Lightning Bay (Love's Battlefield): Episode 8
Jeremy leans on his desk as soon as I sit down opposite him. “You want to tell me what just happened back there?”
“I didn’t take those freebies, Jeremy, I swear.”
He nods. “I believe you, Kia.”
Thank goodness for small mercies. Although he doesn’t look like he’s about to fire me, my boss still doesn’t appear happy.
“You’ve told me about your history with Cameron,” he says, propping his elbows on the desk in front of him. “It’s clear he’s doing his best to make you quit. I knew he’d be unhappy I gave you a job here and that there might be some fallout, but I have to admit I’m slightly concerned over just how far he’s willing to go.”
I smile tightly. There’s no point in denying it was Cam who framed me or that I’m equally concerned. Yesterday, he aimed his car at me, and today he set me up for stealing.
“Me, too,” I admit.
He rubs an index finger across his eyebrow. “We don’t have cameras in the staffroom. I don’t suppose you saw anything?”
“Nothing and I doubt anyone will admit to seeing anything either.”
“If you report the things you do see him do….”
After studying me for a moment, his mouth turns down at the corner. “But you’re not going to, are you?”
I hold his gaze. “The whole time I was at school, Cam protected me. I never learned to stick up for myself. I relied on him, stood behind him. I need to start looking out for myself.”
Jeremy opens his mouth to speak but shakes his head. “Then start looking out for yourself, Kia. I’m worried you’re going to get hurt if you don’t put a stop to this. And I understand your loyalty, but Kia, he’s bullying you.”
He holds his hand up to stop me from jumping in. “He has his reasons, and you’ve made me aware of your history, but you don’t get to be his punching bag just because you screwed up two years ago.”
Jeremy releases a deep sigh and rolls his chair closer to the desk. “I’m going to tell you something. Providing you can keep a secret?”
I nod when his eyes meet mine.
“I screwed up once too. And you can’t take it back. Sometimes the person you hurt won’t forgive you.” He breathes out a frustrated sigh as he runs a hand through his blond hair. “Chloe’s Mum will never forgive me for breaking her heart. She’s never going to give me a second chance. I screwed up. I own that. I accept that. I’ve changed because of it. I’ve stopped messing around. Her dad gave me this job, and many of the other managers hate me because they don’t believe I’ve worked as hard as they did to get this position. Nepotism at its finest, they say. And maybe I have been given a leg up. But whether they’re right or wrong, I’m giving this job my all. I’m trying to change, to get a handle on my life and provide for my daughter. I don’t deserve their crap just because they say I do. Hear me?”
I nod, trying desperately to absorb all the information he’s just given me. He broke someone’s heart, and that person’s father is responsible for Jeremy’s job as manager here. And from the sounds of it, his peers are doing their best to get under his skin the way mine are mine.
Jeremy is studying me closely, waiting for me to respond.
Forcing a smile, I say, “I appreciate you sharing that and essentially looking out for me. But Jeremy, I want to keep you out of my drama with Cam even more now than I did before. The last thing I want is for it to blow up in your face for helping me. As it is, Cam has told me I need to keep you out of it.”
Jeremy’s eyes flicker with irritation. “I’m not going to stay out of it if he continues to bully my employee.”
Damn it. I don’t want the two of them to go to war. I just…I need to stand on my own two feet. This is my chance to protect someone else, to protect Jeremy.
“I’m going to do my best to handle it,” I tell him, “the way you’re doing your best.”
“Promise me you’ll come to me if things get any worse, Kia.” His eyes hold mine. “I mean it. Yesterday you were so frightened that you were shaking. He’s crossing the line, and if he continues to do so, and if he goes after me, it’s going to get really personal. I will fire him if he gives me proof that he’s harassing you.”
“Thank you,” I say quickly. “But hopefully, things will calm down and that won’t be necessary.”
“We’ll see. Do you plan to keep looking for other jobs?”
I nod, feeling guilty for wanting to quit after the way Jeremy has been looking out for me, but I’m sure he understands.
“I’ll keep an eye out for you, too. Not,” he starts, “because I want to see you leave or see Cam think that his bullying is working, but because you don’t deserve to be miserable. I think you’ve been miserable enough these past couple of years. Am I right?”
“Well, keep your chin up. Now,” he pushes his chair back. “We’d better get out of here before they all start speculating about stupid shit.”
He quirks an eyebrow and shoots me a lopsided grin, and I feel heat burn in my cheeks as my stomach flips. Jeremy is very good looking, and under different circumstances, I might be tempted to flirt with him – he’s so easy to get along with and sweet. But he’s my boss. Plus, he’s hung up on the mother of his child.
At least I’ve got more motivation to get my shit together and keep looking for other jobs. Once I quit, the rumours and the drama will stop, too.
There, I think Riley would be proud. For once I’m thinking about someone else, and it feels bloody good.
