I make it to the sidewalk in front of my apartment, thinking of little else but following Lia. She is as essential to me as the air I breathe. My reasons for never opening up about Cassie with her now seem pointless. I acknowledge that the real fear all along was that my actions during the last days of my relationship with Cassie might lead Lia to believe I’m no longer a man she can trust with her heart. Having to admit to someone you love that a severe lack of judgment on your part set into motion a chain of events that would forever change lives is a terrifying prospect.
“Luc, did we get our wires crossed?” I jerk around to find my aunt walking toward me, looking confused. “I waited almost an hour for you at Lou’s before I finally gave up. Cindy told me you left the office in a hurry. Is everything okay?”
“Ah, hell.” I sag back against the building as I attempt to regroup. I’d asked my aunt earlier to meet me for coffee to discuss a treatment plan for my—problem. At the time, it had seemed like a positive step forward in my future with Lia. A future that now seems more uncertain than ever before. I’ve hurt the woman I love and I fucking hate myself for it.
I feel a hand on my arm as my aunt asks in concern, “What’s happened? Is it Lia?” She knows well that few things rattle me to the level I am right now.
Turning bleak, pain-filled eyes toward her, I say, “She left me.” Just those words are enough to cause bile to rise in my throat.
“What—why?” my aunt asks. She had been more than surprised at my relationship with Lia in the beginning, but it seems even she is stunned by this turn of events.
“Just the usual shit—keeping secrets. It appears the women in my life aren’t very fond of that particular habit of mine, no?”
My aunt gives me a look of understanding, correctly deducing that I’m talking about Cassie, or at least in part. Of course, she has no idea about Lia’s long-lost father. Motioning to the door I walked through just moments before, she says, “Let’s go back to your apartment and talk.”
My gut coils as I think of returning home knowing Lia’s not there. “I can’t. I need to go after her.”
“Do you have any idea where she’s gone?”
“She said that she was going to stay with Rose.”
“Luc, you need to get yourself together before you go charging after her. Call Rose and make sure Lia arrived safely then you and I are going to go somewhere and have that talk.”
A refusal is on the tip of my tongue, but she gives me a look that makes me feel like I’m ten years old again. As much as I want to run after Lia, maybe it would be a better idea to think of what I’m going to say first instead of making another mistake. I pull my phone from my pocket and pull up Rose’s number. She answers with, “Yes, she’s here.”
I release a sigh of relief before asking, “Is she all right?”
Rose is quiet for a moment before I hear a door shut. “She’s in the kitchen getting something to drink. I didn’t want her to hear me talking to you. What in the hell happened between you two? She hasn’t told me anything yet. Just some bullshit about needing space.”
“She was blindsided by something pretty big today. I didn’t tell her ahead of time and I should have. I’m sorry, but that’s all I can say. I’m sure she’ll tell you the specifics. I’ll be there in a few hours to talk to her, but in the meantime, could you please take care of my girl?”
She huffs in disgust when she realizes she’s not going to get any more information from me. “Well, hell. I’m always the last to know everything. I guess you need the address of my new apartment, right?” When she offers to text it to me, I accept gratefully. I’d completely forgotten that she’d moved after Lia’s attack. Neither woman could face living in the building where Lia’s stepfather had attempted to rape her. Hell, I’d gladly buy the place just to burn it down if St. Claire’s University would allow it. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t part with one of their dormitories. In a syrupy sweet voice, Rose adds, “Oh, and Lucian, my daddy just bought me a new Ruger SR9. Do you know what that is?”
“A 9mm pistol,” I answer warily. Sam is somewhat of a gun collector and Ruger is one of his favorite brands of handguns. He usually opts for a shooting range, whereas Rose seems to be more of a loose cannon with her hobby.
“That’s right,” she answers smoothly. “And if you’ve pulled a Jake on my friend, you’ll be on the receiving end of it.” Most people would laugh at that type of threat from a woman who tended to dress like a suppressed socialite in pearls and cashmere, but I knew better. The police had picked her up on several occasions recently for terrorizing her cheating ex-boyfriend. I was pretty sure by this point, she wasn’t all talk.
