Jagged | Chapter 24 of 33

Author: Kristen Ashley | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 23661 Views | Add a Review

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Chapter Nineteen


One week and one day later…

“This is gross.”

These words were spoken by Zander, who was standing in Ham’s and my kitchen and squirting devilled egg yolks through a pastry bag into the waiting halves of hardboiled egg whites.

The house was filled with people, every available surface groaning with food. The bar separating the kitchen from the dining room/living room also had food, a big devil’s food cake on a tall cake stand (Xenia’s favorite), a massive spray of red roses, and all this was intermingled with framed photographs of Xenia.

It was Xenia’s memorial party.

Zander might have missed his mom’s funeral but when I told Aunt Wilona about Kami’s idea, we agreed that it should happen and I gave the green light for plans for liftoff so I could have this and Xenia could have this, but more, so Zander could.

“It’s not gross. It’s delicious,” I contradicted Zander.

He squirted some devilled yolks into an egg, didn’t do a very good job of it, and I didn’t care. Then he looked up at me.

“I don’t like eggs,” he informed me.

“No?” I asked, loving every smidgeon of information I learned about my nephew, even the knowledge he didn’t like eggs, and I didn’t care one bit if that made me a freak.

He kept sharing the wealth. “My breakfasts of choice are pancakes or waffles or Nona’s hash brown casserole.”

Although I found the concept of Aunt Wilona’s hash brown casserole intriguing, I returned, “Eggs make you strong. Rocky Balboa drank raw ones before going out for a run.”

Zander scrunched up his nose.

“Raw ones?” he asked.

I nodded.

“That’s gross… er,” he decreed, then asked, “Rocky who?”

“Rocky Balboa,” I answered.

“Who’s that?” he queried and I blinked.

“You don’t know Rocky Balboa?”

Zander shook his head.

Therefore, as any conversation about Rocky Balboa was wont to make you do, I tipped my head back and cried in a deep guttural tone, “Adrian!”

When I was done shouting, I knew eyes had come to me but I only had eyes for my nephew, who was laughing and staring at me.

“You’re crazy,” he declared, still laughing.

“That’s what Rocky shouts after his big fight against Apollo Creed. Adrian is his woman,” I told him.

“Is he a cage fighter?”

I shook my head in mock disgust, leaned down to him, and allowed myself to do what I’d wanted to do during both of the dinners Ham and I had shared with him and Aunt Wilona at her house.

I ran my hand over his hair and cupped the back of his head, dipping my face close. “Rocky is a movie. A great movie. One of the best movies of all time. And, if you want, you can come over, I’ll pour a bunch of stuff in bowls, all of it not good for us, and we’ll eat and watch Rocky Balboa be awesome.”

“That’d be cool,” he said quietly, his eyes having changed. He looked somewhat uncertain but at the same time not uncomfortable and also pleased.

It was not lost on me in the time we’d shared with him and Aunt Wilona that she was affectionate with Zander. She wasn’t fawning and he was a growing boy so she didn’t get into his space being too motherly. That didn’t mean he didn’t get many indications in a variety of ways that he was loved.

But he’d never had one like this from me.

And, if I was reading him right, he liked it.

So I pushed it, lifted up, kissed the top of his head, and then moved quickly away so as not to freak him out.

My eyes swept through the house as I did but they stopped on Ham, who was across the room, beer in hand, talking to Latrell and Jeff, but his eyes were locked on me.

And his mouth was smiling.

I smiled back and then turned my attention to dumping stuff that was not good for anyone into bowls in order to replenish the generous but swiftly disappearing food supply.

“Are all these people really my mom’s friends?”

These words were asked by Zander but his voice was quiet and strange.

I looked down to him to see the eggs done, the pastry bag still in his hand, but he was looking over the bar into the house that was a crush of people, rock music on low drowned out by happy chatter with spurts of laughter.

“Yep,” I answered.

“She knew a lot of people,” Zander noted and I again got close to him but not too close.

Conversationally, I said, “Yeah, she did. She knew a lot of people but these aren’t just people she knew. These are her friends.”

He set the pastry bag aside, tipped his head to look up at me, and remarked, “She had a lot of friends.”

