Joe sat up and reached for his bottle of Vodka. “What do you want?”
“We saw what you did to Emily.” Brian said, pressing ice onto Joe’s face. “We came to teach you a lesson.”
“I didn’t do anything to her!” Joe muttered.
“Bullshit!” AJ yelled. “First, you tried to rape her. And if that wasn’t enough, you kicked her and hit her in the face!”
Joe was silent for a minute, watching AJ. Then, he dropped his bottle and started sobbing. Brian looked over at AJ, perplexed.
“Drunken guilt.” AJ mumbled, remembering what it was like to be in Joe’s shoes. “He needs to dry out.”
Brian and AJ sat watching Joe sob on the bed for twenty minutes before he finally passed out.
“Do we just leave him?” Brian asked.
“You go ahead. I’m going to stay behind and make sure he’s ok. Then, we’re going to talk man to man.”
Brian raised his eyebrows.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill him or anything.” AJ said as he went around the room dumping out all the vodka and tequila bottles.
“If you’re sure, I really should get back home before Leigh starts to worry.” Brian said.
“I’m sure. I’ll see you in the morning.” AJ said.
Brian patted AJ on the back. “Alright, man. Be safe.”
“Thanks, Brian. Could you do me a favor?”
“Anything! Just name it.”
“Can you check on Emily for me? Make sure she’s ok?” AJ asked quietly.
Brian smiled at him. “Sure thing.”
Brian left AJ to watch over the still passed out Joe. When he got home, he peeked in on Emily. She was sound asleep on her small sofa with the now melted ice pack on her face. He removed it for her before covering her with a blanket and turning off the lights. He didn’t feel at all bad about hitting Joe. Seeing what he had done to Emily brought out the old southern boy in him. You just didn’t hit a lady. Ever. It was the exception to his no violence rule.
Leighanne was waiting up for him when he went to bed.
“What’s going on?” she asked, concern written all over her face. “Where did you and AJ go so late?”
Brian sat down on the edge of the bed and recounted the story of Emily coming home with a battered face. Leighanne was silent through the whole story looking completely horrified. She finally spoke when he finished the story.
“Did you hit him hard?” she asked.
“Good.” She said as she wrapped her arms around him and pulled him into bed with her.
AJ sat watching over Joe until the sun came up and Joe started to stir. He walked over to the window and yanked open the curtains, letting in the bright, early morning sun. Joe moaned and tried to pull the blanket up over his head. AJ yanked the covers off the bed.
“Time to wake up!” he said, loudly.
“Go the hell.” Joe moaned.
“Been there, not all that great. In fact, it’s a lot like where you are right now.” AJ said.
“What do you want?”
“You’re going to make this up to Emily.” AJ said.
“Wasn’t that why you bashed my face in?”
“No. Get up. We need to have a conversation, starting with you telling me about your drinking problems.”
“Why the fuck do you care about my problems?” Joe grumbled.
“Let’s just say I’m paying it forward.” AJ said. “Now get your ass out of bed and into the shower before I hit you again.”
Emily woke up to the feeling of a fresh ice pack on her face. She tried to open her eyes but found only one of them would open. The other was still swollen shut.
“It’s just me, Em.” She heard Leighanne’s voice saying. “I think we need to get you to the doctor.”
“NO!” Emily said.
“Emily, you need to be checked out. That eye looks horrible.”
Emily’s chin started to quiver. “They’ll have to file a police report if I go! The last thing I want is for that to get out. Please! I promise I’ll be ok.” Emily pleaded.
Leighanne sighed. She knew Emily had a very valid point. “Alright fine. But if you’re not looking better by tomorrow, you’re going. End of discussion.”
Leighanne went downstairs to curl up next to Brian on the sofa.
“Is she ok?” Brian asked.
Leighanne nodded. “She won’t see a doctor. Her eye looks awful.”
“I know.” Brian agreed. “I checked on her a few times last night and every time I look at her face, my blood boils all over again.”
“I can only imagine how it made AJ feel. Maybe it’ll be a wake up call for him.” Leighanne suggested. “Where is he, anyway? His bedroom door was open and he’s not asleep.”
“He stayed with Joe.” Brian said quietly.
“WHAT?! You left him there?”
“He promised not to kill him…..” Brian tried. He was too late. Leighanne was already on the phone trying to get a hold of AJ.
“AJ! Where are you?” Leighanne screeched into the phone when he picked up.
“Relax, Leigh. Joe’s still alive. He’s in the shower sobering up then he and I are going to have a little talk. I’ll be home soon.” AJ reassured her.
