Authors: Crystal Cierlak
Tags: #Gay & Lesbian, #Literature & Fiction, #Fiction, #Lesbian Romance, #New Adult & College, #Lgbt, #Bisexual Romance, #Romance
Natalie Harlow has it all. Or maybe too much of it. After being fired for her whirlwind romance with James Fitzgerald (Gentleman Twelve), Natalie has struck out on her own with the charismatic Joe Gallo. Success finds them quickly, but soon fate does too, and misfortune sends Natalie running across the country in search of distraction from her broken heart, and meaning for her disrupted life.
It is the allure of Audra Robertson - James’ business partner and closest friend - and her enticing proposal that brings Natalie back to Los Angeles a changed woman with renewed purpose and fresh romantic entanglements (both in and out of the workplace).
Upon learning of Natalie’s return, James realizes that it was never really over between them, and he is determined to make her see that though ended, their romance has deep enough roots to grow yet again. His plan, however, is made more difficult by the secrets Natalie is withholding.
Can Natalie and James find their way back together, or have fate and misfortune changed them for good?
BEYOND RUIN is the captivating continuation of the Bidden Series that will have you laughing, crying, and breathless; and by the end begging for more!
Book Four of the Bidden Series
BEYOND RUIN is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this novel are either fictitious or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2015 Crystal Cierlak
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any format, digital or otherwise, without the expressed permission of the author.
As always, for Jeffrey P.
(Not yet written!)
"This isn’t a good idea."
Natalie sighed. Her patience was wearing thin. How many times had she heard those words in the last few weeks, each utterance from the mouth of someone who believed they knew or thought better than she?
"It's going to be fine," she promised, exercising the last of her good humor. "It's just hair. It will grow back."
An audible clicking of the tongue grated her nerves. "It's just such a shame to get rid of all this beautiful curl.” The black apron-clad woman tilled her fingertips through Natalie's hair with a sorrowful expression on her face, as though she were mourning for the curly red locks before they'd even been cut from Natalie's overgrown head.
"Just please be sure to save as much of it as you can as I plan on donating it." Natalie kept a watchful eye on the hairdresser as she made the first snip of her scissors, clearly biting back a grimace and her own disappointment. After a few cuts Natalie turned her attention back to the email taking up the display of her iPhone. She typed a response quickly without the need to glance at the on-screen keyboard to find the right letters. She'd become a master at tapping out email after email on the device, no matter if she was getting a haircut, a manicure, or - in the case of one afternoon several weeks earlier - a full body massage. She was her own mobile command center, a necessity she quickly discovered was quite addicting. She powered through half a dozen emails while the hairdresser snipped away before Quinn's face lit up the screen.
She picked up before the first ring even finished.
"Angelah from Harry Brucker's office is emailing me about scheduling a visit in Vegas. Why isn't he coming to Los Angeles?"
"Hello to you, too, Natalie. I'm terrific! Thanks for asking. How's New York?"
"Are you getting cc'd on emails from their office?" Natalie continued, choosing to ignore the saccharine sweet sarcasm her friend was an expert at deploying. "Send her a polite reminder that she needs to include you. Please.” There was no response from the other side of the line apart from a patient sigh from Quinn. "I'm sorry," Natalie said softly. "Hi Quinn. I've got a lot on my mind at the moment. How are you?"
"Confused. There is a man at our front door with several packages he claims he's been directed to deliver into your bedroom."
"That's fine. Let him in, please."
"Is this James' doing? Because it wouldn't be the first time."
"No," Natalie sighed, her eyes rolling to the ceiling. "They're all from me. I only have the one suitcase with me so I just decided to ship everything extra home."
"Yeah well that's what happens when you pack to go away for the weekend and stay for half the month. Upstairs and to the right!" Quinn called out and away from the phone. "Does this mean you're coming home?"
"Is that Natalie?" she heard Joe Gallo’s deep voice coming closer to the receiver.
"Excuse me, I'm talking to-"
"Any luck finding us an intern?" Joe cut in after apparently winning the battle for Quinn's phone.
"Yes, and I'm hoping to set up interviews for early next week."
"So you're coming home?"
"I'm booked on the last flight on Virgin. I should be walking through the front door just after midnight."
"Thank God. Quinn has been driving me insane with paint samples and fabric swatches and trips to furniture warehouses. I need an ally."
"Give me that!" Quinn protested.
"Ouch!" Joe cried, his voice fading to the background.
