He came out of the dark and grabbed Aja around the throat, choking off her air supply and making it impossible to call for help. She beat her hands at him, striking him in the face and anywhere she could connect, but it was futile. He hung on and squeezed tighter. His face loomed closer and Aja saw who it was, but she couldn't understand it. How did he find me? It was her last thought before everything went black.
Aja opened her eyes and the first thing she saw was Stephen's face in front of her on the ground, his lifeless eyes staring into hers. She let out a shriek and scrambled away, the blood pounding in her head and causing shooting pains across her skull. Her throat burned and felt raw.
She turned and let out another, weaker shout when she saw another person appear out of the dark.
"It's okay, Aja, it's me," Marco said.
When she recognized him, Aja started to cry.
Marco sat on the ground beside her and pulled her close. "Shhh, it's okay. He can't hurt you now."
"What happened?" she whispered.
"I killed him."
"He deserved it, the murdering bastard," Marco said and it sounded like his teeth were clenched.
It was too dark for Aja to clearly see his face, but she could sense his mood in every tense line of his body.
"How did you kill him?"
"I picked up a rock and bashed his head," Marco said.
"What are we going to do?" Aja cried. "He's dead, I'm in a foreign country..." She dropped her face into her hands and cried harder.
"You have nothing to worry about, Sweetheart. I killed him. You're the innocent victim." Marco tried pulling Aja into his arms again.
She pulled away and grabbed his face, looking into his eyes. "I won't let you go to jail for defending me. Stephen is my problem, not yours. You have Nona to take care of and the winery and..."
Marco put his finger across her lips. "I said you don't have to worry about it. Stephen was trying to kill you, it's self-defense. Besides, I know of a very good way to get rid of the problem." Marco smiled and even in the dim light Aja could see his eyes gleaming.
"I'm not going to like this am I?"
"We dump the body down the old well. You know the one near the olive groves? It's been unused for many years. We'll cover it back up and no one will be the wiser."
Aja groaned again. "We can't do that, Marco!"
He laughed. "Of course we can. No one will ever know. After the escapade Pietro pulled off, we can let it be known around town that Stephen was mixed up in the Mafia. They'll never even think twice about him disappearing. He'll never bother you again, Aja."
Aja shook her head, wondering at his calm, almost delighted discussion of such a criminal act as murdering a man and dumping his body, on his own property no less. She wondered how she always got mixed up with men that she couldn't understand.
Marco stood and picked up Stephen's arms. Aja shuddered and squeezed her eyes shut.
"Come on Aja, you need to grab his feet and help me drag him."
Aja got to her feet, then clutched her head as the world started spinning and her gorge rose.
"It's because of the lack of oxygen to your brain. It'll pass." Marco said.
"I know." Aja spat at him. She opened her eyes a little and peeked at Stephen. So far she'd avoided looking directly at the body ever since she woke up. His form was dim in the darkness, the only light came from the main house and farther away from the workers quarters. It was late, probably near midnight, and the moon wasn't full. In fact, it was perfect for what Marco planned to do.
"Come on, we need to move him. It's a fair distance."
Aja tiptoed over to the body, stuck out her foot and nudged him. Her stomach lurched and she darted to the nearest bush and vomited. When she was spent, she wiped her mouth on her sleeve and walked back to Marco, who was still holding Stephen's arms. She marveled at his strength and then wondered if he was really the man she thought she knew. Maybe he'd done this before.
Marco seemed to read her thoughts in spite of the dark. The man had eyes like a cat. "I'm calm because we've done nothing wrong, Aja. You need to get that through your head. You've done nothing wrong. You have the right to live and I have the right to defend the woman I love."
Aja bent down and picked up Stephen's legs, trying to control her stomach. She pretended she was carrying a sack of potatoes, a basket of grapes, anything but a dead body. If she allowed herself to think, really think about what they were doing, she wouldn't be able to finish the task.
"Let's get this done." Aja said, pushing her shoulders back and lifting the legs as high as she could.
"Bravo." Marco said with a smile.
It took them an hour to carry the body to the well. Aja quickly learned that bodies are much more awkward than sacks of potatoes. At least he hadn't been dead long enough to start smelling. That would have been too much. She kept dropping one foot or both and they would have to stop, catch their breath and then pick the body up again.
"You doing okay?" Marco asked after a while.
"Yah. As long as I don't think about it. I'm singing a song to myself."
Marco let out a short laugh. "What song?"
"I'm a little teapot."
Marco dropped Stephen's torso with a sickening thump as he leaned over and let out a loud laugh. "A teapot?" He hooted.
"Shhh, someone will hear you." Aja dropped Stephen's feet and said, "Yes, it's a song my father used to sing to me."
"How does it go?"
Aja sighed and then started to sing. "I'm a little teapot, short and stout. Here is my handle, here is my spout. When I get all steamed up, hear me shout. Just tip me over and pour me out."
Marco laughed so hard his legs collapsed. "Did your dad make up that song?" He gasped.
