I hear footsteps in the hallway, & then in my room, before I feel someone sit down beside me. He puts his arm around me & pulls me close. I can tell that it's Mark. He holds me as I continue to cry into the teddy.
Eventually I lift my head & look at him.
“I read the first two pages,” he says, softly.
“Why would he do this?”
“Toadie says he looked through it before he brought it over,” he replies. “He knew you wouldn't cope reading it, so he read through it so he could tell you.” He brushes back a bit of my hair that's fallen into my eye. “According to the papers, he’s requesting full custody because… He's claiming that you're unfit for parenting.”
“Toadie believes that Zack is using the fact that you tried to kill yourself as an excuse to take her from you.”
“But… But… He doesn't even want her! He's never wanted her!”
He nods. “I know, Aer.”
“I can't believe he would do this! After everything I’ve been through, I’m finally getting my life back together, &…"
He pulls me in to him, holding me tight as I cry again.
I’m perched on the edge of the bath, watching as Mark runs a bath for me. He smells one of the bubble bath bottles, scrunching his nose up at a smell he clearly doesn't like & I smile a little. He then smells another, liking this one much better & squeezes some in to the running water that's currently filling the bath.
Once it's filled, he turns off the taps & looks at me.
“I can ask Paige to come sit with you,” he says. “If you want.”
I tilt my head sideways. “Worried that I’m going to drown?”
He sighs. “A little. Yeah.”
“Well, I’m not,” I reply. “I’m not going to let him win. Dying is as bad as signing over her guardianship to him.”
“We’ll find a way to talk him round.”
I nod, letting out a shaky sigh. “I hope so.”
“We will,” he replies. “I promise. Just like I promised to find Dennis Dimato.”
I force a smile.
“Things are going to get better.”
I sigh. “I hope so.”
“It will,” he replies. “But for now… Have your bath. Felicity will be home soon.”
I nod. He steps over, kisses my forehead & then walks out. I don't move until the door clicks shut. I stand & undress. I then take off the exterior bandage, exposing the sealed, waterproof bandage beneath. Karl advised me to do this, & then change them afterwards.
I get in the bath, the hot water so comforting after the troubles of the week. I lean back, resting my head on the wall & relax.
“Erin?” Paige’s voice makes me slowly open my eyes.
“Hmmm?” I mumble, struggling to keep my eyes open.
The door slowly opens, Paige peeping around the door to check where I am. I realise I’m still in the bath. She steps in & shuts the door.
“Hey,” She says, stepping over to me. “You’ve been in here a long time. Mark’s a little anxious. I told him you’ll be fine, just relaxing… But I got ordered through.”
“Well, I’m fine,” I reply.
“Yeah, just like I told him you would.”
“What… What time is is?”
“Uh… A few minutes past quarter to six.”
“Oh, wow. I’ve been in here almost an hour. No wonder he’s worried.”
She frowns. “Why would he be worried.”
“He thinks I might try to kill myself again.”
“He didn't tell you?”
She shakes her head. “He just kept pushing for me to come check on you. Has something else happened?”
I sigh. “Yeah,” I reply. “We just got home from the hospital, & Toadie came over.” I hesitate, trying to find the strength to say it. “Zack’s… Filed a case to get full custody of Felicity.”
She gapes. “What?” She crouches beside the bath so we’re at the same level. “I’m so sorry.”
“I just hate him so much,” I reply. “We’ve been through so much, & Felicity needs me. She needs to have her mother, & he thinks just because I tried killing myself that I’m an unfit mother & wants to pull her away from me.”
“Hey, don't cry,” Paige says. “I know this is the last thing you need, but you have all of us to support you. You're the best mother & Zack knows it. He's just being an idiot.”
“I thought my life was getting back on track.”
“And it is,” she replies. “You know what? Forget about all of that tonight. Lets just have a nice night with our boys & Felicity, & forget about all of the problems. Felicity's out there, playing with Tyler in the lounge. But she wants you. So I’m going to head out & tell your overprotective brother that you're fine, while you get dressed.”
“Sounds like a good plan.”
She smiles. She then stands, moves my towel so I can reach it & walks out. Once the door is shut, I get out & wrap my towel around me before pulling the plug out. I dry off as the bath empties. I grab my dirty clothes & bandages & then head to my bedroom. I close the door behind me & get dressed. I then sit on my bed & change the bandages on my forearms. I pause when I see the exposed scars- still red & not completely healed. More like scabs, with stitches along them. I put clean waterproof bandages on & then wrap clean cloth bandages around my forearms the way they had been at the hospital.
I return to the bathroom, dump the old bandages in the bin & hang up my towel. I stare at myself in the mirror, preparing myself to face my family for the first time back here. And more importantly, face the kitchen & laundry- the place where Eddie died. The spot where my life went to hell.
