Category Archives: Chapter 03

Chapter Three

CHAPTER THREE

“We were caught up and lost in all our vices
In your pose as the dust settled around us.”

“Oh where do we begin?
The rubble or our sins?
Oh, oh where do we begin?
The rubble or our sins?”
-“Pompeii” Bastille

The sun was just turning the morning sky from dark blue to warm orange when a very sweaty and tired Denton Ashbury walked with Keith Marcus to the lobby entrance of his apartment building. The two had been, since five that morning, in the basement gym of Denny’s building. Since standing alone on the dark sidewalk, spying her run in her sexy little running shorts on that treadmill, Denny had re-evaluated his own fitness. Though he was athletic and strong by nature and had been active in sports from the time he was young, he had admittedly allowed his time at the firm to overtake any he had dedicated to cultivating a healthy physique. But with her amazing legs serving as his inspiration, he called up his old trainer who happily made house calls, even at that ungodly hour. So, for the past three weeks, Denny had risen at four-thirty, four days a week and allowed Keith to push him to the extreme in his building’s state-of-the-art gym.

Once Keith was gone, Denny headed up to his twenty-eighth-floor condo and took a hot shower, the best part of his morning. As he went about getting ready for work, he checked on the world of business, perused his email from clients and colleagues on the east coast, and read the Wall Street Journal on his iPad. He still managed to make it to the office by seven, not surprised to find Alessa already there, her hair pulled up in a sexy bun, little silver earrings dangling and catching his eyes, drawing them to the long, graceful lines of her neck.

The office was slowly beginning to fill, and Denny took one last lingering look at her before heading to his office. Clare had brought him his coffee just the way he liked, and he was now finalizing a draft of an addendum to one of his smaller client’s charter. The morning went by as any other, with only minor distractions here or there by the various workings of an office. He worked during his lunch, his slightly improved diet—another addition to his rejuvenated healthy lifestyle—required he eat less take out. He was nearly voracious as he ate, eager for the hour to pass and get on to the one o’clock meeting his Mingo team was having in one of the smaller conference rooms.

In the three weeks since he had recruited members and divvied out roles and tasks, Denny had met with them in part or in whole to begin the initial brainstorming and drafting of their strategic plans for the Mingo Corporation. He invariably made Alessa a member of the majority of those meetings, his covert observations serving to appease him enough to allow him to curtail his outward display of interest in her.

Occasionally, though business remained the greater focus during those meetings, conversation would digress into the personal, each sharing some part of their lives, their unique personalities surfacing. Except, Alessa, Denny noted, as she continued to maintain an emotionally-distant front. She was pleasant and was receptive to the conversations, but he recognized her stealthy ability to avert an answer about herself and remain noncontributory. She was quite adept at it, and he concluded the skill must have come from years of practice.

Eventually, as others failed to break past her veneer of smooth, calculating civility, Denny decided it was getting him nowhere. If he truly wanted to peel back her layers and find what was beneath, he would have to do it himself.

At the appropriate time, people began arriving to the designated conference room, the culture being such at Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter that meeting start times were strictly upheld. As Denny approached the glass room, seeing the members already seated with Alessa being in the middle on one side, he walked in smiling pleasantly and sat at the end seat.

The meeting was a discussion of the focus of time, energy and money that would be best spent to expand the Mingo label over the next eighteen months. It culminated in a conversation about expansion into the Asian markets, which turned a large portion of the discussion into Alessa’s hands. Denny was a little irritated that she had chosen to sit to the other side of Lou, effectively blocking her from his eye sight when she was not the one speaking. And though he could feel her hiding from him, she wasn’t a wallflower; she was clearly competent and exude confidence in the skills she brought to the team, leading the topic with polished diplomacy, insight, and optimism. When it came time to assign the new tasks identified, Denny noted Alessa took on a giant’s portion of the workload, calm as she continued to say, “I can do that,” or “Leave that to me.”

At the end of the hour, Denny assessed this newest project as on target and felt good about the direction they were headed. After he dismissed everyone, he called to Alessa and asked her to stay back. Lou passed Alessa an excited smile, cheering her on to shine for the boss, before leaving. Alessa felt those flittering butterflies in her stomach, but stomped on them, squashing them under her heel of indifference. She stayed in her seat, her hands folded in her lap as she maintained a passive expression. When the room was cleared, she spoke from where she sat.

