Chapter 14: Jessica Peterson
|“You both have some serious explaining to do,” I say heatedly, my anger aimed temporarily at Garret. “Starting with you. How do you know Christian?” |
Wiping a little sweat from his brow, Garret speaks with uneven breaths. “We met this morning in the lobby. He approached me, flashed me his badge and then strongly suggested we talk in the cafe.”
“And then what?” I press, my heart racing in distress.
“I asked him for a favor,” Christian butts in.
“You don’t get to speak yet,” I snap, fighting the urge to hang up on him. “Not after being an intrusive ass. Do you have any idea how pissed off I am right now?”
“I could make an educated guess,” he murmurs openly.
I ignore him and rest my backside on the edge of Bryce’s desk. “Keep talking Garret. What happened next?”
With a hard swallow, Garret spreads his feet, balancing out his tense frame. “After we sat down, Christian introduced himself and asked me about my brothers legal troubles, while also petitioning for my opinion on the matter. I told him what I know to be true. Which is nothing by the way. He then suggested it would be in my best interest to cooperate with him if I wanted to avoid any potential charges. An accessory to a felony crime, I believe is how he worded it.”
My stomach churns in dismay, to the point of nausea. “So he basically threatened you,” I say, flabbergasted.
Garret juts his jaw to the side in reply.
“Can I speak now?” Christian asks, careful to keep his tone neutral.
“How could you willingly intimidate my friend and coworker like that?” I say, unable to hide my fury. “You had no right to do that. There’s no reason to justify what you did.”
“You’re right,” he says unexpectedly. “You’re absolutely right. I screwed up. The minute I approached Garret, I overstepped. I’ve been feeling sick with regret all day. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
“What do you mean you’re sorry?” I force out, my voice thick with emotion.
“I made an error in judgment, and I’m sorry.” He reiterates.
Struggling to process his apology, I stutter my words. “But I…I need more from you, Christian. I need answers. I need an actual explanation.”
“I agree. Which is why I want you to have dinner with me Thursday night so I can thoroughly explain myself.”
Taken aback, I scoff sharply. “Are you insane? Or just delusional with a side of arrogant?”
He chuckles awkwardly. “I deserve that… But I’m serious. There’s this little Mexican restaurant across the street from your work. I want you meet me there—say around six fifteen on Thursday? I promise to explain things in detail and answer your questions.”
I’m dumbfounded by Christian’s untimely and almost hysterical invitation. “Uh—I don’t,” I mumble, unable to finish my sentence.
“You don’t what?” He asks, curious.
“I don’t want to eat with you.” My voice strains.
“Ally, I know you’re furious with me, and rightfully so. But I’m not the only one making some questionable decisions.”
“Oh really. How so?” I ask, defensive in my tone.
“You promised me you’d stay out of Bryce’s affairs, which clearly you haven’t.”
“So this was some sort of test?” I ask, sucking in a painful breath. “Forcing Garret to spy on me so you could call me out on a vague promise I made?”
“No, not a test.” His voice softens. “And I didn’t ask Garret to spy on you. I simply asked if he could inform me of any risky behavior or potential crisis. And just so you know, that went for the entire building, not just where you were concerned. He obviously got a little carried away. I plan to call him later and clear this mess up. But I promise—Garret’s off the hook, and no more meddling on my part.”
“I hope so,” I answer, analyzing his words carefully.
Feeling better, I release a deep sigh. The pace of my heart begins to slow to a normal rhythm. I believe Christian for the most part. Mostly because he’s never given me a reason to doubt him. But I do wonder how he plans to stay uninvolved in everything Bryce related.
“So will you please have dinner with me?” He asks, relentlessly.
“I’m still angry with you,” I confess, lacking conviction in my voice. “You don’t get to say sorry and pretend like everything is fine.”
“I know. Let me make it up to you.”
My heartbeat quickens at his gesture.
“How?” I ask softly.
He hesitates, answering in a soft grunt at first. “I’m not sure yet.”
“What about Tess?”
“She knows how important it is to me that we talk. It won’t be an issue.”
“OK,” I mumble.
“OK—you’ll have dinner with me?”
I bite my lip, flushed from the elation in his voice. “Yes,” I finally answer. “I’ll have dinner with you.”
