Charged, p.15
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       Charged, p.15

           Jay Crownover

  I was going to snap that his lecture was unnecessary, that he had no idea what happened the night everything changed for me. He wasn’t around when I realized I was toxic. That night wasn’t just where my story started, but where it ended, too.

  I never got the chance to say anything to Asa because at the same time my dad’s massive truck and another big truck, which looked pretty similar, roared to a stop right beyond the barricades the emergency crews had set up. I thought Rome Archer was going to climb out of the other pickup and couldn’t hold in a shocked gasp when it wasn’t the scarred soldier that appeared, but instead there was a beautiful blond man in a perfectly tailored suit. Quaid took a minute to strip his suit jacket off and slammed the door to the truck before stalking towards us in his very shiny, very lawyerly looking shoes. I would have preferred the guy in the jeans and boots for this particular situation considering the smoke and soot in the air, but honestly, I would take him any way I could get him.

  My mom and dad got to me first. I was wrapped up in a big hug and almost started crying again when my mom also folded me in her arms and whispered, “I’m so glad you weren’t home. You scared both of us to death.”

  I squeezed her then stepped away as Quaid joined our little party.

  “Everyone all right? Does the fire chief have any information? Do we know if it was an accident or arson?” He fired the questions at no one in particular as we all gaped at him. He must have noticed that all of us were still shell-shocked at the idea of everything being gone and gentled his tone as he reached out and brushed his thumb over my cheek. “Sorry. I was in court and didn’t really have time to shift gears when I got the call. I’m still in cross-examination mode. Are you okay?”

  I sighed and fought the urge to turn my face into his palm. “Yeah, other than the fact that everything I own, not that it was much, is now gone.”

  My mom cleared her throat and snuggled into my dad’s side. He didn’t seem to notice because he was too busy glaring daggers at Quaid and the spot on my face where his fingers lingered. “I told your dad, on the way over, that you guys are coming to stay with me,” my mom said. “I’m taller than you, but I have enough stuff in my closet that you can borrow until we can start to replace your own things.”

  Shit. I hadn’t even thought about that part of it. Where was I supposed to go now that the only place that had ever been home was gone?

  Asa must have seen the panic in my eyes because he offered up, “You guys can come crash at the new house with me and Royal. We have the room and my lady isn’t just gorgeous, she is also armed. Might be nice to have a cop on hand if this is tied to you testifying against the junkie.”

  My dad opened his mouth to refuse at the same time I opened mine to accept the offer. I didn’t know how Asa’s pretty girlfriend would feel about having me under her roof, but I would much rather be the bone of contention between the redhead and the southern charmer than the cause of unease and unrest at my mother’s home.

  As it turned out the dark horse, or rather the blond horse in the expensive suit, also wanted in on the race. Quaid touched my elbow and, like it had in court, the tiny gesture stilled some of the panic and anxiety that was rampaging inside of me.

  “You can come stay with me. If someone is watching you, they’ll never think to look for you at my place, and if this is tied to the case against the boyfriend, I can help navigate the legal waters you’re going to end up swimming in.” He waved at the house. “If this is arson, then it’s a clear threat, which is tampering with a witness, and obvious witness intimidation. The police need to be informed about what’s going on and how this could be tied to something so much bigger. I can help. I want to help you.”

  He had been helping from the very beginning, so unsurprisingly I was going to make the only choice that made sense … the absolute worst one.

  I nodded at him and saw my dad frown as Asa gave me a speculative look.

  “I’m going to stay with Quaid.” And maybe when I was done letting myself fall in love with him, which would inevitably lead to him breaking my heart, I would finally have hit the threshold of hurt I was willing to put myself through as punishment. Because I was pretty sure when Quaid Jackson was done with me, there would be nothing on earth that could feel as bad or be as painful as that was going to be.



  The cops grilled Avett for hours. They asked her a hundred different questions about her relationship with Jared¸ about the guys he stole the money and drugs from, about the robbery, and the guys parked out in front of her house. I was glad they were taking the situation seriously, but I was frustrated beyond belief that there was nothing they could do with the minimal information she gave them. All she could tell them was what the car that was parked out in front of the house looked like, and she had a vague description of what the guys that broke into Jared’s apartment and roughed her up looked like. Hearing her halting and jerky words as she went over that evening and the details that she remembered made me want to put my fist through the nearest wall. This girl was a fighter, a tornado full of life and energy, and when those winds died down as she explained how scared she had been, as she told the detective interviewing her how close she had come to being violated and changed forever, the echo of emptiness and fear in her voice ripped at me and fired up possessive and protective instincts that I only seemed to have when it came to this pink-haired hurricane.

  The detective told us he was going to speak with Jared, who was still behind bars as he was denied bail, and he informed us that he would be in touch as soon as he heard from the fire department on whether the fire was accidental or purposely set. There was no doubt in my mind the fire was a message, that it had been set for the purpose of intimidating and frightening Avett, but I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to scare her or warn her off of. In my line of work, I knew there was always a motive behind actions, and once we had the motive I would feel a whole lot better about her safety. It was impossible to win a fight if you didn’t know what exactly it was that the opponent had to lose, if they lost.

