"A dollar fifty?"
Spruce green eyes darkened to nearly black.
"You're kidding me, right? I busted my ass re-filling their damned iced teas, and they leave me a dollar fifty?!"
"Ash – "
"Not to mention their little bratling children, one of which threw up on the table and the other who just threw his food on me."
"Ash – "
"You're telling me I have to pretend everything is just peachy-goddamn-keen while I wipe up chunks of fucking hot dog, walk around the rest of the day with a ketchup stain on my chest and be happy with a dollar-fuckin' – "
Thin fingers grabbed the ranting woman's arm and jerked her toward the back of the restaurant. People were starting to stare.
"Smoke break, Ash," Reilly Jackson said.
"I don't smoke," the woman protested, but allowed herself to be pushed through the beat up metal door and into the brick alley.
"I know, but I do." Reilly fished a long, slender cigarette from the box tucked in her black apron, dug out a lighter with one hand as she stuck the filter between her lips with the other. "And listening to you always stresses me out," she added, the white cylinder of tobacco bouncing up and down as she spoke.
A smile glanced from Ash Carlisle's mouth before she frowned at the dollar and change fisted in her hand.
"How much was their tab?" Reilly asked, blowing smoke away from her co-worker.
"Thirty bucks or so," Ash grumbled.
"Maybe I should just be a bitch to everyone like Kenzie," Ash mused darkly. "Then at least they'll have an excuse to tip me poorly."
"You start acting like Kenzie and I'll fire you," Reilly told her.
Ash chuckled. It was an empty threat – they both knew it. After getting the waitressing job at Jack's Diner, Ash had become quick friends with the outgoing young woman. Reilly Jackson was the owner's only child and had been put in charge of running the restaurant during the summer. Gotta keep it in the family, Rei, she'd growled, in a poor imitation of her father. No better place for you to be while you finish up school. Reilly would add that her father was under the delusion she would take over the restaurant after college. But Reilly had ambitions of becoming an actress. With her long legs and boyish figure, Ash rather thought the woman would find a better career in modeling. But, Modeling's for women with low self-esteem issues, is what Reilly had laughingly told her. I'm too pretty to be confined to the pages of a magazine.
"Maybe you need a vacation," Reilly said. "I mean, all you've done since you graduated is work in this hell-hole." She paused to flick the ash from her cigarette. "Don't you have a degree in something?" she finally asked, peering at her co-worker. "Shouldn't you be out there making big bucks?"
Ash gave a humorless laugh. "Yeah, right," she muttered. "The only thing my degree proves is that I was sucker enough to borrow large amounts of money for four years. Which I now have to pay back. With interest. And a dollar fifty isn't going to help much."
She stuffed the money still clenched in her hand into the front of her black apron and sank onto a stack of empty milk crates. The city hummed, alive and oblivious to her gloomy mood. Cars splashed through puddles left over from the morning rain, pedestrians moved quickly from one destination to another. Within the alley, two crows squawked at each other over the rotting trash sitting next to one of the big blue dumpsters. The noise ricocheted from the walls and the air held the stink of burning gas and gritty cement.
Normally, Ash loved the sound of so many people moving around her, loved knowing she could walk outside at virtually any time of the day or night and be embraced by the anonymity of city life. But right now, she'd give anything to just take a break. From everything. From the pressure coming from her parents about getting a Real Job, from her own feelings of inadequacy when it came to her life and the things she had – or hadn't – achieved.
So much for making something of yourself, Carlisle, she brooded.
"Let's go back inside," Reilly said, crashing her co-worker's internal pity party. She gave her cigarette butt an expert flick toward a standing puddle of water and pushed away from the wall. "It smells like piss out here."
"All I can smell is bile and ketchup," Ash grumbled, standing up.
Reilly stuck her tongue out and made a blech sound in the back of her throat. "Vacation, Ash," she said again.
"And just where am I supposed to go on a dollar fifty?" Ash yanked the elastic holding her hair up and angrily re-did her ponytail. "The farthest that'll get me in a cab is out the other side."
