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Authors: K. J. Bell

Tags: #College

Tug (4 page)

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“Sure, Daddy,” he whines, squeaking his sneakers across the floor as he leaves.

Once Brady and I have finished discussing business, he stares at me. By the look on his face, he wants to talk about Tori.

“Don’t,” I say firmly.

He ignores me. “Are you ever going to forgive …?”

I cut him off. “I’m not sure I can forgive her.”

“I was going to ask if you’re ever going to forgive yourself.”

My eyes bulge. “Why? I don’t blame myself for how things are between me and Tori.”

“Don’t you?” he asks, like the smug prick he is.

“Fuck you!” I turn away and go to the door.

As I turn the knob and open the door, he says, “I’ve been there, little brother. Hating myself so much that I shut everyone out, and fucking a different girl every night. It won’t solve anything.”

I slam the door shut and spin around. “Would you be giving me this lecture if Tori had picked me, if it was my ring on her finger? What if it was my baby? Would you give a shit then?”

He doesn’t react to my yelling, or the questions that were intended to hurt. Calmly he says, “I want what’s best for you, and I know from experience that bars and women aren’t the answer.”

“I’m not you!”

“No?” he asks, and slides a newspaper across the counter. “Sure as hell looks like it to me.”

A picture of me with the redhead on my lap graces the front page. “Oh, yeah, and this is a reliable news story.”

“The source isn’t relevant. Your behavior and how it affects the company is. People are beginning to doubt you. They look for security in a company they allow to invest their fortune. A man with a different woman every night, stumbling out of bars, isn’t reassuring to our clients.”

I bite my lip so I won’t laugh. Brady never wanted the company, he keeps it to honor his dead father. “Like you give a shit about the company.”

“Just because I chose not to be involved in the company, doesn’t mean I don’t care what happens to it.”

My jaw shifts back and forth, and I tap my fingers on the counter. I don’t want to argue. “Just lay off, okay?”

“I can’t do that.”

Pain sears through each knuckle, traveling up my wrist as I pound my fist on the counter several times. I turn to face him, my teeth clenched. “Why not?”

“Because you’re smarter than me. Because I expect more from you, and because I love you.”

His unexpected response irritates me. I’m not in the mood for warm and fuzzy. “Ah, that’s touching, bro. Excuse me while I find a tissue. Oh, wait, maybe you want to write a love note on it first.”

It was a dig at Tori and the little notes he writes her on tissues and leaves around the house. He draws in a breath and releases it slowly. I’ve finally triggered his anger. “Can you stop with the juvenile antics and take this seriously?”

“What do you want from me?”

“I want you to grow up, and if you can’t, then at least put on a good show in public.”

“Wow, that’s rich. You know who you sound like?”

His lips press flat. The room quiets for a moment, and I wait for Brady to punch me. I’m not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed when he doesn’t. “Don’t compare me to her!”

“You mean to Mom? A woman who spent most her life
putting on a good show
, painting a pretty picture in public when the reality she lived with was a fucking lie. You want me to
everything is hunky-dory. How is that any different from her?”

“You’re already pretending. I want you to yell at me, tell Tori and me to fuck off, whatever it takes to move on. As far as the business goes, I want you to act responsibly.”

“Great, I’ll use a condom. Responsible enough for you?”

He sighs loudly and rubs the back of his neck. “We’re obviously getting nowhere. I wanted to talk to you before the board meets. They have concerns.”

“The company is half mine.”

“Then I suggest you act like a CEO is expected to. It was your idea to take Gibson public, which I agree was a smart move. But now you have a board to answer to, and they’re looking to replace you.”

The hairs on my neck rise, and my skin heats up. “They can’t do that.”

“If they push hard enough, they can. I’ll talk to them, but I go on the road in a few weeks. Showing them you take your position seriously is up to you.”

Drew runs into the kitchen before we can finish our conversation. He barrels into me. I tickle him until he falls to the floor in a fit of laughter. He stands and smiles.

“You still owe me a boys-only sleepover,” he reminds me. “Can we do it tonight? Please, can we?”

I figure tonight is as good as any, since apparently I should avoid clubs or women for at least a night. “Let’s do it. If it’s okay with your parents.”

“Can I go to Uncle Tug’s? Please, can I go, please, Daddy?”

As pissed as I know Brady is, he doesn’t hesitate to agree. “I’m okay with it, but you’d better go ask your mom.”

After Drew leaves, I tell Brady that I’ll try harder to keep my personal life out of the public spotlight. I have no idea how to create this “new me” or if it’s even possible, but I have to try. I love what I do and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished at Gibson.

rew turns off the radio in the car, and I feel his eyes on me.

“Are you mad at my mom?” he asks.

My natural instinct is to resort to sarcasm and tell the kid I don’t know his mom, but I know he means Tori and not his birth mother.

“Your mom and I had a fight.”

“She loves you,” he says. His sad voice pulls on my heartstrings.

I love her, too, so much it hurts. “How do you know that?”

“I hear her and my dad talking,” he admits. “She said she loves you, and it makes her sad you’re not friends anymore.

