“Aaron Steele called. He wants to bring your next meeting forward to tomorrow,” Jessica informs me over the phone an hour and a half later when I check in with her.
Alessandra, Lorelei and I arrived at the hospital to find Dad pacing the emergency room while Mum was still with the doctors. I took his pacing and concern as a sign that he was worried about Mum, however it turned out he was more worried about missing business meetings today. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it seems there’s still a part of me looking for a father who cares about his wife and family. That was what surprised me the most—that after all this time and everything we’ve been through, I’m holding onto misguided hope.
“Let Steele know that I’m out of the office until further notice. And cancel everything for today. I’ll let you know about tomorrow when I find out what we’re dealing with here.”
She’s quiet for a moment. “I think he’s ready to negotiate, Ashton. He hasn’t asked for any more information after everything I sent him yesterday.”
I know what she’s not saying. If I don’t meet with him, he may find something else to invest in and walk from the deal. I need him on this one, but more than that, I need to make sure my mother is okay.
“He can wait.”
“I’ll take care of it all.” She pauses briefly. “How’s your mother?”
“She’s still with the doctors. We don’t know much more than we did when we arrived.”
“Keep me updated, Ashton.” The sombre tone in her voice is something I don’t hear often from Jessica. It matches the mood at the hospital.
“Will do.” I end the call as Lorelei joins us in the waiting room again. She stepped out to take a call that looked anything but happy. Meeting her gaze, I say, “Is everything okay?”
Shaking her head, she says, “No. But my problems aren’t what matters today. Your mother is all that matters.”
“Talk to me, Lorelei. I can’t do anything else for Mum at this point, but I may be able to help you.” And God knows, I could use the distraction.
She sighs, and it’s like she exhales the weight of the world. Her shoulders slump at the same time, which lets me know that whatever she’s dealing with is causing her a lot of worry. “It’s the Willow Street building. I’m having problem after problem with it, and just when I think I’ve fixed everything, more issues pop up.”
I frown. “How long has this been going on? And what kinds of problems?”
“A few weeks. At the moment, I’m fighting with the insurance company about repairing the roof, and dealing with almost-daily vandalism of the building. I thought it was the work of one of my tenant’s exes, but now we’re not so sure. He’s been out of town for a couple of days, so he couldn’t have done the graffiti that she found over the weekend. On top of that, I have a florist opening in one of my shops soon, and this morning the shop had been broken into and the walls inside were graffitied. Thankfully I have a handyman who I call on to repair stuff like this, but the bill is adding up each time I have to get him in.”
“It doesn’t look good to customers either,” I suggest. I’ve come across numerous businesses that have had to close up shop due to a bad reputation from crime in the area. I’m disturbed that Lorelei has to deal with this.
“Right. I’ve heard that some customers have taken notice, and that does worry me. I need to figure out what’s going on and fix it, but I’m at my wits end with it all.”
I can hear the frustration in her voice. And it’s clear to see the tension in her body. I pull out my phone. “I’ve got a guy who can look into this for you.”
Her hand closes over mine, stopping me from making the call. With a shake of her head, she says softly, “No. Leave it, Ashton. You’ve got far more important things to worry about today.”
“This won’t take long to organise.”
Her gaze drifts to Alessandra who is sitting alone. “And in that time you could go and talk to your sister. She needs you.” I open my mouth to argue, but she silences me with a finger to my lips. “If I’m still having problems after your mum is better, I’ll let you know, and you can help me then.”
After my mum is better.
My brain fixates on that comment. After, not if. Lorelei’s mind works differently to mine. I’ve trained mine to always consider what could go wrong with any given situation. I don’t naturally gravitate towards what could go right. This morning has been no different. I’ve imagined as many scenarios as I could based around all the outcomes possible from my mother’s heart attack.
For the first time in a long time, I feel adrift. I have no control over this outcome. And that terrifies the hell out of me. My mind is scrambling to come up with options. But there aren’t any that we haven’t already put into action.
Lorelei moves closer. Her hand brushes my arm. And care laces her voice when she speaks. “Ashton, did you hear what I said?”
Before I can reply, my father cuts into our conversation. “Your mother had a lunch she was attending today for the Bright Foundation. I need to call and let them know she won’t be there. Do you know the number for the woman in charge?”
I stare at him, incredulous. My carefully contained anger at his behaviour this morning frays. He’s been on the phone with business associates since we arrived, unwilling to push his work aside for even a minute while his wife’s health hangs in the balance. “No I don’t know the phone number for a woman running a goddam charity. That’s hardly in the realm of what I do with my time.” He always—always—does his best to downplay my business success. I have no doubt that him asking me for the lunch organiser’s number is his way of putting me in my place.
His lips flatten. It’s the only sign that I’ve angered him. My father is exceptional at hiding his emotions. This skill is one of the secrets of his business success. “I wouldn’t know what you do with your time anymore, son.” His voice is low and controlled. He’s always so damn guarded.