I went down in a mini-crouch so we could be eye-to-eye and told him, “Your mom was funny. She liked people and showed it. She was generous and she’d do just about anything for anybody. And people liked her because of all that. If you’re like that, you get a lot of friends and that’s what she did.”

Suddenly, his face changed again, definitely uncertainty and something I didn’t get until he spoke.

“I’m scared to go out there,” he whispered.

Surprised at this admission, I asked, “Why?”

“Because they liked her so much. What if they don’t like me?”

My heart squeezed and it dawned on me why, since Aunt Wilona and Zander arrived half an hour ago, he’d stuck to her or me like glue.

He was nervous and he wanted his mom’s friends to like him.

Carefully, I asked, “Why wouldn’t you think they would like you?”

“’Cause you said I’m not like her. They’ll be expectin’ me to be like her.”

I shook my head even as I smiled.

“You don’t look like her,” I clarified. “But you told me you have a ton of friends. You’re funny. You’re open.” I got closer and dipped my voice low. “As far as I can see, you’re just like her.”

When his eyes lit with hope, my heart squeezed again and I lifted a hand to curl my fingers around the side of his neck. Feeling the warmth of his skin, his pulse beating against my palm, for some reason I fell in love with him more just because he was so… very… real.

“You go out there, they’ll love you,” I promised. “But I’ll stick close anyway.”

He tipped his head to the side but did it careful not to break contact with my hand.

Yes, he didn’t mind affection from me and, knowing that, I sent my thanks to the heavens.

“You sure?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Okay,” he murmured.

I gave him a grin and a squeeze and left it at that, even though I wanted to kiss his hair again. I’d had enough for now and I didn’t want to push it.

I straightened and I did it just in time to hear the loud thud of a motorcycle helmet hitting the countertop.

Both Zander and I turned our eyes to Ham, who was now standing with us in the kitchen but his eyes were on Zander. Ham had gone to Carnal to buy Zander the helmet just the day before.

“Try that on for size, kid,” he invited.

Zander’s head whipped to the helmet, then back to Ham.

“No way!” he yelled.

“Way,” Ham replied.

“This is so cool!” Zander shouted.

His hands darted out to the helmet and my heart didn’t squeeze at Ham’s actions.

It warmed.

So I gave him a huge smile.

Ham’s eyes took in my mouth and his lips twitched.

Zander pulled the helmet on then tipped his head back to Ham. Lifting his hand to the kick-ass visor, he pushed it up.

“Does it fit?” he asked.

Ham crouched in front of Zander, put his hands to the helmet, moved Zander’s head around, checked for snugness, then gave the top of the helmet a mild smack before he answered, “Yep.”

“Cool,” Zander breathed.

“We got good weather, kid. You want a ride?”

“Really?” Zander asked, rocking up to his toes in excitement.

“Sure,” Ham replied.

“Totally!” he shouted but then dashed around Ham, still yelling, “Nona! Nona! Look what Uncle Reece got me!” He gestured to the helmet. “He’s takin’ me for a ride!”

Aunt Wilona’s head whipped around at Zander’s shouting. She spied the helmet, her face went straight to alarmed before she smoothed it out and forced a smile at Zander.

“I’ll have a word,” Ham murmured to me. “Put her at ease. We’ll go easy.”

“Okay, darlin’,” I murmured back.

Ham moved in, touched his mouth to mine, and, when he lifted up, I smiled at him again.

This time Ham gifted me with a smile back.

Then he moved out of the kitchen and toward Zander and Aunt Wilona.

I put the devilled eggs and bowls of snacks out and me and a variety of other people followed Ham, Zander, and Aunt Wilona out the front door. We stood in a group and watched Ham throw a leg over his vintage Harley that he’d obviously moved out of the garage for this purpose earlier and unbeknownst to me. Then we watched him instruct Zander how to get on behind him.

I got close, as did Aunt Wilona, and when we did, we heard Ham order, “You hold on to me tight and don’t let go for any reason. You with me?”

“Yeah, Uncle Reece,” Zander agreed instantly, wrapping his arms around Ham’s middle.