“Good.” He exhales in relief. “I’ll see you Thursday.”
I click my phone off and set it face down on the desk. With unfocused eyes, I stare ahead, contemplating my decision.
“Why did I agree to have dinner with him?” I whisper to myself.
“Because he loves you,” Garrets says matter of fact.
“How do you know that?” I ask, arching my brow.
He drops a shoulder and shifts his weight. “The way he speaks, as if you’re his world, even when you’re not around. I get it. That’s some kind of love.”
Garret’s words shock, sting and soften me all at the same time.
“I don’t even know what to say that,” I admit to him. “What about his interference today? Do you think that was OK?”
“I’m not condoning his behavior, but to go to the extreme of seeking me out just to offer you some added protection. C’mon, you have to be a little flattered at least.”
“He threatened you, Garret. That’s nothing to be flattered about. I am so sorry he ever approached you.”
“I’m not,” he says firmly.
I blink, wide eyed. “What? Why?”
“Because I believe him when he said he would protect me. If Bryce really goes down for criminal activity, I don’t want my ass getting dragged with him. Your very well-built boyfriend gave me his word that if I looked out for you, he would keep that from happening.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I clarify, harsher than intended.
“Well he certainly fooled me… It’s obvious he cares a great deal for you.”
I sigh with regret, brushing aside my guilt and shame. “I know. It’s complicated.” Uncomfortable with the subject, I tighten my brow and dig for the answers I need. “Be straight with me Garret. What do you really know about your brother?”
His lips press together in hard concentration. “I really don’t know much about my brothers financial affairs. I try to stay out of it. But I do know that he has struggled financially in the past. About a year ago, he had to borrow some money. I remember how distraught he was about the whole thing. That bottle of bourbon he keeps hidden in his desk—it had a much more visible home back then.” He squints his eyes, adverting them to the ground. “To be honest, Bryce hasn’t really been the same since the loan.”
“How much did he have to borrow?” I ask, tapping my fingers on the desk.
“I’m not sure, but I know it was a lot. He had trouble getting a bank to approve the loan amount he needed.”
“Did you mention any of this to Christian?”
“No, but the FBI would have access to Bryce’s financial statements. And since he has connections with them, I imagine he already knows.”
The intel Christian shared surprises me. It gives the perception that he really believes in Garret’s innocence. My mouth twitches at the thought. At least we’re on the same page.
Garret catches my fleeting glance to the stack of boxes. “It’s better if we don’t know anything,” he says, an anxious look gripping his face.
“So you’ve never even looked?” I ask, glancing to the corner briefly.
“Never,” he replies in haste. With his gaze fixed on me, his voice shameful, he adds, “You were right. I am afraid. Sometimes I lie awake just thinking about what might be hidden in one of those boxes. I know it’s lame” —his breath catches— “but fear keeps me from checking.”
“It’s OK,” I tell him. “Fear isn’t always a bad thing. It’s kept you safe thus far. And you don’t have to worry. I’m not going to risk the protection Christian promised you.”
A sheet of relief falls upon him, blowing a well-deserved sigh from his lungs.
“But we should really go before I change my mind,” I say half joking, striding towards the door.
He chuckles nervously in response, following closely behind.
I exit Bryce’s office and idle in the hallway, uncertain of where I should go next. I can’t assume Garret wants my help anymore. Not after the day he had. Not after the fear Christian and I placed upon his sensitive spirit.
Surprising me, Garret calls out, “Hey, do you want to help me with something?”
“I’d love to,” I answer, turning to face him. “But only if you really want me there.”
“Are you kidding?” He scoffs, incredulous. “You’re my favorite sidekick. Of course I want you there.”
My heart swells with his notion, all four chambers bursting with warmth and happiness. How do I even deserve this sweet, sincere friendship?
Once we enter his office, Garret’s collects my chair and places it beside his, explaining the task at hand. “Bryce asked me to spruce up our company website and update our social media pages. So if you have an ideas, speak up. I’m open to all suggestions.”
I smile broadly, happy to be included in his project.
The next half hour, I take notice of Garret’s expertise on web design, only making a few suggestions that come to mind. His keen eye excels at designing a new layout, impressing me to the point of staring in awe.
