline, but it wasn't much, and the sparkly body glitter Renata had forced me to bathe myself in took the attention away from them quite nicely.

"If by romantic you mean impatient and needy, then totally," I teased, shaking the nerves out of my hands as I sat in a chair. I hadn't been allowed to look at myself since the girls showed up, either.

"Val, a woman as gorgeous as yours is allowed to need whatever or whomever she wants."

"Well, she would certainly agree with you." I cleared my throat and yelled, "Patience you must have, my young Padawan!"

Her muffled grumble of dork came back sounding just irritated enough to make me snicker. "She's really fun to annoy."

Renata gave me an incredulous look as she coated my lips with a tube of sinfully red lipstick. "You two are so... I don't even know how to describe it. Blot." She shoved a tissue at me, and I pressed my lips to it. The print I left behind was as bright as my dress.

"Finished!" she declared, letting me stand so I could go look in the full-length mirror.

As I walked over to it and finally got a good glimpse of the fairy-take like beauty my friends had transformed me into, all of the air left my lungs. I couldn't believe that after everything I had been through since my accident, I was still capable of looking like this.

"Wait!" Abby cried. "I forgot!"

She ran over to the garment bag, which had protected my dress, and retrieved a new cane. Like Candy, she'd given this one a makeover, too. She'd used the same red material as my dress and swirled it down the shaft opposite a white strip of fabric. It was even one of those canes that had a curved handle on the top so it literally looked like a candy cane. "I figured, since it's Christmas and all..."

The cane completed the ensemble in a dreamlike way that I never could have imagined. Abby's creativity was in a league of its own. "Abby..." My voice was in danger of giving out. "It's perfect. You didn't have to do this."

"Oh, but I did," she said, accepting a big hug from me. "As much as I love Candy, she didn't match your dress at all, and I couldn't let you arrive with a standard plain ugly aluminium cane that reminds people of crutches. I figured if we had this second cane as a spare one, we could give it facelifts whenever the occasion calls for it, and we won't have to touch good old Candy Cane. Because changing Candy now would probably break my heart as much as you getting this fancy and having to use a cane that didn't match."

I barked out an incredulous laugh and hugged my crazy, stylish fashionista of a friend. "What would I do without you, Abby?"

"Clash," she teased.

We all laughed again, and after giving Renata a hug, too, we turned back to the mirror to simply stare at the winter wonder that I was. "You are seriously one sexy senorita," Abby said. "You're going to put all of those starlets to shame."

Renata waggled her brows evilly and added, "Especially that wench, Kaylee Summers."

I smirked at my stepsister in the mirror. "Unless she managed to talk someone into letting her be their plus one, I don't think she got invited." I shrugged. "Not cool enough."

It was petty, but I kind of felt proud that I'd snagged my own personal invite to this party tonight when Kaylee Summers hadn't. True, I was Juliana's date, but her agency was trying to woo me into representation and had personally extended me my own invite. Juliana had assured me Kaylee Summers wouldn't have made their guest list on her own when I had asked if we were going to have to deal with her presence tonight.

Juliana's irritated voice rang through the door again. "Guys, we're going to be late if you don't give me my date sometime this century!"

We all laughed. Renata decided to take pity on her and unlocked the door. "Are you ready?" she asked, holding the door closed enough that she couldn't walk in.

"I've been ready for half an hour," she grumbled.

"I promise you she is worth the wait," she said, swinging the door open all the way.

Juliana stepped into the room just as I turned to face her, and her breath caught when she saw me. The heat that entered her eyes as they roamed over me from head to toe made my whole body tingle. Face flushed, I slowly stepped toward her.

She didn't look bad herself. Dressed in an expensive designer dress, she was a beautiful princess. Tonight, she wasn't Princess Jana, though; she looked more like a fairy-tale princess. Her glossy dark hair had been carefully swept up into an elegant bun with a few loose strands framing her beautiful face, her makeup was low key but highlighted her chocolate-brown eyes, capable of melting me as she continued to stare.

When I moved, she woke from her stupor and joined me in the middle of the room, placing her hands on my arms with reverent gentleness. "Wow," she breathed.

"Back atcha, sweetie." I twisted a little from side to side. "So what do you think? Will I embarrass you horribly in front of all those A-listers?"

"What A-listers? There's no way we're going to make it to any party tonight." She stepped even closer and slid her arms around my waist. As her gaze dropped to my ruby red lips, she sucked in a sharp breath. When she could meet my eyes again, she locked her stare on me and called out to my friends. "Reni? Abby? I'm eternally grateful for the work you've done this evening, but now I need you both to get out. Go home. Leave. And lock the door behind you. I need to unwrap this gift you've just given me and see if she tastes as good as she looks."

I would have shrieked at her and slapped her or something, except she was so not kidding, and her intensity left me frozen and unable to breathe. I was entirely at her mercy for the moment, and if she took my dress off, I didn't think I would try to stop her. At that moment I was even wearing the sexiest bra and panties set I had ever worn in my life.

As soon as I had seen the dress, I couldn't bear to wear cotton grannies under it. I had secretly gone through the stash of Lindon's Lingerie that had arrived earlier this week, along with the suitcases Renata had packed for me. At the time I was really annoyed with her for sending them over, but now... with the lacy bright red bra and panties under the world's sexiest dress, making me feel like I deserved Lindon's offer to model for them, well, I was glad I had the option.

Juliana and I were broken from our spell when she moved her head forward and Renata shrieked. "Noooooo! Don't you dare!"

Juliana jerked her head back and blinked at me, as if resurfacing from a deep sleep. We both frowned at Renata.

"You will mess up the makeup I just spent half an hour perfecting!" she shrieked. "No kissing on the mouth. Cheek, neck, shoulder, fine. But stay away from her lips! She's not going to go through the party tonight with smudges all over her face, like she had to at your movie premiere."

Juliana smirked. "But that was hot."

"Down, girl!" Abby said, pulling us apart. "It was cute once, but it won't fly twice! Now, be a good girl and escort your gorgeous date to the party of the year and show her off to all of your friends."

Juliana grinned at Abby, finally returning to her usual self. "Yes ma'am!"

 

 

Chapter Text

The Standard was a swanky, cutting-edge hotel in downtown Los Angeles. It was a trendy place and the nicest hotel I had ever been to. I was a poor Latina girl raised in inner city Boston by a single mother. I was definitely out of my league here.

The party was being held on the hotel's rooftop lounge, bar and pool area. My heart raced as Juliana and I waited for the elevator, but surprisingly, I wasn't the only one with nerves. Juliana was fidgeting like crazy. It was comforting to see that she was as anxious as me. Well, maybe not quite as much as me, but still, there was some discomfort, and it was nice to know I wasn't alone.

"Nervous?" I reached for her hand as the elevator doors slid open.

Juliana startled at the touch and turned to me with a sheepish grin as we stepped inside. "A little." She jerked her head toward the ceiling as she hit the button for the roof. "That's the big leagues up there. It's my first time sitting at the grown-up table."

The analogy made me smile. "You're going to be great. They're going to welcome you to the cool kids club with open arms and wonder why they didn't do it years ago."

She laughed once and blew out a heavy breath. "If they do, it'll be because the woman on my arm has them all under her magical spell. What do you say, fair priestess Valentina, are you ready to go win over our new kingdom with me?"

"I don't know," I teased. "Are you going to leave me for a dumb warrior princess, like movie Jana did?"

Juliana chuckled. "Of course not." After kissing my hand, she grinned at me over the tops of my fingers. "Besides, she won't be here. Not A-list enough, remember?"

If she was trying to make me feel better, it was working. I beamed a bright smile at her, letting her know I appreciated the Kaylee trash talk. She matched my grin. "You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Thank you for doing this with me tonight."

She was every bit as breath-taking as she claimed I was. I was lucky to be her date. "You're welcome. Just... please don't ever leave me alone up there tonight."