My belly fluttered and I got a little tingle between my legs.

Ham’s eyes came to me, and my physical reactions must have shown on my face because his eyes got dark and then he grinned a sexy grin.

That got me another tingle between my legs.

Two seconds later, the bike roared, they took off, and, even over the roar, we could hear Zander’s shout of glee.

“Dear God, save me,” Aunt Wilona muttered.

I burst out laughing and for the first time in my life, touched my aunt in affection of my own accord.

I reached out and slid my arm around my aunt’s shoulders, pulling her close.

“It’ll be good,” I assured her.

“I hope so,” she said to me, eyes pinned to where we last saw Ham and Zander.

My voice was firm when I stated, “Zander means everything to me. I mean everything to Ham. And anyway, Ham thinks Zander is the bomb. He’d never let anything harm him.”

Aunt Wilona turned her head to look at me, the fear downshifted to worry in her face, then she smiled and slid an arm around my waist.

And it was then I had the weird sensation that, even when you thought you had everything, life found ways to give you more.

I pulled her closer and we walked into the house, following the partygoers who had already gone back inside.

I let her go after a squeeze and went to find my beer.

I’d located it, pulled back a drag, and dropped my beer to find Arlene standing right in front of me.

“Mindy’s pregnant,” she announced and I stared.

Then I whispered, “What?”

“You didn’t hear it from me,” she declared, then walked away.

After she did what Arlene was prone to do, dropped a gossip bomb, my eyes flew around my living room until they caught on Mindy. She was standing with Becca and Bonnie. She was smiling. And she was drinking lemonade.

I felt my face split in a huge smile.

The doorbell rang.

I set my beer aside, moved through the crowd to the door, opened it, and there stood Pastor Williams.

Knowing from Ham what he’d done, I buried my desire to fling my arms around him and give him a big kiss. Instead, I just smiled.

“Hey, Pastor Williams,” I greeted.

“Zara.” He smiled back.

I stepped aside. “Please come in.”

He moved in, and I shut the door and threw out an arm.

We walked toward the crush, stopped at its edge, and I asked, “Can I get you a drink?”

“Unfortunately, I still have work to do on tomorrow’s sermon, so no. I just have time to stop by and pay my respects.”

“Bummer,” I replied.

He looked down at me and grinned.

Then he looked through the crowd, his face softening.

“I suspect your sister would enjoy today’s gathering,” he remarked.

She totally would.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

He kept looking through the crowd before, cautiously, he turned to me. “It seems there are some who haven’t yet arrived.”

I felt my back straighten when I asked, “Mom and Dad?”

He shook his head slowly. “No.”

I studied him then got it. “Zander’s out for a ride with Ham on his Harley.”

His face cleared, and he nodded once and mumbled, “Ah.”

“It’s all good, Pastor Williams,” I told him.

“Good,” he replied.

“Okay, no. That isn’t right. It’s all very good,” I shared and he again smiled.

“Good,” he whispered with feeling.

“Thank you,” I whispered back and watched his face change again before he socked it to me.

“I have been waiting years, Zara, turning it over in my head, talking to God, trying to find answers, my way to intervene,” he stated and I took in a deep breath at understanding his plight, knowing that Mom probably spoke to him or maybe he saw what other people didn’t see and knowing that he must have grappled with his powerlessness against it. “I still struggle, what I… when I spoke with Nina…” He paused. “I’m uncertain it was right.”

“It was right,” I assured him.

He shook his head. “When you make a decision to help one, or two, or five, but doing so might harm just one, it isn’t right. But it’s just and you simply hope that God can assist you in living with that balance.”

He was talking in circles, trying not to expose anything, but from what he said, I surmised, “You’re worried about Mom.”

“That I am, Zara,” he surprisingly confirmed. “Your father is a man who likes to get his own way. It’s crucial to him to control any situation with an iron fist,” he told me something I very well knew. “He’s lost access to a variety of targets. Therefore, his focus on the one he has left will be more acute.”

