Since her encounter with Ryan, Joelle made sure to avoid him at all costs. She was still furious with the way he’d spoken to her, but her avoidance was due to the fact that his words had actually hit home. Even after dumping her, did Jaxson really think that Joelle would just be willing to pick up where they left off? He had no idea of how difficult of a time she had after they broke up, the kind of heartache she’d faced all by herself.

“Joelle,” a voice penetrated her thoughts, snapping her back into reality. “I called your name like three times.” Alexia leaned against the top of her cubicle, staring down at Joelle worriedly. “What are you thinking about?”

She shook her head. “Nothing. I’m fine, Lexie,” Joelle fumbled around her desk in search of something to distract her mind from her issues.

“Who are those flowers from?” Lexie wondered aloud, reaching for the card strategically placed in the stems. “Flowers for my flower,” she read. “Love, Jaxson? You two are back together?”

“No, we are not back together,” Joelle replied smoothly. “He just sent me flowers. Very nice of him.”

Another one of their co-workers passed by the cubicle, headed for the conference room.

“Hal? What’s going on?”

The man pushed his oversized fashion glasses up his nose and shrugged. “Dunno. No idea what it could be about, either.”

The two women watched him stroll into the room before following him inside. It was packed in the conference room, occupied by the feature writers as well as interns. Why had Louis gathered everyone?

Joelle and Alexia found a slightly empty corner of the room and stood there, waiting expectantly for the editor-in-chief of the Cornerstone. “I bet it’s about the next issue. Probably something big going on, right?” Alexia whispered.

“Who knows? It better be something important, with all these people squeezed in here. This is ridiculous,” Joelle huffed, folding her arms across her chest.

At the front of the room, Louis rapped on the table before him. “If you all would please quiet down. I know, I know, it’s crowded in here, but I have an important announcement to make.”

“So important that even the interns and part-timers have to be here?” Colton scoffed from where he stood, the people around him laughing.

“Yes,” Louis narrowed his eyes in Colton’s direction. “It’s about the future of this newspaper. That important enough for ya?”

The sportswriter cleared his throat and looked away instead of giving an answer.

Louis continued. “I’ve been offered a position at the Chicago Tribune, and I’m going to take it.”

Chatter erupted at his words.

“What? Is this a joke?”

“That’s amazing! Better than this dinky newspaper!”

“What’s gonna happen to the paper?”

“Everyone, calm down. I’m not finished,” Louis waved his hands in the air to get their attention back. “Since I’m leaving, I need someone to take over as editor-in-chief of this paper. Someone who is dedicated, has a good work ethic, can handle a leadership role. This person has been working for the Cornerstone for years, and I have had the pleasure of watching this person grow into an amazing writer right before my eyes.”

Around Joelle, her co-workers nudged her. It was obvious that Louis was talking about Joelle, wasn’t it?

“So, everyone, please help me welcome the new editor-in-chief. Chantal Villegas!”

Joelle could hear the sound of applause, but she couldn’t believe her ears. Chantal? The entertainment writer who’d only been at the paper for three years?

The slender woman joined Louis at the front of the room, a wide smile on her cherry-red lips. “I’m so honored that Louis chose me to replace him as the editor-in-chief. I’ll do my best to make the Cornerstone an even better newspaper than it already is right now. I appreciate everyone’s cooperation in advance.”

“Daltrar,” Louis paused by Joelle’s cubicle after the meeting. “A word in my office.”

“It’s not technically your office anymore. It’s Chantal’s now,” she muttered under her breath as she followed him into the spacious room. Joelle took a seat in one of the leather chairs across the desk from where Louis sat.

He rested his arms on the desk, peering at Joelle’s face as he tried to read her expression. “The Chicago Tribune is a big deal, Daltrar. It’s a really good opportunity for me. They want me to be one of their feature editors.” When she didn’t respond, Louis leaned towards her. “Daltrar, talk to me. I know you’re surprised, but you gotta have something to say.”

After a minute, Joelle opened her mouth to speak. “Chantal Villegas? She’s been here for three years, Louis. What makes you think that she can run this newspaper?”

He peered at her curiously. “She’s got a good resume. Chantal worked for the Houston Chronicle before she moved to Cornerstone. And she’s a good writer.”

“And I’m not?”

Louis leaned back in his chair. “That’s what this is about? Me not picking you to be editor-in-chief?”

Joelle frowned at him. “I’ve worked at this newspaper since I was a sophomore in high school. I know everything about the Chronicle—I probably know more about this paper than you do!”

“And I’m not debating that.”

“Then what is it? Why didn’t you even consider me? What makes Chantal a better choice than me?”

