Outside, daylight had already rattled its last breath when I left the archives, and the lifeless library was under siege by Joanne’s favorite Mancunian soap opera, which blasted through her portable TV. It did so every night before campus security took over.
Confident that I could skip the end-of-day tea ritual again and go straight back to my burrow, I tiptoed out of the office, gym bag in hand; Joe was too entranced to even notice.
Alas, the moment I tried for the door, the commercials hit the screen, and she whipped her head around.
“Wait a minute, young lady.” She shuffled her noisy orthopedic clogs to the desk and pressed the boiler on. “You’re not sneaking out on me again, are you?”
“No, I was—”
“My eye.” Her lower lid sagged after the pull of her bony finger. “Come and sit. We need to have a little chat.”
Seeing that I hesitated to comply, she softly tapped the back of a chair. “It won’t be long.”
My knees trembled when I sat down. In our five years of working together, Joe’s legendary grandma-terventions had dug their way into my heart and sown an ever-growing filial tenderness. Yet, she hadn’t stitched me up in months, and this coup d’état on my emotional outage was particularly untimely and unwanted. I’d made plans to sweat my butt off. Not to talk it out.
As she hit the mute button, the boiler clicked off under the pressure of bubbling water and Joe hastened to pour us two cups of her best Oolong tea, automatically releasing a warm honeyed aroma. “Tell me everything, sweet pea.”
Her old bones creaked until she was sat, making me shake my head in empathetic pain. She’d just celebrated her seventieth birthday, and late-night work seriously started to tap into her reserves. The Dean himself wanted her retired, like most students who crossed her path on a daily basis; but she was betrothed to this place, and that was something a few people understood. Only the ones who lived for their job.
Sadly, tinkering with my teabag string appeared as a better option than unbottling my heart, which only gave Joe more determination. She had more than one trick up her loose cardigan sleeve to force a lump out of one’s mouth.
“We haven’t talked in four days. I’m starting to think that you’re engaged elsewhere to another spinster.” Laughing graciously, she quickly figured out that even humor couldn’t lift my spirits up and squeezed my hand inside hers.
“Honey, I may be old, but I’m not blind. You’ve dusted and reorganized the archives twice in two days.” A bushy brow cocked over the severe rim of her glasses, “Who are you hiding from?”
People’s wisdom always spurred the least considerate thoughts in my head, and Joanne was the last person I wanted to mentally hurt. I snapped my head towards the window.
Even though she was completely laid back on work now, these dirty, abandoned shelves had given me a good load of peace and quiet to reflect on the last two weeks, and consequently, on my whole life.
Mom used to say that the ones who cleaned their house also cleaned their head. Well, perhaps I was the exception to the rule. I’d sneezed my brains out back there, but I still felt clogged. Or maybe I’d been cleaning the wrong house.
Her warm voice brought me back to the present, and I found myself unwittingly staring at the faintly lit Black Mountain coffee shop across the park. Joe sat back down with her definition of a first-aid kit, an old silver tray with an assortment of her best medicine—one I’d had too many times in the past.
“There, there, little bug. Nothing like chewy cookies and tea to soothe an aching heart.”
I sipped on my tea. “Thank you, but—”
As though I didn’t have enough on my plate, the small bell rang on the counter.
“No need to ring that bell when you’re early, Oscar, you know that! Come and have a cup of tea!” The bell dinged alarmingly louder, eradicating all hopes that our working day was over.
Joanne asked, “Is this—”
I nodded. It wasn’t Oscar at all. As far as I could remember, I’d never seen him here in the library, and his tone emanated such anger that it was impossible to miss it. He’d come to end the gruesome tale of my academic failure.
“Let me take care of him,” Joanne offered in a murmur, causing me to dive under the desk without a second thought.
Before stepping out of the office like a lady—miraculously healed from the arthritis in her knees—Joanne opened the top two buttons of her cardigan and adjusted the hairpin that tied her grey-haired bun. The small silver rod was an engraved totem pole whose adorning orcas were sworn to protect her spirit through the travels of life. It was passed on from her mother.
“Alastair Sheridan. You better have a good reason to come disturb my peace at such an ungodly hour.”
Her seductive tone put a sharp end to the ruckus, and Sheridan’s usual rage subsided.