I observe his face for a moment, catching sight of his unique expression. It’s more than just a look of intense concentration. The eyes are narrowed, deep in thought, but the mouth is very peculiar. Biting the middle of his lip, he reveals his front teeth, making himself resemble a beaver. I peer away and disguise my giggle with the clearing of my throat.
Later, Garret sighs at his computer, sweeping a hand through his blond fluffy hair. “This next part is where I could really use your help,” he says, his face long and weary. He stands to stretch and yawn. “I’ll be right back. I need coffee. You want some?”
“No. I’m good, thanks.”
As I wait for Garret to return, I scroll through the familiar web page—the one I found last week when investigating Bryce. Having already viewed the social media site in detail, I know what it needs to bring in more activity. A more personal touch.
With a few swipes, I’m able to scroll back six months like before, but something new captures my attention. I see the photo of a forest with an overlay of a quote reading: Inhale the future. Exhale the past. Underneath the photo is a comment I somehow missed. A hateful comment left by a Jessica Peterson.
“Interesting quote,” Garret says, taking a seat with his cup of coffee in hand.
“Not as interesting as the comment below it.” I point.
As he leans in to read Jessica’s foul remark, a dark shadow develops on his face. “Classy,” he says dryly. “I don’t know why this is here. It should’ve been deleted.”
I scoot my chair closer. “Click on her name.” I urge him. “Let’s see who this girl is.”
“No need.” He stares ahead, uneasily. “I know who she is.”
“Who?” I blurt out.
Reluctantly, he faces me, hardening his expression. “Bryce’s ex girlfriend.”
“Yes, and I’m sorry for misleading you. My brother and Jessica had a toxic relationship. One that didn’t end well. After they broke up, he insisted I never speak of her again. And in Bryce’s eyes, she no longer exits.”
“Why? Was she evil or something?”
“Obsessive and neurotic are the words I would use. Bryce had to file a restraining order.”
“Wow.” My mouth drops. “Now I get why you didn’t want to discuss her.”
“Yep, trust me. She’s not someone you should concern yourself with. Ever.” He looks away sharply and proceeds to delete Jessica’s comment.
“What about her abuse claims?” I ask, keeping my expression neutral. “Christian mentioned she filed a police report.”
“All fabricated for her own twisted agenda.”
“Which was what exactly?”
“To blackmail him into taking her back.”
“Unbelievable,” I mutter in disbelief. “Did you ever meet her?”
“Bryce brought her by once. She seemed normal enough.”
I shift in my seat, uneasy with my troubling thoughts. All I can think about is Sam, and the slightest possibility of Bryce being the one who is deceiving everyone. He’s smart, persuasive and cunning. It’s not inconceivable.
To my relief, Garret distracts me with a work inquiry. My idea of revamping the page with personal photos is well received by him.
With a gleam in his eye, he says, “hiring a professional photographer is definitely the way to go. I’ll leave it up to you to convince Bryce.”
“Gee, thanks,” I say with dim sarcasm, nudging Garret’s shoulder.
“Trust me. You’ll have better luck.”
“We’ll see.” I give a tight smile.
At exactly six o’ clock, I’m out the building in a rush, anxious to get in my car. I keep the engine idling to stay warm and clutch my phone. My only agenda is stalking Jessica’s social media feed.
My bias makes it impossible for me to keep an open mind. Especially when I need Jessica to be as crazy as Garret suggests. Fear starts to curl around my heart at the possible alternative.
The problem with social media is the illusion it portrays, only highlighting the positive sides. It doesn’t reflect reality. So even though Jessica’s page is seemingly normal, with beautiful photos, inspirational quotes and the occasional meme, I can’t expect to see any noticeable red flags.
But her beauty is real. There’s no doubt in my mind. Even without make up, Jessica is stunning. Her long blond hair parts down the middle, the highlighted layers framing her diamond shaped face. But her big emerald eyes are the most glowing thing about her.
Part of me thinks messaging her would give me the same sense of frustration as scrolling her page. Because carefully thought out words are not a true judge of someone’s character. Actions, however are.
From one of Jessica’s recent posts, I learn she works as a waitress at a diner downtown. Her place of employment is the ideal environment for gathering intelligence. I just have to decide if I’m brave enough to investigate.
A tap to my window startles me to a jump and a gasp. Bryce stands by my car, his face tilting in curiosity. As I lower the window, he descends himself to my level.
