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Discovering Me (Book 1 of Discovering Me Series)

By @ess1223

Till it Happens to You - Lady Gaga

{Isabella}

Because of all the publicity from my cases, my lawyer asked me to keep a low profile during my time in New York. Milo and I found ways to keep ourselves amused. He taught me how to swim in their pool. We babysat Emmy, so that Aud and Ev could have a date night. We watched horrible horror movies on their projection screen in the basement. We kept in touch with our friends, texting, calling, and webcasting whenever we found an excuse to do so. 

With that said, everything wasn’t happy and cheery. I spent a good number of hours prepping for my trials. I needed to meet with a lawyer and my parents before my emancipation hearing in hopes of getting my father to sign the relinquishment of rights contract willingly.

~

My mom drove us into the city for the day. She was less than thrilled to spend her morning with my father. She never said it, but it was written all over her face.

She pressed the elevator button of the law firm. She caught sight of my dad as he walked through the front door. She pressed the elevator button repeatedly in hopes of making it come faster. He reached us before that was able to happen. I found myself sandwiched between the two of them as we rode up to the fifteenth floor. He kept looking in her direction, hoping to catch her eye, but she watched the floor numbers change.

“You asked me to leave her and I did. Now you are not returning my phone calls.” He broke the silence we were riding in.

“I never asked you to leave her. I said I refuse to be the other woman.”

“That is not exactly outside of your wheelhouse!”

“How dare you?! I am not like that anymore. You showed up on my doorstep!”

“One I pay for!“

They argued floor after floor. I felt so small. I began plotting an escape route. As soon as the doors opened for another passenger, I bolted. I received several phone calls from my mother, trying to find out where I was. I ignored them as I continued to jog up the stairs to reach my lawyer’s office. Both of them were on their phones when I reached the office.

“I have been calling you.” My mom sighed in annoyance as she lowered hers.

“I’m here. Let’s just do this.” I brushed my hair out of my face.

“You can’t – “ My father tried to add another layer of discipline.

“She can do what she wants to. You can’t choose this moment to start acting like her father.”

“Oh please, like you aren’t doing the same thing.”

The bickering resumed. I was thrilled when we were finally asked to convene in a conference room. The lawyer sat that the head of the table. My parents sat on one side and I was on the other.

“Welcome, my name is Cedric McMillian. I have been speaking with all of you for the past couple of months. We are still following through with the emancipation hearing. This is a preliminary visit to see where we stand before appearing before a judge.”

“I do not have rights to sign away, but I am fully on board with her emancipation. She-” My mom sat up straighter in her chair.

“I am not. I know Isabella. She is not responsible enough to be on her own. We should reinstate Leslie’s rights and have joint custody.” My dad talked over her.

“She will not be on her own. She will be with Audrey. I will support her too. She lived with him for eight years. He ignored her and she almost died of an eating disorder this past year. Do not trust him with her safety.” She glared at him.

“Would you like to tell the man why she was in my custody?”

She folded her hands and looked down at them. “He knows, Stewart. Why do you insist on degrading me at every turn?” Her voice was soft.

“Your humiliation is self-inflicted. You are the one that abused drugs and alcohol. You are the one that abused her to the point of lasting psychological problems. I am the one that was forced to deal with it.” His words cut like knives, burning with truth.

“You knew how I was and you walked out. Audrey was fourteen. Izzie was five. You should’ve taken them with you.” Her voice shook.

“Audrey wouldn’t have left without Isabella. I didn’t think she was mine. I couldn’t stand to look at her.” He admitted with resonating sadness as he looked into her eyes.

“Then you should’ve done it for me.”

“That’s why I did it the second time.” He put his hand on top of hers.

She allowed him to hold it as she wiped away tears. I looked down at myself.

“Isabella, would you be willing to remain under the care of your parents if you were mandated to attend group therapy?” Mr.McMillian asked.

“No. No amount of therapy will change the fact that I am the main pawn they use to hurt each other. I can’t do it anymore.”

“Will you have any sort of relationship with your parents?”

“Probably just my mom. She seems more interested in my life.”

