A Long Time Coming
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With a new ring on her finger, Ophelia is in dire need when it comes to dealing with her nightmare of a mother-in-law, and planning a wedding. Thankfully her best friend of over ten years has recently found some time on his hands, so she recruits Breaker Cane to be her faithful, "man in waiting".
More than happy to help, Breaker takes his title of Man of Honor very seriously, that's until he starts to realize that the weird, butterfly feelings he's been experiencing lately are directed at his soon to be married best friend. Now, he has four weeks to prove to Ophelia that he's the one she should be marrying, but expressing his feelings isn't that easy. Especially when the fiancé doesn't want to give up so easily.
More to come . . .
More to come.
Release date: January 10, 2023
Publisher: Meghan Quinn
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A Long Time Coming
“Excuse me,” I say, bumping into a lanky guy in a jam-packed dorm hallway. “Sorry, didn’t see you there. I’m all kinds of lost.”
“Not a problem,” says a deep voice that pulls my gaze up to the tall figure with shaggy-brown hair, dark-rimmed glasses, and a mustache so thick that it almost looks fake. Who knows, maybe it is. “What are you looking for?” he asks while he brings a sixty-four-ounce Slurpee cup to his lips.
“Uh.” I glance around, then whisper, “Room 209. But I keep getting turned around because it doesn’t seem like there’s a room 209.”
A smile tugs at his lips. “Scrabble nerd?”
“What?” I ask.
He leans forward and whispers, “It’s okay. I’m part of the SSS. Room 209 is hidden for a reason.”
SSS = Secret Scrabble Society.
But the first rule about SSS is that you don’t talk about it. At least, that’s what it said in the invite I received last night. It was a letter delivered to my dorm room. A thick envelope sealed with wax with an SSS melted into the red liquid. When I saw the symbol, I quickly locked my door, turned off my lights, and switched on my desk lamp. With bated breath, I delicately opened the envelope and unfolded the sides, revealing the writing on the inside.
I had been handpicked by the SSS to join them tonight. During the grueling, three-week tryout process, I played ruthless battles against different members online. After a few losses, a few wins, and two ties, the tryouts were over, and all I had to do was wait. Well, that time has come. I have the invite in hand, and all it says is to show up to room 209 in the Pine Dormitory at 10:23 p.m. sharp, ask no questions, and say nothing. And then I’m to knock with a specific pattern and provide the secret password to get in.
But now that I’m here, lost and confused, I feel like I’m breaking the rules already.
Unfortunately, time is ticking, and I have no idea how to proceed. I don’t want to show up late, especially on the first night. But I can’t find the room, and . . . this guy with the stache and the Slurpee seems like he knows what he’s talking about.
Ugh . . . but what if this is a test? What if he was planted by the SSS, and I already failed because I mentioned room 209 and Scrabble and . . . God, I’m a failure.
Unsure of how to proceed, I rock on my feet, my hands twisting in front of me as I glance around the hordes of people. What is going on in here anyway? It’s a dorm hallway, not a cafeteria. Where are all these people going? I think I need to ditch Slurpee Boy. He knows too much already. And I will not put my position with the SSS in jeopardy. I worked way too hard for an invitation.
“You know, it was nice talking to you, but I think I’ll just go look for the room myself. Thanks.”
I turn away and head for a dark corridor, only for him to call out, “Not going to find room 209 down there.”
I glance over my shoulder to see him sipping on his Slurpee with a smile, his playful eyes intent on my annoyed expression.
“I wasn’t actually going that way,” I respond with indignance.
“Seemed like you were.”
“I was faking you out.”
“Were you now?” he asks, that smile growing wider. “Why would you be faking me out?”
I straighten to face him and raise my chin as I say, “Because between your ungodly thick mustache and your shaggy hair, you look like a predator. How can I be sure that you’re not attempting to snatch me up?”
His brows raise as he runs his fingers over his mustache. “You know, you’re the third person who said I can’t rock this mustache. I thought I was looking pretty legit.”
The man needs to get a better mirror.
“Your mustache is offensive. I’m pretty sure it would make even the most randy of women go dry.” The words fly out of my mouth before I can stop them. Lack of filter—it’s my downfall.
I wince as his eyes nearly pop out of their sockets. Yeah, I was surprised too, buddy.
“Uh, I don’t know—”
Before I can finish telling him I’m not quite sure where in the depths of my being that insult came out of, he grips his stomach, bends forward, and lets out a long-drawn-out laugh, his Slurpee shaking in his hand.
Well, at least he wasn’t offended. I’ve got that going for me.
Either way, I don’t have time for this.
Moving past him, I head down the right of the hallway, where I find an unmarked door. Initially, when I was first looking around, I thought this was a utility closet. But paying a little more attention to the door, I think there could be a faint marking of a number on the wall. Maybe . . . just maybe . . . it’s what I’m looking for.
On a hopeful breath, I knock on the door three times and then kick the footer like I was told just as a tall figure closes in behind me.
“You know, I’ve never had a girl tell me that I possess the uncanny ability to dehydrate the nether regions of the female race with just my facial hair.”
I hold back my smile. “Be glad I’m honest.”
The door cracks open, and a single eyeball comes into view. “Password.”
