Aubrey stared into her drink. Someone was talking, but she wasn’t listening. She took a deep breath and finished the whiskey and water in one draft. Then she put the glass down, stood up, dropped some bills on the bar and headed for the door.
The man who had been talking grabbed her by the arm. “What’s your hurry, Blondie?”
Aubrey looked down at the arm and then slowly lifted her head to meet the man’s eyes.
He blanched and pulled his hand back as if it were burnt. Her eyes looked dead, and he couldn’t tell if she wished that fate on him or on herself. “Sorry.” He muttered, “mistook you for someone else.”
Aubrey inclined her head once and continued her way out of the tavern. She hailed a cab, gave her address and settled in the back seat. She stared out the window but saw nothing. Atlanta meant nothing to her; it was just her prison.
Katherine walked into Emily’s room to find her daughter curled up on the window seat, staring out the window. “Baby?”
“I don’t wanna talk about it, mom.” Emily’s voice was flat.
Katherine sat down on Emily’s bed. “It’s been two weeks, Baby. You hardly eat or sleep. You won’t tell us why you are here, or where Aub...”
“Don’t say her name.” Emily snapped an interruption.
Katherine caught her breath. Her daughter had never spoken to her like that before. Without another word, she stood up and quietly exited the room, closing the door behind her.
Chloe looked over the Bella chat and then frowned.
Chloe: Hey, Becs, have you talked to Bree or Legacy lately?
Beca: not in a while.
Beca: last personal text was a couple of weeks ago.
Chloe: they haven’t been in the chat for two weeks either. Bree isn’t answering her phone.
Beca: maybe they eloped.
Chloe: I’ll kill them.
Beca: you are just mad because we didn’t think of it first.
Chloe: I hate you.
Beca: said with all love. Be home in an hour.
Chloe: ok. Love you be safe.
Beca: you got it. Mwah!
“The Lodge seems to be doing well.” General Posen cleared his throat.
Aubrey nodded. She was stirring her coffee. “It’s fine.”
Her father studied her, “then what’s the problem?”
“No problem,” Aubrey looked up, a fake smile plastered to her face. Her hazel eyes looked dull and listless, however. “We have a full slate of clients coming in, and our return rate has doubled over last year.”
“I knew you could do it.” General Posen smiled proudly. “Business is in our blood.”
Aubrey shrugged, “then why did you go military?”
He huffed and took a bite of his meal. “It was my path, Aubrey. As a second son, I didn’t inherit the family company. It was my responsibility to bring honor to the family through the military.”
“God, you make it sound like we are still living in medieval Europe. Primogeniture is so passé.” Aubrey rolled her eyes.
“You can say that since I’ve no sons and no business to inherit.” His voice was cold. “We are still expected to proudly carry the Posen name. This company of yours should erase the embarrassment of your collegiate career.”
Aubrey’s eyes narrowed. “My collegiate career may have had some rough patches, but I am proud of the work I did with my last class. Didn’t you listen to the way we sounded in France?”
General Posen dismissed her question with a wave of his fork. “Of course. It was delightful. It was hardly worthy of the Posen name, however.”
“Anything else, sir?” Aubrey ground her teeth, “I do have other things to attend to.”
He looked down at her untouched plate and shrugged. “You may go,” he dismissed her as easily as he had her question. “See you next week.”
Aubrey stood and walked to the front door. A non-commissioned officer handed over her purse and keys, then opened the front door for her. “Thank you,” she said before remembering they wouldn’t even acknowledge her with a glance. She sighed and went to her car. If she hurried, she would be off base before taps sounded.
Emily turned when there was a knock at her bedroom door. “I don’t want to see anyone.”
Her father opened the door and stepped in, closing the door behind him. “I know you don’t. That’s too bad, because I need to talk to you.”
“I don’t want to talk about it, dad.” Emily turned her face back to the window.
