Breath of Fresh Air

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Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-

When I leave the prison, it’s with a better outlook on the day. With Guy’s words, I know that staying with Brooke is my best option. I’d regret it every single day of my life I don’t. Guy knows personally how your actions can affect those around you. Dad took mom and I for granted and he pays the price for that mistake to this day. I climb in the truck, my lips up high. Running isn’t the best option, that I know, but I can’t turn myself over to die and I can’t leave Brooke behind. If I were to leave without her, I know what will happen, they’ll take her from me. Just the idea has my fingers tightening around the wheel of my truck.

I’m taking Guy’s advice. I’m going to keep at my side for as long as possible. I start the truck and head out of the prison parking lot. My phone suddenly chimes from my pocket. At the nearest light, I pull it out. In the prison, I had to turn my cell phone off so any messages or calls wouldn’t get through. There’s a text from Brooke blinking from my phone.

He agreed! We’re having dinner at five.

Suddenly I’m nervous. I know her father from my past and I worry he won’t accept me. Then I tell myself that it doesn’t matter. All that matters to me is that Brooke accepts me for who I am. For a moment as the light turns green, I worry about something else. Every time I’ve told Brooke how I feel, she hasn’t exactly said it back. I sound like a girl thinking about this but I worry if she really cares about me in that way. Maybe she’s just scared after coming to terms with our feelings for each other, we haven’t had a moment of peace.

I nod my head accepting that idea. The closer I get to my mother’s house, I pull my phone back out.

That sounds great. Meet you there!

I hit send right before another light changes. She’s given me the address of the restaurant her father chose in her message as well. I don’t get another message until I pull into my mother’s driveway.

Can’t wait.

The joy remains in me until I enter the house. There’s a stale odor in the front of the house. The TV is off in the living room and I assume my mother is asleep in her bed. Closing and locking the door, I head down the hall to my room. Thankfully, most of my clothes are actually still here since I only took the bare minimum. Immediately I start searching through my clothes knowing that time actually isn’t on my side. I have just a few hours to get ready for dinner with Brooke. Not to mention, I have to make sure we have everything we need when we leave. I don’t have as much cash as I did when I arrived, but maybe it will be enough for a few weeks with Brooke on the road.

The idea of just us on the run together sort of reminds me of Bonnie and Clyde. My lips curve up in a smirk at the idea. Brooke is my very own Bonnie and maybe I’m her Clyde. I’ve already showered a few times at the hotel. Just the memory of the shower in the hotel gives me hard on. Rubbing my hand over my hardness, I try to think of something else to will it away. Shaking my head, I groan when it goes down before searching my bag. I find something just a bit appropriate lying it down across the bed.

It’s in that moment that I decide to check on my mother. She’s probably asleep but it’s better safe than sorry. Heading through the hall, I stop at her door, twisting the knob. The TV is on but when I check her bed, it’s empty. Something suddenly doesn’t feel right. Leaving her door open, I head back to the living room, but see no trace of her there. Peeking through the shades on the window, her car is definitely in the driveway. Nothing makes a lick of sense. The only thing that I can feel is the point of hysteria.

Where the hell is my mother?

I head back down the hall, the smell suddenly assaulting me. I was so caught in my head before that I didn’t even catch it before. Stopping at the bathroom door, my hand begins to shake. I can feel the tears welling in my eyes as I close them before twisting the knob. The smell is even stronger and makes my eyes sting. When I open my eyes, I almost wish I hadn’t as I fall to my knees before tub. My mother’s body is slumped in the tub, her eyes staring up at the ceiling. Any other time I would think she overdosed, if it weren’t for the bullet hole in her head, right between her eyes.

“No, no,” I repeat, over and over again as I reach into the tub. I pick up her body gasping at the weight before settling her in the floor of the bathroom. I push her slightly damp hair from her face holding her head in my lap. “I’m so sorry, mom!”

The tears stream down my face, leaking into her hair. Her body is cold, her skin pale and her eyes almost ghostly. My body begins to rock back and forth while holding her in my lap. Judging by the smell and her state, I guess she’s been like this since yesterday. Either when they couldn’t find me before the motel, they took our my mother hoping to draw me out. Then again it could have happened after I left the other night, leaving her unprotected.

I should have taken those damn hang up calls more seriously.

