“Avett. What brings you by? Is your dad here?” Rome spoke a lot like he was still in the military. He didn’t waste words or time and his laser-like baby blues pinned me to the spot with almost no effort on his part. He cocked his shaved head to the side and gave me a narrow-eyed look when I didn’t immediately answer him. “Have you been crying?”
I laughed nervously and made my way over to one of the shabby chairs that sat across from his desk. I flopped down into the worn fabric and met his curious stare with an unfiltered one of my own. I was feeling raw, open, and stripped down to my most basic elements after that horrible confrontation with Quaid outside of the courthouse and there was no way to hold back the flood of honesty and admission as it rushed out of me.
“I came by because I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry. I’m sorry I was a shitty employee. I’m sorry that I didn’t respect you or what you did with this place, and I’m so, so sorry I didn’t say no when Jared asked me to take the money from the cash register. I hate that I put you in a position where you had to fire me and it makes me so mad at myself that I purposely did things that made it impossible for me to ever come back here. You’re a good man, Rome. My dad wouldn’t have done what he did with the bar if you weren’t. I spent a lot of time ruining everything that was good in my life, which is why I self-sabotaged every opportunity you offered me. I can give you the long explanation as to why I felt like I deserved to be kicked around and why I kept inflicting wounds on myself to bleed from, but the moral of the story is that I know now that punishing myself never got me anywhere, and those actions hurt other people far worse than they ever hurt me.” I blinked at him and bit my lip. “Like you, and Asa.”
He tossed the pen he was holding onto the desk and leaned forward on his forearms so that he was peering intently into my eyes.
“You know, when you come home from a war zone and have to settle into a normal, everyday kind of existence, no one ever tells you how to deal with all the things that you bring back with you. When you’re in a situation that calls for you to make life and death choices, you do so knowing those decisions affect so many more than just yourself.” I was mesmerized by his words and by the sincerity and depth with which he gave them to me. “When you come home you’re full of things like regret and doubt. You can’t sleep some nights because you wonder what-if, and guilt feels like it’s going to bury you alive. But eventually you realize all you can do is come to terms with the choices you had to make, for whatever reasons you had to make them. You can’t take those choices back, but you can learn from them and let them make you a better person. I’m almost jealous that you get the opportunity to apologize, Avett. There are some days I feel like I would give everything I have to be able to say I’m sorry for the things I may have done wrong. And I’m not talking about when I was overseas.”
I exhaled and felt some of the dread and trepidation that was fueling this little meeting fade away. I lifted my hands to my face and rubbed them over my messy eyes. “Thank you for understanding. I also plan on paying you back every single cent that I took from you.”
“I understood before you walked in here. I have a little brother that was all about self-destruction for a while. You actually pulled yourself out of it much sooner than he did.”
I wrinkled my nose and sighed. “That’s because girls mature faster than boys.”
Rome chuckled. “That’s true, and just so you know, you always have a place here. That kitchen belongs to your mother, not to me, so if you ever want to come back, she’s the one you need to make amends with.”
“We’re good … well, better than we were. There’s been a lot of apologizing and accountability since I got out of jail. Realizing you’re on a crash course with prison is surprisingly enlightening.”
“Are you sure that enlightenment didn’t come from the guy that kept you out of prison? After Brite finished bitching about the fact the guy rides a crotch rocket, he had nothing but good things to say about him. It sounded like he was shipping you and the lawyer pretty hard.”
I lifted my eyebrows at him. “Shipping?”
He rolled his eyes and I grinned when I noticed he had pink heat filling his cheeks. “Blame Cora. She watches all that stuff on the CW Network and is always shipping this and shipping that. She’s corrupted me.”
Cora was his pint-sized, very pregnant, soon-to-be wife. The two had an adorable daughter that was proving to be as much of a handful as her mother was. Cora was also the only person fierce enough and stubborn enough to put up with the moody former soldier on a permanent basis. On the outside the two of them were as different as night and day but when anyone saw them together it was obvious that they were perfectly matched and deeply in love. They were the epitome of relationship goals in my book.
I laughed for real this time and let it drift into a sigh. “The lawyer may have had something to do with the enlightenment and he most definitely had everything to do with this.” I pointed to my tear-streaked and makeup-smeared face. “Some things aren’t meant to be.”
“And some things are meant to be even if they seem like they shouldn’t be.” He sounded so much like my dad that it was eerie and I told him as much. He gave me that heart-stopping smile again and replied with a firm, “Good.”
I rose to my feet and couldn’t stop myself from circling the desk so that I could wrap my arms around his neck for a quick squeeze.
“I’m glad this bar and my dad found you, Rome. I really am.”
He patted my arm awkwardly and stood so that I really had to crane my neck back to look up at him. “I’m glad you finally found you, Avett.”
I swallowed back the emotion that crawled up my throat and threatened more tears. I’d never been so weepy or quick to cry but all this being in touch with my emotions was wreaking havoc on my well-worn barriers.
“The trick is staying found, I think. It’s easy to get lost when your life is constantly in a state of disarray. The right path gets obscured as quickly as you make it.”
He put a hand on my shoulder and told me solemnly, “That’s why you find something or someone that guides you, someone that won’t lose you, and someone that you don’t mind getting lost with when that inevitably happens.”
I winced involuntarily because I’d walked away from the guy that I was pretty sure was my magnetic north, the guy that hadn’t let me wander or get off track since the moment I met him. Quaid didn’t lose his way in the storm; he rode it out.