“I am interested.” My father corrected firmly.

I shook my head. “Stop pretending. I can’t take it anymore.” I dried my eyes with the back of my hand.

“I want you.”

“You want her. Be honest.” I looked up from the table.

He glanced over at her before shifting his attention back to me. “I want you too.”

She let go of his hand. “I can’t do this with you. Not again.”

“If Isabella gets emancipated, I am no longer paying alimony.” He threatened.

“Good. I don’t want to feel like I owe you my life anymore.”

His expression softened. “How will you live?”

“I have it figured out.”

“You don’t have a job or the skills to get one that will allow you to maintain your current lifestyle.” He lowered his voice.

“I should not be your concern. She’s your daughter. Worry about her.” She stared straight ahead.

“You are a recovering addict with multiple documented suicide attempts. You are significantly more at risk than she is. Let me take care of you.” He attempted to put his hand on top hers again. 

She ripped it away. “Mr. McMillian, we are unfit to care for her properly. Izzie has essentially cared for herself for years. Audrey has been a stable support system. Let them have each other.” She returned to the topic of me.

“Mr. Hales, will you sign the relinquishment of rights contract?” He offered it to him.

“No, I would have no way of knowing their whereabouts or conditions.”

“Then we are exactly where we started. I will submit this report to the judge in charge of your case. She will have the ultimate say.” He collected his papers.

“What are the chances of this working out in my favor?”

“I do not know. One parent is on board, but the one retaining rights is not. This scenario rarely ends well.”

“Right, well, thank you.” I stood up from my seat. I offered him my hand.

“I wish you the best of luck.” He shook it.

“I can’t believe you.” My mother scowled at my father the moment the lawyer exited.

“Believe it. I am not losing you.” He picked up his briefcase.

“You never had me to begin with. Time to go, Mi Hija.” She gestured to the door.

We walked towards the conference room exit.

“No!” She pointed to him, successfully stopping him when he tried to follow us out.

She strutted out of the office on a rampage, cursing him rapidly in Spanish. I knew better than to interrupt as I struggled to keep up. I grew increasingly worried that she would lash out at me. I began to brace myself for the worst as I struggled to keep down the bile rising in my throat.

“I thought he would be more reasonable. I’m sorry I subjected you to that.” She apologized once we were in the car.

“It’s okay.” I clicked my seatbelt.

“No, it’s not. It never has been.”

“It happens.” I slouched in my seat and looked out the window.

“Would you like to pick up Milo?” She attempted to cheer me up.

“No.”

“Would you like to come over to my house for a little while? We could bake or talk. Luna misses you.”

I struggled not to smile. “Your cat is very cute.”

“That fact makes it easier to swallow the fact that I am becoming a crazy cat lady.”

“One cat does not qualify you for that.”

“I want another. I love the companionship.”

“Then maybe a little.”

She cracked a smile.

We went to her home. As she changed clothes, I played with Luna and watched television. She made us tea and joined us in the living room.

“How did you meet Dad?” I ran my fingers through Luna’s white fur.

She sipped her tea. “I followed my high school best friend to New York on a whim. She got into college. I just wanted to leave Florida. I ended up working at a hospital coffee shop. Stewart was an intern there.” 

“Did he just ask you out one day?”

“Not really. There was a bar down the street from the hospital. We were both there one night. He bought me a drink. The next morning, I attempted to sneak out of his apartment and he asked to see me again.”

“Did you like him?”

She smiled into her teacup. “Yes, he was very charming. I thought I was so in love.”

“Are you sure you didn’t actually love him?”

“I think I did. It is harder to leave him alone than expected.”

“He sees me as his link to you.”

“I know. That’s why I need your emancipation to be granted. It will set me free too. I can liquidate my assets and move to Florida to be with my parents. He won’t be able to control our lives anymore.”

“You’ll leave me?” I tried not to cry as I looked her in the eyes.

She put her hand on the side of my face. “No, Baby. I will be a phone call and a plane ride away. I will see you on holidays. I will be at your graduation and all the other important events in your life. The same goes for Audrey and Emilia. My parents need me on a constant basis; you don’t.”