"Promise." She held up our interlocked hands. "This, right here, will not breaking for anything. You have my word."

"Thank you," I murmured as the elevator came to a stop.

We both took a breath as the doors slid open. "You ready?" She asked.

I didn't get the chance to reply, because two people noticed us walk off the elevator and called out to us straightaway. A man in a traditional tuxedo greeted us as if we were old friends, with a hearty handshake and an air kiss to each cheek. "Juliana! Valentina! So glad you could make it." He pulled back and looked me over, head to toe. "Miss Carvajal, you look positively radiant this evening."

"Thank you." I looked to Juliana for help, and she gestured toward my new friend with a small but genuine smile. "Valentina, this is Christopher Weinhardt and Michelle Marks." He gestured to the woman, and she echoed Christopher's hand-shake-slash-air-kiss thing. "Christopher and Michelle are the leaders of my management team."

"So they're your agents?" I asked, trying to figure out how it worked.

"Say the word, and we'll be yours, too, Valentina," Christopher said. "We've got a whole slew of offers that have come in for you, they've been coming in care of Juliana since no one knows how to contact you directly. We've already started putting together a plan for you. We'd love to schedule a meeting with you this week and get some of these contracts going."

The immediate talk of business surprised me since this was technically a holiday party, but I supposed it shouldn't have. Juliana was always comparing her industry to a tank of hungry sharks. These two didn't just smell a new client; they already had a hundred ways to make money off me sitting in their e-mail inboxes. Of course they would jump on that. I understood it, but they hadn't even managed a 'Nice to meet you.' 'How are you?' before assuming they could just snow me into submission. It annoyed me.

"That's very thoughtful of you," I said, plastering that same fake smile on my face that I had used when talking to those studio execs and Juliana's dad. "I'm very interested in seeing what ideas you have in the form of a plan for me. I'll call your office Monday morning and schedule an interview appointment with you."

Michelle laughed, a very polite yet condescending laugh. "Oh no, hon, that's not necessary. We're offering you representation. You don't need an interview."

Was this woman for real? I may have been new to this industry, but I wasn't naïve. I had spent the last year trying to keep up with medical professionals ten times more intelligent than me and refusing to let them treat me like a child. I wasn't going to let this woman, who couldn't have been more than ten years older than me and certainly didn't hold my life in her hands, do it.

I matched her patronising laugh and said, "I meant an interview for you. I understand you've offered me representation, but so has every other agency in town. I'll be meeting with all of you before I make any decisions or sign any contracts."

My heart skipped a beat when Juliana choked on a startled cough. Had I been too forward? Had I lost my temper too much? She was the one who told me that I can't let people push me around. But I didn't want to piss off her agents or make her look bad.

When I glanced at her, though, I realised she was trying not to laugh. She met my gaze, and though she didn't wink, her eyes sparkled with both pride and amusement. Her approval gave me a boost of confidence, and my entire body relaxed.

Michelle and Christopher, on the other hand, didn't seem nearly as at ease anymore. "Oh," Michelle said in a very clipped tone, now full of forced friendliness. "I see. Well..."

"Well, they'll just have to be thoroughly prepared for your appointment next week, then, won't they?" a new voice cut in.

The newcomer was older, maybe in his sixties. He smiled brightly, but somehow he seemed even more authoritarian than his peers. It always surprised me that anyone could be more dominant than Juliana, but this guy made Juliana and her agents look like nervous little kids.

"Don't look so offended, Ms. Marks," he said to Michelle. "It's wise to be cautious in this industry. Clearly, Miss Carvajal is a very capable woman. Which is no surprise." The stranger took my hand and gave me a smile that made the corners of his eyes crinkle. "Your insightful critiques of the books and movies you review on your blog speak volumes about your intelligence, and any woman who could capture Miss Valdés heart has to have a sensible head on her shoulders. It's wonderful to meet you, my dear. I'm Harvey Buchman."

"Mr. Buchman's the head of the entire agency," Juliana murmured.

Harvey turned his friendly grin on my very shocked girlfriend. "Please, Juliana, call me Harvey."

Juliana, stunned, shook the man's hand and said, "I will. Thank you, Harvey. It's an honour to finally meet you."

"Oh, the pleasure's mine, Juliana. I've heard so much about you since you joined our agency." Harvey laughed with sincere amusement and grinned at me. "This young woman gave our agency quite the shock the day we met with her the first time."

Juliana laughed a little, but there was nervousness in it that made me wonder just how big of an uproar she'd caused the day she fired her old management team. Perhaps I should have let the mystery lie, but Harvey seemed in good spirits, so I couldn't resist asking, "Really? How so?"

Harvey laughed again. He studied the two of us together before deciding to be candid. "Frankly, with her previous résumé and reputation, and that stunt her old management team pulled after Fantasy Con, we expected a young, spoiled hothead and were prepared to cater to a teenage diva throwing a tantrum."

Juliana chuckled softly. It made it easier for me to tease her. I shot Harvey a disbelieving look and said, "Are you trying to tell me you didn't get a young, spoiled diva throwing a tantrum in your office that day?"

Mr. Harvey blinked at me and then laughed. "Perhaps there was some of that, not that we blamed her when we learned the truth of what her previous agency had done. No, it was her intelligence that surprised us. Her scruples, her astute eye for the business, and her sheer determination to do right by you. She had my entire agency completely flustered within minutes."

Okay, that I could believe. Juliana was formidable when she wanted to be. Just like her mother. "I'm sure she did," I agreed. "Juliana is usually underestimated." When Juliana slid me a look, I laughed. "Yes, I was guilty of it, too."

Harvey sighed. "That is the biggest problem with our young Miss Valdés here, isn't it?"

Juliana frowned. "What do you mean?"

Harvey placed a hand on Juliana's shoulder and began leading us over toward the bar. "Well, being the paparazzi magnet you are, which, unfortunately, some stars just have that luck."

Juliana scoffed.

"And," Harvey continued with a hint of chagrin, "with your father being who he is, most people in town had already made their minds up about you. It's hurt your career more than you know, but we're working to take care of that."

"I don't understand," I said. "I thought Macario Valdés had a lot of pull in Hollywood."

"Pull, not respect," Juliana said flatly.

"Ah." Enough said. "And, I guess movies like Senior Trip and Screw the Prom Queen haven't helped much, either."

"No. My former management team never did me any favours with the projects they lined up for me."

Harvey nodded. "Very true."

We reached the bar, and after making sure Juliana and I both had something to drink, he didn't blink at my request for water, which was nice, Harvey smiled at Juliana again. "Fortunately, we plan to change this town's opinion of you."

Juliana took a small sip of a martini. "Do you really think you can do that?"

"Oh, absolutely. Starting tonight," Harvey gushed. "You've already done the hard part, you've forced everyone in town to question their judgment concerning you."

Juliana and I shared a curious look and waited for an explanation. "Your performance in The Druid Princess really shook this town," Harvey said. "People were shocked at your depth and your ability to take a Macario Valdés film, starring opposite Kaylee Summers, and turn it into such a moving performance. And now, surprising everyone again by dating a non-famous young woman with a physical disability, forgive me for putting it so brashly, Miss Carvajal; I mean no disrespect, it's really turned heads. No one in town knows quite what to think of the two of you."

Harvey led us to a vacant couch. The small sofa was one of four placed around a coffee table covered with plates of hors d'oeuvres. I was glad to be off my feet and looked forward to trying the stuffed bell peppers in front of me. Juliana noticed me eyeing them and grinned. As she filled a small plate for the two of us to share, Harvey got down to business. "So, Miss Carvajal," he said, having sat on the sofa nearest me. "Rumour has it you don't plan to take Lindon's up on their offered modelling contract."

I laughed harshly. "That would be correct. I have no desire to model for Lindon's Lingerie or anybody else. And I certainly don't plan to take my clothes off and bare my scarred and mutilated body to appease people's morbid curiosity."