“What are you still doing here?” He asks, speaking loudly over the humming engine.
I peer to the clock in my car, surprised to see it’s already past seven.
“Oh, you know, just got busy on my phone and lost track of the time,” I answer, setting my phone in the seat next to me. “What happened with Inky? Did you find him?”
“No,” he says, working his jaw. “He jumped out of Sam’s arms as she was pumping gas. She lost him just down the street there.”
In response, my head darts over my shoulder. “Bummer. Is Sam really upset?”
“She was, but…” He playfully bobs his head. “ I found a way to cheer her up.”
“Oh yeah? How so?” I prod, gripping the stirring wheel. The proud smirk that quickly appears on his face reverses my curiosity. “You know what,” I toss out, shaking my head. “I don’t think I want to hear the answer to that.”
He chuckles softly and then remains quiet, honoring my request. That is until he brings up another topic.
“I told Sam about the hug,” he starts off serious. “She wants you to know she’s next in line.”
“You tell her I’ll be happy to, but only if she gets her butt to school tomorrow.”
Bryce stands tall, rising to the balls of his feet. “I don’t think Sam will be missing any more school. Not unless she’s sick.”
“How do you know that?” I ponder aloud.
“We had a rather promising discussion about it,” he says, far too confident.
My head tilts, suspiciously. “What does that mean?”
“I think that answer might fall under the same category as before.” He smiles suggestively. “But if you really want to know—“
“I don’t,” I cut him off, blushing. “I’m good.”
It’s my turn to change the subject. “Why are you here? I thought you weren’t coming back tonight.”
My question makes his smile drop away.
“I have to grab something from my office,” he explains, awkwardly glancing to the building..
“I see.” My voice lowers, annoyed with his vagueness. “Well, I should probably get home. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“OK.” He pats the roof of my car. “Have a good night.”
A ricochet of emotions launch at me on my drive home, each one bouncing around in my head like a pinball game. When I think about Christian, I feel conflicted. His unwelcome involvement in my work life leaves a throb in my chest. Even though he admitted he was wrong and apologized, it still bothers me he ever felt justified.
But Garret’s words stick with me. The way he expressed Christian’s love for me, sends me up like a spring. I want that type of devoted attachment. To be someone’s everything. To have that kind of passion and intensity. It’s terrifying—yes—but also hair-raising, and in the best possible way.
Then there’s Bryce. The way he listens and responds to my problems in a nonjudgmental way brings me comfort. And the way he cares for Sam bring me hope. But his alleged financial troubles and past relationship drama continues to stir doubt. I can’t relinquish the facts. I can’t relax until I have the answers I need.
At home, I enter the kitchen and spot Ben settled at one of the bar stools, a feeble smile on his lips.
“Hey,” he says softly, “You got a minute?”
I approach him with interest, taking note of the white gift bag to the side of him.
“What’s up?” I ask, keeping my voice level.
He covers his mouth for a moment, adverting his eyes to the granite counter top.
“I’m sorry about the other night.” His somber voice begins. “There was a lot going on in my head, stuff that had nothing to do with you. I freaked out when I should’ve taken a moment to think.”
“It’s OK.” I regard him remorseful. “Ben, you lost your best friend. You absolutely get a pass. And I’m sorry for not being supportive of your relationship with Natalie. If she’s helping you get through this difficult time, then she deserves my respect and gratitude.”
A soft smile touches his lips.
“Here,” he says, sliding the tissue filled bag in front of me. “I got you this for your trip.”
Smiling in anticipation, I collect the wad of white paper and set it on the counter. Then, I reach in the bag and grab hold of something soft and firm. As I pull out a gray travel neck pillow, I gaze at my brother for an explanation.
“I know it’s a short flight, but I thought you could use it on your way back. The lack of sleep, plus the mentally exhausting goodbye—“
“Thank you,” I interject, placing it on my neck. “This is perfect. I love it.”
“There’s actually one more thing in there.” He points, lowering his gaze to the bag.
My brow tightens as I reach inside and pull out a small box wrapped in clear plastic.
“Condoms?” I say, surprised. “Really, Ben?”
“After the way Ryan was all over you before he left, I’m surprised you haven’t already needed them. Just bring them with you. It will make me feel better.”