"No! It's a very popular children's song."
Marco got to his feet, still laughing. "Sorry. I've never heard of it before." He picked up Stephen's arms and then waited for Aja to pick up his legs before starting off again. "It's a cute song." Marco said then snorted.
Aja shook her head but said nothing. Marco was acting a little loony, but she had to admit, under the circumstances, it was a silly song. She started giggling and that started Marco up again and before long they dropped the body again and were both on the ground holding their stomachs. Aja tried to be quiet, she didn't want to alert any of the workers or, God forbid, Marco's mother, Nona. They were now a long way from the house, though, so there was little chance of someone coming upon them in the middle of the night. But, still, Aja couldn't shake the sense that they were losing their minds; carrying a dead body and laughing over a song.
Aja stopped laughing first. She looked at Marco across Stephen's body. "What are we doing?" She whispered.
"You know what we're doing. We're doing what we have to. Neither of us are going to pay for Stephen's stupid obsession."
"Right." Aja got to her feet and brushed off her pants. They would probably be ruined by the time this night was over. They were her good pair of jeans, something she didn't take lightly when they were so hard to come by in her size.
They stood over the well while Marco pried off the cover with a stick. As soon as he removed it, they both gasped and reared back from the dank odor.
"What is that smell?" Aja asked, with her hand plugging her nose.
Marco shrugged. "It's an old well, hasn't been used in many years. There could be anything down there."
Such as another body?
Marco turned and studied Stephen's body and Aja wondered if he was having second thoughts. She sure wouldn't like to live the rest of her life knowing that a body, one that she had murdered, was lying in a well not far from her house. It turned out that Marco wasn't thinking about that at all.
He reached for Stephen's belt. "I just want to see how it looks."
"Marco!" Aja shouted. That's disgusting."
I need to know how good of a job you did, that's all. Do you think it still works? Or worked, I should say."
Aja nearly vomited again. "I don't want to see. If you're that morbid go ahead, but I'm not looking."
Aja turned and stomped away. She leaned up against an olive tree and started humming 'I'm a Little Teapot' again.
She heard rustling, then a loud splash and she rushed back to the well. The body was gone and Marco was maneuvering the cover back onto the opening.
Aja shuddered and hugged her arms tight around herself. The hair stood up on every part of her body and she started to shudder. It was done and there was no going back.
Marco brushed his hands together and said, "There. He's gone and we'll never have to worry about him again."
I wish that were true.
They walked back to the main house together. Marco tried to put his arm around Aja but she moved away. He didn't comment.
"Do you want to stay at the house tonight?"
"No. I'll go to my room. I don't think I'll sleep, though. I'll probably never sleep again!
"Well, don't worry, Aja. Everything will be fine. I'll come see you in the nursery today, okay?
Aja nodded and turned toward the worker's villa.
The interrogation room was grey and cold. Aja shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. She sat at a steel table that had a tape recorder on it, a pad of paper, a pencil and a box of tissue. There was a chair across from her waiting for the police officer that would come in and ask her how she could do such a terrible thing.
There was a large window across the room from her. It was a mirror, but she knew that someone was probably standing on the other side of it, watching her and wondering if she felt guilty.
"Of course I feel guilty!" She wanted to shout, but kept quiet. She still didn't know what they thought of her or if what she did could even be classified as self-defense. No man would acquit her.
The jokes that would be told about her. Aja nearly put her head down on the table, but stopped herself in time. She didn't want to give anything away.
Aja felt small in the large metal chair, her feet not even reaching the ground. She was resigned to her small stature, but sometimes it made her feel like a child and she didn't want the police to see her that way. She shifted in the chair and scooted forward, trying to lengthen her legs as much as possible, but it was useless.
The door opened and a tall, menacing man walked in. He looked very manly; the kind of man who would brag about his size. He's going to despise me.
He sat at the table in front of Aja. "Are you okay, Miss Rain? Can I get you a hot drink or something?"
Aja stared at him in confusion. Why is he being so nice?
"I'm sorry about the room." He waved his hand at the grey walls. "It's the only thing we had open. Otherwise we would have put you somewhere more comfortable."
Aja shivered, afraid of what he might be trying to get out of her with this nice routine. He must be the good cop. Does the bad cop come in later?
"Are you cold? Shall I find you a sweater?" He asked. His voice was low and a little gruff, but she could hear only concern in it. It sounded genuine.
"I'm fine." Aja said, her voice cracking a little.
"Good. I'm Officer Brandt. I'm going to take your statement. Now, can you tell me what happened, please? And take your time. We need the full story, but I'm sure this is hard for you."
Aja stared at him for a minute and he smiled. "You're not in trouble, okay? We know what he did to you, so you had every right to defend yourself."
Aja glanced down at the table to hide the tears springing to her eyes. She hadn't expected them to understand.
She started to speak and he turned on the tape recorder and picked up the pencil. "Stephen came home drunk." She swallowed, her throat still sore from nearly being strangled. "He woke me up, I was already asleep, and he wanted to have sex." She averted her eyes in embarrassment. "I told him no, that he was drunk and I was tired. He proceeded to force himself on me. I got angry because this was something he did often.
