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Authors: Victoria June

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BOOK: Breath Of The Heart
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Leaving? He was so adamant about it. "And you don't miss all that fun?" I asked as we reached the car.

"I did at first. I missed hanging out with the guys, and I catch up with them every now and then, but I look back on those days and can't help but think what an idiot I was. And honestly, we only had fun because we were wasted."

His trip down memory lane made me forget about my meeting with Billie, at least temporarily until we drove up in front of the building. My heartbeat picked up at the thought of going inside. My first job in the city was about to be no more.

"Get it over with," Zach said. "We'll drink beers after. Sorry, but I don't have any weed."

I laughed nervously. Geez, I could have used a beer and some weed even though I'd never smoked it. I hopped out of the truck with Zach close behind. We entered Julian's to the familiar sound of the bell. Jessica and some new girl were standing behind the counter. Jessica and I made eye contact and she smiled. At least she forgave me for the scene I'd caused.

"Want a coffee?" Zach asked, stepping into Jessica's empty line.

"No, it will only remind me of what I'm about to lose."

Jessica half-waved. "Hey, Emma," she said, her voice was a bit solemn. "How are you?"

"I'm good. I'm here to see Billie."

"I know. Keep your head up high."

"Thanks."

She looked at Zach then back to me. "I'll get her after I finish up your friend's order."

I nodded. Like she didn't know who my friend was.

Zach ordered a plain coffee and Jessica handed it to him before disappearing. "It'll be fine," he said, giving my shoulder a squeeze. "If you need me, I'll be reading Hemingway in the corner." He tilted his head to the side. "That sounds kind of literary. I sound smart for once."

He wandered off and I took in a few deep breaths. How long would this take? Did I try to defend myself? Billie came out from the stockroom with Jessica. Her face, expressionless, motioned for me to come behind the counter. I followed her into her office and she shut the door behind us. My heart was now pounding so hard I could barely hear anything else.

"How are you?" she asked.

"I'm good. And you?"

"Good. I asked you here today to talk about what happened Friday night."

"I know."

"Emma, we can't have employees assaulting patrons. You put Julian's at risk and we could have gotten into some serious trouble. Fortunately the victim decided not to pursue anything against us. I think you're a great girl, punctual, hardworking, but I can't keep you out on the floor. It would set a bad example."

"I understand," I said, my lip quivering. I wanted to bawl my face off, but that would have to wait until later.

"Jessica told me that this girl has been in here a few times harassing you. Is that true?"

I shuffled my feet. "Yes."

"Jessica also put in a good word for you, but I can't take the risk of this happening again."

"I know. For what it's worth, I'm so sorry, Billie. I don't know what came over me. I've never behaved like that before."

Billie's expression mellowed. "I thought long and hard about this, and while I can't let you work the floor, I can have you in the kitchen baking, if that's something you still want to do. It won't be the same hours, but it's the best I can do. You're the best baker around these parts."

"Really? I'd be happy to keep that part of my job." She made my day! Sure, it would be a third of the hours, but it was still a job and some kind of income. Without it I'd have to find another job fast, or ask Dad for money which meant . . .

"And when things die down a bit, we can put you back out on the floor."

"Thank you, Billie. You don't know how much this means to me."

"You're welcome. We'll set up a baking schedule. How does that sound?"

"Amazing!"

I wanted to skip out of the office, but had to keep my composure. Billie stayed behind and when I saw Jessica, she pulled me aside into the empty hallway.

"So?"

"She'll keep me on as a baker."

Jessica let out a huge sigh. "I fought for you! That little bitch deserved that punch."

"Thanks for going to bat for me."

"Before you go, what's up with Walker?"

"It's a long story, but my roommate kicked me out and Zach took me in."

Jessica's jaw fell wide open.

"It's not what you think," I said quickly. "He and I are not together. Just roommates."

"Next time you're in I want the full details. Shit, you don't know how lucky you are."

My cheeks got hot and I excused myself, telling her I'd see her soon. I walked over to Zach's table, and he was so engrossed in his paperback, he didn't even see me.

"I get to keep my job, well, sort of anyway," I said unable to hide my excitement.

He jumped at hearing my voice, then a wide smile spread across his face. "That's awesome, Em."

"It's baking only, but it's better than nothing."

"Sounds like everyone around here likes you."

We got up to leave and I waved goodbye to Jessica. She waved back and patted her heart a few times. Thankfully Zach didn't see a thing.

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Zach

"Man, what the hell has happened to you?"

"What are you talking about?"

Brett kept up his grumbling. We were going to a Wild game, both our parents had season tickets but tonight we were using my dad's.

"Since this broad moved in with you, I barely see you anymore. What's so special about her? Are you already banging her?"