I sigh & walk out of the bathroom & through to the main living area. I stop in the doorway, watching them all for a minute- Tyler's keeping Felicity entertained in the lounge, Paige is finishing setting the table & Mark & Aaron must be in the kitchen.
Paige sees me & smiles. She then nods her head towards the lounge, a quiet encouragement for me to go to Felicity.
I cross over, planning on just watching her with Tyler, but she sees me as I approach.
“Mummmyyyyyyyyy!” She squeals, walking over to me.
I smile as I crouch down & open my arms to her.
“Hey, my baby!” I reply.
I hold her tight, trying hard to push away the thoughts of having to say goodbye to her for good. I carry her over to the couches, & play with her & Tyler.
A few minutes later, Aaron comes over. He waves at Felicity & then whispers something to Tyler. They then each take one end of the coffee table & move it further towards the TV. I frown.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“What does it look like we’re doing?” Tyler replies.
Paige walks over with placemats & arranges them on the coffee table. Mark comes with plates & cutlery. Paige takes the cutlery & they place them on the placemats.
“Are we eating over here?” I ask.
“Yep,” Paige replies as Tyler & Aaron bring the drinks & cups over. “I thought we might just change things up.”
“And Mark’s fine with it?”
“Not exactly,” Mark replies. “But we’ve been through enough this week, so I’m happy to bend a little.”
“Is it to try & avoid me seeing the laundry?”
Mark & Paige look at each other.
“I’m going to have to see it eventually,” I reply. “It's hard to miss, given it's right off the kitchen.”
“I’ve been thinking of renovating,” Mark says.
“Can you afford to? I mean… With your babies on the way.”
“I have savings,” he replies. “And everyone's going to pay a share.”
"Okay... But in the meantime… I'm going to have to look at it.”
“I know.” He smiles. “But not tonight.”
I give him a sarcastic smile.
“Now sit on the floor. We’re all going to sit around the table.”
I raise my eyebrow. “On the floor, huh? Really driving your OCD crazy tonight!”
“Ha ha,” he replies flatly, as he heads back to the kitchen.
I sit on the floor, crosslegged & Felicity climbs into my lap. The others bring the containers of Chinese take-away over, placing them on the coffee table between the plates. Paige settles to my left, because we’re in front of the couch, with Aaron & Tyler on her left. Mark sits down on the end to my right, with Felicity's food.
Felicity's bedtime routine has become so autopilot for me- minus the new addition of saying goodnight to everyone else (which consists of a lot of kisses from Mark), the rest I’ve done so many times before. Bath, toilet, brushing the few teeth she has, a few stories in bed while she has a sippy cup of warm milk (which I’m slowly weening her off by putting less in it). Mark had organised it while I gave Felicity a bath.
With Felicity asleep, I take the cup & press a kiss to her forehead. I tuck her in a bit more & then slip out of the room. It's become such an integral part of my night routine, I tend to work on autopilot. So I don't think much of it as I head into the kitchen to put the cup in the sink.
The others are finishing cleaning up our dinner in the lounge as I turn into the kitchen. I’m halfway to the sink when it catches my eye. The bloodstain on the floor in the doorway to the laundry.
I freeze, eyes focused on the bloodstain. My chest tightens & I can't breathe.
I faintly hear the sippy cup hit the floor, faintly hear Mark call my name. I want to look, to tell him that I’m okay, but… I can’t.
He steps beside me, blocking my view of the laundry, & wraps his right arm around me. He slowly walks me round the bench, his left hand on my cheek as we pass the other side of the bench so I don't look right to the laundry. He guides me over to the couch & I faintly hear him tell me to sit. As soon as I sit down, my senses return to normal.
“Are you okay?” Mark says from beside me, gently rubbing my back.
I nod, trying to act strong, but I can't keep it up so I shake my head. Mark pulls me closer & I collapse against him. Aaron sits down on my right & Tyler kneels at our feet. And we’re in a group hug as I cry.
I wake up to find Felicity isn't there in bed with me. I bolt up, on the edge of another attack. I push back the covers & get up, crossing to the door & pulling it open. I make my way through to the living area & sigh when I see Mark sitting in the armchair with Felicity in his lap as he reads her a book.
“Hey,” he says as I walk over. “She was crying earlier, & when I looked in, you looked like you were in a deep sleep. So I took her & gave her breakfast.”
“You shouldn't have.”
“You’ve been through a lot. You needed the sleep. I’m happy to help out when I can.”
“Well… I guess it's good practice for later in the year.”
He looks confused & then smiles when he realises what I meant. “Yeah. Plus I get to have some bonding time with my favourite niece!”
He tickles Felicity & she laughs. He then looks at me.
“Let me cook you breakfast.”
I nod. “That would be good, thanks.”
“Uhh… I’m… I’m going to get dressed first.”
He nods. “We’ll finish this story while we wait. Won't we, Felicity?”