“Oh, Joannie, I’m sorry. I was hoping to have a word with—”
“Avery? I’ve sent her home already. Want me to pass a message?”
“Yes. She hasn’t kept me informed of her advancements. She’s producing a documentary on Aaron James’ preparations for the Olympics. I hope she’s approaching the end of it. Would you tell her to call me asap?”
“Sure will, Ally.” She giggled, then bounced her heels up to stand on her tiptoes, closer than ever to my mentor’s face—I presumed.
“Thanks, Joannie. I’ll see you…I’m, uh…” Chasing off an evident desire to go beyond the usual small talk, he cleared his throat and left in a hurry with a timid, regretful, “Bye.”
As I waited for the double doors to whoosh twice, the discovery that Professor Sheridan was capable of feeling pleasant emotions provoked an earthquake in my mind.
The fact that he pressured me into finishing my thesis didn’t upset me the least. He’d always been mean and rude anyway. Frightening his students was the reason he woke up every morning.
However, I’d always found it hard to imagine him in a relationship with an actual loving human being, despite Elena’s claims that he was seriously involved with his secretary. Except it wasn’t Lisette. It was Joannie. My Joe. Ally and Joannie. Seriously.
“It’s Aaron you’re really hiding from, isn’t it?”
Joanne helped me back up with utter concern as I scanned her face for any sign of Sheridan’s passage. She wouldn’t let me go home without a confession, and her heart beat so strong that I could feel it through the tabletop that we both leant on.
Her love for Alastair was plastered all over her flushed face, and a part of me suspected she’d asked him to stop by and shake me up enough so I would spill the beans. It didn’t really matter, though.
The last two weeks had been harsh, and some events even traumatizing. I’d only be fooling myself if I declared that I was fine with being kidnapped, with passing out in the middle of sex in an oven, with my gnawing obsession over my body and 666’s identity, with The Love Shack’s shady dealings, Isaac’s betrayal and Aaron’s heart-breaking words.
I let it all rain. The valves behind my eyes opened, and I rendered the floor with all the contradictory emotions that streamed through my rusty pipes. I knew my hormones toyed with me a week or so before my period, but I’d never lacked so much impermeability in my life. As though The Love Shack and Aaron had made me weak. This wasn’t me.
“I can’t face him, Joe,” I whispered, sobbing. “He’s been ringing me day and night for the past two days, and—”
She took me in her enveloping arms. There was an underlying message in her embrace. One that meant ‘Gear up, I understand’, like a mother’s would. Strong, but devoid of any judgment. I buried my face in the crook of her neck, which abruptly put an end to the carpet watering.
“And the only place on campus where there’s no reception is in the archives.” I let out a puff of surprise. “You’re not the only student to know that, I’m afraid. But I’m sure something there calls for meditation.”
She shifted her weight from one leg to the other, the sign that she was growing tired. What was Oscar doing?
“I want to forgive him. I do. But I’m scared that if I hear him out, I’ll just get back to square one, and I’m not sure I have it in me to keep him away this time.”
“Well, words and ignorance are a powerful tool of destruction. And focusing on your thesis is honorable. But keeping him entirely away might not be an option, you know that. You’ve heard Ally.”
Silence reigned as the images of my last night at The Love Shack played before my eyes. 666’s wild love. Aaron’s voice. Your belly’s weak. Sex is just sex. If only I could keep him entirely away.
“Oh,” Joe brought a hand to her blushing cheek before I could say anything. “You’re seeing somebody.”
The term “seeing” wasn’t quite relevant regarding The Love Shack. Nor was “somebody” exact. I couldn’t tell her about 666. She was an old-fashioned romantic; it would break her heart.
I sighed, “As weird as it sounds, I think it was easier to hate Aaron and move on thinking he was married with kids. Even the prospect of working with him was easier to swallow.”
Joe’s lips pursed, locking a laugh in.
“Aaron, married? Is he even interested in dating? With his wrestling career—”
“You’re not helping, Joe! I’m trying to move on, really hard. I’ve started this journey when I lost the weight, and—”
“And now it’s your heart you want to strengthen,” she completed again, as though she knew exactly my meaning. Aaron was my trigger. My deal breaker. I’d worked so hard to change. To lose the weight. And I didn’t want him to ruin every thing.