“That’s not it, but duly noted,” I reply quickly before ending the call. Turning to my aunt, I wave my hand to the Starbucks across the street and we walk there in silence. It wouldn’t have been my first pick for a private conversation, but at this time of the day, it’s fairly deserted. We both order a plain coffee and when they are ready, take them to a table in the far corner.
Looking mildly curious, my aunt asks, “Do I even want to know why you were discussing guns with Lia’s friend?”
Shaking my head, I say, “No. Trust me, you don’t. Suffice to say, Lia has a very protective friend.”
My aunt takes a sip of her coffee, eyeing me thoughtfully. “So, let’s start with the reason you wanted to meet this morning. I’m always happy to hear from you, but I gathered this was to be more than a social call.”
The smile on her face shows she notices me shifting sheepishly in my chair. It’s the feeling many adult children have when reminded by a parent that they don’t stay in touch enough. I love my aunt and would do anything for her, but until Lia, I’d always been more of a loner. I have friends who I consider family, but I prefer to keep them at a safe distance. People I love don’t seem to fare well. “Point taken, Fae,” I note dryly. I have no idea how to delicately state my reason for needing to see her, so I get to the point. “I’ve been using cocaine for years and I need to stop.” I brace myself for the shock and disappointment I expect to see on her face, but instead, it remains blank. There is no flicker of surprise. I find that instead of her, I’m the one at a loss for words now.
She leans forward in her chair and briefly squeezes my hand before admitting, “I know, Luc. I mean I didn’t know you were specifically using cocaine, but I knew there was something. I just hoped that at some point, you’d come to me for help.”
My eyes widen in disbelief at her calm statement. “But—how?” The first thing that comes to mind is that Sam told her. Since his nephew has been my supplier for years, I’d find it hard to believe he would have the nerve to rat me out. My aunt would likely kick his ass. That leaves only Lia and Aidan and I can’t see either of them letting her in on my secret.
She releases a breath before answering my question. “I’ve spent years working in the emergency department at one of North Carolina’s largest hospitals. Trust me when I say that I’ve seen it all. I thought at first that I just imagined something that wasn’t there. I’d notice your dilated pupils, but then when I saw you again, they were normal. Being that we would go weeks between visits, I couldn’t be certain for a long time. In the last year though, I’ve seen you more and have noticed a pattern. When Lia was in the hospital though, you seemed fine and I had hoped that having her in your life had helped you get control.” Closing her eyes briefly, she drops her head before adding, “Luc, cocaine is deadly. This is going to make me sound like a horrible authority figure, but I’d have preferred marijuana.”
Attempting to lighten my aunt’s morose mood, I joke, “So, you’re more than fine with me smoking pot? I wish you’d have clued me into that when I was in high school. It would have prevented a whole lot of sneaking around on Aidan’s and my part.”
Aunt Fae rolls her eyes. “You boys were never as smart as you thought you were. I had half of the neighborhood keeping an eye on you. You were a good kid, Luc, who grew up into a great man.”
Looking at her in amazement, I say dryly, “This is definitely one of those glass-half-full moments if you’re complimenting me after I’ve admitted to using cocaine.”
She laughs softly before turning serious. “I should have confronted you long before this. It in no way excuses me, but as you appeared to be functioning normally, I assumed it was only something you were using recreationally. After what happened to you with Cassie, I just didn’t know how to demand that you give up something that helped you make it through the day. But coke, Luc,” she chokes out. “I never thought it was that—never.”
I didn’t want to continue to let her beat herself up. I was an adult when I took my first snort, and I was eight years past that now. It wasn’t her responsibility to manage my demons for me. In the end, it had always been my decision and the euphoria over the pain had seemed worth the risk to me for so many years. Now I had Lia, who had battled and survived her life without the crutch I had needed. I would never let her use something that could potentially take her away from me, even as a form of escape, and I owed her the same. The high was no longer worth the guilt and self-loathing that came with it. “Fae, you couldn’t have stopped me. I needed it to survive for a long time, and as much as I hate to say it, I would have cut you from my life before giving it up.”
