Chapter 8

He wasn't, really. Her fiance, that is. Not anymore. Not once Ash had found out what Kaleb really was—a monster behind the mask of a beautiful person. Because Kaleb Eads, despite his serious faults, was handsome...if one was into blonds, which Ash was. Had been. He had a blindingly white smile full of confidence, crystal blue eyes filled with intelligence, a trim physique full of power. And Ash hadn't been able to resist the magnetic draw of that power and confidence and intelligence. He was rich and funny, in his own way, which had impressed Ash's father and charmed her mother. He golfed and played tennis, took vacations to places that just sounded exotic. Perfect. Like...a Ken doll.

And he wanted Ash to be his Barbie.

On top on not being blonde enough—or big-chested enough—Ash was rather plain and not as good with the types of social interactions Kaleb expected of her. Sure, she worked as a waitress and, yeah, she was good at her job. She had regulars who said she was sweet and people, in general, liked her. But the social circles Kaleb ran in were a far cry from the people who came into the diner. And sometimes, much to his dismay, Ash had a hard time keeping her mouth shut and her opinions to herself.

She was like the Rose to his Cal;she spent too much time with the lesser folk down in steerage than with the upper crust people on the appropriate deck.

So, she never really understood why he was so intent on keeping her around. He yelled and threatened her when she didn't do something the way he wanted, had affairs whenever he pleased, but he refused, absolutely refused, to toss her aside.

Ash shivered and tried to rub away the chill creeping up her arms. Encounters with Kaleb always left her feeling jumpy and uncertain for days afterward. Because an insidious little voice, which she could normally ignore, crawled into the forefront of her thoughts, telling her she wasn't good enough, wasn't pretty enough. She needed to eat less, talk less, stop acting like such a child and could she, for once, not be so fucking stupid?

The screen door leading onto the porch squeaked and Ash looked up to see Davi. The petite woman carefully sat down on the swing next to Ash, who smiled tightly.

"I'm not going to break," Ash said, letting her gaze fall back to the thick hardback in her lap. The latest Tess Garritson novel she'd grabbed from the living room in the hope it would take her mind off yesterday's events. So far, it was unsuccessful.

"What he's doing to you is wrong, you still know that, right?" Davi asked. "And him thinking you two are still together is really terrifying."

Ash marked her place and looked at her friend. Concern darkened the blonde woman's eyes to a deep, sunset blue, and Ash tried not to sigh. She knew they'd get to this conversation sooner rather than later. "I know it," Ash said. "Too bad he never got the memo."

"Ash," Davi began, her tone mildly disapproving, "you can't be so blithe about this. Him coming all this way just to find you and drag you back...This is really serious."

More serious than you know, Ash thought, casting a deep frown over the farm. Because Kaleb considered Ash his property and, though she had nearly taken his eye out when she'd thrown the engagement ring in his face, he still thought of her as his fiance. "I will have you," he'd snarled at her, just before he'd wrapped those large, powerful hands around her neck.

Delusional bastard.

Ash shuddered with the memory and swallowed. "I'm not taking this lightly," she told Davi. "There's nothing remotely funny or amusing about anything that's happened with him. But if I just sit here and think about it, I'm going to worry myself right into the ground." She paused and thoughtfully ran her finger along the spine of her book before setting it aside. "'Course, if I'm dead, Eads won't be able to bother me anymore," she mused, darkly.

"Also not funny," Davi said, her voice sharp. A small, humorless smile touched Ash's lips, anyway. "What about the restraining order?"

"That stupid piece of paper?" Ash replied, her face twisting into a sneer. "Everyone thinks it's like a magic shield I can hide behind, like it's really going to protect me. But when Eads catches up with me when no one's around, what's it going to do? Give him a fucking paper cut?"

"You need to call the police if that happens," Davi said, patiently ignoring her friend's sarcasm.

Ash snorted and pushed up from the swing. "Yeah, if I'm not dead, that's exactly what I'll do," she said, sarcastically. "Because they'll believe me after talking to him. He'll just find someone to lie for him, to say he was with them at the 'supposed time.'" Her eyes narrowed and she waved a hand in disgust. "He'll just get even angrier. And then..."

Then he'd take all that wrath out on her, that's what he'd do. Ash's hands clenched into fists at her side and she squeezed her eyes shut, grinding her teeth around the urge to scream. How had her life come to this? When she was a little girl, she dreamed about a big wedding and being a doctor and having a pony. She'd never really thought about the man she would marry; she'd just assumed he would be wonderful and would treat her well. She'd certainly never imagined something like this. And she wondered if it made her a weak person, putting up with all the crap and abuse, too afraid to find a way out when it started and, now, too terrified to move on with her life. Was she a tragic female? Did people look at her and pity her? Had she simply become a statistic?