“I-I don’t ever want to be weak again,” I said, and lifted my hands to the ceiling before covering my face. “Does that make any sense at all?” How childish. “It’s not like I know Aaron anyway. This is ridiculous. I am ridiculo—”
She tugged a lock of hair behind my ear.
“Avery, I am biased to the bone, but help me God, I will burn my press card if that means I can speak my mind!”
“You’re scaring me,” I said.
“Good! You said you don’t know Aaron; I do. I’ve known him for a long time. Now, I’m going to skip the details, but let me ask you this: What if his apology could actually make you stronger?” Her words sounded like music to my ears.
I cursed at myself for not thinking about it earlier. I did want to be stronger and learn how to fight so I could protect myself from Conor’s ardors—as warned by Mathew—and Taara’s stalkers. My recent army bootcamp workouts wouldn’t cut it. I needed somebody with the skills to step in, and Aaron perfectly fit the position. I’d seen proof of that on Sunday.
Joe was about to plant an unfreezing kiss on my forehead when a panic fossilized her face.
“Oh, I forgot! Just a second.”
In a hurry, she limped out to the front desk, tonight’s strut taking its toll on her tiny body, and came back holding a Black Mountain reusable bag.
“Aaron stopped by a couple hours ago, asking for you. He said to keep that in the fridge until you opened it.”
I gulped, heart pounding in my throat at the news. I was torn between tossing the bag to the floor and taking it as a gift. If Aaron thought he could buy my forgiveness with Isaac’s finger-licking chocolate muffins, then he hadn’t understood my texts.
“What is it?”
Joe’s hazel eyes sparkled behind her glasses as I apprehensively opened the bag to a large coffee cup. It always amused me to witness that the most curious people in this world were the oldest ones. After all the wars and wonders she’d known in her past life as an international reporter, it was a mystery how she could still marvel at such a simple thing.
Obligingly, I uncapped the container and dipped my finger in the white rippled mousse which blanketed its bottom for a taste. It didn’t take long before she did the same. The richness and generosity of heavy cream enfolded my mouth, and the sweet, smokey flavor of vanilla beans caressed my tongue.
“It’s Aaron’s whipped cream,” I declared, sucking my finger once more.
Isaac was a pastry chef, but when it came to whipped cream, he had a heavy hand on sugar. Aaron, however, was a true barista who always found creative ways to replace sugar in his beverages and their toppings. Today’s whiplash was a drizzle of lime juice and a pinch of grated ginger.
Joe emitted a low growl of approval while gluttonously scraping off the cup’s content with an aged, corked finger. It was a chance I could salvage an electric-blue ribbon from her destructive hands. Otherwise, I would have missed the typed note that was pragmatically stapled to it. Its ink wept with the fridge’s condensation.
Apologies are best served hot at the counter before eight. After opening hours, the manager will be on the wrestling mat until midnight. After midnight, he’ll be available for the beverage of your choosing at his place. Hope to see you there—Aaron.
Joe’s sly smile spoke louder than words. It was time to woman up and lay my cards on Aaron’s table.
“You’ll never know what his intentions are if you don’t go. Besides, you already have somebody at…what is it? Oh, yes…The Love Shack.”
My heart stopped. “Joanne!”
“What? Unlike you, Elena talks to me when she stops by.”
I kissed her rosy cheek, making note that it was time I stopped sharing information with my chatty best friend, and I scurried out the door, the thin ribbon tightly intertwined between my fingers.
“Thank you, Joe. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Reading right through me, she shouted, “Love you, too, sweet pea!”
“Hi. I got your note. That whipped cream…Thank—Ugh, no!”
The heavy glass door banged behind me as I yanked on my hair. Apology. Documentary. Fighting lessons. These words anxiously repeated in my rampant mind. I took one last deep breath, but it came out chopped in short, nervous bursts of hot air, catching the boss’ attention.
“Avery,” coach Billy called from his office on my left. “What brought you here tonight?”
“Aaron asked me to come over,” I replied. “Nicely.”
Leaning against the doorframe relieved some of the recurring tension in my legs, a simple remainder of my unhealthy days. As I crossed my arms, the soft ribbon in my hand pulled tighter around my fingers.
