Authors: Jolene Betty Perry
“Thanks, Ash!” The kids called over their shoulders as they ran into the house. It had all happened way too fast. We got here too fast. They disappeared too fast…
“Oh, hey.” She closed her eyes quickly. “Brandt?”
I did my best relaxed stance, though I was so strung up I was sure I was completely failing. “Yeah?”
She shoved her hands deeper into Trevor’s sweatshirt. “I hope it wasn’t weird. That I came.”
I started toward her to tell her how amazing it was. How Trevor will be harassing me tonight, or worse, giving me pointers on how to spend more time with her. If there was a way for me to kiss her on the cheek without it being strange. I settled for, “Not at all.”
“Night then.” She started toward her house.
I had to tell her it was good. That she should come over. But keep my voice light. No big deal. No expectations. “Any night next week for dinner. We’d love to have you.”
Ashley kept walking but turned around to face me, her relaxed smile back. “I don’t cook. At all. But I can wash a dish.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
A plan. With Ashley and my kids. Oh-kay… There were a million reasons why it wasn’t a good idea, but with Ashley smiling widely at me, her hands tucked in Trevor’s sweatshirt pockets, and the soft skin of her neck and collarbone exposed, I didn’t care about any of them.
“Ashley.” Donetta set her files aside as I dragged my feet through the door after lunch.
Her tone was serious and my heart kicked up a notch. Like this was the moment she knew I didn’t belong here. That I should give up and take my student loans back to Vegas. “Yes?”
“Sit for a sec?”
I smoothed down my pants several times before taking one of the chairs opposite her, feeling suddenly out of breath.
She folded her arms over the top of her file and looked at me like a parent or a counselor. I was suddenly a kid again, overwhelmed, unsure. “I love the passion you feel for this, but it’s not life and death here.”
“Sometimes it is.” The words flew out of my mouth before I could stop them. Because that’s why I was here. The first hit maybe wasn’t life or death, but maybe the next one was, or the next one…
Her gaze was even. “I don’t need to know your back story, but there’s something motivating you that you’re letting take over. We can’t save everyone. We don’t get to save everyone. That’s okay. Having passion for what you do is a good thing, but letting it take over the way you have is going to backfire.”
I let out a breath and my shoulders fell as her words soaked in. If I didn’t just get it out, I’d lose my nerve. “I lost my best friend. To suicide. I hate his parents for how they treated him. I hate that their abuse got to be too much for him to take. Even after he left their house. Even when he wasn’t dealing with them anymore. I just…” but I couldn’t keep talking and breathing without crying. All I could see was his lob-sided smile paired with a black eye.
“They didn’t kill him, Ashley.” Donetta’s voice was barely above a whisper.
I wasn’t about to argue with her. I’d argued with so many people on this. There was a logical side of me that knew he’d done it. That knew even with perfect parents he might have struggled, but I pushed those thoughts away and saw my bruised up best friend terrified to go home because we were five minutes later than curfew. Or because he knew his dad had a bad day.
“Why don’t you take the afternoon off?” she suggested. “I’ll mark your hours for a full day.”
“Okay,” I mumbled as I pushed my way out of her office. I felt hollowed out, like I needed to talk to Josh and completely dismissed from the job I needed to do.
Donetta had finally learned I had a reason to be there, and also that I maybe wasn’t good enough to do the job. I hated my situation. Hated that I felt like so many people in so many files were just a few hours of work away from me being able to help. To change their lives in some way for the better by protecting them from the people they couldn’t or wouldn’t protect themselves from.
I closed my eyes as the elevator took me to the ground floor and tried not to think about Josh, or the people in the files or anyone. How was I supposed to make myself worthy of doing the job I’d worked so hard for?
* * *
I still felt heavy as I pulled in front of our house and hefted myself out of the car. Then my phone rang. I checked the ID, and froze. My hands shook as the phone continued to ring, but the rest of the world held still.
Not possible. This should not be possible. Everything in me turned cold as my brain tried to process. A number. A simple phone call shouldn’t make people week in the knees.
Pricks ran up my spine and I whirled around as if they were somehow calling from just up the street. I squinted in both directions as if they’d appear at any moment. My stomach twisted up and heaved twice before I took a deep enough breath for the world around me to exist again.
