Charged, p.14
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       Charged, p.14

           Jay Crownover
 

  “The thing about rock bottom is that it gets crowded down there because there is always someone out there screwing up worse than you are. You can’t see it because your head is so full of your own fuckups that other people’s fuckups can’t even register. We all have them, and I promise that whatever you think you’ve done that deserves the dumb shit you’ve been doing isn’t as bad as some of the things happening out there in the big bad world. No matter how long you’ve been there on what you thought was the bottom clinging to the edge, thinking you’ve sunk as low as you can, someone else is going to come crashing down and shatter what you thought the lowest point was supposed to be. They’re going to fall right past you and suddenly you’re left realizing you can either fall forever because life is tough and full of pitfalls and there is no actual bottom to hit, or you can get your ass up and start climbing towards the top because a better life is waiting for you up there.”

  I cleared my throat. “When you started climbing, did you ever reach the top, Asa?” Because that seemed like an awful lot of work if the chances of pulling yourself out of the mire were slim.

  He let go of my shoulder and flashed me that smile that screamed good times and trouble because he was full of both. “Not even close. Sometimes I even lose my grip and slip backwards, but Royal and the life I have with her is always waiting for me at the top, so I never stop climbing, no matter how many times I fall. Every day it feels like I get closer and closer to the top, and whatever bottom I was wasting away on is nothing more than a memory.” He lifted a blond eyebrow at me and reached out to tap the bottom of my chin with his index finger. “Start climbing, Avett. It gets tiring and your entire body and soul burns from the effort, but nothing will ever be as rewarding.”

  I took a step away from him and cleared my throat so I could speak around the emotion that was practically choking me. “You were always really good with words, Opie. But words won’t fix all the things I’ve fucked up lately. That’s like sticking duct tape on the cracks in the Titanic.”

  He sighed in exasperation and inclined his head towards the waiting lunch trucks. “I think you would be stunned by how much the right words can fix. Let’s grab some food. I’m starving.”

  I agreed with a nod, thankful that he was going to let the heart-to-heart drop. His words were worthy of consideration because the idea of having another, more polished and proper blond head peeking at me over the edge as I stared up into what could be made a sharp shiver go down my spine.

  My dad had been home and all over me since the night I called him home from Mom’s. He wouldn’t leave my side or let me go out without him, and while his concern was sweet and appreciated, we both had lives that we needed to move on with. That included me finding a job so I could actually be a productive member of society. Dad had mentioned asking Rome if he would consider taking me back at the bar, but I vetoed the idea immediately. I wasn’t ready to face down the big, marked soldier yet and I knew there was no way my mom and I could share space in the kitchen right now without killing each other.

  The constant vigil also meant I hadn’t seen Quaid since the night he appeared like some kind of alternate, motorcycle riding, leather wearing, gun toting, and orgasm giving version of himself.

  That orgasm though.

  If I closed my eyes and concentrated really hard, I could still feel the way it felt like when he drew that response out of every single cell of my body. It was more than getting off and going about my business. It was something that lingered, that stayed with me, and blindsided me when I wasn’t prepared to remember the pleasure and the carnality of it all. I’d had plenty of sex in my twenty-two years. Some of it better than others, but after my interlude with Quaid against the front door, I was realizing that sex was a lot like anything else that someone excelled at. The more practice you had at it, the better you were, and considering all my other partners were around the same age as I was, they were lacking in the knowledge department regardless of how many other women they had been with. Needless to say, I was pretty sure that Quaid was a professional in the bedroom as well as in the courtroom, and after having his hands on me, I never wanted to mess around with an amateur or an intern again.

  Quaid touched me like he did everything else, confidently, assertively, decisively, and without any question if I would like what he was doing because he knew I would like it … hell, he knew I would love it and lose my damn mind. If he hadn’t put a halt to things when he did, I would have wiggled the rest of the way out of my overalls, dropped to my knees right there in the middle of my dad’s living room, and given as good as I got. I was reckless, but there were lines I didn’t cross and having sex under my dad’s roof had always been one of them. Until the sexy lawyer showed up looking all badass and take-care-of-business in a totally different way than he normally did.