“I swear.” AJ said.
“Ok. We’ll be waiting for you.” Leigh said.
“How is she?” he whispered.
“She looks awful but her stubborn attitude is still in tact.”
“Won’t go to the doctor, huh?” AJ chuckled.
“Do me a favor?” AJ asked.
“Take care of her for me?”
“AJ, you get your butt back here and take care of her yourself!” Leighanne said, hanging up on him.
AJ was sipping a cup of coffee when Joe came out of the shower, squinting at the light.
“Feel better?” AJ asked.
“What the hell do you want?”
AJ was tired of Joe’s attitude. “Do you even know what you did last night?!” he said, shooting to his feet.
Joe flinched; afraid he was going to get punched again. For such a skinny guy, AJ sure had a lot of power behind his fists. The thing was, that was about the only thing he remembered from last night.
“Why’d you hit me?” he asked.
“Why did I hit you? Are you kidding? Wait, I get it. You don’t remember, right? Well let me tell you exactly why I hit you. First of all, you hit Emily. That’s what led to your face getting punched in.”
“I did not! She probably made that up or something!” Joe yelled.
“The hell she did, I saw her face and when you go over today to apologize to her you’ll see for yourself exactly what you did to her.”
The look on AJ’s face told Joe he wasn’t messing around. “I…I hit her?” he asked quietly.
AJ nodded. “She said she came here to tell you to stay away from her and you didn’t like that very much so first, you tried to rape her. When she put up too much of a fight for your liking, you knocked her over, kicked her in the stomach before forcing her to her feet so you could smack her across the face. Then she kneed you a good one in your jewels and bolted home. That’s why Brian and I paid you a little visit last night.”
Joe sat down, shocked. “I was wondering why my nads hurts so much…….” He put his head in his hands. “I just can’t believe this happened. I never meant to hurt her, you have to believe me! Shit. They warned me. They fucking told me something like this could happen but I was too fucking stupid to listen!”
“Who told you?” AJ pried.
Joe sighed. “I’m a drunk. I’ve been trying to sober up, you know, the whole AA thing and all. Lately, things have been a little harder and I just didn’t care anymore. My sponsors kept telling me I’d do something I’d regret, that one night my drinking would go too far and I’d hurt myself or someone else.”
AJ pulled out his keys and handed them to Joe. “See that?” he said, pointing to his medal from AA for his sobriety. “I’ve been there, man. I have seen just how far I was willing to go for a drink. I have gotten myself into some serious messes in my time. I know where you are. That’s why I’m here now.”
Joe looked skeptical. “Look, I’m not here to give you the big speech on sobriety or anything, I’m just telling you that I know where you’re coming from. I’ve used every excuse in the book and then some for my behavior. Truth is, there’s just no justifying it and I think you know that.” AJ said. “There comes a time when every drunk hits rock bottom and I think you’re just about there. What you did to Emily is unforgivable. You know that, right?”
“Then what do you plan to do about it?”
“I’m going to find a way to make it up to her.” Joe mumbled.
“I’ll go over there with you right now and tell her how sorry I am. And then when she won’t buy it, because she has every right not to, then I’ll be at rock bottom. I’m going to go home and sober up.”
AJ nodded. “Good. But Joe, there’s just one more thing I have to say to you.” AJ got right up in Joe’s face until he was about an inch away.
“You have hurt that woman more than you’ll ever know, and by God if you ever hurt her again in any way, I swear to God I will fucking kill you. Got it?”
Joe nodded, his eyes widening a bit. Judging by the look on AJ’s face, he meant every word he just said.
“Do you love her?” Joe asked.
AJ paused. “Yeah, I love her a lot.”
“Then take my advice.” Joe said. “Don’t fuck it up. Trust me; you don’t want to know what it’s like to lose her.”
Emily was just coming out of the shower when Brian knocked on her door. She threw on her bathrobe and cracked open the door.
“It’s just me, Em.” He said.
Emily opened the door the rest of the way. Brian looked her up and down, clenching his fists as he did so. “You look like shit.” He said.
“Gee, thanks. As if I hadn’t already noticed.”
“Sorry. Look, Leighanne wanted me to ask you if you wanted her to cancel Thanksgiving. She hasn’t put the turkey in quite yet.”
“Nonsense! Your parents are still in town! Look, I’ll just stay up here all day and you can tell them I’m not feeling well but please don’t change your plans on my account.”
