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Authors: Victoria June

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BOOK: Breath Of The Heart
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Zach finished off the last éclair and leaned back on the sofa. "I think you should move out. I don't think this is a good situation for you. And I've known Bianca a lot longer than Jake and she is never going to work things out with you. As long as that idiot stays with her, this is going to be toxic for you."

"Why is she such a bitch?"

"Because she's used to getting her way. Her parents give her anything she wants. I'm sure it's the same way with Jake. He's a good looking guy with a small town attitude. She knows she can control him."

"He'll come around."

"Em, mark my words. While Bianca is in the picture, you will always take second place."

I sipped some coffee and tapped a finger against the mug. "The thing is I can't afford to live on my own so I have to stick it out with Jake the rest of the year. I might have to put up with Bianca. I can try to get into a dorm next year."

"I don't know how solid those two are, but keep all your options open."

"I will."

"I should go," he said, rising. "I really don't want to run into Jake. Make sure you get those éclairs into Julian's."

"I'll certainly try."

"And don't be a stranger."

"I won't."

He left and I slumped down onto the sofa. He was a good guy and I was officially placing him into the friend category.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Emma

Working at Julian's was an escape from Jake and the tension that hung between us. I knew eventually he would come around and dump her, or she'd dump him. I didn't care who did the deed, as long as it was done so I could have my Jake back. Until then I spent a lot of time alone, nothing new for me, but college was supposed to be different. No one knew me here, I could start fresh, make friends, go to parties and have fun, except that history repeats itself. Even at Western I was an outcast, an oddity or simply invisible. Why could no one see me for who I was?

"The éclairs are a hit," Jessica said. By far I worked with her the most and if she hadn't been four years older than me, we might have even hung out. I obsessed a lot about my lack of friends. Jake's revelation had me thinking. I intended to join more school groups and even researched them, but nothing stood out yet. Why couldn't there be a culinary club?

"I was thinking of making them once a week."

"Billie told me we were sold out right after lunch."

My body warmed with the compliment. "I'll make more next time."

Jessica arranged the stir sticks and refilled the creamers while I made another pot of decaf. Of all my co-workers, she was the only one who bothered to make conversation. I knew I wasn't the most outgoing person in the world, but once out of my shell I think people really liked me. They just didn't give me a chance.

My first summer teaching at the tennis academy was a perfect example. At first I was shy and awkward with the students, but when their seven and eight-year-old faces watched me intently and hung on every word I said, I was like a flower blooming for the first time. And the minute I had a racket in my hand and bounced a ball a few times, I had all my confidence. By the end of summer the kids were inviting me to their birthday parties. Could I call them friends?

"What classes are you taking?" Jessica asked.

"A bunch of intro courses. I'm feeling them out."

"Why didn't you go to pastry school or something?"

"Long story. Let's just say my grandpa wants me to have a college education."

"I see a bakery in your future, and since there's no good ones around here, you'd make a killing."

"Thanks."

Billie had asked me to take on more baking hours and I was considering it. It's not like I had much else to do.

"How's Walker?"

"Zach? Good, I guess. I don't talk to him a lot."

"Too bad! The guy is hot. I certainly wouldn't kick him out of my bed."

I fiddled with a loose string on my apron. Why did she keep bringing up Zach? "We're just friends."

"Sure, that's what they all say," she said and laughed.

We had a bit of an evening rush. We were a hotspot for hanging out and studying. The free WI-FI didn't hurt, but Billie had instituted a one hour maximum policy. She did have a business to run and having starving students taking up a table with a two dollar cup of coffee wasn't good for her bottom line. Mercifully, Jessica played the role of bad cop, mostly because she liked it. The rare times the task fell on me to throw out my fellow students, my heart raced, my cheeks flushed and my hands got all clammy. I hated doing it, but it was part of the job. People were mostly good about it with the rare jackass.

An hour before close, while I started some of the evening cleanup, Bianca and a few of her friends came in. I only recognized Becca. I wanted to hide behind the showcase and let Jessica handle it, but she was busy asking two freshmen to leave for the third time. The three of them were in a heated discussion that wasn't about to end anytime soon.

I slunk to the counter, maintaining a neutral expression on my face. She was not going to get under my skin. My Iron Curtain was solid.

"Oh great, you," she muttered.

Likewise, I thought. "Can I help you?"

"Yeah, you can vaporize."