Harvey's face fell into a frown. "I understand your reluctance, but I think it would be a mistake for you to pass on this opportunity."

"Excuse me?" I shook my head, bewildered that he could think such a thing. "Okay, first of all, the public may think Erik Clarke's suggestion that I model his winning lingerie is some kind of fun game, but it's actually my dignity, my feelings, and my reputation on the line. That's not a joke, that's my life. And second, did you happen to see the news on Christmas Day? That kind of attention is not something I plan to sign up for willingly."

Juliana squeezed my hand in an attempt to remind me to control my temper before I really lost it. Then she pulled me closer to her side, creating a united image. When she spoke, I was sure the move had been intentional. "With all due respect to you, Mr. Buchman, you don't understand Valentina's reluctance on this issue. You couldn't possibly understand the things she's been through in the past year. You don't know what it's like to have a beautiful, perfectly healthy body taken from you and to be looked down upon and mocked and tormented because it's gone. Like she's lesser of a person now than she was before because of her injuries. This may be a power play to you, a trifle matter of smiling for a few pictures, but that's maybe one percent of the factors that would go into a decision like this."

My heart swelled to have Juliana come to my defence in such a way. It wasn't that she was defending me no-holds-barred, it was that she got it. She understood that this wasn't just about the message I could send to the world.

Harvey wasn't deterred. "Which is why," he said, "Valentina should sign with my agency." He turned his penetrating stare on me. "I may not be able to empathize with your situation, Miss Carvajal, but I do understand it would be a very difficult and sensitive issue for you. What you're failing to consider is that the media has already thrust this mess on you, whether you want it or not. It won't go away. But if you embrace it, if you take control of it rather than letting it control you, it wouldn't have to be so painful for you."

I hated that he had a point. He was right that this problem wouldn't just disappear if I stuck my head in the sand long enough. Eventually, I would have to face it.

"I did see the news on Christmas Day," he continued. "My heart went out to you and your family for having to endure that. Especially because of a video posted by Erik Clarke." He said Erik's name with as much loathing as I felt for the lying little jerk, which softened me and maybe even endeared me to Mr. Buchman a bit.

"I heard the things they shouted at you," he continued. "I know why they tackled that man to the ground, even if they didn't show it on camera. It wasn't hard to guess. Miss Carvajal, I hate to say it, but that pervert who exposed himself to you will not be the last of his kind, if you don't take action. That is what my team would like to do for you. We could help you limit those kinds of experiences."

"How?" He sounded so confident, but it felt like an impossibility.

"By turning you into a hero instead of a martyr."

The force of his statement hit me hard, as did the meaning behind it. The air left my lungs, and it took all of my strength not to show this man how much he had just affected me.

"A lot of doors have just been opened to you. Opportunities you don't even know exist. Endorsements. Modelling for basically anyone you'd care to work for. Numerous charities who would like your endorsement or help to support their causes. Your biography. A documentary. Everything from the major motion picture rights, to your own reality TV show, to a worldwide motivational speaking tour. There are so many ways we could spin your current situation."

My jaw fell a little further with each new suggestion he gave me. Juliana and Mateo had showed me the list of e-mails Mateo had, it had mostly been guest appearance requests from people like Kenneth Long, Connie Parker, and Celebrity Gossip, and a long list of publishers and studios that were interested in advertising on my blog or having me review their projects.

What Mr. Buchman was suggesting was leagues above that. Worldwide motivational speaking tours? My own reality TV show? Not that I wanted any of those things, but who in the world would be that interested in me? I wasn't a hero. I was a complete disaster. An insecure emotional wreck.

Seeing that he'd overwhelmed me, Mr. Buchman toned down his intensity, softening his voice in an attempt to make his next words hit with less severity. "Do nothing, Miss Carvajal, and everyone who has ever disparaged you wins. Stand up for yourself, and all of those pathetic, weak-minded bullies will see that you aren't a victim. So far, everything you've done, from that media footage of the two of you at Fantasy Con, to stopping your blog posts and removing all comment features and contact information, to hiding from the media, and your terrified stroll to your car on Christmas Day, even the way Juliana hovers around you so protectively tonight shows the world that you are every inch the meek, mild, terrified lamb ready for the slaughter. That crowd on Christmas Day was so out of hand because those people saw a victim. They sensed prey.

"You may be overwhelmed and in over your head at the moment, but watching you with my agents a few minutes ago, I know you can handle it. Show them you are strong, and they will back off. They will fear you. There is an inner strength in you. The same strength that had my agency falling over themselves at Juliana's feet when she showed up demanding we cut all the bullshit because she wasn't taking it anymore from anyone."

A startled snort of laughter escaped me that made Juliana chuckle. "Yeah, that sounds like her."

"And you too, little miss 'Valentina's Words of Wisdom'," Juliana teased.

I was as grateful as Harvey to have the tension broken. He nodded with the smile back in place on his handsome face. "Allow my agency to help you get your head above the water. We can corral all of the chaos surrounding you right now and use it to your advantage. It wasn't Erik Clarke's suggestion on Celebrity Gossip that's fuelling the public right now, he merely threw out an idea. Those people are reacting to you and your statements in that lingerie store. You've inspired the world, Valentina, and now you have power at your disposal. A lot of it. Don't let it go to waste."

I blew out a breath, recognising the end of his speech. It was a good one. I'd give him that. "You've definitely given me a lot to think about," I said honestly.

"Good." His answering smile was almost as much pride for me as it was for himself. "Hopefully, I've persuaded you."

The man was relentless... and very good at his job. "You've left an impression." I grinned, and he matched my dry smirk, knowing exactly what was coming. "I still plan to meet with all the others, too."

He laughed, accepting his defeat with grace, because he was sure in the end I would come back to him. "You do that," he said. "But do me a favour." He pulled a business card from the inside breast pocket of his tux and handed it to me. Juliana gasped softly when she saw that the card had Mr. Buchman's personal contact information on it. "If you should decide to go with ICM or good old Bill Morris, do me the courtesy of calling me before you sign so that I can have one last chance to counter any offers they may make that might sway you to them. I would take you on as my personal client, if that's what it takes to sign you."

Juliana gasped again, louder this time. All I could do was stare at the business card that had the personal e-mail and phone number of the head of one of the largest, most powerful talent agencies in the world. It seemed so surreal. When I finally found my voice, I looked up again to see Mr. Buchman waiting for a response to his request. "I'll do that," I said, "if you'll answer one question for me. Honestly."

Harvey nodded, brows raised in curiosity.

"Why do you want me so badly? You, I mean. Personally. You could have let Juliana's agents handle me tonight. I assume they're some of your best. If Juliana really caused the stir you claim she did, I can't imagine you'd pair her with anyone but your top agents. But spending a good twenty minutes with me when everyone at this party probably hopes to gain your attention at some point? Why? It doesn't make sense. I may have a little hype right now, but I'm not star client material. I have no plans to be an A-list actor, the next chart-topping pop sensation, or even a supermodel. I'll never make you the kind of money someone like Juliana will, so why give me your personal contact information? Why offer to represent me personally?"

When Harvey narrowed his eyes and suppressed a smile as if he were a cat caught with his whiskers in the cream, I shook my head at him. "Truthfully," I warned him, "or you'll lose my trust, and I'll cross you off the list of possibilities right here and now."

Juliana didn't gasp this time, but her whole body stiffened. Perhaps it was audacious of me to be so direct, but it didn't make sense, and I didn't like that.

Harvey pondered my request for a long time, stretching out the silence between us until it was nearly suffocating, but I refused to let him off the hook. When he finally decided that whatever secret he held was worth sharing in order to keep me from walking away, he said the last thing I ever expected. "It's because I have a daughter."

