Authors: Kristen Ashley
I knew my face was hard and my eyes unfriendly.
I also didn’t care.
“Get you a drink?” I repeated.
She leaned into her hands on her purse and kept hold of my eyes. “Honey, please. I came here to talk to you and it’s real important you hear what I have to say.”
“Not to be a bitch,” I began, intending to be just that, “but, lookin’ back, I’m not sure you ever had anything to say that was real important.”
She closed her eyes through her flinch and I felt something I didn’t want to feel flow through me.
Guilt at hurting my mother and more guilt for doing it intentionally.
But she kept my nephew from me and I didn’t have it in me to let that slide.
Still, I hated doing it, so I needed to get out of there.
“Now, Mom, can I get you a drink?” I asked yet again.
She opened her eyes and I saw the effort it took her to straighten her shoulders before she announced, “Your father isn’t real happy you’re back together with that man.”
Dad had called Ham that back in the day, time and again, even though I’d corrected him dozens of times, telling him Ham’s name.
I hated it then and I hated it no less now.
“Lucky for me, just like back then, I’m of the age of consent and can choose who I spend my time with,” I told Mom. “Now, if you want to stay, you really need to order a drink. Ham’s the manager. His job is to sell booze and he frowns on people hanging out, taking up tables, and not spending money.”
“I… well, you know I don’t imbibe,” Mom told me and I did know that. I also never understood it. She wasn’t militant antibooze but I’d never seen her even take a sip of wine. And that was even before Xenia went off the rails. Truthfully, even knowing it was wrong to think, what with my sister being a junkie alcoholic, with the life Mom led with Dad, I figured she could use a drink or two to get her through.
“We have soft drinks,” I shared then I suggested, “Or the other option is you can leave.”
She leaned farther into me, taking a hand from her purse and stretching it across the table toward me, palm flat. I looked down at it like it was a snake about to strike but held my ground.
“Your father’s real worried about what you and that man have planned in regards to Zander,” she informed me, and I looked back to her. “Zander’s in a good place. He doesn’t need any upheaval.”
I felt my throat start burning with the effort to hold back the torrent of words that were getting caught in it.
“Are you kidding me?” I hissed and she leaned back, her hand sliding with her.
“Wilona never had kids,” Mom stated. “Couldn’t. She was over-the-moon happy she had her chance to raise a baby even if she did it later in life.”
“Aunt Wilona is a nasty bitch only one step down on the nasty level from Aunt Dahlia and you know that because she’s had not one nice thing to say about you in nearly forty years,” I reminded her. “You were never good enough for Dad and she let you know it every chance she got.”
And this was true. I’d heard it. Neither Aunt Wilona nor Aunt Dahlia had made even a vague attempt to hide these comments from Xenia, me,
Even in the light of the bar I saw her face get pale, acknowledging this as truth before she said, “She may be a bit hard, Zara, but I promise, she’s good with Zander.”
At that, it was my turn to lean in. “If she was, then why has his aunt been livin’ a county away and he has no clue I exist?” I locked eyes with her. “And he doesn’t, does he, Mom? He has no idea his aunt has been as close as I am. Happy to spend time with him. Happy to tell him, when he was old enough to hear, which would be about now, how his Mom had a beautiful laugh. How everyone liked her. How she had a way with tellin’ a scary story and she knew a million jokes and she had a way of tellin’ those, too. How she had soft hair and shining eyes and she was lookin’ forward to bringin’ him into this world. And how tragic that the one thing in her life she looked forward to was the most important thing she ever had a shot at and she didn’t get it.”
“Please don’t,” Mom whispered. “You know all this is hard on me.”
Was she crazy?
“Hard on you?” I asked, my voice pitching higher
louder. “I lost my sister.”
“I lost my daughter,” she replied, her voice trembling, her eyes getting bright.
I leaned in farther.
“Well, I win because I lost my nephew, too,” I spat.
“And something else I lost, not that I had much of it in the first place, was any minute amount of respect I still had for
knew the deal that was struck.
knew Xenia and I were close.
know what Dad’s like.
knew I wanted to be a part of my nephew’s life. You also knew he was livin’ not far away from me for the last nine years and you never
“Your father—” she began.
