Chapter 3

"HELP! Tasha's got the makings of a party going on and I swear I smell pot!"

"Pack a bag and your swimsuit. I'm on my way."

"Swimsuit? Pool?"

"Pool and hot tub."

"Packing."

Later that night, as Emma went through the house, checking on things before going home for the day, she heard something in the living room; laughter.

Curious, she peeked into the living room, remembering that Jacob had asked her about the state of the living room fireplace a few days ago, and asked that it be made serviceable and ready.

Light from the fireplace was flickering across the room, and Emma could hear laughter, both male and female. It sounded like her boss was laughing about something, something funny. She came closer, sticking to the shadows as so not to interrupt anything, and what she saw had her eyes growing wide with wonder.

Jacob was seated on the floor, in front of the open, crackling fireplace, in jeans and a shirt, next to a woman with purple hair, also in jeans and a shirt. There was a whole bunch of foodstuffs scattered around, including marshmallows, two of which were on barbecue skewers and roasting in the fire, and the large flatscreen television was on to some show Emma didn't recognize. Strangely enough, the liquor cabinet was still shut, and Emma couldn't see any signs of wine or hard liquor being consumed. In fact, the only beverages she saw were classic glass bottles of Coca-Cola.

"Are you actually going to get the damn things right this time?" the woman teased.

"Hey, I didn't completely burn the last one! That was an accident!" Jacob shot back.

"Uh huh. Sure. Only because you were too busy paying attention to the tv instead of the fire, buster!"

"Like you weren't?"

"That was funny," she admitted, giggling. "Okay, here we go. Let's try this again," she said, reaching for two graham crackers, one of which she placed a piece of chocolate on, then very carefully extracted a cooked marshmallow. Soon, both of them had one and were biting into them.

The woman moaned in pleasure. "Okay, all right, I admit you're right. I won't skimp on the chocolate again." Then she giggled at something on the tv. "That's gotta hurt."

And Jacob was laughing, really laughing. That was when Emma decided she liked this woman with the purple hair.

The next morning, after spending the night in a guest room across from Jacob's master bedroom, and with his blessing, Cindy went exploring. She had been initially surprised by the beauty and the size of the house, but then became saddened by the apparent loneliness of it. The rooms were fashionably decorated, and likely not by Jacob, because his office was decorated with warm tones and honey-coloured wood. The rest of the house was, well, cold, for lack of better description. Beautiful, but cold.

Just like Shannon.

Six bedrooms, including the master, which also had a master bath that was bigger than her apartment living room, an indoor indoor pool surrounded by glass walls, a sunroom that felt like an ice room, a kitchen and dining room that was the size of her whole apartment, the list went on.

She was exploring a room cautiously because of number of the number of taxidermic animals on display, when her phone went off. It was the hospital she worked at.

"Cindy here," she said, answering the call. "No. No, it's the first time in a while I've actually had a real day off, and I'm refusing the shift. That's not my problem. I don't care, Sharif. You cannot order me to come in. Go for it. I will not be bullied by the likes of you. I said no. So? You're the Team Lead; it's your problem. You're the one that wanted the position, and you got it, which means you got the crap that goes with it. I'm not coming in, and that's final."

She thumbed the call off, turned around, came face-to-face with a taxidermied golden boa snake, and screamed. She screamed again when she backed into a display showcasing a hooded king cobra in strike position, before finally spotting the damn doors and running out of the room.

Just as she slammed the doors behind her, Jacob came running, alerted by her screams.

"Cindy! What's wrong? What happened?" he demanded, seeing her pale, shaken face.

"Bad idea. Bad, bad, very bad, absolutely horrible, no good, bad idea," she finally got out, liking how his hands felt on her shoulders. "Stuffed snakes in there. Big, ass-ugly, things. If you ever decide to have a bonfire, do me a favour; burn those things. In fact, burn 'em all."

Jacob chuckled. "I can do that. Forgot about that damn room. That was Shannon's thing."

"Then definitely burn them," Cindy groused. "Jay-esus Cheer-ist," she mumbled, running a shaking hand through her hair.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"I'm okay, just got the hell scared out of me. Coffee time, I think," she said.