Aja stopped and wiped tears away with a shaky hand.
Officer Brandt pushed the box of tissue closer to Aja and she plucked a couple from the box, thanking him in a quiet voice.
"Take your time, Miss Rain, there's no hurry."
Aja got herself under control and continued her statement. "Well, I shoved him off and he fell on the floor. I got out of bed and tried to leave but he grabbed my ankle and threw me to the ground." Aja rubbed the shoulder that had hit the floor. "We fought on the floor, me trying to get away and Stephen still trying to force himself on me."
She fought back the emotion and went on. "I guess I should mention that while we were fighting Stephen was totally naked. It matters later I guess." She swallowed and kept her eyes averted, afraid of what she would read in the officer's face.
"I managed to get away a second time and ran to the kitchen. All I could think of was finding a weapon that would keep Stephen away from me. He had done this to me too many times and I wanted it to end." Aja stopped, thinking about how that sounded.
"I didn't want to kill him, that's not what I meant." She burst out.
Officer Brandt smiled. "I know. It's okay, please continue."
She took courage from the serenity on his face. He didn't hate her yet.
"He followed me to the kitchen of course. I managed to pull a knife out of the block, a butcher knife, before he reached me. I held it in front of me and he hesitated. He was drunk so his thinking was slower, I could tell. Then without warning he lunged at me and tried to grab the knife. I wouldn't let go and he wrestled for it. He is stronger than me and he kept pushing my hand lower and squeezing my wrist until I couldn't hang on any longer."
Aja paused again, watching the officer's face. His expression didn't change.
"I was trying to hold on and made a desperate attempt to get away and swung my arm up, trying to get my wrist out of his hand. Well, it got him."
Officer Brandt finally reacted, though just a little. Aja saw a small shudder pass through his body. She looked away and finished in a rush.
"The knife sliced his penis and there was blood everywhere. Stephen let out a scream and fell to the floor. That's when I ran and called 911."
She stopped and looked down at the table, afraid that now he would arrest her. Then she thought of something. "Is he dead? Did I kill him?" With all the blood on her nightgown and the floor, he couldn't have lived, could he?
"He's going to live." Officer Brandt said. "I'm not sure if he'll be functioning as usual, though, but maybe that's a good thing." He smiled at Aja and she let out a sigh of relief.
He continued. "We're not going to charge you, but I must warn you. Stephen will probably want to sue you in a Civil Court. I don't think he has a case, but I'm sure he'll try." An expression of distaste flashed on the officer's face. Aja wondered if he knew Stephen.
"You're free to go, Miss Rain. Thank you for giving your statement. If there's anything you need, please let us know." Officer Brandt handed her a business card. "You can call me anytime." He smiled again and this time Aja felt uncomfortable.
"Do you have someone that can pick you up?" He asked. "Or do you need a ride home?"
"No. I can call my Dad." She answered before he could suggest himself as her ride. I'll call him on my cell." She looked around and then realized she didn't have her purse. She'd taken enough time to put on some clothes before being brought to the station by the attending police, but hadn't thought to bring her purse.
"We have a phone just outside the room, you can use that."
Aja waited in the main area of the station for her father. She watched the people coming and going and was surprised how many arrests had been made in the short time she was there. Vancouver was getting bigger all the time and Aja knew that meant a rise in crime. It made her sad because she loved her city and didn't want to know about its dark side.
She turned and saw her father, with a very worried face, coming toward her.
He swept her up in his arms and she felt safe at last. She cried into his shirt and babbled out her story, not caring who saw them.
"Oh baby girl, baby girl. I'm so sorry I wasn't there to protect you." And without any warning her father swept her up in his arms and carried her to his car. Aja let herself relax in his capable arms and thanked God for her father. He would take care of her like he always did. The one thing Aja was dreading, though, was her mother's reaction.
A Childhood Room
The front door opened as soon as Aja and her father pulled into the driveway. Aja's mother, Rosabel stood in the doorway, perfectly manicured despite the fact that it was past midnight. Aja wondered for the umpteenth time how she managed to be perfect all the time, especially when Aja never saw her grooming herself. It was one thing Aja wished her mother had passed on to her.
Aja's father helped her out of the car, then scooped her up and carried her into the house, with her protesting that she could walk. She hated to show weakness in front of her mother.
"Aidan, she's perfectly capable of walking."
"I know," he said, pushing past his wife. "I'm sure she could use a little pampering after what she's just gone through, Rose," he said, brushing past his wife.
Aja laid her head down on her father's shoulder. "Thank you, Daddy," she whispered.