"Are you for real? You know I have to hit the books this year. That's about the only thing I've been hitting lately."

"And did I mention that you're touchy all the time?"

I sighed. "Look, I'm under tons of pressure. I know you want to go party and have a good time but I can't do that anymore. Sorry if I'm boring."

Brett shrugged. "Yeah, I know. It just seems that ever since this girl came along you don't have time for me anymore."

I wanted to roll my eyes but actually felt a bit sorry for Brett. Not too long ago he and I would party four or five nights a week, now I saw him once a week and that was for workouts. Brett didn't take school quite as seriously as I did. His parents weren't as invested in his future like my parents were with mine. There'd always be a job for Brett in the family business, but Mom and Dad expected me to work for my future and not have it handed to me.

"It's not about her, you know that. When winter break comes you and I will be hanging out every night. I promise."

Brett sulked a bit. "I guess so."

The Wild won the game and we stopped for beers on the way home. We had fun once he stopped razzing me about Emma and when I got back to the apartment she was already asleep. I got into bed, pleasantly buzzed and scrolled through my texts. I had to stop giving out my number. There must have been twenty or thirty texts from the previous couple of hours and five from Genie alone.

Genie: Emma would be good for you.

That was the first one which came from out of nowhere. Fifteen minutes after that one she'd sent another.

Genie: You like her, don't you?

Not willing to give up, she sent another five minutes after the previous one.

Genie: Stop dating trash. You want a good girl, not just a girl good in bed.

Followed by this inquiry an hour ago.

Genie: Fine, ignore me, but I can tell you have the hots for her. Does she like someone else? Is that the problem? This Jake guy?

Annoyed that I hadn't responded she sent one final one.

Genie: No need to reply. I texted her myself. So if she isn't pining for this idiot Jake, what's the problem? She's a great girl, Mom and Dad would love her, she's smart, she can cook, just don't rush her into anything. Take your time. Girls like this don't come along that often. I'm assuming you're coming to Bravo's? That would be a great chance to get to know her better. We can arrange to give you guys some alone time. Do not sleep with her though.

Alone time? I lived with Emma. I had plenty of alone time with her.

Me: Stop texting me!

I loved Genie, but she could be such a nag and I couldn't stand her rambling texts. As for not replying, little did she know that I was with Brett all evening and if I dared pull out my phone he'd likely toss it in our pitcher of beer.

I put my phone on the nightstand and closed my eyes. My phone buzzed. Against my better judgment, I grabbed it.

Genie: So you DO like her.

I switched off my phone and fell asleep.

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

Emma

Genie picked out an outfit for me, something I'd normally never wear. She flung at me a simple fitted black dress that showed off more leg than I wanted it to. Yes, I'd pranced around tennis courts wearing less, but that was different. This kind of dress attracted attention I didn't want.

"You have fabulous legs. I'd kill for those legs."

"Tennis legs."

"Do you even have an ounce of fat on you?"

"But you have curves. I'd kill for those."

"Nah, you've got it all. You look great."

I was having my first girl's night at the tender age of nineteen. Genie did my makeup which was kind of neat. I sat on the edge of the bathtub, closed my eyes and let her do her magic. Normally I didn't wear much more than a bit of concealer, some blush and a tinted lip gloss, but Genie was doing the works. She moved on to my hair and did a messy updo that looked spectacular. I stared at the reflection in the mirror and didn't recognize myself.

"All the guys will go crazy when they see you."

"Do you think?" I asked, twirling in front of the mirror.

"I guarantee it."

I came out of the bedroom and Zach's eye popped open. "Wow, you look hot."

"Doesn't she," Genie said like a proud mom. "I told her we'd find a guy for her tonight."

"We didn't say that," I said, my skin tingling from the compliment.

"Zach, you still coming with us," Genie asked, grabbing our coats.

"I better come as the chaperone," he said, still staring.

Zach became our designated driver. We picked up Genie's friends Lucy and Andrea.

"I thought this was a girl's night," Lucy said climbing in. She was the last stop. "What's Zach doing here?"

"He says he's our DD."

Lucy, the bubblier of the two, pressed her pink glossed lips together and looked over at Andrea with eyebrows raised. Did Zach not normally attend? What was I missing?

"Genie says it's your first time at Bravo's," Andrea said. "The guys party pretty hard but we've got your back.

"Thanks."

"We never abandon one of our own," Lucy said with a smile.

"But we're all underage. How are we going to get in?"

All eyes fell on Genie.

"So I may have an in there. Zach and I know all the right people."

"It helps when you're dad is a long-serving senator for the great state of Minnesota," Lucy said.

"I never hear any of you complaining," Genie said, playfully punching Lucy in the arm.

The attention turned back to me. "Do you have a boyfriend?" Andrea asked.