“You can’t spend Thanksgiving stuck up in your room!”
“Sure I can. Until you came up here I didn’t even remember it was Thanksgiving today. Besides, I don’t want Baylee to see my face. I don’t want to scare him!”
Brian shook his head. “I want Baylee to see you, Emily. I want him to learn early on what happens when you don’t treat a lady properly. I was about his age when my father started clueing me in on the ways of a southern gentleman. It’s about time I start teaching him.”
Emily smiled. “Well, your father did do an incredible job, so I’d say if that’s what he did, then that’s what you should do. Just leave my face out of it.”
Brian chuckled. “Alright, have it your way. I’ll bring you up a plate of dinner. Trust me; this is one meal you won’t want to miss.”
Emily shut the door and picked out some clothes to wear. She put back the sweats she originally pulled out and decided to wear something a little nicer to make herself feel better. She settled for khaki pants and the sweater that Kristin had made for her birthday.
Brian was just getting settled into watching the Macy’s parade with Baylee when the relatives started showing up. First he greeted Leighanne’s parents, closely followed by his own parents who brought with them a surprise guest…Kevin and Kristin!
“Hey Kev! I wasn’t expecting to see you here!” Brian said, hugging Kevin at the door.
“Well, my folks both came down with the flu and they aren’t doing anything this year. My brothers are both at their in-laws this year and Kristin’s parents are in Europe. So, I thought I’d crash your party. Your mom said it was ok.”
“Of course it’s ok!” Leighanne said.
“Can I give you a hand with anything?” Kristin offered.
“Absolutely!” She said as she ushered Kristin off to the kitchen.
“I hate to be rude but I’ve really got to make a pit stop. Mind if I use your bathroom?”
Brian laughed. “Not at all but you’ll have to use the one upstairs. Dad’s in the one down here.”
“Thanks.” Kevin said, climbing the stairs two at a time with his long legs.
Emily was just opening her door to try and hear what all the commotion downstairs was when Kevin appeared at the top of the steps.
“Hey Em!” he said as he turned down the hall. Suddenly, he stopped and walked back over to her. He paused, took one look at her and forgot all about going to the bathroom.
“What the hell happened to you?” he said, with a raised voice.
Emily froze. Kevin could be incredibly intimidating when he was angry, especially if you happened to be a little jumpy at the moment. She flinched when he reached up to touch her swollen and bruised cheek, pulling away from his hand.
“Jesus.” He muttered. “Who did it?” he demanded. “Where’s AJ?”
“Kevin…I…it’s not what you think…” Emily tried.
“The hell it isn’t what I think! I think someone beat the shit out of you. Can you tell me that isn’t what happened?” he said.
“Kevin, I’m ok!” Thankfully, Brian came to her rescue.
“She’s ok, Kevin.” He said.
“You know about this?” Kevin asked, turning to Brian.
“When?” Kevin asked.
“Who?” Kevin asked, his voice dropping, praying it wasn’t AJ.
“No one you know.” Brian answered.
Brian looked uneasy as he glanced over at Emily.
“He’s not here.” He answered.
“He’s not here?” Emily asked.
“He’ll be back.” Brian said. “Come on, Kevin. Let’s go watch the game.” He said, grabbing Kevin’s arm and trying to lead him away from Emily.
“I want a damn explanation, Brian. Where is AJ and who did this to her?” Kevin said, planting his feet.
Brian sighed. He looked at Emily for help and she simply nodded at him. “Emily, are you sure it’s ok for me to tell him? It’s your privacy, if you don’t want him to know details, I won’t tell him.”
“It’s ok, Brian. I have a feeling he’s not leaving until he knows everything. You might as well come in and sit down.” Emily said, walking back into her room and sitting on the couch. Kevin sat next to her while Brian sat in the chair across from them.
“Emily’s ex Joe came over yesterday. I guess he wanted her back. She went over to his hotel room last night to tell him to get lost. He was totally hammered, tried to force himself on her and then took a few shots at her. She got away from him and came here. She claims she’s fine, just the bruised eye and a few bruised ribs.”
“Where’s AJ?” Kevin asked.
“I’m right here.” AJ said, walking into the room.
Three heads snapped to the door as AJ walked in. “Kevin. I wasn’t expecting to see you.” He said.
Kevin looked at AJ’s face and knew something was up. “I don’t feel like I’m getting all of the story here.”
“You’re not.” AJ said.
Emily’s eyes widened. As far as she knew, that was the story. What had she missed?