"You have a car," Reilly reminded her. "Take a road trip. There has to be someone you know somewhere besides here who'd put you up for a week or so." She held the door to the kitchen open for Ash and then followed her inside. "Let you get a little R and R. If anyone deserves it, you do," she added, leaning over the sink to wash her hands.
Ash nodded absently as she grabbed a clean towel from the shiny chrome shelf tucked into one corner of the kitchen. Reilly plucked the cloth out of the air when Ash tossed it to her, an uncertain expression crossing her face as she dried her hands.
"Spit it out, Reilly," Ash sighed.
"Your Mr. Eads called," Reilly said, a small frown twisting her lips.
A similar frown touched Ash's mouth. "Great," she muttered.
"Says he's been trying your cell all afternoon." Reilly paused. "He expects a prompts return call," she added in a mock-haughty voice.
"Of course he does."
Ash pulled her purse from where she had wedged it behind a stack of coffee mugs that morning. She dug out her cell phone and scowled at the five missed calls. Thumbing the slim device open, she scrolled through the list of names until she found the one she wanted.
"You're not seriously going to call him back, are you?" Reilly asked, her voice raising an octave in disbelief.
Ash frowned and waved the other woman away. "Mind your own business," she playfully rebuked.
When Reilly refused to give her privacy, Ash turned her back on her co-worker and pushed her way back into the alley. She waited patiently as the phone rang, absently watching as one of the crows gave an outraged croak and then awkwardly launched itself up toward the roof. An emergency siren blasted through the air, startling the remaining bird and Ash, who nearly missed hearing the voicemail message over the cacophony.
" – get back to you soon!"
"Hey, girly, it's Ash," she said, raising her voice to be heard over the siren. "I may have some free time coming up and I was thinking about taking you up on that offer. Give me a call back."
When Ash returned to the restaurant, Reilly had started waiting tables again, but as soon as she got the opportunity, she sidled up to Ash and bumped her co-worker with her hip.
"What did your Mr. Eads have to say?" she asked under her breath. "Did you tell him what you've been up to this week?"
Ash shrugged. "I didn't call him."
Reilly paused mid-step, her eyes widening. And then the look dissolved into a slightly lewd grin. "Oh?" she asked, her eyebrows raising. "Is there someone new I should know about?"
Ash rolled her eyes and shook her head. "You wish my life was that exciting. No, I called a friend of mine from college," she said. "She's always inviting me to stay with her, so I figured I'd take her up on the offer." She paused as she wiped the top of a ketchup bottle. "It might actually be perfect," she continued. "As far as I can tell, she's in the middle of nowhere." Reilly didn't say anything. "I mean, if you're willing to give me the time off," Ash added hastily.
"Give you the time off? Girl, I'm tempted to pay you to go," Reilly said. "Where should I send the check?"
Ash laughed. "Your father would kill you," she said, feeling something inside of her loosen.
Because just talking about going out of town made it seem like a real possibility. And the sudden relief of getting away and the anticipation of going to a place where she didn't feel as though she had to constantly look over her shoulder gave Ash a rare, heady sense of freedom.
Reilly shrugged as she scooped ice into two glasses. "He probably wouldn't even notice," she replied. She filled one glass with soda and one with water, and then hefted her tray onto her shoulder. "As a matter of fact..."
Ash glanced up at the other woman when she trailed off. Reilly's eyes had strayed toward the long counter in the middle of the diner and were stuck there, wide as half-dollars.
"Uh oh," she whispered. "Um, you should probably duck into the back, Ash."
Ash spun around, her stomach dropping so quickly it made her feel nauseous. Her hands clutched the edge of the sideboard, fingers digging into the wood, the sanguine feeling suddenly washed away in the icy deluge of precisely handsome features and a cultured sneer.
"He looks a little..."
"Pissed," Ash finished for Reilly, breathlessly. "I should go. Can I have the rest of the day off?"
"Don't you think you should stay here?" Reilly asked, her eyes pinched with worry. "Just sit in the back. We can call – "
Cold blue eyes snapped toward Ash. She didn't wait for Reilly to finish her sentence – she bolted for the kitchen, nearly careening into Curtis, the fry cook, as she slid two feet across the tile. The large man steadied her, thick hands grasping her arms firmly. He flashed her a gap-toothed smile, shockingly white against the dark chocolate of his skin.