“That plan of yours worked, then?” he asked, a small smirk stretching his wrinkled lips. The old man was all scarfed up and ready to call it a day. His keys jingled in his hand.
“I think so, Coach.”
“Congratulations. I don’t want to be rude, but I was starting to lose faith.”
“Me, too, Coach. Me, too,” I said, eyes still stuck on the note.
“When are you starting?”
“We haven’t decided yet. The sooner, the better. Actually, I should go and find him.”
Billy whisked by me, his backpack on a shoulder, and a hand clung to the side of his mouth as he whispered, “He’s downstairs, externalizing his anger. Believe me, you don’t want to be around him right now.”
The sadistic wink he fired got me stroking my shoulder for comfort. I knew it was a little late to come around, but Aaron had no reason to blame me for it.
“He spent hours cleaning his bloody mess last night.”
“Oh,” I said, somewhat relieved that I wasn’t the origin of his bad temper.
“He’s too obtuse, I’m no use,” Billy’s hand whipped the void between us. “A piece of advice? Tread lightly.”
The possibility of a heart-to-heart, adult discussion disappeared as fast as coach Billy vanished in the windy night, singing, “Don’t forget to close the back door!”
I gazed down at the thoughtful note inside my palm once again and crushed it inside my fist. I’d come here for an apology, and I wouldn’t be going home tonight without one. Ten days. Ten fucking days.
As I plodded through the staircase, the thumps of Aaron’s erratic fists grew louder than his ear-splitting rock music, and I picked up the pace at the whizzing sound of his labored breaths. It was unlike any professional athlete.
When I stepped into the spotlight, a staggering lull spread across the disinfected gym, and all that remained of his presence was a swinging punching bag in front of me. Something was wrong.
He spent hours cleaning his bloody mess, I recalled, following the acrid smell of bleach towards the men’s changing room.
Catching sight of Aaron James was always a joy ride; but as expected, the feral animal sat, half-naked and dejected on a bench under the running shower, his arrogance and pride spat down the drain. His empty eyes desperately sucked in the fiery color off the walls, and in return, the water that ricocheted off his streamlined body sprayed a sorrow through the room that even the light above him couldn’t bear to fall on. I stopped at the door, taking the time to consider what I was going to say, a rock in my stomach.
“You should be resting,” I whispered. My voice interrupted his aimless bandage unwrapping.
He blinked his foggy eyes at me, and his face cleared of all worry as I walked in.
Fuck, I did; twice, since I last saw you, I thought, screeching a chair across the tiled floor, a few feet away from him. I’d always dreamt of making a dramatic entrance. I felt dauntless, Elena-style.
“Does it hurt?” I nodded at his Rubik’s-cube-like chest.
According to the stitches in his brow and the straps around his shoulder, Aaron had taken my advice seriously and paid a visit to the nearest hospital.
“I’ll suck it up. I can’t fall out of schedule with my training. I’ve got a big match coming.”
He spat between his spread legs and bumped the shower button off. I gulped down, acknowledging that part of his aggressiveness was my fault. I hadn’t returned his calls and could only imagine the confusion he was in to see me here so late. Yet, without Joe on my side, I wouldn’t have come at all.
“Maybe I should g—”
Thirty-two flies covered the ceiling when he finally spoke the words I’d longed to hear for ten torturous days.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “For everything I’ve done or said to you. I was out of line.”
He held his intense gaze on me, making sure his meaning was fully understood. “And…Please, believe me when I say that if I could turn back time, I’d change a lot of things.”
One could tell by the hesitations and stutters in his voice that apologizing was a difficult exercise for him, and I almost felt like a bitch for forcing it out of him. The guilt in his expression made something flutter in my lower belly, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I wanted to comfort him in a much different, wordless way.
“But I can’t apologize for being me. I don’t let people in. I don’t even look at them on the street. I don’t trust easily, and I react badly to teasing. That’s just part of me, and it’s okay if you don’t like me. We don’t have to be friends.”
“If you’re willing to forgive me, though, I can give you my word that I’ll do everything in my power to make it work in the short time we have left. A clean slate. You won’t regret it.”
