Monday, December 7
Dallas Turner figured he shouldn’t be surprised when he walked into his mother’s house to find someone who wasn’t part of the family in her kitchen. Aiyana had taken him in, hadn’t she? She’d taken in and raised seven other boys, too. Only a couple of years ago, she’d expanded the campus of New Horizons—the school she’d started twenty-four years ago for troubled boys—to include a girls’ side.
But she hadn’t adopted any girls yet.
This wasn’t a girl, anyway. Although he was seeing her from behind, he could tell it was a full-grown woman who was reaching into the cupboard. A full-grown woman who wasn’t entirely dressed.
“Hello?” he said.
Startled, she whipped around, and he nearly dropped the groceries he’d carried in. This was no stranger to him, as he’d first assumed. It was Emery Bliss, someone he’d known when he was living here in the artsy community of Silver Springs, ninety minutes northwest of Los Angeles. He hadn’t seen her since he moved away after graduating high school ten years ago, but he recognized her instantly.
She was equally surprised to see him—or to see a man suddenly standing behind her. He didn’t know which.
With a yelp, she yanked her T-shirt down far enough to cover her underwear. “Excuse me, I—I didn’t expect anyone to be home until this afternoon. Aiyana said—” She blinked several times and her blush deepened. He was no longer the skinny boy with the bad acne whose gaze had so often trailed after her when she returned her horse to the equestrian center of her private school, where he’d worked mucking out stalls, but he could tell she now recognized him. “I was just…getting a bowl of cereal and…”
Her words trailed off as she edged along the counter, leaving her breakfast behind while she stretched her T-shirt down as far as possible, holding it in a death grip with both hands.
“No problem,” he said, relieving her of the burden of trying to finish that sentence. She didn’t seem to know where she was going with it, anyway.
“I’m really sorry,” she mumbled as though she’d caused him some terrible injury and escaped the kitchen as soon as she could.
He could hear her footfalls racing up the stairs as Aiyana and his two youngest brothers filed into the house with the rest of the groceries—Aiyana telling them they had only a half hour, at most, before they had to leave again. They were looking forward to playing a particular video game, so this was met with the type of groans one might expect from much younger boys.
“Give us an hour, at least,” Bentley, the youngest, a senior in high school, pleaded.
“Just one hour,” Liam chimed in. Two years older than Bentley, Liam was working and taking online classes instead of going to college because he’d injured his knee playing basketball and was getting an operation next month.
“No,” she said firmly. “We can’t miss this appointment.”
After setting down the bags in his hands, Dallas pulled their mother aside and lowered his voice so that it wouldn’t carry to the second level. “What was that all about?”
Aiyana didn’t respond right away. She was still preoccupied with his brothers. “You can’t start anything interactive where other players are depending on you. We don’t have time.”
“We’ll turn it off the second you say so,” Bentley promised, and they dumped the groceries they were carrying on the first horizontal surface they could find and rushed into the living room to turn on the Xbox.
“Mom?” Dallas prodded.
“What?” She gave his hand an affectionate squeeze before disengaging so that she could set her purse aside and put away the food.
Dallas could hear his brothers negotiating which video game to play, since they didn’t have time for the one they’d initially planned. Aiyana, Bentley and Liam had met him for breakfast as he came into town from Las Vegas, where he lived in the months he wasn’t rock climbing. They’d expected to go directly from there to Santa Barbara, so that he and his brothers could be fitted for tuxedos. Aiyana’s wedding was on the nineteenth, and every one of her eight adopted sons would be in the line. But the tuxedo place had called while they were eating and asked to reschedule for later in the day, so they’d done the weekly grocery shopping before they left town instead of waiting until they were on their way home. “What’s the deal?”
Confusion showed on Aiyana’s face, so he clarified. “Emery Bliss was in the kitchen when I came in.” He didn’t mention that she’d been wearing nothing except a faded Van Halen T-shirt and a pair of bikini briefs. It was obvious she hadn’t planned for anyone to walk in.
“Oh! You saw her?”
“Yes, I saw her.” Emery’s long blond hair had been mussed, as though she’d only recently climbed out of bed, and she hadn’t been wearing makeup, so it wasn’t only her state of undress that led him to believe she was staying at the house. “It looked to me as though she’s living here.”
“She is,” Aiyana said simply, and went back to unloading the groceries.
His mother didn’t volunteer the reason; she made him ask. “Why?”
“Why not?” she countered.
“Your wedding is less than two weeks away, for one.”
She waved off his words. “It’ll be fine. You’ll all be here, but Elijah and Gavin have their own houses these days. It won’t get crowded until the twins and Seth come home on the eighteenth. Even then, we should have plenty of room.”
“I wasn’t claiming there wouldn’t be enough room—just that…that we’ll be busy. We have a lot going on,” he added to shore up his argument.
A playful gleam entered her eyes. “What’s the matter? Does having her here make you uncomfortable?”
As innocent as his encounter with Emery had been, he wouldn’t soon forget seeing her ass in those panties, he knew that much. He tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. “Don’t start with that.”
“You know what. I don’t need you playing matchmaker.”