“I know that, too.” He sat down on the bed. “Here’s the thing. I have never been embarrassed that you were my daughter until now.”
Emily whirled around, her eyes blazing. “How dare you?”
“I dare because I am your father and I love you. I just don’t like you very much right now.” He studied her carefully. “I can’t get a read on what’s going on because you are hiding away up here like you are Emily Dickinson. For over two weeks you have been anti-social, and rude. Obviously, you are hurt. I thought you came home to heal, but instead you are lashing out at your mother. Hurting her is not going to make you feel better.”
“I know,” Emily sighed and looked out the window again. “I’m sorry.”
Her father waited and then said, “not sorry enough to do anything about it.”
Emily looked at the ceiling. “There is nothing I can do, dad.”
“Why don’t you fight for her?” He was careful not to mention Aubrey’s name.
Emily shook her head. “I broke up with her.”
Her father blinked with surprise. “Then why?” He started to ask and stopped himself. “You don’t act like it was your choice.”
Emily looked out the window. “I can’t have her, dad. I’m not good for her.”
“I can’t explain. Please, don’t ask me to explain.” Emily turned to look at her father with tears running down her cheeks.
He reached out and she moved off of the window seat and into his arms. She cried like she hadn’t cried since she was a child, mourning all of her broken dreams. “I won’t ask, but I don’t believe you.” He whispered into Emily’s hair.
Chloe: Hey Legs, have you heard from Legacy lately?
Stacie: nope. Been a couple of weeks, now that you mention it. Everything ok?
Chloe: I don’t know. She and Aubrey are offline. I can’t reach either of them.
Stacie: did they elope?
Chloe: Beca thinks so, but I’m not so sure. Something feels wrong.
Stacie: I’ll ask around. You may wanna check with Esther.
Chloe: Beca is on it.
Beca looked up from her phone. “Ok, you may be right.”
Chloe put her phone down. “Why?” She felt her stomach knot with nerves.
“Esther says Emily flew to Ohio three weeks ago, alone.” Beca chewed her lower lip.
Chloe picked her phone up again.
Chloe: Is everyone ok at your place, Katherine?
Katherine: define ok
Chloe felt the knot tighten.
Chloe: We haven’t heard from Aubrey or your daughter for several weeks. We thought maybe you had a family thing?
Katherine: We do not.
Katherine: Emily is here but won’t talk to any of us.
Chloe: I’m scared, Katherine. Did something happen to Aubrey?
Katherine: I wish I knew, Chloe. Bubba says Emily thinks she is bad for Aubrey. That’s all we can get out of her.
Chloe digested that information.
Chloe: I will hope that means Aubrey is at least alive. Thanks, Katherine. I’ll let you know if I find anything out.
Katherine: same ttys.
Chloe looked at Beca. “I need to go to Atlanta.”
Beca nodded and started making arrangements. “Esther found an address. It’s a rough part of town, Chlo.”
“But she’s alive.” Chloe clung to that.
Aubrey sat staring at another drink. Nothing helped. The alcohol was supposed to numb her, but it didn’t. She just ended up with a roiling stomach and flashbacks to her Junior year. She pushed the glass away, pushed her hair out of her face and pushed the phone pinging with notifications across the table. She wasn’t good company, not for herself and not for anyone else. She had six glorious days before she was expected at her next Posen command appearance.
She didn’t know what to do with those days. The lodge ran without her, now. The only friends she had reminded her of .... she couldn’t bring herself to think of the name even. She picked up the glass of vodka and swallowed a huge gulp. “Damn it, kill the pain,” she muttered.
Chloe stood before a door in a part of Atlanta she didn’t know. She looked down at the address Esther had tracked down, double checked that it matched the one on the door, took a deep breath and knocked.
“I didn’t order anything. Go away.”
Chloe felt that now familiar knot in her stomach as she recognized the voice slurring angrily through the door. She called out, softly she hoped but loudly enough to get through the door. “Let me in, Elf.” She held her breath.