“Yes?”

He was leaning back in his chair, one long leg crossed in the repose of relaxed confidence. “How are things going?” he asked casually, as if they had met at the water cooler and were about to segue into sports.

She drew her attention from his body language and attempted to answer him, worry that he was somehow displeased with her performance creeping in. “Very well. As I updated everyone, I have completed the list of tasks assigned to me and already have a few good ideas for what we discussed today. If you are worried about me being on your team, I can assure you, I have everything under control.”

Denny paused with undisguised scrutiny of her, making her roll her shoulders and sit a little more erect. “No, not at all,” he finally replied. “I’ve already reviewed your work and find it very satisfactory. I was merely inquiring in generalities, not specifically to this project.”

“Oh,” she replied, finding a small measure of relief. And then asked with an eyebrow cocked, “Only satisfactory?”

Denny didn’t bother to hide his smirk. “No, I said very satisfactory. My goodness, do you always fish for compliments?” he chastised teasingly.

Alessa’s face flushed hotly, her embarrassment cute on her, he thought. “No, that’s not what I was doing at all,” she defended in a fluster. “I was merely curious as to your word choice.”

“Satisfactory not good enough for you?” he prodded with his cocky smile.

His teasing was beginning to rile her, and knowing that hissing at her superior would gain her nothing but a dismissal, Alessa struggled to refocus back on the original topic and ignored his baiting banter. “In general, things are good also.”

Denny gave a knowing smile, witnessing her struggle to ignore her anger and remain civil. “Working here’s as you imagined?”

“In most ways, yes,” she replied with little thought. After all, it was a question she had answered enough for her friends and family.

“Hours aren’t too much?”

She pursed her lips together thoughtfully as she shook her head. “These hours aren’t anything I’m not used to. I’ve worked very hard to get here, and I expected to continue working hard after I arrived,” she replied determinedly.

Denny scrutinized her, his mind taking in her words, his eyes taking in the evidence of such self-sacrificing work. Though she was still pretty as ever, there were definite dark circles under her eyes and an almost sad tilt to her lids. She was beginning to look worn, and she’d only been there six weeks. If she didn’t watch herself, he was certain she’d drill herself into the ground.

“I’m glad to hear it because I need you to work this evening with me to help with some translations. Can you manage that?”

“I believe so,” she replied cautiously, before adding, “If you’d like to give me the work now, I can go ahead-”

“Don’t have it ready yet,” he cut in, squelching her plan to avoid direct contact with him. “Plus, I’ll likely have other questions I’ll need your input on,” he navigated smoothly. Without much choice, Alessa gave a slow and then decisive nod, agreeing to be available later on that day.

Alessa nearly groaned out loud as she returned to her desk. She had known it would only be a matter of time. Thus far, she had managed to keep her nose down, her brain turned on, and her unexplainable, inescapable responses to Denny to a minimum. She found absorption in her work the best remedy. But now, he wanted to be a close, integral part of that work, leaving her nowhere to hide from him. Or her growing desires.

Now she was becoming pissed off at the trapped feeling that arose from the prospect of the inescapable and yet unwanted desire that being near him caused. She sat, her foot jiggling under the desk as she scowled across the room, watching him walk back to his office, her thumbnail between her teeth. Trapped.

As she hadn’t taken a lunch-hour break, but had per norm worked through it, she quickly closed down her things, grabbed her bag and headed to the bathroom. Only two things could help her now. Philip Glass and her running clothes. She changed quickly and escaped down the elevator, stopping and breathing deeply once on the street. She needed the burn of hills and so opted for a run out to Fort Mason and back instead of her gym. Whenever she thought of him and felt the rising panic that the trapped sensation caused, her feet carried her faster, her legs burned brighter, until she at last would experience the golden wash of euphoria and feel set free. She took her time back at the office to freshen herself up in the bathroom, taking the care to redo her hair, freshen up her minimalistic makeup, knowing that no one would be the wiser.

As she evaluated her appearance in the mirror, her mind drifted to her present predicament. Denton Ashbury may be attractive, but not enough to make her a doe-eyed, mindless simpleton. Denton Ashbury may be intelligent, but not enough to trap her into something she didn’t want. Denton Ashbury was just another man. And though men may draw the heart, they were not essential to its function. She’d lived twenty seven years without one. She could make it another seventy.