  He’d texted a couple times to tell me the police had no leads and that the case against Jared was moving along normally. He told me to get in touch with him if I needed anything but didn’t say anything else, and I figured it probably wouldn’t do to text him that I needed his dick in my hands and in my mouth, even though I really wanted to. I was learning to slowly but surely make those smart and appropriate decisions.

  After a little debate about what truck we wanted to eat at, I let Asa talk me into the one promising a modern twist on soul food and was pleasantly surprised at how good everything looked and tasted when we got our order. I loved food and I loved to eat. Being in the kitchen, even when everything seemed terrible and hopeless, had always been my refuge. I could throw a bunch of ingredients together and was always impressed with whatever result I ended up with. When Dad and Mom split I spent a lot of time alone because Dad was at the bar and Mom wasn’t one to sit down and share a meal with me at the time. I cooked dinner almost every single night in an effort to feel better about myself and so that I didn’t feel so alone with my tragedy and guilt. There was freedom and comfort in creating with food that always soothed the parts of me that felt exposed and raw.

  We walked over to a low cement wall and sat down, side by side, as we plowed through our fragrant-smelling lunch.

  “So, Wheeler’s lady sucks?” He asked the question around a mouth full of grits and I made a face at him.

  “Yeah. She’s always yelling at him and freaking out. She does it in the front yard and ambushes the poor guy when he gets home from work.” I scowled. “There’s also a red Honda that shows up in the driveway after he leaves for work, stays most of the day until it’s about time for him to come home. I haven’t seen who’s driving it, but …” I shrugged. “She’s awful and he seems like a nice guy so maybe one of his friends should mention the Honda.” I gave him a pointed look as he grunted and wiped his face with a napkin.

  “He’s a supernice guy. He goes back with Nash and Zeb a long ways. He works hard, but never says much, and keeps his nose out of most of the drama that pops up. He’s never brought his lady around, but I have heard a couple of the boys mention they aren’t exactly missing her being part of things. We’re all invited to the wedding in January.” My dad’s boys reached far and wide. They were all a tight-knit circle that seemed to be forever growing thanks to love, and all the rewards it brought with it.

  I finished the corn bread I was shoving into my face and brushed my messy hands off on my jeans. “Maybe it’s prewedding jitters or something.”

  Both his eyebrows danced up as he took my Styrofoam box and headed to a trash can. “Maybe, but that wouldn’t explain the Honda, would it?”

  “No, it wouldn’t. Since apparently I am completely unemployable, I will keep an eye on it and let you know if there’s something solid you can take back to the car guy.”

  He chuckled and lifted his hands to push through his hair. I heard a soft sigh and turned my head to see a group of young college-aged women watching him like he was a matinee. I bit back a laugh as he told me he would appreciate it and offered a hand to pull me to my feet.

  “You aren’t unemployable, but yo
u walk into these places practically screaming the fact that you’re overqualified and that slinging sandwiches and pizza is below you. The people hiring realize you’re only going to be there until something better comes along, so they don’t want to invest the time and money on training you and getting you settled.”

  I blinked at him in stunned silence as he turned and pointed us in the direction of my dad’s house.

  “Overqualified? Are you high? I dropped out of college, I barely squeaked my way into graduating high school, and I got fired from my last job for stealing. I think making sandwiches and pizza is exactly where I need to be … if someone would give me the chance.”

  He shook his head and grinned at me. “That bullshit might work on someone that hasn’t tasted your food or seen you run a busy kitchen during a lunch rush on your own. You can cook, Avett. You know food and what tastes good. You also know how to operate a line, which is something no college degree can teach you. You would run circles around the kids in these mom-and-pop shops and they know it. You need to live up to your potential, not sell yourself short.” Asa had been my boss for the short time I worked at the bar, so it wasn’t as easy to brush off his praise and his assertion that I had more to offer than two willing hands as it should be. He had seen me work and he had eaten my food. I was good in the kitchen, probably too good to be a short-order cook or a counter jockey. But I needed to do something, and I wasn’t afraid to start off with that something being small, and easily managed and maintained.