“I’m sure Ryan has plenty stashed in his nightstand or something. Besides, I’m on birth control. You don’t have to worry.”
“So you are planning to have sex?” He lifts a brow.
“Maybe,” I respond coyly.
“And after all his abstinence talks.” He smirks, shaking his head in mock disapproval.
“They clearly didn’t work on you either,” I snarl, faking a scowl.
He swivels back and forth, shooting me a cheeky grin. “Obviously.”
“Whatever.” I shake my head. “I don’t know why you’re so proud of that.”
“It’s not about pride. It’s a matter of choice. No one decides my future but me.”
“Touché,” I reply, letting him know I approve.
I’ve always secretly admired that about my brother. The way he disregards what anyone else thinks about him. The carefree attitude has always been there, but I think the need to be in control stems from losing our parents.
“He’s different with you—than he was with Emily,” Ben clarifies.
“Why do you think that is?” I ask, rubbing my brow.
“I don’t know. Maybe he’s more comfortable with you. Or maybe he finds you more attractive.”
“I hope he does,” I tell him quietly. “Here. You have to take these back. It’s too weird for me to accept them.”
Ben accepts the box of condoms and smiles. “I knew you’d be embarrassed.”
“I’m not embarrassed. I’m just weirded out that you would give them to me.”
“I know, but the thought of you being pregnant really freaked me out. I mean, can you imagine Jason’s reaction?”
“Honestly, I’d rather not.” I shudder.
“Exactly.” He lifts his chin. “Look, I’ll admit that whatever you do this weekend isn’t any of Jason’s business. Or mine. But it also doesn’t mean we don’t care or worry. It’s part of being your brother. But I really hope you have a great visit with Ryan.”
“Thanks, Bro.” I spin my phone on the counter, absentmindedly. “ Do you wanna hang out tonight? I can order us some pizza and we can just talk.”
“Uh, maybe next time.” He adverts his gaze. “I was just about to head over to Natalie’s apartment.”
Leaning forward to rest my elbows, I offer a slight nod. “You two seem pretty serious.”
“What makes you say that?” He asks, pulling his black sweatshirt over his head.
“Well, you’ve been spending a lot of time together. And based on your reaction the other night, you’re obviously sleeping together.”
“Nah. We’re not serious. Just keeping it casual. No pressure, no commitments, just unadulterated fun.”
“Are you sure she knows it’s that kind of relationship?”
He straightens his spine. “Why do you care? You don’t even like Natalie?”
“Because I’m still human… If you’re not on the same page, you could really hurt her, Ben.” I cradle my face with my hands, anticipating his response.
“You know, it is possible for two people to hang out and have casual sex without any complications.”
“I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.”
Satisfied with my answer, he grabs his keys and ambles away, “It’s not for everyone,” he admits, glancing over his shoulder.
I wonder if it’s wrong of me to envy my brothers relaxed attitude. There’s a certain appeal to having sexual intimacy without a full-on commitment. But the idea of getting attached to a person who may feel differently is crippling. I don’t think my brother understands the risks.
The truth is, Ben’s not acting like himself. Normally, he’d be all in when it’s comes to someone he cares about. With Aubrey, he loved hard. His love was unconditional until the day she gave up on him and his dream of making it as a musician.
The fact that he’s still grieving explains his casual approach with Natalie. It explains wanting a lightly-intimate relationship over a serious relationship. He’s not ready to invest all his emotion, energy, and time, and I can’t blame him. I have to hope that his heavy heart heals quickly. Because despite my own bouts of grief, I honestly don’t know how to help my brother.
As I rest my brow on folded hands, my phone dings at me on the counter. I pop up and quickly open a message from Sam:
Sorry for being MIA the last couple days.
It’s fine. Can you talk? I have so much to fill you in on.
Not a good time. My mom found out about Bryce and she called my dad.
An ache starts in my chest.
She ran into Jason today at the hospital, and after talking to him she realized I haven’t been spending the night at your house. I had to tell her the truth and she lost it.
What did she say?
That he’s too old for me. She also thinks he’s a sexual predator.
I’m so sorry Sam.
Please help me fix this. I don’t know what to do.
Did you tell Bryce yet?
Not yet. My dad just got here. I have to go.
OK. We’ll figure this out.
Pray for me.