“Walla-walla-bing-bang,” I answer just as the guy behind me leans forward over my shoulder.
“You missed the ching-chang part,” he says.
“What? No, I didn’t.”
“He’s right,” the eyeball says. “Sorry, no entrance.”
“Wait, no,” I say as I prevent the eyeball from shutting the door. I pull the invite out from my pocket and say, “I have the invitation . . . errr, I mean . . .” Ugh, stupid, Lia. You’re not supposed to show the invitation. Backpedal. “Actually . . .” I slip the invite back into my pocket and fold my hands together. “There is no invite, and I have no idea what this door leads to. I just know that I’m supposed to be here at ten twenty-three, and I am, so therefore, I believe I should gain entrance.”
“But you forgot the ching-chang,” Slurpee Boy says while sucking on his straw.
“There was no ching-chang,” I reply with aggravation. “It clearly said, knock three times, kick the footer, and then say walla-walla-bing-bang. I know this because I read the, uh . . . thing, twenty-seven times precisely. So either this is not the right door, which perhaps it’s not, or you two have not read the instructions yourself, and in which case, I demand to speak to an authoritative human.”
“An authoritative human?” Slurpee Boy asks. “Is that a professional term?”
“Dumbing it down for you,” I say with snark. “You know, since you have that look.”
“What look?” he asks.
“One that’s lacking intelligence.” Call it my nerves or my irritation, or just the fact that I can’t hold anything back, but I just let my insult fly.
Thankfully, that smile of his once again tugs on the corners of his lips right before he says to eyeball, “She’s good, man. Let her in.”
“What?” I ask, so utterly confused that I wonder if being part of the SSS is even worth it.
But then the door opens, revealing a very large room, larger than all the other dorm rooms, and it’s a haven to all the things I love. Off to the right is a raised bed with a desk underneath which holds three computer screens, speakers, a massive keyboard as well as a giant mouse and mouse pad that expands the length of the desk . . . Lord of the Rings themed. Hanging on the beige walls are posters, flags, and framed art ranging from Star Wars to board games to a large yellow-and-blue model airplane suspended from the ceiling. To the left is a futon sofa with a coffee table and crates with cushions all along the edges. In the middle, a Scrabble board on a turntable—the fancy kind.
I could totally spend an hour nerding out in this room.
The whole collection of Harry Potter books rests on the bookshelf—and they look like the originals. My mouth salivates.
A framed poster of Adam West as Batman hangs over the sofa, Adam standing tall with a “Kerpow” in comic detail directly behind him.
And under the small television on a flimsy-looking TV stand is what looks to be an original Atari game console. If the owner of this residence owns Pitfall, we will be best friends for life.
“Wow, cool room,” I say. The fantastic décor speaks to my geeky heart. And the precise organization, from the labeled folders on the bookshelf next to the desk to the stacked shoes on the shoe rack, is next level.
“Thanks,” Slurpee Boy says. “It’s mine. I’m also the authoritative person, as you like to call it.” He holds his hand out. “Breaker Cane. It’s nice to meet you. Maybe as you hang out with us more, you can lower yourself to my lack of intelligence on a more personal level.”
My mouth goes dry.
The tips of my ears go hot.
And I feel a wave of sweat crest my upper lip.
Good job, Lia. Really good job.
“Uh, yeah . . . I didn’t really mean—”
“No, no. Don’t take it back.” He holds up his hand. “I like your brutal and brash honesty. Made me feel alive.” He winks.
“Oh, okay. In that case.” I clear my throat. “Although your room seems like a dream to explore, you could have tucked the corners of your bed better, not quite ‘nurse’s corner’ tight, your framed picture of Rory Gilmore is crooked, and you have to get rid of the mustache. It’s atrocious.”
He chuckles and nods while moving his fingers over the bush beneath his nose. “Still trying to perfect the nurse’s corner. If you have expertise in this endeavor, then, by all means, present a tutorial. The room I share a wall with plays music loud enough that they force Rory to dance, making her crooked. I’ve given up. And the mustache, well, I thought it looked good. Seems to me everyone’s been lying to me.”
“They have been.”
“But you don’t seem to have that ability . . . to lie to someone to forsake their feelings.”
“Depends on the moment and the person.” I look him up and down. “You seemed sturdy enough to handle the truth, and also, stressful situations—i.e. not knowing where the room was—snatching any social decorum I might have stored away.”
“Well, that can only mean one thing.”
Confused, I ask, “What’s that?”
“That there is no other choice than to become the greatest friends of all time.”
I smirk. “Only if you shave.”
“Ehhh, that’s something we might have to work out.” He rocks on his feet and continues, “Given that you are the only new recruit to the Secret Scrabble Society, you must be Ophelia Fairweather-Fern.”
“That would be me. But just call me Lia. My entire name is far too many syllables for anyone to carry around, let alone my first name.”
He chuckles. “Your name was a check in the plus column during tryouts. But your brutal use of words we’ve never even heard of was the real reason you were chosen, especially since we play on a timer.”
“That was an added challenge I appreciated. Although the timer startled me at first and took a second for me to get used to. That and not being able to see your new letters or the gameboard until your turn started. I had a lot of fun. I’m glad I was chosen.”