I didn’t like this for my mom but I’d long since learned the only person who could save her from being a target was herself. And for reasons I’d never understand, she was unwilling to do that. And for reasons I really didn’t understand, she was willing to put others in her path so when Dad’s attention turned to doing his worst, he’d focus on those targets rather than her.

So there was nothing I could do. But more, with my life the way it was, my sister gone, and all that had gone on that Mom might have had no control over, but still, doing nothing made her a party to it, there was nothing I wished to do.

I leaned slightly in to him. “I hope He does that for you, Pastor Williams, assists you with living with the balance. Because, in truth, I don’t know if there’s any hope for her. But I do know there’s no hope for Dad.”

“I have no doubt He will,” he replied. “That doesn’t mean it will all be well. Just that He will see us through.”

I lifted a hand and squeezed his arm, uncertain if God would see everyone through, this meaning my Mom, but He was doing His bit for the rest of us.

“He might see you through even better, if He saw you sitting in one of my pews more than just for the Christmas choir performance,” he went on, and at his pointed quip, I laughed, dropping my hand.

“Point taken,” I said.

“Good, then I’ll see you tomorrow morning at church. I have a very good sermon planned so I’m certain you won’t want to miss it.”

I gave him another smile then leaned closer, got up on my toes, and kissed his cheek but stayed there to say in his ear, “God chooses well.”

He gave my arm a squeeze as he murmured, “That’s a mighty compliment, Zara. Thank you.”

I rocked back, caught his eyes, and nodded.

He gave my arm another squeeze before he nodded back. His eyes went through the crowd, he did a few chin lifts when they fell on people he knew, and then he turned to the door.

I watched him move through it, and as he did, I saw Greg moving up my walk.

I’d called Greg and invited him. He’d never met Xenia but he’d gone to visit her with me once. I didn’t go to see her very often. It was too difficult. But since he was my husband, and she was my sister, and I loved them both, I thought he should meet her even if that meeting was macabre and bizarre.

Incidentally, when I went with Greg that was the last time I visited my sister.

I’d also invited Greg because we’d promised we wouldn’t lose each other and I knew Ham talked to him, so I hoped Ham had gotten through to him. Greg had called and spoken with me briefly after Xenia died. But other than that, I had no idea, with Ham in my life, his ring on my finger, if we could keep our promise.

I just hoped we could.

“Hey,” I greeted, walking to him as he shut the door.

He turned to me, his eyes catching mine for a brief moment before they scanned the house and then came back to mine.

“Hey,” he replied.

“You okay?” I asked. “Being here, I mean. And—”

Greg interrupted me. “Zara, this is your sister’s memorial and you’re asking me if I’m okay?”

“I, well… yeah.”

“Okay, then… no. I’m not okay since I’ve been worried about you since I heard your sister died.”

“Greg,” I said softly. “I understand that, appreciate it. That’s really sweet and I mean it when I say I’m glad you came. But I know this has to be weird. You and me. Me and Ham.” I swung my arm out behind me. “This house. I just want to be sure you’re okay with all this.”

He shook his head and his face went gentle as his hands came to my shoulders and then slid up to curl around the sides of my neck.

He leaned his face down to mine. “Zara, honey, after your, uh… Reece phoned me, it forced me to think. Weigh my options. What’s done is done and I know there’s no way I could win you back. I screwed that up. After he called, I came to terms with that. So I had to choose whether I wanted to have you in my life how I could have you or if I wanted to be a jerk and not have you at all.” He grinned and admitted, “I’m not much good at being a jerk.”

His words made me relax and I grinned back. “You never were.”

“It’s going to be weird. It’ll probably be hard, but we’ll get there.”

I closed my eyes as relief swept through me and when I opened them, I whispered, “Thank you.”

“Just that, um… until I sort things out, get used to, uh… him, or your being with him, if we have a cup of coffee or something, maybe for a while it can be just you and me. Will he be okay with that?”

I wasn’t sure he would. Ham was pretty possessive.

Then again, Ham knew I loved him, he loved me, he knew I didn’t feel that way about Greg, so I suspected he’d also trust me.

“I’ll talk to him,” I promised.

“Okay,” Greg replied, then his eyes went over my head. He dropped his hands and muttered, “I’m going to go say hi to Latrell.”

