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Bet Me: Part 11

by Elle Fielding 2 months ago in Series · updated 22 days ago
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Are You Giving Me Relationship Advice?

Knox

My mood sours as we walk into the Croaky Seagull, and I see my father sitting in the half full restaurant. When my footsteps slow, Reese must see the direction of my gaze because she rests her hand lightly on my arm. “Do you want to eat somewhere else?”

Wrenching my gaze from my father, I turn to stare down at Reese. “No. I’m fine.”

She searches my face for confirmation. “You sure?”

I shrug and force a grin. “Yeah. We’re here to discuss the case, why should he stop us?”

“Hi there. Table for two?”

Reese’s hand drops from my arm as a young and slender blonde waitress greets us.

After casting one more glance in my direction, Reese nods. “Yes, please.”

We’re led to an indoor booth that overlooks the stretch of adjacent beach. Chapman looks up and spots us just as the waitress leaves us with the menus. He stiffens and I offer him a brief nod before picking up my menu. I imagine he wants to talk to me about as much as I want to talk to him, so hopefully my brief acknowledgement suffices.

It’s too late for lunch, so I weigh up the dinner options, ignoring the heated prickle of my father’s stare on the side of my face.

“Knox,” Reese whispers from behind her menu. “He’s coming over.”

Whatever appetite I had vanishes as my father comes to a stop next to our table. Reluctantly, I put the menu down.

His expression is stern, unyielding as he addresses me. “Knox.”

“Chapman.”

His lips thin and his eyes are full of disapproval. When Chapman took me in, he insisted I call him Dad, despite the fact he never wanted to acknowledge his parentage for the first sixteen years of my life, and despite the fact he never acted like any sort of father at all.

Chapman’s look of disapproval drops when his gaze swings across to my dinner companion. “Hello, Reese, it’s good to see you.”

“You too, Mr Ross.”

His lips tilt up. “Please, I’ve told you before, call me Chapman.”

Chapman glares at me a second later, a clear warning that the offer doesn’t extend to me.

“Of course,” Reese says politely. “Chapman.”

“This is quite the coincidence. Max and I have just finished a working lunch, going over a contract my company is considering signing. And, ah,” he spins around to search behind him. “Here he comes right now.”

When I look, Max has just walked out of the men’s restroom. Chapman waves to Reese’ boyfriend, drawing his attention to the three of us. Max’s gaze bounces between Reese and I, irritation flickering in his eyes before he schools his expression into one of congeniality. No doubt, it is an expression drilled into him by his wealthy and influential family. He’s still doing well for himself judging by the suit he’s wearing. Probably a good thing since he appears to spend far too much on hair gel. If I tipped him upside down, I could sweep the floor with the hardened strands of his blond hair.

I’ve made my peace with Brendan, but Max had been just as much of a dick to me as my brother when I moved to Magpie Grove, so he’s up there with my father on the list of people I’d like to avoid. When I glance at Reese and see her watching her boyfriend walking across the restaurant floor, her posture rigid, a smile that looks so strained it might crack her face wide open, I wonder if Reese wants to see Max even less than I do.

“Max, look who I ran into,” Chapman says.

Max nods. “Knox. I heard you were back.”

Max hardly sounds pleased, but he offers me his hand and I take it. In a cliched dick move, he squeezes my hand harder than he needs to.

I squeeze right back, releasing his hand only once he tries to break the handshake. “I take it Brendan mentioned I’m back?”

“Actually, I haven’t seen your brother recently. It was Chapman who mentioned it.” Max’s eyes move to Reese. “Chapman also mentioned you’re working on a story together.”

Chapman frowns, his eyes narrowing and his lips tipping down at the edges as he looks from Max to Reese to me. And there’s that disapproving expression I’ve become so well acquainted with from my father. I don’t know why it’s my fault Reese didn’t tell her boyfriend we’re working on a story together, but Chapman has found a way to pin it on me.

Reese’s smile is still strained and pink tinges her cheeks as she addresses her boyfriend. “You hate it when I talk about work.”

“I would have been interested to hear you’re working with the man who took you to your senior prom and humiliated you.”

“Max,” Reese hisses, the pink tinge turning to a full-blown flush. “That was years ago. It’s water under the bridge.”

Max sneers, revealing the disdain he feels for me. He’s nearly as good at that as Chapman is.

I refuse to flinch, raising an eyebrow instead. “I apologised to Reese, and we’ve put that night behind us. Maybe it’s time you do the same?”

Max ignores my comment and settles his attention on Reese, his expression conciliatory as he squeezes her shoulder before dipping his head and brushing a kiss across her cheek.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up. Will you call me later?”

His tone makes me think it’s more of a demand than a request.

Reese nods, even as her fingers try to shred the paper serviette in her hands. “Of course.”

Relaxing slightly, Chapman looks at me. “Knox, Grace would like you to come for dinner while you’re in town.”

I swear everything around me in the restaurant stops, the sounds, the smells, the people. Everything pauses. Right now, it feels as if everyone in the place is staring at me, waiting for my answer.

“Brendan will probably join us too,” Chapman adds.

I attempt to clear my throat of the sawdust that feels trapped there. “Tell Grace thank you. I don’t know what my schedule is like over the next couple of weeks, but I’ll be in touch to let her know if I can make it.”

Chapman nods, and I wonder whether he wants me to agree or whether he wants me to make an excuse and not come. Do I want to go? No. I should say no right now, save myself the call. But for some reason I can’t force myself to reject the offer at this moment.

My father and Max say goodbye, leaving just as the waitress comes back to take our orders. Reese asks for a few more minutes to decide, and we sit in silence until the waitress returns.