“Ya!” She replies.
I smile, before heading to my room.
I’ve just finished breakfast when Aaron comes through the front door.
“Ah, good! You're here,” he says to me.
I frown. “Where else would I be?”
“Out for a walk? Finding a job?” He replies, sitting down at the head of the table.
Mark comes around & gives Felicity to me. He takes my plate & heads into the kitchen to clean up.
“What do you need me for?” I ask.
“You said you work in PR, right?”
“Uh, yeah, sort of.”
“What would you say if I offered you to work with me?”
“I’d say you're getting desperate.”
He smiles, laughing a little. “Seriously, Erin,” he replies. “I want you to come work with me.”
“Pitch to me why you want me.”
“You want me, you should pitch to me,” I explain. “Just because we're related, doesn't mean you get out of doing it the right way. If you're gonna hire people without asking- it's called recruiting, by the way- if you're gonna do it, the least you can do is learn how to do it properly. Starting with pitching why you want them. What makes you interested in having them on your team? Why they should choose you over a rival company? It's similar to how you pitch to your clients, really.”
“See! That's why I need you!” He replies. “You know all this stuff.”
“And having a job will help you keep Felicity,” Mark says as he does the dishes. “It will show them that you can support yourself & Felicity.”
“But going into business with my brother? No offence, Az.”
“None taken,” Aaron replies. “I get it. You're worried that us working together will look like you can't find anywhere better. But you’ve always been a local girl. You’ve always had that passion to help out the local community. Remember how you used to volunteer in Port Lincoln? And I’ve looked at your past clients in Adelaide. The majority of them are local businesses. Small ones who needed a PR boost. And you helped them.” He leans closer. “That's the sort of thing I want to do. I’m almost signed on to another case that I can't manage on my own. Not without knowledge like you have.”
I sigh. “Alright.”
He smiles. “I knew you’d agree.”
“Hey, don't get too cocky.”
I roll my eyes. “So what's this new client?”
He hesitates. “Lassiters.”
I look shocked.
“The Quills have been kicked out for insurance fraud-” He looks at Mark & adds, “don't ask for details, I don't have them.” He looks at me. “Somehow, Paul's talked his way back in as CEO & he wants a PR facelift for it.”
“That's surprising,” Mark says, walking over to us. “Paul's the last person I’d suspect to come asking to be your client.”
“His reputation is just as broken as Lassiters is right now,” Aaron says. “He needs outside help.”
I narrow my eyes. “What aren't you telling us?”
Aaron hesitates. “Paul didn't make the decision,” he says. “He told Terese to find someone. She's the one that chose me. Terese said Paul wants a presentation before he signs off on it.”
"Which is why you want me,” I reply. “To help make the presentation the very best it can be.”
He nods. “If we can secure this, & it's a successful project… I’ll be able to gain more clients.”
“Right. Okay… So when do we need to do this by?”
Aaron looks awkward.
I roll my eyes. “How many hours do we have?”
Aaron looks very apologetic. “Two,” he slowly replies.
“That's not much time,” Mark replies.
"I know, but Terese says Paul want to get it this PR thing started ASAP, so she's feeling pressured into finding someone fast,” Aaron explains. “She talked to me & when I said I’m interested, she called Paul… Who set the time.”
“And what were you going to do if I hadn't agreed to be on board?”
“Hoped for the best?”
I sigh. “Okay. Grab a laptop. Lets get started.”
“Aaron. Erin. Hi,” Terese says as we walk into the Lassiters reception.
“Hi Terese,” Aaron replies.
“Hi Terese,” I reply. “I’m so sorry about having Felicity with me. I was going to drop her into the community centre for a few hours, but as soon as I approached the front door, she screamed. After all we’ve been through this week, I just don't have the heart to push her into being away from me. Everyone else is working.”
“Well, I don't mind, as long as you can present without her causing too much of a disruption,” Terese replies. “You’ll find that I’m going to be more understanding than Paul will be.”
"That's what I'm worried about,” I reply.
“I’ll take you up to the penthouse,” Terese says. “We’ve converted the lounge into an open planned office, & that's where you’ll be doing the presentation. We’ll see what Paul says when he arrives.”
We go up in the lift, Terese swiping her card to get it up to the penthouse. The doors open, & Terese falters as she steps out- Paul’s already there.
“How did you get in?” She asks, leading us around into the main area.
“I have a card,” Paul says, turning to us. “And what's with the kid?”
“She's not well,” I reply, the lie slipping out before I can stop it.
“So leave her at home.”
“You might be okay with leaving an eighteen month old home alone for several hours, but I’m not,” I reply. “Everyone else is working.”
“That's what we have the childcare group for.”
“Paul, the Brennans have had a really tough week,” Terese says. “You could be more lenient, especially since Erin is willing to help you with this.”