She absorbs my brutal honesty with little emotion. If I see anything, it’s a small measure of relief at my words. It would be too hard for her to accept she could have done something to help me sooner and did not. How is it that nothing rattles the woman in front of me? I so appreciate her strength, her fortitude, and unconditional support. “Does Lia know? Is that why she left?”
“She does, and no, that isn’t the reason.” The same quandary faces me that I had with Rose. With my aunt though, I feel she needs to know about Lia’s parentage and my part in keeping it from her. It seems impossible to fully convey the mess I’ve made of my relationship with Lia without being forthcoming. Rubbing a hand across my throbbing temple, I begin. “I discovered—quite by accident—the identity of Lia’s father right before her attack. When he approached me after Lia left the hospital, I made the choice not to tell her. She wasn’t in a good place emotionally and I didn’t think she could deal with any additional stress. Especially something of that magnitude.”
“I assume that he lives here if you have met with him?”
Inclining my head, I say, “He does. Her father is Lee Jacks.”
My aunt gasps, clearly stunned by my revelation. I had no doubt she would recognize the name. He is on the board of directors of the hospital she works at. “Oh my—wow,” she finally says when she has collected herself. “Did he know about Lia?” I can see the anger gathering in her eyes as she imagines someone of his stature leaving his daughter to endure all that Lia has.
“No, he says that he didn’t and I believe him. He had a brief relationship with her mother before leaving the states for a while. Apparently, they never reconnected at any point and he had no reason to believe he might have fathered a child.”
Almost idly, my aunt says, “Lee…Lia.”
Grimacing, I say, “Apparently her mother had a nasty sense of humor. I think it was her way of having the last laugh on Lee.”
“Is he the reason she suddenly developed a conscience and turned herself into the police?”
“He is, although I don’t know how he convinced her to do it.” Actually, I have good idea, but my aunt probably doesn’t need to know. Whatever his methods, he achieved a semblance of justice for Lia and I can’t bring myself to care about how he went about it.
“And her stepfather?” I know what she’s asking. Of course, there is no way she’s lived in North Carolina her whole life and never heard the rumors about Lee. If any of them were to be believed, then killing a man, especially one who hurt his daughter, would all be in a normal day for him. Did he do it? Do I care? Hell—fucking no, I don’t. The bastard is burning in hell now and I could give a shit as to what put him there. If Lee avenged his daughter by killing Jim Dawson, then he’s officially my new best friend.
“I know nothing about that,” I say truthfully. Lee is certainly not about to bring me into his confidence—nor do I want him to. All parties involved, including the police, were more than happy to close that particular case with little fanfare.
“How did Lia find out if you didn’t tell her?” my aunt asks, still looking slightly shell-shocked.
“Fate is a complete bitch. Lia went to school to take care of her registration for the coming semester. Lee had already paid her tuition and she found out. She went to his office thinking it was a mistake. Lee thought she was there because I had finally told her about him. He had already said too much before he figured out she had no idea who he was. So, he told her the rest. She left his office very upset. He called me in a panic to let me know. When I got home, she was packing.” Slumping back into my seat as my gut once again churns, I run an unsteady hand through my hair as I admit, “She told me she could no longer handle the secrets between us. She wants to know everything that happened with Cassie.”
Fae tenses at the mention of Cassie. She has been a taboo subject between us for eight years. I’ve never told anyone the full story of what happened the night she tried to kill me. No one had a clue how volatile our relationship had turned in the month leading up to that night. Cassie had been an Oscar-caliber actress to the outside world, but behind closed doors, she’d given free rein to her manic tendencies and I had been her target—her sick obsession. “I’ve tried to never push you about Cassie and I won’t now. I will say though, if you want a future with Lia, you have to tell her. You can’t move forward with her or recover from your addiction without sharing that load. You turned to cocaine as a coping mechanism. It will continue to be that for you until you deal with what pushed you in its direction to start with. That is the first step you must take. We can work on the rest after that.”
