Authors: Kristen Ashley
I didn’t want to be there, now for a variety of reasons. But Ham had clamped me so tight to his side, I couldn’t move and I didn’t want to because of what that might say to her.
But also, someone kill me, because Ham obviously wanted me right where I was, and because I loved him, I couldn’t move.
“Now you aren’t in the breezeway, woman. So what’d you tell the PI?” he prompted.
She straightened her shoulders, ignored me, and stated, “Like I said, I told him the truth.”
“Rach—” Ham began but she kept talking.
“I said you were a good man, a good husband. We were young but you still gave me a decent home and that was because you worked hard. I told him that you wanted a family. You were ready for it. You were prepared for it, and you would have made an excellent father. But I was too young, I didn’t… I didn’t…” She faltered, probably because the extreme hostility rolling off Ham was hard to miss and all of it was aimed at her, then she rallied. “I didn’t know what I wanted. I screwed up, our marriage went bad, you worked to save it, but I was too young and I… I… screwed it up.” She pulled in a deep breath and finished. “That’s what I told him, Reece.”
I felt Ham’s body relax and some of my tension flowed away when it did.
When Ham made no reply, she continued.
“Obviously, I didn’t want to tell him anything but he was determined. So I asked him what this was about. He wasn’t forthcoming but he did say the custody of a young boy was at stake.”
Finally, her eyes slid to me, then around the apartment for the first time, maybe looking for clues a child lived with us, maybe just curious.
She did this quickly before looking back to Ham.
“He claimed it wasn’t your boy,” she told him.
“He isn’t,” Ham confirmed.
She nodded, looked swiftly to me again, failing at hiding her curiosity, then back to Ham before she said quietly, “Still, whoever it is, I told him what kind of man you were and made sure he knew you’d do right by the boy and he wouldn’t find any help from me if he was trying to keep you away.”
“So am I supposed to say thanks?” Ham asked sarcastically and that was when I decided to jump in.
“Rachel, I’m Zara,” I stated belatedly, feeling awkward, but then again, I hadn’t yet been given the opportunity to mind my manners and Ham certainly had no intention of minding his.
At my butting in, Ham’s arm got tighter around me. A warning, but I ignored it.
“It’s my nephew this is all about,” I shared. “I’m uncertain he’s being raised in a healthy environment and I’ve decided to do something about it.”
I continued. “It means a lot to me to get him safe, so I appreciate you being honest about Ham.”
“Ham?” she asked.
“Reece,” I clarified.
She nodded again, her eyes drifting up to Ham and it was then we both discovered that Ham was done with this unexpected visit and he was going to do something about it.
“So now that you came well out of your way to share your benevolence, we got shit to do,” he declared. “I’d offer you a cup of coffee but I think you get why I’m not gonna do that.”
“I live in Fort Collins now, Reece,” she shared.
“Congratulations,” Ham replied.
“Ham,” I whispered, curling into him and looking up at him.
His stubbled jaw was hard and a muscle was ticking there.
I stared at that muscle jumping in his jaw.
Twenty years and she had the power to move him to this kind of emotion.
This meant he wasn’t over her, either. Twenty years was a long time. Yes, she did him wrong in a very,
bad way. But he had not moved on. He might have reflected years after she’d broken him, after he’d had an ax in his shoulder, and made the decision to try to move on.
But he hadn’t moved on.
More not good in a situation between us that was already really not good.
“Seein’ as you’re standin’ in front of the door and you know how to use it, I suggest you do that,” Ham invited.
I looked to her to see she looked even sadder, she was pale and this was already hard on her but Ham was making it infinitely harder.
She didn’t delay in nodding again and stepping to the door.
With effort, I pulled free of Ham and followed her. I put my hand on the door once she was through it and called her name.
She hesitated before cautiously turning back.
“I know your history,” I told her quietly. “And I hope you understand Ham’s reaction to your visit. But I thank you for being honest with the investigator. In the end, it will help Zander, and that’s what’s important.”
“Of course,” she murmured.
“Thank you for coming all this way.”
She nodded, glanced beyond me, then turned and walked away.