By motomoto sc on Unsplash

After we’ve placed our orders, Reese and I look at each other and both start speaking.

“That was fun,” I say.

“I’m sorry about Max, Knox.”

I frown. “What are you sorry for?”

She shrugs. “The awkwardness-”

“Was not at all your fault.”

“What Max said about Prom-”

“Was fair, all things considered. And if I was dating a woman I cared about, a woman who was working with some jackarse who humiliated her like I did to you, I’d have said something too.”

She offers me a weak smile. “I should have told him about us working together before now.”

The waitress brings our drinks over, preventing me from saying the first thing that pops into my head – I told you so. Instead, I pick up my beer and take a swig.

“Now that the cat’s out of the bag, are you going to tell him about the retreat?”

“I should, I know.”

“But?”

She sips her wine before meeting my eyes. “There is no but. I just honestly don’t know how he’ll take the news.”

I lean my elbows on the table before remembering my manners and removing them. “I know you said he doesn’t really get how important your work is to you, perhaps you need to try to make him understand.”

“You really think I haven’t tried, Knox? I’ve been trying for over a year, and because of how much time I spend working, he thinks I’ve got these…” She gestures around herself. “Walls up. Who knows, maybe he’s right. Maybe I’m just not relationship material. Maybe I’m…” she trails off. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I said all that.”

I shrug. “Maybe because a long time ago, we used to be friends.”

And sometimes, because of how easy it is to work and joke and talk to this woman, it feels like we still are.

It’s her turn to shrug now. “Maybe.”

The strained smile plastered on her face tells me she doesn’t agree. It’s a punch to the gut. She’s made it clear she’s only interested in seeing me as a rival. I thought I was okay with that, but over the past week, I’ve realised I've missed her friendship just as much as I’ve missed our rivalry.

Sighing, I try to offer one final piece of advice. “If Max is as invested in your relationship as he seems to be, he’ll accept that this story is important to you. I mean, he knows about your brother, right?”

“He does know, but what if he still refuses to accept what I need to do?”

“Then dump him."

She raises an eyebrow.

"Or you can continue on in a relationship where he doesn’t get you or understand the most important thing in your life.”

I expect her to tear strips off me for my frankness, but instead she smiles. “Knox Casey, are you giving me relationship advice?”

I smirk. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Cameron.”

She laughs softly, looking so breathtakingly beautiful, I’m left speechless. Perhaps it's obvious because when she stops laughing, she just looks at me. I hold her gaze until she looks away.

Clearing her throat, she says, “We need to talk about the retreat.”

“So, let’s talk.”

I tried to laugh off Reese’s concerns earlier, but all the evidence we’ve uncovered about Von Gruber and his ability to control and manipulate the mind is disturbing. Before her untimely death, my mother suffered from mental illness. Most of the time she kept on top of her diagnosis with medication, but there were times when she thought she was well enough to stop taking her meds. Those times never lasted long because she usually felt out of control of her thoughts and desires soon after.

Obviously, Von Gruber’s unnatural abilities and my mother’s fight to feel sane are separate things, but the stories she told me as a teen freaked me the hell out. The idea of losing my head for any reason, of feeling out of control and spiralling the way she described all those years ago, does not sit well with me. Especially if it’s because some marriage therapist is messing with my head. I mean, how many couples left Von Gruber’s retreat still married because they wanted to be?

It should be impossible to force people to do things against their will, but Von Gruber has never failed at saving a marriage. No one has a one hundred percent success rate. No one. What is he doing to them to ensure they stay married?

“I’ve been thinking.” Reese pulls a pen and notepad out of her handbag, placing them on the table next to her. “I think we need to perform a deep dive into hypnosis. I know we’ve investigated it a little, but we need to understand more about it.”

I nod. “So, let’s go over everything we already know about the subject, and then write down any questions this case raises. Once we’ve explored in depth, we can create a plan that will hopefully help us avoid being hypnotised.”

She taps her pen against the side of the table. “I like that idea. It gives me confidence I’ll come out of that retreat without being influenced, and then I can write the best story and win the bet.”

I throw my head back and laugh. “We haven’t even been to the retreat, and you’re already suffering from delusions.”

“Uh-huh, sure I am. You keep telling yourself that. You’re going to be sitting back in cold and rainy Melbourne, cursing my name when you get the news I won.”

Our meals come out at that moment, preventing me from disagreeing or reminding her Melbourne is as hot as Sydney in the summertime. Besides, her eyes are full of mirth and mischief, and even though she’s talking smack, I like seeing it there.

An easy and companionable silence slips over us as we eat, but my good mood ebbs away as I think about the fact that when the retreat is over and I leave Magpie Grove, I won’t have any excuse to talk to Reese. Of course, I can still keep tabs on what she’s doing by searching for her articles online. But the idea of never speaking to Reese again makes me feel like someone has slipped an axe head between my ribs.

Is there any chance Reese and I can ever truly move beyond what happened in high school? I’ve missed her in my life, and this is a second chance – an opportunity for me to put things right between us. The way both of us reacted while trying to hash out our backstory earlier proves putting things right won’t be a simple task. And okay, I don’t know how a friendship between us will look once I leave the state. But that’s not enough to deter me.

It's decided. I’m not leaving Magpie Grove without Reese's friendship. Somehow, I need to convince her we can be rivals and friends despite the way the past still rides us so intensely.

Series

About the author

Elle Fielding

Romance writer. Fiction publisher. I serialize books on various platforms. Aussie gal, mum, and wife. I live in fantasyland and invite you to join me there.

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