I pull down the skirt riding up my thighs as Jo drives us towards the party of the century. Her words, not mine.
After the week of training I’ve just endured, I need to have fun. I need to hang out with people who don’t hate me. The only reason I survived this week was because Jeremy was watching my back. Next week the Diamond Section opens officially, and Jeremy will be focused on that, which means Cam will step up his plans to get me fired.
“You should have turned left there and taken the highway,” Evan tells Jo as we speed past the highway exit.
“No, the freeway is better.”
“This music is shit,” Evan says, reaching for the radio dial.
“Quit touching my stereo, Ev,” Jo says, lightly rapping Evan on the knuckles.
“You know I hate dance music.”
“Tough, I’m the one driving.”
Photo by Wendy Wei from Pexels
Jo and Evan continue to bicker like an old married couple. Once upon a time, Cam and I argued like that – got annoyed at each other affectionately. But, no matter how much Jo and Evan piss each other off, there is an intimacy between them that goes beyond simple friendship. Before the accident, it used to amuse me when Jo and Evan argued, but tonight their bickering makes me feel like a third wheel.
“Would you stop that, please,” Jo says, making eye contact with me in the rearview mirror. “I told you, you look great.”
“It’s too short. I don’t know these people. They’re going to think I’m a slut.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You haven’t seen short until you’ve hung out with this crowd. Think butt cheeks hanging out of skirts and shorts, and you’ll have some idea of what you’re walking into. Besides, no one says slut these days, slut-shaming is a big no-no.”
“I know that.”
I wouldn’t judge others for what they wear, but does that mean they won’t judge me?
“We’re here,” Jo says as we turn into a well-lit residential street in Patterson’s Cross, a few kilometres from the university.
Once again, I tug at the hem of my skirt as I climb out of the backseat of Jo’s car. I haven’t put on a huge amount of weight in the two years I’ve been gone, but I haven’t been running every day like I used to and have been generally very undisciplined when it comes to exercise. As a result, I have an arse now, where I didn’t before. My boobs are also bigger, and subsequently, my top is tighter. Back in high school, I hadn’t minded wearing tight clothing because I was stick-thin. That isn’t the case now.
“I’m just not sure,” I say to Jo as she locks the car and sees me pulling my skirt down again. “I know you said I look fine-”
“I didn’t say you look fine, Kia; I said you look freaking hot. I know you’re self-conscious about your curves, but they’re going to knock all the guys dead tonight. Right, Ev?”
Underneath the streetlights, Evan shifts uncomfortably, his face turning a smidge red as he looks me up and down. The poor guy always gets embarrassed when put on the spot and asked to tell us we look good.
“You look good, Kia,” Evan tells me.
Jo huffs. “I said, tell her that she looks good, not look at her like you want to eat her.” With that odd outburst, Jo storms towards the two-story weatherboard house. Evan and I shoot each other a quick look before running after Jo.
She opens the front door without knocking. Considering no one would hear our knock, I don’t think anyone will care. When Jo and Evan step inside, I follow and stop behind them. The scent of alcohol, perfume, deodorant and cigarette smoke clog my lungs, reminding me of so many parties I attended while at high school. Through the gap between Jo and Evan, I see steps leading down to a sunken living area full of people talking and drinking.
“Tell me you aren’t going to walk off and leave me by myself in the corner,” I say breathlessly.
“You aren’t going to be by yourself,” Jo says, looking at me over her shoulder. “There are easily a couple of hundred people here. So pick someone and make conversation.”
I’m about to remind Jo that I’m not good at that sort of thing when I shut my mouth and bite down hard on my tongue. Just how cloying and clingy do I want to sound right now?
“Come on,” Jo says, pointing into the crowd. “I see Natalie over there. She’s one of the coolest people I know.”
I don’t want to feel jealous that Jo has a new group of friends, but envy burns a hole in the pit of my stomach as we force our way through the crowd. Jo has grown up in the two years I’ve been gone. She went to university, found a new group of friends, and she belongs here. Meanwhile, I feel so out of place and unsure of myself that I would glue myself to Jo’s side if I could.
Damn it. I don’t want to be this person, this jealous and insecure girl who clings like a limpet to her friends and suffocates them because she doesn’t know how to have a conversation with a stranger. That was who I was before the accident. I relied on Cam to help me fit in with the crowd because he got along easily with people. He was outgoing, smart, and hot, and…a whole lot of things people gravitate toward. I refuse to make Jo my replacement for Cam. If I want to keep changing, I must keep stepping out of my comfort zone.
So, I’m going to meet Natalie, talk to her without jealousy getting in the way, and then I’m going to speak to anyone who will have a conversation with me. I’ve been to some cool places and seen some interesting things. So, surely, I can think of something to talk about with a stranger.
“Nat!” Jo squeals, wrapping her arms around a slim girl.