“It was an easy choice.” He sets his Slurpee cup down. “Everyone, this is Lia. Lia, that’s Harley, Jarome, Christine, and Imani.” From where they’re seated at the coffee table, they all raise their hands for a brief hello and then return to the gameboard. “Yeah, they’re not really social.”
“Well, good thing I didn’t come here to socialize.” I rub my hands together. “I came to play.”
Breaker chuckles and then reaches for his Slurpee again. “Then what are we waiting for? Game on.”
I stare Breaker down and then glance at the last two tiles on my shelf.
He has one tile left.
The room has cleared out.
The rest of the SSS has left, claiming early morning classes.
“Your move,” he says while purposely running his finger over his mustache. I’d dominated this entire game until about three moves ago when he somehow pulled out an eighty-point word, completely shattering my lead.
“I know it’s my move.”
“Really, because you’ve been sitting there catatonic for at least five minutes.”
“I’m making sure I have the right move.”
“Or any move at all.” He leans back on the sofa, a smug look painted across his face.
“I have a move.”
“One that won’t win you the game, though, right?” he presses. He knows he has this game. It’s evident in his cocky disposition.
“You know, it’s not polite to gloat.”
“This coming from the girl who was dancing only a few minutes ago because she had a tremendous lead on me.”
I slowly look up at him and, in a deadpan voice, say, “It will behoove you to know that I can dish it, but I can’t take it.”
He lets out a low chuckle as I reluctantly place an E after a W for a measly five points.
“Nice move.” He stares down at his single tile and then lifts it dramatically, only to place an S after Huzzah, giving him thirty-one points. “But not good enough.” He leans back again and crosses his leg over his knee. “I win.”
I groan and flop backward onto the floor. Staring up at his model airplane, I say, “I had you.”
“Never celebrate too early. You never know what can happen at the end of a Scrabble game.”
“That’s such a cheap move by the way, holding on to an S to the very end.”
“How did you know I was holding on to it?”
“Because I watched you pick up the tile a while ago and set it to the side.”
“Don’t tell me you’re one of those players. The one who counts the tiles and knows what everyone could possibly have.”
“Not to that extent, but I watched you baby that tile and not touch it until now. You saved it on purpose.”
“When you’re trailing by eighty points, you have to be strategic, and I was. No shame in playing the game.”
“I hate to admit it since you won, but it was a good game. I enjoyed the challenge.”
“It was a good game. You’re going to fit in nicely here.” He starts picking up the board, and I lift to help him. “Your application said you’re majoring in research and statistics. What’s the plan after college?”
“Getting my master’s and then becoming a survey research specialist.”
He pauses. “That’s really specific,” Breaker says. “And not a job you hear on a list of what you want to be when you grow up.”
“Not so much, but I’ve always been into surveys. Growing up, I loved filling them out. I spent a great deal of time filling out every survey my parents came across. I loved the idea of someone being able to listen to me and gather information to make a change. And of course, I would make surveys on my own, handwritten ones on construction paper, and pass them around at family gatherings to see how everyone enjoyed themselves. Then I would draw up a report and send out an end-of-the-year letter, showing everyone where we excelled and where we could improve.”
Breaker smirks. “And did you find out anything constructive from these family surveys?”
“Yes.” I nod as I hand him the last few tiles that need to be picked up. “Whenever my uncle Steve decided to take his pants off after dinner, it always led to him doing the invisible hula hoop on top of the cleared-off dining table—which no one relished. I made sure to convey this to the family and Uncle Steve, but unfortunately, I have no control over their behavior. I can only survey what needs to change. Changes are made from within.”
“Uncle Steve sounds like a good time.”
“He had a mustache . . . and he’s known as the pervert in the family. So yeah, maybe you two would get along.”
“Not a pervert,” Breaker says while packing up the rest of the game.
“That has yet to be determined.”
“Can we make a quick assessment because I can assure you, I’m not a pervert.” He sets the board game to the side and then leans back on his futon while I press my weight on my hands behind me. I should probably leave. Everyone else has, but for some reason, I feel comfortable here, and I don’t want to leave just yet.
“If you wish.”
He touches his nose and points at me. “I believe the phrase you’re reaching for is, as you wish.”
“Princess Bride fan, are we?”
“What’s there not to be a fan of? Revenge, swords, master tales of times before. It’s got it all. Not to mention . . . Fred Savage.”
“I actually agree, which puts a check mark in your column of not being a pervert.” He fist-pumps to himself, which makes me chuckle. “But that’s only one check mark. There are more questions.”
“Hit me. Watch me pass with flying colors.”
“We shall see about that. Have you ever, since you’ve donned the mustache, peeped into someone’s window, preferably the sex you’re attracted to?”
“That would be women, and no.”
“Good answer. Next question, have you ever felt the need to walk into the ladies’ room because you wanted to take a gander?”
“I’ve heard there are way more stalls, which I’m jealous of because sometimes I just like to sit and pee. But no, I have not.”
My brows pull together. “Sit and pee?”
He shrugs. “I get lazy.”
“Okay, seems like more work to sit down and pee, but to each their own. One more question. Have you ever started a club for men with mustaches and purchased mini mustache combs and creams so you can have mustache care parties?”