I closed the door and found the living room empty so I moved to the kitchen.
Ham was pouring coffee in a travel mug.
He must have felt my presence in the doorway because he announced, “Don’t wanna talk about that shit.” He screwed the lid on the mug and turned to me. “Now I’m goin’ for a run. You’re here when I get back, you’re here. You aren’t, you aren’t. Suit yourself.”
Then he prowled to me and I had to jump out of the way or be bowled over.
But I followed him, asking stupidly, “You’re running with a travel mug of coffee?”
Ham’s answer was to walk through then slam the front door.
When I had aloneness and silence, both for the first time in a long time, suddenly, exhaustion overwhelmed me.
I couldn’t think of shopping. I couldn’t think of finding a friend who might be free to have lunch with me, but more, I didn’t want to talk this shit through with anyone. I didn’t want anyone to know. And I couldn’t face saying it out loud. I couldn’t think of driving to Carnal and going to the library, studying up on Gnaw Bone history so I could teach Zander all about the town where he was born.
I couldn’t think of doing anything but what I did.
I walked to my old room, closed the door, dropped my purse to the floor, took off my clothes, put on my nightgown, and crawled into bed.
I stared at the pillow, mind blank, skin cold, heart hurting, for a long time.
But Ham hadn’t even come home from his run before my eyes drifted closed and I fell asleep.
* * *
I felt my hair slide off my neck and heard Ham’s soft voice saying, “Baby, wake up.”
My eyes fluttered, then stayed open. I turned my head on the pillow and looked up to see Ham sitting on the edge of the bed. I was curled with my back to him. He was leaned over me, his hand in the mattress by my belly.
“You been asleep for six hours,” he told me. “Now, you got a choice. You can get showered and we’ll go to work or I’ll see if Christie can take your shift and you can keep restin’.”
“I’ll work,” I mumbled, shifting out from under the covers and avoiding his body as I moved around him and out of bed.
Then I avoided him as I shuffled out of the room and down the hall.
Even half-asleep, I made the decision to get ready in his room. I didn’t have the energy to move my stuff and I really didn’t have the energy to deal with Ham if he had a negative reaction to that.
So I gathered my clothes and went into his bathroom.
I might not take long showers but I was a primper and more so before a shift at work. I’d learned that tips were adversely affected if you looked like shit.
But fortunately, I was able to primp at the same time blanking my mind. If it wandered to Ham, February Owens, or Rachel, I thought of a mental stop sign and shut it down.
I didn’t have the energy for that either.
By the time I was gussied up, we barely had time to make it to the bar to start my shift on time but Ham didn’t say a word.
We drove to The Dog in silence, my part of that weighty, Ham’s seemed reflective.
He did speak when we got there. I’d dumped my purse and jacket in the office, and he did this to say, “You got the front of the house tonight, babe.”
I’d simply nodded and got to work.
I didn’t avoid him during the shift. I expended the effort to turn it on for customers in order to sell drinks and earn tips but I shut it off when I approached the bar.
Ham, on the other hand, was back to laidback Ham. Leaning into me, being funny (though not earning even a grin, I was like a robot, on switch with customers, off switch with Ham), but this didn’t seem to affect him, although he did his thing watchful, even cautious.
The thing was, he could be charming and flirty. He was very good at it and now was no exception, but, for the first time in my life, I was too heartsore to respond.
I wasn’t sure what he wanted.
What I was sure of was that he could tell me until he was blue in the face that he’d reflected, come to some decisions, but I didn’t think he even knew what he wanted. He was entirely fucked up about women and I had to make a decision about where I fit in that.
Did I take Ham as he was, all of it good, but knowing he didn’t love me, maybe couldn’t love anyone after what Rachel had put him through, and hope that was enough not only for me but also for him? Enough that he wouldn’t revert to his old ways, find he couldn’t stick, cut ties and roll on? In the meantime, possibly winning Zander and maybe even beginning a family of our own?
Or did I decide that I deserved better? That maybe there was something out there for me where I had it all, all the good stuff Ham gave with the bedrock of love to keep it solid. Making this decision even knowing there was a possibility I’d never find it.