  I hustled a very somber and very quiet Avett out of the cop-shop and offered to swing by the closest mall or Target so she could grab some essentials, but she shook her head and told me that all she wanted was a shower and a nap. Her normally creamy and rosey complexion was deathly pale and her pretty, pouty mouth was pulled in a tight line as she nibbled anxiously on the inside of her cheek. Her colorful eyes were bleak and rimmed with fine red lines as she blinked rapidly to keep the moisture I could see trapped inside at bay. The finality of the fire, the absolute destruction of everything tangible that she held near and dear to her, was hitting her hard. She was trying to keep the enormity of the loss and the emotions that went with it in check, but the pain she was feeling, the hurt that was swirling around her like a living and breathing thing, couldn’t be ignored. I wanted to reach for her hand, to offer some kind of comfort and solace, but she was so close to the edge of entirely breaking that I figured I should wait until we got back to my place. She could shatter once we were there. Truthfully, the place was so sterile, so untouched by any kind of real life, that it could only be improved by the kind of mess that came with someone like this pink-haired handful. Her kind of destruction could be beautiful, if the right person was around to help her clean up the rubble and put the pieces back where they belonged.

  I parked the truck in the attached parking garage and took her elbow so I could guide her to the elevator that would drop us off in the penthouse loft. She didn’t say a word the entire ride up, and when I unlocked the door and ushered her inside, I was expecting her to be impressed by the high ceilings with their crisscrossed ductwork and the exposed brick that made up the back wall of the kitchen. I was expecting her to let out a little gasp at the three-hundred-and-sixty-degree views that showcased both the sweeping Denver skyline and the soaring mountains off in the distance. It was literally a million-plus view and it often did more to seduce women on
ce they were in my home than anything I could say or do.

  I should have known Avett wouldn’t respond in any of the ways I was used to. She paid no attention to the expensive leather sectional. The colossal media center, which could rival an IMAX movie screen, didn’t faze her. The imported marble floors under her combat-booted feet went ignored and so did the massive king-sized bed that was pushed up against a wall decorated with carefully curated artwork that probably cost more than her tuition for college had been. As a whole, she seemed entirely unimpressed by my meticulously decorated and designed home, but when her eyes hit the kitchen with its shiny, never-used stainless steel appliances and chef-quality range, some of her fire flared in her eyes.

  She wandered over to the one part of my home that I never spent time in and caressed the six burner stove like it was her lover. She looked over her shoulder at me and flashed me a weak grin. “This kitchen is beautiful. I could spend a lot of time in here.” It was on the tip of my tongue to ask her what she thought of the rest of the place, but considering she had lost everything and no longer had anything, seeking validation for a place filled with useless trappings she didn’t even notice seemed thoughtless and adolescent. I wasn’t sure why I wanted her approval so badly anyway. I was the one that had to live here, the one that had to have the packaging that matched what I was trying to sell to the world.

  “The bathroom is through the door on the other side of the bed. I’ll find you a T-shirt and some sweats to hold you over while I toss your stuff in the wash.”

  She nodded stiffly and walked around the granite countertop that separated the kitchen area from the living room. She wrinkled her nose and tried to smile but it turned into a grimace that had my heart twisting as tightly as her lips.

  “I smell like smoke, don’t I?” She picked up the end of her braid and pulled off the tie that held the dusky, pink strands woven together.

  I bit back a groan and made my way over to where she was standing, looking lost and so out of place in this overly extravagant loft. She was more breathtaking than anything seen out those expensive-ass windows, and she was far more interesting and colorful than any of the art that hung uselessly on the walls. I pulled her hands away from her hair and tunneled my fingers in the thick and oddly colored strands so I could finish unwinding her hair for her. She looked up at me with a cyclone of emotions swirling in her eyes and I knew all she could do was work through what she was feeling and let the storm rage. For her, I wanted to be impermeable and weatherproof.

  “It was only things. You know that, right?” My voice was gruff, and when I had her hair loose and falling all around her face like a wavy pink cloud, I took a step back and met her troubled gaze.

  She shrugged. “Only things, but those things meant a lot. All the stuff my dad kept from his days in the service, and the memorabilia he kept from the bar over the years—none of that can be replaced and that sucks, no matter how you look at it.”

  I grunted a little and moved towards the walk-in closet that lived under the stairwell that led to the upper loft, where my office and home law library were.

  “You mean a lot, too, Avett. I’m sure your dad would be willing to sacrifice anything that he had as long as it meant you were safe and sound. You’re both lucky.”

  She made a strangled sound low in her throat and started to move towards where the bathroom was located. I wondered if the slate walk-in shower, with its glass surround and multiple showerheads, would impress her half as much as the kitchen did. I doubted it, but I knew it would be a lot easier for her to let go, to break down in the shower, than it would be over the convection oven.

  She paused at the doorway and looked at me over her shoulder and I knew that the tears she had been fighting back were going to fall any second. “Not exactly feeling lucky at the moment.”

