Breath of Fresh Air

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Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven -

She knows all the words to “Sister Christian.” I don’t know why it surprises me, but it does. Just another thing to add to the ever growing list of things I like about her.

“So,” she asks as the song quietly goes off. “Where are we going? Tameka wanted to kill me for not asking.”

I look over at her between the windshield and streetlights. “I’m pretty sure you’ll like it. Plus, I don’t think it’s that popular with our crowd. The last thing I want is to cause trouble on our date.” Even as the word comes out of my mouth, I can’t believe it. I’m going on a date with Brooke Baker, it’s hard to believe.

Her cheeks darken at my words as well. When she looks down, I see the tiny smile forming on her lips. She peeks up at me under her eyelashes which only makes the smile on her face shyly. “You’re different. I can’t understand why, but you are.”

“Is that a bad thing?” I ask nervously, fingers loosening on the wheel.

“So far it’s not. I’m liking the new Ashford Rocks.” I love the way her eyes light up when she says my name. Not to mention the way my heart accelerates when my name comes from from her lips.

“Never thought my name could sound so good,” I tell her enjoying how she immediately turns bashful. I reach over hoping to take her hand. She doesn’t disappoint and immediately latches onto my hand, squeezing it. “How about you call me Ash or something?” I shrug at her curious expression. “Only my friends ever call me by a nickname name. You’re more than just a friend, but I want you to feel comfortable around me.”

She seems surprised by the expression on her face. “I’ll let you know. Everyone has always called you Ash. I think it has to do with your name, but also because you smoke. I believe there is more to you than that.”

It’s my turn to be a bit bashful. She snickers but the smile on her face is wide. The rest of the drive, we’re quiet just listening to the music that plays on the radio. She plays with my fingers before tracing the crease in each one. After a few minutes of that, she moves to tracing the inner of my arm. When I glance at her, I discover her tracing the viens leading to the bend in my arm. Though as we get closer to the restaurant, I’m forced to pull my arm away. She pouts, but only for a moment as she recognizes the restaurant. My first thought was Lucky’s but it wasn’t good enough for brooke.

Instead I decided to bring her to Morrison’s. It’s the closest to high dinning in town and a lot of people visit the place. I’ve known about it since high school, but I never brought Alisha here. It’s the one place I only ever wanted to bring Brooke. I found the place a month after I first met Brooke, but I knew the moment I stepped into the place, I couldn’t afford it. Brooke only deserved the best, even back then, and I wasn’t good enough for her.

“My parents came here before. Almost like a dive bar.” She smiles at me, relief in her eyes.

“So, this is okay?” My tone is shaky as I cut the engine allowing the radio to continue playing.

“More than okay. It’s perfect.” She squeezes my hand, trailing her fingers along my palm.

I breathe a sigh of relief as I climb out of the truck. Thankfully Brooke’s comment last night about my attire gave me the idea of Morrison’s. I chose better jeans than ripped dark ones and paired them with a button up white shirt. The first few buttons are undone leaving the collar away from my neck. Hate when the shirts are too close. Brooke gives me a dazzling smile as I open the door, taking her hand. She carefully steps out, tightening her grip on my fingers. Once out of the truck, I close the door and drape my hand around her shoulders.

The air is warm but once again I can feel the rain in the air. It might rain tomorrow. I know one thing about the rain, it washes the world clean. I open the door to let Brooke in first sucking in the grease and cheese smell. There’s a woman at the front of the restaurant in the Morrison’s uniform.

“Hello, I’m Janie, the hostess. Just the two of you?”

I nod, squeezing Brooke into my side. She flushes but smiles up at me. Already our date is off to a better start than any other. With Alisha, I would occasionally flirt with the staff, waitresses, hostess, even other patrons. Sometimes I’d do it when Alisha was away from the table. Just reminds me of all the ways I was such a bad kid. The hostess leads us to a booth in the back but near what appears to be a bar. Thankfully they don’t just serve the older drinking crowd. Brooke slides in across from me, a shy smile on her face as I slide in. We give our drink orders to the hostess who passes them on to a waiter.

