It was late when I returned from the city last night, then a fitful night’s sleep. I feel like a zombie today. A horn blasted from the car in the next lane. I glared at the asshole then realised I’d drifted into his lane. Jesus, Ember concentrate. Correcting my steering quickly as to not cause an accident, I reached over and blasted the air conditioner to maximum trying to wake myself up.
Looking back to the road, I spied a bakery up ahead and pulled over, hopped out in time to earn some brownie points, ordering a tray of coffees and a Devil’s food cake for Mags - it is her favourite. I ordered the larger one so Mags and the guys could get a diabetic inducing serve of cake, washed down with fresh espressos since they covered for Justin and me yesterday while we helped Brady.
When Cam came to us for help, in what seemed like a lifetime ago now, he just asked to borrow Justin and my truck, but I wanted to help. It can’t be easy for Brady right now or his ex-wife, and I have no idea the pain that Katie, their daughter, is going through, but being hurt by someone you love is the worst pain. I have this need, a burning desire, to get her away from that asshole. And fuck, it was a tough day all around. Even though I didn’t get to see Katie, it must have been damn serious for her parents to remove her from the situation she was in, dangerous. I was sure that she currently was in no physical or mental condition to deal with it all herself right now. It’s hard enough when you’re a few years older to deal with situations of high emotion, let alone when you’re in your early twenties, studying, the world is all so immediate and now - so I’d put money on it that her head not really being in any state to actually cope with what needed to be done.
“Sir, um… Ember?”
At hearing my name and I looked up and around the busy shop. One of the shop’s staff was reading my name from one of the coffee cups in the tray, then glancing at me.
“Oh yeah, sorry.”
I stood and grabbed the coffees then walked away.
“Uh, sir,” the young girl called out, “Ember, you forgot your cake.”
The girl held the boxed cake up over the counter to give to me. I rolled my eyes, shaking my head at my own ridiculousness. The cute teen giggled, giving me a sympathetic smile.
“Thanks, sweetie.” I winked at her as I turned to leave. The youngster blushed as she bustled away to help with the next customer.
The second she was out of sight, I lost my smile. I just wasn’t feeling it today. The argument with Brady on Sunday kept coming back to me. If I wasn’t thinking about that, it was the memory of every move Brady made yesterday. He seemed to rotate through his feelings on a loop, every single one of written all over his face. One second he was angry, in the blink of an eye, he’d flicked to sad, then back to angry until he hit defeated. Then the cycle would repeat itself.
“Hey Mags,” I said entering the office.
She looked up at me. “Here let me help you,” she said, quickly coming around the counter.
Mags placed her hands on the sides of the box, giving me a few seconds to grab the coffee tray, then she took the cake leaving me with the coffee’s, nodding her head towards the break room, signaling me to follow her, “You coming Ember?”
“Yeah, but he looks like death warmed up. So, do you,” she commented as she peeked at the cake through the now slightly opened box, licking her lips. “Hmm-nice Ember, my favourite!”
Mags got all busy, placing the opened box on the table and headed over to the cabinets grabbing a knife and plates for us all. Damn, she’s so good at being our work mom - a natural role for her.
“Hmm,” I grunted. “Does he have much on today?”
Mags closed the cabinet door, “Uh, no, not really. When the boys left yesterday, I rebooked all of Justin’s jobs to open slots over the next week. You’re also light today. I wasn’t sure if you guys would have needed an extra day.”
“Thanks, you’re the best!” I gave her one of the coffees and kissed her cheek.
“Troy has a full load though. I kept all appointments that he could do himself.”
“Good thinking. I’ll let the guys know there are coffee and cake here on my way back to my office, okay? Got some stuff to catch up on. I’ll be in my office if anyone needs me.”
I stuck my head out into the workshop, “Justin! Troy! There’s cake and coffee in the break room. It’s devil’s food cake, so…”
“Justin, quick, Ember brought cake. Its devil’s food cake. Mags will destroy it all before we get there.” I heard Troy yell out to Justin and the clang of tools hitting the bench at high speed. Kids… they’re always hungry… well, Troy and AJ and Novy - forever eating something and looking like bean poles.
