Authors: M. Malone
He nodded knowingly. “No problem. The detergent and stuff are in the cabinets overhead.”
She turned and walked back out to the family room and then took the stairs two at a time. By the time she got to her room, she was humming under her breath.
“You are so pathetic,” she muttered. She shouldn’t be so giddy at the prospect of spending more time with Jackson. He was just being nice; it wasn’t like they were going on a date or something.
After throwing the entire contents of her backpack in the washing machine, Ridley stood looking at the clothes swirling around through the clear glass panel on the front. It was tempting to just stand there all day and let herself be hypnotized by the motion. Anything was better than thinking about the events of the past few days and the fact that these clothes were the only things she had to her name at the moment.
“Not that I have so much back in Florida, but still.”
She’d been shaken after the accident but after a lot of prodding, a couple of bandages and a few painkillers, she was released from the hospital. The first day after the accident, she thought it was the trauma of what she’d seen that had her imagining things. Books that weren’t in the same place she’d left them. Doors left open that she
she’d locked. Stupid stuff. It wasn’t until she came home and found her apartment completely trashed that she’d been scared. And if her mother had taught her anything, it was how to move fast.
She’d withdrawn a bunch of cash from the ATM and then left a voicemail for her boss at the garden center. Once she’d gotten back home, she’d thrown a bunch of clothes into her hiking pack and ridden her bike to the bus station. It was almost funny to think of her rusty old ten-speed locked to the bike rack outside the station. She wondered how long before someone cut it loose and disposed of it since there was no telling how long she’d be here. She’d told her boss that she’d needed a two-week vacation for a family emergency, but if things weren’t cleared up by then she’d have to quit. As much as she loved her part-time job, she could always find another one later.
“I’m not even going to think about it. I’m just going to enjoy a relaxing afternoon.” She would take Jackson’s offer at face value, a nice guy offering friendly conversation. Nothing more, nothing less. For just a few hours, she would talk, laugh, and not worry about anything.
She walked back through the kitchen to the staircase she’d descended earlier, casting a longing look at the plush cream-colored couch as she passed. This house was so beautiful, unlike anything she’d ever seen. How cozy it would be to snuggle into the deep cushions and read a book. Maybe after they were done cleaning up outside.
She went back to the guest room and checked her phone. She had one missed call. Maybe Raina had finally decided to stop ignoring her. But when she looked at the number she recognized it as her landlady.
“Mrs. Ashton called?”
Mrs. Ashton was a kindly older woman who rented out rooms in her large duplex to college students. She’d been willing to give Ridley a discount on the rent in exchange for her running errands such as picking up mail from her post office box and getting basic groceries each week.
“I should have let her know I’d be gone. She probably needed something from the store.” She immediately pressed the button to call her back.
She wasn’t sure if she was going to stay in Virginia permanently but it was only fair to let Mrs. Ashton know that she would be gone for a while. She’d probably need to hire someone else to help her out while Ridley was gone.
Ridley sat up straight at the weak voice coming over the line. “Mrs. Ashton? It’s Ridley.”
“Oh, thank goodness child. Where have you been? I was so worried!” she declared.
“Worried? I just went out of town for the weekend.”
“Oh dear lord. When we couldn’t find you we thought you were in the building when it happened. I’m so glad you’re all right.”
A chill ran down Ridley’s spine hearing the normally reserved Mrs. Ashton so excited. Even though she helped her with her groceries, and random other things around the house, they’d never been particularly close. She’d learned more than once over the years that it just made it harder to move on in the end.
And she’d always had to move on.
“In the building when what happened?”
“There was a fire last night, Ridley. It seems to have started in your bedroom although no one knows how that’s possible. But all your things are gone. It’s all gone.”
“Oh my god.” Ridley cried.
“The fire department was able to contain it so it didn’t take any of the other rooms in the house. Thank goodness a passerby saw the smoke and called for help.” She paused for a moment, seeming to collect herself. “I wish one of the other units was empty so I could give you one of those when you get back in town but I just took on an exchange student. I’m fully booked.”
“It’s okay, Mrs. Ashton. I’m staying with family and I was toying with the idea of relocating up here anyway. I guess fate has made the decision for me…” she trailed off as the gravity of the words settled on her mind. Her legs trembled, so she sat on the edge of the bed.
“I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”
Mrs. Ashton started talking again but she barely heard it. She hadn’t thought she had much to her name, but what was the value of the old photographs of her mother that she’d never see again? Or her half of the best-friends-forever necklace she and Raina had worn every day in junior high? What about the diaries she’d kept faithfully since high school, recording all her fears, dreams and girlish wishes? She’d written in those diaries until she’d learned the hard way that life wasn’t a fairy tale and there were no handsome princes.
All of it, a lifetime of memories, just gone.
“I have to go. I’m so sorry you were worried about me. I’m just glad you’re okay and that no one was hurt in the fire. Thank you for everything.” She hung up and sat staring at the wall in front of her.
It was only when a drop fell on the screen of her phone that she realized she was crying.
JACKSON STOOD IN the doorway to the kitchen and watched as Raina opened the oven. After waiting for fifteen minutes, he’d come looking for her.
The quiet sobs coming through the guest room door had affected him more than anything in a long time.
Raina closed the oven and turned. “Oh! You scared me. I didn’t even hear you walk up.”
Her long lashes were still spiky and wet from her tears. The effect was like a punch to the gut.
What was it about this girl?