I nodded.

“Come here.” She opened her arm. I laid down within it.

“It won’t be like before.” She stroked my hair.

“How long have you been planning to leave?”

“The past two months.”

“Since you slept with him.”

“I think I will always be a runner. Now I am finding productive reasons to do it.”

“Yaya needs help with Papi, someone to take care of her while he slips away.”

“Thank you for trying to understand.” She kissed the top of my head.

She took me to Audrey’s house after we ate a dinner she prepared for us. Milo came over and spent the night. We needed to be at the courthouse early the next morning for the start of Colt’s trial. I woke up early, unable to sleep. I preoccupied my mind by web chatting my friends, masquerading it as a request for fashion advice. 

I placed my laptop on the desk in my room. After signing in and greeting them, I showed them my clothing options. I remained in my robe as I allowed them to deliberate. 

“I vote for the yellow dress and the big bow headband. If you look like a little kid, you’ll get more sympathy votes from the jury, especially if moms are on it. They’ll want to take care of you, siding with you will be their attempt at doing that.” Sami took a sip of her energy drink. 

She swiveled her desk chair in the direction of the television in her room. She took her video game off of pause and resumed playing. She told us shortly after signing in that she was playing against Finn online. She spoke to him via headset as they duked it out. I didn’t know if I was allowed to call it a romantic gesture. They mostly trash-talked. 

“It’s 4 am in Oregon. Why are you downing an energy drink?” I asked out of curiosity. 

“I’m nocturnal during the summer. I have a few more hours until bedtime.” She shrugged. 

“And she wonders why it’s hard for her to wake up early for school each fall. All of your outfit choices are very cute, but I’m going to say the red blouse and the patterned pencil skirt first. It’s fun, but has an air of maturity. That’s the message you’re trying to convey about yourself as well.” Morgan offered me a warm smile.

“I’ve got to go with the black skirt with white polka dots, white blouse, and black mary-jane pumps. It has a very classy, Jackie O feel to it. She was well-respected first lady and legendary style icon. How could you not win in that outfit?” Elle weighed in, giving me 110% of her attention.

“Great. You all chose different ones. I’m just as conflicted as when I started.” I ran a hand through my damp hair. 

“Milo could be the tie breaker.” Morgan suggested.

“Yes! Great idea.” Elle said to her in reply.

“******, FINNEGAN PATRICK!” Sami exclaimed. We all looked to her, wide eyed.

“Sorry, I was about to win. He took a cheap shot and killed me. But yeah, get Miles. I need to ask him about a cheat code.” She grumbled as she started a new game.

“I’ll be right back.” I told them. 

I ran across the hall and knocked on his door. He opened it shirtless, but wearing his khaki pants. A towel was around his neck, which he was using to dry his hair. 

“I need you for something.” I took his hand and dragged him into my room. 

“What do you –?” He started to ask.

“OH, ***** YEAH! Sexy’s shirtless! WOOOO!!! TAKE IT OFF! ” Elle cheered.

His eyes immediately went to my computer. 

“Where are my ones at?” Sami pretended to search for one-dollar bills to throw at him. 

Sami and Elle took turns jokingly shouting different catcalls and pick-up lines at him. Morgan and I giggled at their antics.

“Way to make me feel like a piece of meat, ladies. I expect this from Elle, but not you, Sami. What about your feminist rants against objectification?” He fired back at them playfully.

“I read an article about strippers that strip because they like the power and feeling of freedom they receive from being nude in front of others. You walked in here without a shirt. You must feel the same way. I’m just supporting who you are without judgment, Miles. Be the best **** stripper you can be. I’ll even shower you in one dollar bills for encouragement.” Sami replied with a wicked smirk.

Morgan and I laughed at her comments. Milo shook his head at us.

An amused smile graced his handsome face. “What was I called in here for?” 

“Which one for today?” I pointed to the outfits laid out on my bed.

“Uhhh, I believe they a bit more qualified to make this decision.” He gestured to my computer.

“Yes, which is why you’re the tie breaker.” 