Neither of us moves. We simply stay where we are and watch each other warily. The tension of the situation has me on edge more than I usually am around him. I’m strung so tightly I know it won’t take much for me to snap. And that isn’t something I want to do while I wait to find out my mother’s prognosis.
In the end, it’s Alessandra who moves the conversation forward. She joins us, hands Dad her phone, and says, “That’s Margaret’s number. She’s organising the lunch today.”
His gaze slices to her as he takes the phone. “Thank you, Alessandra.”
I track his steps as he leaves us and exits the waiting room. Once he’s no longer in sight, I drop my head, scrub my face and mutter, “Fuck.”
“Jesus, Ashton, can we just get through today please?”
My head snaps up, the anger I’m trying hard to control unravelling a little more. “The fuck, Aly?”
My tone is too harsh, and she responds to it. The anguish lining her face turns to anger as she lashes out. “For once I’d like our family to let shit go and just be together. Dad’s never going to change. He is who he is, so why can’t you just ignore whatever it is you think he’s saying and just answer his questions for what they are? Life would be a lot bloody easier!”
“Ignore whatever it is I think he’s saying… What the hell do you mean by that?” My fury sparks and I’m unable to hold it back any longer. Unfortunately, I’m taking it out on the wrong person. But that’s the story of Alessandra’s and my lives—we get messy in the bad blood of our family. We go to battle over the very things we both wish didn’t exist, because it’s the only way our pain can be heard when neither of our parents are interested in acknowledging it.
“You always have to twist his words and make something out of them that might not even be there. For God’s sake, all he asked for was a phone number. All you had to do was say you didn’t have it, but no, you couldn’t stop yourself from reminding him that Ashton Scott doesn’t involve himself in something so lowly as a charity lunch.”
“Fuck, you know I didn’t mean it like that. And you also know exactly what he meant by it. I’m not going to stand around and let him belittle me. Not anymore.”
She exhales loudly. “Maybe you read too much into what he said.”
“You seriously don’t believe that, do you?”
She throws her arms up. “I don’t know, Ashton! All I’m saying is, he simply asked you for a phone number. If you could have just answered that question for him, all this other tension may have been avoided.”
I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. “Christ, Aly, where is this coming from? You of all people know how our father thinks.”
Eyes wild, she doesn’t answer me straight away. Her face twists with distress and she wraps her arms tightly around her body. When she does finally speak, her voice is choked with emotion. I hear the tears she doesn’t show the world. “What if Mum doesn’t make it?” She takes a ragged breath. “I can’t live without her. Our family can’t survive without her.”
Every last bit of anger churning in me retreats, and I reach for her, pulling her close so I can quiet her fears. Not that they ever can be with Aly, but I always try.
My sister is a worrier. She clings to all her fears in ways I can’t fathom. Sometimes I think it’s easier for her to spend time worrying about everything than actually dealing with the truth.
I hold her tightly and smooth her hair. “Mum’s going to be okay, and so are we. And no matter what happens, you and I will always make it. We are our family.”
Her body is so stiff in my arms that I wonder if anything I say will help ease her concerns. She looks up at me, and I see the anxiety in her eyes and on her face. “I know we are, but I wish it wasn’t like this. I wish our family could be more,” she says softly.
“I know.” Fuck, it’s all I ever wanted, too. But my eyes are wide open now, and I don’t see that ever happening.
Approaching footsteps draw my attention, and I look up to find Dad and Malcolm walking our way. Malcolm’s gaze is firmly on his wife. The love and concern blazing from his eyes is clear for all to see. I wonder again how Aly either misses it or misreads it.
“Any news?” Dad asks.
Alessandra moves out of my embrace and moves to her husband as she answers Dad. “No, nothing yet.”
Malcolm’s arms circle her as he brushes a kiss across her lips and murmurs something I can’t quite hear. She nods before sagging against him. My sister may be well known for her cool and calm manner in business dealings, but I’m concerned that in her personal life she’s an emotional mess. At least she’s allowing Malcolm to comfort her.
Lines wrinkle Dad’s face as he frowns. Flicking his wrist, he checks his watch. “What the hell are these doctors doing? It’s been hours.”
I bite my tongue from lashing out at him and turn to Lorelei. “You want a coffee?”
She nods. “Yes, but let me get it. You wait here in case the doctor comes with some news.”
With a shake of my head, I say, “No, I need to get out of here for a bit. I may say or do something I’ll regret if I don’t.”
Understanding flashes in her eyes. “Yeah,” she murmurs. “I’ll come with you.”