He’d wanted to take Emery to Senior Ball back in the day, and Aiyana knew that because she’d tried to help him come up with a clever way of inviting her. But even with his mother’s encouragement and the ideas they’d tossed around, he’d never gathered the nerve. He couldn’t imagine a wealthy girl from Topatopa Academy, a private school known for providing an elite education, would care to be seen with one of the “bad” boys from New Horizons. He couldn’t imagine her parents would be pleased to have her go out with him, either. And during the time he was dithering back and forth, she accepted an invitation to attend the public school’s prom with the best player on the McGregor football team—the running back, who was now in the pros. The McGregor prom was the night before New Horizons’ Senior Ball, so while the events didn’t directly conflict, he’d decided to spare her the trouble of trying to decide whether to attend two formal dances on the same weekend. There was no way he could follow a local hero. She’d be taking a huge step down.
Considering everything, he figured he’d saved himself some rejection by not asking her out ten years ago.
“I’m not playing matchmaker,” she said. “I admit that I like Emery. She’s a lovely person. And I wouldn’t mind if you were to finally fall in love—”
“Finally?” he broke in. “I’m only twenty-nine!”
She closed the refrigerator after putting away the bacon. “Someone has to get hold of you, get you to change your focus and settle down before you kill yourself. The idea of you rock climbing without any safety gear, any ropes…” She shook her head. “It keeps me up at night. But having Emery here has nothing to do with you. That poor girl. I’m just providing a safe haven for her until after the holidays.”
“Why would she need a safe haven?” Emery’s father, a plastic surgeon, was rumored to have patients who were famous. He made a lot of money. On top of that, Emery had been smart, popular and pretty. What could possibly have gone wrong when she was starting out with everything in her favor?
His mother pulled a tub of mayonnaise from one of the bags and opened the fridge again. “You don’t watch much TV, do you?”
“Not in the months I’m climbing.” He put some potato chips in the pantry. “You don’t understand what it’s like. I live out of my van for a week or more at a time.” And this year, his climbing season had lasted longer than in previous years. He’d finally found a sponsor, a sponsor who was paying handsomely just to have him endorse their brand of climbing apparel. He’d never had so much money.
“Well, if you don’t already know what happened, I probably shouldn’t tell you.” She reached into another sack. “The more word of it spreads, the worse things will get for her.”
“What are you talking about?” He folded the sacks they’d emptied. “And how could telling me make it any worse?”
With a sigh, she dragged him farther from the room where Bentley and Liam were playing, and the stairs where Emery had gone. “After college, she became a news anchor on a popular morning show in Los Angeles. She loved her job, was doing very well at it and had high hopes of eventually moving to New York and taking over a show like Good Morning America.”
“But then…” He scowled at her. “Why are you making me drag this out of you?”
“Mom? This is me you’re talking to.”
“I realize that, but…” She seemed torn. “Okay. She broke up with her coanchor, and he retaliated by posting a video of the two of them online that humiliated her and caused her to lose her job.”
He raised his eyebrows. “What kind of video?”
She cast him an exasperated look. “What kind do you think?”
“No…” he said, stepping back.
“Yes! They were having s-e-x,” she whispered.
He might’ve laughed that she’d felt the need to spell it when his brothers were plenty old enough to understand, but he was too shocked. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I wish I were,” she said with a frown. “She refuses to show her face in Los Angeles. That video went viral. Everyone’s seen it. It even made the national news.”
Dallas could only imagine how mortified Emery must’ve been. As attractive as she was, every male viewer had probably raced onto the internet to have a look. “What about her family? They were always supportive. Why wouldn’t she go to them?”
“They don’t live in the area anymore. They moved to Boston two years ago, and her parents are in the middle of a nasty divorce, something she doesn’t need to be involved in when she’s going through so much herself. Her father is already living with another woman. And her mother is trying to care for Emery’s grandmother, who has dementia. That’s the reason they moved to Boston in the first place.”
“What about siblings?”
“She’s an only child.”
“Wow.” He sank into one of the kitchen chairs. “I didn’t realize you knew Emery well enough to take her in.”
“I didn’t until her mother began volunteering here at the school. A year or so after you graduated, Connie started teaching the boys how to ride. She even donated a couple of the horses. We still have one of them. Anyway, we became close, and that’s how I got to know Emery. Whenever Emery came home from college, even after she earned her degree, her mother would bring her over, and she’d help, too. So when the scandal broke, and I saw it on the news, I called to see how she was doing. The poor child wouldn’t even pick up the phone. I had to leave several messages before I could get her to call me back. Her mother said she was hiding out in her apartment.”
“And when you did get hold of her, you insisted she come here?”
“I had to. I couldn’t leave her in that situation.”
No wonder Emery had apologized when he’d caught her in her underwear this morning. Someone who’d just been through what she’d been through would be extra sensitive to that sort of encounter, even though it was completely accidental. “Wait. So she got fired for sleeping with a coworker? Can that even happen these days?”
“Yes. She signed an agreement when she started at the station saying she wouldn’t get romantically involved with anyone in the workplace. But she’s considering a wrongful firing suit. This was revenge on his part, pure and simple. He was out to get her when he posted their personal video all over the internet, and their producer—a Heidi Coventry—piled on. Emery thinks it’s because Heidi has had her eye on Ethan Grimes herself and was angry when he chose Emery over her.”
