PREVIEW: Nothing Heals Me Like You Do

Nothing Heals Me Like You Do will be available from The Bliss Shop on 17 July 2024.

The audio (by Abby Craden) will follow soon after.

Here’s a preview. Enjoy!

Nothing Heals Me Like You Do

© Harper Bliss


Justine Blackburn shook her twenty-five-year-old self’s hand. Alexis Dalton’s grip was as light as the blue of her eyes. It wasn’t exactly like staring into a mirror and seeing her much younger self reflected, but it was unsettling. It certainly was unlike anything Justine had experienced before—and she’d gone through a thing or two in her life.

She looked to Rochelle for emotional support during this odd moment, but her friend was going through the exact same thing. Rochelle was more laid-back about these things, however. She was already pulling the actor that would play the younger version of herself into a hug. Sienna Bright was older than Alexis, because Rochelle was eleven years older than Justine. What a fucking trip.

“You look just like I did back in the day,” Rochelle said to Sienna.

Yeah right. In Rochelle’s very distorted dreams maybe. But Justine refrained from rolling her eyes. Despite everything that had brought them here, this was a special moment.

“It’s such an honor to meet you, Miss Blackburn.” Sienna turned her attention to Justine while Alexis did the same with Rochelle. “I mean that from the bottom of my heart.” Sienna Bright’s handshake was much firmer than her co-star’s, and her unflinching stare into Justine’s eyes was just as intense.

“Thank you.” Justine made sure her grip was equally strong as she met Sienna’s bold gaze.

“Casting really did an amazing job,” Rochelle said. “I couldn’t have done better myself.”  Rochelle had retired from her Hollywood casting director job only a few years ago. If it weren’t for her, none of this would be happening. They wouldn’t be shaking hands with these bright young things who were about to play them in a movie about what Justine and Rochelle had built together.

Justine had read various iterations of the screenplay and she felt there was too much emphasis on her love affair with Rochelle, which had ended decades ago. But she understood that a love story made a movie more interesting or, as Rochelle had called it, ‘more watchable’. There were many parts of Justine’s life that would be much harder to watch.

However, she had insisted with the director, Mimi St James, on a light tone, despite the heaviness of the subject matter. Agreeing to her relationship—or romance, as Mimi had called it—with Rochelle being included in the script was part of that. It was also true to life. All those years ago, Justine and Rochelle had fallen in love.

Now, Alexis Dalton and Sienna Bright were going to recreate it on the big screen. It was surreal to invite these two young actors into their lives for a little while so they could get to know them for this particular, extraordinary purpose.

Justine’s motives for doing any of this had been crystal clear from the beginning. Rochelle had pitched her the idea in the only language she knew Justine would accept. Agreeing to this movie would bring in a ton of money for the shelter—and the shelter was what Justine lived for. If she had to sell the rights to her life for it—because that’s what they called it in the ‘industry’—then that’s what she would do. She wasn’t getting any younger and the shelter was always short of money. In that respect, it was a no-brainer. What was most baffling, really, was that someone wanted to make a movie about her life at all.

Rochelle ushered them into her living room and offered drinks. She busied herself in the kitchen, leaving Justine alone with Alexis and Sienna. She gestured for them to sit before settling into her favorite chair at Rochelle’s house.

Whereas Alexis seemed to nearly disappear in the couch, Sienna took up all the metaphorical room in it. Justine’s gaze was drawn to the actor playing her ex much more than to the actor who would be playing her. But maybe that made sense. Out of the two of them, Rochelle had always been the biggest attention-grabber. In that respect, the casting was pretty spot on.

“Here we are.” Rochelle approached carrying a tray with four glasses and a pitcher of iced tea.

Sienna immediately offered to help, while Alexis seemed to fade deeper into the cushions.

“Let’s not be coy about this,” Rochelle said when everyone had been served a drink. “This situation is quite the mindfuck.”

Justine could have done without this part of the process. She’d be quite happy to simply sign away her life rights and cash that check, thank you very much. But she recognized that actors playing real-life people wanted some modicum of access. To spend some time with Justine and Rochelle to see how they interacted and, perhaps, study the intricacies of their movements and the inflections in their voices. Now that they were all sitting here, deep down, it was quite thrilling. Although these were not the kind of youngsters Justine was used to dealing with—the privileged and the adored. Quite the opposite.

“It’s so exciting to be here,” Sienna said. Her voice didn’t match her age. It was low and a little gravelly. “You must hear this all the time, but what you two have done and continue to do for the community is so inspiring.”

This was beginning to sound like an awards acceptance speech already. Justine didn’t care for awards, unless they came with a big fat check attached. Otherwise, they were a waste of time and energy. An award couldn’t put a displaced kid up for the night. Justine shook off the thought—her brain perhaps spiraling because she was more nervous than she wanted to be—and focused on what Sienna had actually said.

“When you say community”—Justine fixed her gaze on Sienna’s—“do you see yourself as a part of that?”

“Of course.” Sienna met Justine’s gaze and held it.

Justine had received extensive biographies of both actors, as well as a list of all the productions they’d been in. She knew full well Sienna identified as queer and Alexis didn’t, but she was just testing the waters a little, ruffling some feathers because she couldn’t help herself. Because it was her style.

Perhaps she was even doing Alexis a favor by showing her what kind of person she was—although the version of Justine that Alexis was asked to portray was very different from today’s Justine who was, granted, being a bit difficult just because she could. Too much privilege on display could still get to her like that, but it was also what kept her fire burning, even after all these years.