The slim girl squeals and hugs Jo back.
“This is Kia,” Jo says once the squealing has stopped.
She steps back, slinging an arm around my shoulders as if she’s proud of me. It’s been such a long time since I’ve felt proud of myself or had anyone else feel that way about me. It warms me through and makes me a little teary.
Nat gasps, her eyes widening as she takes me in. “I’ve heard so much about you! I feel like I know you already.”
As if her words don’t shock me enough, she throws her arms around me and hugs me as if I’m her long-lost best friend. I wouldn’t be surprised if my grin is as goofy as it feels when she lets me go.
Jo and Nat move onto conversations about college as Evan walks off to mingle with…whoever he knows here. Both Jo and Nat make an effort to include me in the conversation. After a week spent with people who can’t stand me because they’re following Cam’s lead, it’s nice to spend time with people who don’t want to see my head on a stick.
"I like your hair," I tell Nat when the conversation slows.
She grins, twirling a lock of her shoulder-length blonde hair around her finger - hair that is streaked with blue and pink. "Thanks. My brother had a gender reveal party and asked me to colour my hair. He's having twins, a boy and a girl."
"Thanks, I can't wait to be an auntie. Hey, I know a couple of the art students here. Let me introduce you to them.”
Jo nods at me with approval, like a proud mother about to send her small child off to school for the first time. Nat links her arm through mine, chatting to me as we squeeze through the crowd. Because of the noise, I don’t hear everything she says, so I have to ask her to repeat some things, but the conversation between us flows. I’m feeling slightly more relaxed as she introduces me to an interesting looking couple. At least, I assume they're a couple. They stop kissing when Nat clears her throat. The guy is rocking a very long mohawk, and the very voluptuous girl he's with is wearing an adorable black dress with white polka dots.
“This is Declan and Naomi. Both of them are in the course you’re about to start. Guys, this is Kia. Kia, you should quiz them about the tutors you’ll have this year.”
Nat walks away, and I look at my newest acquaintances. “She’s a great host,” I remark.
Naomi laughs. “This isn’t even her party, but yeah, that’s Nat. She’s great at bringing people together.”
I smile at her and reach for the pendant around my neck, twisting it before letting it go. But, damn it, why does this feel so awkward? I spoke to hundreds of strangers overseas, but there was no pressure to get things right or say the right thing. Seeing a stranger more than once was unlikely.
“So, are you a sculptor or a painter?” Declan asks.
“I paint and sculpt. I’m more of a painter, though.”
Declan nods, taking a packet of cigarettes out of his pants pocket. “Cool."
Naomi smiles. "What are you working on at the moment?”
“Ah, I haven't been working on much recently. I’d like to pick up a brush right now, though.”
Naomi frowns, a lock of her wavy red hair falling over her forehead. “You find this party inspiring?”
“You could say that.”
“If you had a canvas and brush right now, what would you paint?” Declan asks.
I look around me, seeing chaos and colour. In one corner of the party, people are chanting 'drink' at some guy gulping from a yard glass. In another, a couple of girls are trying to dance. And then I turn towards the front door and freeze as Cam walks in. One of his arms is draped across Brooklyn's shoulders. Wayne is on Brooklyn's other side.
I swallow hard, trying to force my gaze off of them, but my eyes refuse to budge.
Cam looks as gorgeous as ever, wearing a tight khaki button-down shirt on top and dark jeans below. My ex-best friend has never had any difficulty kicking my hormone levels up a notch and making my pulse race, but my racing heart has nothing to do with how sexy he looks and everything to do with the fact that he’s my enemy. After making it his week’s mission to destroy my job at the cinema and destroy me any way he can, he’s turned up at the one place I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with him. Naturally, he scans the place, but thankfully he doesn't see me.
I turn back to Declan and Naomi, who are still waiting for me to answer.
“Colour,” I say, forcing myself to sound confident even though my stomach is twisting in knots. “I’d paint one person in the middle of a crowd, dancing to a whirl of colour, then I’d paint with less colour towards the outer edges.”
Art is subjective. I like my idea, but it probably isn't as sophisticated as it should be. I hate that I’m the same age as this couple, but I don’t have their knowledge base. I've forgotten so much of what I learned in high school. The word imposter might as well be flashing on my forehead.
Moving the conversation along as quickly as possible, I stumble through several questions about the tutors they had during their first year, trying to concentrate on their answers. Not an easy task when my brain won’t stop reminding me Cam is here and I could run into him at any time.
Naomi reaches out and grabs the cigarette packet Declan has been holding and flipping in one hand. “We’re going for a smoke. Want to join us?”
I’m tempted. The crowd seems to have swelled again since I started talking to Naomi and Declan, and my enemy is here. But if I go outside with these people, I will be indulging my desire to cling to them.
“Thanks, but I’d better find my friends.”