Dallas didn’t know Emery that well. He didn’t know Ethan Grimes at all. And yet he felt no small degree of outrage. “Sexism has been such a hot topic, all over the news, and yet this Heidi person, who works for a news station, no less, is only making it worse?”
“I know. I thought in California we’d come further than that.”
“The station had better have fired him, too.”
“They did, but Emery told me yesterday that she’s pretty sure they’ve hired him back.”
“She needs to proceed with that wrongful firing suit.”
Aiyana made a skeptical sound. “Even if she does, I’m not sure she’ll win.”
“How much will it cost to get an attorney?”
“That isn’t the problem. She can get an attorney who’s willing to do the work for a portion of the settlement. It’s the upset and the negativity she’ll have to contend with, for months, that she’s not convinced she can endure. Not with how hurt and vulnerable she is right now. What’s happened to her is beyond embarrassing, and the more attention she draws to it, the more people there will be who hunt down that video.”
“It hasn’t been removed?”
“From some sites, yes. But this is the internet we’re talking about. Once something’s out there, there’s no taking it back.”
That was true. “What’s her other choice?”
“To let it all go and try to rebuild her life.”
He nearly knocked over the chair he’d been using as he shot out of it but caught it just in time. “Maybe I’d better go have a talk with the asshole who posted it. What’s his name again—Ethan Grimes? Who has a name like that, anyway?”
His mother grabbed his arm. “No! Stay out of it. It’s none of your business, which is why I hesitated to tell you.”
“But if she ever goes back to work at that station, or even in the same industry, she’ll never live down that video. She can’t be expected to start over at ground zero.”
“I agree. And she’s always wanted to be a news anchor, has no idea what she’ll be if she doesn’t continue to pursue her life’s dream.”
“Why in the world would she allow him to take a video in the first place?” he asked. “I get that she probably loved him, trusted him, all that. But this type of thing has become more and more common. You don’t take the chance, especially when you have so much to lose.”
“She had no idea he was filming.”
Dallas rubbed his forehead. “That makes it even worse.”
“I know. It’s so unfair.”
He pictured Emery’s big blue eyes and couldn’t help feeling protective of her. “What’s she going to do?”
“That’s what she’s trying to decide. If she moves forward with the suit, she’ll need to remain somewhere close to LA so she’s available to meet with her attorney, take the deposition, go into arbitration or whatever might be necessary. If she decides not to move forward with it, she may pack up and move to Boston—where her mother is—and try to get into another line of work. But I’ve told her she’s more than welcome to stay here through the holidays. She deserves some time to get over what’s happened and to make the best possible decision.”
He shook his head. “What a terrible thing to have to deal with, especially at Christmas.”
She checked the doorway to make sure Liam and Bentley were still too preoccupied to be listening in. “Now you understand why I invited her here. I want to help her, if I can.”
He walked over to give his mother a hug. “You want to help everyone,” he said. He’d always been proud of her. Always been grateful to her, too. He couldn’t imagine how he would’ve turned out—where he’d be—without her.
Fully dressed, even though she was now back in her bedroom behind a closed door, Emery Bliss paced the short distance at the foot of the bed. She could hear the commotion below, knew Aiyana, Bentley and Liam had returned instead of going to Santa Barbara. She should’ve pulled on a pair of shorts and a bra before venturing below, but she’d had her mind on the call she’d received from an attorney in LA. She’d never dreamed it wouldn’t be safe to run down for a bowl of cereal—not after Aiyana had specifically told her that she’d have the entire house to herself until five or so.
“Damn it.” She rolled her eyes at the memory of the shock on Dallas Turner’s face when he walked into the kitchen to find her half-naked and helping herself to his mother’s food. She hadn’t gone down there with the intention of causing a problem, but after everything she’d been through recently, she was so sensitive she didn’t feel capable of withstanding any kind of blow. When she’d decided to come here, she’d pictured herself with Aiyana and Aiyana’s two youngest boys, who rarely interacted with her. They were too caught up in their studies, their girlfriends, their sports and their video games to pay her any mind. Aiyana did so much for so many, they took a new guest in stride.
Emery hadn’t anticipated running into the Turner boy she remembered from high school—unless it was closer to the wedding—and she hadn’t looked that far ahead. She’d simply jumped at the chance to escape LA and go somewhere no one would think to look for her, so she could create a buffer between her and the harsh judgment and salacious interest she’d received once Ethan Grimes posted that video online.
Had coming here been a mistake?
She eyed the suitcase she’d stashed at the end of the dresser. She’d emptied her clothes into the closet and a chest of drawers so she wouldn’t have to dig through all of the belongings she’d brought with her every time she needed to change. But she could pack and fly to Boston, get out of California entirely. She would’ve done that to begin with if her parents weren’t facing their own problems. They each blamed the other for the breakdown of their marriage, so whenever she talked to them, she felt as though she was being torn in two—literally ripped apart.
That was more than she could take right now. She also knew her savings would dwindle fast if she wasn’t careful, so she’d been hesitant to spend money on flights she could avoid.
Emery winced at the sound of a knock on the door, then made a face at herself in the mirror. She looked terrible. Her eyes were puffy and her skin blotchy from all the tears she’d cried, her hair was a tangled mop she had yet to comb and what she’d thrown on immediately upon returning to her room covered her but didn’t match.