“Wow, now that sounds like a good fucking time, but no, I have not.” He drapes his arms along the back of the futon. “So . . . have you deduced that I’m not a pervert?”
“Temporarily. I’m putting you on probation.”
“That’s fair.” He places one leg over the other.
“But I do need to ask a few rapid-fire questions, just to double-check.”
“Favorite singer or band?”
“Really?” I ask, surprised.
“Yup.” He pops the P, looking so relaxed that, in return, he makes me feel comfortable. “Obsessed.”
“Okay, good answer. How about favorite candy?”
“Smarties because I’m smart, and I think they make me feel extra clever.”
I chuckle. “I guess that’s a good reason. Favorite TV show?”
“Wonder Years. Hence, the Fred Savage comment earlier. Love him. Second to Wonder Years is Boy Meets World, as fuck, did I crush on Topanga so goddamn hard. And of course, Cory is my man crush.”
“Fan of the Savage brothers?”
“They’re my ride or die.”
“Makes you seem very relatable.”
He drags his finger over his mustache as he says, “Stick around, Lia. You’ll see just how relatable a finance major with a penchant to crash his model airplane every time he flies it is.”
“I always thought Shawn was whiny.”
“Join the club,” Breaker says with an eye roll. “Thoughts on Mr. Turner’s mullet?”
“Hot,” I answer.
“So if I were to, let’s say . . . grow this hair out to be a mullet, what would your thoughts be on that?”
“Pitiful, get your own look.”
He chuckles. “Man, you sure know how to bring a man down to his knees.”
“Apparently, it’s what I do best.”
“Apparently, I like that about you, though.” He moves his teeth over his lip before saying, “So, Lia, what did you think about tonight? Have fun?”
“I had a lot of fun.” Not wanting to sound like too much of a loser, I gently say, “It’s been hard meeting people here, you know, people who are on the same level as me. I just recently transferred, so not coming in as a freshman and making friends has been a challenge. Although”—I glance around his room—“I do feel comfortable here, despite these dwellings belonging to a mustache.”
“I’m going to take that as a compliment. And meeting new people is hard. Took me a second to figure it all out too. They always say college is where you get to reinvent yourself and find like-minded people. Well, they don’t tell you it doesn’t happen immediately. I’m a junior now and feel like I’ve just hit my stride.”
“Same. No one seems to like spending countless hours poring over a game of Scrabble or knitting hats for cats.”
“Hats for cats?”
“Quite fetching. I sell them to old ladies who think dressing up their cats is fun.” I shrug. “Started it for some side cash, but now, I’m invested. But yeah, tonight reminded me that there are like-minded people out there for me, making me feel like myself for the first time in a long time.”
His expression softens. “I’m glad, Lia.” He strokes the hair under his nose and says, “I bet a lot of you feeling comfortable has to do with the mustache.”
“It’s not the mustache,” I answer with feigned irritation.
He chuckles. “Do you have a boyfriend?” When I eye him skeptically, he holds his hand up. “Not because I’m getting all pervy on you, just genuinely curious.”
“I did until he broke up with me and told me I was lame because I started a fan fiction for Supernatural. I was into different things than he was, so it was hard to connect. Doesn’t seem like I can find many people at all who understand the desire to make Sam and Dean not brothers, but rather . . . secret lovers.”
His eyes widen, and he lowers both legs to the ground as he says, “Hold the fuck on . . . you’re the author of Lovers, Not Brothers?”
“Wait.” I sit up taller. “You’ve heard of it?”
“Heard of it?” he nearly shouts and then lowers his body to the ground, so now we’re at eye level. “Lia, that shit is addicting. I’m not even gay, but Jesus Christ, their first kiss was the best fucking thing I’ve ever read. I had actual sweat forming on the back of my neck while Dean slowly rubbed his nose along Sam’s jaw, waiting for the cue that Sam was ready. And then . . . when their mouths collided, I let out a fucking wallop of a cheer. The sexual tension was unnerving.”
“And you didn’t think it was weird that we know them as brothers in real life?”
“Isn’t that what fan fiction is all about? Creating a world that’s separate from the original?”
I smile. “You get it.”
“Of course I get it. I’m not a moron.” He pushes his hand through his shaggy hair. “Christ, you need to write some more. That was some good shit. I’ll never forget the scene when Dean is naked, gripping his penis, and singing Eye of the Tiger to Sam as he closes in.” He kisses the tips of his fingers. “Chef’s kiss.”
Jokingly, I ask, “Are you fanboying over me?”
“Got a problem with that?”
I shake my head, then whisper, “I can’t believe you’ve read it.”
“I can’t believe you wrote it.”
And then we stare at each other for a few moments. Silence fills the room, an unspoken truth forming between us—this is the start of something new.
Shyly, I ask, “Will you be my friend?”
That smile of his I’ve grown to know tonight widens. “Are you asking me to start a . . . friendship with you?”
“I believe I am. Is that weird? I mean, we barely know each other. I find your mustache absolutely repulsive, but our commonalities are endless at this point. The fact we can agree that the Winchester brothers being lovers is erotic is unprecedented. I believe that means we need to be friends.”
He slowly nods. “I believe it’s imperative.”