I move fast to match Ashton’s pace as he strides with purpose towards the hospital cafeteria. Anyone else would assume he was on a mission to get coffee, however I know he’s on a mission to escape his father. Gregory Scott hasn’t given me many reasons to like him this morning. He doesn’t seem as interested in his wife’s health as he does in his business. I can see why Ashton struggles so much with him. And I’ve also been given a glimpse at the dynamics between Alessandra and her father. I don’t know her very well yet, but it’s obvious she’s desperate for Gregory’s approval. And from what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think that approval is easy to achieve.
Reaching for Ashton’s hand, I attempt to slow him down. “Ashton, can we walk a little slower?”
He does as I ask, but doesn’t say anything. However he grips my hand in a way that lets me know he needs me.
A few minutes later, we reach our destination, and he orders our coffees. I watch him closely, taking in the hard set of his jaw and the tense bunching of his shoulders. His father has him wound so tight.
Rubbing his back gently, I murmur, “I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
I don’t expect a reply because he’s intently watching our drinks being made and appears to be deep in thought, but he surprises me when he turns and bends to brush a kiss across my lips. “Thank you for being here with me.”
“I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
His eyes stay glued to mine while I continue to rub his back. We don’t speak, but we don’t need words. The silence we share speaks volumes, as does his body language. I’m slowly learning to read my man.
We sit at a table once our drinks are made. Before we have a chance to talk, Ashton’s phone rings and he has a short conversation with Alessandra before ending it and standing. “They’re giving Mum an angiogram and she may need stents. I’m going to head back there to talk with her doctor.”
I pass him his coffee and then follow him as he walks to the waiting room. This time I don’t ask him to slow his pace. I know how desperate he is to talk with the doctor. His mission is interrupted, though, when a blonde woman calls out his name and runs towards us just before we arrive at our destination.
“Fuck,” he mutters, coming to a stop. When she reaches us, he greets her, “Cassia.”
That name causes my stomach to knot with apprehension. Cassia is the woman he was with for years.
She moves closer to him and places her hand on his forearm. The way she touches him and then rubs his arm is intimate, and I stiffen a little.
Looking up at him with what appears to be genuine concern, she says softly, “I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. I came as fast as I could.”
I blink as I swallow hard.
She came as fast as she could? She makes it sound like he wants her here. Maybe he does. I don’t know anything about the relationship they have now. Perhaps they are still friends. I could kick myself for not knowing this, because now the knot in my stomach is tightening and making me feel stressed. Or anxious. Or jealous.
God, I’m jealous. I don’t do jealous. It’s not something I’ve ever really experienced while dating. Probably because half the time I’m trying to keep the guy I’m dating at arm’s length. But I’m feeling it right now with Ashton and Cassia. The way she’s touching him is too much for me. I want to rip her hand off his arm and tell her to back away from him. Away from my man.
Where the hell are these thoughts coming from? This is not the day for them. Not while Ashton is worried over his mother. I attempt to lock them down tight and not let them out. I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about, anyway. Ashton has made it clear how much he wants me, and he’s always been honest, so I trust him.
Without waiting for Ashton to respond, Cassia goes on. “How is she? What have the doctors told you so far?”
It’s after she asks these questions that she shifts her gaze to take me in. She inspects me with a fine toothcomb, and by the end of it, I feel like I don’t meet any of her criteria for being worthy of her attention because she doesn’t acknowledge me in any way. She simply turns her gaze back to Ashton and waits for him to answer her questions.
“We’re on our way back to speak to the doctor now,” he says, shrugging his arm away from her. His cool tone does wonders for the knot in my stomach, and I take the opportunity to stake my claim.
Sliding my arm around his waist, I say, “Hi, I’m Lorelei.”
Ashton’s arm snakes across my shoulders and he pulls me close. I take it as a signal to Cassia, and I guess she does too because she stares at his arm for a long moment before meeting my gaze again.
“Cassia,” she says, her voice icy. Looking back at Ashton, she says, “I’ll come with you.”
Ashton’s jaw clenches. “There’s no need. And besides, it’s just family.”
I secretly cheer on the inside and instantly feel like a bitch. Maybe Cassia really just wants to check on Ashton’s mother.
However, when she moves even closer to him and touches him again, I know her visit here today is all for Ashton. And when she speaks, I know every word of it is for me. “Ashton, Kendall and I are like family. You and I might not be as close as we once were, but your mother and I are closer than ever. She would want me to be here. Please let me come and wait with you for more news.”
He opens his mouth to reply, but his father joins us and says to Cassia, “Good, you’re here.”
Cassia steps away from Ashton and turns to his father. “I’m so sorry to hear about Kendall, Gregory. I was just saying to Ashton that I’ll stay with you all and help you through this awful time. You and Kendall are family to me.”
Gregory nods and indicates for Cassia to follow him. With a catty smile thrown my way, and a squeeze of Ashton’s hand, she goes with Gregory, leaving me staring after her feeling like everything just changed in the blink of an eye.
And that damn knot in my stomach has morphed into what feels like a million knots.
EPISODE FOURTEEN IS COMING SOON