“I don’t want to stand in the way of your thesis, your graduation, or your career.” He smiled, “The Olympics are keeping me busy enough.”
He paused to catch the slightest sign of a reaction on my face and started rubbing his hands on his thighs when he didn’t. I was becoming really good at acting. Lee would be proud.
“So, what do you say?”
Taking a deep breath, he raked his fingers through his unruly damp sandy hair, congratulating himself for passing the most difficult exam of his life. This was something I would have never imagined about him. He had a vulnerable, human side. But then his leg started to shake.
“Please, say something, Vee.”
There was no decision to make. I’d forgiven him already, andI was glad I had, because he and I seemed to be on the same page about working together. Perhaps I’d get to move on, after all, with his blessing and support.
Slowly, I nodded my head in agreement and bent over my spread knees, mirroring his annoying subway sitting position. As my lips parted to speak, the same hunting glow he’d worn back in his office invaded his eyes. It had an unsmotherable flame around his dark irises. His unpredictability resurfaced, and that scared me.
“Only if you teach me how to wrestle-fight,” I said, looking directly at him. I lost him for a second, while he checked his personal dictionary, and raised his eyebrows in amusement. “Wrestle-fight, is it? What for?”
“Clean slate. Keep your nose out of my business.”
I had no idea what I’d been thinking going all though-girl on him and regretted it the second he bounced forward, his thumb brushing my cheek as his glistening, moist lips pressed against my ear. Friends. Friends. Friends.
“Then show me what you got,” he whispered.
The clatter of his tongue inside his mouth sent shivers down my neck, and my pussy growled in hunger, salivating at the thought of his cock inside me.
He inspected me thoroughly, scouring every inch and every pore for proof of something I was guilty of. In that moment, hell, I wanted to plead guilty to falsifying dreams and let him have me.
“You’re not doing this for the sport, otherwise you’d just sign up at the club. It’s self-defence you’re seeking.”
His eyes trailed down to my collarbones, the shells under my workout top, and my legs. “No woman in her right mind would attack you,” he started, and forced my legs apart with both hands. “You’re too intimidating for them. Tall…and strong, too.”
I crossed my legs tight, trying to contain the growing desire between my thighs. Did he really mean those things about me—He grabbed my chair from underneath my seat and yanked it toward him. Shit.
“My bet, it’s a strong man you’re trying to protect yourself from.”
All of a sudden, the memory of our bathroom moment shadowed his eyes, and the sad wrestler jolted back into the tiled wall.
“Touché,” I muttered, thinking of Conor.
“It’s me, isn’t it? I was right the other night. You’re scared of me. Just like the three previous filmmakers.”
I tilted my head to the side, confused. “I thought you’d fired them.”
“No. That’s what they all told Billy so they wouldn’t have to do it. I don’t know why, though. Am I that—”
“I’m not scared of you, Aaron,” I said, adding, “Dig into the filmmaker desertion,” to my mental to-do list. “I just want to feel safer knowing I can defend myself if somebody attacked me. And I’d really like to do that documentary…If you’ll let me in.”
I reached to his knee for emphasis. “But you’ll have to stop fighting me. I just want to make the best film I can, and it’s going to be hard if you hide from me and push me away all the time.”
Aaron said nothing, but fixed his gaze on my heaving chest, recognizing my point. He lifted his head and handed me his hand for a shake.
“Does that mean we’re okay?”
I grabbed it firmly, “Yes, champ.”
In a snapshot, his hand gripped my wrist while the other aimed at my thigh, turning our conversation into a physical match of seduction. After challenging him in an eyeing contest, Aaron wrapped his muscled arms around my waist, and with a kick of his massive leg, the chair flew and smashed against the opposite wall as we rolled to the floor.
He ignored how long the ten days had been for me, and how many books I’d read on wrestling takedowns. I’m a fast learner.
Aaron’s weight pushed my muscles to their limits, showing me what a 120-kilo and six-feet wrestler crushing me felt like, face to the floor. To my surprise, he caressed my hips, making my muscles relax and cower under his touch. I almost thought I’d lose when he managed to flip me over, mid-way. So, he wanted to play dirty.
Throwing a punch in his wounded shoulder, I mustered all the power in my legs to take control back on my body and keep my belly against the floor. Whatever you do, Avery, do not leave this fucking floor.