I hold up my hand. “And friends only because that mustache has ruined any sexual feeling I might have toward you.”
“I understand. I knew the risks of what could happen if I adorned facial hair solely along my upper lip.” He holds his hand out. “Friends?”
I take his hand in mine. “Friends.”
Present day . . .
“Got somewhere important to be?” JP asks me from across the plane, his eyes fixed on my bouncing leg.
“Just eager to get the hell away from you,” I answer, a typical brother response.
“Cute.” He lets out a deep sigh. “I hate being away from Kelsey, but the trip to New York was good, right? Setting up our second rent-controlled building feels good.”
A few months ago, JP approached me and our other brother, Huxley, about utilizing our fortune for good and offering some rent-controlled buildings in major cities. The buildings would offer a safe, clean, and fresh place to live, providing assistance to those who might need it—like daycare facilities for single parents, financial classes, and access to a market with wholesale food. The point of the project is to help those who need it the most. It’s been a successful and rewarding venture.
“It does feel good,” I say as I pull my phone from my pocket while the plane taxis to the bunker. I open the text thread I have with Lia, and I shoot her a quick text.
Breaker: Landed. Picking up the goods. You have everything cued up and ready to go?
My phone buzzes right away with a reply.
Lia: I’ve been ready, just waiting on you.
Breaker: Sorry, poor weather held us up. Be there soon.
“Who are you texting over there?” JP asks, trying to get a look at my phone.
“Lia,” I answer.
“Ahhh,” he announces with realization heavy in his tone. “That’s why you’re so eager to get off the plane. You want to go spend time with your girl.”
“First of all, she’s not my girl, she’s my best friend, and if I have to keep saying that to you, I’m going to fucking explode. And secondly, she just got a brand-new glass Yahtzee that we’ve been dying to play.”
“Glass Yahtzee?” JP asks. “That seems like an extremely bad idea. Isn’t the point of Yahtzee to shake the dice?”
“Yes, but this presents another level of a challenge: shake the dice without breaking the cup.”
JP stares at me, his face devoid of expression. “You’re going to slice your hands open. Does this glass Yahtzee come with a warning?”
“Yes, of course. It’s a play-at-your-own-risk situation. And we want to risk it. Don’t worry, though. Lia has prepared a hard surface with a blanket. We’re being smart.”
“Being smart would not be playing glass Yahtzee,” he mutters while shaking his head. “Do not call me when you need stitches.”
“Not like you would answer the phone if I did.”
JP rolls his eyes in a dramatic fashion. “I’m a newlywed, for fuck’s sake. Sorry if I want to spend every waking moment with my wife.”
“I don’t think you actually are sorry,” I say just as the plane parks and the flight attendant opens the door and lets down the stairs.
I gather my bag and move past JP to the exit, where I stop suddenly. Huxley, our older brother, steps out of his car, shuts the door, and leans against it with his arms crossed. Sunglasses cover his eyes, but it doesn’t hide the scowl on his forehead or the tension he’s wearing under his perfectly tailored suit.
“Uh, JP? Why is Huxley here, looking like he’s ready to kill?”
“What?” JP asks as he moves toward the exit as well. He pokes his head out and says, “I don’t know. Did he text us?”
Instead of exiting the plane to see what the issue is, we both search through our phones for a text message or email and come up short.
“Nothing,” I say.
“Fuck,” JP says. “That only means one thing. Whatever he needs to tell us, he doesn’t want to be traced.”
“What?” I ask. “Dude, you’ve been watching too many secret operative shows. That is not why he’s here in person. Maybe . . . maybe it’s good news. Maybe he has something special to tell us and wants to see our reactions in person.”
“How does it feel living in a realm where unicorn crap tastes like strawberry ice cream?” JP gestures toward Huxley. “Look at him, the scowl. He’s not here to pet our heads and tell us what good boys we’ve been. Clearly, we fucked up somehow. Just have to figure out how.”
“Will you two get the fuck down here and stop gabbing?” Huxley yells.
“Dude, my balls just shivered,” JP says, gripping my shoulder.
“My penis totally just turtled.” I step to the side and push JP forward. “You first, you’re older. You’ve experienced more life than me.”
“Barely,” he says, trying to move me toward the exit first, but I plant my feet on the floor and hold steady. Since JP’s been married, I’ve spent more time at the gym while he’s spent more time in Kelsey—with all due respect—so I have a few pounds of muscle over him at the moment.
“Just get out there before he gets even madder.” I push at JP. “You know how he hates when we—in his terms—clown around.”
“Quit clowning around,” Huxley yells.
“See,” I whisper-shout.
“Don’t push me,” JP says, leaning his weight into me, his back to my chest. “You’re going to make me tumble down the stairs.”
“Oh, good idea. If you tumble down, then there’s a good chance you could get injured, and whatever he’s here for will be put on a momentary pause while we assess your injuries. That will give us some thinking time. And maybe if you’re willing to break a bone, that will grant us at least a few days.”
“Oh yeah, let me just throw myself down the stairs.”
“That’s the spirit,” I say while patting him on the back. “Close your eyes. It will be over in a second.”
“Jesus Christ,” JP mutters before he makes his way down the stairs.