I fought my body's desire to stick out of my tongue and give her the finger. Beyond the stereotypical bottled blonde with blue eyes, perfect teeth and enormous boobs, what did she have to offer? Every word out of her mouth was vile, and while the outside of her was flawless, the inside was a black, maggot-filled sack of rotting organs.

"Did you want to order something?" I could have used an over-the-top fake voice, but what would be the point? To piss her off? Not worth it.

"A large skinny latte with almond milk. Try not to screw it up."

I turned to Becca. In many ways she looked similar to Bianca except for the bone structure of her face. Same fake blonde hair, tiny waist and crappy attitude. "I'll have the same thing."

Of course. Would it have been any other way? I punched in their orders and took a quick look for Jessica. She was still arguing with the two guys. At least now she'd evicted them from the booth and was attempting to lead them to the front door. I tried to make eye contact with her, to get her help, but she was too engrossed with the guys.

I started the drinks. I could feel Bianca's eyes searing into me and I wasn't about to give her the satisfaction of a passing look. I wanted to make the drinks as quickly as possible and get them away from me.

"OMG, what is taking you so long?" Bianca chirped.

"I'll have them ready right away."

Becca whispered something to Bianca and they laughed. I fought hard not to roll my eyes. So childish. Bianca whispered something back and they erupted into more laughter. Could this almond milk steam any faster? I knew my cheeks were flaming red, more out of rage than anything else. Would Jake condone this behavior if he was here? I didn't even know anymore.

I finished up their drinks as Jessica returned having successfully thrown out the loiterers. I handed Becca and Bianca their drinks. Bianca leaned in closer to me.

"Don't get home too late. Jake still needs to walk you. Woof, woof."

Our eyes met and I could feel my body slowly turn to stone. At that moment I had never hated a person as much as I hated Bianca. She grabbed her drink and the two of them giggled as they took a table in a far off corner. I must have been staring at them, rage boiling up inside of me because when Jessica called my name I snapped back to reality.

"Hey, you all right? What did she say to you?"

"Nothing," I said, trying to busy myself by cleaning the espresso machine.

"Did she bark or something?"

"No."

I was embarrassed that Jessica had heard that and my worst fear was that these two evil wenches would stay until close and taunt me some more.

"Are you sure?" Concern masked Jessica's face and I could see pity.

"Really, it was nothing."

Jessica gave up and fortunately Bianca and Becca left minutes later.

~~~~~~~

I took the bus home, the first indication Dad had that something was amiss. He picked me up from the depot and I had to fight back tears when I saw him. With Dad I was safe.

"How was your first six weeks at school?" he asked, examining my face for any signs of trouble.

"Pretty good. I'm meeting people and even though I have a lot of school work, I'm enjoying it. I've been getting extra hours at Julian's. They have me baking a ton of stuff."

"See, I told you they'd love your desserts. Making new friends?"

"A few." I was counting Zach and Jessica, even though she was a bit of a stretch.

We got into the car and I could tell Dad wasn't buying much of what I was selling. He kept looking at me, trying to figure out how to catch me in a lie.

"Tell me about your new friends."

I fumbled with the zipper on my jacket. Damn, a tell. If I didn't put on the performance of a lifetime, Dad would be all over me. "Well, there's Zach. I met him at the cabin Jake took me to my first week at school. He's really nice and we hang out once in awhile." I was counting the few times he stopped by Julian's. "And I work with Jessica. She's really cool. She's kind of showing me the ropes around campus." Ugh. That was an outright lie.

"And Jake?"

"He has Bianca, so I don't see him all the time."

Dad looked at me strange. Crap, wrong answer. He wanted to know how Jake was, not if he and I were hanging out.

"How's Jake doing?" he asked.

"Good. We don't have classes together, but he says all is well."

"Ron says he hasn't heard much from him. Come to think of it, I haven't heard a lot from you either."

"What do you mean? I text or call every night."

"But you aren't saying much. He and I think something is going on."

Dad's tone dropped and I didn't know what to do. Did he know? Had Jake told Uncle Ron something to make me look bad? My head throbbed and panic set in. First the racing heart, soon the hyperventilating. I had to get this in check. "What do you mean? What do you think is going on?"

Dad tapped his finger on the steering wheel at a million beats a second. "I know you're an adult now, so I can't keep playing the dad card, but I want you to be careful. I worried that the two of you moving in together would lead to something like this and maybe it was inevitable. You and Jake have been friends your entire lives so don't rush into anything that could ruin that friendship."

My jaw dropped. Dad couldn't have been more wrong and if I wasn't so shocked, I might have laughed. "Jake and I are not dating. He is obsessed with Bianca."

Dad's narrowed his eyes in confusion. "You aren't together?"

"Not even close. You and Uncle Ron thought that?"

"It was more your Uncle Ron," Dad said, deflecting.

I giggled. "You're so busted."

"We kind of put two and two together. Problem is that we came up with five."

"The two of you shouldn't do anymore math problems."

"Well, if that's not the issue, what is going on?"

"Nothing. We've both been busy with school."

Dad appeared satisfied and relieved. "If something is wrong, I want you to tell me."

"You know I would."

I hated lying to Dad, but the alternative was worse.