He studied them for a moment and flickered his eyes to me. “Can I know whom voted for what?” 

“No. Now stop stalling and pick already!” Elle cried, anxious to hear the winner. 

“The red one?” He looked at me for validation. 

“WOO! I actually won!” Morgan cheered happily.

“UGH, Milo! You were supposed to choose the dots!” Elle whined over-dramaticallyin defeat.

“Don’t be surprised if you wake up bald tomorrow.” Sami called to him as she virtually blew up the environment in her video game. 

“See, this is exactly why I wanted to know who chose what.”

“Who’s scarier: Sami or Elle?” I asked with a small smile. 

“Are you trying to get me killed?” 

“I just needed to make sure you were smart enough not to answer.” I leaned up and pecked him on the lips.

“Am I free to go?” He asked with a smile.

I nodded. He leaned down to kiss me once more. 

“I love you!” I called after him as he walked out the door. 

“I was too upset about that outfit to ask for my cheat code. Elle, this is proof that I was able to function better before you mutated my brain.” Sami said once she realized Milo was gone.

“Regardless of what you say and attempt to prove, I regret nothing. You finally know how to dress yourself. Mission accomplished.” Elle resumed painting her nails. 

“Well, I’ve got to get ready for my first day in court. Thanks for helping me pick out my outfit and making me laugh. It’s keeping my nerves down. I love you, guys. And I promise to fill you all in on how it goes.” 

“You better or I’ll be shaving your head tonight too.” Sami said bidding farewell before she signed off.

“No problem, you’re going to do great today. Love you too, bye!” Morgan said, smiling sweetly as she waved goodbye.

“I Love you three, Baby-doll! You’ll be fine. They’ll have no choice but to rule in your favor. Bye, Bestie.” Elle blew me a kiss.

I shut my computer and proceeded to get ready. After breakfast, the five of us got in the car and headed to the city. Everett drove and Gaston sat up front with him. I was sandwiched between Milo and Aud. My hands were trembling and I kept bouncing my foot. Milo slid his fingers between mine and clasped my hand. He leaned in close. 

“Breathe.” He whispered into my ear.

I clenched my eyes shut and tried to do as he instructed. Audrey took that opportunity to hold my other hand. 

“How are you holding up?” Everett called back to me.

“My heart’s racing. I’m sure Aud and Milo are grossed out by how sweaty my hands are.” I tried my best to make light of the situation.

“We’re right here, Iz.” Audrey reassured.

Despite the encouraging words, my stomach continued to twist and contort into knots. My mouth went dry. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air. 

 “I can’t — can you roll down a window?” I requested, still trying to catch my breath.

Milo quickly complied. 

“Do you feel like you’re going to be sick?”Aud asked, worried. 

I shook my head. “It’s hard for me to breathe.” I looked to her with tears in my eyes. 

She placed her free hand on the side of my face and offered me a warm smile. “You’ve come so far. No matter what they say, you will still be the brave person I’ve always known you to be. I am so proud of you.” She kept her brown eyes locked on mine. 

I didn’t realize tears had fallen until she wiped them away with her thumb.

“I love you.” She added, tears collecting in her own eyes. 

“You’re my favorite older sister.” I attempted to lighten the mood.

“I’m your only older sister.” She cracked a smile. 

“That doesn’t mean you can’t be my favorite.” 

My nerves were still present, but I was able to feel hope among them. The remainder of our ride was more relaxed. 

“Give me a hug.” Audrey insisted once we exited the car. 

I walked forward and allowed her to hold me. “You’re going to be fine.” She placed a kiss on the top of my head. 

“I know.” I pulled back and smiled.

Everett hugged me next. “If he walks, I’m going to jail for killing him.” 

I giggled. “But think of your fangirls. I can imagine the ‘Free Everett’ shirts now.”

“Exactly.” He smiled down at me. 

“Elle would make Sami and Finn figure out a way to break you out.” 

“And I honestly can’t tell you which one of them would be more lethal in that scenario.” He played along.

“Elle. Definitely Elle. You should know better than to underestimate her love for you.” 