"If he had his way the living room would look like something the state of Texas regurgitated."
Had there not been a woman cutting her hair Natalie would have shaken her head. "Why don't you two just have sex already and get it over with?"
"If only it were that simple," Quinn mused. "These shoes are gorgeous. They can't possibly be for you."
"Stop going through my stuff!"
"There's a ton of it. How much shopping have you done in New York? Are we poor now?"
A burst of laughter relaxed Natalie's face into a smile. "Can you wait until I'm there before you start trying things on?"
"I'll have a bottle of wine chilled and ready. Have a safe flight, Red."
Natalie put the phone down in her lap and closed her eyes. Had it really been over two weeks since she left home? She'd only intended to be gone for a long weekend, having never been to New York. But on the morning of her scheduled flight home anxiety had wrecked her mind and body. She wasn't yet ready to face what was waiting for her at home, and so she stayed, working from a hotel room in Manhattan and taking meetings with potential clients when she could, justifying the trip into something more meaningful than it was.
Not that the short few weeks away made up for the months that preceded them; nothing could. But she had to find some semblance of her own life again, what with a new business and a new home. Time would not wait for her while others moved forward.
She swiped through the photo album on her phone, letting her mind wander through her memories, traveling back in time from the crisp autumn to the blazing summer, settling finally on the afternoon spent on Audra's pontoon boat with Joe in the middle of Lake Arrowhead. There she lounged on the back of the boat, swimsuit-clad under the baking sun, smiling.
'We're going to document this moment.'
'Because I want you to look at that picture every time you think you're not brave enough or in some way doubt yourself.'
She'd taken the plunge into the water - literally and figuratively - to battle her fear of the unseen depths beneath the surface of the lake. It was only terrifying if she let her mind dwell on what scared her. Instead she waded in the water and let herself enjoy the freedom of weightlessness, of drifting through the open water without fear or reservation.
Natalie stared at the photo, mesmerized by the contented look of happiness on her face, but more so surprised by how much life had changed in those few months. She hadn't known at the time that she was pregnant, but it was there in her face and body, albeit subtly.
"Is that you?" The hairdresser looked over Natalie's shoulder as she worked a round brush and blow dryer through the red locks.
"From this past summer."
"Wow! You look so different. Especially now." The hairdresser turned off the blow dryer and removed the black cape that had been secured around Natalie's shoulders. Natalie looked up at her reflection and for a moment didn't recognize the woman staring back at her. Her hair was cut to the shoulder and straightened to a lustrous sheen, a departure from the grown-out mane of red curl she'd been neglecting for the past few months.
She pushed up the black lace sleeves of her shirt to her elbows and stood, swishing her head from side to side to get the full effect.
"It will be a bit shorter when it isn't straightened, which I think is what you were going for."
Natalie nodded somberly and tried for a smile. "It's exactly what I wanted. Thank you."
After paying and generously tipping the woman, Natalie stepped outside into the grey afternoon, a chill instantly biting at her neck. She reached with one hand into her bag to drop in the old locks of hair and pick up a knitted scarf, and raised the other one in the air to hail a cab. Then she saw her; a woman dressed in a suit finely tailored to her feminine body approached her with a smile.
"Miss Natalie Harlow?" the woman asked.
Natalie looked past the woman and noticed for the first time a black Bentley that was idling on the street.
"Yes?" she asked, more so that the woman would have confirmation of her identity. Natalie already knew who was waiting for her inside the vehicle.
"Would you care for a lift back to your hotel?"
Natalie abandoned both the scarf and her quest for a cab and silently followed the woman to the waiting car, sliding in wordlessly as soon as the door opened. It was comfortably warm once the door shut behind her, and the smell of coffee was perfuming the air. A steaming cup was waiting for her in the outstretched hand of the Bentley's occupant, but it retreated as soon as Natalie turned to take it.
"You cut your hair."
A small smile played at Natalie's lips. "Do you like it?" The offered coffee cup returned and Natalie took it, but waited before sipping.
"You look stunning."
Natalie leaned back into the sumptuous leather seat and sipped her drink generously.
Natalie nodded. She situated her bag at her feet and then crossed one leg over the other, getting comfortable in the spacious backseat of the luxury vehicle.
"The London, please."
"Yes Ms. Robertson."
"What's so funny?" Audra asked as the car disembarked and joined the traffic crawl.
Natalie's laughter subsided into a wide smile. There was a time not too long ago when she would have found the prospect of being alone in an enclosed space with Audra Robertson intimidating. How times had changed.