Brooke peeks over her menu, blushing when our eyes meet. My eyes drive back down to the menu. Thankfully, I put enough money in wallet to cover dinner anything else that might come up. Just as my eyes trail over the shrimp platter, the bell at the door rings to announce another customer. I look up out of curiosity to see a larger man approach the hostess. He removes his hat and for a moment, I recognize his face, but I can’t place him. I shake it off, smiling over at Brooke who drops her menu as the waiter arrives to our table.

I don’t know whether to be relieved or annoyed that it’s a male waiter. Brooke is nothing but friendly as always as he sets out our drinks before waiting to take our orders. Brooke surprises me by getting a bacon cheese burger with chili cheese fries. I order the shrimp platter with cheesy fries. I also tell him that we may desert afterward to which Brooke gives me a look. I give her a guilty grin. She doesn’t know about their chocolate cake. I happen to remember Brooke’s obsession with chocolate during high school. She almost always had a small piece of Hershey's on her during lunch.

Once the waiter’s gone, Brooke drops the pink straw into her soda. “So, I take it your father wasn’t home when I picked you up?”

Brook sighs, shaking her head, as she plays with the straw. “No, he’s out of town. Work calls, he jumps.”

The tone of her voice is bitter. I always know the sound of bitterness after dealing with it myself. I slide my hand over the table hoping she’ll take it. She gives me a tight smile, that doesn’t reach her eyes. I see disappointment in her eyes and it makes my heart squeeze.

“Was your dad at your graduation?”

She nods. “Yeah, he saw me walk across the stage. As soon as it was over, however, he left. We didn’t even eat out together. Probably the reason I decided to attend to Clyde’s party in the first place. It was my first time ever going. I dealt with all of them at school, didn’t want to outside of school. Not that I could ever escape it.”

I pull my hand away because as much as I want to pretend her life isn’t my fault, it is. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand what that prank did to you. I’ll never be able to make up for it. Sorry doesn’t even begin to cover what you’ve been through. I am trying, though, I want you to know that.”

She nods, the tight smile loosening. “I know, Ashford. I knew things were different when you practically manhandled Alisha in the store. That was a first. You used to ignore it.”

I nod somberly. “I knew she was a bit catty, but I did choose to ignore it. Guess I thought if I didn’t actually see her doing it, I couldn’t be responsible. I was a coward back then.”

Brooke shakes her head immediately. This time, she reaches across the table for my hand. “You might have been a lot of things back then, Ashford, but you were certainly not a coward.”

How can I explain to her that if I had just been honest with her and Alisha, we all could have avoided that damn prank?

“You want to see the best in people, Brooke, but I know I was a coward. There are just some things I can’t escape.”

She rolls her eyes, pulling her hand back. My eyes drift from our table toward the man who’s taken a seat in our section. He’s at a smaller table, looking at a newspaper, drinking coffee. The familiar feeling of dread fills my stomach again. For the life of me, I can’t place his face. The scar on the edge of his eye socket reminds me of someone. If only I could remember, I think I know where that cut came from. I shake my head, dispelling the thoughts.

“So,” Brooke suddenly says, pulling her hands toward the edge of the table in front of her. Her clear nails drum on the table one by one, almost slowly. “What have you been doing these past few years? I’m not even going to ask why you suddenly came back now. I think I’ll just another run around answer.”

I chuckle at her, leaning back in my seat. It’s a miracle, I realize, that not once have I craved a cigarette in her presence. “Not much really.” I hate that despite who I’m running from that statement is more accurate than anything else. “Just been driving a lot. Moving from town to town, job to job.”

She stares at me, her beautiful brown eyes going dim. “That sounds awfully lonely. Though, I can see the appeal. No strings, no attachments. Just the open road ahead. Guess that’s why you don’t have the bike?”

“Yup,” I nod, bringing up the glass for a drink. My mouth is suddenly parched. “Sold that about six months after I left. I quickly learned that the bike wasn’t made for long road trips. Plus, there were times when I couldn’t exactly afford a motel for the night.”

“You slept in the truck afterward?” She sounds surprised, as I would expect.

