Breath of Fresh Air

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Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine -

My fingers drum over the edge of the steering wheel as I stare at the front of the store. I can feel the nervous energy filling me up and I have to bring my hands away from the wheel. The radio plays at a low volume some classic rock song currently playing. Leaning back in my seat, I sigh pinching the bridge of my nose. I’m not sure whether what I’m about to do is a good idea or a very bad one. Probably depends on how Brooke takes this entire situation. As the anxiety heightens, I shake my head, pull the key from the ignition, and step out of the truck.

The warm night air makes me wave air in my face. It’s almost muggy, sure sign of rain in the air. Might even rain tomorrow. Leaning against the back end of the truck, I stuff my hands in my jean pockets. The bright yellow light from the store illuminates the side walk as I squint to see the front door. I’m beginning to believe that Tameka might have been wrong her nights. I haven’t seen even a hint of Brooke. I kick at the ground beginning to think that Tameka set me up to look like a fool. After all she is Brooke’s best friend and protective as hell of the girl.

Reaching into my jeans, I find the money my mother gave me. Might as well head inside, get the food mom asked for and then head home. This is hopeless. With a huff, I open my eyes, standing straighter. Yet, the moment my eyes open, I hear her voice.

“Yeah, Tam, I’m leaving now.” I hear her huff, practically rolling her eyes. “Yes, that grocery store. You know the store I shop at every time.”

The smirk rises on my face as I lean back against the truck again. She walks right past me, carrying a brown paper bag in one hand, and her cell phone against her ear with the other hand. I take the time to admire her. She’s wearing dark jeans and a black and white striped sweater. She must always have her blonde hair in a pony tail since that’s what she’s had it in ever since the party.

I let my chuckle grow louder as she walks by. I know the moment she hears it by the flinch. She turns her head in my direction, her brown eyes growing wide. I smirk at her, waving two fingers toward her.

“Tam,” she says into the phone. “I’ll call you back. I suddenly have a visitor at the grocery store of all places.” Her eyes narrow at me as Tameka obviously continues to talk. Her eyes widen for a moment as she turns her head. “Tameka! You shouldn’t but in where you don’t belong!” She huffs. “Exactly. This isn’t your business.” She’s silent for a few minutes before I hear her utter, “I hate you.” The line must go dead because she pulls it away, glaring at the device.

“Look, I don’t want to talk to you right now.” She has her back to me before shoving her phone into her jeans.

I step forward, hand catching her shoulder before she can get too far. “Listen, just hear me out. That’s all I ask. I’m here, trying to make an effort.”

She sighs twisting around, tightening her hold on the paper bag in her arm. “You’re only here because you manhandled my best friend. Probably batted those gray eyes at her and she flipped. She might believe your silly sob story, but I don’t.” Her brown eyes glare at me with a strength I didn’t know she was capable.

“You don’t believe me because you don’t know me. You don’t know what I’ve done all week trying to understand what my actions did to you. Do you honestly think that was my intention? I thought leaving would take you out of harms way.” I hope she can hear the sincerity in my voice.

She looks down at her feet, at the ground. “Yeah, well that didn’t work out so well.”

I step forward, lifting her chin with my finger. Her brown eyes are glossy with unshed tears. Trailing my finger higher, over her cheek, toward her eyes wiping away the beginning tear. “I talked with Penny,” I whisper and she nearly recoils. I shake my head, hoping against hope that she’ll listen. “I didn’t know that Alisha hated you so much. I was only consumed with myself at the time. I left you in her cross hairs and it wasn’t right.”

“No,” she sighs, shaking her head, staring into my eyes. “It wasn’t.” I shiver goes through her as I pull my hand away. I have to suppress the smirk at the feel of her skin or her reaction.

“Let me find a way to make it up to you. I can promise you that I wasn’t using you back then. I’m not using you now for that matter. Give me a chance.” I give her what I hope are convincing puppy dog eyes. She stares at me before sighing.

“I swear if you somehow hurt me again, break me all over again, I will never speak to ever again.” She points her finger at me, jamming it into my shoulder with every word.

I chuckle, reaching out to take the bag from her arm. “Trust me, honey, I ain’t making that mistake again. Now, let me drive you home. I know you walked here but you ain’t walking back.”

She rolls her eyes releasing her grip on the bag. Yet I can see the hint of a smile forming on her lips. “Fine.” She moves toward the passenger side of the truck, her eyes following the curves and edges of the blue chipped paint. “I miss your bike,” she murmurs, sliding her finger over the edge of the truck bed.

“I miss it too sometimes.” I walk ahead of her, reaching for the door, but she beats me to it. She opens it, climbs inside and smiles at me. I just roll my eyes handing over the bag. “I’m going to have a time with you. Aren’t I?”

She shrugs innocently, the tiny smile on her face growing wider before shifting into a smirk. “Did you really think I was going to make this easy for you?”

I shrugged my shoulders, reaching across her. She sucks in a breath as I move into her personal space. My fingers curve around the silver buckle latch of the seat-belt. “Like they say, anything worth having,” I pause, dragging the belt around her waist. “Is worth fighting for.”

She looks at me in almost disbelief. I smile at her, genuinely before stepping back and closing the door. I sigh, before taking a deep breath, and jog around to the driver’s side. Climbing inside, I find Brooke inspecting every aspect of the truck. “At least somethings never change,” she taps the almost full ashtray, a smirk forming on her lips. “Are you every going to quit?” she asks as I climb in, dragging the seat-belt around myself.

“I did for a while. Life kinda got in the way. Never been on for stress. Takes the edge off,” I pull out my pack of smokes, sitting them on the dash. “Never been more grateful that you never started.” I glance at her when I say before starting the truck.