  I wasn’t surprised that was her response, but she was lucky. She was lucky she was out of jail, and that even though she tried to hide it, her innocence showed through. She was lucky that no one got hurt today and that the fire had eventually been contained so none of the neighbors’ houses had been damaged. She was lucky she had two parents that loved her and supported her, no matter what kind of situation she was in. No one blamed her for the blaze today, no one except for her. She was lucky that she was young enough that none of her bad choices would be the be-all and end-all of who she was, and that she still had time to figure her life out. She was lucky that so many people wanted to keep her safe, and be there for her while she finished what was started the night of the robbery. She was lucky she didn’t have to face anything that was happening or what was coming down the pike alone.

  And I was one lucky bastard that she was here.

  She wasn’t here for the million-dollar view. She wasn’t here because of the zeros attached to the balance in my bank account. She couldn’t care less that I was on the fast track to making partner at the firm, and she wasn’t here for what I could do for her. In fact, when the shit hit the fan, I had to force her to take my help.

  When I got the call from Asa that Brite’s house was in flames and that Avett was taking the blow hard, it had been all I could do not to run out of the courtroom in the middle of my cross-examination. I’d had to call a brief recess and debrief my second chair to finish the questioning before I could leave. I’d never left court in the middle of a session. I’d never entrusted anyone else to do the cross-examination because I was always sure no one would get the job done as well as I could. But today I didn’t care; all I wanted to do was get to the scene of the fire and make sure that Avett was okay. As soon as I arrived, I knew I wanted to take her home with me.

  She looked so small and fragile as the fire roared behind her. I wanted to take care of her. I was so convinced that Lottie had killed any kind of compassion and all the concern I had for other people, but when I saw Avett barely holding on, empathy flooded me. I wanted to make it better for her so badly I could taste it on my tongue.

  And she had picked me. She was here with me, instead of with her parents where they could all grieve the loss together. She trusted me to make things better for her and believed that I had something to offer that no one else did. So even though I was convinced I was emotionally tapped out, and that my heart and soul were barren of anything viable to offer, I was going to scrape the bottom of the emotional barrel and offer Avett Walker whatever scraps I had left so I could help her through this.

  There was plenty of time to settle into being the angry, bitter, jaded, materialistic son of a bitch I had become since my divorce. With her, and for her, I could simply … exist. I didn’t have to force anything and life could simply be real. I wasn’t sure if I knew what a real life even looked like anymore, but the longer I was around Avett, the better my cloudy vision of what should and shouldn’t matter became.

  I found an old T-shirt with ARMY scrawled across it in faded letters. The thing had fit when I was twenty pounds lighter and a lifetime less cynical. I knew there was no way in hell her tiny frame could fit into any of my sweatpants, so I rummaged around until I found a pair of soft flannel boxers that Lottie had given me one Christmas that were still in the packaging. I should have known then and there that if the woman I was married to, went to bed next to every single night, didn’t even notice that I was a boxer-brief guy that the marriage was doomed. Her lack of interest in me and my underwear should have been the beginning of the end.

  I knocked lightly on the door so Avett could hear me over the running water. She left the door open a crack and her smoky scented clothes, in a sloppily folded pile, were next to the sink. The sight made me grin because even when she was trying to be neat and tidy she was still a jumbled disarray.

  “Avett, I’m gonna leave this stuff for you and toss …” I was going to tell her that her clothes would be in the wash but the words died on the tip of my tongue when her hiccuping sob sucker-punched me right in the heart.

  I knew she was going to need a moment, that all her fight had drained out of her and lef
t her depleted and worn, but I didn’t expect her to be devastated, on the floor of the luxurious shower like a hurricane that had lost all the wind that kept it raging.

  She was lying on her side, naked and shaking as water poured down on her. Her eyes were closed, but even through the steam and the water rushing over her face, I could see the tears squeezing their way out between her tightly clenched lashes. This was what uttered devastation looked like. This was the wreckage that was left behind after the storm passed. Another whimpering sound like that of an injured animal escaped her, and I couldn’t stop myself from moving towards her. I’d heard men that had made their first kill and seen their friends and brothers in arms die up close and personal sound less tragic and heartbroken than she did at that moment.

  I tossed the clothes that were now crushed in my clenched hands on the sink, and without even a thought as to what the water would do to my Bruno Magli loafers or my favorite silk tie, I walked into the shower and bent down so that the cooling water was hitting me and not her. I reached up to crank the tap off and picked up her quivering form. She was both too hot and too cold as she curled an arm around my neck and continued to whimper and cry into the now-soaked fabric of my shirt. She was shaking so hard that it was hard to hold on to her naked skin, not that my dick was concerned with her volatile emotional state. All it recognized was that she was wet, completely bare, and clinging to me like I was the last thing she had in this entire world. All of those things made the insensitive bastard very happy and very eager to get closer to her.

  I flicked my sopping hair out of my eyes and balanced precariously as I juggled to hold on to her and to get out of my soggy and most definitely ruined shoes. I sat on the edge of the bed with her slight weight in my lap and lifted a hand so I could push her tangled and dripping hair away from her face. Water was leaching off of both of us and onto the hand painted duvet cover but I hardly noticed because she peeled her teary eyes open and locked them on mine.

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