He chuckled. “You’re right.” 

I moved on to Milo. He hugged me close. I savored how safe I felt in his arms, taking in the subtle intoxicating aroma of his aftershave. 

“I love you.” He breathed into my hair. 

“I love you too.” 

He pulled back a little and lowered his lips to mine. “Good luck.” 

“I am happy to have you here.” I reached up and wiped my lip gloss off of his lips with my thumb.

We entered the courthouse together, but they went a separate way when we stepped into the lobby. I entered the courtroom with my lawyer. I kept my head held high. I didn’t cower in fear when Colt entered, even as his parents eyed me in disgust. I sat down in my assigned seat and I clasped my hands on the wooden table in front of me. I maintained a confident posture and braced myself for everything they threw my way.

I took multiple blows to my pride during the opening statements. I’ll be honest, my confidence in our ability to win faded quickly. However, everything shifted when Phil walked in and took the stand. Colt looked to his lawyer in outrage. It took all of my willpower not to smirk in satisfaction. Phil was sworn in before he was allowed to take his seat. He smoothed down his tailored designer suit and appeared calm and relaxed.

“State your full name.” My lawyer requested. 

“Philip Leopold Hightower.” He stated clearly into the microphone. 

“In what capacity do you know the defendant and plaintiff?” She pressed on. 

“Colt was my best friend for fourteen years. I grew up with Isabella. In high school, she went to my all-males school’s female counterpart. We went to all the same events and we were together at one point.” 

“Is Colt Windsor still your best friend?” She clearly knew the answer to that question.

He flickered his eyes to Colt, before returning them to hers. “No. We had a falling out when the picture of him and Isabella circulated, but we patched that up relatively quickly. We had another one a few months ago that was completely unforgivable.”

“What happened?”

“He was at the same party as my sister. I wasn’t in attendance because I had stayed up late the night before finishing my Dartmouth application. She texted me, telling me he was making her uncomfortable. I found them in a room alone together. He was all over her and disregarded the fact that she was crying. I hit him and took her home.” He explained somberly. 

“Is she here to attest to that claim?” She continued, setting up for another slam dunk.

“She’s 15. She doesn’t have to testify in open court. Her statement was taken privately and distributed to the jury.”

Looks and mummers of horror swept the crowd.

“Even if what happened was mutually agreed upon by both parties, she is incapable of consenting to have intercourse with a person 18 years old or older. In New York, the age of consent is 17. Colt turns 19 in the fall. At the very least, what he did to her was statutory rape.” She announced to the courtroom. 

She turned her attention to Philip. “No further questions.” She returned to her seat beside me.

Colt’s lawyer rose and made his way to the forefront of the courtroom. 

“Is it true that you’re 18 years old?” 

“Yes.” Phil answered. 

“Is it also true that you have engaged in relations with Ms. Hales?” He pressed on.

“Yes, but we were both under 18. I had just turned 17 and she was 16. It was legal.” 

Unable to watch as my private history was discussed, I slouched down in my seat a bit and started meddling with my charm bracelet.

“I realize that. Colt was under 18 when he slept with her as well. Yes or no: did she sleep with your best friend while you were in a relationship?” 

“We were never in a relationship. We were friends.” 

“But she still slept with you?” 

My cheeks warmed in humiliation and my eyes clouded with tears.

“Yes, she doesn’t have a habit of doing it with everyone.”

“Are you sure about that?” 

“She trusted no one, but I managed to get somewhat close to her. That is why we got together. I’ve seen the way Colt treats women. I was his best friend. They are objects he uses to evoke envy.” 

“Colt is sociable and popular. If she is outwardly troubled and self-isolating, why would Colt pursue her and not the other way around? He is the one with magnetic qualities.” 

“Was. She is not like that anymore. The caption he put on the picture explains his motivation — ‘melted the ice princess #challengeComplete’. I find myself drawn to the person whom was passed out, not the one that pressed ‘send’. ” Phil fired back passionately.

Once I registered what he had said, I slowly returned my eyes to the stand. I offered him a smile. He gave me a small one in return. 

 

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