"Would you believe me if I told you I used to be scared of you?"
Audra smiled incredulously, as though she was somewhere on the cusp of indecision as to whether or not she did believe it.
"You mean you're not still?"
"No." Natalie took in Audra's appearance, appreciating her fawn colored wool blazer over a black cashmere sweater, dark rinse skinny jeans and black leather pumps. Gold jewelry glinted at her ears, from her wrist, on her fingers and even off the very expensive bag that sat prettily at her feet. Audra reached over and gingerly fingered the patches of black lace at Natalie's sleeves. Natalie parted her lips to inhale when Audra's touch moved to her hair, her fingers weaving through the thick, freshly cut and straightened ends.
The moment was gone in an instant, as was Audra's hand. "I want to hire you," she said, her voice firm and resolute. "Or rather, your agency."
Natalie sipped from her coffee and gave her a knowing look. "You already have representation," she responded flatly.
Fitson Entertainment Groupe, of which Audra Robertson was Chief Operating Officer, had media representation in the form of Brighton New Media, a very large, very successful firm that had groomed Natalie, had even given her the brief but amazing opportunity to singularly manage the Fitson account. That was until she was fired for her relationship with Fitson's Chief Creative Officer and Audra's partner, James Fitzgerald. Of course she hadn't known at first that James was a client, not that the knowledge would have stopped her from entering a relationship with him. She knew the risks; Brighton had a strict policy against employees getting involved with clients. In the months since her firing she'd often wondered what might have happened if she had just quit her job rather than try to hide the relationship. Not that wondering such things ever did much good.
"True. Brighton has all of our properties. Except one."
Natalie cast a long side glance at Audra. "You mean-"
"The Golden Palm is celebrating its tenth anniversary in December. I think that calls for some pomp and circumstance. Don't you?"
Even with the dusky afternoon settling upon them Natalie could see the spark in Audra's chestnut brown eyes. Her classically beautiful face was made even lovelier by the challenge that had gone unspoken, and the hefty knowledge of history that came with such a proposition.
The Golden Palm
was, for all intents and purposes, a secret, membership-only club for richer-than-God men to bid on desirable young women for an evening of their company. Natalie was intimately familiar with the place after putting herself up for auction in order to earn the money needed to pay off her crippling student loan debt. Her winning bidder? None other than James Fitzgerald, whom she would later find out was also part owner of the place. With Audra.
"The place sells itself," Natalie began, tempering her thoughts towards business and away from her experiences as Candidate Four that night nearly a year ago. "I'm not sure what more we could do for you."
"Who better to help plan the event of the year than two former Candidates? And I can't imagine Joe Gallo would say no to the opportunity."
"No, I can't either," Natalie conceded. "What about James?"
Audra inhaled sharply and adjusted in her seat. Suddenly there was a chord of tension in the confined space between them. "James' concentration is elsewhere," she spoke briskly. "And in any event I run the day-to-day of The Golden Palm, as you well know."
Natalie set her coffee into a cup holder and then moved to the middle of the backseat, bringing her leg up onto the leather so she was in a better position to face Audra.
"You're still intimidating," she spoke, her voice a low, husky whisper. "But I stopped being scared of you a while ago. Consider us hired."
"Do I want to know how much this will cost me?"
Natalie reached out and gingerly fingered the lapel of Audra's wool coat, watching as her eyes lit ablaze at the simple closeness.
"You can afford it."
Audra smoothed a stray lock of hair behind Natalie's ear, her fingertips just barely grazing against the soft ridge of skin. "I'll send you a check for the retainer first thing in the morning."
"The London," the driver announced as the car came to a stop.
Natalie retrieved her hand from Audra's person but kept the close distance between them. "How long are you in town for?"
"I just came in for the day," Audra answered as her hand fell back into her lap. "I'm flying back tonight."
Natalie bit her bottom lip to suppress a smile. "You came all this way to see me?" She leaned in involuntarily, stopping a few inches short of Audra's lips.
"You were one of two reasons." Audra tentatively brushed her lips against Natalie's with a feathery touch, letting her eyes close momentarily. "When are you coming back to LA?"
"Tonight," Natalie breathed. Her heart was racing, pumping like mad in her chest.
"Want a ride?"
"Mm-hmm," Natalie breathed her response.
"There's just one caveat," Audra said, her tone like a dousing of water on an errant flame.
Natalie opened her eyes; icy blue locked on chestnut brown. "What's that?"