Control once again restored, resolve in place, run successful.

Alessa worked furiously through the rest of the afternoon, not even stopping for a restroom break. Denny also worked undistracted, spurred on by his anticipation of the coming evening. He wanted to complete as much of his transactional work so his mind would be clear to focus on Alessa. Assuming she would take her six o’clock run, he carried on through the late afternoon, and didn’t look up from his computer until a quarter ‘til eight. The office was surprisingly quiet, and as he assumed she would more than likely be back by that time, he dug out the documents to be translated and went in search of her.

When Denny found her, he was surprised. What surprised him was not that she was at her desk, but that she was asleep upon it, her head resting on her folded arms, her eyes shut, her expression tranquil. His eyes darted about, though there was momentarily no one to be seen nearby. As he squatted next to her, he felt a fierce contraction of his heart that made him take a stuttering intake of breath.

Denny reached a hand up to finger a few stray and wispy strands of hair from her face, guiding them behind her ear. “Alessa,” he whispered gently at first, hating to disrupt the sleep he assumed she direly needed. “Alessa, wake up,” he continued to urge, his guilt growing at forcing her to stay so late when she should be resting. He touched her one more time across the brow, trailing his fingers past her temple and back around her neck.

Her eyes drifted open, and for an infinitesimal moment, he would have sworn he saw a pleasure in her eyes as she looked at him. And then she bolted to, her awareness of her surroundings crashing on her violently.

“Oh! Mr. Ashbury,” she gasped as she stood quickly, wobbling a moment, looking around the now darkened and quiet office. “I am so sorry. I don’t know what happened. I was finished with my work and assumed you’d call for me. I must have fallen asleep waiting. I am so sorry,” she continued to apologize.

Denny also stood and watched her flustered manner as she began to address her sloppied appearance. The tender moment gone, he reached out his hands to assist her in righting her rumpled blazer. He grasped the lapel and popped it up, sliding his hands up to her neck before bending the collar down to lie smoothly. As he straightened her collar, his fingers grazed the skin at the nape of her neck.

Instantly, Denny was aware of the effect his touch had on her when she froze in her busied motions. For a second she only stared down in front of her, and slowly lifted her gaze, her eyes full of trepidation.

He made no reply to the disconcerting feelings that were doubtless flying through her, but continued on in his task of aiding her appearance. “Here,” he murmured warmly, lifting his right hand to rake his fingers through her hair, combing back the strands of hair that were disheveled from her sleep. He noticed her eyes flicker in a moment of sensual pleasure before snapping wide, an expression of surprise and fear marring her features. She took a quick step back, her hands tugging at the lapels of her blazer, as if to pull the shield more tightly around her.

Before he could say or do anything, she regained her composure, clearing her throat as her features returned to the muted expression tinged with just a hint of disdain. “Are you ready?” she questioned coolly. “I don’t want to keep you waiting.”

Denny gave a conciliatory nod, picking up the files he had laid upon her desk and then turned and extended an arm, indicating for her to lead the way. She grabbed a laptop from her desk and began walking in the direction of the conference rooms. “I assume any of these rooms will do?” she asked.

“Yes, you can choose,” he agreed, somewhat distracted by the sight of her attractive bottom sashaying in her tight pencil skirt, and her shapely calves in the stockings with the line down the center of the back. She was sex in heels.

She led him to one of the rooms with the glass walls in open view of a large portion of the office; it made her feel more visible and less secluded. From down the way came a muffled clamor of excited voices. Apparently a large group of associates was working in one of the larger conference rooms down the hall, and the noise effectively reminded her that the office life continued on into the night and they were not alone.

She flipped on a light and sat down, opening her computer. Denny sat at the end of the table, a chair away, hoping the reasonable amount of room would be enough to put her at ease.

“Is that one yours or the company’s?” he asked her, noticing she used a Korean language computer that was different from her own more standard one issued by the firm.

“The company’s. I requisitioned it when you first assigned me to the project,” she answered, her face intent upon the screen as she maneuvered through the various set up phases and account log-ins.