Plonking my coffee down on the desk as I sat behind it, I groaned looking at all the paperwork I’d been neglecting. I picked up the cheques that needed to be signed first. I still dealt with a few businesses that were old school and hadn’t moved with technology and liked to be paid that way. The rest Mags handled with the banking online. Once that was out of the way, I tackled the messages from customers who only liked to deal with me because I was the owner.
At about eleven AJ and Aaron came into my office, shoving pieces of cake in their mouths.
“Hey mate! How are things?” Aaron asked, dropping into a chair across from me. AJ was standing looking out the window giving Troy hand signals about something.
I wiped the cake crumbs off my paperwork, giving AJ the stink eye.
“Sorry,” he said sheepishly, shoveling the last bit of cake in his mouth.
Looking up at my nephew for a moment, I frowned, “Why aren’t you at school?”
“It’s recess, then I have a free period,” he answered defensively. “We’re dropping dad’s car off for a service. Remember? You said you’d give me a lift back to school.”
“Shit, sorry AJ. I forgot. Take my truck. You can bring it back when you pick up your car.”
“Well, that saves me a whole load of mucking around. Thanks, Ember.” Aaron pulled out his phone, checking his emails.
“Cool,” AJ said nodding. “See ya, Uncle Ember. Dad will wait for you outside. I’m gonna go and say hi to Troy while I’m here, okay?”
“Sure, AJ. I just want to speak to your uncle Ember for a moment.”
“Okay…” with that AJ headed out the door with my keys he’d swept off my desk.
“So,” Aaron said ominously as he put his phone down and frowning at me the same time. “What’s up with you? You’re all…whatever. What’s the look on your face?”
I sat back in my chair blowing out a breath as my hand pressing against my chest as it tightened. Aaron sat forward giving me all his attention and a serious expression on his face.
“Seriously, Ember what’s going on?”
“Please don’t be an ass about this, Aaron. I really need some advice or something. I don’t know.” I swiped my hands down the front of my face. “I think I’ve really fucked up.”
“Why don’t we have a beer and dinner tonight? Just us two, at ‘The Yard.’ We can talk about it then.” Aaron said, concerned. “I’ve got to get back to work.”
“Thanks, Aaron. Meet you there.”
“Great. See you about six.”
The place was packed when Justin and I arrived at the ‘Yard’. The only space was in the back parking lot - that worked because Aaron and I were having dinner and it was the closest to the entry, plus Justin was meeting a ‘friend for drinks’, so he gave me a lift. The loud boisterous noise of the crowd hit me the second I opened the door. The bistro was full of families getting ready for it to open. The bar area was full of the after work crowd. A few guys were yelling at the screens in sports bar section encouraging the horse they’d picked to win whatever race was running while they sipped and spilt their beers. I heard my name called as I perused the bar area to see Aaron waving me over.
He’d saved me a seat, and to top it off there was already a schooner of beer waiting for me when I reached him. Picking up the beer, I took a long swig. “Ahhh, Fuck that’s good!” I tipped it in thanks toward Aaron.
“Thanks, mate. I’ve been dying for this since about two o’clock.”
Putting my beer down, I yawned, rubbing my eyes, nodding my head. Aaron handed me my truck keys
“Today has been the longest.”
“I’ve already ordered. I got your usual Thai green curry with Naan bread and rice. ”
I chuckled. “I’d marry you right now if you weren’t already taken by my sister.”
“Meh, you’re not all that.” He laughed then sipped on his beer. “So, what’s going on Ember?”
I sighed, “I should never have started anything with Brady. Now it’s all a mess. I don’t think either of us knows where we stand at the moment. It’s just…I don’t think I can do it.”
“Okay, you guys were getting close. What happened to change that?”