“This is all my fault, mom.” I brush my fingers over her hair, feeling the anger pour through me. “I shouldn’t have left you. I thought you were safe, didn’t think they’d hurt you.” Leaning over her body, I press a tiny peck to her forehead. “I love you, moma. Always and forever.”

I gently ease myself from underneath her head, lying her on the tile floor. She deserves so much more than this but I can’t do anything for her anymore. The guilt boils in my chest and stomach knowing there isn’t a hole deep enough for my carcass. As I look over her body once more, suddenly a piece of paper peeks over the top of her nightgown pocket. She’s wearing one of those peach color gowns that are easier for her to sleep in.

Squatting on my knees, I retrieve the piece of folded white paper.

Don’t even think about running. We’ll find you. When we do, expect the same for your girl.

My eyes are wide as I drop the paper. Did they do this right before giving me the twelve hours? This is a warning to keep me from running. They already know Julio warned me, not in so much words to turn myself in, but that with the time frame I could run. Tears are in my eyes as I stand. There was nothing I could for my mother so far away. Maybe if I had been here, come straight here instead of the prison, I might have been able to safe her.

With this paper, I know I can safe my mother, but maybe I can Brooke. I can’t take her with me, but I can turn myself in. It’s the only damn way to keep her safe. Just as the thought comes to mind, I realize in order to do this, I’m going to have to do what I do best when it comes to Brooke Baker.

I’m going to have to break her heart. Again.

~*~

Where are you?

You’re late!

The messages keeping racking up, the ping becoming an annoying sound to my ears. I run my hand over the material of my suit jacket. Not exactly a nice outfit, with jeans, white crisp shirt and a gray suit jacket over. I still want to make a good impression on Brooke’s father even though I’m going through this immeasurable grief at the moment. The nearest service station’s bathroom to my mother’s house serves as my dressing room. I can still hear the sirens as they passed me heading toward my mother’s house. Before I left, I made sure to call the cops, my mother at least deserved that. I couldn’t leave her in that house to rot until she was nothing.

My mother might have been a lot of things, but she didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. I grab my things once I’m done, ignoring the dead look in my eyes from the mirror as I leave. In the truck, I run my fingers over the keys, trying to calm down enough to stop the constant shaking.

Sorry. Running a bit late. On my way now.

I swallow as I start the truck heading toward the restaurant. I can only imagine how this dinner will go. Afterward, I’ll have to tell Brooke that there’s been a change of plans. Breaking her heart isn’t going to be easy, but I have to do it, she won’t listen otherwise. I’ll have to use her worst fears to make her believe and it’s going to shatter me in the process. Finding my mother’s dead corpse in her bathtub broke me, but hurting Brooke is going to shatter me into a million pieces.

I pull into the parking lot and find a decent spot near the front. The place looks expensive definitely more high price than the place I took Brooke for our date. Checking my reflection in the rearview, I brush my hair back. Another sniff of my hands and arms, I make sure the stench of death isn’t stuck to me. I probably used enough cologne to suffocate an entire third world country. Sliding out of the truck, I button the single button on my jacket before taking a deep breath. I push away the image of my dead mother and the consequences of my actions. I have to get through this entire dinner first before I hurt Brooke, that’s my plan. Though maybe this dinner will hurt her worst, but I want her to know when she can one day forgive me, that I didn’t truly mean to break her all over again.

Inside I can smell different kinds of food which immediately makes my stomach growl. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast early this morning with Brooke at the hotel. There’s a hostess at a stand when I approach in a dark dress that stops at her knees.

“Yes, um, I’m with the Baker table.” My voice shakes a bit. It’s the first time I’ve spoken since the house. My voice sounds hoarse even to my own ears, thick from tears.

She gives me a smile, either not noticing or not caring enough. “Your party has already arrive. They’re at their table. I’ll escort you.”

She beckons me to follow her through throngs of tables. A few people give me second looks as I pass them. Most of these people are the kind of people from Brooke’s side of town. People from my side of town never attend places this fancy. I look up over the woman’s shoulder as we approach the Brooke’s table. Brooke immediately looks up and my heart nearly bursts from my chest. The smile on red painted lips is wide and bright. She instantly pushes her chair back from the table and stands. She’s wearing a dark blue dress that slides up nearly to her neck, hiding her cleavage. The dress stops at her a bit past her knees as she stands in match dark blue heels.