Those small things were the least of her concerns, however. She had to figure out some way to recover from the devastation of losing her boyfriend, her job and, worst of all, her reputation. She had to forget what’d happened at KQLA and focus on the future so she could decide what to do next. But she was so distraught by what other people were seeing when they logged on to the internet and searched for “Emery Bliss sex video” she could hardly cope. This was easily the most embarrassing thing that could ever happen to her.
After clearing her throat so that she’d be able to talk in spite of the large lump that threatened to choke her, she peeked into the hall.
Aiyana stood there holding a bowl of Mini-Wheats and wearing the brightly colored clothes and turquoise jewelry she preferred, her black hair falling down her back in a thick braid. “I’m sorry if Dallas surprised you, dear. I should’ve called. I honestly didn’t think of it, or I would have.”
“No, of course you didn’t need to call,” she said. “This is your house.”
“We had a last-minute change of plans, but we will be leaving again shortly and then we’ll be gone for the rest of the day.” She handed Emery the bowl. “Here, you left your breakfast on the counter, so I added some milk and brought it up.”
“Thank you.” Emery managed a smile for Aiyana’s kindness—but then her lip began to tremble.
Aiyana took the bowl back and set it aside before drawing Emery into her arms. “It’s going to be okay.”
The scent of her flowery perfume filled Emery’s nostrils as she rested her head on the smaller woman’s shoulder. Aiyana was only about five feet tall but she had the biggest heart of anyone Emery had ever met, and the solidness of her embrace felt so convincing and nurturing that Emery was loath to let her go.
“You don’t have to worry about Dallas staying here the next few weeks,” Aiyana said when she pulled back. “He won’t bother you.”
“I don’t want to get in anyone’s way…”
“You’re not in anyone’s way. There are eight bedrooms in this house. And Dallas doesn’t mind that you’re here. As a matter of fact, if I know my son, he’ll end up being your best friend and your fiercest protector.”
She sniffed, still trying to hold back tears—now caused by the sympathy she was receiving instead of her former mortification.
She thanked Aiyana, and Aiyana said goodbye before heading down the stairs.
When Emery closed the door, she took her cereal and crawled into bed. She’d known as soon as she’d felt Aiyana’s arms go around her that she wouldn’t pack up and leave. Maybe this wasn’t her home, but she felt welcome here. If she stayed, she wouldn’t have to face the outside world, wouldn’t have to pick sides in her parents’ divorce and wouldn’t have to witness the decline of her ailing grandmother—not until she felt stronger.
And right now, having the chance to get back on her feet in what felt like a safe environment mattered more than anything else.
* * *
It was late when Dallas returned from hanging out with his two older brothers at the Blue Suede Shoe, a popular bar they often visited to play pool or darts whenever he was in town. Elijah and Gavin were both married with children, but Eli, the oldest, helped run New Horizons and lived on campus not far from Aiyana. Dallas rode with him, returning to Eli’s house to watch a recorded Lakers game after they left the bar. By the time that was over, it was almost two, so Dallas walked home rather than having Eli drive him.
All the lights were off, so after he let himself in the back door, he was surprised to hear the soft drone of the television. Aiyana rarely stayed up late; she got up too early. And his younger brothers wouldn’t be watching TV in the middle of the night. Bentley had school in the morning; Liam had work.
As he neared the family room, the floor creaked under his weight, causing the small figure on the couch to sit up and take notice.
He could tell he’d surprised Emery Bliss just as he had when he first came upon her in the kitchen this morning. Only now if she didn’t have any pants on, he couldn’t tell; she was covered by a blanket.
“Hello.” She lifted the remote as though she felt she should turn off the TV and scurry back to her bedroom.
“Go ahead and finish watching your show,” he said before she could hit the Power button. “This is a big house. The TV’s not going to bother anybody.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
Standing about ten feet away from her, he shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans. She was watching an episode of Dateline.
“What’s this one about?” he asked.
“A young mother has been kidnapped.”
“Her house in Iowa. Right in the middle of the day.”
Dallas was far more interested in learning if Emery had been able to determine whether Ethan Grimes had been rehired by the television station from which they’d both been fired than getting involved in the crime drama unfolding on TV. He’d thought about her and her situation all day. But he guessed Emery wouldn’t be excited to discuss it with him. For one, she barely knew him. For another, it had to be more awkward for her to talk to a man, especially one she barely knew, about the sex video her ex-boyfriend had posted than it would be a woman.
Still, he came around the couch and sat at the opposite end. He’d been so infatuated with Emery ten years ago that he couldn’t help wondering what she was like now.
She didn’t speak, though, and he didn’t interrupt, in case she was as invested in the show as it seemed.
When Dateline ended and she navigated to Hulu to put on another episode, he got up and told her good-night. His mother was right—what Emery was going through was none of his business. He needed to leave her alone and give her the space to work out her own problems.
“Aiyana tells me you’re a rock climber.”
Surprised that she would initiate a conversation when he’d just given up on the idea, he turned to face her. “I like to climb, yes.”
“She said you often free solo.”
Most people didn’t agree with climbing without ropes. They considered it too reckless, too foolhardy. He couldn’t tell whether she was one of those who would judge him, label him an adrenaline junkie or whatever, but he couldn’t help feeling slightly defensive. “Occasionally. But only when I know the climb well, have done it many times with ropes and feel certain I can make it.”