“Something happened with his daughter, and we got into a stupid fight. Of course, it went right back to when we were in high school – again. I’m so sick of it being a thing. I know it was twenty years ago, but for some reason, I just can’t let it go, Aaron.”
Aaron’s face pinched as he processed what I’d said. I could see the wheels turning - he was trying to find a tactful way to say what he wanted. The bartender put our meals and cutlery in front of us.
“’Nother beer, guys?” he asked.
“Ah, yeah, but I’ll have a light this time. Whatever’s on tap is fine.” I said.
“Same,” Aaron mumbled nodding to the bartender before turning his focus back to me. “Ember, I don’t know how to say this and I’m not sure how you’ll take it so I’m just going to.”
I nodded, unwrapping my knife and fork.
“Since you and Brady got together, I’ve been thinking back to when we were in school. Do you know what dawned on me?” Aaron’s fork stopped mid-air, halfway between his plate and his mouth, as he paused to look at me.
I shrugged. “How could I possibly know.” Don’t be an ass Ember.
“It was never Brady. Yes, he may have been there. But I don’t actually ever remember him doing or saying anything.”
“What - so you think it’s all in my head?” I asked crankily.
“No, I’m not saying that at all. It’s just, I mainly remember it being as friends.”
“What are you getting at?” I asked annoyed.
“I’m saying that maybe you had a thing for Brady subconsciously, I guess. So, every time one of his mates did or said something and Brady didn’t stop it, you blame him. Even though Ember, he may not have stopped them, he didn’t do the bullying either.”
“That’s what he said the other night.” I shook my head. Could Aaron be right? Did I make Brady the villain because I liked him on some level?
“I remember it mostly being that Paul asshole,” Aaron stated.
“What’d you call me, fag lover?” The asshole’s slur boomed behind us.
Fan-fucking-tastic! Just what I need right now.
I spun on my stool hopping off and getting in Paul’s face. He took a step backward. That’s right, fucking coward.
“What did you just call him?” I asked with a steely glare.
A few patrons started to gather behind Paul to watch. I felt people’s eyes on me from everywhere. But I had Aaron to watch my back there.
“Fag lover. I see you’re missing your usual companion,” he remarked snidely. “I knew he wasn’t really a fag in high school or now seems he’s come to his senses. Fucking sick is what it is. He was obsessed with you back then, bitching and moaning when we gave you what you deserved, you fucking homo. But I knew if I kept him away from you, he would come good. Just like now, I set him up last time with a woman, I’ll just do it again.”
I shook my head trying to make sense of what he was blathering about.
“What does that even mean?” I asked snarkily.
Paul laughed maliciously. “You don’t know how many beatings that guy stopped for you. He thought he was being smart.” Paul tapped his temple with his forefinger, then pointed at me. “But I knew, I knew how he felt about you and no way was I going to be associated with a fucking pervert fag. I managed to keep you away, so you didn’t pollute my friend, not yours Ember, mine.”
“You’re not right in the head, mate,” Aaron called out.
“You shut your mouth you little fucker. You’re lucky we didn’t do the same to you,” Paul spat out venomously.
Aaron hopped off his stool, I put my arm out to stop him before he could do anything stupid. Besides, this asshole is mine. Paul laughed again like he had moments ago, but looked around for his friends. All were accounted for - what was left of them anyway. The rest were not-so-concerned patrons who wanted to see a fight.
“I’m just lucky, come graduation, he had it all planned out. He’d found a way to get you and this asshole invited to the party. He was going to tell you everything. The lucky part for me was that I heard him tell his brother the plan. I got my cousin to come up from the city. We had it all planned out. She was going to seduce Brady and keep him from the mistake of his life. But her friend got there first. Wasn’t it great though? The stupid bitch ended up pregnant and he married her. Luck was on my side again. He used the condoms I gave him.” A sickening smirk wrapped his face. “And what a surprise - they didn’t work,” he leaned in and winked at me. “And look what happened - they had a kid. Think he’s a pervert like you, too. Might have to get some of the boys from the football club to teach ‘Novy’ a lesson on being a sick pervert like his old man, hey.”