“It’s surprisingly comfortable. It was only ever me, so.” The stare of her eyes, the way they can pierce almost to my soul should scare me. She’s seeing deeper into me than anyone before her.

“Guess that answers my other question,” she whispers, dropping her gaze toward the ice in her glass. She suddenly licks her lips nervously as we both grow silent.

“Wondered if I was seeing someone? Really think I’d come all the way back here if I had. There might have been women while I was gone, but I never felt for them the way I feel for someone else.” When she looks at my words, she flushes at the intensity of my gaze.

A few minutes later, the waiter arrives with our food. I guess with the low amount of people in the restaurant, besides us, the mystery guy and another couple on the other end, must be a more popular place in town tonight. After the waiter leaves, I push to my feet smirking at Brooke. “I’ll be right back. Think the little boy’s room is calling my name.”

She smiles genuinely at me with a nod. I leave her pouring ketchup on her burger as I head toward the restrooms. Inside the restroom, I head for a stall instead of the urinal. Inside the stall, I hear the restroom door creak open and footsteps walk past my stall. After I’m done, I quickly step out, wash my hands quickly, and leave the restroom before the mystery guy pops out. Something in the back of my mind tells me I know him. It must be the guy sitting across from us. His table is empty when I join the main area of the restaurant.

My heart is beating loudly in my ears. Brooke smiles at me as I sit down in the booth in front of her. Conversation is light while we eat. As my nerves heighten, I notice when the guy comes back from the bathroom. My fingers begin to itch for a cigarette in an effort to calm my sudden mood. Suddenly Brooke’s eyebrows rise as she looks at me. There’s a suddenly ray of concern in her eyes as a bit of skin crinkles between her eyes. Her hand slides over the table to grab ahold of mine.

“Ashford? Everything alright?”

I swallow down the fry in my throat before giving her a convincing smile. Suddenly the idea for this date doesn’t sound like a good one. The emotions and feeling running through my body at this moment are all too famiiliar. During a time I’d rather forget from months ago. A time in my life that lead me back here, across from Brooke, but on the run from both the law and the unlawful.

“Yeah, of course. Couldn’t be better.”

She looks at me as if she doesn’t believe me. She sighs, sits her hands on the edge of the table before getting me a pointed look.

I sigh, reaching for her hand, taking it in mind. The moment our hands touch, everything melts away. Even my suspicions about the mystery guy across from us. Instead of taking a drag from a cigarette, Brooke manages to calm me down with a mere touch. “Please trust me. There’s nowhere I’d rather me than right here with you.”

She blushes, but I smile at her, rubbing my finger her knuckles. We both finish our food a few moments later. “Are you full? Can you fit in desert?”

She nods, sheepishly. “I’m curious what’s for desert.”

When the waiter returns, he takes our dishes but I tell him we’re ready for desert. He returns once again from taking our dishes and I order us both a slice of chocolate cake. Thankfully it’s fresh having been made earlier in the day.

Brooke appears surprised by the cake. “You keep surprising me, Ashford.”

“Good surprises?”

“Always.” The smile on her face is radiant. I can’t really describe it into words. The smile that stretches across her lips might be small but it shines all over her face. Her cheeks are a bit flushed, her eyes bright, little sparks of brown revealing themselves for the first time. Our waiter returns carrying a tray with two plates of chocolate cake. It has three layers and I finally realize that there are Oreo cookie crumbs sprinkled on top. Brooke’s eyes are wide and I can tell she’s going to love this.

“We’ll take the check after this,” I tell the waiter, his eyes lingering, once again, over Brooke. My fingers flex around the fork, but Brooke never once bats an eyelash in his direction. Once he disappears, Brooke picks up her fork, sharing a look with me.

She blows out a breath. “Together?”

“I have a better idea.” I step out of my side of the booth and move to her side. Her eyes are wide as she slides a bit down. Sliding my plate across the table, I give her a wink. “How about we feed each other the first bite? At the same time?”

Her eyes are wide, but she shyly nods to my request. Cutting a piece with my fork, I try to match that of what she cuts for me. Holding up our forks together, she blushes at my smile. We seem to count together lifting the forks to each other’s lips. I watch her open her mouth first, taking the cake as I do the same. It’s a joy to watch her reaction play out on her face.