I follow closely. “Oh, I see, going to fall closer to the ground. Smart.”
“I’m not going to fall, you idiot.”
When we reach the ground, Huxley opens the back car door to his Tesla S and says, “Get in.”
I can hear JP gulp as I say, “You sure you don’t want to at least fake an injury?”
“I think it’s too late, man,” he says as he climbs into the car, and I follow.
Once we’re in the back, Huxley slams the door, causing JP and me to flinch. When Huxley climbs in the front seat, he doesn’t bother to look at us. Instead, he grips the steering wheel and lets out a long, pent-up breath.
A sigh of discontent. Great.
After a few seconds, he turns to face us and says, “Has Taylor been in touch with you?”
“Taylor, as in our lawyer?” JP asks.
“Yes, our lawyer.”
We shake our heads. “No, I haven’t gotten anything,” I say.
“What’s going on?” JP asks, his voice growing serious.
“We’re being sued for misconduct in the workplace.”
“What?” I shout. “By whom?”
Huxley lifts his sunglasses, and his eyes narrow in on me. “Your former employee.”
“Uh, excuse me?” I blink a few times. “What the hell for?”
“Let’s see, hostile work environment and wrongful termination.”
“Wait.” I shake my head, trying to get a grip on what he’s saying. “Who the hell was this?”
“Shoemacher?” I ask, eyes wide and disbelief heavy in my tone. “As in the girl who would secretly slip into my office, rearrange my shit, hang up pictures of her relatives, decorate for holidays, and then just leave? The absolute psycho who would corner me in the break room and ask me when my next dentist appointment was so she could watch me get my teeth cleaned? The girl who made me an advent calendar for Christmas and inside each box was homemade thumbnail drawings of me? That girl?”
“Were the drawings good?” JP asks.
“How the fuck is that relevant?” I ask him, losing my temper.
JP shrugs. “Just genuinely curious.”
“I mean . . . watercolor on a small surface is quite difficult, so maybe—”
“Enough about the paintings,” Huxley says. “This is fucking serious. Not only has she sued us, but she’s also soiling our reputation on social media. She’s spreading lies about how we conduct business and how Breaker created a hostile environment for her and berated her in front of fellow employees.”
“That’s not fucking true,” I say. “I was never hostile, even when she ‘accidentally’ tripped me while I was holding my morning coffee. I’ve been nothing but kind to that woman, and the reason she was let go was that we found out she was the one going around to everyone’s office and stealing their daily to-do lists. She had a whole collection of them filed away in her desk.”
“Well, she’s spinning a story and attacking our business, and unfortunately, she’s getting attention.”
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“It means, because she’s using the right platforms, she’s getting tons of views and now, media coverage. This has happened in the past twenty-four hours.”
“How the hell does that happen?” JP asks.
Huxley shakes his head. “No fucking clue, but we’re fielding calls about it. Lottie said she heard some employees talking about it in the break room before quieting down as she entered. We’re losing credibility by the second.”
“Because someone is lying,” I say, anger heavy in my voice.
“Yes, but the public seems to be clinging to her story. Therefore, we need to take action while Taylor and his team gather evidence for a countersuit. She has no leg to stand on, no evidence, just her word and her friend who doesn’t work for us anymore. But we have security footage, we have the evidence that you’ve gathered, Breaker, over time, and we have all of her social media posts that have been screen recorded. Defamation will be what takes her down.”
“Okay, so . . . what should we do?” I ask.
“For one, you need to take a step back.”
“What?” I roar. “No fucking way. I’m not resigning because someone spreads lies about me. That makes me look guilty, and I’m not guilty. I’ve been nothing but respectful and professional to that woman.”
“I’m not talking about resigning,” Huxley says, his jaw growing tight. “We just need you to take . . . a mandatory vacation. Just so it looks like we’re doing the right thing while we investigate her allegations, which means you need to not be in the office.”
“He’s right,” JP says. “If this was with any other employee, we’d ask them to go on sabbatical while we investigate the allegations. You shouldn’t be treated any different.”
“But I didn’t fucking do anything,” I say.
“We know,” Huxley says. “But just because we know you’re innocent doesn’t mean everyone will believe it. We’re in sensitive waters here, and we need to make sure we exercise due diligence in the investigation. If we do this right, conduct the investigation correctly, then hopefully it will set a precedent for any future employees who try to do the same.”
“I’m afraid to say it,” JP adds, “but he’s right, man.”
I glance back and forth between my brothers, letting their common sense sink in. “Fuck,” I mutter as I lean back against the seat and push my hand through my hair.
“It’s for the best, Breaker,” Huxley says. “And while you’re gone, we’ll be sure to split up your responsibilities between me and JP.”
“Hey now, I didn’t agree with that,” JP says but then quickly quiets when Huxley gives him a scathing look.
“It won’t be for long. Maybe a week or two,” Huxley says. “In the meantime, if we have questions, we’ll communicate in person. I don’t want to leave any sort of paper trail.”
“So then what the hell am I supposed to do for the next one to two weeks?” I ask.
“Maybe help Lia with her knitting,” JP says. “I know you know how to knit.”
I glance at Huxley, and he says, “Knitting might keep you busy.”
“Fuck off . . . both of you,” I say right before I exit the car and head straight for mine.
