Authors: Kristen Ashley
I leaned forward and batted his knee with my hand before I leaned back, but through all this, I held his eyes.
“He’s not my dad, Cotton. He’s a big man who’s worked in bars his whole life so he’s got a look about him that you just don’t mess with him. But he got that through his profession. He doesn’t practice it in life.”
“Max likes him,” Cotton told me, sounding peeved, like he didn’t want to admit that.
But that was when I knew that Max also had reservations about Ham, maybe because of the way he looked, maybe Nina had shared some of our history, and that was why Max was cautious at first at The Rooster.
But Ham had won Max over and Max had shared this with Cotton.
“Give him a chance. There’s a lot to like,” I assured Cotton.
“He gonna give me that chance or is he gonna blow town and leave you again but leavin’ you this time maybe with a boy to raise?” Cotton asked.
“You know, I love you all the more because you care enough to bring me out here and have this talk, even if your honesty is off-base. But Ham’s stayin’,” I replied and Cotton’s eyes grew shrewd.
“You sure about that?”
“And how are you sure?”
“Because he told me.”
I scooted across the boulder to get closer to him and once there, I leaned in farther.
“He loves me, Cotton.”
“He tell you that?”
I felt my chin jerk back.
Ham had never said that.
He showed it, all the time.
But he’d never said it.
Not when he talked about committing to Gnaw Bone, committing to me. Not while we were cozied up, watching TV. Not during sex. Not cuddling after sex prior to falling asleep.
“You got a whale of a fight on your hands, darlin’,” Cotton said and I focused on him again. “Choose who you got in the corner of your ring wisely. You take on a child, your life becomes about that child and it’s harder to take life’s knocks when they hit
. You definitely shouldn’t be courtin’ them.”
“Ham’s a good guy,” I whispered.
“I believe you,” Cotton replied. “But a good guy and good for you are two different things, Zara.”
It was getting on my nerves when people made sense when they were talking about Ham even when I knew deep down they had no clue what they were talking about.
“I’m suddenly rethinking being your camera-bag-lugging girl,” I shared in order to express this and he grinned. It didn’t quite catch his eyes but he did it.
“Truth hurts. Then again, it also sets you free,” he stated. “Talk to your man and make sure his head is where you need it to be. You get that boy away from your daddy’s family, you gotta teach him to look after himself and the best way to do that is by example.”
“Ham’ll win you over,” I promised.
“Not me he’s gotta win,” Cotton returned. “But I’ll take it, though only after I know he’s pulled out all the stops to win you.”
That was sweet but I felt my eyes narrow. “How can you be scary, nosy, irritating, and lovable all at the same time?”
Cotton grinned even as he shrugged. “It’s just me.”
It was and had been since Alana died.
“You gonna take pictures or is there more of my world you wanna rock?” I asked, being flippant in the face of sudden uncertainty.
“I’m gonna take pictures but only after I say one more thing.”
I looked to the blue skies and muttered, “Great.”
“Zara,” Cotton called.
I looked at him.
“Alana was like you,” he said quietly and I pulled in a breath because, from Cotton, this was the highest of compliments. “She was young but old at heart. She knew what she wanted and God smiled His Heavenly light on me when she found that in me. Never happier in my life than when I had her, not before, absolutely not after. The age we had between us never touched us, not with the love we had. Her parents didn’t like it but she didn’t care. The day I won them over, I reckon, was the day she died. They’d watched me stick by her side through the better but mostly through the worse. This man of yours is who you think he is, I see you think you got that, too. And, if this man is who you think he is, I couldn’t be happier for you.”
“Now you’re tippin’ the scales, Cotton,” I kept up with my flippancy, this time in order not to cry. “You’re supposed to balance lovable and grumpy. Now you’re bein’ way more lovable than grumpy.”
He sucked back more coffee, then handed me his cup, stating, “Then you best get off your keister, girl. There’s mountains to climb and pictures to take.”
I looked again to the skies and repeated, “Great.”
“Up,” he grunted, shoving up to his feet.
I sucked back my coffee and followed him.
