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Chapter Four

 

Emma

I sent Zach a text and he sent a few back. I didn't want to chat and told him to have a good night, thanking him one more time for all his help. I stared at my phone and not once did Jake even make an attempt to contact me, and not even a text to see if I was alive.

I sent Dad a checking in text. I was too afraid to call him, fearing he would hear something in my voice. A few days would pass and I could hide it better. In the meantime I still didn't know what to do. Did I go home, stay in the apartment or find a place of my own?

Since I didn't know when Jake was coming home, I holed myself up in my room with textbooks. In a few hours I was all caught up and reading ahead. I was going through my anatomy notes when I heard the key slip into the front door. I didn't move and listened as he came in and set his overnight bag on the ground. Silence. Was he listening for me? I waited, hearing nothing until the light rapping on my door.

"Emma, are you in there? Can I come in?"

My heart pounded and a wave of nausea and panic set in. "Yes."

He sheepishly stepped inside, a look of shame marring his handsome face. He stared at me, sitting on my bed, my school books all around me and tried to smile.

"I'm sorry," he said.

My bottom lip quivered but I told myself not to cry. "You were so mean," was all I could say.

"I know. I don't know why I texted those things. Maybe because it was easier than fighting her."

"I have never done anything to her," I said, my eyes stinging with tears.

"I know."

"All those things you both said. They hurt me so much."

"You don't know how terrible I feel."

"Then dump her."

His jaw tightened. "Emma, I love her. Sure, she said some horrible things, but it's not like you two have to be friends."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "After all she said about me, don't you see the person that she truly is?"

"She's threatened by you. That's all."

I massaged my temples, trying to collect my thoughts. What was he talking about? "Jake, we've been friends our entire lives and you would let her say those things about me and still defend her? And you agreed with her!"

His face hardened. "Emma, here's the thing. You've been here a few weeks and haven't made any friends. Do you know how hard it is for me to be your only friend? I feel like I can't have a life unless you're included in it. It's not fair. I have a girlfriend and I love her. She happens to not like you. What do you want me to do? I need you to give me space, to not do everything I do. I need you to get a life!"

Another tear slipped down my face. When had I become such a weepy wreck? I usually had it all under control. "Zach is my friend."

He shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Zach feels sorry for you. In a week he won't remember your name."

"Why are you acting like this?"

"Because I'm frustrated. I can't babysit you all the time. When you said you were enrolling at Western my first reaction was that you'd latch on to me and never let go. I've made a life for myself and it can't always include you. I have Bianca, and I can't even bring her here because of you. Do you know what that feels like? I'm sorry that I'm being a jerk, but I've been feeling this way for a long time and now I've said it. I think you need to hear it."

Something passed over me, like a moment of clarity when all the clouds seemed to float away leaving only the sun and bright blue sky. "You're free," I said, my voice taking on a stronger tone. "Consider yourself unburdened."

"What does that mean?"

"It means you and I are no longer friends. Isn't that what you want?"

His eyes opened wide. "Wait, that's not what I want."

"You can tell Bianca that your little dog is running away. And that starts with me finding my own place."

Horror set in for him, but I didn't care. He came over to my bed, but I got up and walked out of my bedroom and into the kitchen. He followed me. "Emma, I wasn't saying I didn't want to be friends. I just want you to make some friends."

"Friends don't do and say what you did to me."

"I know you're upset but we can get past this. I'll talk to Bianca and we can work it all out."

"I don't want anything to do with Bianca!"

"Fine, I understand that, but you can't throw away our friendship because I made a mistake. I know I screwed up royally and I'll do anything to fix this."

His pleading didn't make sense to me. Something wasn't adding up. "If you mean it, then dump Bianca."

"That's not fair and you know it."

"It's totally fair. I would defend you to the death if someone called you a filthy mutt or wished you'd go die somewhere. But you didn't. You went along with it. Who's the dog?"

He sunk his head in shame. "I know, but if you met a guy and fell in love with him, you'd understand where I'm coming from."

Silence. I couldn't get through his thick skull. "I'm going home. I'll be leaving in the next day or two. I don't want anything more to do with you. Jake, you broke my heart. What you did was the ultimate betrayal and I can't forgive you."

"You can't go home! Everyone will flip out."

Eureka! The moment I'd been waiting for. I nodded my head in disgust. "Yup, that's really what you're worried about. What I'm going to tell Dad."