  From somewhere in the not so far distance, the wail of a siren split the air. I turned my head to try and track it and scowled at Asa. “That’s what Quaid told me after the charges against me got dropped. That I should live up to my potential.” I’d turned it around on him and made my potential sound like something sexual because I wasn’t really sure what my potential beyond stirring up all kinds of trouble and chaos was.

  “Quaid’s a pretty smart guy.”

  He also was the best kisser I had ever tangled tongues with and had magical hands, but I doubted Asa needed to know that.

  “He’s also a very expensive guy, which is why I need to find a job, any job, so I can pay you back for hiring him for me.” I tugged on the end of my braid as the sound of the sirens got louder and drew closer. “That’s the least I can do after everything.”

  He came to a jerky stop and put his hand out in front of me, forcing me to stop as well. “Avett.” His drawl was extra thick as he said my name quietly. “I didn’t pay for Quaid. He called me right after he met with you, before the arraignment, and told me your dad was picking up the tab. I told Brite I would cover it, that I got the money from the farm when it sold, but you know what arguing with your old man is like.” He shook his head. “You don’t owe me anything, doll.”

  I felt like a ton of bricks had landed on me. I knew Dad had borrowed the money for my bail from his retirement fund, but if he had also paid Quaid’s retainer, it meant he must have depleted the entire thing. My dad wasn’t going to have anything left to live on; he was going to be flat-ass broke and it was all my fault. I put a hand to my chest as the reality of the fact that even though I had been on a mission to destroy my own life for years, the one that constantly kept taking the hits and kept getting damaged was my dad.

  I must have zoned out and gotten lost in my own guilt and sucked into my own vortex of blame, as usual, because the next thing I knew, Asa had my quivering hand in his and was pulling me from my stupor into a flat-out sprint. He had long-ass legs and I did not, so I stumbled after while demanding to know what kind of bug he had gotten up his very fine southern ass.

  “Hey, Opie … what the fuck?!” I barked out the words as he sped up even more once we hit the block my dad’s house was on.

  “Don’t you smell the smoke? It’s so close.” He sounded legitimately concerned and as we rounded the corner the acrid and pungent smell of something burning hit me full in the face. I’d been too worried about the role I was playing in running my father’s life to notice the sirens were practically on top of us, or that there was a thick cloud of black smoke floating over our heads.

  I was short, but I managed to pick up the pace and keep up with him, even as dread settled like a lead weight in my gut. It was pretty clear the closer we got that there was a small army of police and fire trucks parked in front of my dad’s house. It was also pretty clear that the cloud of smoke was coming from the beautiful brick building being entirely engulfed in flames that seemed like they were reaching up towards the sky.

  The heat was air stealing and intense. So was the spectacle of neighbors and passersby that had gathered to watch everything I owned, everything my father had collected over his life, turn into ash and memory. I was shaking so hard that my legs couldn’t hold me up and I fell to my knees on the sidewalk, clutching my chest. I couldn’t see anything beyond the blur of tears in my eyes and I felt like the fire was hot enough that it was scalding me all the way to where I had crumpled to the ground. It was going to melt me on the spot, turn me into nothing more than a boiling puddle of guilt and remorse. A police officer came by and told us to back away, that it wasn’t safe, and when Asa told him I lived in the home, I saw the pity and an apology on his face.

  He helped Asa pull me to my feet and ushered us over to where the fire trucks were parked in front of the house. Waterfalls of water streamed out of high-powered hoses as men outfitted to battle the blaze rushed to and fro. A man that had on navy pants and a crisp button-up shirt with a badge that looked a lot like a police badge pulled me away from the other two men and started peppering me with questions I struggled to answer.