Chloe blinked. That was not the answer she expected. “Elf, please, let me help.”
“No one can help. Don’t be nice to me, Chloe. I ruin everything I touch.”
Chloe rested her head against the door. “That’s not true, Elf. It may feel that way, but it’s not true.”
“Go back to Beca, Chloe. Love,” Aubrey’s voice broke. “Live your life.”
Chloe heard Aubrey walk away from the door and she started to swear under her breath. She didn’t have a key to this place. She could call the police for a wellness check, but Aubrey might never forgive her. What the fuck was going on?
Katherine Junk blinked when she opened the door and saw Beca Mitchell on the far side. “Come in,” she gestured to the former Bella captain. “You could have saved a trip. Emily still isn’t speaking to anyone.”
Beca set her lips in a tight line. “Much as I’d like her to talk, I need her to listen.”
Katherine nodded and pointed toward the stairs. “She has the room at the end.”
“Thank you.” Beca marched resolutely toward the bedroom in question and opened the door without knocking.
Emily turned toward the door, ready to blast whoever invaded her sanctum only to stare stupidly when she recognized her visitor.
Beca turned on the light. Emily blinked at the sudden brightness. “You look like shit, Junk.”
“Then leave so you don’t have to look at me.” Emily turned back to look out the window. It was the only thing she did and had done for almost three weeks.
Beca looked around the room. The bed was unmade, a tray of food lay untouched on the desk. Emily’s hair was tousled and unkempt, dull in color and starting to mat. Emily’s clothes hung on her loosely. “Jesus, Junk, are you trying to starve yourself to death?”
“Leave me alone, Beca.”
“Nope. I hear you don’t want to talk. Ok, then listen. I don’t know what is going on between you and Posen, but it’s killing you both.”
Emily turned abruptly back toward Beca. “What’s wrong with her?”
Beca stifled a smile. She had hoped that might get through. “I am not sure.”
Emily turned away again, “fuck off.”
“Jesus, let a girl finish.” Beca muttered. “It took us two weeks to figure out you two must have split. It took Esther another week to track her down. She doesn’t go to the Lodge; she gave up her house and the only place we know for sure she goes is the army base once a week.”
“Of course, she does. Her dad is the new commandant.”
Beca digested that news. “Since when?”
“Last month.” Emily answered flatly.
“Is he why you are on the outs?” Beca pushed. “Posen won’t talk to Chloe except through a closed door. She sounds drunk all the time.”
Emily turned her head so that she was almost looking over her shoulder. “It’s all for nothing?”
Beca moved closer, softening her voice. “She’s miserable, Em. You may be starving yourself to death; she is drinking herself to death. What the fuck happened?”
“Oh, my god, Beca!” Emily started to cry. “He said he would ruin her. How could he do that to his own child?”
Beca felt a chill down her spine. “Her dad?” When Emily nodded Beca ground her teeth. “Ok, Em, I need you to get your ass off that window seat and take a shower, you smell like shit. I’m gonna talk to Chloe, and then we are gonna feed you. I’ll buy you a dozen shakes from the Barden diner to get weight back on you.” She pulled Emily to her feet. “Go on.”
“Beca, I can’t. I can’t let him do that to her.” Emily dragged her feet.
“Shit, Em, between us, Chloe, Amy and I got more money than God. We’re gonna find a way to protect Posen from that ass hole. Now get in that shower!”
Emily dragged herself to the bathroom while Beca started a chat.
Beca: Posen’s sperm donor threatened Emily with ruining Bree.
Amy: Damn he is as bad as mine.
Chloe: What do we do?
Beca: I dunno I’m trying to get Emily put back together. I’ll bring her to Atlanta, but I gotta warn you she looks like she hasn’t eaten or slept in weeks.
Amy: Ginger, you work on getting Posen out of her cell. I’ll work on security.
Chloe: not following.