He reached out to grasp onto my arms, but I stepped out of his reach. His hands fell to his sides and his body slacked, an attempt to calm himself. "If you tell your dad, he'll tell Ron. You may think you're hurting me, but you're hurting them too. They are going to take sides and don't you think that will ruin their friendship?"

"Not once they hear what you did."

"Emma, you know I'm sorry. Why would you do this to them?"

"I'm not going to lie to my dad. And as for Uncle Ron, I think he'll see things my way."

"You do this, and we won't have a friendship anymore. I won't forgive you, Emma. So promise me you'll take a couple more days to think about this. And know that deep down in your heart I am sorry. I was stupid. And I don't want you to go."

Playing to my sympathies was a good strategy only because I didn't want to tell Dad. I didn't want to have to explain it all and relive my humiliation. It was bad enough all the people from the cabin knew. Who knows how many people they'd tell.

"I don't know what I'm going to do yet."

"All right, good. Take some time to think. I promise you that the whole Bianca thing will be resolved. I'll talk to her. She'll never do anything like that again."

 

Chapter Five

 

Zach

I met the guys after hockey for some beers. We sat around drinking and replaying the events of the game. I'd scored twice and one goal was a real beauty, but we still lost 5-3. We had a decent offense and great defense, but our goaltending was killing us. How did you get your best friend to admit he was the worst goaltender in the history of our rec league?

I pulled out my phone and scrolled through texts. Two from Becca. I groaned. I still hadn't broken up with her and I'd been avoiding her since the cabin incident. She was still pissed at me for not driving back to pick her up. Why would I have done that? It didn't make any sense, especially when everyone else offered her a ride home.

I scrolled past her texts and was surprised to see one from Emma. It was a few hours old.

Emma: Hey, how are you? Decided not to go home. Thought I'd tell you. Have a good night.

Me: That's good news. You did the right thing. Still gonna stay with asswipe or are you looking for a new place?

A few minutes passed before she replied. In the meantime we ordered pizzas and the discussion had moved to football. My phone buzzed.

Emma: Not sure yet. Might stay here until the end of semester. Finding housing mid-year is going to be next to impossible.

Did I offer my place again? She didn't seem keen the first time. It wasn't like Genie used her room.

Me: Let me know if I can help. Did you make those éclairs yet? I'm dying to have one.

Emma: I'm going to do a test batch this weekend. If they work out I'll text you.

I put down my phone and Brett was staring at me.

"Are you going to talk to us or text?" he asked.

Brett was one of the few guys on the planet who hated his phone. The guy never texted and his idea of an app were some spicy wings or a heaping plate of nachos. His phone was almost never on or he didn't have it with him. And if you had your cell out in his presence, watch out.

"I'm done now."

"And who is more important than us?"

"I was texting Emma to make sure she was okay."

"Who's Emma?"

"From the cabin four days ago? Remember? Jake's friend?"

Recollection washed over him. "How could I forget?" He turned to the rest of the guys and recounted the events of that day. "She was a fucking loon!" he told them. "She starts reading off these texts that make her look like a cracker jack! Poor Jake. I felt sorry for that bastard."

"Wait a second," I said, holding up my hands. "You felt sorry for Jake? The guy humiliated her."

Brett laughed. "Man, are you serious?" He turned back to the guys. "This is a chick who spent the day either in her room or sitting around reading a book. She didn't say a word to anyone. She's a loon all right."

My back was up. "Actually, she cooked and cleaned for you and your lazy date."

Brett's cheery asshole demeanor disappeared. "Excuse me?"

"If you or your flavor of the week bothered to get to know her, you may have noticed that she was normal and interesting."

A smugness came over Brett. "Oh, I see now. You want to tap her. No accounting for taste."

"The girl was freaking out and I was the only one who offered her a ride home. She's a nice girl, so cut it out."

"Whatever."

The conversation returned to football. Our pizzas arrived, I wolfed down a few slices and made my escape. I texted Becca that I'd be stopping by. It was nearing ten on a Wednesday night, but dealing with her wouldn't take long. She was in her dorm room, leafing through a fashion magazine when her roommate let me in. Becca vaulted off her bed and kissed me.

"I'll be back in twenty," her roommate said. For the life of me I couldn't remember her name.

She left and Becca snaked her arms around my waist. "We've got some time," she said, her voice deepening.

"I can't stay long. I thought we should talk."

She took a step back, her blue eyes inspecting me. "Talk about what?"