"He told me..." Ash paused and took a deep breath. "He told me he's working on getting my restraining order dismissed. That he's going to talk to the judge, bring in people to talk about how fucking wonderful he is."

"No, Ash, he can't do that," Davi said, firmly.

A short, sarcastic laugh grated from Ash's throat. "See, that's the thing about Kaleb," she muttered. "He can do these things. He has so many people in his pocket, it's not even funny." She slowly uncurled her fingers out of her palms, which throbbed from where her nails had dug into the skin. "Guess that's what having money will do for you."

Davi was silent for a long moment. "Do you think he'll come back around?" she finally asked.

Ash shook her head. "No," she said. "This is much better, leaving me here for the next six days to think about how he's going to beat the hell out of me when I get back."

"I could go with you," Davi began.

But Ash cut her off with another shake of her head. "You can't leave," she said. "You have too much to do around here." When Davi opened her mouth to protest, Ash made a short gesture. "No, Davi. Thank you, but no."

"What about the girl you work with? Could she stay with you for awhile?" Ash pressed her lips into a thin line. She wasn't a child who needed constant supervision. "I'm not trying to find you a babysitter, Ash," Davi said, seeing the expression on her friend's face. "I just want to make sure you're safe."

Ash blew out a breath and smiled wanly. "I know," she said. A soft breeze swirled around the porch, bringing the scent of sweet hay, horse, and the sound of birds chattering happily. Some of the tension eased from Ash's shoulders.

"Well, then I guess the next order of business is to make sure you're too busy to think about all this, at least for tonight," Davi said. A small dimple appeared in her cheek when she smiled. "You brought something nice to wear?"

Ash regarded her warily. "How nice?" she asked. "And why?"

Davi's grin widened and she jumped up from the swing, grabbed Ash by the wrist and dragged her up to the guest room. "Oh, nothing too fancy," she assured, waving her hand carelessly. When she found the dusty blue dress with tiny pink and red roses hanging in the closet, she grinned. "This is perfect. Get changed," she added, walking out of the room. "We're going out for dinner."

Ash eyed the door Davi closed behind her, the dress, then sighed. As she zipped up the sundress and slipped on the pair of shiny red flats she'd brought, she couldn't help but smile, though. The bruise on the side of her leg from when she'd fallen out of the canoe peeked out from the edge of the red tulle hemming the dress, but it didn't look too bad anymore. She took a few minutes to apply a little makeup, brushed her hair out and left it loose, then grabbed her cardigan and went downstairs.

"What happened to your car?" Ash asked as she climbed into the back of Davi's blue SUV.

"My poor Tercel," Davi sighed. "Fallon convinced me to get rid of it."

"Finally," Fallon said. "That car was a death trap."

Davi chuckled. "It was not," she said. "It just needed a little work."

Fallon glanced at her from the corner of his eyes as he maneuvered the SUV away from the farm. "Yeah, like a new heater, new tires, brakes," he said, drolly. "And I'm pretty sure the transmission was nothing but shaved metal. It was cheaper just to buy a new car."

"And this is far more practical for the farm," Davi said, deepening her voice and making it heavy with mock sternness.

"You're so beautiful when you make fun of me," Fallon told her.

Ash grinned and settled back into her seat as they sped toward Lebanon. A pang of jealousy stabbed her briefly as she listened to Fallon and Davi laugh, as she listened to their easy banter and undisguised love for each other. But Ash buried the feeling so, when she stepped from the vehicle and into the Rosewood Club, she was smiling again.

She wasn't exactly surprised to see Jaycen in the large lounge outside of the restaurant, but she found her smile faltering slightly when he stood as they approached. His dark grey slacks were tailored to his long, muscular legs. His pale yellow oxford fit his broad shoulders snugly and made his tan look darker. The long sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, the first few buttons at the collar left undone, and it wasn't really tucked in all the way in the back. But it and his slacks had crisp iron creases and he'd even managed to almost tame his normally wild shock of black hair. If Ash had met him today, at this moment, she would have never guessed he slept in barns and shoveled horse crap for a living.

"You always clean up so nice," Davi commented, grinning at Jaycen.

He smiled back at her, an expression that transformed him from merely good-looking to charmingly handsome. "And you're always the picture of beauty," he replied with a wink.