“Your food is smelling up the entire elevator,” Mrs. Gunderson says as she stands as far away from me as possible, her umbrella tucked under her arm. It barely ever rains in Los Angeles, yet she carries around a large black one every day . . . just in case.
“Thank you for pointing that out,” I say to her as the elevator slows and then beeps, indicating our floor.
“Sarcasm is the devil’s tongue,” she shoots at me before heading toward her door. I walk in the opposite way and right past my door to the apartment next to mine. “Pre-marital sex is also the way of the devil,” she shouts before walking into her apartment.
“I hate that woman,” I mutter as I knock on Lia’s door three times, kick the footer, and then say, “Walla-walla-bing-bang.”
Lia is quick to open the door, her familiar freckled face easing the tension roaring through my body.
I remember the first time I ran into her in the hallway of my dorm. She was unsure of herself but also so confident that she couldn’t help the things flying out of her mouth. Her vibrant red hair and mossy-green eyes under her purple-rimmed glasses stood out, but it was her pure honesty that really drew me to her—unlike anyone I’ve ever met. And now, I can’t go a day without talking to her.
“You didn’t say ching-chang,” she says with a smirk.
“Ching-chang wasn’t a part of it.”
She points her finger accusingly at me. “I knew it.”
Chuckling, I open my arm that’s not holding the food and pull her into a hug. “Missed you.”
“Missed you, Pickle,” she says, using my nickname that she gave me one night after a misspelled pickle during a Scrabble game. “What took you so long? I started to tear apart the dessert I got us.”
“You don’t want to know.” I sigh, and we both walk into her apartment.
I remember the moment she found this place. She’d been looking for about two days and then came across this building in Westwood. She had no idea if they had apartments for rent, but she liked the flowers out front and the Jamba Juice across the street. Lo and behold, when she inquired, there were two apartments right next to each other. She called me immediately and told me I was moving. We’ve lived here for the past five years.
Whereas my apartment has more windows and open space, Lia’s has more character, with exposed brick on almost every wall. And the way the individual apartments wrap around, our bedroom walls buddy up, and our balconies sit across from each other over the atrium in the lobby.
“I do want to know what took so long because glass Yahtzee can only wait so long, and if you’re raging, our game is going to end short.”
“Who says I’m raging?” I ask as I set the food on her pristine white kitchen countertop. I have the same one, and we try to compete on who can keep theirs whiter. It’s so stupid, but fuck, I think she’s winning.
“I’ve known you for a decade, Breaker. Pretty sure I can tell when you’re simmering in rage. What’s going on?”
Taking a seat on one of her barstools, I rest my arms on the counter. “I don’t want to ruin the night. I haven’t seen you in over a week, and the last thing I want to do is talk about work.” Or lack thereof, thank you, Gemma Shoemacher.
“Yes, and since I haven’t seen you in over a week, the last thing I want to do is eat dinner and play a fragile game of Yahtzee with a grump. Now tell me what happened so we can move on and have fun.” She sets two plates on the counter and adds, “I’ve been planning this night for a few days now. Do not ruin it.” She threateningly points her finger at me, which I knock away.
“Fine, but we’re not harping on it, okay?” I drag my hand over the back of my neck. “I’ve thought about it enough on the drive over here. I just want to forget it.”
“Fine, now spill.” She empties out the carton of lo mein and divides it equally on our plates.
“Do you remember that one girl who used to work for me, the one who made me that advent calendar?”
“Remember her? I still have every picture she drew of you in a box in my room. December 17th will forever be my favorite. The way she accentuated your nostrils was pure perfection.”
My nostrils resembled two giant life rafts on my face, but of course, Lia thought it was the greatest thing she had ever seen.
“Gemma is my hero. Sad she got so crazy and you had to let her go,” she adds.
“Yeah, well, she’s suing us now.”
Lia pauses, smirks, and then shakes her head. “Oh, Gemma, bad, bad move. Don’t mess with the Cane brothers and their business.” She glances up at me. “What’s she attempting to get money out of you for?”
“Claims hostile work environment, beratement from me—”
Lia lets out a large guffaw. “Beratement . . . from you?” She points the fork in her hand at me. “That’s laughable. I don’t think you could hurt a fly if you tried, let alone berate someone in a workplace.”
“I know . . . but she’s on some sort of warpath, claiming wrongful termination and all that other bullshit. She’s posted it on social media and is now getting press attention because we’re Cane Enterprises. Anything to bring us down.”
“Yeah, but she’s being a total moron because you can’t go and make up lies on social media like that; if you’re caught, you’re effed.” She tops our plates off with some General Tso’s chicken. “So is Huxley countersuing?”
“How do you know that?”
“Please.” She licks the sweet yet spicy sauce off her fork. “I’ve known you and your family long enough to have witnessed the hard work, dedication, and many hours you’ve put into building Cane Enterprises. No way in hell is Huxley going to let some stalker—albeit a rather comical one—get away with tarnishing the brand and the business you three have spent so long creating.”
“Yes, they’re putting together all the evidence they need to present their case. I don’t think we’re in it for the money because we don’t need it, nor are we in the business of putting people in debt, but Huxley wants to set a precedent. Make sure that people know not to fuck with us.”