I’d come to no decisions and was no less tired at the end of shift.
In fact, I was so exhausted, I fell asleep with my head on the back of the sofa in his office, sitting up, legs crossed under me, as Ham did all the shit he had to do after he closed down The Dog.
This meant I woke up when he was lifting me in his arms.
“I can walk,” I muttered.
“You’re out. Stay out,” he told me.
“Ham, please, put me down,” I demanded but my voice was quiet.
He hesitated before he set me on my feet but kept a hand on me to keep me steady. I steadied, reached down, grabbed my purse, and followed Ham out. I waited for him to lock the office and I waited for him to lock the back door of the bar.
We rode home again in silence.
When we got up to the apartment, I repeated what I did the night before, going directly to the bathroom, washing my face, brushing my teeth, pulling on my nightgown. But in the end, I gathered up all my clothes, and when I passed Ham leaving the bathroom, I didn’t go to his bed.
I went to mine.
I closed the door, dumped my clothes on the floor, and without even turning on the light, I slipped between the covers.
I was there ten minutes and so tired I was nearly asleep before I felt the covers slide down and I was up again in Ham’s arms.
“Ham, I’m really tired,” I protested, putting my hands to his chest and giving him a feeble push to underline my point.
“I know, cookie, and that’s good, seein’ as I got shit to say, you’re gonna listen to it, but you don’t got the energy to open your mouth through it,” he replied.
I stopped pushing and gave in.
I’d get this done, then I could sleep, and tomorrow, hopefully on a full night’s sleep, I’d be able to make some decisions.
The jury was out on whether I’d have the strength to carry them through.
Ham’s room was dark when we made it there and he didn’t turn on the light when he put us to bed, front to front, gathering me close and tangling his long, heavy legs in mine.
I closed my eyes and dipped my chin, my forehead colliding lightly with his collarbone.
This, feeling just this, how good it was, could make me believe I could take Ham as he came even if he didn’t love me.
“February,” he stated and my body tensed.
Suddenly, I had all the energy in the world and started to pull away.
But Ham’s arms got tight, his legs tightened around mine, and he said quietly, “Settle, cookie, and please, God, listen.”
Something in his tone, the intensity of it, made me still.
Ham felt it. His arms loosened but one hand started stroking my back and that, too, could make me believe I could take Ham as he came.
“I didn’t talk about it, not back then with you, ’cause no need to get into that kind of shit with the way we were. But I was with Feb like I used to be with you,” he shared.
I closed my eyes again and rested my forehead back on his collarbone.
Ham kept stroking my back.
“Feb’s different though, baby. She’s not like you. Even in the beginning, you gave you to me and I had all of you, even when I was gone. I knew that. I knew it wasn’t fair. But I wanted it, it mattered to me, so I kept it. Feb never gave herself to me. I didn’t have it in me to be the man you needed me to be back then. Feb didn’t have it in her to be that woman to me.”
“But you wanted that,” I stated, my heart breaking, my mind thinking I should have fought harder when he carried me to his bed.
His hand slid up my spine and curled around the back of my neck. “No,” he declared firmly. “I wanted from her what I told myself I wanted from you. And I got that from her.”
I said nothing.
“That shit went down with Lowe choppin’ people up and the feds had to contact me ’cause I was a target. I called her, her man answered. Not gonna lie to you. That stung.”
I pressed my lips together but stayed still and quiet.
“She’s a good woman,” he whispered, his fingers at my neck tensing, his arm around me giving me a squeeze. “Can’t lie to you, baby, ’cause it’s true. Wish I could. Wish I could make this easier. But I’ve fucked up so much of my goddamned life, I gotta do it right when I straighten it out.”
That didn’t exactly make sense.
Before I could ask, Ham kept going.
“We had good times, her and me, and the way she was, I suspected that would never end. Never figured she’d settle down. I was the only one she had, though, and she’s a good-lookin’ woman so I suspected there’d be a time when she might hook up with someone else but not settle down. I thought I had that, that safety with Feb, and would never lose it. When I did, it did a number on me, and that was before Lowe caught up with me.”