He sighs. "Alright, alright. Let's just get this done.”
“Well,” I reply, as Aaron, Felicity & I leave Lassiters. “That was fun.”
“He can be a real sourpuss, can't he?” Aaron replies.
“That's a more PG version of what I was thinking.”
“Erin! Aaron!” Terese calls from behind us.
We stop & turn around, as she hurries over.
“Firstly, I want to apologise for his attitude towards you having Felicity,” she says.
“To be honest,” I reply. “He's not the worst.”
Aaron raises his eyebrow.
"I know he sent you packing, saying that he would think it through,” Terese says. “However, I talked to him & it really wasn't hard to convince him to hire you both.”
Aaron & I smile.
“That's great!” Aaron says.
Terse nods. “I don't have an issue with you bringing Felicity with you. However, I strongly advise that you make plans for her to be cared for elsewhere when you have meetings with Paul.”
I nod. “I won't bring her again, if I can help it.”
“We can come in tomorrow with more ideas, if you want?” Aaron asks.
“That would be good,” Terese replies. “Come in at noon. I’ll arrange some food for us. Spend some time tonight coming up with some ideas for the new logo. I know Paul is keen to make that a priority.”
“We can do that,” Aaron replies.
“But don't feel pressured into spending too long on it. I know how hard it's been for you this week.”
"We'll do what we can," I reply.
“Good. I’ll arrange for access keys for the penthouse for each of you. That way you can just let yourselves up. I’ll leave them with reception for you to collect.”
“Thank you,” I reply.
“I should be thanking you,” she replies. “You're taking a load off me.”
"We're happy to help. Especially when you were so generous towards us earlier in the week.”
“Oh, don't be silly! That was the least I could do!”
Felicity rests head head on my shoulder, & I feel her sigh.
"I'll let you go," Terese says. "Felicity looks like she needs a nap."
I smile. “I think so.”
We say goodbye & head off towards Aaron's car as Terese heads back to Lassiters.
“Wow. Is there anything you can't do?” Tyler asks, peering over my shoulder at the drawing I’m working on as one of our mock ups for Lassiters.
I look at him. “I’m multi-talented,” I reply. “Thought you would have figured that out by now.”
He sarcastically smiles.
“Can I see?” Az asks, walking over having come from a shower.
He looks through the various sketches I’ve done across several pages, finishing with the one I’m working on.
“These are fantastic!” He says.
I smile. “Thanks.”
“I told you this would be good, having you on board.”
“You’ve gotta up your game, Az,” I reply. “It's not going to look good if the worker is outshining the CEO.”
“You’re the co-CEO.”
I raise my eyebrow. “Am I?”
“Mmmhmmm. Didn't you read your contract?”
“You haven't given it to me.”
"Oooo, Az!” Tyler says. “Just got burned!”
Az punches Tyler's arm as the front door opens & Mark & Paige walk in.
“Evening,” Paige says.
“Hey,” I reply. “How was your day?”
“Exhausting,” She replies, coming to sit down across the table from me. “It's going to get worse before I have these two,” she adds, rubbing her bump.
“Well, you don't have to worry about helping with dinner,” Mark says, unpacking grocery bags.
“Yeah. Mum made a spare lasagna at Harold's today, & insisted that we have it,” Paige replies. “Anyway… Mark told me you have a new job!”
“Mmmhmm. Working with Az.”
“How did it go with Paul?” Mark asks from the kitchen.
“Other than his near tantrum over Felicity being there,” Az replies. “It was really good.”
“So good we have the job,” I reply.
“That's fantastic!” Mark says, coming over. “Congratulations!”
“Thanks,” I reply, smiling.
“Wow, who's are these?” Paige asks, picking up one of my pages.
Paige gapes at me.
“Why is it such a shock that I can draw?”
“It's just… Surprising.”
The next afternoon
“Hey,” Piper says.
I turn from the car engine, & smile as she walks over to me. She grips my shirt with both hands, pushing up on her tip toes to press her lips against mine.
“Hey,” I reply, claiming her lips with mine.
"How's things?” She asks after our long kiss.
“Good,” I reply. “Catching up on the backlog from the last couple of days. How was school?”
“Oh, the usual,” She replies. “How long do you reckon you’ll be till you finish for today?”
“Hmmmm… Not sure.”
“Can I sit here & wait?” She asks. “I can go through your books, if you want.”
“If you want, go for it,” I reply. “But having you here is good enough for me.”
She smiles, before drawing me in for another kiss.
I walk in to the community centre, ready to collect Felicity & then walk home. I catch the eye of one worker & smile. Her shocked face as she looks at me makes my chest tighten.
I step further into the space, & scan the area for Felicity.
But she's not there.
The worker approaches me slowly, wary of how I’ll react.
“Where…” I ask, as calmly as possible. “Where's my daughter?”