"Found your manners, I see," she said. Jaycen's smile widened and Davi nodded, patting his arm in an approving way as she walked by him. "Is our table ready?"

"Sure is."

"Good, I'm starved."

Davi and Fallon started toward the restaurant. Ash, still a little stunned by this different Jaycen, stared at him when he offered his arm. His grey eyes sparkled with barely contained amusement.

"They'll eat without us, you know," he said, softly.

Ash blinked and automatically tucked her hand lightly into his elbow, trying to ignore the way his thigh occasionally brushed against hers as they he smelled a little like cologne, but mostly like clean soap and fresh laundry.

"You look real nice, tonight," he said as they wound through the maze of tables.

As if being close to him wasn't distracting enough, he had to compliment her? Suspicion reared, but Ash shoved it away. Because the sincere way the comment had drawled through his lips made her flush with pleasure. She murmured a quiet, "Thank you," a phrase she found herself repeating when he pulled out her chair. She shifted nervously after she sat, had to remind herself not to play with her hair, not to stare at Jaycen when he laughed, not to give into the temptation to reach out and run her fingers through his thick hair. She ended up clutching the napkin in her lap until the linen was limp and lifeless.

It was hard, though, to remain anxious when around Davi and Fallon. Jaycen, Ash realized, only added to the easy air and she was drawn into the conversation as dinner was served. Ash laughed at the stories the trio told, grinned broadly as she and Davi talked about when they had been roommates. And while the flutter in her stomach was a little distracting when Jaycen would laugh at something she'd said, she found herself more pleased that she could make such a genuine sound come from him, was more delighted with the knowledge that she'd put that sparkle of mirth in his eyes.

So, when the night started to draw to a close, Ash found she didn't want it to end. When Jaycen suggested they walk off dinner in the gardens, she agreed without hesitation.

"You two go ahead," Davi said. She tucked her hand into Fallon's arm and leaned against him. "I'm exhausted and we have a big day tomorrow."

Ash paused. The nervous tingle in her stomach came back and she became all too aware of Jaycen looking at her.

"How about we just have one more drink?" he suggested. A small smile touched his lips. "Then I'll take you back to the farm."

Ash's gaze went to Davi, but her friend merely smiled and nodded. "He's a good guy, Ash," she murmured in Ash's ear. "I swear."

Licking her lips and hoping her smile didn't look too strained, Ash said goodbye to the couple. When she turned back to Jaycen, she found he'd settled an elbow on the table and propped his chin in his hand. But he wasn't looking at her; he was contemplating his glass of beer.

"So, what do you do for fun, Ash?" he asked, glancing at her from the corner of his eyes.

She didn't know why, but the question made her laugh. Maybe because it sounded like one of those awful ice-breaker questions someone asked when they weren't sure what to say, and Jaycen didn't really seem like the type to be nervous. Whatever it was, she mimicked Jaycen's pose and smiled at him. "I take long walks on the beach and read sappy romances," she replied, playfully. "You?"

Jaycen's crooked grin made its appearance as he nodded and let his eyes drift over the restaurant. "I enjoy a good tear-jerking romance now and then, too," he said. Ash chuckled. "Where'd you learn to play such ruthless pool?"

"My dad," she told him. "I used to watch my brothers practice and would bug them about letting me play. When they told me I was too little, I dragged over a stepped stool. My dad thought it was funny and said if I was going to be so insistent about it, he might as well teach me." She paused and looked at Jaycen, a grin tipping up the corners of her mouth. "When my brothers were in high school, they started playing against their friends, not always for money, sometimes for things like car stereos or video games. They won, always, and their friends wouldn't play anymore."

Jaycen laughed. "And that's where you came in, I bet," he said.

Ash nodded. "Sixteen and seventeen year old guys don't ever think much of the dorky sixth grader who tags along with her older brothers," she said, her grin growing. "I even convinced a few I wasn't really sure what I was doing."

"Like you did to me."

Ash's eyes narrowed, but Jaycen's chuckle was infectious and her glare melted away. "Kind of," she said, with a shrug and a smile. "You were a lot easier to con, though. It was good practice," she added. "I haven't played in years."

"Why not?" Jaycen asked, curiously. Because he remembered that expression she'd had on her face at the pub. And she seemed to really like the game—duping people into making bets with her aside—so he couldn't understand why she'd give it up.

Ash's grin twisted into something close to bitterness. "It isn't a game for ladies," she said, her tone sour.