“I don’t suppose I could just text her?” I ask, only half joking.
My aunt tosses a sugar packet at me. “No, absolutely not.” To my horror, her eyes begin to water. I suppress the urge to run, thinking I can’t possibly deal with another emotional scene right now. “You really love her, don’t you? I mean, not just that, you’re in love with her.”
I consider it a small victory that I don’t flinch as I answer, “Completely and absolutely. I can’t lose her.”
Seeming much more confident than I do, she assures me, “You won’t. She might be upset right now, but she loves you as well. I’ve never been one to believe in soulmates, but if such a thing exists, you two are surely it. She brings out a side of you that I never thought I’d see.”
“A nice guy?” I quip.
“You’re ruining this moment for me,” she complains with a smile. “What I actually meant was that I see the boy in you before the man was forced into survival mode. You were always a serious one, but you had a big heart. That part of you was gone after Cassie. It took Lia to bring it back.”
“Well, let’s hope she’s happy with what she has uncovered,” I say lightly even though I feel a fresh surge of anxiety. I had managed to distract myself from my earlier panic while talking with my aunt, but it’s back now and stronger than ever.
“Everything you’ve been through is a part of who you are, Luc. We all have moments in life we’re not proud of. I don’t know what happened in your last days with Cassie—that’s none of my business. But, you need to share it with Lia so you can finally be free from carrying the burden by yourself. It’s not a sign of weakness to need someone to help and support you.” With a laugh, she adds, “And to kick your butt when you deserve it. I have a feeling that Lia can handle the job.”
I smile, thinking my aunt knows Lia very well. “No doubt about it,” I agree. We both finish our coffee, making small talk. Truthfully, I’m dragging my feet like a pussy and talking to my aunt gives me a convenient excuse to do it. Her knowing look, when I continue to stall, lets me know she’s well aware of what I’m doing but is too nice to call me on it.
“If it’s okay with you, Luc, I’m going to talk to a friend of mine who runs an alcohol treatment program. I know cocaine is different, but some of the withdrawal symptoms are similar I would imagine. Unless you plan to enter a facility to withdraw, which of course I would recommend, then we need a plan. I think Jeff would even see you on an outpatient basis.”
“I’m not doing anything inpatient,” I reply immediately. “I know it might be better if I did, but there is just too much going on right now for that. If you trust this guy, I’m willing to talk to him about treatment. I’m not naive enough to think I can do it on my own. I didn’t use anything while Lia was in the hospital, but I was about to climb the walls. Stress is a trigger for me, which, of course, is impossible to avoid.”
“I’ll talk to him today then. Call me later if you can and let me know how things go with Lia. Just remember that she’s been through a lot lately. Even if you want to order her to come back home with you immediately, you shouldn’t. If she needs time, then give it to her.”
Frowning, I shake my head. “I can’t do that, Fae. I can’t fuc—breathe without her.”
My aunt smiles at my attempt to cover my curse word. It’s not as if I don’t cuss around her, but I try to avoid the F-word. Holding a hand in the air, she asks, “Then why are we still here? I’m waiting for you to grab a paper and start reading it next. For a man on a mission, you’re rather slow-moving.”
“As long as I’m here, I still have hope that she’s coming back home with me. Soon, all bets are off.” I get to my feet, knowing I can no longer delay.
My aunt tells me that she’s going to stay and return some emails for a bit. “Good luck, Luc. Remember, just let Lia listen to you and then you do the same. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.” When I nod slowly, she gives me an encouraging smile. “Call me later.” Surprising us both, I drop a kiss onto her cheek before leaving. If my aunt’s reaction to a simple act of affection is any indication, I’ve been failing both of the women I love. Would the one woman I love more than anyone else in the world forgive my failings?