“Holy shit,” I mumbled. “You sonofabitch!” My hands balled into fists from shock and rage. A fist flew past my ear, through my peripheral vision, knocking Paul on his ass. I felt the cold liquid on my back before the smell of the spilt beer hit my nostrils. I spun around quickly to see Cam shaking his hand, but drinking the remainder of his beer with the other, and Justin looking on in amusement.
“Sorry, Ember, I couldn’t help myself. What a fucking asshole!”
I turned back to the crumpled piece of shit on the floor holding his broken nose while it bled. He was trying to get up off the floor. Not one of his so-called friends were helping him. They were all just glaring at him in shock. I couldn’t keep the grin off my face.
“Two things, asshole… Don’t you ever threaten my nephew or anyone in my family again,” Cam’s face was flushed red with anger, “and second, stay the fuck down asshole,” Cam warned him.
“Where…what…how…um… Where the fuck did you come from? I wanted to do that, fuck-it !” I smirked at Cameron, Brady’s brother.
“Be my guest - it’s less than he deserves in my opinion.” Cam shook his head. “That piece of shit changed the course of the lives around him by manipulation and fear. Fucking asshole!”
“You should go, Cam… cops,” I said subtly flicking my chin in the direction of the door as they entered.
Cam shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t give a fuck. We’re all good. You should go though. Bring my brother home, Ember. I don’t know what happened, and I’m not going to ask – it’s none of my business, but whatever it was… just fix it, mate. He’s at the Everleigh Apartments, number five.” Cameron smiled a cheeky smile. “Go! I’ll take care of this, well, my mess anyway.”
Cameron got up and walked over to the cops. After a few moments, one of the junior officers came over and looked at Paul who was sitting in a chair, being ignored by everyone pretty much. He turned and nodded back in the direction of Cameron and the other officers at the door. The copper excused himself walking back over to the doorway. A second later there were a few laughs and they all turned and walked back out - must have been friends of Cameron, I guess.
I turned to Aaron, “I’ve gotta go. Sorry, Aaron.”
“You want me to come with you?” Aaron asked.
I raised my eyebrow at him, “Really… hmm?”
“Okay. Ew-no. Okay, just… go. So gross. I’ll catch a lift with Justin, or I’ll have April come get me. This will be more entertaining anyway,” he said, pointing between the doorway and Paul. “Oh, and I’m giving Cam your dinner. I wanna see what happens if Paul gets up or says anything else. I think Cam will lose his shit totally.”
“Have fun watching, mate. Give Cameron anything he wants on me.” I called over my shoulder waving, heading towards the door as fast as I could.
I’d made it to the city in record time, nothing on my mind but getting to Brady. Pulling into the reserved visitor space, I slammed my truck into park while looking at the sign on the wall in front of me, directing me to Brady’s apartment. I jumped out, running along the walkway till arriving at the door of apartment five.
I came to a hurried stop, taking a deep breath and then knocked on the door. Nothing. I strained my ears, leaning a little closer to the door, there wasn’t much noise coming from within the apartment. I was just about to knock again when it opened. Brady stood in front of me only wearing a pair of shorts and singlet. He had his wallet out pulling some cash out. ‘Fuck, he looked sexy.’ Brady hadn’t even looked up while he was fucking around with his wallet, pulling some money out. When he finally looked up, his eyes met mine, his beautiful eyes were all glassy and surprised. He had huge rings under them too – obviously, he hadn’t had a lot of sleep.
“Ember…” he stuttered in surprise. He froze for a moment, swallowing hard. My eyes were drawn to his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down - I think he was trying to regain his voice. He coughed a little, “Um… come in_Em-Ember.” Breathlessly, the words rolled out of his mouth, past those lips. He cautiously stepped aside letting me in.
As I came alongside him, his eyes grew big, like saucers almost. I pushed the door shut with my heel, “Brady, we…”