Denny was fairly familiar with the computers, as he frequently utilized one for Japanese users. When she was ready, they began on the translations, which at first were self-explanatory. As she worked, he slowly began asking her opinion on particular items, gaining the benefit of her insight to Korean culture.

At a particular lull in their work, as Alessa was waiting on data retrieval, Denny filled the silence by asking her where she learned the language.

“College,” was her succinct reply.

It was the same answer she had given Hyun-Joong, and just as before, he had a sneaking suspicion that there was more to the story. “And why Korean?” he continued to pry.

“Why not?” she tried to evade, but at his look, she shrugged and looked away. “South Korea is a growing power in commercialism. Despite being an Asian country, they’re much like our western civilizations in many ways. More so than Japan or China, I think. Our connections are constantly growing, and our open markets are furthering that strong bond. Plus, there is the whole partnership against communistic North Korea,” she added with a last shrug.

He studied her a moment. Her answer was well-informed and thorough, but he felt it wasn’t the truth, at least, not the whole of it. It was the shiftiness of her eyes, the rote tone as she said it, as though it were a speech she had repeated a hundred times before.

“That’s it?”

“What? It’s a good, solid answer,” she defended.

“But it’s not the real reason, is it?” he challenged, that irritating smirk, that charming glint in his eyes only serving to make her flustered.

She couldn’t maintain eye contact and stared at her screen, her resistance bending, as though she were being pulled down by a heavy weight. But her inability to meet the challenge he threw was also angering. “Fine,” she nearly snapped when he continued to stare at her, demanding an answer. “There may have been a few semesters in undergrad when I…got hooked on…”

Denny leaned in, tensing, waiting for her to say something like Korean-supplied meth, so when she confessed, “K-Pop,” in a begrudging mumble, he could only frown in pleasant confusion. Her eyes slid to him awaiting his reaction.

“I’m not sure I follow. You mean, like Korean pop culture?” a smile slowly warming his expression.

Alessa’s face was tight as she attempted to hide her smile of embarrassment. “Yeah,” she at last admitted.

Denny was only happily intrigued. “And how did you get hooked on K-Pop if you didn’t speak Korean?”

With another great sigh, she set her elbow on the table and rested her cheek against her hand. “Netflix,” she began. “You see, based on movies you like they make recommendations for others. Well, I love really good, tight action movies. You know, lots of martial arts. And also dark and cerebral.”

“Okay,” he followed with a grin.

“Well, they recommended this very good Korean film. And I fell in love with it,” she supplied with a wistful grin. “Watched it over and over, which was unusual because I really didn’t watch much TV to begin with. But I couldn’t help it. It was my guilty pleasure. I was compelled. So then, based on that, they recommended more Korean films and even TV shows, until all I watched was Korean. I started picking up a few phrases here and there, got an ear for the language. This was about my second year in college, and I knew I needed to start thinking about my future, about what sort of law I wanted to practice. I don’t know, there was something about the idea of working with other cultures that just sorta…fascinated me, and so I thought at first I’d do some sort of advocacy work for Asian refugees…maybe even work overseas. Anyway, so I took Korean courses, joined the Korean student community at Berkeley, ate a lot of kimchi and black bean noodles. There, that’s how I learned Korean. Happy now?” she finished, her mouth in a tight, sideways grin as she waited for his opinion on her taste for all things Korean.

Denny smiled softly, leaning ever-so-slightly forward, “For the record, I am. Thank you for sharing.”

The sincerity and warmth in his voice felt like a stroking hand down her back and made her heart flutter to the point where she was actually concerned if she was having a heart attack, a physical, uncontrollable response. She knew her face was flushed and looked back at the screen, suddenly intent on finishing so she could escape.

Denny watched her studiously, noting the pinkening of her cheeks and smiling to himself over her response. He decided to not make her any more uncomfortable, knowing she would likely fight back or shut down. He was content for the moment to know that she was not immune to him and responded in spite of herself.

The following day was Friday, and Alessa felt a constant tightness in her stomach, fear that she would walk into Denny at any moment. And when nine-thirty that evening came and she had only seen him in passing, she told herself she was relieved, though couldn’t account for the surfacing disappointment. On Saturday she only worked ‘til one, amazingly finding herself caught up on all tasks assigned to her. She knew the freedom wouldn’t last, but the accomplishment sent her into a cheery, sorbet sort of mood.