He didn't reply, but squeezed his arms tighter around his only daughter. Aja had always been his favorite, something he made no bones about. Aidan was an unusual man in that he wanted a daughter more than sons, so when Aja was born after three boys, he was ecstatic. He spent the rest of the time 'foolishly indulging her', as Rose liked to say. And say it often, she did, but Aidan didn't care. He happily went on catering to Aja's every whim. In spite of this, Aja didn't grow up spoiled. It was probably because her mother did everything she could to counter her husband's indulgences. In turn he just pampered her more until Aja felt like the rope in an enthusiastic game of tug-of-war.
Aidan put Aja down on her frilly pink childhood bed. She sank into the soft mattress with a sigh.
Aidan knelt beside the bed and took her hand. "Tell me what happened, Sweetie."
The room was dark and her father's presence was comforting, but she wasn't fooled by his gentle tone. He wanted the story so he could go deal with the animal that dared to hurt his beloved daughter. It was the main reason Aja hadn't left Stephen when the abuse first started. She didn't want to be responsible for her father going to jail for murder.
"I don't want to talk about it, Daddy. Okay?" She asked, hoping he would let it go. She should have known better.
"I just want to know what he did to you. Why did this happen?"
"Because he's a bastard, that's why. I should have left him a long time ago," Aja said, and rubbed her hands across her face. She sighed and felt the weariness she'd been holding at bay wash over her. Just then Rose came in and Aja wished she could pretend she was asleep.
She stared up at the pink canopy and tried to tune out her mother's scathing comments. Rose turned on the light and gasped when she saw the bruises on Aja's neck and arms.
"Oh my God!" she shrieked. "What did that asshole do to you?"
Aja's eyes flew open. Her mother must have thought she had been putting on an act for her father's sympathy.
"Aja, honey, I'm so sorry," her mother said as she sat on the bed and took Aja's hand in hers. She smoothed back her daughter's hair and then said to her husband, "What are you going to do about this?"
Aja shot up. "No! No one is going to do anything to him."
"You still love him then?" her father asked in a sad disappointed tone.
"God, no, but I don't want anyone in my family going to jail for defending me."
Her parents stared at her and then burst out in simultaneous laughter.
"Your father knows how to take care of things without getting caught," her mother stated as though she were discussing the weather.
Aja shuddered at how that made her father sound like a mob boss or something when he was just a businessman. He was a powerful one, but she he wasn't Mafia. Then Aja studied her father through narrowed eyes. Was he?
She shook off the thought. "No one has to defend me," she said. "I took care of Stephen myself."
Two pairs of eyebrows shot up to two hairlines.
"What do you mean, Aja?" her father asked, pointedly studying her bruises.
For the first time that night Aja felt proud of herself. "I think I cut his penis off," she said and her parent's mouths dropped open.
Rose recovered first. "What do you mean you think? Did you or not."
"Well, it was hard to tell. There was an awful lot of blood. I seriously damaged him, though, that's for sure. It was my sharpest knife."
Aidan started laughing. "That's my girl." He patted her head like she was an obedient puppy. "You weren't charged, though, I made sure of that."
"You talked to the police?" Aja was surprised. She didn't think her father would have had time to do that between her calling and him coming to pick her up.
"When you called me, I immediately called the station and spoke to the officer in charge of the case. He assured me it was self-defense and that you wouldn't be charged.
Aja nearly laughed. Her father had a need to feel like he was in charge of every crisis, that everyone in the vicinity could rely on him. They had already decided she wouldn't be charged, but if it made Daddy feel better, she wasn't going to say anything.
"Thanks, Daddy," Aja said, holding her arms up for a hug. "I love you both so much." She reached out her hand and squeezed her mother's arm. "I'm so glad I have you guys to help me right now. I'll tell you the whole story tomorrow, okay? I'm really tired right now."
"Of course, dear," her mother said, now showing nothing but concern for her daughter. "Come, Aidan, it's late. Aja needs to rest."
Aidan kissed her on the forehead and her mother turned out the light.
Aja's last thought before sleep claimed her was, What is Stephen going to do to me?
"Aja, wake up."
Aja shot up in bed, bewildered by the bright colors and the canopy over her head. The night before came back to her and she groaned. Her throat was swollen and she could barely swallow.
She looked up at her mother and tried to smile. Rose was holding a tray, which she then placed on the table beside the bed. "Your father is dealing with the media, so you should stay in your room and away from the windows, okay?"
"The media?" Aja suddenly became aware of the strange sounds that had hovered on the edges of her dreams. "There are reporters outside?" she asked.
"They heard what you did to Stephen and they want the whole story." Rose couldn't conceal a small smile.
"What's Daddy going to tell them?" Aja asked.
"The truth. Don't worry about it. Your father knows how to handle himself in front of the media."
"But why do they care? We're nobody important."
"Oh, come on Aja. It's a sensational story. I think there's even a representative from the Canadian Feminist Alliance. Pride was evident in Rose's voice.
"The Canadian Feminist group."
"What would they want with me?"
"Well, considering you've struck a blow for women's rights..." Rose trailed off and started laughing.
"Mother. This isn't funny."
"Well, I've always hated Stephen and I'm glad that it's over with him and that he got his just desserts. I just can't understand why you stayed with him as long as you did."