“Uh, never wanted to start. Plus, I think my dad might have strangled me if he ever caught me with even a but.” She shrugs glancing out the window as I leave the parking lot.

“Your father was part of the police for a while, right?” I ask her, stopping at the entrance of the grocery store.

“Yeah. He left the force when I was entering middle school. Wasn’t exactly the best thing for my parents.” Her voice fell toward the end and I cursed myself in my head.

Reaching my hand over, I sought out her hand as I headed in her house’s direction. Even in high school, after I found out who her father was, I knew exactly where she lived. I never met Jeffery Baker before but I knew he was a force on the police squad. Eventually he didn’t find success in the police found it was lacking something, according to what I heard, and he left.

“I’m sorry, I should have said anything,” I grip her hand tightly in my own.

“You know?” she breathed, shock in her voice. “Who told you?”

I sigh, looking at her a red light. “Clyde Owen. He was one of my friends in high school. I got curious what was going on after the party. I interrogated him.”

“That’s why you were in the mall. I was surprised to see you out and about,” she giggled a bit before it stopped. “You were always one to hang out at the back of the store. Always heard how much you annoyed the security guards for the mall.”

I chuckled. “Good memories.” The light changed and I sighed. “I really am sorry to hear about your mother. That couldn’t have been easy.”

“One thing I’ve learned,” she began, her finger squeezing my hand, “it never gets easier.” The truck was quiet for a long time. I was getting closer to her house before she spoke again. “My mom was depressed for a long time. She and my father seemed to fight more often. I blame myself sometimes because I refused to see it. I just thought she was beginning a typical mom.” Her chuckle this time is try with no real humor behind it. “I was the one that found her, shot in a pool of her own blood in the living room. My dad was out of town, just left the day before. I had to stay with grandparents for three days before my father could come home. My grandparents were the ones that took care of the funeral. Dad was never the same after mom’s suicide. Guess neither one of us were.”

I look over at her, my breath in my throat. The look on her face is full of anguish. The truck pulls into the concrete driveway of a nice white house with the grass almost in a state of needing cut. I put the truck in park, push the bag of groceries in the floor and pull Brooke into my arms. “Just let me hold you for a minute. Don’t think anyone ever has. Not in the right way.”

She sighs allowing me to wrap my arms around her tightly. Neither of us says a word as she buries her face into my chest. It’s surprising to me that she’s letting me this close. Showing such a vulnerable side to me. I relish in the chance to hold her in my arms. It’s completely inappropriate but I feel my heart nearly beating out of my chest. Subconciously, I suck in a deep breath of her lovely fruity scent. My fingers run through her blonde hair patting her head. I can’t even stop myself before my lips press against her forehead.

“I know my words probably mean nothing,” I begin, tightening my hold on her, “but what happened with your mother wasn’t your fault. She was sick and the only thing that would help was her admitting she needed help. It wasn’t your fault. Nothing you or your father could have done to stop it. She needed more than just you.”

I hear her shake against my chest for a few minutes. I hold her letting her cry against my chest. It feels good to be at her side in her moment of need. I never thought I’d get a chance like this again. When she pulls away, she’s wiping away tears. “God, I’m such a mess,” she mutters lowly thinking I haven’t heard.

I reach up, turning her chin toward me. My hands cup her cheeks as I stare into beautiful brown eyes. “Brooke, you are not a mess. You’re a girl who lost her mother in a very bad way. Why don’t I tell you something about me? Then you decide, who’s the bigger mess. What do you think?”

She nods, reaches forward and turns the music down even more. I watch as she gets comfortable on the seat to listen. I sigh, feeling my heart beat harder in my chest. “This isn’t something I like talking about much.” I chuckle dryly, turning my gaze away from her. “When I was a kid, I was close to my dad. I didn’t know any better and we were very close. We worked on cars together, listened to music. He’s probably the reason I love classic rock so much.” My fingers trace the edge of the steering wheel.

“It happened when I was seven. I didn’t realize the reason my parents fought was because of my father’s past and his friends. My father was arrested for armed robbery,” I finally looked in her eyes. I saw the surprise in the brown, but she didn’t say a word. “They robbed a convience store, I think. My father didn’t bring the weapon, but his friend, accomplise did. They were caught during their escape. My father’s been in prison since I was eight. In order to avoid trail, I think because of me, my father plead guilty to twenty years for armed robbery.”

Brooke stared at me, shaking her head. “I had no idea, Ashford.”

“Not many people do. Nathan is the only person that actually knew growing up. He only knew because we grew up together in the same neighborhood. Almost everyone in the neighborhood knew my dad.” I shrug, looking at her. I let a cheesy grin spread on my lips. “So, you tell me, who’s the bigger mess?”

I watch her roll her eyes. “I don’t think either of us is a mess actually. If we are, we can be a mess together.” She surprises me further by taking my hand in hers. She plays with my fingers for a moment. “I don’t know if Tameka is right or if you’re playing all of us, but I don’t think you would have told me that if you were playing me. Hell, last time you didn’t even have to say all of that and I was putty in your hands. I don’t know what it is about you, Ashford.” She looks at me. There’s an intensity in her eyes that almost scares me. She blows out a breath. “Tomorrow night. Pick me up at seven.”

My eyes are wide as she pulls away, grabs the bag from the floorboard. I’m still in shock as she climbs out of the truck. “Oh, try to wear something more than just black jeans and a gray shirt.” She smirks at me through the open window before giggling at my expression. “See you tomorrow, Ashford.” Her smile falters as she walks around the truck. She pauses at the end of the sidewalk leading to the front door before looking back at me. “I really look forward to getting to know you better. Maybe I’ll even find a way to forgive you.”

My heart skips a beat at her ways before she disappears into the house.

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