How did they find me? Get this number? They were more than half the reason I moved out of state. The harassment from Josh’s parents had reached ridiculous proportions. Well, it’s more than harassment when you leave an encounter bloody and in the hospital, I just didn't like to think about that part of it. My heart hammered as I sprinted up the steps like I was being watched. Stalked. Followed. And what other explanation was there? We told no one we were moving aside from the people we had to. They shouldn’t know where I was.
!” I called as I sat on the couch, shaking everywhere. This was stupid. They were just people.
Just people. Just people
. And just a call. But the fear wasn’t simply from the way they’d threatened me, it was also the terror that Josh felt for years.
“What’s going on?” She dashed up the stairs as breathless as I felt, blue eyes wide.
“His parents got my number.” I was still staring at the screen on my phone, my teeth chattering, and my insides shaking apart. “Josh’s parents. I don’t…” All I could see was his dad’s angry face. The feeling of my skull hitting the stucco. Knowing I was going to die as everything went black.
“How did they find you?” She sat next to me on the couch and pried my phone from my grip.
My chest locked up so tight that breathing became tricky. “I don’t know.”
Amy wrapped her arms around me and squeezed. “Carry your pepper spray, okay? They might not know where we are, but I don’t trust either of them, especially Josh’s dad.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Filling out the forms with the court for the restraining order had almost been more terrifying than him screaming obscenities at me on my porch and slamming me into the side of the condo. I was alive. He could have killed me. But it was the paperwork that made it real. Giving my statement to the police after waking up in the hospital. It made me face the threat and the fear I felt when I left my house that we’d run into them. How did Josh survive as long as he had? How had I not done more to help him get out of there?
Amy rested her head on my shoulder. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but if you found a place for Josh’s ashes, there would be nothing to argue over anymore.”
“I know,” I whispered. I just couldn’t… I just hadn’t found the right spot yet. But one thing was for sure. If they had my number, it was only a matter of time before they stopped by the house. I needed to find Josh a new home, even if it wasn’t permanent.
* * *
“You know, the organization here doesn’t completely make sense.” I bit my lip as I flipped through Brandt’s vinyl.
“Is that so?” He stopped behind me. Close enough so send goose bumps across my skin. One mark for him being maybe interested.
“Well, like John Mayer—you’ve got an alternative section he could go in, but he has some albums that could be more blues, and end up with Jonny Lang…”
“A girl who knows her music.”
I stood up and turned to face him, but he was so close my eyes were even with his chest. His very, very nice chest. “Yeah,” I breathed.
“So, what about the soundtracks?” He pointed, forcing my attention down a very toned arm and back to his shelves of vinyl.
“They can be separate, but really? The rest is just music, and all the best stuff is music that can fit in more than one category.” I nearly stepped back to lean into his chest, almost like this was our millionth dinner together, instead of the second.
“Yeah, well. I haven’t found time for a haircut in too long, the chances of me taking a day to reorganize my vinyl, even for a good cause, probably isn’t going to happen.”
I turned and thought again about what it would be like to touch his very touchable hair. Nope. I spun back around to see a section of very few albums. “Country? Why is it off by itself on the top?”
Brandt grinned. “Don’t want it to contaminate the rest of them.”
“So why are they here?” I teased, once again feeling a little more like I could pull in a deep breath. Maybe because I was staring at his collection instead of him.
“Ree went through a phase. She’ll deny it, of course. It was the only time she liked the record player.”
I snorted, and then tried to ignore the heat that ran through my cheeks. “I went through a Britney Spears phase, but…” I spun to face him again. “That won’t leave this room.”
He shook his head. “Promise.”
My eyes floated over his face. Two, maybe three days of stubble, a Rolling Stones T-shirt, and a dimple I wanted to touch…maybe with my lips.
“Wanna help with dinner?” He backed toward the kitchen, still smiling.
I raised my brows in disbelief that he’d want me anywhere any kind of cooking after Amy’s admission of our fast food habits, but followed anyway. With the kids downstairs doing homework, his house still felt easy. Comfortable. Or maybe that was him. When I was around just Brandt, it was so easy, that the practical side of me sort of turned off. And that felt like a good thing.