Jaycen sat back in his chair and regarded her thoughtfully. Her gaze had left him again, her shoulders had stiffened with whatever unpleasant thoughts crowded into her eyes and turned them a dark spruce. And he was willing to bet everything it had to do with the blond giant who'd appeared at the farm yesterday. He didn't think it was possible to instantly hate anyone, but as soon as he'd heard the way the man spoke to Ash, Jaycen had wanted to beat his face in. It had taken more control than he'd thought he had to resist the urge. Because when he'd seen the sheer panic in her eyes, a protective anger had flared to life within him. He hadn't given it any thought at the time; he'd been so focused on trying to get her away from that man.

Fiance, she'd said.

"Are you really engaged to that guy?"

Ash's entire body went rigid, the edges of her nostrils flared with anger and a muscle in her cheek jumped as she clenched her teeth. Jaycen swore the air around them cooled and he instantly regretted the question. But it surprised him that she even knew someone who was such a douche. Ash didn't seem like the type to take other people's shit.

"I'm sorry," Jaycen said. Her gaze drifted back to him at the sincerity in his voice. "I shouldn't have asked that. Davi says I'm too nosy for my own good and she's right."

"No, it's okay," Ash said, her voice soft. Some of the tightness bled from her eyes and the line of her jaw. "I'm not really engaged to him, not anymore. He thinks otherwise, though."

Jaycen nodded and, deciding he'd stuck his foot in his mouth enough for one evening, gestured toward her wine glass. "You look like you're done," he said. "Would you like me to take you back to the farm?"

They talked about inconsequential things on the drive back to Brier Wood, much to Ash's relief. Thinking too much about Kaleb tended to make her crabby, which had the tendency to make everyone around her tense. And hearing Jaycen laugh or tease him as much as he did her as the velvety-black rolling landscape sped by, was much more pleasant, she found.

As they pulled into the long, winding drive of the farm, Ash realized she felt happier than she had in a long time, Kaleb's visit aside. Even so, she couldn't help smiling nervously when Jaycen got out of the truck and walked her to the back door. But the way he sort of meandered along beside her didn't really make her feel like they were coming home from a date. It just felt like he was being...well, kind of chivalrous, which was nice. Ash invited him in for a cup of coffee. He politely refused, grinning as he did so. And Ash couldn't help but return the expression. She liked that he could be so sweet and still have a roguish tilt to his smiles.

So, when he brushed a light parting kiss over her cheek, Ash thought maybe she'd been a bit too quick to judge Jaycen Trask.

A/N: I hadn't planned on updating this, but I just received a PM from a reader asking me if I would. Normally, I only respond to bribes, (just, but I decided to pound this chapter out tonight anyway ;) Sorry it's been so long, guys! I'm currently slogging through rewriting Brier Wood (I thought writing it was hard! The rewrite is awful!), so I've kind of been forced to put some things on the back burner. But rest assured, the word "hiatus" isn't really in my vocab, so this story will get finished!

Usually, after such a long period between updates, I don't do review replies (by the way, I can't really believe all the reviews this has received since the last update! You guys are too awesome! If I miss replying to you, it's okay to yell at me, I don't mind!), but there are some questions out there I want to address, so:

chng234: Agreed—Ash should break it off. Hopefully, though, this chapter explains what's really going on with him (he might be a little nutso...). Thanks!

inspired_daisy: Wow! Those are such nice things to say! Sorry it took so long to get this out, hope you're still enjoying! Thanks!

D-Mish: Yeah, I know, the end of that last chapter was a terrible place to leave it—and I had really planned to not take so long getting to the next, but there have just been so many distractions! Thanks for that bit of critique—I agree, the scene with Kaleb could be more tense and have more fear. I will definitely remember your suggestions—thank you!

PeterMoore: Sorry it took so long! Thanks!

Taurus05: Well, it's not just the Brier Wood guys—good southern guys are so easily lovable, is really what it is...they're just a different breed :) I'm really am sorry this took so long to get out—hope you're still reading! Thank you!

Madame Jenn: Lol! "OH MAN" is a great reaction! Thanks!

Nightwalkr: :) You made my day, just so you know, and managed to get me to knock out a chapter faster than I think I ever have in my life! I'm not even sure what else I can say besides thank you!

Mayuka: Unfortunately, I hadn't started on this chapter after I'd written the last, so that's probably partially to blame for the lateness of it. Hope you're still enjoying though! Thanks!