He waited out a shocking bout of emotions, swallowing hard and taking a controlled breath before speaking again. "I have a smart, funny, caring daughter just a couple years younger than you. She is a beautiful young woman... with a strong Jewish nose, and my tight, frizzy curly hair, and my wife's freckles. The height gene skipped her, and she'll never be as thin as the girls in the magazines. Her beauty is unconventional, and she believes that equates to ugly. The kids at school act like her friends because of my status, and then they mock her behind her back. The only boys who ask her on dates are ones looking for an in."

He took another breath, as if needing to suppress a great deal of rage ignited by his protective instincts. I knew those instincts well. My father was exactly the same. He had banned Juliana from his property, essentially cutting me from his life because he was angry that Renata and Eva had been humiliated and put in danger on Christmas Day.

"The other agencies will want you because you will make them quick and easy money with your current attention and your A-list girlfriend. I don't want to make money, Miss Carvajal. I want to make a statement."

His speech stole the air from my lungs. I was nearly moved to tears from it. I was also terrified, because he'd just made my decision infinitely more complicated and impossible to make. He'd made it real. He'd made it personal. From now on, every time I was faced with this topic, I would picture that adorably awkward teen girl struggling through high school, heartbroken and lacking self-confidence because she didn't feel beautiful enough.

Part of me wished I could unhear his story. But I'd asked him for the truth, and even though he hadn't wanted to give it, he did. "Thank you for your candidness," I whispered, still struggling to find my voice.

"Mr. Buchman," Juliana said quietly, "my heart goes out to your family. More than you know. Because even with my support, Valentina still struggles the same way your daughter does. It makes me want to set fire to the whole world sometimes when I have to hear the things people say about her."

Mr. Buchman's face fell slightly, and he gave me a sympathetic smile.

"Imagine," Juliana said, "putting your daughter on TV, and on the front page of every magazine, in her underwear no less, so that she feels more vulnerable than she's ever felt in her life, and then circling all of those things she feels make her ugly with big red permanent markers so that the nation can gawk at her and debate whether or not she's beautiful, or whether she deserves to be with someone more beautiful and perfect than her."

"I can't," he said simply. His face had gone white at the picture Juliana painted for him, and he swallowed hard. "I could never ask my daughter to go through that."

"And yet, that's what you're asking Valentina to do."

I leaned against Juliana, suddenly lacking the strength to sit up on my own. Mr. Buchman's eyes fell on me again, with a mixture of emotions. "I know," he said. "I know what I'm asking of you. And I know that asking you to do it makes me a hypocrite. But I'm still asking. Begging. Please consider it. Because it's already happening to you, whether you like it or not, and you have the power to do something about it. Maybe you couldn't change the world, but you could change the lives of those who suffer from insecurity the way you do. You could be someone to look up to. Someone to make them believe if she is beautiful, and worthy of a woman like Juliana Valdés, then maybe so am I."

His voice gave out, and he had to take a moment to compose himself. Juliana and I both sat, stunned, that this man, probably one of the most powerful and influential people at this party, which was really saying something, was practically on his knees in front of me.

"Juliana, you love Valentina, don't you?" he asked.

"More than anything in the world," Juliana replied, startled by the seemingly random question.

Mr. Buchman nodded. "Someday you will have children, and the love that you have for Valentina right now won't even compare to the joy those kids will bring into your life. And when they start to grow up, and you see them suffer, and are unable to stop that pain, then you will understand how I could ask such an impossible task of Miss Carvajal. Of the both of you."

He sucked in a deep breath and sat up straight, placing his hands on his knees. "And now..." He blew his breath out slowly. "If you'll excuse me, I do believe you were right that I have other guests I should probably attend to. Thank you both for your time, and please think about it." He rose to his feet, pointing at the card in my hand. "Hang on to that, and remember your promise. Call me first if you decide to sign with another agency."

"I will," I murmured.

"Thank you. Enjoy the party, you two, and Happy New Year."

With that, he slipped away, leaving a very stunned Juliana and me sitting speechless on a sofa, staring at a business card.

 

Chapter Text

Juliana POV

We still had an hour to go until midnight, but Valentina and I were exhausted. We snagged an empty sofa in front of a fire pit and both sighed as we got off of our feet. It took Val longer than normal to sit down, and I heard the wince she tried to hide. "How are you holding up?" I asked.

"I'm okay." She sounded breathy. I shot her a stern look, and she gave me a real answer with a sigh of defeat. "I should probably stay right here for the rest of the evening and maybe leave right after midnight."

I was afraid of this. I had tried to keep her off her feet as much as possible tonight, but there had been many people vying for our attention so there had still been a lot of getting up and down or standing around while mingling. Standing for long lengths of time was hard for Valentina, especially when she wasn't wearing her special shoes, but she hadn't complained once. She was doing that thing she does, where she tries to act normal and refuses to be seen as a 'burden'. The woman was so stubborn. Strong, brave, and amazing, but mostly stubborn.

"Are you sure? We can leave now, if we need to. You don't want to overdo it again, like you did when you went shopping with the girls."

She sighed again, but this time it came out more of a frustrated huff. "We don't need to leave. I'll be okay. I just really need to sit down and stay down this time."

She adjusted herself on the sofa, grunting softly as she fought with her hip while trying to settle her bad leg into a comfortable position. I knew that look. She needed to stretch her leg out and elevate her feet. I stood, put a small pillow against the arm of the sofa, and gave it a meaningful pat. Valentina glared at me, but I knew it was only her frustration talking. We stared each other down until she finally broke. "Ugh, fine."

She moved to sit sideways but stopped and grimaced.

"Do you need some help?" I murmured. It was her least favourite question in the world, so I tried to ask it as little as possible.

Her shoulders slumped, and she nodded. I gave her a small smile as I gently lifted her legs and helped her lay them out in front of her on the sofa. She didn't normally need that kind of help. She must have been in a lot of pain. Her pinched expression and pale face as she settled into her new position told me I was right. "Val, you should have said something sooner."

"I didn't want to." The defeat in her tone broke my heart.

"Valentina..."

"You're the star tonight. This is a big deal for you. I just wanted to stand at your side and support you while you rocked the A-list for the first time."

I squatted down beside her, grinning as I took her hand. 'Rocked the A-list'. She was adorable. This whole night had been crazy. After Mr. Buchman left us, it took a few minutes for the first curious person to approach us, but once the ice was broken, the introductions started and hadn't stopped for the last two hours.

She frowned at our clasped hands. "I know how excited you were for tonight. I wanted you to enjoy it, not spend it catering to me or worrying about me, like you're doing now."

"This night has been amazing," I agreed, "but not worth risking you hurting yourself. Especially if you just needed to sit down. Haven't you ever heard of a throne? You and I seem to be the queens of this party tonight. We could have found a comfy seat and let everyone come to us."

I took a quick glance around to make sure no one was close enough to hear the arrogant comment that was about to come out of my mouth. The coast was clear, but I still leaned close to Valentina's ear and whispered my words. "They'd just have had to kiss our feet all night instead of our asses."

I got the response I was looking for, a startled gasp and a smack on the arm. But she was laughing, and that was the important part. "Juliana! Oh my gosh, shut up before someone hears you." She rolled her eyes. "Even if it is true."

I laughed at that. I couldn't believe the reception Val and I had received tonight. People much more famous and influential than me had been congratulating me all night and welcoming me into their personal circles. Val and I had received dinner invitations from just about the entire A-list. The whole thing was mind-boggling.

"Excuse me, Miss Valdés?"

One of the party attendants had noticed me squatting beside Val and brought me a chair. I stood to greet the guy. "Thanks."

"Of course, Miss Valdés. If there's anything else I can do for either of you, please let me know."

His eyes flicked to Valentina with concern, which endeared him to me and probably annoyed her. "Actually, we would be grateful if you could track down some painkillers. Extra Strength Advil or Tylenol or something."

"Of course." The guy nodded to me and flashed Val a smile. "I'll be back in just a few minutes."

