My mouse cursor hovered over the button, wavering slightly as I tried to make a decision.
You deserve this. You’ve been working your ass off for months now with no break, and it doesn’t look like Gael is gonna have more work for you anytime soon. Just do it. It’ll be good for you.
Book Now! the button said, bright green and tempting. 25 other customers are looking at this deal currently. We can only hold this price for 15 minutes!
I sighed. It wasn’t like I didn’t have the money. I had more money than I knew what to do with. It wasn’t like I was prone to spending sprees or frivolous outgoings. Most nights after work I went home, maybe cooked for myself or had a cheap meal out, then watched TV. The most extravagant thing I could remember spending money on in the past two years was wine.
I’d been moping around in my office for days. It was usually what happened when I was between jobs. If I had something to keep me busy, then that was all fine. I could throw myself into work, focus all of my energies on that, and I wouldn’t even have the time or the mental capacity to focus on my own issues.
The problem came when I finished one job, and another didn’t start immediately afterward. Then I’d have time to be alone with my thoughts, and that’s when the trouble usually started.
It wouldn’t be as much of an issue if I had someone to go home to in the evenings. Someone to talk to, to share that bottle of wine, to fuck...but the less said about my love life, the better. Turns out dating could be pretty damn difficult for a neurotic workaholic with about a thousand unresolved issues.
So...a vacation. That’s what people did when they burnt out, right? I’d been looking at cruises, and had eventually picked out two weeks in the Caribbean. I’d never been before, and looking at pictures of sun-drenched beaches with golden sand and coconut trees swaying in the sea breeze seemed mightily appealing to me as I glanced out of my office window at the incessant Chicago drizzle.
So why couldn’t I just click the button? Just one click. Easy as that.
I closed my laptop with an impatient snap and spun my office chair around so that I was facing the window.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I said to myself, quietly. “Maybe Gael will find something for me to do.”
And you’ll just push all these issues down and forget about them, until you eventually explode.
That’s the Kowalski way. Never failed me yet.
A muffled conversation came from the waiting area outside my office, and my ears immediately pricked up. I couldn’t make out individual words, just the general timbre and tone of the voice.
“Where the hell do I recognize that voice from?” I muttered to myself.
It was a man’s voice, deep and rich, and it was tickling some part of my brain that I hadn’t accessed in a long time. My desk phone lit up, and I pressed the speakerphone button.
“Jake, there’s a gentleman here to see you. He says he’d like to retain your services.”
All thoughts of the vacation were immediately gone. “Thanks, Sierra. Could you send him through into my office?”
The line went dead, and I heard the tip tap of heels on the marble flooring outside followed by heavier footsteps as the two of them approached. I swept all of the papers and mess on my desk into a drawer, sat up straight, and waited for the door to open.
Sierra poked her head in first. “Mr. Weber to see you, Sir.”
That’s when it all fell into place. That voice – I stilled. It couldn’t have been anyone except for Andreas. The realization was quickly replaced by old anger, resurfacing again for the first time in ages.
But this wasn’t the time for that. I was at work, and I had to remain professional.
“Thank you, Sierra,” I said to the firm’s receptionist, voice steely. “Show him in.”
She stepped aside for my visitor to enter the room.
Brown eyes met mine as soon as he stepped through the threshold, and in that instant it was like all the intervening years had passed in an instant. Old emotions bubbled back to the surface - anger, love, lust...frustration. My heart begin to beat a little faster.
For a few seconds we just stared at each other, neither of us knowing what to say. Or rather, I had plenty to say but since all of it would lead to a fight, I choked back my jerk response.
Be professional, remember? The past is the past.
I stood and held out a hand. “Andreas,” I said, my voice sounding colder than I was aiming for. “How long has it been?” Not long enough, my tone implied.
He took my hand in his, still staring at me. “Ten years, isn’t it? I didn’t know what to expect seeing you again after all this time.”
My mouth twisted into a sort-of grimace. “I didn’t expect to see you at all. Take a seat and let’s talk.” You bastard.