“Yeah,” I snapped. “My
would lose his mind if you went against his wishes and that might put you in a world of hurt.” I leaned back and threw out an arm, my tone turning sarcastic. “And we wouldn’t want that, would we? No way Amy Cinders would put anything on the line for her girls, or apparently her firstborn daughter’s son.”
Another flinch, this one I did not give one shit about, before she rallied with, “You knew how it was.”
“Yeah, I did. I knew
how it was for eighteen years because no one shielded me from any of that shit except my sister,” I shot back.
Mom’s eyes flew over my shoulder and I turned to look, even though from that low, incensed rumble I knew what I would see and I was right. Ham was positioning himself close to my back but his infuriated eyes were locked on Mom.
“I got a right to refuse service,” he stated. “And I’m exerting that right. Get out.”
“Please, um… Mr. Reece?” Mom started and I looked back to her to see she’d slid off her stool and was looking beseechingly up at Ham. “I was trying to have a word with Zara and it’s good you’re here because you should know, too, that Xavier isn’t very happy about what you two might be—”
Ham interrupted her, repeating, “Get out.”
“Really, I need you to listen to me,” Mom begged.
“And, ma’am, I really need you to get the fuck out before I’m forced to eject you myself, and do not test me. I got enough years in bars, I won’t hurt you while I do it but that doesn’t mean you won’t be set out,” Ham returned.
Mom looked at Ham and then looked at me and saw she’d get no help from me so she reached for her purse.
Ham wasn’t done, however.
“Also, a warning, and you take this to your husband. Things are about to get ugly and I mean that legally. You do yourself no favors, and I’d share it with him, if you harass Zara anywhere, but especially at work. You do, we’ll be keepin’ track of that shit startin’ now and you might wanna think of what a judge will think of you keepin’ a boy from his aunt and then hasslin’ her when she decides she doesn’t like that much and does somethin’ about it.”
“So you are. You are gonna fight for Zander,” Mom breathed, eyes wide, face pale, terror written all over her features.
“Know the concept is foreign to you,” Ham replied cuttingly. “But yeah, we’re gonna fight for that boy. We’re gonna do everything we can to get him in a safe place where he’s got love that isn’t fucked up and twisted.”
“Wilona does right by him,” Mom squeaked, terrified but weirdly holding her own.
“She did, she wouldn’t keep him from his aunt,” Ham said, much the same as me. “Now, you best be on your way, but one last nugget you get to share with that asshole you live with. Had a word with Dr. Kreiger.”
Man, oh man. Ham
pissed if he was laying this particular nugget on Mom now.
And she knew what that nugget meant because her eyes went so huge, they had to hurt.
Ham didn’t even take a breath before he kept going.
“He still works at County Hospital. He remembers Xenia. He remembers standin’ right there with me, you, that asshole, and Zara when your husband agreed to put the baby up for adoption. He also remembers bein’ surprised when he approached your man about seein’ to that and your man reneged on that deal. He’s pretty pissed to learn that your man lied to him at the time, sayin’ Zara knew all about the change. And last, he’s all fired up to tell a judge about this, seein’ as he also thought that was a fuckwit move. So another piece of info you can suck up enough courage to tell him that might be useful is, what comes around goes around and I’m gonna make certain he gets his. Now, you got all that?”
This was all true.
Ham wasted no time the day after the funeral in finding Dr. Kreiger, who was the only witness to the deal I made with Dad. Ham didn’t let me come, worried about my state of mind, seeing as my sister had just passed. However, he did fill me in when he got back from the hospital.
And during our meeting with Nina the day before that we had to officially get the ball rolling, Nina filled us in on the fact that Dr. Kreiger wasted no time e-mailing her a scanned letter to the effect that he had, indeed, witnessed the discussion, detailed all that came after, and he was willing to do whatever was necessary to help.
Mom nodded to Ham’s words even as she whispered, “Please don’t do this.”
“It’s gonna happen,” Ham vowed on a growl, then finished, “Now, you best get on.”