He didn’t flinch for a second. Like the brilliant ass he was, he shoved his warm hand under my top, placed it against my stomach’s skin and I only caught a glimpse of his greedy eyes before he spun me around and pinned me to my defeat.
“Lesson one, Vee,” he said, lying breathless on my body. “Your opponent will always aim at your weakness for takedown. What’s yours?” He flashed his dimples at me, and my pleasure pit roared as he pushed further into me. I glared at his hands on my belly.
“Your belly’s firm. You’ve got abs, Vee, it’s not your wea—” He noticed my face tensed at the mention of my belly and placed his hands on either side of me in retreat.
“Use it as bait, then. Let your opponent believe it’s a weakness. And strike back.”
He didn’t have a weakness I could use to turn this around. He was perfect. Or so I thought before I felt the rod between his thighs harden against my hysterical entrance, betraying him. Oh, he had one, right now.
Tensing all the muscles in my body, I curled my legs around his ass and my arms around his back, pulling him even closer. His eyes widened savagely at the feel of my wet clit pushing through my leggings, seeking his dick. That was when I poked my fingers between his ribs. He groaned, lost his hold on me, and rolled onto his back, taking me with him.
We both shared a friendly laugh, eyes and smiles locked into each other’s in a dangerously steamy atmosphere. And a reckoning hit me like a wall. My belly was fine. I was fine. No spinning. No stars. No passing out. What had he done to me?
Aaron combed a strand of my hair away from his mouth as I savored his healing whispers and our match ending in a draw—although he’d basically offered me a point.
“Does that smile mean we’re…friends, Vee?”
“I guess so…”
“Because this,” he said, flirtatiously gripping my ass. “This is not wrestling.” He nodded at my breasts, smashed against his pectorals. “This is not what friends do.” He heaved his torso up a little and glared at my thighs. They straddled his glorious dick, which kept pushing his sweatpants upright, making a tent of it. “This is not clean slate. We can’t—”
His voice was grave, and before we lost it and a fucking circus took place down there, I bounced off him. We’d already gone too far, and I did mean to keep our relationship as professional and friendly as possible, too.
But as we stood up, he grabbed the nape of my neck towards him and cornered me into the wall so I only looked into his alluring eyes. Fuck. There was something between us. An indescribable pull. Like a magnet’s; and it kept bringing him to me.
“Let me make you a friendly promise, then. I promise I won’t touch you ever again. Not until you graduate. Not until I win my pre-Olympic match. Not until you beg me to.” Leaving a damp trail of murmurs under my ear, he brutally pulled away from me with a cocky smile, and—God—those winning dimples.
After long minutes of panting our desire out and dressing up to fight the chilly April night, we headed to the backdoor to leave, lighthearted and, obviously, exhausted.
“You look pale. Worried I might not fulfill my promise?” Aaron asked with a snort.
“No.” I swayed away from him through the backdoor. “I have a tendency to break promises.”
“No worries. I’ll have your back.”
I turned around, skipping backwards to my Jeep, just so he’d hear me threaten him, “Don’t say it like that.” He’d already had my back.
My phone vibrated in my pocket while Aaron jogged up to me.
“Wait. I forgot to give you this,” he said just as I picked up.
“Hey, Lee, can I call you b—”
“Ave, can you come home?” Her worry came out ten times louder through the phone.
Aaron dropped a metal object in my palm and swaggered back to his chevvy.
“We need to talk. It’s about The Love Shack.” Her words froze me on the spot as I opened my hand to Aaron’s gift. It was small. Thin. Meaningful.
“What about it?”
The key to the gym’s backdoor hung from the smoothed ribbon and note I’d lost in our one-on-one combat.
“What if I told you Phil had records of the Shack’s members and I hacked into them? He’s keeping secrets.”
And just like that, as I careened through the streets of sleepy Vancouver, I truly understood Joanne’s point. She’d said words can hurt. True. And even though they can soothe, too, only acts have the power to heal. His hand on my stomach.
A/N : Sounds like we’re going back to the Shack, shackers! AND it’s going to be JUICY. I can’t wait !
Let me know what you think of this chapter! I have a profound love and admiration for Joanne...
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