“What happens if you encounter something unexpected, some water or slime on a narrow ledge that makes it too slippery to grip—or a rattlesnake that slithers out of a crack in the rock?”
“Surprises like that generally don’t end well,” he admitted. “Encountering a rattlesnake while hiking could end as badly, though.”
She studied him. “Do you know the guy who climbed El Capitan free solo?”
“Alex Honnold? I’ve met him. Why? Do you know him?”
“I interviewed him on my show in 2018, right after the documentary came out. Since you probably climb in Yosemite, too, I figured you might’ve run into him.”
“I’ve encountered him in the valley a time or two.”
She adjusted the blanket she’d been using. She had on the same faded Van Halen T-shirt he’d seen earlier, but he could tell that she was now wearing a bra. And when she shifted, causing the blanket to fall back, he noticed she was also wearing a pair of pink yoga pants. “How’d you get involved in rock climbing?”
“Unlike Alex, I didn’t have the opportunity to start as a kid. I didn’t get into it until I was in high school. I began bouldering at Enlightenment Ridge, which isn’t too far from here.” Climbing had provided an outlet. It was the only thing that quieted his mind and barred unwelcome thoughts from intruding.
“Do you have a sponsor?”
He leaned up against the wall. “I didn’t until recently. I got one just a few months ago, as a matter of fact.”
“Some climbers don’t like the idea of getting paid for climbing,” she said.
“Those are the ones who can’t get a sponsor,” he responded drily, but she didn’t give up that easily.
“They claim the money incentivizes guys to climb too fast and take bigger and bigger risks—to be the first to scale a particular rock face in a certain amount of time or whatever, which can be dangerous. They also say that the social media and other attention that goes along with climbing professionally is a problem, because it’s so distracting.”
“It’s a dangerous sport. I’m not going to stand here and argue that it isn’t. But I’d rather be making money doing what I love to do. That’s the only way I can do more of it.”
She raked her long hair back with her fingers and twisted it on top of her head. She still wasn’t wearing makeup, but she didn’t need any. She was as pretty as ever—just as pretty as she’d been at eighteen. She’d make the perfect news anchor or television host. She had a wide mouth with straight teeth that gleamed when she smiled.
He remembered being absolutely captivated by that smile, too nervous to even talk right when she deigned to speak to him.
“How old were you when you came to New Horizons?” she asked.
She let her hair drop. “Were you born in California?”
He nearly laughed. He’d been afraid to ask her anything that might make her uncomfortable, and yet she was veering awfully close to the one subject he didn’t like to discuss—his past. “I was,” he said simply.
“Do you mind if I ask what happened to your birth parents?”
“Sorry,” she said. “It’s the interviewer in me, I guess. I start in right away, but…is that a no?”
“Why don’t we trade?” He flashed her a grin. “I ask you something I’d like to know about you, and then you can ask me something you’d like to know about me. Maybe it won’t be comfortable for either one of us, but at least it’ll be fair.”
She eyed him dubiously. “That’s okay. The last thing I want to do is discuss what I’m going through.”
“Understood. But I’ll let the offer stand. Let me know if you change your mind.”
He breathed a sigh of relief as he headed downstairs to the bedroom that had been his when he lived with Aiyana. He was fine with leaving things as they were between him and Emery. Satisfying his curiosity where she was concerned wasn’t worth digging through the wreckage of his childhood, especially because they’d go their separate ways soon enough. What was the point?
There was no point, no reason to even think about his childhood tonight.
But after he brushed his teeth and stripped off his clothes, he pulled out the letter he’d received and stared down at his name, written in pencil.
Somehow, his father had tracked him down. He’d found this letter in his post office box when he went by to clear it out before coming to Silver Springs. He hadn’t opened it, though.
He wasn’t sure he ever would.
Tuesday, December 8
When Emery’s alarm went off early the next morning, she fumbled around on the nightstand until she could find her phone and silence it. Ever since she’d arrived in Silver Springs, all she’d done was sleep. It was going on a week now, and yet she still didn’t have any energy. After pushing so hard for so long—to get her degree in Communications and Media Studies at Cal State LA; to graduate at the top of her class; to launch her career in television; to eat healthy so that she felt good and looked good, something that was important for an anchor; and to make it to yoga every afternoon, all while trying to maintain a relationship with Ethan on the sly—she’d nearly run herself into the ground.
Of course, some of what she preferred to categorize as exhaustion had to be depression. So many things had gone wrong at once, and not only little things. Her parents were breaking up. While divorce was pretty commonplace, it was still extremely painful, and this one had come as such a surprise. When she was living at home, they’d seemed perfectly happy together. What had changed? Her mother couldn’t explain the cause of the split—she said she didn’t know what went wrong, that her father hadn’t complained until he ended it all—and her father refused to explain what had led to his dissatisfaction, except to say that he wasn’t fulfilled.
And what was going on with Grandma Adele?
Emery winced every time she remembered her last visit to Boston. When she’d first walked into the room, her grandmother had said, “And who’s this beautiful young woman?”
Add to that the indignity of what Ethan had done and the loss of her job, and it was just too much.