FPBob: I really wanted to make it clear that Ash was very much a city girl. Her suddenly knowing how to ride a horse just wouldn't have made sense. Lol, I was thinking Davi leaving was too convenient, but I couldn't think of any other way to get her out of the scene (something that will be rewritten...). I also didn't think Jaycen coming at Kaleb with fists swinging (or vice versa) would make much sense—Jaycen hardly knows Ash and Kaleb, I think, would be wary of any real violence in front of people...and I'm not too sure about Kaleb, either, to tell you the truth. I think I answered one of your questions about him, but the rest will come out later. Deep down, I think Jaycen did suspect it, but I think, too, it surprised him from what little he does know about Ash. Sorry it this update took so long! Thank you!

IlveJcb: I hear ya about being busy! I'm glad you got around to reading the last chapter and enjoyed it, though! This chapter took forever to get out—sorry! But I hope you're still reading and enjoying! Thank you!

luvallyx3: Yes, Ash has a restraining order out against Kaleb. I hope I explained the whole fiance bit in this chapter well! Thanks!

RosethornEverlasting: Well, I didn't exactly announce this was a sequel (for various reasons...), but I'm glad you found it and that you're enjoying it! I know, I know! It took forever for me to update this (rewriting is the worst thing ever!)! Feel free to pester me about updates all you want, lol :) Thank you!j

sappyromancelover: Ex-fiance is definitely correct :) Thanks!

.DefineVintage.: You definitely guessed right with thinking Ash broke it off and Kaleb just can't take no for an answer! So glad you're enjoying the story—hope you continue to! Thanks!

Kathadoodle: Sorry it took so long for the update! But I'm glad you found the story and are enjoying it! Thank you!

TouchofChaos: I'm kind of fond of Jaycen, myself, lol. The explanation for the names is...complicated. Sera's name is actually a shortened form of Seraphina, which is her full name. As for's one of these crazy notions I have about name association (like, say I knew a Jason once and he was a complete jerk...whenever I see that name, all I can think about is that other Jason and how much of a jerk he was). I try not to do creative spellings just for the hell of it, because I know it annoys people (it annoys me sometimes, too...), but when I was thinking of a name for the character, the spelling Jaycen just popped into my head. Hope that makes sense :\ Thanks!

lostlette: Much later than it should have been! Hope you're still enjoying, though! Thanks!

arreyn emme: Thank you!

Erin DJ: So glad you love him! Thanks!

FauxAfflictions: This chapter should explain the fiance thing a little better. Hope you're still reading! Thank you!

momo3069: I'm glad you like all those different things about the story! Thank you!

Pierre: Lol, oh my God, indeed :) More (just not very quickly, I'm afraid)! Thanks!

Midnight113: I'm glad you're enjoying Jaycen's story! I wasn't actually going to do it until a few people put the idea into my head. But I'm kind of having fun with it (even if it isn't getting updated in a timely manner...), so I think I'll stick with it :) Hope you continue to enjoy! Thank you!

katyaudrey: It's awesome to hear you like it so much! Thanks!

superficialowl: Glad to hear you're excited about going back to Brier Wood (it keeps me excited about writing it :))! Thank you!

shutterbaby: Lol! I'm glad you love Jaycen (he's kinda adorable when he wants to be, I think)! Sorry the update wasn't soon, but I hope I answered some questions you had and that you'll continue to enjoy! Thank you!

Silent City: Ultimately, I would like to just write romantic little diddies where there is no angst—but where's the fun in that? :) Had to have Kaleb come in a stir things up! Glad you loved the last chapter, hope you're still reading! Thanks!

southernsinger21: Don't worry about pestering me about updating! Sometimes, multiple reviews asking me to do so are what really spurn me into writing—mostly because I feel it's not really fair to just post a few chapters and then leave y'all hanging! I'm so glad to hear this story reminds you of something real—I try very hard to keep things as grounded as possible so people can relate to the characters or the setting. I'm definitely going to continue (maybe not in a timely manner), so I hope you continue to enjoy! Thank you!!

SometimesG: The crazy (and scary) thing about these kinds of relationships is that, sometimes, no matter how strong a person is, it can really be traumatic. Leaving, sometimes, is the easy part—dealing with everything in your head afterward can be awful, though. Ash is somewhere in between—not quite completely cut off from Kaleb, but not able to get rid of him. He is, maybe, a bit obsessed, which could be dangerous o.O As for your suggestion of having a wedding scene, well...I don't make any promises, but I will say it was something I was considering :) So glad you're enjoying the story—hope you continue to! Thanks!

notjustink: I'm sorry it took so long! Hope you're still reading! Thanks!

smurf-love: Worked my little fingers to the bone tonight to get this out! Hope you continue to enjoy! Thanks!