"No. Do you?"

"Yes, he's my high school sweetheart," she said, her face beaming. "And before you ask, he totally trusts me. He knows I go out to have fun, nothing else."

"How about you, Lucy?" It was weird. I was asking questions, actually getting to know someone without it sounding awkward and forced.

"I've been dating Eric a few months. We met at a summer camp we both worked at. He goes to Western too."

"And what are you taking at Western?"

"I'm pre-med," Andrea said.

"I'm in civil engineering," Lucy threw in.

These were women I could relate to. They both had aspirations that didn't include landing the right husband or belonging to the best country club.

"This is your first year?" Andrea asked. She had amazing curly red hair that bounced all around her. She could have come out of shampoo commercial.

"Yes. I'm still not sure what I want to major in."

"You have a few more months to decide," Lucy said. "Until then, just enjoy yourself."

I was a part of something. Genie and her friends seemed to like me. By the time we got to the club, Jake, Bianca and everything else that had happened the past few months were the furthest thing from my mind.

Our first stop once inside the crowded club was the bar. The noise was so loud we had to yell at each other.

"What do you like to drink?" Genie asked.

"I don't know. I'm not much of a drinker. Surprise me."

She ordered me something fruity with a kick. It tasted pretty good.

"Pace yourself," Zach warned. "You may not notice right away, but those drinks pack a punch."

A few drinks in it was time to dance. A little liquid courage went a long way. Lucy, Genie, Andrea and I danced up a storm. Some random guy jumped in, dancing with us and asked my name.

"She's got a boyfriend," Genie said before I could answer. "So bugger off."

"He was kind of cute," I said once he'd found other girls to dance with.

"He's bad news. He's always here flirting with the cute girls. Trust me, you don't want anything to do with him."

We danced some more and when I looked around for Zach, who'd already met up with a bunch of friends and seemed to know half the crowd, he was standing near the bar where we'd left him, cradling a soda and chatting with the blonde from school. She was here? How did she know we'd be here . . . unless he'd invited her? Did he like her that much? The foo-foo drinks started bubbling up in my stomach.

"Let's get another round," Andrea suggested.

I wasn't sure I could handle another drink, but before I knew it, we were back at the bar, a few feet from Zach and the blonde, and Lucy was ordering drinks.

"Who's the girl?" I asked Genie.

She looked over at Zach and his friend. "I don't know. I've never seen her before. Zach's a chick magnet. He walks into a room and all the girls are ready to hop into bed with him."

I watched them some more. He was so fixated on her that if someone shouted fire, I'm not sure he'd notice. He leaned over and whispered in her ear. A huge smile spread across her face and she nodded.

"Drink up," Lucy said, thrusting the drink in my hand. "The night is young."

And I kept drinking. I lost count and became the drunk girl, the girl I loathed. Zach and Genie helped me to the car at the end of the night. My head was spinning and my stomach was ready to heave at any moment.

"Please don't throw up in the car," Zach said.

I nodded, too afraid that if I opened my mouth I'd hurl. We dropped Lucy and Andrea at their dorm and Genie at her place. She was going to pick her car up later.

"Zach, you can handle this?" Genie asked.

"I'll be fine."

"And don't take advantage of her," she chimed with a laugh.

By now I was lying flat out on the backseat, clutching my stomach and moaning in discomfort.

"You're a lightweight," Zach said when we got to the apartment. He opened the door and helped me to my feet.

"They tasted good."

"I warned you."

"I know."

A few seconds passed. "Who was the blonde you were talking to earlier?"

"Heather? She's in my Poly Sci class."

"You like her?"

"She's nice. Why do you ask?"

"You talk to her a lot."

"I do? I didn't notice."

"She wants to have sex with you." Oh. Had I just said that or thought it?

"Yup, you're drunk."

Crap. I'd said it. "She was undressing you with her eyes." My lips were moving before my brain had time to stop them.

"Really drunk."

"Don't you want to meet someone nice? Why do you chase after all these vacuous girls? Don't you want something meaningful?"

This coming from someone who couldn't stand straight. I stumbled along to the lobby with Zach propping me up.

"Sure I do."

"No, you don't," I slurred. "You want the Biancas, Beccas and Heathers of the world."

"No, I've never wanted the Biancas of the world."

"I'm dizzy."

"And drunk."

I leaned up against him in the elevator and when we reached the apartment, he poured me some water.

"You should probably eat something too. It will help with the hangover."

I waved him away and took only a few sips of water. "I need to go to sleep."