It was her sister’s birthday, and her family was meeting at her father’s house for the party. Alessa had to circle his block twice before finding a tight, but free space on the curb. Granted, there was plenty of space in his double-wide drive way, but she never parked there.

She got out, retrieving the heavy box beautifully wrapped in silver and pink wrapping and ribbons. She sat it atop her small seventy-eight Fiat and then reached in for the large pink cake she had spent four hours baking and decorating. Her head had the tinge of a sleep-deprived headache, but the beautiful cake had been worth it. She sat it on the gift, balancing it delicately and then walked half a block to her father’s house and made it up the steep yard, nearly slipping in the grass.

She was at the back door, her arms full and unable to hold the heavy items with only one arm to open the door. She could see through the window in the door as her father was on the phone and her step mother, Shelly, was brushing back the hair from her sister’s shoulder. She tried bumping the door to gain their attention, but when that failed to work, she tried kicking it. Her step mother looked up.

“Hello!” Alessa called out, the pain from holding the heavy objects becoming too much to bear. “Can someone open the door?” she called louder when Shelly didn’t make a move.

Her sister turned and smiled, hopping to the door. She flung it open. “Alessa! You came!”

“Of course, Octo, wouldn’t have missed it if you paid me to stay away,” she returned with a large smile as she made a quick dash for the kitchen counter to set her packages down on.

“My cake is so pretty!”

“It’s not from Cakemakers,” Shelly stated with a frown.

Stretching out the cramps in her arms, Alessa scrambled for a response, “Ah, no. I wanted to bake it myself.”

“But Cakemakers is her favorite. If I’d known you weren’t going to get the cake from there, I would have done the job myself.”

“Oh, nonsense,” Alexander, her father, interjected as he slid his phone into his pocket, coming over to look at the beautiful cake. “I think it looks perfect,” he added, placing a hand on Alessa’s shoulder and pulling her near him. He placed a kiss at her temple. “Hi honey. Happy to see you. How’s the job?”

Alessa just smiled and nodded, indicating all was well.

“I think my cake looks wonderful!” Cadence agreed with a giant smile. “It’ll be my new favorite!” she promised, turning and squeezing Alessa tightly around the middle.

“Thanks, Octo,” Alessa smiled softly, putting her arms around her, too.

Shelly sighed. “Well, as long as Cadence is happy with it, I suppose it’s okay.”

“Alessa, come look at the new clothes I got!” Cadence shouted, taking her older sister by the hand.

“You’ve already opened your presents?” Alessa asked.

“No, silly, they’re just clothes mom bought me yesterday.”

“Oh,” Alessa replied, giving a nod of the head indicating, of course, she should have known that. The fourteen-year-old girl, with long, gangly, clingy limbs that had earned her the name ‘Octopus’—Octo for short—from her adoring older sister, tried on each new outfit while Alessa sat on her bed and indulged the birthday girl.

The two were discussing Octo’s classes at school when the doorbell rang. “Gram is here!” the flighty, younger sister said and tugged on the last shirt she had left to model. She ran out the room and down the stairs, leaving Alessa to look around her sister’s pink and purple room, wishing she could stay there for the rest of the day. But knowing that wasn’t really an option, she took a deep breath to calm the wash of acid pouring through her stomach before standing up to trail slowly behind Cadence.

She found the family standing together in the dining room where Shelly’s mother was holding Cadence at arm’s length and discussing her pretty new top. It was some minutes before anyone noticed that Alessa had arrived.

The dowager-looking woman with the sweeping, short, gray hair looked up, her smile fading to cool civility. “Oh, hello Alessa. I didn’t think you were going to be able to make it.”

Alessa had no reply to that so merely smiled a tight-lip grimace.

“Your job going well? Been able to keep up?”

Alex’s phone rang, and he turned from the group and walked into the entry to speak.

Alessa breathed in and forced a smile, appreciative of something positive to talk about. “Yes. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. It’s been a great challenge.”

The older woman’s face had a blasé, unimpressed expression. “Well, one can’t expect to be good at everything. I just hope that if you work hard enough you won’t be too great a disappointment,” she offered, choosing to interpret Alessa’s words to mean she was struggling with her work.