Declan and Naomi leave me standing alone in the crowd, and I look around me for any sign of Jo or Evan or Nat. My pulse picks up when I don't see them. Around me, everyone is having a good time, laughing and talking over the alternative rock music reverberating through the house. Jo would want me to start a conversation with someone, and that's probably what I should do. But my stomach clenches and my palms start sweating at the thought.
Maybe I’ll just check on where Jo and Evan are so that I can make a quick exit should I run into Cam and Brooklyn.
I push my way through the crowd, searching for my friends. With every minute that passes, my heart speeds up, and I feel like I can’t breathe properly.
Where are they?
There’s only one place I haven’t checked on this level, and that’s the kitchen. When I finally push my way into the slightly less crowded space, I see that Jo and Evan aren’t there. Instead, I've found the three people I desperately wanted to avoid. Cam, Brooklyn and Wayne sit on the bench, ignoring everyone around them and talking with each other. The sudden overload of adrenaline makes me want to puke. I could try to back out slowly, but I only manage one step backwards before a group of people walk in behind me, blocking my exit, pushing me closer to my enemies.
Wayne sees me first, nudging Brooklyn, and I swallow hard as three sets of eyes burn me where I stand.
Brooklyn studies my outfit and turns her nose up to the ceiling. “Couldn’t you find anything in your wardrobe that actually fits you? Or is your family so hard up these days that you can’t afford new clothes?”
Some girls just know how to hit where it hurts the most, and Brooklyn has always had the skill. Of course, when we were in high school, Cam ran interference and helped me put her in her place. Now, Cam is at Brooklyn’s side, his arm around her like it was they walked in, a beer dangling from the fingers of his other hand.
Cam’s gaze skims over my outfit, making me want to pull my skirt down and run and hide. He’s seen me wear this outfit before, but I would have looked different last time. When his eyes meet mine, they’re dark, his jaw clenched tight, and his grip on Brooklyn tightens. Then he brings his beer to his lips, taking a swig before leaning in to whisper something in Brooklyn’s ear. I have no idea what he says, but they both laugh. Heat sweeps up my neck and face, and I want to die on the spot.
“Shut up, guys. Kia, you look sexy as fuck.”
My eyes cut to Wayne. He’s ogling me in a way he hasn’t since our first day working together at the cinema. Once he realised I wasn’t going to fall for his stupid game, he helped Cam humiliate me repeatedly. So, I’m surprised he’s not echoing Brooklyn’s sentiment.
Brooklyn whips around to glare at her cousin. “Are you fucking serious right now?
Wayne shrugs. “You’re just jealous because you don’t have tits.”
Even if I know Wayne Bishop is about as genuine as a gnat, I have to stifle a smirk when Brooklyn’s eyes widen and her face turns the same shade of red as a fire engine.
“Arsehole,” she growls, shoving him.
He grins and winks at me. “Do you want to dance, Kia?”
I don’t point out to him that hardly anyone is dancing at this overcrowded party. “Actually, I need to find Jo and Evan.”
Wayne drops down from the bench. “Great, I’ll help you look for them.”
Cam’s fingers tighten around the beer bottle, his glare digging holes into the side of my face as Wayne puts his hand on my lower back. Cam and I might not be friends anymore, but I can still read him. He’s doesn’t want me to go with Wayne.
If Cam and I were on better terms, I would tell him I have no intention of losing my virginity to Brooklyn’s cousin. I would tell him I’m going to ditch Wayne as soon as possible. And I would tell Wayne to fuck off. But Cam and I aren’t on better terms. What he’s done to me this past week has been soul-crushing. He said he wouldn’t wish Brooklyn’s cousin on his worst enemy, but Cam has done everything he can to bring me to my knees and break me this week.
In other words, he shouldn’t give a damn whether I let Wayne into my pants or not – unless he has a vested interest in the outcome.
Oh, God. Did Cam throw his money into the betting pool? Is that the real reason he told me about Wayne’s plan to screw me? Was he actually attempting to engineer a win? The Cam of old would never do that. But this Cam? This Cam hates me.
My hand flies to my chest, covering my heart, where it feels as if it’s being diced inside my ribcage. Whenever I think I’ve come to terms with how Cam feels about me, I’m reminded that I still care. I hate that. Will his hold on me never lessen? He damn near tried to kill me this week, yet I’m surprised he might be participating in Wayne and Brooklyn's bet?
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Cam subtly trying to shake his head at me.
I ignore him and look at Wayne. “Okay, thanks.”
Wayne smirks, and I let him lead me out of the kitchen. Likely, Wayne thinks all his Christmases have come at once. He has zero chance of getting me naked, but walking out with him pisses off Cam. Letting my ex-best friend sweat on whether I’m about to have sex with Wayne or not might be childish and vengeful, but after everything Cam has put me through the week, I’ll take any payback I can get.