“Ashford,” Brooke says, walking toward me, taking my hand in hers. I break eye contact to look at her father. Brooke obviously got her blonde hair from her mother as her father has dark brown nearly black hair. His eyes are a shade darker than Brooke’s though. He’s staring at me and I can’t tell if it’s out of curiosity or malice. The hostess has returned to her stand at the front of the restaurant.

Her father stands, buttoning his own suit jacket as he walks around. It’s as he walks around, the stare on his face narrowing, that I spot the star badge on his belt at his waist. The sight me gulp as I try to make out the words. Is he a sheriffs deputy now?

“Ashford, I’d like you to meet my father, Jeffery Baker.” Brooke wraps her arms around my arm as she introduces us.

“Mr. Baker,” I hold out my hand for him to shake, “it’s nice to meet you.”

Unfortunately things grow awkward when he doesn’t take my hand.

“Would that be Ashford Hal Rocks?” Jeffery suddenly asks, staring at me.

I tilt my head in confusion until Brooke gasps. “Oh, no. Dad, you can’t!”

I turn my head to look at Brooke. Her grip around my has grown tighter as she attempts to pull me away from her father. I look at her, tears welling in her eyes, threatening to ruin her makeup. “Brooke?” I whisper, confused as to what’s going on.

“She hasn’t told you what I do for a living these days, Mr. Rocks?” Jeffery’s voice is almost smug. I twist to look at him, the confusion mounting. He suddenly reaches behind him, retrieving something from his back pocket. When he pulls it forward, I spot the silver cuffs in his hand. “After I left the force, I was still pretty good at finding people and we needed the money.”

“He’s a bounty hunter, Ashford.” Brooke’s voice is instant, cutting off her father.

I realize immediately what this means. Jeffery knows I’ve jumped bail, probably been notified through the grape vine or maybe he was personally hired.

“I should have known when he left after my graduation. He couldn’t get out of here fast enough.” Brooke turns me to look at her. The tears are streaming down her face now. “He told me he was gone to get information from a client. Someone had jumped bail, he was looking for them, still on the case. Though he wanted to check in on me. I thought it was good, he wouldn’t be here very long, we could be together. I had no idea it was you he was looking for.”

Brooke steps into my arms burying her face. “Maybe we can still get out of here,” she mumbles in my chest. Unfortunately we’re beginning to cause a scene in the restaurant. A place like this isn’t going to tolerate this kind behavior.

I look over at Jeff, my heart seizing. I told both Brooke and my father, hell even myself, that if the cops caught me first I would go with them. In this way, maybe she’s safer and this way I won’t get hurt.

“Brooke,” I whisper in her hair, patting her soft blonde hair. She shakes her head as if afraid of what I may say. “Brooke, you know this is the best way. I have to face what I’ve done. It’s time. I told you, I wasn’t running from the cops, I was running from the others. This will keep you safe, I won’t have to turn myself over to them.”

When she pulls way, her eyes are wet. There are black streaks running down her cheeks. Even her lipstick is smeared as she reaches up to wipe her nose on her wrist. “You know I’m right.”

“You can’t go, please. Ashford, if you go, I’ll never see you again. They’ll lock you up and throw away the key.”

I cup her cheeks in my palms. “I love you so very much, Brooke Baker. You’re the first woman I’ve ever truly loved. You mean so much more to me than my own life. If this will keep you safe, I’m going without a fight.”

Brooke pushes to her tip toes, pressing her lips against mine. Her lips are salty from tears but I treasure the weight her lips. She doesn’t attempt to deepen the kiss either from the tears, her father, or our surroundings.

“I love you, Ashford Rocks,” she whispers as she pulls away.

My heart soars at the sound of the words from her lips. She gives me a small tender, bashful smile. “I was trying to find the right time. I had to tell you before...” her words trail off as she buries herself into my chest again.

I look over at Jeff who’s watching us. His eyes are tender and wet staring at his daughter. Something about the look in his eyes shows me something else. He’s lost his wife, he can’t lose his daughter too. I think I’m broken right now with the death of my mother, but I think Jeff knows true brokenness.

“Okay, guys. I’m afraid we’re going to have to cut this short.”