"Us."

"Why?"

No need to beat around the bush. I wanted to get this over with. "Do you think this is working?"

Her face frosted over. "You're not dumping me, are you?" Her voice had lost all its seduction replaced by snark.

"Becca, I like you and you're a great girl, but I'm not feeling a connection. Someday you'll meet a guy who's right for you, but that's not me."

"You are such a son-of-a-bitch," she said, her nostrils flaring. "Is it someone else?"

Strangely, she didn't seem sad, just angry like I'd forgotten her birthday and she'd forget about it, and me, in a few days.

"There's no one else."

"It's that chick in your Poly Sci class, isn't it?"

"There isn't anyone else. I want to be single for awhile and focus on school. We can still hang out and be friends."

Her eyes narrowed, ready to shoot laser beams. This side of Becca was ugly. "Bianca warned me about you. She said you'd date me for awhile and dump me. You think you're some god because you're dad's a senator. My dad could buy your dad any day of the week."

I let out a sigh. Her attempts to rattle me weren't going to work. "Well, I should go. I know you're pissed, but if you want to talk about it later, we can."

"Go fuck yourself."

"I guess not then."

I left and she slammed the door behind me. That was taken care of and not nearly as difficult as I'd expected.

 

 

Chapter Six

 

Emma

I lied to Dad and told him everything was fine. It wasn't. My relationship with Jake was definitely different something akin to being on life support. We didn't talk much and I made a point of staying late at school to study, or would leave for school before he was even up in the morning. I didn't want to talk to him and the feelings seemed to be mutual.

The next few weeks I immersed myself in school and my job. I was up to date with all my assignments. At work I was baking up a storm, so much so that Billie hinted that I was making more than we could sell. So on a Friday night when all my classmates were out having fun, I stood behind the coffee counter watching people on their first dates, or with their heads hidden behind laptops.

Julian's was pretty quiet. I was working with Jessica who was nice enough, but we didn't interact a lot. She was a graduate student who worked for extra cash and took any shift available. She'd trained me and other than normal chit chat, I knew little about her.

I busied myself but I could only wipe down the same empty tables so many times. To ward off boredom, I'd tucked a mystery novel in a shelf with napkins and stir sticks and given the chance, I'd casually read a page here and there. Jessica didn't care and often had her books out too. Reading for fun was getting harder and harder to do with all my school work mounting, but since I was lacking in the friends department, I enjoyed a fictional escape here and there.

"Any éclairs?"

I jumped and smiled when I saw Zach standing at the counter. "Sorry, I'm still perfecting those."

He leaned back and perused the glass display counter. "What's good?"

"Everything, but I recommend the coffee cake. It's a secret recipe."

"Then I'll have that. Large black coffee too. And whatever you're having."

"I've already had three today, but thanks for offering."

"Do they give you a break?"

"Go ahead, take fifteen," Jessica said, overhearing us. She had her tablet out and was tapping away. That's how busy we were on a Friday night.

"Thanks."

We sat at one of the many empty tables and I watched him devour my coffee cake.

"Shit, this is good," he said, licking his lips.

"I told you. So what brings you out here on a Friday night? No frat parties?"

"No, I'm done with those. I just came back from a study session with some people from class. We have a project coming up. I was driving by and thought I'd see if you were working. How have you been?"

"I'm good."

"And how are things with Jake?"

"We're co-existing right now. I decided not to tell Dad and see how things go with Jake. I've managed to avoid everyone from the cabin. Thankfully I don't have classes with them."

"I think you already know this, but Jake is an asswipe."

"But he's still my friend."

Zach cringed. "He's not your friend. A friend wouldn't do what he did."

"I know you don't understand. Bianca has this strange hold over him and eventually he'll see the kind of person she is."

"And come back to you?" he finished.

I looked away from Zach's suffocating stare. "I didn't say that."

"I know you like him and I wish I could say that he feels the same way about you. I'm not telling you this to hurt your feelings, but he isn't going to wake up one morning and realize he's loved you his entire life. This isn't a fairy tale."

"I don't feel that way about him."

He smirked. "I'm going to call bullshit on that."

"You can call it whatever you want. I don't care."

His eyes scanned me, looking for a crack, wondering if I'd crumble. Little did he know that I'd spent my entire life with the façade of apathy. My survival and sanity depended on me not being broken. I put up an Iron Curtain and Zach Walker wasn't getting through.