I staggered to my room and collapsed onto the bed. I closed my eyes and was out within seconds.

~~~~~~~

A few hours later I raced for the bathroom. I made it just in time to throw up what little was in my stomach. My throat burned from alcohol and bile. My eyes teared as I slumped to the floor. I looked down and realized I was still wearing the black dress. I must have looked a mess.

Zach appeared in the doorway, shirtless and wearing pajama bottoms. I couldn't help but stare at his chest. It was there on display, all muscular with a light sprinkling of chest hair, begging to have my hands run through it. I shook my head and let out a groan. What was wrong with me?

"You are a train wreck."

I nodded.

He pulled a face cloth from a drawer and ran some water. He handed it to me and it felt cold but refreshing against my cheek.

"Do you want me to get you something?"

"A cure for this hangover would be nice."

"How about some water? I could make scrambled eggs or something."

"No food. The thought of food makes me want to throw up again."

"I'll get the water."

He left and I closed my eyes and put the cloth completely over my face. If I hadn't changed, I hadn't washed my face either. My makeup was probably all over the place. I was worse than a train wreck.

Zach returned and sat next to me, handing me the glass of water. I took a few gulps and put it down. I leaned my head against his hard, bare shoulder. The action was involuntary and I liked it. I didn't touch people much, and I made sure my hands didn't leave my side. He smelled heavenly, a mixture of cedar wood, bergamot and sandalwood.

"I'm never doing that again."

"You were funny."

"I have never felt this crappy in my life."

"Well, tomorrow will suck too. Then you'll start feeling better."

I closed my eyes and took in the moment. It was nice despite the circumstances. "Thanks for the water."

"You're welcome."

"Thanks for everything. I'm not sure what I would have done without you."

"Pay it forward some day."

"I will."

"Should we get you back into bed? I think you could use the rest." He helped me to my feet and to my room. "Goodnight, Em. Sweet dreams."

 

 

~~~~~~~

I barely recognized the face staring back at me the next morning. Black mascara and eye shadow ringed my eyes and my hair was matted on one side. The pounding headache didn't help matters.

I took a long, hot shower letting the water pound against my skin. The night before had been one of the best of my life. The only thing that came close was finally beating Melanie Peters in a three set marathon to win my only title against her. And while the satisfaction of beating her was euphoric, this was entirely different. I had fun. I didn't want the night to end. I met two new people who liked me, who wanted to hang out with me and I owed it all to Zach and Genie.

I dragged myself out of the shower and got dressed in my most comfortable yoga pants and oversized t-shirt. Even though it was almost noon I was dying for some good old fashioned bacon and eggs.

I found the kitchen empty. I put on a pot of coffee, pulled out a medium frying pan then grabbed the eggs and bacon from the fridge. I sliced a few tomatoes and seasoned them with a bit of salt and pepper. They went onto baking sheet while the oven heated. I peeled and cubed a few potatoes and seasoned them with oregano, basil, salt, pepper and a hint of spicy paprika. I tossed them around in warmed coconut oil and threw them into the hot frying pan. They'd have to cook awhile before I tackled the bacon and eggs.

Zach appeared and pulled a chair up to the opposite side of the counter and watched me work. He had a shirt on this time.

"Coffee?" I asked.

"You bet. You look chipper this morning? No hangover?"

"Nothing some Aspirin can't fix," I said, pouring coffee in his favorite South Park mug.

"I'm starving. What are we having?"

I relayed the menu as he hopped off the chair and grabbed some plates and cutlery. I finished up our breakfast and we lunged in.

"I think I've gained ten pounds since you moved in."

I highly doubted that. "I do make healthy food," I said. "Except for this breakfast."

He chowed down on his sunny side up eggs, the way he liked them, and I thought about all he'd done for me. Without him I would have never met Genie and her friends – all friends who accepted me. But most of all I had Zach in my life. I owed him so much and other than some cooking, what did he have to gain?

That's when I felt it. A little tickle in my heart and it made me gasp. I'd only ever felt that once before . . . and look how that turned out.

Zach looked up from his plate and caught my stare. "What's up? Something on my face?"

"No," I said, darting my gaze away. Were my cheeks flushing? I grabbed my coffee cup to hide my face just in case.

He smiled, that killer smile that made every girl trip all over her feet. And then I thought of the blonde. Heather. I hated my mind sometimes, and how quickly it could take a beautiful moment and crush it into tiny jagged, tear-your-skin, pieces.

"For someone who was so wasted last night, you throw together an amazing breakfast."

"Thanks."

"Genie and her friends liked you."

A shy smile spread across my face. "Really?"

"I wouldn't tell you if it wasn't true."

"They weren't feeling sorry for me, were they? Do they know about the whole Bianca thing?"

"They don't know about it. Besides, our campus is huge. Not everyone knows Queen Bianca."

"I hope they invite me out again."

"I'm sure they will."

Yes, life was definitely on the upswing as long as I kept myself in check.

 

 

 

BOOK: Breath Of The Heart
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