How could he have recorded her? He must’ve set up a camera in his room, one he didn’t tell her about, and now her most private moments were being devoured, judged, ridiculed and shared by total strangers. She couldn’t stand the humiliation or the betrayal, not only by Ethan but by Heidi. Although she and her producer had never been the best of friends, she’d believed they respected each other on a professional basis. She’d never dreamed Heidi would allow Ethan to destroy her career—especially after he’d already destroyed her on such a personal level by posting that video.
Leslie Simone, a friend of hers and part of the camera crew at the station, had texted her to say she’d heard upper management talking about the situation. Losing both anchors at once had caused their ratings to drop. They needed to stop the bleeding, said that viewers were “attached” to the people they’d been seeing every day for so long. Leslie had gotten the impression they were going to take a step back from what they’d done.
Except…she hadn’t received a call. They hadn’t changed their minds about her.
It would be the ultimate irony if Ethan got to go on with his life as if nothing had happened. Of course it would be the man who was quickly forgiven, even though he was the one who’d pursued her despite the agreement they’d both signed when they were hired. He was also the one who’d insisted it didn’t matter what they did as long as it didn’t affect their work. And he was the one who’d become unbearably controlling, and jealous of anyone who had any contact with her—even her girlfriends. That was why she’d broken it off with him.
Was he heading over to the station right now?
A burst of anger gave her the power to kick off the covers and climb out of bed. It had been only three hours since she’d stopped watching episode after episode of Dateline and gone to bed. But she couldn’t miss KQLA’s morning show. She was dying to see if the station had hired a permanent replacement for her, or if they were still using that amateur Cindy Plank, who’d been after her job for years, as a temporary substitute.
More than that, she wanted to see if Ethan had been given his job back and was there, sitting next to Cindy.
Her hands curled into fists and her muscles tensed. She wasn’t sure what she’d do if she saw him on the screen. She was afraid she’d head to Los Angeles and drive her car into the side of the building that housed the station. The possibility made her that furious; she’d never felt such intense emotion.
Taking only enough time to pull on her yoga pants, which she’d peeled off before falling into bed, she hurried down the stairs.
As soon as she turned on the TV, she lowered the volume to where she could barely hear it; she didn’t want to wake anyone before they had to get up.
Ethan had better not be there…
They’d both broken the rules by dating, and they’d both been in the video that had caused such an uproar among their viewers. The more religious viewers had written in to complain about her poor character. The less religious viewers had made joke after joke at her expense.
Both reactions had been equally painful.
Her heart thumped in a crazy cadence, almost making her light-headed as she waited for the news to start. Was he in the studio, putting on his mic?
Calm down. He’s not there. The station would never hire him back. If they were going to change their minds, they’d hire me. I was better at the job than he was.
That was what she told herself until the news came on, anyway.
But then, there he was.
“You motherfucker!” she yelled.
“Is everything okay, dear?”
The first blast of the TV, before she’d turned it down, must’ve awakened Aiyana. Or Emery’s alarm going off in her room had been louder than she’d thought. The older woman was standing behind the couch in her nightgown and robe, but Emery hadn’t heard her coming. She’d been too highly focused, too engrossed in the questions swimming around in her mind and her own torment at the possible answers to those questions.
“He’s back!” She pointed at the screen. “He’s sitting right there, reading the news as if nothing ever happened. After what he did to me. He…he can’t get away with it. He’s destroyed my life. My dignity. My…my sense of worth and decency!”
Before she knew it, she wasn’t just telling Aiyana these things, she was screaming them, and yelling about what a bastard Ethan was and she couldn’t believe Heidi would let him get away with ruining her life.
A little voice in her head told her she needed to calm down. She never acted this way. It wasn’t right to do this to Aiyana, who’d been kind enough to take her in.
But once she let go of the monster inside her, there was no way to cage it again. She got so upset that she was afraid she might start throwing things or punching the wall, so she pivoted abruptly to leave the room—and knocked into a lamp.
It crashed to the floor, pelting her legs with glass, but she could scarcely feel it. Mortified that she’d been so thoughtless and clumsy, she dropped to her knees and grabbed a fistful of glass with the intention of cleaning it up so that no one would get hurt—and ended up cutting her hand.
“Don’t!” As Aiyana started toward her, Emery stood to search for the closest trash can. God, look what she’d done! The mess on the floor mirrored the mess of her life. Everything she’d suffered was coming to a head in that moment, tearing her apart, ruining all her hopes and dreams as well as tarnishing everything she’d accomplished in the past. And there was nothing she could do about it, not without inviting even more humiliation by trying to pursue justice.
She didn’t hear Dallas come up the stairs behind her, so she didn’t have any idea when he joined them—not until she found herself caught in his arms and held so tightly she couldn’t move.
Then all she could do was drop the glass she’d been trying to clean up, watch the blood drip off her fingers and sob.
* * *
“I’m sorry,” Emery cried. “I’ll leave now. Let me go. I’ll pay for the lamp and then I’ll be gone.”
Dallas could feel her body trembling against his. He could also see streaks of tears as he turned her around and she gulped for the breath to speak. When he’d been awakened by the screaming and cursing, he’d jumped out of bed and jammed his legs into a pair of jeans, but he hadn’t even taken the time to button them, let alone don a shirt before climbing the stairs two at a time to reach the living room.