"Careful, baby girl," he warned. "I just mopped back here."
"Sorry, Curtis," Ash told him, breathlessly. A muffled snarl came from behind her. Curtis' eyes flickered toward the noise. "I'm kinda in a hurry."
A frown began to pucker the skin between Curtis' eyebrows. "Trouble?" he asked.
"You know it," Ash replied with a glibness she didn't really feel. She snatched her purse from the shelf, rattling a few pristinely white coffee mugs, and edged around Curtis' large form toward the back door. "I'll see you tomor – "
"Hey! You can't go back there!" came Reilly's incensedvoice.
"Are you going to stop me?"
A cold chill raced over Ash's skin when she heard the deep, arrogant taunt. For a moment, a heart beat longer than she should have, Ash froze, a tiny rabbit trembling with indecision. Fight or flight, fight or –
The smooth click of hard-soled shoes against tiled floor cracked like a gunshot through the air. Ash's heart punched into overdrive. She shoved through the back door, stumbling out into the alley for the second time that day.
"If she doesn't, I will," came Curtis' rumbling growl just before the door thumped closed.
Ash leaned against the back of the restaurant, closing her eyes for a moment and taking a deep breath. She couldn't hear anything coming from inside over the blood rushing through her ears.
"Son of a bitch," she exhaled softly. She pushed away from the rough brick wall and gave the door next to her a dark look. "That happened sooner than I thought it would."
She checked her purse to make sure she had everything she needed, checked her back pocket for the paper she had tucked there this morning. Funny, she thought as she started for the end of the alley, how much relief a tiny piece of paper could bring.
Ash stepped into the rush of afternoon foot traffic, weaving her way down the sidewalk and away from the diner. She paused in the middle of a group of people waiting to cross the intersection, ducking her head when she heard a loud shout behind her. Walking swiftly, she crossed the street, managed to make it the two blocks to her apartment without anything happening. Letting go of the breath she'd been holding, Ash jammed her key into the security door at the front of her building and pushed her way inside.
A hand grabbed her around the back of her neck, jerking her to a stop like a leash. Ash yelped and immediately started struggling, knowing who held her by the light scent of Burberry's London wafting around her.
"I was just served notice to appear in court, did you know that?" Kaleb Eads whispered fiercely in her ear. Strong fingers dug into the flesh on either side of Ash's neck. "At work. Do you know how that made me look?"
"Hopefully like the douche bag you are."
He shook her like she was a dog, fingers digging harder into the tendons on her neck and making her wince. "I'm not very happy, Ash."
"Like I care," she growled. She wouldn't scream. Not yet. "I can have you arrested for this."
"You can try."
Ash pulled the folded sheet of paper out of her back pocket. She'd read it and re-read it so many times in the past three days the creases were already soft and worn.
"You know what this says?" she asked, waving the piece of paper under Kaleb's nose. "You can't be within fifty feet of me. You can't even call me." She smiled triumphantly. "Get out."
Kaleb snorted contemptuously and snatched the paper out of her hand. Ash protested and lunged for it. But his grip on the back of her neck pulled her up short. "You think a piece of paper is going to keep me away?" he sneered.
He eyed it with a frown and then balled up the protection order and let it fall to the floor. Ash watched in dismay as he stepped on it, ground his heel into it and then kicked it aside. The water and dirt from his shoes soaked into the paper, making it a fibrous wad of mud. Apprehension tingled up Ash's spine. Kaleb didn't sound angry, in fact his voice was cool, collected. Ash shivered, recognizing that tone. The calm before the storm. He'd get her good, this time.
"My lawyer's already working on having the statement you gave the judge dismissed." Kaleb smiled wolfishly.
Ash let out a sharp breath. "He can't...he can't do that," she whispered.
But uncertainly. Because once Kaleb Eads put his mind to something, he did everything in his power to make sure it happened. And it would happen. Kaleb's opportunity success rate was dismally high, which Ash knew from personal experience – it was how she ended up in this situation in the first place.