"That sounds like a good idea," he said, leading the way to the kitchen. "What do you think of the place?"

"It's beautiful, but it's cold. Your office is one of the nicest rooms I've seen so far. The bedroom was nice, but the rest of the place? Cold. Like it's a showcase instead of a home," she admitted.

"Yeah, that would be Shannon's doing. Bought this place for her, then when she left me, I got it in the divorce because she decided she didn't want it," he admitted, pouring them a cup of coffee each, then joining her at the breakfast bar.

"Wow. So why don't you make this place your own?"

"What do you mean?"

She shrugged. "The frozen zoo room, the sunroom that feels more like an ice room, the recreation room, even the dining room. They all scream Latest Fashion. Your office, it screams Comfort, Come Sit Down, Have A Drink. Shannon is gone, but she's not. She's still here, and that means you're not being given a chance to heal. I was lucky, because when I ran from Charles, I had nothing to tie me to him, except the memories. You? She left physically, but Jay, she's still here, and that means you can't heal," she said, tapping her head. "Tell me the truth; do you still love her? Do you still want her here?"

During their Red Lobster lunch weeks ago, Jacob had confessed to his investigation into her past. He had also confessed to having Garrick bury Cynthia Harwood even further. The confession made it easier for Cindy to talk about her past, because he already knew.

Jacob thought about what Cindy was asking for a moment, then shook his head. "No to both. I resent her, resent what she's done. She's like an open wound that won't heal because the scab keeps getting picked at. She treated me like dirt towards the end of our marriage, and she still does."

"She's an abuser, and power-hungry, and you're her victim, and until you start banishing her shadows, she is always going to haunt you."

"What do you recommend I do?" he asked, knowing she was right.

"You have a couple of options," she said, ticking off her fingers. "One, completely redecorate this place to your liking. Two, redecorate and rent the other rooms out to students or some such, because those bedrooms are big enough to be student apartments, and student housing is in high demand right now. Or three, sell this place and find a place of your own, of your choosing. There are a lot of nice apartments in the downtown area, and, hell, you could buy one of the buildings, keep one of the apartments for yourself and rent out the others, make yourself a tidy profit in the process. It could be a good venture, something outside of your businesses." Jacob nodded in concession. "But don't let the Ghost of Shannon keep haunting you. You deserve better. You deserve someone who will make you happy, make you laugh, not cry or have panic attacks."

He smiled at her. "You mean like the way you do?" he asked, causing her to blush.

"Hey, it's not my fault you get sore ribs from laughing so hard," she protested indignantly.

He just grinned at her.

He had escorted her to her room last night, after she nearly fell asleep on his shoulder. Their s'more party had been the most fun he'd had in a long time, and alcohol hadn't even been involved. He was so glad he'd thought to check with Emma about the fireplace because she wound up calling in a chimney sweeper; it hadn't been touched in years.

At the door to her room, she'd given him a sleepy kiss on the cheek, and it had been a fight with himself not to kiss her properly. He would, he promised himself, just not when she was pretty much asleep on her feet. It was going to be a matter of when, not if.

She didn't know it, but later that night, thanks to his inability to sleep through the night, he'd checked in on her, telling himself he just wanted to be sure she was comfortable. She was sound asleep, and in the moonlight, she was beautiful. It was all he could do not to crawl in to bed and snuggle up to her. He suspected he'd probably sleep very well, more so than in his own room.

But he wouldn't do that to her, not without her permission, and not with what Charles used to do to her. Besides, it was too soon.

But what was too soon?

And what if too soon became too late?

Cindy's phone went off, sounding like an alarm. She groaned when she heard it, and reluctantly pulled it out of her back pocket.

"Trouble?" he asked.

"Tasha. That's her ringtone these days," Cindy mumbled, opening the text message. "What? No! No, I am not paying her next month's rent today." She glanced up at Jacob, who was looking at her in concern. "Tasha wants to know if I can pay her next month's rent today, and in cash."

"I'm sorry?"