“It’s okay.” Aiyana came around the couch to reach them. “Calm down. Everything’s going to be okay.”
“It’s not okay.” She turned her face into his chest rather than look at Aiyana. “It’s not right that I would take what’s happening out on you. You’ve been nothing but kind to me. I’ll replace the lamp.”
Aiyana stroked her hair. “I’m not worried about the lamp. I don’t care about things—I care about people. I care about you, and you’re in a safe place here with us. You can stay as long as you’d like. Maybe you needed to let out all that emotion. But with time, you’ll heal. You have to trust me on that. I’ve seen plenty of broken people put themselves back together again. Dallas is one of them.”
Emery seemed to have regained control, but Dallas still wasn’t sure whether it was safe to let her go. When he’d grabbed her, she was trying to pick up shards of glass without a care for getting cut, and he’d seen what he thought might be blood on her pink yoga pants. He didn’t want her to hurt herself any worse.
“Bring her over here, to the couch,” Aiyana told him.
“Hey, what’s going on?”
At the intrusion of another voice, Dallas glanced over to find that his two younger brothers had also reacted to the noise. They were standing on the stairs and were, like him, wearing only jeans. Their hair was sleep tousled, and Liam had the waffle imprint of his comforter on his cheek.
“Nothing. We’ve got it,” Aiyana said. “You can go back to bed. You have another hour or so before you have to get up for school.”
“Is Emery okay?” Bentley sounded concerned. At the same time, Liam said, “What happened?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Aiyana responded. “Let us deal with this, okay?”
They were tired enough that they accepted her response without any resistance and shuffled back up the stairs.
Aiyana got a cloth for Emery’s bleeding hand and Dallas guided her to the couch.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled to him when he finally let go of her and helped her to sit down.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “What happened?”
Tears continued to stream down her cheeks as she gestured at the TV. “That’s him,” she said dully, holding her stinging hand to her T-shirt to staunch the blood. “That’s Ethan Grimes. They’ve given him his job back.”
Dallas studied the guy who’d been so vindictive to her. He was thin and certainly not unhandsome, with brown eyes, thick slashes of eyebrows and equally dark hair that he wore slicked back off his forehead. But as far as Dallas was concerned, he was also filled with self-importance and came off sort of…smarmy. Dallas wanted to say, “You fell in love with that asshole?” but bit his tongue.
“Here. Let me see that cut,” Aiyana said.
Emery held out her hand.
“Fortunately, it doesn’t look too deep.” Aiyana peered even closer at it. “I can’t imagine it will require stitches. For now, just hold this cloth on it until the bleeding stops and I can see it more clearly. I’m going to make some tea. That should be warm and soothing.”
“How can they do that?” she asked Dallas, referring to the station, as Aiyana went into the kitchen. “After the Me Too movement and all that lip service about correcting sexism? He signed the same agreement I did. And he’s the one who pursued me. He also caused the scandal, made it public.”
“I don’t know.” Dallas sat down beside her in case she freaked out again. He was waiting for an opportunity to check the blood on her legs, but it was too soon. He was afraid if he drew her attention to the fact that she was hurt in more than one place, she might only get worked up again. “They must know he was the one who put up that video, right?”
She shook her head. “He lied about it. Said his roommate must’ve put up a camera and posted that video online.”
“Why would his roommate do something like that?”
“Ethan claims he must’ve got off on watching us. And he said Tommy posted the video online because he was being pressured to move out, and he wasn’t happy about it.”
Dallas dipped his head to catch her eye. “Could that be true? Could it have been this Tommy person?”
“No,” she replied immediately. “Tommy would never do anything like that. He’s a nice guy. Heidi and upper management are only pretending there’s some confusion about who did what, so they have an excuse to be able to continue their relationship with Ethan.”
“Did you tell them that?”
“And what’d they say?”
“That Ethan would never post something that would embarrass him as much as it would me, but it didn’t embarrass him. He’s proud of it. And he was happy he had something with which he could totally destroy me, especially because I didn’t see it coming.”
Dallas clenched his jaw. It was hard not to confront Ethan—to make him pay for what he’d done so that he’d think twice about using revenge porn to hurt any other woman. But Dallas knew getting into a physical altercation with Ethan would be stupid. Ethan deserved an ass whipping, but giving him one wouldn’t solve anything. The video would still be out there, available for those who were looking for it. Dallas would just get himself into trouble, and he’d promised Aiyana—long ago—that he would avoid that sort of thing. “So are you going to proceed with the wrongful firing case?”
She stared at the screen for several seconds, watching Ethan talk about a contest for gingerbread houses and a local Christmas tree event.
She blinked. “I can’t face having this negativity in my life as long as it will take to sue the station. And I don’t want any more publicity, nothing that will remind people of that video and make them go look for it.”
“I understand,” he said. “But you can’t let them get away with what they’ve done.”
She dropped her head in her uninjured hand and began to knead her forehead.
After a few minutes, Aiyana came back into the room carrying a cup filled with hot tea. “Here you go. Try this,” she said to Emery. “Chamomile will help ease the anxiety.”
Emery managed a weak smile for her kindness but because of her hurt hand, Dallas took the cup and saucer and held it while Aiyana sat on the other side of her.
“They’re betting you won’t sue,” Aiyana said. “Or they wouldn’t have risked hiring him back.”