"He will," Kaleb assured her. "Give it two days, sweetheart. All your medical reports will show you've been the picture of health for the past eight years. I'll go in and present myself as the upstanding citizen I am, expressing my utter astonishment at having to be there at all." Kaleb paused, tilting his head to the side. His eyes drifted away from her as a thoughtful expression came over his face. "I may even bring in a few people to speak on my behalf." He focused on Ash again and his expression turned into a cool smirk. "Did you have any witnesses?"
Ash shook her head, the despair welling up in her throat making her mute. She couldn't believe it, didn't understand how this could happen. When she'd stood before the judge with her medical records and doctor's notes, which all described her injuries as those consistant with domestic abuse, she'd been so sure. And when he'd given her that piece of paper, that ordinary looking piece of paper, when he'd told her he would set a court date to grant her a long-term restraining order, she'd had to sit down. Finally, she'd thought, the nightmare would be over. Finally, she could walk out onto the street without balking at her own shadow. She could enter stores, restaurants, the freaking gas station, without scrutinizing every person.
"Too bad," Kaleb said, unsympathetically. He smiled again, a flash of strong white teeth. "The judge will realize he's made a mistake and in two weeks, when that emergency order you have expires, everything will be back to normal."
"Can't wait," Ash muttered, vaguely surprised she could still sound insolent when it felt like the breath had just been punched out of her.
Kaleb narrowed his eyes at her. "I'll leave you alone to think about what you've done," he told her. "But then you're moving out of this shit hole and back in with me."
"When hell freezes over," Ash snarled. "You've got another thing coming if you think I'm ever coming back to you. Learn to suck your own cock, Eads; I'm not doing it for you anymore."
With an almost careless motion, Kaleb shoved her away from him. Caught off guard, Ash tripped across the small foyer where they stood, trying to get her arms out to catch herself as she slammed into the staircase. Her head bounced from one of the steps, the edge bashing into her bottom lip. Squeezing her eyes shut against the pain, she sucked her lip into her mouth. Tangy copper burst over her tongue. Son of a bitch split her lip.
"Bastard," she muttered, pushing herself up and turning around to sit on one of the bottom steps. She swiped the back of her hand across her mouth, shaking her hair out of her face so she could glare at the large man standing over her. "Makes you feel better, doesn't it, beating me up?"
Kaleb had the gall to look mildly distressed. "I'd rather not, Ash," he said. He crouched down in front of her and Ash jerked when he raised a hand. He shook his head and then gently tucked her hair behind her ear. "It hurts me to see you this way."
Ash hated this part. She hated when he did this sudden one-eighty, became caring and tender. It made her nerves hum with dread, knowing that at any moment he could simply choose to backhand her so hard her neck might just snap.
"Not as much as it should," Ash managed to snarl around her fat lip.
Kaleb sighed and reached for her again.
Ash rocked away, pulled her knee into her chest.
And placed a well-aimed foot in his crotch.
Kaleb fell over backward, knocked off balance by the force of her blow. He clutched himself and gasped in pain. Nimble as a squirrel, Ash spun around, taking the first few steps on all fours before finding her feet and sprinting up the rest two at a time. She'd only reached the second landing when she heard Kaleb's furious roar as he pounded up after her. But Ash was quick – she ran up these stairs every day, as fast as she could, even if she was bogged down with groceries. It had given her great stamina.
The multiple locks on her door cost her precious seconds. Her hands shook and her breath came in harsh gasps. Kaleb's angry steps grew louder, echoing up the stairwell as Ash jingled her keys and worked on the second deadbolt.
Just as she turned the key in the last lock, she looked up. Kaleb rounded the corner, his face red with fury, eyes blazing cold blue fire. Ash didn't even hesitate. She shoved her door open, nearly falling over the threshold of her apartment, and then slammed the door shut so hard a picture on the wall next to her crashed to the floor. The first lock clicked home just as Kaleb slammed into the thick wood. When she threw the second deadbolt, she closed her eyes as he started beating against the door, his voice so thick with rage Ash couldn't understand him.