"Yeah, and the rent isn't due for another three weeks. Last time I did that, the rent never got paid and we nearly got kicked out, if I hadn't dipped into my emergency reserve," she said, causing Jacob to wince. " Ever since, I've been paying the landlord directly, instead of through Tasha. That whole discovering herself thing? Apparently it burns through a lotta cash, and she seems to think that because I have a steady job, I also have a steady influx of cash, even though I'm going through school right now."

"Does she know about your emergency reserve?"

"Shouldn't do. I have it with a different bank, and in order to access it, I actually have to go to the bank and withdraw the cash. It's one of several backup plans," she admitted.

"In case of?"

"In case Charles comes looking for me. He made it very plain five years ago that as soon as he got out, I was a dead woman, and the account currently holds over five grand, in case I have to run."

"Where would you run to?"

"Australia. Always wanted to go there, maybe see the Great Barrier Reef."

"Sounds beautiful." She smiled. "What are you going to do about Tasha?"

"Right now, I think she's pretty stoned and wanting more weed, and not happy with me right now, because I just said no. Said I would pay the landlord when the rent was due, and not before. And yikes!" Her eyes went wide at what she was reading on her screen.

"Insults?"

"Selfish bitch, she's going to throw me out, etcetera etcetera. Hope she doesn't try and destroy my room."

"Can she get in there?"

"It's padlocked, but the door is one of those flimsy balsa wood things and if she's stoned and determined..." She sighed in frustration. "Most of the stuff can be replaced, but my text books and... oh shit, hope she doesn't go after Gonzo."

"Gonzo?"

"He's a betta I got last year. Birthday present to myself. Cute little guy, five gallon tank that doesn't take up much space, easy to care for," she said, shrugging. "He's fun to watch, and his nightlight is easy on my eyes at night."

"Do you want to stay another night?" he offered. "The room is yours for as long as you want it. God knows I've got enough space," he teased.

She laughed. "Yeah, sure, if you don't mind. I just have to figure out how to get to class tomorrow."

"What time is your first class?"

"Eight-thirty in the morning."

"I don't have to be at Watergate until nine. I can drop you off, and we go from there."

"Sure, if you don't mind." She sighed in frustration. "I hate this. Tasha's behaviour is getting worse, and now this. This keeps up, I may have to start looking for another place and another roommate, and right now, in the middle of the school year, my choices are limited."

"No, they're not. If it comes to it, maybe you and I can work something out. I could hire you as a consultant, and you could rent the room you're in. Decorate it to how you want, bring Gonzo with you."

"But what would I do as a consultant?" she asked, tempted by the idea. But how's the bus service in the area, never mind the bike commute? I am not taking the risk of getting a car.

"You're a survivor, teaching another survivor how to move on. Susan likes it when we have lunch together, because she says I come back relaxed, but I'm not sure about the ribs," he said, grinning.

"So I'm a regular comedian, so sue me!"

Ever since their Red Lobster lunch, Jacob had joined Cindy for lunch at the college several times, and every time he did, he'd come back to Watergate feeling more relaxed, especially if he'd encountered Shannon during the day. Shannon didn't have a real job with the company, except as an unofficial title of charity consultant, whatever the heck that was, so she was at the company more often than he cared to see her.

Susan, Jacob's long-time, long-suffering, loyal secretary, had noted the changes in his demeanor every time. The last time Cindy came to the office, bearing piping hot pizza, she had taken it upon herself to get to know the purple-haired student nurse who seemed to be making a positive impact on her boss's life.

Afterwards, Susan had spoken to him quietly.

"I like her. She's got a mouth that would rival Deadpool, but I like her, and boss?"

"Yeah?"

"She's doing you a world of good. Keep her around."

He had smiled at her. "I'll try to, if we can keep Shannon away from her."

"You're worried about what Shannon might do to her?"

"I'm worried about whether or not we'll have to call a crime scene cleanup crew if she gets her hands on Shannon, especially if she happens to have the tools of her trade around. Shannon may find herself getting her face rearranged."

"Now that I would pay front row seat to see."

Back at the house, Cindy rubbed her chin. "Tell you what; let's see how things go with Tasha first, and I will think about it."