Aja sighed and swung her legs over the side of the bed. "I stayed with him because if I left he would have come after me like he did last night. Then Daddy and The Brothers would end up defending me and probably get charged with assault and go to jail." Aja hung her head, feeling shame and defeat wash over her. Now that she thought about it, it really was a stupid reason for staying with an abusive man. The fact is, Stephen affected her self-esteem without her even realizing it. He berated her and called her down so much that she'd actually started to believe him even though she had been raised to believe in herself.
"You really should stop taking responsibility for protecting your father and brothers, Aja," her mother said cutting to the heart of the matter. "They will do whatever they like no matter how much either one of us try to protect them."
"Yes, I know you're right, Mother."
"And why do you still persist in calling your brothers by that silly name?"
"I don't know, that's how I think of them in my head. They've always been The Brothers to me."
Rose shook her head, but didn't comment further. "Go ahead, have some coffee and get cleaned up. It might be a good idea for you to make a statement to the media. It would be good for them to see the damage Stephen inflicted on you." Rose gestured to Aja's neck. "If he decides to bring a civil suit against you, he won't have a leg to stand on. Or a cock." Rose left the room laughing to herself.
"Ha ha ha." Aja called out to her mother's back. Why is everyone so amused? It's humiliating.
Aja came down the stairs after cleaning up as best she could. She didn't want to speak to the media, but her mother's thoughts about the civil suit made sense, so Aja didn't attempt to cover up the bruises. They were hideous. Aja could hardly stand to look at herself in the mirror. You could clearly see two hand prints around her neck, her arms had circular bruises on them and her cheek had a red welt with crusted blood in the middle where stephen had punched her with his class ring. For once, Aja was glad she had a tendency to bruise easily.
"Come, Aja, let me see you." Her father came out of the living room toward her. He took her hands and looked her over cataloging the marks everywhere. "Did the police take photographs of your injuries?"
"Yes, but they didn't look as bad as they do this morning."
Aja could almost see the fury rise in her father. She was surprised the top of his head didn't blow off with the suppressed pressure. Thankfully, he was trying to keep calm for her sake. Aja just hoped it wouldn't cause him to have a heart attack or a stroke. Ever since she was a little girl she felt her father was indestructible. Now as she watched him struggle with his anger and shame over not being able to protect his daughter, she felt fear of losing him. He had been such a pillar in her life and Aja knew she couldn't live without him.
"I love you, Daddy," she said and threw her arms around his neck.
"I love you, too, pumpkin." He brushed her hair back and asked, "Do you think you can make a statement to the media?"
"I think so if you come with me. Mother explained to me the importance of showing what Stephen did in case he wants to bring a suit against me."
Aidan nodded. "That's right. We need to cut him off at the knees." He smirked.
"Don't say any more," she warned him and rolled her eyes. Everyone is a comedian this morning.
Aidan and Aja walked outside and took up a position on the front porch. Aja held on to her father's arm as she stared at the multitude of jostling reporters, all of them there for a piece of her story. Her stomach rolled and she was afraid she would humiliate herself more by being sick in front of them. She clutched her father's arm tight and tried to steady her nerves.
Aidan was telling the reporters that Aja would make a statement, but that she wouldn't answer any questions as she was still very shaken up. He turned and pulled Aja in front of him, but kept his hands on her arms. He was a tall man, towering over her five foot, two inches. Aja took after her tiny mother. He made her feel protected and safe despite the horde in front of her.
She swallowed and started to speak. The first thing out of her mouth was a croaking sound and she stopped and cleared her throat, then tried again.
"Mr Aldridge and I were living together and he was a very abusive man."
A reporter called out, interrupting her. "He's done this to you before?"
Aidan stepped forward. "I told you that she would make a statement and will answer no questions. Please respect our wishes."
There were no further comments and Aja continued. "Yes, he has been abusive in the past, but never to this degree. He came home drunk last night and tried to force me to have sex with him." Aja felt her face turn red with embarrassment, but pushed on. "I fought with him, got away and ran to the kitchen where I grabbed a knife to defend myself. He followed me, tried to grab the knife, we fought over it and he accidentally got cut."
They couldn't restrain themselves. "Is it true you cut off his penis?" One reporter shouted.
Aja felt her father bristling beside her, but she put her hand on his arm. "It's okay, Daddy."
She turned back to the crowd. "It's true that I cut him there, but I have no way of knowing how bad the damage is. You'll have to speak to Mr. Aldridge's family about that. You can see from the bruises that I was only defending myself against him. I'm much smaller than him and the knife was the only way I could stop him from strangling me." Aja lifted her hair and showed the extent of the bruising, blinking as the cameras began flashing from all sides.
"He tried to kill me and I defended myself the best I could." She smiled slightly. "I didn't intend on cutting him there, but I think that maybe he deserved it, don't you?"
