“Are you alright, ma’m?” The man asked, his eyes trained on the thug who was now slowly straightening up.
Not Christian’s man, then. Well, she didn’t have the time, or the inclination, for explanations. She needed to get away from here as soon as possible.
“Yes, thank you,” she muttered, stepping sideways to get away from both the men.
She froze as deftly he put himself between her and the thug who’d by now managed to stand up, albeit on bowed legs. His hand hovering over the small of her back, near enough, but not touching, the man whispered, “Let’s go.”
The new Ella itched to take offence at the way this man had simply walked in and took over. She’d dealt with the situation in a very satisfactory manner, she didn’t need his help, damn it. But before she could voice her defiance, the man whirled around and threw a punch that sounded suspiciously bone-breaking. Ella turned around to see the thug sprawled back on the ground, a wicked looking knife gleaming in the weak winter sun a few feet from him.
She turned to look at the man beside her. He nodded an answer to her unvoiced question, then wordlessly took her arm and started walking away. The thug had pulled a knife on them. Did he intend to kill her? Or the man who’d waded into a fight that wasn’t his?
Back on the pathway, the man let go of her arm. Ella looked up at him, “Thank you. I hadn’t seen that coming.”
“The knife was meant for me, certainly. You did well taking him down.” He had a deep voice, although a little bit rough round the edges.
She took in his tanned skin, the stylishly cut hair with more salt than pepper in them and the startling, sparkling eyes the color of almond skin. The skin that peeked out of the undone buttons of his baby-blue tee was nowhere near as wrinkled as to match the fine lines on his face.
“I’m Tomas. Where are you headed?” He asked unperturbed by her, bordering on rude, perusal of him.
“Sorry,” Ella muttered, feeling a different kind of burn creep up her unabused cheek. The cheek where the thug had hit her, had gone numb and she could barely blink that eyelid. Must be swollen. In all her years of living in fear of Christian, she’d been spared this particular variety of violence. He’d never hit her like this. It had always been the threat of violence - the way he’d loom over her, shout at her, or choke her to show her how he had total control over her and her life.
He raised a thick eyebrow, or eyebrows. Whatever. It was almost a monobrow. “Well?” he prodded.
She probably had a concussion, the way her brain was wandering, not concentrating on the important bits.
“Sorry,” she offered again. “Maye another block. I’ll be fine now. Thank you for helping me.”
“You didn’t need much help,” Tomas said, the glint of appreciation clear in his eyes. “But now that I’ve butted my nose in this, I might as well see it through to the end. I will walk you to wherever it is you need to get to.”
His declaration didn’t leave much room for negotiation, and her face hurt too much to bother with arguing. Besides, the thug was still somewhere behind her. She’d much rather have enforced company than take the chance of seeing that man again.
“So..what’s your name?” Tomas asked.
Tomas grunted in response. “You’re going to sport a bruise for some time. I’m sorry I wasn’t there in time to prevent it,” he said, his eyes on her cheek.
She shrugged, “At least I was able to get back at him. And finished it up nicely.”
“I’ll be right now. If you have somewhere to be...” Ella trailed off as they passed under the thick Trefoil arch. Pointing to her right, she continued, “I’m just over on the other side of the road from the bears.”
“Bears?” Tomas asked.
Ella smiled up at him, “I kinda assumed you were from New York. There’s a sculpture of three bears up ahead on the right. My shop is just across the road from there.”
“Right. Your shop?” Tomas asked.
“I work in a coffee shop,” Ella hedged, suddenly not sure she wanted to spill detail after detail about herself.
Tomas eyed her from the top of her now tousled head to the tip of her entirely-impractical-for-working-on-her-feet-all-day stiletto heels. Besides, her dress was far too formal to pass for that of someone who worked at a coffee-shop.
“You mean you own a coffee shop?” he asked finally.
“Yes,” Ella admitted grudgingly.
“So...these are the bears you were referring to,” Tomas said as they walked out of the park, his eyes immediately drawn to the group of three, beautifully made bears, one of which was being ridden by a chubby toddler with a shock of black hair.
“Yep,” Ella replied, keeping her eyes on traffic lights for her cue to cross the street.
With a new spring in her step, she made a bee-line for Sugar & Salt. With a gentle hand on her shoulder, Tomas brought her to a stop. As Ella turned wide eyes to him, he said, “You don’t want to walk into your shop looking like that.”
Ella reached up to touch her smarting cheek and opened her mouth to reply, but was drowned out as a warm whisky voice from the side slid around her.
“What the hell happened to you, Ella? Who the fuck are you?”