Then I followed him through the scrub and rocks and boulders and I did this successfully not falling down the side of the mountain or, less dramatically, twisting my ankle.
And Cotton showed me beauty.
It was what I knew it would be, a marvel watching a master at work even if it was simply watching a man snap pictures.
That didn’t mean I didn’t do it with my mind weighed heavily with thoughts about what he said.
This sucked, shadowing a great morning.
But Ham and I had never finished talking about his history, his problems with women. So much had happened since then—we’d been involved with Zander, Xenia dying, work, and settling into life together—we never got back to it.
And he’d never told me he loved me. I’d told him he was the love of my life, but he never shared anything close to that sentiment. Not with words.
And I’d learned the hard way with how I grew up, with the way Xenia went off the rails, that Cotton was right.
I had to look after myself.
Which meant I had to talk to Ham.
* * *
I sat on the couch in Ham’s office at The Dog, my legs crossed under me.
After my early morning in the mountains with very little sleep and an evening on my feet carrying drinks, I was dog-tired. There was nothing I wanted more than to fall into bed and sleep until tomorrow where I could go back to work and make more tips in hopes of using them to win my sister’s son into my life.
But my eyes were on Ham at his desk. He was standing, bent over the desk scribbling stuff in books and shoving money in moneybags he’d put in the safe when he was done cashing out completely. And it occurred to me that, unless we were in bed or Ham was stretched out watching TV, he rarely sat. Years of life working on his feet, he was used to it and kept them, probably out of habit.
“Tell me about February.”
Those words were said in my voice because they came from my mouth.
Ham, still bent over the desk, tipped only his head back to look at me.
“What?” he asked.
I’d started it. I didn’t mean to. I had other things to say. Other things to ask.
But I’d done it because I wanted to know. I’d wanted to know for a while. So I had to go with it.
“We never got done talkin’ the other night at The Rooster. You didn’t get to the part about February Owens.”
Ham didn’t move, body nor eyes, when he asked, “What about her?”
This wasn’t new, awesomer, forthcoming Ham. This was don’t-ask, don’t-tell Ham and him going back to that, especially on this particular topic, sent a chill spreading over my skin.
Even so, I carried on.
“I don’t think it’ll come as a surprise, darlin’, that after that went down, I didn’t avoid it. They had a special report on what happened with Dennis Lowe, an hour long, on one of the channels and I watched it. They said all the men who got killed were her”—I paused before I said—“lovers. Even her ex-husband got it.”
That was it?
I couldn’t say I knew what I wanted to get. His confirmation they were lovers coupled with a firm declaration it was over, he was over it, and he’d moved on would be good. What would be better would be his firm declaration he’d moved on because he’d realized he’d always been in love with me.
What wasn’t good was
“Were you her lover?” I pushed.
“Yes,” he answered.
He said no more and went back to scribbling something.
I had no idea how to take this except badly.
“Ham?” I called.
“Yeah,” he said to the desk, not looking at me.
That chill on my skin grew colder.
Then I looked to the side. This was not the right time. I was tired. It was after three in the morning. And Ham obviously wasn’t in the mood.
I should never have said anything.
“Zara, you got somethin’ to say?” Ham asked and I looked at him to see him again looking at me.
I shook my head. “No.”
Ham nodded and went back to doing the shit he had to do to finish the night at the bar.
It wasn’t until we were in the truck that either of us spoke again and it was Ham who did it.
“Care about her,” he declared.
I looked to him, seeing his face illuminated only by the lights of the dash so I couldn’t read it, and I asked, “What?”
“Feb,” he answered. “Care about her. Always will.”
It was then I knew I
should never have said anything.
It was not a surprise he cared about her or always would. He was that kind of guy. He was also the kind of guy who was honest. I’d asked. He gave me the truth.
I still found this unsettling and I figured this was mostly because his declaration was present tense, which wasn’t bad, as such. It was just that nothing came after it.
I looked out the side window.
“She’s got a man, babe. She’s havin’ a baby. She might already have had it.”
In other words, beautiful February Owens was very taken.