“You want a drink first?” I asked and Greg looked back at me.

“If you’re cool with it, I know my way.”

“I’m cool with it, darlin’.”

He grinned, lifted his hand to curl his fingers around the side of my neck again to give me a quick squeeze, then he wandered toward the kitchen.

I wandered to the end of the entryway and was immediately set upon by Maybelle and Wanda.

My eyes went from one to the other to see both of them examining my face but it was Maybelle who spoke.

“You all right?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Girl, seriously,” Wanda began. “You’re a drama magnet.”

I looked to her and assured, “It’s all good.”

“Mm-hmm,” Maybelle mumbled. “It’s all good right about now, when your man is off on his bike with your nephew. He walks into this house and your ex is here, I do not see good things.”

“Ham knows I invited Greg,” I told her.

She nodded but went on. “Then you best be thankin’ your lucky stars he wasn’t here when your ex put his hands on you. I could see it was all platonic-like but I think your man doesn’t have that filter when it comes to you and any man puttin’ his hands to you.”

This was true and I thanked my lucky stars Ham wasn’t there for that either, not to mention thanking them for the fact that Greg was not the type of man who would push that kind of thing if Ham was there, or at all.

“We had a moment. The moment’s over. It won’t happen again,” I told Maybelle.

“Well, you bein’ a millionaire, a new auntie, back in your house with a hot guy who’s actually a good guy who’d move mountains for you and, with that body of his, I’m thinkin’ he actually could, I’m also thinkin’ your lucky stars finally started to shine their light, thank the heavenly Father above,” Maybelle remarked and I turned fully to her.

“Is this your official stamp of approval on Ham?” I asked.

She leaned back and her brows went up.

“Girl, he had us all rushin’ around like an army of ants settin’ you up in your new-old house so you could come home from work and take a load off. That is, you could take a load off after he planted a huge-ass diamond on your finger,” she returned, gesturing to my hand. “How could I not give that my official stamp of approval?”

I knew it.

And I loved it.

So I smiled huge and crowed, “Told you.”

“Whatever,” she replied, looking away.

Not done, I turned to Wanda. “You’re my witness. I told her.”

“You so did,” Wanda replied, grinning big.

“I need another drink,” Maybelle noted as the doorbell rang.

“I’ll get that, hon. You find yourself a fresh bottle and suck back more beer,” Wanda offered and moved away.

Maybelle looked back at me and her eyes were lit with joy when she did.

“Happy, baby?” she asked softly.

“I’m at my sister’s memorial, celebrating her life, and my man is taking her son for a ride on his Harley, a ride Zander couldn’t wait to get. I’m back in the house I love that my man bought for me. And his ring is on my finger. So yeah. I’m happy,” I answered. “I’ve never been happier in my life. I thought yesterday, I’d never been happier. And the day before. And the day before that. But I’m wrong every day. It keeps gettin’ better.”

Her eyes went soft and bright when she whispered, “Then that means I couldn’t be happier for you.”


My name said in that voice sent all my happy flying out the window.

“Oh no you do not!” I heard shouted from the other direction and I knew that was Kami Maxwell.

But I ignored Kami and, stiltedly, I turned and saw my mother, her face a mask of alarm, staring at me.

What the hell was she doing there?

Greg was invited. Sixty other people were invited.

My mother was absolutely not.

“What are you—” I started, feeling Maybelle edge close as Wanda did the same on my other side.

But I didn’t finish because Mom’s hand shot out, clamping on mine and tugging hard.

“We must talk,” she demanded.

I tried to pull my hand free as I said, “We have nothing to say and, Mom, I don’t wanna be ugly but you aren’t welcome here. Not to mention, with what’s happening legally, you shouldn’t be here.”

“Zara, you don’t under—” she began but didn’t finish when I felt a wave of hostility blast through the front door.

Maybelle and Wanda felt it, too, and edged even closer as my eyes flew to the door to see my father storming in.

Without hesitation, he walked right up to Mom and me, grabbed Mom by the back of her neck, and yanked her away so hard she went flying.

Wanda gasped.

Maybelle whispered, “Heavenly Father.”