Amy: call Esther. Figure out when you can catch Posen away from her place. If that won’t work, Esther may know how to get in. Ima go find out how sperm donor thinks he can ruin his daughter.
Beca: that works, Ames. I dunno what was said when they broke up. I hope it’s fixable.
Chloe: Bree thinks she ruins everything she touches.
Beca: fuck. We all gotta learn to talk.
Amy: speak for yourself, Shawshank. Get moving. I got work to do.
Aubrey’s shoulders slumped as she locked her apartment door. It was time to meet her father and it was the last thing she wanted to do. With a heavy sigh, she headed downstairs to the parking lot to wait for her Uber. She didn’t trust herself to drive.
“Need a lift?”
Aubrey whirled at the sound of the familiar voice. “Chloe, don’t.” She pulled nervously at her hair that would not stay contained in its bun. She turned away again. “I don’t want you to see me like this.”
Chloe walked over and wrapped her arms around Aubrey from behind. “I don’t care what you look like, Elf. I just care about you.”
“Don’t,” Aubrey whispered.
“Too late. Rumor has it you meet the General tonight.” Chloe continued to hug her friend.
“How did?” Aubrey began.
“Esther,” Chloe answered. “Let me take you away from here. We can go to Stacie’s.”
Aubrey shook her head violently. “No! I’m a mess, Chloe. I can’t.”
“Then my hotel room. Let me help you.” Chloe was insistent. She moved around to look at her friend and was startled by the listless look in her eyes.
“My father is expecting me.” Aubrey protested weakly.
Chloe nodded her head. “We are giving him a taste of his own medicine. Let him expect you and you don’t show up.”
For the first time in weeks a real smile tugged at Aubrey’s lips, even if it didn't quite reach her eyes. “I may regret this, but ok. Your hotel.”
Chloe smiled triumphantly. It was worth paying off the Uber driver and flying across the country for that small smile. She guided Aubrey to her hired car and headed back to her hotel.
Emily sat on the bed in Beca’s hotel room while her former captain brushed the mats out of her hair. “I don’t see,” she began.
“You aren’t seeing a lot of things clearly, Legacy. I get the General screwed you guys up. I get that you think you were protecting your girl.” Beca interrupted.
“She isn’t my girl anymore.” Emily interjected sadly.
Beca came around to face Emily. “I’ve known that woman for almost ten years, Em. There are only three people in this world that light her up. The first is Beale, the second is Bella.” Beca crouched down and placed her hand on Emily’s knee. “Neither of them lights her up like you do.”
Emily blushed, “maybe that used to be true, but I broke it.”
“What did you say to her?” Beca asked gently. Emily shook her head but Beca persisted. “If we are going to fix this, Em, you have to tell me.”
Emily looked up at Beca with tears in her eyes. “I told her I was marrying Benji.”
Beca’s breath caught in her chest. “Shit, Em, why did you say that?”
Emily nodded. “I was trying to find a way she would forget about me. The only thing I could think of was to let her think I was too chicken shit to go against convention.” Emily took a deep breath. “Ohio is as conservative as Georgia. It was going to be a constant struggle either place to be accepted.” Emily looked down at the bed, “so I told her I didn’t love her enough to go through it.”
Beca stood up and returned to brushing Emily’s hair. As she stroked the long brown strands into neatness she asked, “do you?”
“Do I what?” Emily was so busy berating herself that she forgot what they were talking about.
“Do you love her enough to fight for her?” Beca spoke softly.
“I could fight anyone but her father.” Emily whispered.
Beca nodded, “ok. Then we will handle him. You get your girl back.”
Beca put the brush down. “Let’s go find out.” She walked back to face Emily and extended a hand. “I know where to find her.”
Emily took the offered hand and stood up, dazed. Would Aubrey even consider taking her back? Her heart hammered at the thought.
Amy looked around the large conference table. The man at the head of the table smiled condescendingly at the others gathered. “This meeting of the stockholders and board members of the Lodge at Fallen Leaves is now in session. I believe our first order of business is...”