“I’m not queer,” Alexis said matter-of-factly. “I was told it wouldn’t be an issue.”

“It’s not,” Rochelle said, then shot Justine a look. “We’ve seen your work and it speaks for itself.”

Rochelle often spoke for them both, usually making Justine look better, so she didn’t mind that much. Justine didn’t have a lot of spare time to watch movies—she barely had time for this encounter—and she’d seen no movies that either actor had appeared in.

She smiled at Alexis regardless. “I concur.” Justine sipped from her iced tea and glanced at Alexis over the rim of her glass. The physical resemblance was there, although Alexis looked far glossier than Justine had ever done, especially at twenty-five.

Then, for the first time, Alexis widened her smile to full beam, and looked straight into Justine’s eyes, as if to say, why don’t you just wait and see, and Justine caught a glimpse of that unrelenting fire that always—like a fever that never broke—burned within her.

* * *

Sienna was glad she’d be playing Rochelle rather than Justine—not that she could ever portray a blonde white woman with blue eyes. Where Rochelle was kind, inviting, and easy to talk to, Justine was a much tougher nut to crack. She wasn’t cold per se, but Sienna figured, from the difference in their energies, that Rochelle was far more invested in this movie. Although, from a pure craft perspective, trying to get in the head, and under the skin, of someone like Justine could be a delicious challenge.

She focused on Rochelle instead, on her big hand gestures as she spoke—she clearly loved the sound of her own voice—and the warmth in her face when she smiled. Rochelle was instantly likable, one of those people who filled every room they walked into. But Justine was the heart of the movie—and despite her rather aloof demeanor, Sienna had nothing but respect for what Justine had accomplished. Although, from the script of Gimme Shelter, which Sienna had studied and already knew by heart, she knew Rochelle had been instrumental in getting their homeless shelter for LGBTQI+ kids off the ground. Sienna’s part in the movie might be more of a supporting role—Alexis would be its undisputed star—but it was definitely significant.

“How do you feel about Nora Levine playing the part of your mother?” Sienna asked Justine when Rochelle stopped talking for longer than thirty seconds.

“I’m not sure I have any feelings about that,” Justine replied, her face as expressionless as a blank sheet of paper.

An inadvertent chuckle escaped Sienna’s throat. This woman was just too much.

“Sorry.” Justine’s shoulders loosened, and she sat up straighter. “I didn’t mean to be flippant. This whole thing is just so weird. I mean, a movie about my life? Well, a very particular time in my life.” She paused and, probably because it was the first time that afternoon that she’d spoken more than a few sentences at once, everyone let her. “I have nothing but respect for Nora Levine and her support of the LGBT Center. And I guess that any project that has her name attached to it will get extra buzz. If extra buzz equals extra cash, that’s a double win in my book.”

Rochelle cleared her throat. “What Justine is actually trying to say—”

Justine cut her off. “You don’t have to speak for me, Roche. Besides, these girls are here to see what we’re like. It would be awful to pretend being someone I’m not. That wouldn’t serve them at all.”

“I’m thirty-six,” Sienna said, “I’m hardly still a girl.”

“You ladies,” Justine corrected herself, “need to know that unlike my good friend here, I’m not a Hollywood person. A fake smile and a bunch of hyped-up words mean nothing to me. To be completely honest, I never even go to the movies. I’ll give you access to me and my life for a limited number of days, because of course I want this movie to work, but I’m me. I say it as it is. I don’t sugarcoat things and I don’t waste time with half-truths if I can help it.”

“Would you mind if I made some notes?” Alexis asked. “This is pure gold for my performance.”

When Alexis Dalton was first cast in the role of Justine Blackburn, Sienna had had her doubts, but she was beginning to see it was about more than pure physical likeness.

Alexis’s question made Justine laugh out loud. “You know what?” she said. “I think I like you.”

Alexis pulled her phone from her purse and furiously started to type.

“As you can imagine,” Alexis said, while typing, “now that the ice is broken, I have a lot more questions.”

“I’m sure you do.” A small smile appeared on Justine’s lips.

Sienna took it all in. Alexis was right. This access to the real people they were going to play was a gold mine for them as actors—although it added to the pressure to get it right. Sienna had only played fictional characters so far in her career and her father, who knew a thing or two about acting, had advised her against auditioning for the part because of his firsthand experience playing a real person and the havoc it could wreak on your career. Her father also had three Oscars on his vanity shelf.

Sienna sought acting advice only from her dad, because based on her firsthand experience, this was his only area of expertise. Yet she hadn’t listened to him when it came to this movie. The Charlie Cross script had been too enticing and the prospect of telling an important story about actual lesbians too good to pass up. Being part of this movie meant something to Sienna on an elemental level that her father probably couldn’t fathom.

“I’m here for all your questions too.” Rochelle shot her one of her warm smiles.

“Do you remember when you first met Justine?” Sienna asked.

“How could I ever forget?” Rochelle’s smile widened. “Although it was hardly love at first sight.”

<<End of preview>>

Nothing Heals Me Like You Do will be available from The Bliss Shop on 17 July 2024.

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1 comment

I am an avid listener of your books. I usually cannot sit long enough to read, but could not fathom waiting on a sneak peek of this book. I ENJOYED reading this preview at the airport. Thank you for sharing!!

Ellyn P

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