He shook his head, as if trying to clear his thoughts, and sat down. I took the opportunity to size him up. He’d aged damn gracefully - still had a full head of dark, curly hair, and the dark button-up shirt he wore was tight enough to demonstrate that he’d been taking care of himself. He was in his late-30’s by now, but could easily have passed for someone ten years younger.
His eyes were bright and alert, if still wary, and it seemed as if he was taking the opportunity to size me up, too.
Still as ridiculously hot as he ever was. Shame he turned out to be such a goddamn asshole.
“First off,” I told him, “I don’t think I’m the guy you wanna be talking to. Our...history probably means that it wouldn’t make me a good fit for whatever it is you need doing. I’ll arrange an appointment with another of -”
“No,” he cut me off, leaning forward with a grave expression on his face. “It needs to be you.”
I stared at him for a few seconds, struggling to keep my anger under control.
He comes into my office after all this time, after what he did, and talks to me like that?
“Andreas,” I said through gritted teeth, “this isn’t a good idea.”
“Look, Jake,” he said quietly, leaning forward. “I know you probably hate me. I deserve that after what happened. But I’m not asking for me. It’s my daughter, Dara. She’s in danger.”
I stared at him in surprise.
I wanted to tell him to get out. I wanted to cuss at him - ten years’ of pent up anger were threatening to bubble up to the surface and overflow, but I forced myself to push it back down, back into hiding.
Picking up a pen, I flipped open a notebook and glanced up at him. “Talk. Just the important details.”
He took a deep breath, gathering his thoughts, and then he started to talk, the words tumbling out in a raw torrent.
“Around a year ago, I was called to testify against Theo Esposito. As you might’ve heard, he’s been climbing the political ladder and was considering a run for Mayor. Anyway, he was accused by multiple women of sexual assault.”
I stopped writing for a second or two, and looked up at Andreas with one eyebrow cocked, the simmering anger surging again. This was my day to be confronted with demons, it seemed. “Theo? From school?”
He nodded, and I whistled through my teeth. As if things weren’t complicated enough. “OK, carry on.”
“Theo spent a lot of time in my restaurants, and I personally saw him do some questionable shit. My waitresses also reported to me that there was unwanted touching, propositions, and straight up groping. It eventually ended up going to court, and I was called upon as a witness for the prosecution.”
He paused for a moment, looking anguished. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, meet my eye, and I wasn’t surprised. This was all touching too close to home, considering our past.
“I testified against Theo, and he ended up getting put away for five years. The conviction came down just a few weeks ago. I figured that was the end of it...but it was only the start. Some of the guys from school didn’t like the fact that I’d ‘betrayed’ our group.”
He stared down at the floor between his feet. He should have known what Theo was, all things considered. That the man was now in jail was no less than he deserved. He deserved worse.
“They went in a different direction than guys like you and me, Jake. I always knew there was some under the table stuff going on with their business dealings, but it turns out some of these guys had straight up mob ties. They didn’t like it when Theo went down - he was their ticket to the big time. With him in power, they’d have been able to act with impunity. So...I started getting threats. Just to me, at first. I even got beat up one night, after work. Ended up in hospital, broken wrist and fractured ribs.”
He paused for a moment, collecting himself, and I almost started to feel sorry for him.
“But then they started threatening Dara. She’s only fourteen, for God’s sake! Some of the shit they sent me…” His voice trailed off. “I didn’t want it to ever come to this. I hoped that once Theo was convicted, it would all blow over - but now it’s worse than ever. I need protection for my daughter, Jake. I’m worried they’ll hurt her...or worse.”
I stopped writing, and tapped the pen against the wooden desk. “Why haven’t you gone to the cops? I mean, I’m assuming you haven’t.”
His jaw clenched. “I can’t. As soon as whoever is doing this finds out I’ve talked to the cops, there’ll be hell to pay. I just need to make sure Dara is safe until I can figure out who’s behind it all, and deal with them.” He looked at me, hope and regret mingling with the anger in his eyes. “So that’s where you come in.”
I leaned back in my chair and looked at him...really looked. I tried to put aside the feelings that I evidently still held for him. The unresolved emotions that were never dealt with.
I saw a broken man...a scared man. A man who wanted to protect his family, but didn’t know how.