"Well, when you finally realize what an ass he is, I can help you find a place to live. But the longer you stay in that apartment, the harder it will be to leave."

"I appreciate the offer."

He stood to leave. "Let me know when you get those éclairs in."

"I will."

He waved and left. I resumed my position behind the counter with Jessica staring at me. Did I spill something? I checked my black Julian's apron and saw nothing out of the ordinary.

"What's wrong? Is there something on my face? Did I get something on me?" I asked.

"No." She paused as if to ponder something. "How do you know Zach Walker?"

"Long story. Why?"

"He's the senator's son. You know that, right?"

"Yes, so?"

"Are you dating him?"

"No!" I said it like it was the most disgusting thing in the world. "He's a friend."

"He's a good friend to have."

I smiled. "Yeah, he's pretty nice."

"If you like him, be careful. He leaves a trail of tears."

"How do you know that?"

"Everyone knows that. He dates girls for a few months then gets bored. You're better off keeping him a friend than getting mixed up with him."

"I'll keep that in mind."

She tapped her nearly empty cup on the counter. "Walker sure has changed."

"Changed?"

"He has a lost year. Come to think of it, he's probably pissed away two years. I don't know him, but I've been to parties he's thrown, a few at the frat he belonged to. The guy partied hard. I mean really, really hard. He was a party boy legend, you know, the kind people talk about for years, but then something happened. My guess is that his parents put the fear of God into him because he stopped everything. He pretty much disappeared last spring. No epic parties, nothing. I heard he left his frat house, finally took a full course load and actually attends classes. Phi Alpha Delta has never been the same."

I laughed. "No way. Not Zach."

Jessica snorted. "Oh, it's true. Ask him. He had some really good times if he remembers any of them."

I was having a hard time envisioning this. And smoking a joint once in awhile didn't make you legendary. He didn't scream party animal. He didn't even mention parties. "Are you sure? Could you have him mixed up?"

"Emma, everyone knows who Zach Walker is. I don't have him mixed up with anyone else. Look, he's turned his life around. That's commendable. But here's the thing: you're a nice girl from a small town. Don't let a guy like him take advantage."

"He wouldn't do that," I said. An edge found its way into my voice.

"The party Walker would and who knows if he's really changed. You're sweet, a little innocent too. I hope that doesn't offend you, but it's the truth. If you ever decide to date the guy be careful. Guys with his reputation don't deserve to have a chance with girls like you."

"Thanks . . . I think."

Little did she know that Zach wasn't even on my radar.

~~~~~~~

Saturday morning Jake was waiting for me in the kitchen. He had a newspaper and a mug of coffee sitting in front of him. He set the paper aside when I entered the room.

"Hey," he said.

"Hi."

In the past two weeks we hadn't shared more than a dozen words. It was hard not talking to him and I desperately missed our conversations. Some nights I would sit in my bedroom as quietly as possible and listen to him go about the apartment. So many times I wanted to go out and chat with him, like old times, but then I'd remembered. How could I forget?

"Do you have a few minutes?"

My heart skipped a beat. At one time I knew Jake so well, knew what he was going to say or do, but Bianca changed everything.

"Sure."

I sat across from him and we stared at each other.

"I know we haven't talked much, especially since that day. How are you doing?"

"I'm fine."

"You've been keeping busy?" He was asking but it sounded more like a statement.

"Yes. Working and school."

"Good."

Time to get to the point. "What do you want to talk about?" I could only dream that he was going to tell me he'd seen the light and dumped Bianca's skinny ass.

"I had a really long heart to heart with Bianca and she agreed to be nicer to you. I know it's too soon, but I'm hoping that I can invite her over once in awhile and that the two of you can get to know each other. I think if you spend time together, you might like her and vice versa."

He was serious. I did everything humanly possible from keeping my jaw from dropping. The same person who called me a dog with fleas and wished for my death. I sucked back a mouthful of air and took my time crafting an answer. How did I approach this? I wanted nothing to do with Bianca. Ever.

"Let's wait and see. I'm not sure I'm ready to spend any time with her."

"That's fair, but I'd like to be able to have her around. Maybe stay the night."

"She can stay here when I'm not here." My words were diplomatic, but my tone wasn't. If he couldn't hear the sarcasm, then something was wrong with him.

Jake huffed. I could see the irritation setting in. "I don't expect the two of you to patch things up instantly, but it has to happen eventually."

"And if it doesn't, then what? Do you forget what she said about me?"

"No, but she promised me she would stop this. I'm asking you to do the same."

"I didn't do anything. I'm telling you that I'm not ready to see her, let alone have her hand around here."

He tapped his fingers on the table. "Then one of us has to think about moving out."

I raised my eyebrows. These were Bianca's words. She'd planted the idea in his head because this wasn't something Jake would come up with. Only a few weeks ago he'd begged me to stay. "You know, I've put up with a lot. I'm the injured party and you can't wait to get rid of me. So I will take your suggestion under advisement and I'll look for another place to live because I think that's what you're implying."

"I'm trying to find a solution. I don't want you to leave."

"You are picking her over me."

"I'm not, but I don't think you're being reasonable."

I got up unable to stomach this conversation any longer. "We can talk about this again later."

"Think about everything I've said. Moving on is best. That's the win-win solution for all of us."