Alessa knew it was useless to try to explain. The woman had, from the very first day she met her, chosen to believe the worst about her, and nothing Alessa said or did ever convinced her otherwise. “Here, Shelly,” the grandmother said, “take these gifts and I’ll put this food in the kitchen.” She picked up the large sack marked La Ciccia, and instructed Alessa to come help. Holding her tongue, for what was there really to say, Alessa followed dutifully behind.

The grandmother set the large sack of Italian take out on the counter. “Where did this come from?” she questioned, looking down at the light-pink cake as though it had flown in from Mars.

“Alessa made my cake,” Cadence answered as she trailed her sister, smiling and coming to look down at it again. “Isn’t it pretty?”

“I thought we were getting a cake from Cakemakers,” the old woman asked, now turning her frown to Alessa.

Alessa attempted to answer, to open her mouth and speak, but was cut off from Shelly as she came in the kitchen. “Alessa took it upon herself to make the cake. I just hope it turned out well enough to be edible.”

Again Alessa made to speak, but really had no defense. “I bet it’ll be the best cake I’ve ever had,” Cadence assured, smiling at Alessa, completely oblivious to thinly-veiled hostility coming from her mother and grandmother. Alessa’s sister’s faith in her made her smile, and so she chose to focus her attention on her instead.

“At any rate, we need to get this food plated so we can eat it before it gets too cold,” Shelly said, pulling the plates from the cupboard. “Alessa, will you set the table while we get the food ready? It shouldn’t be too hard for you; everything I want is laid out on the table already. You just have to put it where it goes. I’ve already ironed the table cloth; it’s draped over the back of the chair in the sitting room.” With the final instruction, she turned back to her mother who was already removing cartons of Cadence’s favorite Italian eatery.

Alessa, grateful to be able to leave, quietly went about to do as asked. The meal was a happy enough event, everyone talking admiringly of Cadence who was a blonde, pretty angel and the obvious apple of her family’s eyes. Though Alessa said very little, she watched interactions, happy for a moment that she was generally forgotten about.

After dinner was presents. And though Cadence had just received a new wardrobe, her parents still bought her the latest smartphone, a new Louis Vuitton purse, various accessories for her new phone, and a gift certificate to several of Cadence’s favorite stores. Her grandmother bought her a pair of leather riding boots, though Cadence had never ridden in her life. Lastly, she opened her sister’s gift.

“It’s so heavy! I wonder what it could be,” she asked with a huge smile. She tore off the pretty wrapping and ripped open the box. “Books,” she said with a smile.

“They’re all the books I had to read my freshman year, and I imagine you’ll be required to read them, too,” Alessa explained, happy to share her love of reading with her sister. Some of those books had turned out to be gems, ones she would always carry with her, and so it was a sentimental sacrifice to pass them along.

“Used books? And not even used you bought, but already owned? Good grief, do they not pay you at that fancy law job you can’t even afford to buy your sister a gift?” the grandmother asked incredulously.

“I’m sure they pay her plenty-” her father attempted to defend, but was cut off.

“So then she’s just stingy,” the grandmother concluded.

Neither Alessa nor her father had a quick enough reply for Cadence piped in. “Alessa is not stingy. She would give me her last dollar if she needed to. And in fact, I think she did that, on more than one occasion. Alessa loves reading and she knows I love reading, too,” she supplied, turning back to her sister. “Thank you, I shall treasure them,” a determined expression accompanying her promise.

Alessa was struggling to control her anger, but was able to manage to smile gratefully back at her sister, whose infinite grace always seemed to overcome her family’s words. “I’m glad you like them. And I’d love to discuss them with you when you’re studying them.”

Cadence smiled back. “Thanks.”

For a moment the room was tense until Shelly cut in with, “Well, I guess it’s time for cake. We might as well get it out of the way.” Together the family and Alessa returned to the dining room and sat around the table while Shelly got out the cake plates and forks and then went back into the kitchen for the large, gorgeous dessert. She placed the fourteen candles around the top and lit them before carrying the cake in. They started singing happy birthday, Cadence beaming at the dreamy cake coming her way. Alessa was smiling at her, focusing on her joy, but when she looked back to her step mother approaching, her expression turned to one of horror as Shelly seemingly tripped and launched herself forward, the heavy cake propelled off the short cake stand, crashing against the edge of the table and landing with a splat onto the floor.