Val looked relieved as the guy scampered off to find her some pain relief. She was really tired. I scooted my chair closer to her and took her hand again, bringing it to my lips. "Thank you for coming with me tonight. We can leave once the pain killers start to kick in."

"We're staying." Val shot me a defiant look. "I didn't get all glammed up just to duck out early and miss the chance to kiss my favourite A-list actor on a fancy rooftop at midnight."

My mind went gooey at the thought of finally getting to kiss her. She looked amazing tonight. Glen and Steffan had really outdone themselves with her dress. Val had never looked more beautiful. It had taken all of my willpower to leave the house once I saw her, and I had spent a lot of time thinking dirty thoughts since. It's funny how I could love her dress so much but only want to take it off her.

Forcing my mind out of the gutter, I gave Val my movie-star smile. "Well, you sure know how to convince a girl. I guess we're staying."

"Great. Could you go find Declan Simmons for me? I think he's around here somewhere, and it's getting kind of close to midnight."

I had walked right into that one. I tried not to laugh, but Val knew I was fighting a smile. When she burst into laughter, I finally lost my composure. "Declan Simmons? You're such a brat."

Val laughed harder.

"Sounds like the real party's over here."

Our laughter faded into surprise as we looked up to see Astrid Graves smiling down at us. "I hope I'm not interrupting. I've been trying to snag a few minutes with you all night."

It took all of my acting skills to hide my shock. I had been meeting the best of the best all night, but Astrid Graves was something else. She was only six years older than me and already had three Oscars, one of which she won at nineteen, making her the youngest woman to ever receive Best Actress at the Academy Awards. The beautiful brunette with eyes like ice had a regal air about her and was Hollywood royalty, if ever there was any, she was this generation's Audrey Hepburn. I had never had the privilege of being in the same room with her before, much less had her speak to me.

"Of course not," I said, rising to my feet to greet her. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

"Likewise." She shook my hand and then smiled down at Valentina.

Val held her hand out but made no attempt to move. "Sorry. I need to stay off my feet if I'm going to last until midnight, but you're welcome to pull up a chair."

I offered her mine and quickly found another one to drag over. The two chairs next to the couch created this small, intimate circle in front of the fire pit that would be very difficult for anyone else to penetrate. Once I sat, I was just inches away from Astrid, and it was surprisingly hard to concentrate. Val must have sensed I was flustered, because she reached for my hand and was trying very hard to suppress a smile. I narrowed my eyes at her, and she winked before turning her attention to the brilliant actress next to us.

The party attendant returned with some Advil and a bottle of water. Astrid waited politely for Valentina to swallow a couple of pills and then said, "So..." Her gaze bounced back and forth between Val and me, as if she were studying us. Eventually, she shook her head as if in disbelief. "The infamous Jana and Val in the flesh."

"Said THE Astrid Graves," Valentina quipped, shaking her head with her own fair amount of incredulity.

I was startled by Valentina's  playful taunt. Here I was, unable to string together a coherent thought, and Val was teasing the woman. Was there anyone Val was intimidated by?

Astrid's eyes widened with surprise, but she quickly followed that with a laugh of delight. "Touché, Miss Carvajal."

"Call me Val."

"Only if you'll call me Astrid. It's nice to meet you."

"Is it lame if I say it's an honour? You're one of my favourite actresses."

Mine too, I thought while watching in stunned silence.

Astrid accepted the compliment with the grace of a true princess and then studied Val and I again. I still couldn't think of anything to say to her, so the silence stretched out. Just before it got awkward, Astrid clapped her hands together and said, "Okay, confession time. Zachary Goldberg is a dear friend of mine, and he's been hounding me for weeks to play Marguerite in Scarlet."

Val and I both gasped. Val shot me a look that contained as much shock and excitement as I felt. Could I really get to work with both Zachary Goldberg and Astrid Graves? That was more than I would have ever hoped for. I held my breath as I waited for Astrid to continue.

"I've always wanted to do a period piece," she said, making my stomach flutter, "so I read the script the second Zachary sent it to me, and I loved it." She met my eyes. "But I hesitated when he told me that you had already signed on. I've been sitting on an answer for weeks."

That fluttering in my stomach turned into a dull churning, but I forced my face to remain calm. I didn't think she would explain all of this just to tell me I was the reason she passed on the project. I really hoped not, anyway. I wasn't sure I would survive that kind of disappointment or rejection.

Val knew me well enough to know I was freaking out internally, because she firmly squeezed my hand. When I glanced at her, she gave me a confident smile. "Breathe, Juls," she said softly. "I'm pretty sure you've got this."

I was about to have a heart attack at Val's boldness, but Astrid laughed and nodded her head. "She's right. I was curious about all the buzz, so I went to see The Druid Princess on opening day, and I called Zachary on my way home from the theatre to let him know I wanted the Marguerite role. Contracts won't be signed until next week, but Zachary's promised me the part is mine, so it looks like you and I will be working together soon."

I sucked in my first breath in a full minute, and it immediately escaped my lungs in the form of a disbelieving laugh. I tried to speak but couldn't form any words. My head shook as I attempted to wrap my head around the news. I was going to star in a film directed by Zachary Goldberg opposite Astrid Graves.

"It seems you've rendered her speechless," Val said as she nudged me playfully.

"Sorry. I'm just... wow. I'm honoured. I've always wanted the opportunity to work on a serious production, but I never dreamed..." I let out an incredulous laugh, still reeling from my good fortune. "Thank you," I finally spit out. "For taking a chance on me."

Astrid shrugged, as if it were no big deal, even though I was sure she knew exactly how big of a deal this was for me. I appreciated her nonchalance. "I'm looking forward to it," she said, surprising me even further. "With Zachary leading the charge, it's going to be a first-rate production. I'm curious to see what you'll accomplish when you have some real talent to work with, for once." Her smile turned conspiratorial. "I suspect you'll shock the hell out of this town even more than you already have. I'm looking forward to being part of the next Juliana Valdés scandal."

My jaw dropped again, and Val smirked at me with enough amusement sparkling in her big blue eyes to make me blush. Barely restraining her laughter, she grinned at Astrid. "Being a participant in one of Juliana's scandals is an experience, for sure."

Astrid laughed, but I could tell her amusement was directed at Valentina instead of me. I was certain the conversation was about to shift focus to my infamous girlfriend. Although that might normally make me nervous, I was actually relieved to have the attention away from me this time. I needed a minute to recover from this conversation.

"Said the woman with quite the impressive scandal of her own," Astrid teased, throwing Valentina's earlier jest back at her.

Val laughed and repeated Astrid's earlier response. "Touché."

"And speaking of that particular juicy scandal..." Astrid took Val's raised brow as permission to continue. "I have two good friends who have been watching us from the bar since the moment I came over here, and they are salivating at the chance to talk to you. Would you mind if I introduce you?"

Val seemed startled. "They want to talk to me?"

"Yeah. Would you mind?"

"I guess not."

 

Chapter Text

Juliana's POV

Val glanced at the couch she was taking up and the lack of room to include more people. When she started to move, I jumped up from my seat and stopped her. "Hang on. You stay put." I grabbed the end of the couch with Val's feet and pushed it back from the fire to make more space. Once I did, Grammy-winning country music star Carla Wilson and her famous photographer brother Nash joined us, snagging a few nearby chairs and widening our little circle.

After introductions were made, Carla looked Valentina over from head to toe. With the way Val was sitting, her feet were on display and her ankles were exposed. Her close-toed slipper-shoes hid most of the damage to her feet, but some of her scars were still showing. Although that was not what Carla was looking at; she was checking out Valentina's dress.

"My brother and I have been discussing all night how beautiful you are," she finally said to Val.

"Positively breath-taking," Nash agreed.

Considering Carla was quite the vision herself and Nash was very handsome, the compliment had some punch to it, and Val blushed. "Thanks."