~~~~~~~

I made éclairs, three batches until I had the custard filling just right. I then texted Zach to tell him the good news. A couple of hours later he replied. I'd cleaned the kitchen, bathroom and finished the last few pages of my English paper by then.

Zach: How do I get my hands on said éclairs?

Me: You could come get them or I could bring them to work tomorrow.

Zach: I can come get them. You busy now?

Other than being dressed in sweat pants and an old t-shirt that had more holes than Swiss cheese, why couldn't he come over? Jake wasn't around and I'd spent much of the day in the apartment. Having a guest, my friend, was a great idea.

Me: Nope. Come now if you want.

I changed into jeans and a sweater and fixed up my hair. When I played tennis I used to keep it long that way I could easily tame it, but the moment I quit playing competitively, the first thing I did was lop it off. I regretted the pixie cut and now compromised by keeping it shoulder length. I could put it up in a pinch or let it go into its gentle wave. Unlike Dad, my hair was a rich auburn, drastically different from his dirty blond hair that turned into a light blond in the summer. I also had Meredith's hazel eyes, but I would have killed to have Dad's big blue ones. Other than the shape of our faces, noses and Dad's height, you wouldn't think we were related. I looked like her . . . Meredith. That prompted my grandparents to seek a paternity test. Dad told me about it when I was old enough to understand. He didn't want me to hear it from anyone else. He insisted he knew I was his girl the second I was born. As for Grandma and Grandpa, they never spoke of it. My best guess was that they were embarrassed about it.

I put on coffee and as it finished brewing, Zach arrived. I buzzed him into the building and left our front door open. He popped his head in and I waved.

"I'm in the kitchen pouring coffee," I called out.

"It smells amazing in here," he said. "Coffee and éclairs. I could marry you."

I laughed and thought of what Jessica said. "I'm too young to get hitched. Besides, I hear you're not the marrying kind," I said, handing him a steaming mug.

"Ah, gossip. What have you heard?"

"Not much," I said, plating the éclairs. "When you came into Julian's, my co-worker was fascinated that I knew you. She warned me not to date you because you get bored easily and used to throw crazy parties, or something like that. Where should we eat the éclairs? Kitchen or living room?"

His brown eyes gave off a spark. "You're so casual about all that. I get bored easily to where should we eat."

I shrugged. "If you get bored what's the big deal? And haven't you been dating Becca for a long time?"

He frowned. "About Becca. I broke up with her a few weeks ago."

"Oh. Well, that doesn't matter anyway. You can date whomever you want for as long as you want."

"Can you tell all my exes that?"

"How many exes do you have?" I said, leading him into the living room.

"Not that many."

"And how long was the longest relationship?"

"I don't know. Six months?"

"When you meet the right girl, you'll stay with her. That simple. Here, have an éclair," I said, thrusting the plate in front of him.

He sat on our sofa and savored it. He let out a moan of contentment as he finished it off in a few bites. "This is amazing. Are you serving them at Julian's?"

"I'm going to let Billie sample them first. They don't have a long shelf life so we'd have to sell them pretty fast."

"I'd buy them all. Em, you're going to make me fat."

I was well aware that he was the only person other than Dad to call me Em. Not even Jake called me that. "Despite all the desserts I make, I also make very healthy meals. Just ask Jake."

"Where is he, by the way?"

"Probably with Bianca."

"How's all that going?"

I sighed. "He thinks we can sweep this all under the rug. He suggested that if I can't work it out with her, one of us should move out. That means me."

BOOK: Breath Of The Heart
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