Another voice interrupted. “A vote of no confidence.”
“You are out of order, madam.” The General’s eyes flashed his irritation.
The second voice belonged to a woman who sat with her arms crossed and gazed calmly back at the army officer. “Robert’s Rules do not bind when there is a call for a no-confidence vote. I call for one.”
General Posen gritted his teeth. “What are the grounds for this vote?”
“First, there has been a change in the stockholder share. Second, there are rumors a member of this board has misused power.” She looked around the table. “Do I hear a second.”
“I thought we didn’t need Robert’s rules,” Amy laughed but added, “I second.”
“Wait.” General Posen raised his voice. “We need more information. Rumors are not the way to run a business.”
Amy smirked. “Very well. First, while you still do hold your thirty percent, it is no longer the largest holding. There is now a majority owner of the Lodge. I hold 52% of the shares.”
“Who are you? What do you mean?” General Posen glared at Amy.
“Patricia Hobart, General. A Barden Bella who believes in your daughter.” Amy smirked again. “And it wasn’t very hard to convince minority holders to sell after seeing how you treat her.”
The General stiffened his back. “I treat my daughter quite well and family is none of your business.”
The other woman spoke up, “when you were elected chairman, we were not aware your shared family name was anything but a coincidence. After all, there is an entire town named after you in Michigan. However, we have evidence you not only are the Director’s father but have used your position on the board to interfere with her job performance.”
“I have done nothing of the kind.” General Posen crossed his arms to mirror his accuser.
Amy turned to another attendee. “Mr. Grenache, when was the last time Miss Posen actively took part in a Lodge event?”
“Four weeks ago, Miss Hobart.”
“Did she take an official leave?” Amy persisted.
Mr. Grenache nodded. “She took immediate personal leave, citing an unexpected loss.”
“What loss?” The General looked back and forth between Amy and Mr. Grenache.
“You broke up her relationship, you twit.” Amy glared at him. “I believe the exact sentiment was you would ruin Miss Posen if the relationship remained as it was.”
A fourth voice spoke up. “Homophobia is real, but there is no place for it in our business. We have a policy of inclusion that has served us well for decades. Disregarding the complication of the familial relationship, which is a conflict in and of itself, putting the Lodge in danger of a sexual discrimination lawsuit is a disqualifying act.” He looked around the table. “All in favor of no confidence, raise your hand.”
General Posen watched as his was the only hand that stayed down. He was finished.
Beca used her key card to let herself and Emily into the suite. Emily still kept her eyes focused on the floor as they entered, afraid of what she would see.
Chloe spoke up. “Aubrey is resting in the other room. Oh, Em.” She hurried over to the younger woman who looked so thin and pale. “You should have talked to us, honey.”
Before Emily could answer, Amy burst through the door. “It’s done. Get Posen out here.”
Beca grinned and ran to the room set aside for Aubrey. Emily watched out of the corner of her eye as Chloe and Amy chattered excitedly about something. The only words Emily caught were no confidence and majority.
Beca dragged a reluctant Aubrey into the room, while the blonde was still rubbing her eyes. As soon as she saw Emily, Aubrey’s face paled and she pulled away. Amy dashed over.
“Oh no you don’t,” Amy grabbed Aubrey by the hand, noting how small it was compared to the strength that arm held in the robust and active woman she remembered. “You,” she pointed at Emily. “Sit.”
Emily did as she was told.
Amy nodded, “you two have been acting a few stubbies short of a six pack. Here’s the John Dory.”
“What the hell does that mean, Ames?” Beca laughed.
“The story, now stop interrupting.” Amy glared at Beca and then brought her attention back to Aubrey and Emily. “Your sperm donor is a piece of work, Aubrey.” Amy hesitated, “I need a nickname for you. I don’t wanna use his name or title anymore.”