Louis shook his head, his eyes turning to the Macbook in front of him. “You won’t understand if I tell you, Daltrar,” Louis murmured as his fingers flew across the keyboard.

Her chin jutted out at his words. “Wanna bet?”

“Experience. That’s what Chantal Villegas has on you. She’s been around the world and has a more global viewpoint than you, who has been in Georgia your entire life,” Louis answered, pausing his typing to look Joelle in the eye. “She’s seen things that you haven’t, Daltrar. That’s why she’s the better choice.”

Joelle blinked at her boss in confusion, her brows furrowed, and her jaw slack. “T-That’s not fair, Louis.”

“Also,” he barreled on, “You’re not right for the position. Chantal’s almost forty years old. She’s done all of her exploring and discovering already, so she’s ready to settle down. You’re only twenty-five. Making you the head of this paper means that you’d have to stay here in Cornerstone permanently. I don’t want to do that to you.”

Louis pushed out of his chair and made his way to Joelle’s side. He leaned against his desk, placing a warm hand on her left shoulder. “I’ve always told you that you’re a great writer, Joelle. You have the potential to be even greater. But you won’t be able to fulfill that potential in this town.”

Her shoulders sagged. “You’re just saying that so I won’t feel bad, right?” Joelle said before shrugging his hand away. “Because it helped… only a little, though. That doesn’t mean I’m not still upset with you.”

Louis chuckled. “I mean it, Daltrar. You’re like the daughter I never wanted.”

“Louis!”

“I meant the daughter I never had! Sorry. I’m old; I get mixed up sometimes.” He walked back to his chair and plopped down into it. “But really. I want you to be more than Cornerstone, Daltrar. You may not have gone to Columbia like you originally wanted to, but that doesn’t mean you can’t become the great journalist that you’ve always planned to be. Don’t limit yourself to just this town anymore.

Louis looked up at her. “I wasn’t able to do much for you here in Cornerstone, but that won’t be the case when in Chicago. When you really wanna get out of this town, don’t hesitate to contact me. I’ll have something for you for sure.”

Joelle smiled. This was the nicest Louis had been to her ever since she’d began interning at the newspaper in high school. “It’s a shame that you became a nice guy at the very end. You old softie.”

“Softie?” Louis repeated, his eyebrows lifted. “Get out, you punk. And shut the door behind you!”

Two whole weeks had passed since Ryan had seen or heard from Joelle. She volunteered to play with the kids three times a week, but from what he’d heard, Joelle had changed her schedule completely. Probably just to avoid him.

“Ryan!” Damien Wallace, his best friend and a pharmacist at the St. Vincent’s, jogged towards him. He stopped when he drew closer. “Geez. You look like crap. What’s up?”

“Nothing,” Ryan shook his head. “Just a long shift. What do you want?”

Damien folded his arms across his chest as they walked down the long hall, keeping in stride with Ryan the entire time. “I saw Joelle earlier this morning. She must have changed shifts or something, because I never used to see her around so early.”

“Did she?” Ryan appeared to be uninterested, scuffing the toes of his Nike Shox. “That’s not really of my business, though.”

Damien, who knew Ryan better than he thought, stepped in front of his best friend and looked him dead in the eyes. “Everyone with ears knows what happened the last time you were in the children’s wing. We’re calling it the Slap Spectacle. You know, because she slapped you… and everyone saw.”

Even Ryan couldn’t help but chuckle at the name. “Slap Spectacle? The people in this town are something else,” he smiled. “Of course they’d talk about it.”

“Did you really tell her she was going to be single forever? That she’d never be able to find a man the way she was going?”

“What?” Ryan’s eyes narrowed. “I never said that. Is that what they’re saying? I only said that she was pathetic, and—-” The look on Damien’s face made him realize the magnitude of his words.

“Yeah, because calling her pathetic is so much better, right?”

“Damien, I—”

Damien sighed, circling his friend as he spoke. “You’ve been a harsh guy ever since I met you. But even this is too much for you.”

He wasn’t sure how to respond. “I was just so angry,” Ryan finally spoke up. “He dumped her and thought she’d take him right back, and Joelle…”

“She reminded you of how you were after Teddy broke up with you?” Damien let his words hang in the silence that followed. “You don’t have to say anything, Ryan. But Joelle isn’t you, and Jaxson isn’t Teddy. Don’t mix up your situations.”

When Ryan didn’t respond, Damien took a good look at his friend. “I know the wedding’s coming up soon. You two have to be in it together, so make up with her. Or else it’ll be awkward for everyone watching.” With a pat on the shoulder, Damien whistled down the hallway, leaving Ryan alone with his thoughts.

<<Part 9 || Part 11>>

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