So what did that mean? Was I the consolation prize? Ham rethought his life after getting literally axed by an ax murderer, his first choice was shacked up so he turned to Gnaw Bone?
I thought this.
I said nothing.
“Care about you, too, cookie,” he said softly.
He cared about me.
That I knew. I’d always known.
But that didn’t mean shit when you were planning on building a life with a man. Suing for fucking custody of your nephew with him.
Getting Zander was Ham’s idea in the first place and, by the way, what was
all about? Hell, Ham seemed even more determined to win Zander than I was. That wasn’t true but that didn’t mean he wasn’t driving hell-bent for leather on that.
He wanted kids. He’d wanted them since his bitch ex-wife, Rachel, aborted the two he could have given to her. Decades, he’d wanted kids.
So was Zander his shot for getting one and quick?
“Zara, you’re quiet,” Ham observed.
“I’m tired,” I semi-lied.
“Next time that old man wants to drag you up a mountain, I’m keepin’ you in bed with me,” he replied.
I again said nothing.
We went the rest of the way home in silence and, once there, I wasted no time going to the bathroom and getting ready for bed. I didn’t look up at Ham as I passed him when I left the bathroom and he was on his way to it. I just climbed into bed, turned my back to Ham’s side, and curled up under the covers.
Minutes later, Ham joined me. Seconds later, his hands were on me, attempting to roll me into a cuddle.
I resisted, pulling away and muttering, “I’m not in the mood tonight, darlin’.”
I felt Ham still before I felt him retreat.
The light went out and the bed moved with Ham settling then there was nothing.
Not until he said into the dark room, “Before, you were flippin’ me out. Now, you’re pissin’ me off.”
“Why?” I asked.
“This shit you’re pullin’,” he answered.
This shit I was pulling?
I decided not to rise to the bait. “I’m just tired, Ham. I’m not pullin’ any shit.”
“You are, and you’re full of shit, too.”
That, I couldn’t let slide so I lifted up on a forearm and twisted my head to look in his direction. “How am I full of shit? I went to bed last night at three thirty in the morning and got out of it at seven thirty. I’ve had four hours of sleep.”
Ham, being all I knew that was Ham, didn’t hesitate to lay it out honestly.
“You asked that shit about Feb, didn’t like my answers, now you’re pouting.”
Unfortunately, although this was somewhat close to the truth, now I was pissed off.
“I’m not pouting,” I snapped.
“Tell me when we have ever shared the same bed and, even if we didn’t fuck, you didn’t sleep the whole goddamned night somehow cuddled into me.”
I had no reply mostly because there was never a time, not once, when we shared the same bed where I didn’t sleep snuggled close to Ham.
“Yeah,” he stated, knowing from my nonresponse that he’d made his point.
With no other retort open to me, and angrier because of it, I repeated, “I’m not pouting, Ham.”
“You weren’t my first, babe, but you’re gonna be my last,” he declared.
Unthinking, too ticked to think, I shot back, “Lucky me Feb was taken, or I wouldn’t get that.”
After I finished speaking, I noted the air in the room instantly got heavy, and not the good, warm, safe kind. The bad, dangerous, suffocating kind.
And I didn’t care.
He cared about her.
He cared about me.
What the hell was I supposed to do with that?
“What the fuck was that remark about?” he growled, and it wasn’t his good, warm, sexy growl but his bad, dangerous, angry growl.
“Forget it,” I mumbled and collapsed back in bed.
“Do you honestly think I’m gonna let you get away with that shit you just spewed?” he asked.
“Apparently not, since I should be sleeping and you’re still talking,” I replied.
The bed moved and the light went on.
I sighed, loud and heavily.
“Look at me, Zara.”
“Can we do this in the morning?”
“Fuckin’ look… at… me.”
That was said in his downright terrifying, bad, dangerous, angry growl.
Since I had no choice, I sat up and turned to him, crossing my arms on my chest and my legs under me. Ham was up, too, back to the headboard, legs cocked at the knees under the covers, arms also crossed on his chest. I didn’t know how he could be frightening, essentially lying in bed, but he pulled it off in a big way.