~~~~~~~

I hadn't even settled into my room when I got a text from Jake.

Jake: Did Paul ask you anything?

Me: Yes. He thinks we're screwing around. So does Uncle Ron. I set him straight.

Jake: That's what they think? Thank God! Say hi to your dad.

With that I was dismissed. Resentment set in. He didn't care about me, he only cared what Dad and Uncle Ron thought. Jake was an asswipe.

I put my phone away and trudged downstairs. If a cloud hung around me, Dad and Grandpa didn't notice. I made dinner which Dad objected to, but I didn't really care. I could only imagine how much takeout and TV dinners he and Grandpa had eaten the last few weeks. I scrounged through the fridge and found some sad looking mushrooms I could salvage and put on a pot for pasta. We'd be eating spaghetti in sautéed garlic, mushrooms and olive oil. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a protein in the house other than a carton of eggs. Then it hit me. There had been some cooked ham in the fridge. While not ideal, I could work with it. I sautéed it too, along with a few eggs and threw the concoction together. I sprinkled it with parmesan they hadn't touched since I left.

"This is heavenly," Grandpa said. He sighed and savored a bite.

"It's very simple. You or Dad could make it."

"Leave me the recipe. It can replace one of our pizza nights," Dad said.

"How many pizza nights do you have?"

"I don't know. One or two a week."

Grandpa cackled. "Try three or four."

"Dad! You promised to eat better."

"I get home from work and I'm tired. If it wasn't for my metabolism I'd be three hundred pounds."

Dad also worked out and ran five miles every day. If he actually ate well, he'd be a fitness superstar.

"You also promised me you'd go out and meet people, go on a few dates."

"He hasn't done that either," Grandpa threw in. "Even I've been on dates."

I turned to Grandpa. "You have!"

"I met a nice lady at the shop. She's retired, divorced and moved here not too long ago. She's got a beautiful place on Lake Simkin."

"So you've been to her place?"

Dad and I oohh and ahhed.

"She wanted to show me a few antiques," Grandpa said, blushing a little.

"What else did she show you?" Dad asked.

Grandpa pursed his lips. "I've only been out with her a few times."

"When do we get to meet her?" I asked. "What if we don't approve?"

"We'll see when you come back for Thanksgiving."

"What's her name?"

"Wendy."

"What did she do before she retired?"

"She was a lawyer."

More oohing and ahhing from the peanut gallery.

"And now we are changing the subject," Grandpa declared. "How about you, little lady? Any boys from the big city sweep you off your feet?"

"I don't have time for boys."

Grandpa let out a snort. "Your dad here and Ron thought you and Jake were shacking up in more ways than one."

"I heard."

"You can do better than Jake."

"Dad! Jake's a good kid."

Grandpa shook his head. "Don't like him all that much. The boy's always chasing big dreams."

And Grandpa didn't even know Bianca.

"Don't say that stuff around Ron."

"You think Ron doesn't already know?"

I looked at Dad and then Grandpa. I was lucky to have two of the coolest guys in the world in my life. Who needed a boyfriend?

"Well, I hate to end this fun early, but I'm beat," I said, taking plates and loading them into the dishwasher. Dad shooed me away when I tried to take away the rest.

"Goodnight, Kiddo," Dad said, giving me a kiss on the cheek.

I went up to my room and climbed into bed. Sure, it wasn't even eight-thirty, but the day had been a long one. I drifted off to sleep while reading my psych textbook. It felt like only minutes passed when my phone trilled and woke me. I pawed for it on the nightstand. I glanced at my alarm clock and was surprised to see it was after midnight. I couldn't imagine Jake had anything else to say to me, except that it wasn't Jake.

Zach: How you doing? Went by Julian's tonight and you weren't there. No éclairs either.

BOOK: Breath Of The Heart
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ads

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