“Probably smart because this girl has opened the door to the possibility of lawsuits, and if you end this correctly, no one will want to go up against you.”
“Yeah, that’s the plan.”
“So what’s the problem? Sure, maybe your ego is slightly tarnished, but when has that ever affected you before? Remember the time in college you were mistaken for the third-best Scrabble player rather than the second? You took that like a champ.”
“You’re just full of laughs today, aren’t you?”
“Just trying to cheer you up.” She pulls two Sprites from her fridge and deposits one in front of me, and then she takes the seat next to mine. Our shoulders bump as she gets comfortable. When she picks up her fork with her left hand, bumping into my right, she says, “You took the wrong seat.”
“I was pre-occupied. Deal with it.”
“Are you really going to be grumpy all evening? I was looking forward to a nice night of will we slice our hands open or will we not?”
“I’m sorry,” I huff while pushing the chicken around my plate. “I didn’t mention one thing. The guys said I can’t go to work. I have to take time off until they figure this all out.”
“So what you’re telling me is that you were just granted a vacation, and you’re complaining about that, why?”
“Because people will think I’m in trouble or did something wrong when I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve worked hard to maintain genuine relationships with my employees, and if I’m not there, what will they think of me?”
“I can see why that would bother you,” she says. “You do tend to pride yourself on the way you treat people, and this is a slur to your character.”
“Exactly. It’s really shitty,” I say, my voice growing heavy.
“Hey,” Lia says, turning toward me. “The people who know you will understand the circumstances. They know you’re not some tyrant, running up and down the hallway like a lunatic, yelling at the first person you run into. And the other people, the ones who might believe Gemma, well, they’re not people you want around you anyway.”
“I know you’re right,” I say softly. “Just can’t seem to wrap my head around all of it.”
She pulls me into a hug, and I rest my head against hers. “It will be okay. If anything, Huxley is relentless, and he won’t rest until your name is expunged of any wrongdoing.”
“I guess so.” She releases me, and I let out a low breath. “I’m sorry about all of this. I’m totally bringing down the night.”
“It’s okay. How about we put glass Yahtzee on hold for now in case you have intermittent episodes of rage. We can’t risk the slivers. Want to play cards out on the balcony?”
“Maybe we can watch a show. There’s a new documentary called The King of Kong that I want to watch.”
“Oh, I saw that the other day when I was scrolling through what to watch with Brian,” Lia says, talking about her boyfriend. “I suggested it, and he gave me the side-eye. We ended up watching some sports game.”
“Some sports game?” I laugh. “Not even sure what sport?”
“A ball was involved.”
“Well, that narrows it down.”
She chuckles. “Either way, I’d love to watch it. Shall we start it now? Bring our food over to the couch.”
“If you’re cool with that.”
She tips my chin up and, in a gooey voice, says, “Anything for my pickle.”
“Brian would have hated that documentary.”
That’s because Brian is a douche.
But I keep that comment to myself.
“Yeah, didn’t quite scream something Brian would have enjoyed.”
Lia shifts and then pokes my stomach. “You going to be okay? You’re usually a little more chatty when we watch documentaries.”
“Yeah, I was just thinking. I’ll be good, though.”
“You know, if you need to talk about it, I’m always here.”
“I know.” I take her hand in mine. “Thanks, Lia.”
She gives it a squeeze. “You’re welcome. Now get out of here and go to bed. You look like trash.”
I smirk. “Can always count on you to deliver the truth.” I pull her into a hug and give her a kiss on the top of her head. “Night, Lia.”
I let go and then head to my apartment just as she closes her door. I strip out of my clothes, splash some water on my face, and then brush my teeth. Once I’m ready for bed, I plug my phone in to charge, slip under my covers—naked—and then place my hands behind my head and stare up at the ceiling.
The entire night, I kept wondering why I was so affected by this. I know Huxley will take care of it. I’ve been getting texts from him all night about how we’re going to make sure Gemma doesn’t speak another word about me, but even with that reassurance, I still feel . . . weird.
And I think it comes down to her attack on my character. Gemma attacked the one thing I take great pride in, and that’s being a good guy. Between my brothers and me, we all have different personalities.
Huxley is the grump, the domineering, the take-no-prisoners kind of guy.
JP is the funny one, the easygoing guy, the instigator at times.
And me . . . well, I’m the levelheaded—the sounding board—and the good guy.
So having my name slandered with vehement lies is just so fucking painful. I’ve worked so hard at being above reproach.
And someone people could rely on.
For the most part, I’ve accomplished that, but this . . . this just makes me think that maybe I didn’t.
I scrub my hand down my face just as a light tapping comes from the other side of the wall.
And just like that, a smile spreads across my face.
Reaching up to the wall, I rap my knuckle four times.
Like clockwork, she knocks three.
Four knocks for four letters in love.
Three knocks for three letters in you.
It’s something we’ve done ever since we shared a wall. It’s a gentle reminder that even though I’m angry, irritated, or even sad, at least I have Lia, my best friend, the one person who can so easily put a smile on my face. I don’t know what I’d do without her.
I don’t even want to think about it. Even when things in my life are out of balance, there’s one very solid, very predictable constant. Lia.
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