My body strung tight.

My father’s eyes sliced through the crowd and locked on me. “Look at you. Look at this. Your sister’s dead and you’re yukkin’ it up with beer and booze. What’s the matter with you?”

“Get out,” I whispered.

“I will. Happily. You give me the boy,” he shot back. “He doesn’t need to be around this, and mark my words, girl, the judge will hear about this.”

“Get out,” I repeated, louder this time.

Dad again ignored me. “Waste of time. Waste of space. You always were. Just prove it over and over since you first started breathin’. Just like that sister of yours. Now, give me the boy and I’ll go.”

“Xavier.” Aunt Wilona was there, standing close to Maybelle. “Let’s speak outside.”

Dad turned blazing eyes on his sister and announced, “You’re done. You’ll see that boy again over my dead body.”

Aunt Wilona paled.

“Sir, you really should leave.”

This was said by Nina, who was also now in my huddle, which had been joined by Arlene, Kami, Becca, Mindy, Jenna, and Cotton, with Max and Jeff patrolling the outside, bodies loose and in motion, eyes locked on Dad. I felt a presence at my back and I didn’t have to look to know it was Greg.

Dad spared Nina barely a glance before he looked back to Aunt Wilona.

“I gave orders,” he reminded her.

“He missed his mother’s funeral,” she returned, her back slamming straight. “He was not going to miss this.”

“That isn’t your decision,” Dad fired back.

“You’re wrong. I gave him bottles. I changed his diapers. I cooked his dinners. I made his lunches. I baked his birthday cakes,” she retorted. “You simply showed every once in a while, acted an ass, confused him, didn’t let his grandmother love on him, like she was tainted by his mother when his mother was tainted by you, and you were a general all-around pain in the behind, so I think I definitely get to make those decisions.”

“You’d be wrong,” he clipped.

“Since I got my boy, I’ve never been wrong, Xavier, and you’ve never been right,” she leaned in and hissed.

And it was then, Dad lost it. Given his target, not one to miss that kind of opportunity, his hand went down and across his front, then he swiftly and powerfully backhanded Aunt Wilona across the cheek.

She went flying and the crowd around us flew into motion but Dad had a lot of practice with this and no sooner had he clocked Aunt Wilona, he took two steps my way and suddenly had his hand wrapped tight around my throat. His other hand was up and fisted in my hair, pulling hard, making pain shaft over my scalp and down the back of my neck as his hand at my throat squeezed, this making it hard to breathe.

“Take your hands off her,” I heard Max growl from close even as I felt Greg move in behind me, his hand at my dad’s hand in my hair, but Dad had such a firm hold, there was nothing Greg could do without hurting me more.

Dad’s face was in mine, oblivious to all this, his eyes blazing with his brand of righteous fury that I’d seen time and again, remembered like he’d burned that look into me just yesterday, and I stood immobile with terror.

“You think to take my money?” Dad snarled in my face.

“Get… your hands… off her,” Max bit out and he was even closer but I didn’t tear my eyes away from my father’s.

No, that wasn’t right. I couldn’t.

“My lawyers say we’re gonna have to sell our house, pay back what they say we owe you,” he spat.

I tried to suck in air as his hand squeezed.

“Got one more chance,” Max warned.

“Sell our cars, sell fuckin’ everything,” Dad clipped, yanking on my hair and I whimpered.

“Greg, move away. Jeff, get behind Zara,” Max ordered.

I stared into Dad’s eyes.

“You’re a piece of shit,” he whispered, his voice filled with venom. “Your sister was a piece of shit. The minute your mother pushed the both of you out, I should have done what you do with a piece of shit. I should have flushed you away.”

That was when I’d had enough.

My knee moving without me telling it to do so, I brought it up, brutal and sharp, and connected violently with my father’s privates.

He grunted in pain, released me instantly to curl into himself, but he didn’t get there.

That was because he was yanked back by his hair, turned, and Ham had his hand in a death grip at his throat. Ham was advancing, shoving Dad toward the front door even as he rumbled in an absolute, downright terrifying tone, “Get Zander clear.”