Mom looked to me. “Zara—”
But suddenly I couldn’t see Mom any longer because Ham was not behind me. He was standing in front of me but I heard his voice rumble, “Mizz Cinders, I’m bein’ very serious. This is the last time I’m gonna say it. You best get on…” He paused.
Not surprisingly, since Ham’s scary tone degenerated to his
scary tone, I saw Mom scurrying to the door.
I also heard Ham murmur, “Be back,” and watched him follow her.
No sooner had Ham hit the door when Maybelle and Wanda hit me, creating an instant huddle.
“What on earth was that?” Wanda asked, getting close as Maybelle did the same and studied my face.
I looked to Wanda. “That was my Mom.”
Wanda’s eyes shot to Maybelle as Maybelle leaned back but her eyes were on the door where Ham had followed Mom.
“You need a drink, sweetie?” Wanda asked and I did. I totally did. I needed seven of them.
“I’m workin’. Ham has a policy, no boozin’ it up while you’re sellin’ booze,” I told her.
“He vaulted over the bar.”
This weird comment came from Maybelle and I looked to her.
“What?” I asked.
Her gaze was still at the door, but it slowly slid to me.
“He watches you, you know,” she stated, and I felt my insides begin to warm. “It’s not boss keepin’ an eye on his employee type of watchin’ either. He likes what he sees. But it’s more. Like he’s makin’ sure you’re good, no drunk guys do anything stupid, stuff like that. You were outta sight for a while and I saw him do the scan he does a lot. He couldn’t locate you. He didn’t like that. Saw that plain as day. He moved to the front part of the bar, at the edge, looked around, and the minute he saw you with your momma, his face got scary, he put his hands to the bar, and vaulted right over it.”
Ham vaulted over the bar.
How awesome was that?
That warmth spread through my chest.
“He did,” Wanda affirmed. “He did do that. It was amazing. Seriously, after seeing that, I’d
totally rob a bank with that guy.”
I didn’t have a chance to smile at Wanda, Maybelline kept talking.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, man that big movin’ like that,” Maybelle declared. “He was lucky there was no one sittin’ on the stools there because I don’t think if there was that would have stopped him.”
The warmth spread all around.
“I had an ex-boyfriend who was not such a great guy and didn’t want us to be done,” Maybelle went on. “Used to mess with me. I’d be at the same burger joint as him, he’d call out nasty stuff. So bad I’d have to run out, not even gettin’ my burger. If he drove by while I was walking down the street, he’d do the same. I started seein’ Latrell and that happened”—she lifted a finger—“
Latrell took off after him and chased him fifteen blocks, caught him, bloodied his nose and then some. We were on our second date and I remembered, by the time he got back to me and word was already spreading what he did, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with that man. I knew he’d never let anything harm me. And now, for near on twenty years, I was right. He hasn’t.”
I loved that story. Then again, I loved Latrell. Maybelline’s husband was the bomb.
“Are you saying that you think Ham is like Latrell?” I asked, and her eyes, which were kind of dreamy with reminiscing, grew sharp on me.
“Heck no,” she stated and I stared. Then she went on. “But he’s one step closer to me not thinkin’ he’s all wrong for you and you’re making the biggest mistake in your life.”
Well, that was something.
“Can I have my girl?”
This was rumbled from behind us. We all jumped and I turned and looked up at Ham.
He didn’t wait for a response. His big hand engulfed mine and he dragged me through the bar to the back hall, down it, and right into the office.
He closed the door and backed me into it, one of his hands going to the door by my head. He slid his other arm around me, pulling my hips into contact with his.
“You know I like it anytime and wouldn’t mind christening the office, babe, but I just had a drama with my mom, story time with Maybelle, and we’ve got a bonus to earn so maybe we can give each other orgasms after we close,” I quipped, knowing full well I wasn’t there because Ham wanted to ravish me.
I was there because he wanted to make sure I was all right.
“Brave face, baby, I love that you got it in you to do that but you don’t have to put that shit on for me,” he replied.
I took in a breath, then dropped my head forward so it landed on his chest.
“She still has the power to hurt me,” I said there.
“I get that,” Ham replied, moving his hand from the door so he could wrap it around the back of my neck.