“Brian and I went over to have a little talk with Joe last night. We handled it.” AJ said.
“WHAT?!” Emily jumped to her feet and immediately regretted it as she wrapped her arm around her sore abdomen. AJ grabbed her and gently guided her back to her seat.
“What? You didn’t think we were going to let him get away with it, did you?” AJ said.
“I guess I never thought about it.” Emily said.
Kevin looked a little more appeased. “You get him good?” he asked AJ.
“Damn. I wish I could’ve had a go at him.” Kevin said.
AJ cleared his throat and knelt down to Emily. “Brian and I did go over there last night, Em. Brian left and I stayed with him and we had a talk this morning.”
Emily looked up into his big, brown eyes. “You had a talk?”
AJ nodded. “One drunk to another. He didn’t even remember what happened last night.”
“Well, I sure hope you filled him in.” Emily scoffed.
“I did, don’t worry. But I also told him he could see for himself when he came to apologize…”
“AJ, no! I don’t want to see him!” Emily said, becoming so upset that she was trembling.
“Emily, I know it’s hard but he needs to do this, and you need to let him. Give it some closure.” AJ said.
“Yes, you can. Emily, you’re safe here. You’ve got three men in here to protect you and we’re not going anywhere. I promise, I won’t let him hurt you again, ok?” AJ said softly, gently rubbing her knees as he spoke.
Finally, Emily nodded her head.
“Come on in, Joe.” AJ called.
Joe walked in slowly. Kevin shot to his feet.
“Sit down, Kevin.” AJ warned.
Kevin looked at Emily, who nodded at him, and he moved to stand with AJ and Brian.
Joe knelt on the floor in front of Emily. Emily kept her head down, refusing to look at him and trying to keep her hands from shaking. He took a minute to look at the damage he had done to her.
“Damn.” He whispered as he reached out to touch her face.
Emily jerked away from him and Joe quickly lowered his hands. AJ grabbed Kevin’s arm to keep him from interfering.
“Emily….I…..I’m sorry. I can’t believe I did this to you. I know you can never forgive me…..I don’t think I deserve it anyway……I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am. I…I’m going home and I’m going to sober up and clean up my life. I know you don’t believe me, and I don’t blame you for that either, but I am going to make this up to you starting with that. I’m so sorry about the way things between us happened, Em. You deserve so much better than me. And you know what? That guy over there, he loves you an awful lot. Way more than I ever could. You’re better off. I’m sorry.”
Emily finally found the courage to lift her head and look him in the eye. She couldn’t manage to speak; all she could do was blink in acknowledgement. Joe got up to leave, stopping to shake AJ’s hand first.
“Remember what I told you.” AJ warned. “I meant it.”
“I know you did.” Joe said. “I should be going. The cab’s waiting for me.” Joe said, and let himself out of the bedroom.
AJ sat down next to Emily and put a hand on her arm. “Are you ok?” he asked softly.
Emily nodded. “Where is he going?”
“Do you think he really meant what he said?”
“I think he meant all of it.” AJ said.
“AJ…thank you.” Emily whispered.
AJ kissed the top of her head. “You don’t need to thank me.”
“AJ?” she asked.
“Can I….have a hug?”
AJ smiled. “Anytime.” He said as he gently gathered her up in his arms and held her. Brian and Kevin took their cues and left the room.
AJ and Kevin managed to convince Emily to come downstairs for dinner. Brian promised her that he had prepared everyone so that no one would be shocked when they saw her. He tried to explain to Baylee what he could, but he couldn’t keep the scared face from the little boy’s face when he first saw his nanny. Seeing the look on Baylee’s face made Emily just want to cry, but not as much as she wanted to when he wrapped his arms around her legs and said softly, “I’m sorry you got treated bad, Miss. Emily. I promise I’ll never do that to anyone.”
“That’s very good to hear, Baylee. Always remember that promise!” Emily said.
“Come sit down, dear.” Brian’s mom insisted. AJ pulled out her chair for her.
“You don’t think this is the first time we’ve had someone at the table with a shiner, do ya?” Brian’s dad asked. “I raised country boys! Not a week went by one of them got banged up!” Everyone chuckled and Emily appreciated his attempt to ease her tension. Brian’s dad led the prayer before dinner and Emily felt AJ give her hand a squeeze under the table. Brian carved the turkey and soon everyone’s plates were overflowing with food and everyone talked in between bites of food.
After dinner and the serving of 5 kinds of pie, the women went to sit down and sip coffee while the men cleaned up, a tradition Brian’s dad started many years ago. He figured it was the least he could to do show his wife appreciation for such a delicious meal.
