“I’m right here,” Marion calls out and I’m whisked back into the hell of the one drink that somehow became two. I slow my drinking and order real coffee. With caffeine, the haze of booze still present, but it shifts. Now it numbs my senses just enough to makes the topics of the economy and the expansion of airlines and hotels tolerable. Funny how not that long ago, I’d have enjoyed such a conversation, once upon a time, when I wanted to please the king of our empire.
“Aren’t you opening a Bodega Bay location?” Monroe asks, looking at me.
“We are,” I say. “Whale watching, oceans, and wineries. It’s a perfect combination.”
“Are you going to open a winery to compete in the region as well?” Marion asks.
“We’re partnering with a winemaker, so yes and no,” I reply, sipping my coffee and deciding sobering up is not working for me. I need more North Whiskey. I need more Jax North.
“We’ll have to talk about a destination package,” Marion adds. “Bodega Bay and Breeze Airlines, a Knight/Roger partnership. Another perfect pairing between big named brands. Smart, don’t you think, Emma?”
A partnership that has defined much of my life in ways few could understand, but Marion looks at me with a spark of awareness in her eyes. She knows I’m not what I seem. She knows I don’t want that exposed. We both know that gives her power.
“Partnerships hold value,” I say, but I don’t add more. I want to shut her out. I need to shut her out because my past could hurt our brand. My past is blackmail material and I don’t know how to wash that away.
“We’re eager to explore any partnership with the Rogers,” Randall interjects, casting me a hard side eyes. “Perhaps we should plan a couples’ trip down there.”
Couples trip. As if he and I are a couple. That’s it. I’m done. “Speaking of which,” I say. “I have a crazy week ahead. I should hit the bed.”
“Of course, honey,” Marion chimes in. “This has been an emotional few weeks for you.”
Honey. My mother calls me honey. My mother, who Marion betrayed in ways no one should ever be betrayed.
“We should head to bed as well,” Monroe suggests, and with that, my singular escape is now gone and missed. I now must wait for the check that I’ll sign for accounting reasons and the conversation continues right up until the moment we depart from the bar.
Eternally this process continues, but finally, we stand and I endure another hug from Marion. “We’ll do that Bodega trip together. Let’s talk about it at the fireman’s charity event.”
My teeth clench and I bite back a rejection. I have no idea when that is, but I’m not going. Not if she wants to talk about a trip we take together. She leans back to study me. “A girls’ trip will be amazing. Invite your mother if you like.”
Such a bitch.
Such a horrible person.
I want to smack her and even with that North Whiskey in me, I don’t. I just say nothing. “Bodega is wonderful,” is all I say.
A few minutes later, I step onto an elevator with Randall by my side. “Bodega is wonderful?” he challenges. “She offered to take a trip with you and that’s what you say?”
“I’ve hit my limit right now, Randall,” I say. “I need rest. I need an emotional timeout.” The elevator dings and opens, but I don’t exit. I turn to Randall. “I know my father wasn’t your father, but surely you can understand that this affects me. Tonight was about him. Tonight is not every night.”
With that, now I exit the car, walking to my right, toward my suite. I’ve barely made it to my door and Randall is there. My hand fumbles with the key and damn it, it’s now on the ground. I grab it and by the time I stand up, he’s closer. He’s so damn close. I rotate and he’s there, hand on the doorjamb above my head. “Randall,” I bite out. “Timeout means timeout.”
“I think you need someone to talk to. Let me be there for you.”
“Be there for me? You have been riding me like I’m a problem pet who won’t behave.” The elevator dings, a sound that echoes in my mind with the promise of company and an excuse to push him away.
“If I’ve been overbearing—”
“You have,” I say. “Step back.”
Instead, his hand settles at my waist. Instinct is instant and I shove him back. “Stop, Randall.”
He steps into me, that hand still at my hip, and anger surges through me. “Emma—”
“Stop,” I order. “Stop right now.”
At the familiar voice, Randall’s hands fall away from me and he turns to face Jax. “Jax North. Never where you’re supposed to be, now are you?”
“Seems like I’m exactly where she needs me to be. Step away and let her go into her room.”