With that, Aja and her father turned and walked back inside the house. Aidan hugged her and twirled her around. "You did wonderful, baby! That was a great way to end it. Just wait, that's going to be the thing they quote over and over." He grinned at her. Aja thought that maybe she would be able to get through this thing with her dignity intact.
The doorbell rang and Aidan pushed Aja toward the stairs. "You don't need any more of this circus. Go upstairs and hide out for a bit. I'll get Betty to bring you some lunch in a while. You need rest."
Aja smiled at her father and headed back for her bedroom. She decided to call Mia, her best friend. Aja couldn't leave the house, but Mia would be more than happy to come over, she knew. She'd probably heard the news, but since Aja's family wasn't answering either the phone or their mobile phones, she wouldn't have been able to get through.
Aja walked up the stairs slowly, her muscles beginning to protest. It was going to be a while before she felt herself again. When she got to her room, she picked up the fuzzy pink phone her father bought her for her tenth birthday.
It didn't take long for Mia to get to the house. Aja told Betty to look out for her friend and she was allowed in while they struggled to keep the reporters from swarming the house. Apparently Aja had only whet their appetite with her statement and they were frothing for more.
Aja took Mia to their library, as Betty was cleaning her room. They sat in the big, comfy leather chairs and Aja waited while Mia examined her and then struggled to overcome her anger.
"Oh, Ajakins. I can't believe he did this to you. I can see his hands on your neck. It looks like he tried to strangle you."
Mia jumped up and paced around the room, muttering curses. She whirled around. "This isn't the first time is it?"
Mia dropped to her knees in front of Aja's chair and grabbed her hands. "Why didn't you tell anyone? Why didn't you tell me? I'm your best friend!"
"Honestly, Mia? I really don't know why. I told myself it was because I didn't want my Daddy and Brothers to go to jail for killing Stephen, but I think I was just lying to myself."
"Did you love him?"
"That's the thing, I'm not even sure I ever did. Somehow he had a hold on me that I don't understand. It was like he had me chained up in his basement and I didn't even know it."
Mia got tears in her eyes. "I'm so sorry, Aja. I should have seen that something was wrong. You were with him for a year!"
"It wasn't always like that, though, you know. Sometimes he treated me really well and you know Stephen, he can be a real charmer. He didn't hit me often and only when he came home drunk. He raped me more than once, though."
"That bastard!" Mia shouted.
At that moment a curly dark head popped in the door and asked, "Who me?"
"Olly!" Aja shouted and jumped from her chair to throw herself into her big brother's arms. It was the name she'd called him since she was a little girl and couldn't say his name. The entire family had adopted the nickname.
"Hi Orlando." Mia said. She'd had a crush on Orlando since she was a little girl and she always got nervous around him despite the fact that she was now engaged.
Orlando swung his sister around and then put her down and stepped back to study her condition. "He's dead," he said in a perfectly calm voice that sent shivers down the girls' spines.
Aja's father was mostly Native American, her mother was 100% Italian and her three sons had inherited every drop of her blood. They had vendetta on the brain, Aja liked to say, despite the fact that they'd never set foot in Italy.
"Please, Olly, don't do anything rash."
"Rash? Who said anything about rash? It will be carefully thought out and executed." Aja shivered again at the way he said executed.
"But, I hurt him bad. He won't be out of the hospital for a long time."
"So I heard. I also heard you didn't finish the job." Orlando cocked his head. "I mean to finish where you left off."
Aja realized talking to her stubborn brother would do no good so she changed the subject. "When did you get in?"
"Just now. I came as soon as Dad called me."
"Are you okay to leave your business right now?" Orlando ran an expensive resort on Vancouver Island. He seldom left it in the hands of his capable manager. He was the life-blood of the resort. He was single and there was an exceptionally large amount of women that visited every year. Orlando was very handsome and charming, with his dark Italian looks. Women fell all over him wherever he went and Orlando wasn't one to argue with fate.
"The business is fine. My little sister is much more important." Orlando stated. "Enrico and Carmine are coming home, too."
Orlando shook his head as if to say his little sister really wasn't too bright. "Because you need us, that's why."
Aja took a step back and put her hands on her hips. "Olly, I'm 25 years old. I think I'm big enough to take care of my problems now."
He cocked a brow at her.
"Okay, old enough. But, seriously, why do you still think you have to come running to my defense. I can take care of myself you know."
"Yah, I heard what you did to ol' Stevie-boy." Orlando crossed his hands over his crotch and made a tortured face. "I better start watching what I say around you, Aja."
Tears came to her eyes. "Enough. Why does everyone think it's so funny. It was a horrible experience and I feel guilty for what I did to him and no one will let me forget it!"
Orlando immediately turned contrite. "Sorry, sis. I didn't think of it that way." He put his arm around Aja and led her to the chairs where Mia was sitting. "Hey MiaMi. Aren't you getting married?"
"Yes, the wedding is in about six months."
Orlando leaned back on the couch beside her, "Well, want to have one last fling with me?"
Mia pretended annoyance and smacked him, but Aja knew she'd probably love to.