As the chain rattled into place, another voice joined Kaleb's in the hall. His assault against the door abruptly stopped and Ash pressed her ear against it to listen.
" – ain't gonna get nothing accomplished," a voice snapped. Ash closed her eyes, recognizing the voice of her neighbor, Mrs. Alderman. The woman was nosier than a kitten with a paper sack, but right now Ash welcomed her interference. "You get outta here before I call the cops. Beating on the door like you ain't got no sense." Ash could just see the woman shaking her head and pressing her already thin mouth into an almost invisible line of disapproval. "Well? Go on, get. And don't think to hide on one of the landings, either. I'll follow you down if I have to. This phone's cordless and will work all the way down to the street."
Ash heard the low sound of Kaleb clearing his throat. "Sorry, ma'am," he muttered. "The woman in there stole something from me."
"Nonsense," Mrs. Alderman said, sharply. "That girl ain't got a single delinquent bone in her body." A pause. "You, on the other hand, look like trouble. Get outta here."
Ash's ear was glued to the door. When Kaleb slammed his hand against the dark wood one last time, she squeaked and jumped backward. Scowling, she listened to his heavy footsteps tread down the hall and then fade down the stairs. Ash closed her eyes, took a deep breath, held it for five long seconds, and then let it out slowly.
A soft knock made Ash's eyes fly open and her heart jump into her throat. Cautiously, she stepped forward and leaned toward the peephole. A wild mass of iron gray hair greeted her and with another relieved breath, Ash slid all the locks except for the chain and opened the door.
Mrs. Alderman turned to look at her, her mouth twisted into a disapproving frown. The woman's faded blue eyes flickered down to Ash's mouth and the frown vanished under an expression of concern.
"Dear, God, child, you're bleeding!"
Ash touched her lip with the tips of her fingers, scowling when she pulled them away and saw blood. "Yeah," she sighed. "He threw me into the stairs." Once upon a time, she would have made up an excuse – she'd tripped over her shoelace and eaten concrete, she'd lost a battle with a door. But making up lies was tiring and was only going to end up getting her put in traction. Or worse.
Mrs. Alderman shook her head. "I thought you were getting a restraining order," she chided.
"I did," Ash told the older woman. "He laughed at it and then threw it away."
"You have a copy?"
"I have twenty copies," Ash said.
"Good girl. You bring me one later after you get cleaned up." Ash bobbed her head in a nod, even though it was more of a command and less of a request. "Next time I see him skulking around here, I'm calling the cops."
Ash smiled, mindful of her lip. "Thanks, Mrs. A," she said.
"Thought you were crazy as a loon when you wanted to put those extra locks on your door," the woman told Ash. "But now I see why you did." Mrs. Alderman stepped back and made a vague gesture. "You're a good girl, Ash, and I won't have anyone saying otherwise. You need anything, you call me, okay?"
"I will. Thanks," she said again.
Mrs. Alderman peered at her and then nodded. "I'm gonna go finish watching my soaps." And with that, the elderly woman walked briskly down the hall.
Ash pushed her door gently shut, flipped the locks again and let her forehead fall against the thick wood. Her eyes slid toward the sprinkle of glass on the floor next to her. One mess at a time, she told herself. She'd clean up the broken glass after she got herself cleaned up. With a sigh, Ash propelled herself down the hall. She threw her purse onto the couch as she passed through the living room and headed for the bathroom.
"I don't know why he always has to aim for my face," she muttered, looking at herself in the mirror. Her bottom lip was already twice its normal size with a large, ugly looking gash near the center. She scowled. Scowled harder when the expression tugged at the wound and made it begin to sluggishly bleed again. "Prick," she added to herself, viciously twisting the knob on the sink.
She jammed a piece of toilet paper onto her busted lip after washing the blood from her mouth and chin. She didn't even care that it hurt anymore. Wandering into the kitchen to make an ice pack, she even managed to smile a little, remembering the look on Kaleb's face when she'd kicked him in the junk. That had been the best thing to happen to her in weeks.
As she settled onto the couch, her phone rang. Ash sighed, recognizing the obnoxious song Reilly had programmed into Ash's phone for when she called. "Hey, Reilly," she said, toeing her shoes and socks off.