And he was right - I could help him.
But did I want to?
“Look ,” I eventually said. “I feel for you. Honestly, I do. But I still don’t know if I can help you.”
He shakes his head, then leans forward. “Jake. What do I need to say to convince you? I don’t know where else to turn, what else to do. It’s only a matter of time until they make good on these threats. I understand now.”
He looked away, and my hand clenched into a fist. Don’t say it—he’d better not say it.
“I understand how you felt about Mila. It’s how I feel about my daughter.”
My eyes closed. He’d said it. I struggled with the battling emotions inside me. I wanted to wrap my fingers around his neck and slowly squueze the life out of him. Now that he finally had a girl in his life he loved, he got what I’d tried to tell him all those years ago. Now he understood.
“You—” my voice was hoarse. I struggled to say something past the rage in my throat. “My sister—”
“I know I need to square things with you,” he said. “With Mila. And I know you’re a better man that I ever was, and you wouldn’t let someone hurt Dara the way your sister was hurt.”
Every word was a small blow, the sting even worse because his eyes held mine and I saw nothing by sincerity, remorse. He wasn’t trying to play me.
Andreas and I went to highschool together. We’d been friends, though our cliques hadn’t really overlapped.
He was the school’s star soccer player, the straight-A wunderkid who could do no wrong. His crowd was that crowd, every high school has one - the jocks, the rich kids, the ones with all the power.
One night, at a house party where neither of us was present, my little sister Mila was assaulted by a group of Andreas’ friends. He defended them, telling me that they never would have done something like that. But they did. I knew Mila would never lie - the event changed her, and the path of her life, forever. But Andreas never admitted that he was wrong. He never backed down from defending his buddies. And from that moment on, everything between us had changed.
I’d hated him with every fiber of my being. We’d stopped being friends, and no matter how much it hurt, I’d never wanted to see him again. His betrayal of my sister hurt more than the ending of our friendship.
But now, here he was. Sitting in front of me, begging for my help.
“What’s different now?” I eventually said, as he sat there and waited for me to speak. “What’s changed? Back at school, you never even considered that Mila was telling the truth. You defended those scum to the ends of the earth.”
He looked pained, the rawness of it radiating out through his eyes.
“Jake, if I could take all of that back, I would. If I could go back in time, I would. I swear to you. I was wrong, and I can only apologize for that. But when the case with Theo came up, I thought in some small way, it might make up for the mistakes I made back when we were younger.”
I surged out of my seat, hands slapping on the desk in front of me as I leaned forward. “No,” I growled. “That’s bullshit. You don’t get to absolve yourself of your past sins decades after the fact.” He flinched, and I twisted the knife. “What happened to my sister will never be put right, no matter how sorry you are today.”
He leaned away from me. I reigned in my emotions - getting angry wasn’t going to help anyone.
For a few long seconds, the two of us just stared at each other. Him, expectant; me, full of anger and….I didn’t even know what else. My insides felt like a boiling cauldron of conflicting emotions. In there somewhere was the fact that I’d never gotten over my feelings for him - that teenage crush never went away, and seeing him here, sitting in front of me, was making me confront that all over again.
I took a deep breath, and sat back down. “Leave it with me. I need some time. I’ll let you know in a day or two.”
He sat there in heavy silence for a moment or two, looking as if he wanted to say something more, mouth opening and then closing, before he eventually stood and nodded. Was he finally realizing how chickens come home to roost? Was he finally getting to face the consequences of screwing Mila, me, all those years ago? Satisfaction twisted my soul, no matter how petty it was. This felt like payback. No—like recompense.
“OK. That’s fair. But please...Dara is in real danger. I swear to you. We need you, Jake. I know that I have absolutely no right to ask for your help…”
His voice trailed off, and I just nodded curtly. “I’ll be in touch.”
He stood there for a second or two more, before turning and leaving. I hated that I watched him as he did, despised myself for noticing the way the swell of his ass moved as he walked.
Once he was gone I felt drained. That outburst of emotion had surprised me - normally I keep all that crap bottled up inside. But a lifetime wouldn’t be enough for all that stuff to go away.
Did I help him, or not? Could I?