“They know I can’t, not without causing more damage to myself. And if I don’t win, it’ll all be for nothing.”
“All adults have sex,” Dallas said. “Or most of them, anyway. It’s a perfectly natural, normal part of life. So who cares if there’s a video of you on the internet? Other than trusting the wrong person, you didn’t do anything different than everyone else.”
“I wish I could be that cavalier, but even my family, relatives can see that video!”
“Only if they go looking for it. And if your family is watching it, there’s something wrong with them, not you.”
She surprised him by laughing, and he laughed with her.
“Look, maybe from the station’s perspective you shouldn’t have gotten involved with your coanchor,” he went on, “but office romances are so common I can’t believe employers still require their employees to sign such an agreement. Your relationship with Ethan wouldn’t have affected your work if he’d been cool. So why not flip off this douchebag and sue the station despite all the reasons they think you won’t? Remove his power to hurt you by refusing to care? Let them know that they’ve underestimated you?”
“I’ll think about it,” she said with a sigh.
“Okay. I’d like to see you do it, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” he said with a grin. “Now why don’t you go change into a pair of shorts so that Aiyana can see if there’s any glass in your legs.”
She looked surprised when she saw the blood staining her yoga pants.
“We’ll get this taken care of,” Aiyana said gently, obviously eager not to let it undo all the progress they’d made.
“Okay,” she said with a sniff, and went upstairs.
“You’re so good with people,” Aiyana murmured when she was gone.
He took a sip of the tea he was still holding. “I learned from the best.”
* * *
Emery could’ve taken care of the cut on her hand and the ones on her legs. They weren’t that bad. But Aiyana insisted on checking them with a magnifying glass and removing the few slivers she found with a pair of tweezers. Once she was satisfied that she’d gotten everything, and that none of the cuts were very deep or threatening, she applied some antiseptic and covered each one with a Band-Aid.
“I’m so sorry about what I did to your lamp,” Emery said as she sat on the countertop. “I’m going to replace it. I want you to know that.”
“Don’t worry about it. Now that we’re getting married, Cal will be bringing over some of his stuff. I’m sure he has a lamp.”
“No, that’s not fair. I’ll buy you a new one.”
“Please don’t. Between the two of us, we have more than enough household items as it is. I promise.”
Someone knocked on the door. “Hey, I’ve got to shower if I’m going to make it to school on time.”
The voice had to belong to Bentley. He was the only one who had to leave for school. They were in Liam and Bentley’s bathroom, where the Band-Aids and antiseptic had been stored.
Aiyana applied the last Band-Aid, and Emery slid off the vanity.
“We’re done in here,” Aiyana said as she opened the door.
Bentley did a double take when he saw Emery’s legs. “Damn!”
“Language,” Aiyana warned.
“Right.” He looked back at Emery. “You okay?”
“It looks a lot worse than it is. I’m fine—better than the lamp I broke,” she said with some chagrin.
A shy smile lit his face, his smooth dark skin contrasting nicely with his large white teeth. “At least I’m not the one to break something this time.”
Aiyana swatted his arm, but Emery could tell she wasn’t seriously angry. “What you did wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been playing ball in the house.”
He pretended to throw a pass to some imaginary receiver. “Hey, I’m a football player. That’s what I do.”
“You’re a running back, not a quarterback, and you had no business throwing that ball in the house,” Aiyana insisted with a begrudging smile. “He’s hoping to get a football scholarship,” she explained as an aside. “We’re pretty darn proud of him. But he’s not going to let his studies suffer, right?” She winked at him. “You’re going to use your brain, too, so that you’ll have a fallback in case the worst happens and you don’t make it into the pros—or, heaven forbid—you get injured.”
“Aw, man, listen to you,” he said. “Don’t jinx me like that, Ma!”
They squeezed past him on the way out. “You need to be prepared for anything,” Aiyana advised.
As Bentley closed the door, Emery couldn’t help glancing down the stairs to see if Dallas was still up, but all seemed quiet.
“So are you okay?” Aiyana asked before they parted in the hallway.
Emery knew Aiyana had to get ready for work. She spent long days at the school. “I’m fine. Again, I’m sorry—”
Aiyana waved her words away. “Please, stop apologizing. It’s nothing. Really. But I do hope you’ll think about what Dallas had to say. Being nice is wonderful, but allowing someone to push you around isn’t. Sometimes when people step over the line, you have to let them know you won’t put up with it.”
Emery was slightly surprised to hear this coming from the nicest person she’d ever met. “I agree.”
Aiyana was walking away from her, but at this, she turned back. “You do?”
Emery drew a deep breath. She felt so fragile. But Dallas’s words had imbued her with the desire to stand up for herself, to fight back, regardless of what it might cost. “I’m going to call the attorney I’ve been talking to and tell him to go ahead and file suit.”
Aiyana smiled in apparent satisfaction. “Good. They’ll learn that they can’t treat people the way they treated you.”
Although Emery nodded decisively, she knew winning wasn’t automatic. She’d have a battle on her hands, one that came with no guarantees.
She paced in her room, trying to work up the nerve, until eight o’clock, when her attorney would be more likely to arrive at his office.
Then she made the call. She managed to reach him, but after it was over, she felt like throwing up.