Aja entered the dining room on the heels of Betty who was carrying a large roasting pan. The entire family was already seated and all eyes swung to Aja. She felt like she'd interrupted a conversation in progress that halted as soon as they saw the object of their discussion. She took her seat and smiled at her two older brothers who had arrived earlier that day.
"Hey Princess." Aidan leaned over and kissed his daughter's cheek, then leaned back and with a proud smile looked over his family gathered around the table. "It's wonderful to have all my children home together again."
Rosabel gave him a tender glance, then said, "Betty, you can serve now, everyone's here."
Aja smiled at Carmine and asked, "How is Anna, and Katie? She must be growing up so much."
"Anna's doing well and yes, Katie is growing like a weed. Carmine's face beamed when he spoke of his wife and daughter. He'd taken a long time to get married because he was so caught up in his farming that he never took notice of the people around him until one day when he was delivering a load of hay to a local feed store and Anna came in dressed for riding. She was the daughter of the owner. Carmine fell hard. It took him a while to work up the nerve to ask her out, in which he bought a lot of unnecessary feed (his animals ate very well that winter!). It turned out that Anna was getting impatient waiting for him to ask and was about to ask him herself. Carmine was a shy man, but Anna loved that about him. They were married and their daughter came soon after.
"When are you going to bring them for a visit?" Aja asked.
"I will soon, I promise. I just didn't want them upset by what happened to you." Carmine said softly, but there was a note of anger in his voice. Carmine was a gentle soul, but in the way of most like him, if anyone dared to lay a finger on a family member, he was fierce.
At the reminder, Aja dropped her eyes to her plate and tried to concentrate on the delicious meal. As always, Betty had done an outstanding job. With her precious 'boys' at home, she'd tried to make everyone their favorite. As a result, the meal was an eclectic one. There was both roast chicken and beef, mashed and roasted potatoes, several vegetables, both white and sourdough buns, and all sorts of condiments. Aja could only imagine the array of deserts to come.
The family spent the next few minutes talking around the delicious food. Her brothers were grown men, but they could still eat the way they always had, with complete abandon. Rosabel brought to the family the Italian love for food and family and Aidan added even more love for family and food from his Native Cree background. Most of Aja's fondest memories were at the family table.
Aja asked, Enrico, "When did you get in? I didn't notice you arriving."
"I got in this morning."
Surprised, Aja said, well where have you been all this time? I've been home all day."
She noticed his guilty glance at Orlando and she got suspicious. She turned to Orlando beside her. "What have you guys been doing?"
He grinned at her, irrepressible as always. "We've been up to no good as usual."
Realizing she wouldn't get satisfaction from either Orlando or Enrico, she turned to Carmine. "Out with it. What did you guys do?"
"We did what any self-respecting family-man would do, Aja. We beat up the bastard that dared lay a disrespecting hand on our sister."
Aja gasped and jumped up from her chair, glaring at each one of her brothers and then her father in turn. He had to be in on it, too. "Why can't you guys leave well enough alone?" she yelled.
Enrico tossed his roll onto his plate and pushed back his chair. "Leave well enough alone?" he snapped. "He hurt you, Aja, he could have killed you. What did you expect us to do. We protect our family, we don't let people get away with things like that. If it had been Gloria or one of my children, I would have done the same thing. Don't try and make us feel bad for protecting you. You should be thanking us."
"Thanking you?" Aja was so angry she was sure her blood was soon going to boil. "I protected myself, I didn't need you to do anything more. You're all going to get thrown in jail for assault and then when am I going to do? I'll be responsible for you deserting your families." Aja's teeth were clenched so hard her jaw ached.
"I don't have a family." Orlando threw out with glee.
"Shut up, Olly." She snapped.
He just grinned.
"Please, Aja, calm yourself." Aidan said. "Your brothers are trying to take care of you."
"No, they're trying to get revenge."
"And why not?" Her mother put in. "It's the way of our family."
Aja glared at her mother. "Am I the only one that sees the absurdity of this? We have laws against vendetta. We're not living in Italy." Before she could continue her diatribe, the doorbell rang. The family stopped talking, waiting for Betty to tell them who it was.
Aja dropped into her chair, feeling weary and old. She was tired of her family doing what they wanted despite how she felt about it. Being the youngest of such a family was both torturous and wonderful. They loved her and doted on her, but it was soon becoming a stifling feeling. She wanted to get away from them, but felt guilty about it because it was their love for her that was smothering her.
Betty walked into the dining room with an envelope in her hands and she was visibly shaking. "Aja, it's for you."
Before Aja could reach for it, Aidan stood and snatched it from Betty and tore it open. "That bastard is suing you." He tossed the envelope on the table. "That's it. He's dead meat."
"No!" Aja shouted. "That's not going to solve anything." She stood up and walked to the head of the table beside her father. She looked each of her brothers in the eye and said, "I want you to make me a promise." They couldn't resist the force of her gaze and each nodded, although with obvious reluctance. "I want you to promise me that you will leave Stephen alone. Daddy and I will handle the lawsuit. We're going to do it the right way, by the law. Stephen can't win. We all know that. But, beating him up again will only make him more determined to do anything to get back at me. I've already hurt him more than anyone else can, let that be enough. Okay?"