Just the thought of her in pain was like a knife to the chest. He cleared his throat and backed up a step.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. When you didn’t come outside, I figured you found something better to do.”
Her face fell. “I’m so sorry. I totally forgot I was supposed to help with the grill.”
“Sure, sure. You ditched me for something better. I get it.” He heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Hey, I don’t blame you. Cleaning gunk off a grill is hardly an irresistible proposition. But I was really hurt by that, just so you know. The only thing that will help is if you promise to share whatever that is that smells so good.”
Her lips twitched. “You’re crazy. I was going to share anyway. No guilt trip needed. I was just about to take it out of the oven.”
“You really didn’t have to cook. I was just going to order something.” Jackson was truly in awe. She’d made an entire dish in less time than it took him to figure out where the dishes were in his own kitchen.
“Well, I wanted to do something to make up for how rude I was yesterday. I shouldn’t have just left like that.”
“You don’t have to apologize. I would have walked out, too.”
“At least I know you aren’t a vegetarian since your refrigerator is filled with nothing but raw meat. The freezer and pantry were only a little better but I was able to find some frozen chicken breast and some canned vegetables.”
“I haven't had time to shop lately, so we’ve only got the meat I’m marinating for the cookout tomorrow. I have to confess, we mainly eat microwave dinners. The only time we get home-cooked meals is when my mom comes. My mom’s a feminist, so I’m pretty sure raising a son who can’t cook is one of her lifelong disappointments.”
His stomach grumbled loudly and they both laughed at the unexpected noise in the otherwise quiet kitchen. She slid her hand into an oven mitt and pulled open the oven. His mouth watered as a savory aroma immediately filled the room. She placed the dish carefully on the stovetop.
“Well, I can hear you’re hungry, so let’s dig in. I also made string beans with potatoes. I couldn’t find anything else to make in the pantry.” She started scooping food onto plates.
“I’m working on hiring someone to watch the boys and maybe cook a few times a week. None of the nannies I’ve interviewed have worked out so far.” He held up his hands at the large servings she was dishing up. “I don’t think I can eat all of that!”
“Oh… actually this is mine.” She turned back to her plate and giggled a little. It looked like it was heavier than she was. “I was eating fast food in between bus rides on the way here so I need a home-cooked meal myself.” She settled down with her food and hummed as she bit off a piece of chicken.
They ate at the breakfast bar in the kitchen. He couldn’t stop himself from staring as she got up to get a second helping.
“What! I’m not one of those girls who eat a salad and claim to be full. I’m
“No, don’t apologize. I appreciate a woman who can eat.” He didn’t add that he also appreciated the after-effects of a healthy appetite, namely the soft curves stretching out her jeans and tee shirt. She already thought he was a pig. If she knew why he was really staring, she’d probably dump the casserole dish over his head.
“So, where were you coming from?”
Her hand paused before she speared another bite of food. “Florida. That’s where I went to college.”
“It’s weird; I thought I read somewhere that you didn’t go to college.”
“Oh, I didn’t finish.” Raina looked away. “That’s probably why. Anyway, I still have friends there. What about you? Have you always lived here?”
“Virginian, born and bred. My parents have a farm not too far from here. I went to college across the water in Norfolk. Dropped out before I finished, too. I was too busy playing the guitar to study anything useful.”
She looked around. “Well, apparently you studied
“Not everyone thinks so. It was a long time before I started earning enough to make a living. Then I got my break about two years ago when a major country western star liked one of my songs enough to record it.”
Her eyes widened and he grinned, enjoying her shock. “Are you surprised? Let me guess, you assumed I was into R&B or hip-hop music, right?”
“Okay, you got me. Those were totally stereotypical assumptions to make. I hate when people assume they know me before I even open my mouth. I’m a little ashamed that I’m guilty of doing it, too.” She propped her head on her fist as she watched him. “So, what got you into country music?”
“My parents own a farm, remember? My parents are a little bit country and a little bit rock n’ roll, as my dad would say. We heard country music around the house since I was a little kid. One of my uncles plays the guitar, and he taught me when I was about ten. I haven’t stopped since. That first song turned into an album, then I got an offer to collaborate on another country star’s album. The rest is history, I guess. Both of those albums did really well, so all my hard work finally paid off.”
He stopped then and waited, holding her gaze. When she looked away, he knew she understood. He’d told her his story. Now, it was her turn.
“My mom died a few years ago.
Jackson closed his eyes.
I am so sorry.
Thanks. We weren
t close and I regret that. That
s when I first starting searching for my biological father.
I hired a private investigator to track him down. His name was David. He invited me to dinner to tell me what he found out. I didn’t see any harm in going. He seemed nice enough.” She stood and carried her plate over to the sink.
“Before long he was dropping by my place just to chat or bring Chinese. He liked jazz and was a well-respected businessman in the community. I thought I’d finally gotten lucky and met one of these nice guys I keep hearing so much about.”
Jackson stood and put his hand on her shoulder. “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, it’s okay. I should tell someone. I
to tell someone.”
As he gazed down into her big, brown eyes, Jackson had a feeling he was going to be sorry he asked.
Mainly because the more he got to know her, the harder it was to leave her alone.
SHE BIT HER lower lip as Jackson eyed her curiously. He was being so sweet to her, even after she’d all but told him to kiss off. He’d done nothing but show her kindness and she’d responded with distrust and sarcasm. He didn’t deserve that from her. Not after he’d been so nice.