In about five minutes he had chicken cooking and water boiling, and I wasn’t as much in the way as I’d expected. Mostly because I sat on the counter and watched.
“So, I can put the noodles in now?” I asked Brandt, holding the open box just above the boiling pot in my lame attempt to help.
“Yep.” He started putting unused vegetables back in the fridge.
I slid off the counter, opened the package of noodles, and began pouring. The steam rose, and a sharp pain slid up my wrist, stunning me for a moment before I reacted.
I jerked my hand back, scattering the remaining noodles on the floor, as the burn spread up my arm. “Ow.”
Brandt stepped next to me in a second and the warmth of him hit so hard my knees almost buckled. “Are you okay?”
“Something burned my hand.” I tried to figure out where I was hurt. My whole palm was on fire, and Brandt was too close for me to think straight.
He reached and turned the kitchen faucet on cold. “The pot or the water?” His voice filled with concern as he studied the redness on my hand.
“I don’t know.” I held my wrist, near where a large welt had started to form.
He carefully took my arm and kept it under the water, watching the red mark grow.
“I’m sorry, Ash.” He leaned over the sink, watching my hand. I watched him—very aware of his fingers on my wrist. My heart beat hard, burn forgotten. “If I’d known you were so accident prone, I would have stayed closer.” He looked back at me with a teasing smile and our eyes met.
My breath caught. He stopped. His smile was slowly replaced by something much softer. All I could see was his brown eyes, and a gold tint that reflected in the light—something I hadn’t noticed before. I wondered how much more I could learn about him. How many more things hadn’t I noticed yet? We silently stared, me barely unable to breathe, something like nervous anticipation swallowing me, until Brandt cleared his throat and backed up a step. I still hadn’t found my voice.
“I’ll get you some aloe vera for that.” He slowly let go of my wrist and walked into his dining room full of plants.
I stood at the sink, unable to take a deep breath. What was
? And had he felt it, too?
“Keep your palm under the water,” he said over his shoulder as he broke apart a plant.
Our eyes never caught, and it felt like he was keeping his from me on purpose.
“Okay, let me see your hand.”
I let him take my arm again as he turned off the water. He held my wrist with one hand and pressed the broken end of the plant on my burn with the other.
that?” I asked.
“Aloe vera.” His eyes finally connected with mine again.
Small tingles of nerves spread from my chest and settled in my stomach.
“I thought that came in plastic bottles at the store,” I teased. A joke should surely lighten the atmosphere.
He smiled back. “It does. But this is a lot more convenient.”
I looked down at his hands rubbing the aloe into mine. “I guess so.”
It felt like a decision point—standing in the kitchen with Brandt, him holding a broken end of a plant on my arm. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d let someone take care of me. And never someone who gave my stomach tingles.
“Wow, you two sure made a mess.” Trevor laughed and I jumped.
The mood between us split, and Brandt took a large step back.
“Way to go, Ash,” Marie teased.
“How’d you know it was me?”
She folded her arms with a smirk. “Well, for one, Dad is working his voodoo magic on you. And second, it’s rare that he makes a mess of the kitchen.”
“Fair enough.” I paused. “Voodoo magic?”
Marie shrugged. “How many people have a jungle room of plants, most of which serve some sort of purpose, like herbs, tea and something that should be used on sunburns?”
“Which people wouldn’t get if they used the sun screen I set out for them and buy in large quantities.” Brandt looked pointedly at Marie. And just like that he went from hot guy taking care of me to Dad. So weird. But also nice. Unexpectedly nice.
Marie shrugged. “I think dinner’s done, or overcooking.”
“Oh, shoot.” Brandt started to move, but froze and squeezed my arm. “Can you handle this?”
Our eyes caught again, and I just nodded, not trusting my voice to sound normal.
Brandt salvaged the pasta I’d started, but I couldn’t focus during dinner. I was afraid to look at Brandt, but I was afraid not to look at him. Marie and Trevor were full of news from school so I continued to ask them about teachers and classes and friends because talking to them and about them was so much safer than anything else. It all sort of passed in a blur.