Aja waited until each of her brothers gave an assenting nod. "Okay. Let's get back to our dinner."
They Won't Quit!
Aja and her father sat in the den, both trying not to look at the envelope sitting on the coffee table. Aja felt sick in the pit of her stomach and knew this was proof Stephen would never give up.
"I've called my Lawyer. He'll start working on the case. You have nothing to worry about, Aja. If the police thought you were at fault they would have charged you." Aidan said with a reassuring smile.
Aja didn't feel reassured. She knew Stephen better than her family and she'd never met a more vindictive person. And it wasn't just that. Stephen was also a man who always got his way. If he wanted something, he got it. End of story. His family had a lot of money, even more than her family, so he could fight for years without coming close to tapping his resources. Aja was afraid her father wasn't seeing the whole picture, but it was useless to try and convince him that they might not win.
"Thanks Daddy," she said.
The phone rang and Aja jumped, then reached for it. Aidan snatched it up before she could reach it and Aja pulled her hand back in shock. She'd nearly forgotten about the media.
"Yes?" Aidan said, with the impatient tone of a busy man.
"No, we're not going to comment. We've made our statement. Aja is innocent and there will not be a lawsuit as Mr. Aldridge has no case. The police cleared her, so what does he think a civil suit is going to accomplish?"
"Daddy?" Aja put her hand on her father's arm, trying to warn him that he was in fact making a statement. He was usually so careful with the media, but his emotions were getting away on him.
Aidan smiled at his daughter and said, "No comment." several more times and then hung up the phone.
"Sorry, I shouldn't have let her get to me."
"It's okay, this is hard for everyone. Maybe I should just go away for a while and let the circus die down. The court date isn't for months..."
Aidan broke in, "I'm not having you chased away from the protection of your family, Aja," he said with a stubborn look that Aja had seen many times before.
"No, Daddy, I mean like a vacation. I could use a vacation, don't you think?"
Aidan considered this for a minute, then shook his head again. "If you go away, we can't be there to protect you."
Aja ground her teeth in frustration. Why did her family persist in believing that she wasn't capable of protecting herself? She fought off Stephen, didn't she?
With a deep sigh, she got to her feet. "Okay. I'm going to say goodnight to The Brothers and then I'm going to sleep." Aja stretched a little and winced from the pain. She knew it was going to be a while before she could move even a little without pain.
Aja wandered to the guest wing of their massive house. The Brothers' rooms had been turned into guest rooms and Aja expected to find them hanging out there. Aidan had outfitted the nearby entertainment room with a huge television and surround sound. The Brothers had been discussing which movie they would watch that night when they left the table. Their family always had dinner late, at eight o'clock, so Aja expected them to be well into their movie and she looked forward to spending some time with them. The only time she saw her brothers was on holidays anymore and she missed their antics.
The television was off and The Brothers were nowhere to be seen. Aja went to their rooms and found Betty making up Orlando's bed.
"Do you know where Olly is?" Aja asked Betty.
Betty shrugged. "All I know is they went out together and told me not to tell you. I think they're up to no good, Bonita," Betty said. Aja had always been her favorite and Betty never let the brothers make her cover for them.
Aja stamped her foot and yelled, "Those damn fools!"
Betty laughed. "Did you really think your little speech at dinner would make them give up their Vendetta?"
Aja dropped onto the freshly made bed. "Yes, actually I did, Betty. How could I be such a fool?"
"You're not a fool, you just love your family, Bonita." Betty shook her head like a wise old sage.
She knew the family better than anyone. Betty had been with them since she was nineteen and just immigrated from South America. Her real name was Bettina Flores. She had helped Aja through her issues with her mother and comforted her when her first boyfriend dumped her. Betty was a comforting person and Aja loved her wit and insightful comments.
"They're going to make things worse! What am I going to do?" Aja moaned.
Betty just clucked her tongue and continued getting the room ready for Orlando. Of the boys, he was her favorite. Aja could understand why, Olly had always been her favorite, too. He was fun and sweet and could never be serious. He was a real charmer. Judging by the amount of girls he had around him, Aja wasn't the only one to think so.
Aja jumped to her feet and raced out of the room, without stopping to say anything to Betty. She ran into her parents at the end of the hall. "Did you know that The Brothers are continuing on their Vendetta?" she demanded.
Her mother rolled her eyes. "What did you think they would do, Aja? Let Stephen come after you again?"
Her father had a guilty look on his face and she realized him asking her to speak to him in the den was a ruse to keep her out of the way so they could leave the house without her knowing it.
"You helped them!" she shouted. "What is wrong with this family?"
Aja ran to her room, grabbed her keys and left the house in a fury. Her family was going to drive her insane if she stayed another minute. She decided that Mia would help her to get things in perspective.