"That sonofabitch!" Reilly huffed in Ash's ear. "Do you know he actually threatened me?"
Ash sat up straight, one sock hanging half-way off her foot. "What?"
"Mm hm. Said if I helped you, he'd break my skinny neck," Reilly told her. "I'd like to see him try. You think I got this figure from waitressing? Hell, no. I've had my black belt in aikido since I was seventeen."
"Yep, I can beat the crap out of someone and not leave a mark on 'em," Reilly said, proudly. "That crazy Viking wouldn't stand a chance against me."
Ash chuckled tiredly. Reilly had tagged Kaleb the "crazy Viking" because he was six-four if he was an inch with classic Nordic traits – light blond hair, blue eyes, an aquiline nose – and a fierce temper. Totally the rape and pillage sort, Reilly had muttered darkly.
"Did he make a scene after I left?" Ash asked, pulling off her sock.
"Naw," Reilly said. "All Curtis had to do was cross his arms over his chest and glare." She giggled. "I think Eads almost shit his pants. He left quietly. You make it home okay?"
Ash shrugged even though Reilly couldn't see it. "More or less," she muttered. "Apparently pieces of paper aren't as good of a deterrent as everyone thinks."
Reilly sucked in a breath. "Are you all right?" she asked, softly.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Ash said. She wouldn't tell Reilly that her face had been bounced off the stairs courtesy of the crazy Viking – it would just add fuel to the inferno. "Mrs. Alderman threatened to call the cops."
Reilly laughed. "Thank goodness for Mrs. A," she said. "Okay, well I was just checking to make sure he didn't catch up with you and knock you senseless in an alley somewhere. You need anything tonight, you call me, okay?"
Ash suppressed the urge to sigh. "Sure."
"Oh, and your vacation started the moment you walked out the door," Reilly added. "Your paid vacation."
"Rei – "
"Shut up, Ash," Reilly interrupted and Ash smiled. Reilly only affected that tone when she was worried. "Two weeks, okay? You come back cheerful, refreshed, and with a permit to carry concealed."
Ash laughed. "Gotcha, boss lady," she said.
"When you get everything figured out, text me."
"Yep," Ash said. "And thanks, Rei."
Reilly made a dismissive noise. "That guy's a Grade-A dick," she said, and Ash could just see the woman waving Ash's gratitude away. "You're way too good for him, remember that."
Ash smiled. "I'll try," she said.
"Don't try, do. Have a good vacay, Ash. I'll see ya in two weeks."
Before Ash could thank her again, Reilly hung up. Ash closed her eyes and let her head drop back into the couch cushions. Kicking Eads in the nuts officially became the second best thing to happen to her in weeks. She was going on vacation. Hopefully somewhere remote where no one knew anything about her. Ash would admit it was nice having people around her who were concerned, but if one more person asked her if she was okay, she might just scream.
The slim black phone next to her began to sing, a less rambunctious melody this time. Ash reached for it without opening her eyes. A small smile touched the corners of her mouth as she flipped it open and held it to her ear again.
"Hey, girly," she said, warm affection lacing her tone.
"Ash!" the voice on the other end said, excitement bubbling through the phone. "I just got your message. When are you coming down? How long can you stay? Oh! Goddamn – Hold on."
There was a muffled noise in the background, a high-pitched squeak of surprise.
And then a playfully angry, "I'm gonna kill you for that, you gray-eyed bastard! Yeah, keep grinning. You just wait. Bee'll string you up by your ears!"
Something rustled in Ash's ear and she caught the tail end of a deep laugh. "Okay, sorry about that. So? Tell me! When are you coming to Brier Wood?"
A/N: Wtf? o.O Okay, okay...I'll be the first one to admit that I'm totally jumping the gun here and posting this waaaaay before I should (like before I get all my other stories finished...). Buuuut...I just couldn't resist sharing this! Immediately! I've hit roadblocks all over the place for my other stories, which doesn't mean they won't be updated/finished. But I need something...familiar?...to get all the creative juices flowing again.
So! I'm going back to Brier Wood. Y'all comin' with me? :)