I blow out a rush of air. “It makes me sad, too, but you shouldn’t be eavesdropping on your parents. Tell me more about school.”

He laughs, his head rolling back and forth over the seatback. “And you shouldn’t try to change the subject. She thinks you hate her. Why aren’t you friends?”

“Oh, buddy, I don’t hate your mom.” I choke out the words as my throat closes up. Why is love so messed up? “We used to be friends — best friends, even.”

“What changed?” he asks. It’s an innocent question from a child with little experience. I can’t tell him the truth. Tori and Brady would kill me.

“It’s complicated.”

“You mean, it’s none of my business, because I’m just a kid.”

Laughter bursts from my lips. “You know, you’re too smart for your own good.”

He grins and nods in agreement. “Smart enough to know a best friend should be forever.”

“Yeah, it should, but sometimes our own stupidity gets in the way.”

“Well, that’s easy to fix. Don’t be stupid.”

I reach over and rub his head. “I’m trying, buddy.”

“Well try harder.”

We park at my building and walk to get the ice cream I promised him.

Drew stops in front of the ice cream shop. He pulls my arm, but my attention is diverted by a beautiful and spunky brunette. Maria is arguing with an old man on the sidewalk. A kid about Drew’s age is at her side, crying.

I take his hand and start walking toward Maria.

“I thought we were getting ice cream?” he protests.

“We will, but I see a friend.”

As we approach the arguing pair, they are shouting at each other in Spanish. Maria keeps telling him that they didn’t forget Grandma. The man calls her a liar, insisting that Rosa came with them.

Maria’s eyes widen when she notices me. Her head turns back to the man. He grabs her by the arms and starts shaking her.

“Hey! Hey, there,” I shout, closing in on them.

“Who are you?” the old man asks angrily, his wrinkles tight around his eyes.

“I’m Maria’s friend. I called the house looking for her, and Rosa told me she was here.”

“Rosa?” His face lights up when he says her name. He lift’s his thick gray eyebrows, his upper lip covered by an overgrown moustache.

“Yes, see, Papa? She’s not with us,” Maria says, and then mouths
thank you
. She takes her grandpa’s arm. “Now, will you get in the car, please?”

“Rosa’s at home?” he asks me, looking for confirmation.

.” I nod.

Maria tucks her grandfather in the car and closes the door.

“Thank you,” she says, looking relieved.

“Who is he, Mama?” the little boy at her side asks. He smiles shyly through a mouth full of oversized teeth.

“This is my friend, Ryan.” She touches his head. “This is Javier.” Her gaze falls to Drew. “And who’s this?”

“Oh, I’d like you to meet my nephew, Andrew.” I let go of Drew’s hand. “Drew, this is Maria and Javier.”

Drew and Javier exchange shy waves and crooked smiles.

“I like your train,” Drew tells Javier, and I notice the toy in Javier’s hand.

Javier replies, “Thank you. I like trains.”

“Me, too,” Drew says. “I have some at my house. You can play with them sometime if you want.”

Javier nods and slides a little farther behind Maria’s leg.

Maria smiles. “It’s nice to meet you, Andrew, and it was good seeing you again, Ryan, but I need to get Papa home. Thank you again.”

“Sure,” I say, feeling nervous. What is it about this girl that turns me stupid the moment I get near her? She belts Javier in the back seat and before she gets in the car I ask, “Hey, when will I see you again?”

“I have your number.”

“But you won’t call me, right?”

“Probably not.” She frowns and ducks in the car. I watch it pull into traffic, feeling disappointed. There’s something intriguing about Maria that makes me want to be near her.

Drew yanks on my arm and we walk back to the ice cream shop.

“Who’s Ryan?” he asks, interrupting me from my thoughts of Maria.


“Ryan.” His eyebrows shoot up. “Maria called you Ryan.”

“Oh, we just met earlier today, and I think she was confused.” Wow, I just flat out lied to a little kid. I’m so going to hell.

“O-kay.” Drew sings the word, exaggerating his disbelief.

“You don’t believe me?”

His lips twist. “Not even a little bit.”

After ice cream and dinner, which may have been in that order, Drew and I go for a swim in the building pool. He horses around on the equipment in the gym while I workout, earning me scowls from some of the other residents. While I take a shower, he plays video games in the living room. When he takes a shower, I use the quiet opportunity to respond to messages from a few clients. We spend the rest of the night in front of the television with an action flick that I’m sure I’ll take a ton of flak for allowing him to watch. He falls asleep during the movie, and as I look down at his face, I can’t help but notice the untarnished innocence, the peace. I’d give anything to feel as content as he looks.

My mind wanders to Maria, as it has many times tonight. Why can’t I stop thinking about her? Maybe it’s because she didn’t jump at my offer to buy her a drink, or the fact that she has no idea who I am. She’s not the type who typically captures my attention, but there’s something about her, and I want to pursue her. The quest would be easier if I knew more than her first name. It’s probably best this way. I’m in trouble at work, and my focus should be on pleasing the board and keeping my job.

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