Aubrey just nodded, still staring at Emily, who wouldn’t meet her eyes. As Aubrey took in the pale face, the drawn expression, the dull color of her hair, her heart broke again.
“Anyway, your sperm donor threatened your girl here with ruining you if you two stayed together.” Amy waited to see if either girl wanted to speak. When they didn’t, she sighed. “He’d gotten himself a hefty number of shares so he could control the Lodge.”
Aubrey turned her head to look at Amy, as if the information was just starting to trickle into her understanding.
Emily stole a glance at Aubrey and tears started to form in her eyes again. Her former girlfriend looked painfully thin. The skin over her face looked taut and her fingernails were broken. Even from the side, it was clear Aubrey was exhausted. Emily dropped her eyes as the tears escaped onto her cheeks.
Amy nodded. “We just held a no confidence vote and elected a new board whose first order of business was to reinforce the diversity policy of the industry establishment.” She grinned, “and as majority stake holder, I plan to keep them honest.”
“You are the majority stakeholder?”
“That’s what you got out of this?” Amy shook her head. “I’ve been calling the wrong woman stupid. Get your head out of your ass, Aubrey. Your girl was trying to protect you from your sperm donor.”
Aubrey looked at Emily again, noticing again how pale she looked and how ill-fitting her clothes were. She moved forward slowly. “Oh, sweetie, what have you done to yourself?”
Chloe felt hopeful as she saw a light that had been missing in Aubrey’s eyes. She tugged at Amy, “come on, let’s give them some time.”
“One more thing.” Amy pulled free from Chloe’s grasp. “Legacy, I’m pretty sure you quit your job before you headed off to Ohio, right?” Emily, who had slowly brought her head up to look at Aubrey, nodded. “Right. You, Wattle, have already taken leave.”
“Wattle?” Chloe interrupted.
“Keep up, Ginger. National flower of Australia. Blonde as she is.” Amy answered impatiently. “You two are coming with me for a month r and r. This whole self-destruct in the name of love is good for movies but it doesn't work for me in real life. I got a nutritionist and exercise coach on site. I’ll have a therapist there by the time we arrive. You two gotta get your heads on straight.”
Aubrey and Emily both just nodded, eyes still focused on each other.
“We’ll clean that all up later, Ames.” Beca laughed quietly. “Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.” She guided her girlfriend and best friend out of the suite.
Aubrey knelt down next to Emily. “I thought you were getting married?” She studied the brown eyes, looking for any of the love she used to see there.
Emily’s eyes were full of misery as she shook her head. She looked down at the floor. “I needed you to get over me.” Her voice shook. “He said...”
“I don’t want to talk about him.” Aubrey reached a hand up and placed it tenderly on Emily’s cheek. “What have you done to yourself, Em?”
Emily shifted restlessly. “It doesn’t matter. None of it matters.” She looked into Aubrey’s tired face. “You were supposed to be happy.” Her voice was pleading.
Aubrey felt a tear spill out of her eye but ignored it. “How could I be happy with you gone?”
A sob escaped from Emily and she closed her eyes tight. “Oh, Aubs, I didn’t know what else to do!”
Aubrey gently wrapped her arms around Emily. “I need to know, Em. Tell me?”
“Oh, god, Aubs, I love you so much.” Emily’s voice shook as her body convulsed with sobs. “I can’t be the reason you are ruined.”
“I don’t care about the Lodge, Em. I built it from an occasional event center to the premier retreat location in Atlanta. If I can do it once I can do it again.” Aubrey bit her lip. “I just don’t want to do anything if I can’t do it with you.”
Emily finally brought her eyes back to look at Aubrey. “You don’t hate me?”
“Never have.” Aubrey tucked hair behind Emily’s ear. “I’m so lost without you.”
Emily leaned forward and as their tears mingled and lips touched, the healing at last could begin. They would take that month down under to start to learn to have a healthier relationship, because each knew the other was worth it.