  Was anyone home?

  No. My dad was at the bar since I was with Asa, and Rome was out for the day.

  Did I remember leaving anything on or candles burning when I left for the afternoon?

  No. My dad was a certified badass … we didn’t even have candles in the house.

  Was anything unusual when I left the property?

  No.

  Was it possible I left something on like a curling iron?

  No. I always double-checked everything when I left.

  Did we have a gas or electric stove?

  Gas, and no, I hadn’t smelled propane or anything else that would indicate a leak.

  Was the electrical in the home up to date?

  Yes. Dad had had Zeb redo all the electrical a few years ago, after the toaster shocked him enough to knock him on his ass.

  My head was spinning and there were a couple times I thought I was going to throw up on the man, because no matter how much water hit the house, the flames seemed to keep climbing and climbing. The house was being devoured by furious streaks of orange and red and I realized Asa was right. I’d thought being arrested and sitting in jail was as low as I would ever go, but watching everything I had, everything that mattered to my father, disintegrate in front of my eyes, I knew that jail was a false bottom and I was still falling … lower and lower. I couldn’t even see the top anymore.

  The guy continued to drill me, more questions that I didn’t have the answers to, and eventually Asa came over and put his arm around me and pulled me to his wide chest.

  “Called your old man. Both he and Darcy are on the way.” He pressed his cheek to the top of my head and I squeezed him for all I was worth.

  “How did he sound?” Heartbroken? Angry? Terrified? That’s how I sounded when I asked the question.

  Asa muttered something over my head and let me go. He set me away from him but kept both his hands on my shoulders and gave me a hard shake. It made my head snap back and had my teeth clicking together.

  “He sounded scared out of his ever loving mind that his daughter might be injured. He sounded pissed as hell that he wasn’t here to console you as you lose everything you own right before your eyes. He’s worried, like any good parent would be, that this is tied directly to those creeps that were watching the house.” He shook me again. “How did you think he would sound, Avett?”


  I pulled away from him and buried my hands in my face. “Mad. I thought he would sound mad. If this is tied to those guys that were watching the house and me, then this is my fault. It’s always my fault.”

  He growled a few ugly words at me and then crossed his arms over his chest as he glared.

  “Did you start the fire, Avett?” His drawl was usually so silky and sexy; right now it was ragged and mean.

  “Of course not. I’ve been with you all afternoon, and I know I didn’t leave anything on. I always check.”

  “Exactly.” The word snapped out like a whip. It was so sharp I jerked my head back like it smacked right across my tearstained cheeks. “And even if you did leave something on, it would’ve been an accident, so still not your fault. If you think I can’t recognize someone actively searching for punishment, for a penance they think they have to pay, then you are sadly mistaken. I saw it in myself and sure as shit can see it in you, Avett. And I can tell you from firsthand experience that whatever it is you are trying to atone for doesn’t care how many shitty things you do to make yourself feel bad, and it also doesn’t care how those shitty things affect other people. In fact, it doesn’t care about you at all, because it’s still going to be there, existing in your rearview, and none of the crap you do to yourself is ever going to change the view. What you do now regardless of how good or bad it may be won’t change what you did then and that’s something you have to live with.” His eyes darkened and the gleaming gold dimmed. “That’s why I’m still climbing and may never reach the top. That’s a heavy weight to haul around.”

  I wanted to tell him to get the hell away from me. I didn’t want his acceptance and comfort to soften the rawness and ravages of what I was feeling. I didn’t want him to see through me like I was made of glass. I didn’t want to hear from someone that knew exactly what I was doing, that it wouldn’t work. I had convinced myself over the years that if I hurt enough, disappointed enough, lost enough, my penance would indeed be paid, and I could eventually go back to living a life where I didn’t feel like I deserved every single bad thing that came my way.

 
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JAY CROWNOVER SERIES:

Marked Men

 

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