"That's all I ask. Now, how about we go back to your apartment, grab what you need for tonight and tomorrow, check on Gonzo, and then get some lunch. Suddenly I'm hungry."

"Pizza?"

"Pizza 73? I can order online."

"Sounds good to me."

Less than twenty minutes later, they were both swearing. Upon entering the apartment, they discovered a disaster. People were sleeping or passed out everywhere, the smell of stale booze, urine, vomit, and marijuana was strong enough to make their stomach's heave, and there was garbage everywhere. The breaking point was the discovery of Cindy's room. One of Tasha's party boys had managed to break into Cindy's room and was passed out on her bed, stark naked. Fortunately, Gonzo had been left alone, but his tank was draped with a pair of dirty underwear that Cindy was afraid to touch without gloves.

And Tasha? Cindy and Jacob could hear moaning coming from the other room, the kind of moaning that suggested something sexual was going on, especially with the way the wall was thumping.

"I thought you said she was lesbian," Jacob said, eyes wide.

"I don't know, I really don't care at this point," Cindy said, feeling a headache coming on.

"I'm calling Garrick; he's got a truck, probably some boxes or bins, and you're getting the hell out of here. Is there a way for you to safely transport Gonzo?" Jacob asked, looking around the room, which had been trashed, to Cindy's dismay. "You can stay with me until you decide what to do."

"I'll find something," she said.

"Start searching. I'll start packing. Everything on the walls and in the closet?"

"Yes please," she said, heading for the kitchen, nearly tripping over someone who was passed out in the hallway. Stopping long enough to check on the naked female, she headed for the kitchen, which looked like a bomb had gone off, and managed to find one of her lunch containers. As she did, she thought fast. By the time she got back to her room, she'd made a decision. "By the way, your earlier offer?"

"Yeah?" He had just gotten off the phone with Garrick, who had sworn something in Italian, and promised to be there right away with a truck and some boxes he knew were around somewhere.

"You just acquired a new roommate, and I'm your new official Survivor Consultant. One catch," she said, finding a fishnet to scoop her betta into, after putting water in the container.

"Listening."

"I reserve the right to kick Shannon's ass across the room any time I think she's causing trouble. She will not get the chance to walk all over me; I will not tolerate it."

"Deal. Now, Garrick's on his way. Let's get your gear and get the hell out of here; I'm starting to get a headache."

"On the double."

It took Tasha six hours to realize her roommate was gone, and when she did, Cindy's phone nearly burned up with the text messages she sent.

"Is there any way she can come after me legally, over the rent thing?" Cindy asked, folding her clothes, which were fresh from the dryer. Everything she'd owned had to be tossed in the wash because the smell of marijuana was so strong, and she had not been happy about that.

"She can try, because you technically broke the lease, but given the circumstances, you had valid reason for doing so. If she does try anything, let me know, and I'll set my lawyer on her; I had Garrick take pictures, just in case."

"I'm not so sure that's a good idea; your lawyer might eat her for lunch."

"I dunno; he seems more like a steak guy than a cheap burger guy. He did say he was having to watch his cholesterol levels last time."

"Rouch!" She grinned at him, watching as he hung up her nursing uniform in the closet. "We are going to have so much fun, aren't we?"

"The joy's in the ride, baby."

"Ride on."

Two days later, Susan was staring at her boss with wide eyes. "A fish tank? In the office? Okay, umm, what kind of fish?"

"Freshwater. Cindy's got a betta and he's a pretty interesting little guy," Jacob said, scrolling through custom aquarium making companies. Surely there was someone like those guys from Tanked.

"Okay, size preference?"

"Something for that wall over there," he said, pointing towards the wall across from his desk. "If I'm going to stare at something, I might as well stare at something interesting."

"That's, umm, that's a very good idea."

"Oh, and Susan, how's your desk?"

"Comfortable enough."

"Liar. Find a desk that suits you. In fact, renovate that office area to your preferences. It's time we started banishing a few ghosts, don't you think?"

"That sounds like a very good idea," she said, eyes wide.

"Good. Let me know what you find."

And Susan walked out of the office, trying to pick her jaw up off the ground. Then she started grinning. "Damn, I love that girl."