“Anyone going shopping tomorrow?” Kristin asked. “I can’t wait to hit up the sales!”
“I never go shopping on Black Friday!” Emily said. “Way too many people out there trying to get the best deals. I’d rather go when things are calmer.”
“Really?” Leighanne asked. “I love it! It’s so exciting, the first day of the Christmas season.”
“I usually spend the day after Thanksgiving putting up my Christmas Village.” Emily said.
“You have a village?!” Leighanne exclaimed. “Which one?”
“I collect the Department 56 North Pole Series, do you know it?” Emily said.
“Do I know it? Of course I know it! I collect the Snow Village!!”
“When are you putting yours up?” Emily asked.
“Why don’t we do it tomorrow? Brian usually puts up the Christmas lights on Saturday and Sunday we have to go down to Orlando to get ready for the Backstreet Ball the following Friday night. Do you still have your village?”
“I do, I’m not quite sure where it ended up but I’m pretty sure I sent it to the basement. We’ll have to see if we can dig it out. I was actually hoping to go get a few new pieces, they just released some new buildings and they’re super cute!”
“I know the perfect store to get them at. I’ll take you there tomorrow!” Leighanne said.
“Brian, you’d better get in here!” Kristin called.
Brian appeared, drying his hands on a dish towel. “What’s going on?”
“Leighanne just discovered Emily has a Department 56 village of her own.” Kristin explained. “They’re going to set both of them up tomorrow and go shopping for new pieces.”
Brian sighed. “Lordy, Leighanne! Just what you need, a counterpart!”
Leighanne rolled her eyes. “Brian pretends like he doesn’t like it, but one year I didn’t get it up until a week after Thanksgiving and he nagged me non-stop about it. He’s picked out over half of my buildings!”
The rest of the men came in and joined them. AJ sat down next to Emily.
“Kevin, how long are you staying?” Leighanne asked.
“We planned on staying until Sunday until we all have to be in Orlando. Kristin is insisting on shopping with you tomorrow morning. Something about a sale starting at 5 in the morning?”
“Don’t worry Kevin. You get to stay in bed.” Leighanne said. “What about you, AJ?”
Emily held her breath.
“Actually, I have to leave tomorrow morning. I have a few things I need to get done this weekend.”
Emily’s face fell. Maybe things weren’t working out as much as she thought they were.
As the night wound down, Brian’s family went back to their hotel. Leighanne and Kristin went to bed early to rest up for their early morning shopping spree. Emily declined going and sent Leighanne to bed with a list of things to look for. She really didn’t feel comfortable going out in public with a battered face. Brian made himself scarce hoping that AJ and Emily would talk.
AJ found Emily putting some more wood on the fire with all the lights turned out.
“You like sitting in the dark, don’t you?” he said, sitting down on the couch.
“I’m not in the dark, I’m in the firelight!”
They sat together on the couch for several minutes, not speaking, just watching the fire. Finally, AJ spoke.
“Look, Emily, I…..” he started.
“No, let me go first.” She interrupted him. “I just wanted to say thank you for everything you did.”
“You don’t have to thank me. It was more of an instinct than anything else. When I saw how hurt you were, all I could think of was pounding whoever did it into the ground.”
Emily smiled. “I wish I could have done it myself. So…you’re leaving in the morning?”
“Do I have a reason to stay?” he asked.
Emily couldn’t believe her ears. A reason to stay?
“Do you feel like you don’t have one?” she replied.
AJ looked at her. “What happened to us?” he asked.
“I thought you would have known. I certainly don’t have a clue.” She said. “I wasn’t really the one who pulled away in the first place.”
“You weren’t the one? You don’t think so? Emily, all you’ve been doing since I met you was try to pull away from me, always using the same lame excuse of having too much baggage. You think I’m to blame?” AJ said, his voice full of bitterness.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. I have always been honest with you, AJ. The least you could have done was be honest with me about what was going on with you the last time you left here. You could have woken me up instead of writing me that stupid note. You could have called me, you could have written me!”
“Well, communication works two ways, babe!” he said hotly. “Maybe I didn’t call because you didn’t and I thought you didn’t want to talk to me!”
“That’s ridiculous!” she shot back.
“You know, I can’t believe you sometimes, AJ. Grow up!”
“You know what? Maybe you were right all along. Maybe you do have too much baggage for me to handle. Goodnight.” AJ threw at her as he got up and left the room.