"Your dress," Carla said, scanning Val head to toe again. "It's fabulous. It's like it was made for you, both physically and in personality. It's simplistic in its design and yet both classy and sexy. It shows off just enough while letting you still feel secure, I imagine."

It was a polite way of saying it covered Valentina's scars while not looking like it was trying to. I agreed the dress was brilliant for that very reason. I didn't mind Val's scars at all, but I knew she did, and when I saw her in this dress, and saw the way her entire face beamed, I knew I had underpaid Glen and Steffan. And I knew I would never let anyone else make a dress for her ever again.

"It does," Val agreed. "I have some very good friends who can work magic with a sewing machine."

"Magic, indeed. I knew it was an original. It's too perfect for you." Carla leaned forward in her chair. "Who are your designers, and do they take other clients? Are they going to do your Oscar dress?"

I smirked. Carla was a cat ready to pounce. I understood her excitement, though; a great dress was powerful in the entertainment industry and hard to come by. And Val's dress really was that good. If Glen and Steffan were looking for a career change, this dress was all they needed.

"Oscars?" Val asked. She whipped her head towards me. "I hadn't even thought of that!"

Her panic was cute. "Relax. You've got time, and I'm sure Glen and Steffan will be thrilled to make you an Oscar gown."

"Glen and Steffan," Carla repeated. "Do they have last names? A business name? A phone number?"

Nash leaned forward, resting a hand on Carla's knee. "Chill, sis. You're coming across as desperate."

Carla huffed, and Nash rolled his eyes as he shot us an apologetic smile. "She ended up on a worst-dressed list after the Grammys last year."

Astrid, Val, and I all winced.

"See?" Carla muttered to Nash.

Val relieved Carla of her misery. "Their last name is Euling. They're actually costume designers for the TV show Celebrity Dance Off. They make all the dresses for the dancers."

"Hmm," Carla said thoughtfully. "I haven't seen it. Guess I'll be binge-watching Netflix all day tomorrow." Her eyes flashed with hope. "Do you think they'd design me a dress for the Grammys?"

Val shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. "I don't know. I know they love their gig, and I don't think they've ever designed anything for a private client before this. But I would be happy to ask for you."

"Oh, thank you," Carla gushed. "Be sure to tell them how much I love your dress, and tell them I'm willing to make it very worth their while."

Val laughed. "I'll do that."

Val hadn't brought a purse, so I pulled my phone from my bag to let Carla add her contact details.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you. Oh, I hope they say yes. I am not being labelled worst-dressed ever again."

"That's great, sis; now shut up about the lovely dress," Nash said, waving her off with his hand. "On to more important things."

The smile he flashed Valentina made me certain of where this conversation was going. He was one of the most world-renowned photographers in the business and most known for working with people of interest in creative, often nude, ways. The poor bastard was about to get shut down hard.

"So, Valentina, I heard Lindon's offered you a modelling contract...?"

His voice trailed off into a question. Knowledge of the contract was public; what he was asking was if Val planned to accept it. Val snorted right on cue. "Yeah. That's not going to happen."

Everyone laughed, but Nash's grin grew like a Cheshire Cat. "I was really hoping you'd say that. Forget Lindon and his lingerie. Let me reveal you to the world."

Even suspecting the offer was coming, it was startling to hear. Nash Wilson didn't make offers; he accepted them. And at a very high price. Most of the people at this party, A-list status and all, would kill to do a photo shoot with him.

Nash must not have blabbed his intentions to his sister, because she and Astrid both gasped. "Oh, Nash!" Carla squealed, gripping his arm. "Will you really?"

"If she'll let me. I'll even do it for free. I just want to shoot her."

She squealed again and turned all of her giddy excitement on Val. "Can you believe it? I was hoping he'd ask you, but I wasn't sure. I can't wait to see what he does with you! You're going to look so amazing!"

"Wait." Val took in Astrid's amazement and Carla's excitement, then frowned at me before saying, "I don't understand." She pointed at Carla. "You, I recognise, and you said he's your brother..." She looked at Nash. "So... you're a photographer?"

Nash's eyebrows flew up, and both Carla and Astrid gasped again. I chuckled at their surprise. Nash seemed to take the lack of recognition in his stride. "He's not just any photographer," I said, bringing her hand to my lips for another light kiss.

"No," Astrid agreed. "He's THE photographer. And what he's offering you is extremely generous."

Val looked to me for confirmation, so I nodded. Maybe she wanted more of an answer, but I didn't want to sway her one way or another. I wanted her to take him up on his offer, but I didn't want my desire influencing her decision. I didn't want her doing it if she was going to be uncomfortable.

"He's the best," Carla said. "But he's ridiculously expensive, and he's beyond snobby about who he'll photograph. He rejects ninety-nine percent of his requests. This is the offer of a lifetime."

"I'm not kidding," Carla said. "He's never even shot me, and I'm his sister! I'm so jealous right now."

Nash chuckled and patted Carla's shoulder. "Ah, sis, you know you can't take it personally. I can't shoot just anyone, even if they're as beautiful as you."

Carla huffed, but I could tell she was mollified by the compliment.

"Why can't you accept everyone?" Val asked. "What makes you decide who to photograph and who not to, if it's not just about money or beauty?"

"Everything and everyone has beauty in them somewhere. It's my job to recognise that beauty and enhance it," Nash said. His voice became earnest as he was overcome with passion. "You see, Valentina, I don't simply take pictures. I'm not a photographer. I am an artist. I create works of art. My subjects are my canvas, and the camera is my paintbrush. I have to feel inspired to take on a project. The camera has to speak to me."

Val considered his words and slowly nodded. "That makes sense. But are you really so inspired by me that you would not only volunteer to take my pictures, but do it free of charge?"

"I'm that inspired," I offered with a suggestive waggle of my brow. "Especially if we're talking about nude photos."

"JULIANA!" Val shrieked. She started to yell some more, but then she balked and snapped her panicked gaze to Nash. "That's not what we're talking about, right? You can't possibly mean a nude photo shoot!"

"I was hoping." Nash nodded cautiously. "Tastefully done, of course, and only showing as much as you're comfortable with. What I would like to do is..."

Val didn't let him finish. "No way. That's worse than asking me to parade around in lingerie."

Nash sat back, folding his arms over his chest, and frowned deeply at Val. "What I'm suggesting is nothing even remotely as tacky as that."

"She didn't mean to insult you," I said quickly. "She's offended by the offer. She was raised very strictly and isn't used to such a liberal way of life. She probably can't picture what kind of photographs you're talking about."

Val was perturbed that I had spoken for her, and she would probably yell at me later, I had no doubt. But whether she knew it or not, she did not want to offend Nash. This opportunity really was special. Even if she didn't do a nude shoot, which I knew she wouldn't, after she really thought about it, she'd probably change her mind and take him up on the pictures. I would try to help her understand later, when we had some time alone to talk about it privately. Once she stopped yelling at me, of course.

Nash's eyes narrowed on me for a moment, but I managed to convince him she meant no harm. His shoulders relaxed, and he sighed. "I'm talking about art, Valentina, not pornography."

"I understand what you mean," she growled, with a special glare for me. Oh yeah, I was in trouble. "But art or not, I'm not taking any naked pictures. At all. Ever. For anyone." Chalk up another dirty look for me. "Including you!"

That made everyone smile a little, so I hammed up a frown and pretended to be heartbroken. "Not even just a..."

"Don't even think about finishing that sentence, if you value your life!"

She was getting more annoyed with me by the second, but the others were laughing at us now, which was a good thing. I kissed her hand again, tempted to just lift her up and set her in my lap so I could kiss more than her hand. But that probably wouldn't go over very well with her being mad at me. "Sorry. I'll behave now. Promise."

She snorted as if she trusted that promise as much as she'd trust another chance meeting with Erik Clarke.