“Guess you’re a fan of Oreo's?” I ask her a chuckle slipping between the words.

She shrugs. “Actually, my mother was a bigger fan. This was actually her favorite desert. My aunt made her a large Oreo cookie for her birthday once. It was one of those cake pans. Don’t think my mom ever ate so much cake in her life.” Instead of pain in her eyes, I see so much joy. She tilts her head. “I guess I kinda forgot about that. In the course of forgetting my mom, I was forgetting about the good times too. They were pretty rare, but...” she trails off, the emotion clouding her throat.

“They still happened,” I try to finish for her. She nods, a grateful smile on her face.

I wrap an arm around her shoulders as we eat our own cakes in silence. I let her enjoy the moment of the Oreo cake with her mother in her mind. If I had known that the cake would have brought up so many memories for her, I may never have even gotten the cake. Yet, I’m glad that I did in the end. Brooke needs to remember the good moments with her mother. Though like me with my father, we’ve been avoiding the good moments with them. They might have been few but they still exist. The waiter subtly brings the check and I pull out the cash along with a meager tip from my wallet.

I stand to my feet when we’re done. Brooke excuses herself to the restroom while I take the check the counter. It’s all rung up by the time Brooke comes out of the restroom. When she passes the mystery man’s table, I sharp stab of recognition hits me again. I should know this man but for some odd reason his name escapes me. Though something tells me, when his name finally registers, it won’t be a good thing.

I place my hand on Brooke’s back as we walk out together. The stars are shining brightly as Brooke looks up. “Thank you for dinner. It was lovely.”

I intertwine my fingers with hers. “Nothing less for my queen.” I take a big chance as I pull her hand up to my lips. There’s a moment before my lips touch her knuckles for her to pull away. When there’s no resistance, I press a tender kiss to the skin along her knuckles. She quietly gasps, but I pretend not to hear. Though it’s nice to know I affect her in some way as she does to me.

“I should take you home now. Maybe we can do this again, I’ll take you more than just to dinner?” I offer as I lead her back to the truck.

“Since I had so much fun tonight, more than I ever thought I would, I’d love too.” She surprises me by pulling on my arm, looking me in the eyes. I brush hair over her ear before turning to open the door.

She shakes her head at me as I help her inside the truck. When I reach for the seat-belt, she’s already beaten me to it. The smirk on her face is one of satisfaction. I momentarily pout. Buckling her seat belt is my only form of entertainment. She snickers at me and I step back, shut the door, and jog around to the driver’s side.

Once again, she’s messing with the radio as I start the truck. This time, I just let her turn up the music. We don’t have to talk much on the way back to her house. I chose to only have dinner with Brooke tonight because I want to show her I’ve changed. With all the other women, dinner was always a rouse to get into their beds. With Brooke, there’s something more between us. I can feel it in the air, whenever we touch. We’re almost a block away when my senses heighten. In the rearview mirror, I pull it down to see the bright headlights two cars down.

We stop at a light and I get a better view of the driver. My eyes are wide. Suddenly it makes sense why I recognized the guy in the restaurant. My heart is hammering in my chest as I glance at Brooke out the corner of my eye. She’s biting her lip while staring out the window, without a care in the world. I continue to watch the car behind us, deciding to make sure what I believe. I turn on my blinker as if I’m going to turn, make a different way to her house. The moment the blinker comes on, so does the other car.

Shit. It repeats in my head like a broken record. I didn’t want to bring Brooke into my mess but I’ve already done so. I sigh which alerts Brooke to my distress. “Ash?” she hesitantly says looking at me with a worried look.

I look over at her. Everything that has happened tonight is about to be ruined. She’ll never speak to me again after this. Yet, I’m going to do everything in my power to keep her safe from my world.

“Brooke, I need you to trust me. You understand that?” My fingers are tight around the wheel as I glance back at the mirror.

“Of course. What’s going on?” Her voice is shaky. I can tell she’s becoming scared.

I look over at her, my smile falling as my eyes narrow. My hand reaches over, tightens the belt around her waist.

“We’re being followed.”

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