Silence followed the abrupt chaos for a solid five seconds.

“Oh, that is a shame,” the grandmother consoled. She turned to look at Alessa. “You must have worked so hard on that.”

Alessa remained silent with wide eyes and an open mouth. And then she turned to look at her sister.

“Oh, Alessa, I am so sorry,” Shelly said as she scrambled down onto the floor to scrape the crumbled disaster back onto the cake stand. “I’ve completely ruined your cake!” she said with disgust.

Alessa watched Cadence’s eyes begin to brim with tears.

“No,” she disagreed, a hard edge of anger laying under the surface of her voice, “not my cake. Cadence’s.” She clenched her jaw as she turned her irritated gaze to the grandmother, and then to Shelly whose eyes popped above the surface of the table.

“Oh, Cadence, sweetie, I’m sorry. I know you were looking forward to eating it. But don’t worry, baby, I’ll take you first thing tomorrow to Cakmakers and we’ll get you a brand new one,” she promised indulgingly.

“But I don’t want a new one. I want the one Alessa made,” she wailed, her tears now flowing down her smooth cheeks.

“But sweetheart, it’s been ruined. Don’t worry, we’ll get you a better one at Cakemakers.”

Through her tears, Cadence argued, “But is it even open on Sunday?”

“Oh, you’re right. It’ll probably be closed. Alex, sweetheart, why don’t you take Alessa to Cakemakers and let her get Cadence a new cake since we can’t eat the one she baked,” Shelly suggested as she stood, lifting the evidence of the ruined dessert.

“That’s okay, I’ll buy the new since Alessa’s already gone to the trouble of baking one,” Alex argued.

“But she wanted to be responsible for Cadence’s cake. The least we can do is let her,” Shelly returned, walking back into the kitchen.

“Right, well, okay, Alessa let’s go,” Alex relented, standing to leave.

“Wanna come along?” Alessa asked, turning to her sister, rubbing a hand on her back. “I’ll let you pick out your cake,” she offered soothingly.

Cadence’s tears were coming to an end, and, lifting her head, she wiped her reddened face. “Really?”

“Sure, why not. It’s your birthday after all.”

“Okay,” the teen said at last, her face finally brightening.

“Alessa, do you need to move your car?” her father asked, indicating it might be blocking him in the drive.

Alessa shook her head, “No, I parked on the street.”

“You were able to find a spot?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“Why don’t you just park in the drive like everyone else?” he questioned.

“You know her,” Shelly chimed in, still wiping up the last of the pink icing from the dark-stained, wood floors, “she always parks on the street.”

“Why?” he asked, clearly not having noticed her tendency.

Before Alessa could answer, Cadence piped in, “So she can escape whenever she wants!” she giggled.

Alessa narrowed her eyes, wrapping her arm around neck her sister’s neck and pulling her along out the house.

For the remainder of the day, Alessa was able to keep her calm, spoiling her sister with affection. When she went to leave, Octo walked her out to her car.

“Why do you still have this car?” she asked, her disapproval at the old car evident.

“I’m saving my money. This car still works. Plus I don’t even drive that often. Why get rid of it?”

Cadence just shrugged. “Thanks again for books,” she said as she threw her arms around her, hugging her one last time before she left.

“Welcome,” Alessa answered, hugging her back. “Sorry about your cake,” Alessa offered quietly, still hugging her sister.

“Shouldn’t I be saying that to you?” Cadence asked, before kissing her quickly on the cheek. “Have me over soon,” she begged once she let go.

“Sure, maybe next Saturday you can spend the night,” Alessa answered vaguely.

“I miss you,” Cadence whispered sadly. “Ever since you started work, you’ve disappeared again, just like when you were in school.” She still had her arms around Alessa’s neck. Alessa frowned at her confession. “Promise I can come over?” Cadence pressed.

“No. But we’ll talk about it with our parents,” she assured.

“Okay,” Cadence relented. “Love you. Call me later.”

“Sure thing,” Alessa promised, kissing the top of her sister’s head before extracting herself from her arms. But Cadence clung on. Alessa laughed. “You are such an octopuss!”

Eventually she was in her little car and pulled from the curb, watching her sister wave in the rear-view mirror. She kept the tears inside for almost an entire block.

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