"Valentina, it's not what you think," Carla said, coming to her brother's defence. "He'll make you the most beautiful woman alive. He has a way of making everything beautiful, so you don't have to worry about showing a little skin, scars or not. I promise you can trust him to make them look as natural as a dusting of freckles."

"Not completely nude, then," Nash negotiated. "I'm sure we could find something you're comfortable with, but the point is to show the world your scars and let them see how beautiful you still are. It would do no good to cover you up. Not that you don't look radiant this evening."

The anger bled from Val's face, and insecurity washed over her. She took her hand out of mine and hugged her arms tightly around her while biting her bottom lip. If she weren't in a dress, she'd be hugging her knees to her chest right now. I hated seeing her that way and hated that the others were witnessing her fear. She probably hated it too.

"Val, it's only an offer," I murmured, moving from my chair to the edge of the couch. I forced her hands apart and purposely took the scarred one into my hands. "You don't have to do anything you aren't comfortable with. You know that. Forget Erik Clarke. The bastard lied to you, manipulated you, and then exploited you. No one who knows you will blame you if you can't share yourself with the world, and anyone else doesn't matter. You don't owe anybody anything."

Val closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as if she were fighting back tears. I brushed my thumbs back and forth over her scarred hand. "I love you, Valentina. No matter what you end up doing." My audiobook voice may or may not have been used intentionally. "I know what this means to you, and I know how brave you are just for being here tonight. I know how far you've come. Even if you never share yourself with the world, it won't mean you're weak, and I'll never stop being proud of you."

My softly-spoken words subdued the group around us. I wished this moment could have been private, for Val's sake, but at least it made those watching us start to understand how hard this was for her.

When she opened her eyes, they were shiny, but she didn't cry. She met my gaze, and, with a timid nod, leaned forward to rest her forehead against mine. I smiled encouragingly and couldn't help sneaking an early kiss, even though it wasn't twelve yet.

"I'll promise you one thing, though," I said when she sat back. Some of the colour had returned to her face, though she still looked visibly shaken. "Nash isn't Erik Clarke. He would never try and trick you into doing something you wouldn't do. He's not asking to take your photograph because he wants to exploit you."

"Of course not," Nash whispered.

Val finally glanced up and met the waiting looks of sympathy and encouragement. Carla even had tears in her eyes. She mutely shook her head. Val eyed Nash and then pinned her gaze on her lap as she mumbled, "How can you be so sure? What other reason is there to make such an offer, if not for the fame and publicity or the money that selling his pictures would generate?"

"For the art," Nash replied.

Val met his eyes again, uncertainty clouded in her own.

"I don't need the money, Valentina. And I'm already one of, if not the most famous, photographers in the world currently. I've already got more work than I need. But from the moment I saw you in that cute little blue dress at The Druid Princess premiere, I've wanted nothing but the chance to work with you. You're a breath-taking woman, and the scars only enhance your beauty. Where others see imperfections, I see uniqueness. I don't see flaws; I see beautiful distinctions that set you apart from everyone else in the world. I see the miraculous creation that you are."

Val swallowed, but she was calming down. I wasn't surprised. That was a hell of a speech. And because he meant every word of it, his sincerity shone through.

"When I look at you," Nash whispered, his eyes slipping out of focus as he drifted into thought, "I see a mysterious and beautiful enchantress, much like the very woman you're named after. My hope is to do a shoot depicting that. I see you in a mist-filled magical forest beside a small brook, surrounded by tiny faerie like creatures. I picture you with flowers in your wild hair and delicate gossamer wings sprouting from your back."

He reached his hand out to Val, to the one I still held, her scarred one. "May I?"

Val sucked in a breath, and I froze, waiting for her to give me any kind of sign that I should intervene. A tense heartbeat of time passed, and then Val reluctantly placed her shaking hand into his.

He held it for a moment, and then, very slowly, began brushing his fingers over her scarred skin. "Beautiful," he murmured to himself. "So much softer than I imagined." Without relinquishing her hand, he met her eyes. "If you'd let me, I'd put your skin on display in a beautiful and natural way. Elegant and tasteful. Nothing graphic would show. Maybe just a curve here or there to pose as tempting, like a beautiful water sprite, playful and seductive at the same time, luring in your prey with your overwhelming beauty. I'd use soft mood lighting to even out your skin tones and then pull out the natural colour of your striking eyes to give you the appearance of a mythical faerie goddess. I imagine you as the most breath-taking creature that ever existed, and your scars would only enhance your mystique."

My mouth went dry as I created a vivid image in my mind of the picture he painted. Valentina as my mysterious, exotic, magical, wild faerie goddess... Holy shit, did I want to see those pictures. I wanted an entire day on that set. Hell, I wanted to play the role of the helpless lost maiden under her spell. I wouldn't even have to act the part. Forget Jana and Val as superheroes. I had a new fantasy. And if anyone could bring it to life, Nash Wilson could.

"That does sound beautiful." Val's quiet, shaky voice pulled me from my daydreams. "I... I'll think about it, okay?"

Nash, with a small, accepting smile, released her hand and sat back. "Come by my gallery sometime. I can show you plenty of examples of the kind of exposure I'm talking about, though I don't think any of them hold a candle to your potential. We could discuss every detail of the shoot beforehand, no surprises, and you could have final approval on every photograph released in any capacity."

Val nodded again, lifting my spirits a little and giving me hope that she might find the courage to do the photo shoot. It would be so good for her, because Nash knew how to do his job well. Val would look so stunning that not even she would be able to hate the pictures. She would finally see herself as beautiful, the way I see her. And the world could shut the hell up and leave her alone.

"I'll do that," she said. "I won't make any promises about doing the photo shoot, but I would like to see some of your work."

Nash grinned. "It's a date, beautiful. And... I suppose you could bring your girlfriend along, if you must."

His eyes briefly flicked to me, making my adrenaline spike. Was he going to invite me to join her? I knew better than to ask, but damn it, I wanted in. He must have seen the desire in my eyes, because his lips twitched before he looked back at Val. "We might even be able to find some room for her in a picture or two, if you agree to the shoot." He glanced at me again, and his smile turned crooked. "You wouldn't look so bad dressed up with pointy ears."

Hell yeah! A fairy was way better than I had imaged.

Val snorted. And not softly. "If you think you're scaring her with the threat of pointy ears, you're sorely mistaken."

Everyone laughed, and I shamelessly sat straighter, flashing them all a proud grin. "Oh, I'm all in. And unlike my modest girlfriend, I have no problem with nudity."

As I knew she would, Val slapped her hand over her face and groaned.

-----

As the clock approached midnight, our guests excused themselves. Once again, we were alone on the sofa beside the fire pit. Many of the guests had made their way on to the balcony for the impending fireworks but I didn’t want to risk Val’s comfort by moving her, now that the painkillers had finally kicked in and she was feeling better, so I snuggled in beside her, wrapping my arms around her waist. It had been a long night and we were both ready to go home, but Val insisted we stay until midnight. 

Val’s head was resting on my shoulder as my fingers gently ran up and down the exposed skin on her good arm. We watched silently as everyone paired off, patiently awaiting the count down. 

“You know,” I spoke softly drawing Valentina’s attention, “according to folklore, the first person you encounter in the new year sets the tone for the rest of your year.”

“Is that so?” Val asked, as she pulled away slightly so she could look at me with those beautiful, smiling eyes.

“Yep!” I nodded, trying to maintain my audiobook voice. “Apparently, a kiss on the beginning of a new year is said to strengthen the relationship you wish to maintain in the future.” I said, as I gently tucked a stray hair behind her ear.

She smiled as I recalled the information, I heard on the radio earlier that day. “And is there a particular relationship you wish to maintain, Miss Valdés?” Val teased.

“Hmmm... well,” my eyes narrowed as I thought about it for a few seconds before continuing. “I have been seeing this girl, she’s kinda cute and I think she’s really into me. I guess I’ll have to wait until midnight to see how much she likes me,” I teased back. Val smiled and nodded slowly as she considered my words. 