Brooke loosens her grip around my waist. I wipe the tears from her cheeks. “No more tears. You’re too beautiful for those.”

She tries to roll my eyes, give me a sarcastic chuckle, but it fails. There’s sadness in her eyes as she steps back, holding her arms against her chest. Brooke looks over at her father, a torn, broken smile on her face. Jeff immediately pulls her to his side, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “You know he’s doing the right thing, sweetheart. Can’t fault him for that.” He looks over at me, nodding. “He has my respect. One of only a few that willingly give themselves over with a fight.”

“I know, dad. Doesn’t mean I have to like it much.”

Jeff chuckles, standing right. I look between him and Brooke enjoying the sight of their relationship. “I don’t mean to pry, but I don’t think Brooke needs to be alone right now.”

Jeff nods, reaches into his pocket pulling out his smart phone. He presses a button, calling out for a few minutes. “Hey, Case?” he pauses, before speaking again. “Listen, I need you to pick up Brooke at the restaurant. I’ve found a client, need to book him. Brooke can’t be alone tonight. Mind staying with her? Won’t cause problems with Misses?” He pauses for a few minutes nodding. “That sounds good. Hope they have fun. We’ll see you soon.”

Jeff pushes the phone into his back pocket after he hangs up. He flips the cuffs around in his hand looking at me. I nod toward the front door before suggesting, “How about we do this outside? Easier that way, right?”

Jeff nods, walking toward me. “Good idea, son. Just no funny business once we get out those doors.

“Wouldn’t dream of it, sir.” Jeff holds my arm as we walk through the restaurant. I can feel the stares of the rich costumers as we head toward the entrance. Even the hostess stares as we pass leaving out the door. Once outside, the warm summer air hits my face, but this time a sense of peace settles over me. “Turn around, son.” I nod, twisting my body around, dragging my arms behind my back. My eyes meet Brooke’s as I turn my head, tears in her eyes. Jeff proceeds to cuff each wrist before reading my Miranda rights in a clear voice.

By the time he cuffs my wrists tightly, another dark blue dark truck appears in the parking lot. Jeff twists me around nodding to make sure the cuffs are tight as he pulls on them. Brooke is instantly at my side when Jeff steps back. “I’ll give you a couple minutes. Say your goodbyes. It’s going to be while before you see each other again.” Jeff heads for the truck where another man steps out. He looks to be around the same age as Jeff. He too wears a badge at his waist in a dark shirt and jeans shaking hands with Jeff as they meet at the front of the truck.

“That’s Casey, dad’s partner, best friend. They’ve been friends for years. He’s kinda like an uncle I never had.” Brooke’s voice is low, just above a whisper. She looks back at me from watching her father and the new guy. “Why are you doing this? We had everything mapped out. We were going to leave together.”

I shrug, which actually isn’t that comfortable with cuffs. “Things change, Brooke. This is a sign of something more. We were never going to get away. We were foolish to think so. Just take care of yourself, Brooke. I’ll always love you, but I don’t think the prison is a good place for you. I jumped bail, I’m either going ahead to prison until trial or jail itself.”

Brooke narrows her gaze on me. Her brown eyes are almost like lasers against my skin. “Don’t you do that, Ford. Not now. Not after everything we’ve been through. You’re thinking about taking a deal aren’t you?”

“You and I both know I’m guilty. I didn’t have a gun to my head. So what, it’s the Mexican cartel. I might get a good deal, but pleading guilty is my best option. If I’m safely behind bars, they can’t hurt me anymore.”

Brooke steps closer, wrapping her arms around my body underneath my arms. “I love you, Ashford. Try to come back to me, please. Now that I’ve had you, I can’t bare to let you go.” She gives me such a loving smile that finally reaches her eyes. There is no more doubt, this woman loves me.

“I love you, Brooke Baker. Please take care of yourself.” Once again her lips meet mine in such a tender kiss, tears prickle my eyes. When we pull away, her father stands at my side. Sob comes out of Brooke’s mouth as she steps back to Casey.

“Time to go,” Jeff says, grabbing my arm and turning me away from Brooke. He escorts me to the familiar white pick up truck where he opens the back door helping me inside. I continue watching Brooke as he hops in the driver’s seat and leaves the parking lot, as Brooke disappears from sight.

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