“Oh well, maybe I should go in case this mystery girl shows up?” She pulled away slightly pretending to leave, but I caught her and held her tight while she laughed.

“Valentina Carvajal, it is no mystery that I am in love with you, I love you more than anything else in the world and I want you in my life for a very long time." I said as i brought my hand up to cup her face. "Now, I'm just finding it impossible to wait for that clock to strike midnight to show you just how much you mean to me.”

Val quirked an eyebrow, suppressing a smile while biting her lower lip. It took all of my will power not to pounce on her right then. I gently released her swollen lip with my thumb, smoothing it over before slowly sliding my fingers along her jaw to her neck. 

Val’s gaze flickered from my eyes to my lips as her breathing accelerated; clearly. I wasn't the only one struggling to wait until midnight. Her arm slid around my waist pulling me closer, my whole body was tingling with her slim body pressed against mine. 

We vaguely registered the announcement of the countdown as we gazed into each other’s eyes. As the numbers dwindled, I moved closer, breathing in her familiar scent as our foreheads rested together. “Thank you for coming with me tonight Val, I wouldn’t have gotten through it without you.” She smiled as I continued. “I want this to be the first of many New Year’s we welcome together.”

As the midnight bell chimed and the first firework exploded, lighting the sky above us, I kissed her. Soft and slow at first, to gauge her reaction, but there was no hesitation. If anything, there was an urgency for more- more contact, more closeness, as Val tightened her arm around my waist. I deepened the kiss and felt the rest of the world melt away. Her mouth on mine sent shivers through me as my heart beat faster and faster; I knew I was a goner from the first moment I argued with this girl online. And now, I wanted her to be mine forever.

Val slowly broke the kiss, her eyes still closed as she rested her forehead against mine, “Juls...” I could feel her whole body trembling as she tried to slow her breathing. I wrapped my arms around her as she settled against me, her head burrowing into my neck while she hugged my waist. “I love you too, Juliana.” She whispered softly.

 

 

“Happy New Year, beautiful,” I said as I kissed her forehead, silently praying this would be the first of many happy years together.

 

 

Chapter Text

The whole month of January was one big blur. The first thing I did was sign with an agent. I met with several, but in the end, Harvey Buchman was the only one I trusted to consider my personal concerns and help me build the career I wanted versus building the one that would make me rich and famous.

Once it was official, we squeezed as much into the two weeks prior to my surgery as we could. We started contracts on a movie deal, and a documentary, and Juliana and I did a few talk show appearances. Then, my surgery and all the extra physical therapy took up most of the second half of the month.

Any free time I had, I spent plotting the layout of the new Valentina's Words of Wisdom website with Mateo. We'd made a great start, and Mateo had convinced me right away to start some kind of webisode series. I decided to start a sort of video diary. I called it 'My Fairy Tale Life.' It was just little five to ten minute episodes where I chronicled all the craziness of my life now that I was suddenly a celebrity. People were eating it up.

It had been a crazy, hectic month but a very good one. And the best part about it was that I found a fantastic apartment. Now, it was February first, and I finally had keys. Today was moving day, and things had been severely complicated when this crazy delivery of random packages was dropped off from my agency's office early this morning.

Abby, my good friend Rob, and I were all sitting in the living room, sifting through a sea of letters and packages when Renata arrived. "Come in," I shouted when Renata knocked, because I was buried in stuff and unwilling to risk knocking over any of the piles I had sorted or tripping and killing myself in the chaos. "Thanks for coming. You're just in time to help us sort through everything."

"Just in time?" Abby laughed. "You would be just in time six hours from now, too. We're going to be here all day!"

"Whoa," Renata said when she stepped inside. "What is all this?"

I looked around at the clutter and sighed. "It's a combination of get-well wishes, fan mail, and housewarming gifts."

Renata blinked at the mess. My living room, which didn't even have furniture yet, was filled to the brim with cards, balloons, flowers, and all sorts of random household items. It looked like I was opening all the gifts from the world's largest wedding reception.

"Remember how in last week's webisode she gushed about how excited she was to be moving into her first apartment?" Abby asked.

"And then," Rob added, "she naively joked that she was going to be sleeping on the floor and eating off paper plates forever because she couldn't physically go shopping for long periods of time, and she didn't have any of her own stuff yet?" He waved at the pile of gifts. "Meet the result of that joke."

I groaned. Having over five million subscribers on YouTube had repercussions I had never expected. I had been posting a My Fairy Tale Life video once a week since the beginning of January, and in just one month, I was already ranked in the top three hundred most popular YouTubers. It was insane.

After last week's webisode went live, the episode where I got to take the bandages off after my surgery and I introduced my rehab team to the world, the fan mail and gifts had started arriving by the next day. The only physical address anyone had for me was my new management team's offices, so that's where people sent stuff. Because my agent was the head of the entire company, they'd been kind and stored the stuff for me, since I wasn't in my apartment yet. But when they'd dropped off a truckload of mail this morning, they'd kindly asked me to invest in a P.O. box and warned me they would be forwarding all deliveries to my apartment from now on. I didn't blame them.

When Renata finally got situated on the floor with us, Abby handed her a giant stack of envelopes to open. "Here. You can start with these. A lot of them are from retailers and have gift cards as housewarming gifts in them. Keep those. We're going to collect them all and donate them to a battered women's shelter or a children's group home or something."

"And I'm going through all the actual stuff," I said, holding up a small crystal clock that would look great on a bookshelf... as soon as I had a bookshelf. "You're all welcome to go through it, too, and then we'll donate the rest of it with the gift cards."

"Wow," Renata breathed as she tore through the seal of an envelope. "This is crazy."

"Oh, and skim the fan letters," Abby added. "Val can't possibly reply to everything, so we're just looking for anything that seems important. If it's like little ten-year-old Marcie who is a car accident survivor like Val and sent a thank-you letter with a picture because she's in a wheelchair and is trying to learn to walk again and Val is an inspiration, then keep it. Val wants those. But if it's just normal gushy 'You're so pretty and funny,' fan mail or nasty, perverted stuff, toss it."

"Unless it's so creepy and stalkerish that we need to give it to the cops," I joked.

Renata glanced at me, stunned. "Have there been a lot of those?"

"None yet." I laughed. "I've just been on a Janice Bishop kick since Christmas, so my mind keeps going to all these dark, twisted places."

Renata shook her head, both scowling and laughing. "That's not funny. It's only a matter of time before some psycho really does try to go fatal attraction on you, you know."

"Sorry. I guess it's not that funny when you put it that way. But hey, I'm safe here. Promise. The security in this building is really tight. Juliana wouldn't have let me move in otherwise."

"Yeah, I noticed the security."

Something in her voice made me look up from the box I was opening. "What is it?"

Renata hesitated but quickly broke. "Dad came with me today."

My eyebrows jumped up my forehead so high my face hurt. "Dad was here?"

She nodded gravely. "He was going to come up and try to talk to you, but he wasn't on your approved list of visitors. The front desk guy said he could call you and ask if he could come up, but Dad said no and stormed out because he didn't think you'd say yes."

I didn't know what to say. I wasn't sure how I felt about that. I wasn't as angry with my father as I had been at first, but I was resigned to a life without him. I was even mostly convinced that I was better off.

Renata sighed. "He's going crazy. It's been over a month, and you still haven't answered a single phone call or e-mail."

I ground my teeth. "That's kind of the point of disowning someone."

Renata nodded, but she looked sad. "I know, but he feels so bad. He didn't mean for you to sever all ties. He was just angry that day because of all those things those jerks said about us. He was scared, Val. He didn't mean to hurt you."

I closed my eyes and let out a long breath as I shook my head. "He never means to hurt me, but he always does."

I didn't think Renata would mention anything else about it, but she very quie