My hands went to my throat. Maybelle and Wanda came to me. I sucked in breath and watched Max, Latrell, Cotton, Jeff, Greg, and Pete follow Ham as he shoved Dad out the front door.

“You okay, hon?” Wanda asked.

I didn’t answer.

My head turned to see Mindy, Becca, and Aunt Wilona guiding a pale-faced, terrified-looking Zander down the hall. Ascertaining he was in good hands, I ran out the front door.

I also had to run through the front yard because Ham had Dad pinned to the side of an SUV parked at the front of the house. Dad’s face was so red, it was purpling, his mouth opening and closing and Ham was in his face, his hand still wrapped around Dad’s throat. He was obviously squeezing. Hard.

The men were huddling close and I tried to push through but they stood firm so I could find no opening.

“Reece, stand down,” I heard Max order.

With a mighty heave, I shoved between Latrell and Pete.

“Reece, Zara,” Max warned, telling him I was there.

Dad made a choking noise.

Ham didn’t move.

“Reece.” Jeff got close and Jeff, incidentally and at that moment frighteningly, was an officer of the law. “This is not the way you want this to end.”

At these words, Ham shoved Dad off so hard Dad’s head cracked against the SUV.

He stepped away, scowling his scary, scarier, scariest by far scowl at my dad.

I got close and plastered myself against his side. The instant I did, Ham’s arm slid around my shoulders and he tucked me even closer but his eyes didn’t leave Dad. Still glowering at Dad, Ham then lifted his other hand and rested it curled light, warm, and I could tell he wanted it to be healing, at the front of my throat.

Finally, he whispered to Dad in his still scary voice, “You put your hands on her.”

Dad had both hands to his throat and was sucking in air, slightly bent, but he was still able to glare at Ham.

“First time you put your hands on her that she remembers, she was five,” Ham announced.

A squeak came from the crowd surrounding this tableau as well as some movement, gasps, and whispers but I knew that squeak was Mom’s.

“You beat her, you beat her sister, you made her watch that and you made her watch when you took your hand to her mother. Then you stole her nephew, stole her money, watched her swing and you got the balls to walk into our house and put your hands on her?” Ham asked.

Dad coughed, then bent over and spit in the yard.

Ham pulled in a mighty breath, turned to Jeff, and let it go, stating, “We’re pressing charges.”

Dad’s head shot up and I heard Mom squeak again.

“You just accosted me!” Dad yelled.

Ham cut his eyes to him. “You were in my home, abusing my woman in front of witnesses. I got a right to defend my home and I definitely got the right to defend my woman.”

“He’s not wrong,” Jeff declared and he looked at Pete, asking, “You got cuffs?”

Pete, also an officer of the law, nodded while moving and replied, “In my vehicle.” Then he took off on a run toward his car.

“Sir, face the vehicle, hands behind your head,” Jeff ordered.

“Are you insane?” Dad asked, eyes round, face red now for a different reason.

“Sir, I said, face the vehicle,” Jeff repeated.

“I will not do that,” Dad snapped.

“Then you’ll face resisting arrest on top of the other charges you got, and I see you aren’t thinkin’ all this through, but the ones you already got aren’t real good. My advice, you need to start actin’ smart and you need to do that right about now,” Jeff advised.

“She’s my daughter,” Dad spat, like that entitled him to do what he did and more gasps and whispers slid through the crowd.

“She’s an adult whose home you entered without permission and against her wishes and then proceeded, in front of witnesses, to assault her and another woman. But, just sayin’, even if she wasn’t an adult but she was a kid, that shit would actually be”—he leaned in to Dad, his usually mellow expression dissolving into fury before he finished—“worse. Now, face the vehicle and put your goddamned hands behind your head.”

Dad glared at Jeff a moment, his eyes shifted through the people watching, and then he did as Jeff told him to do but with his head turned to Mom.

As Jeff kicked Dad’s feet farther apart with his boot and Pete approached with cuffs, phone to his ear, Dad ordered Mom, “Call our attorneys.”

“But Xavier,” Mom started in a small voice, “in our last meeting with them, they told us, with our bank accounts frozen and us not able to pay them, that we—”

“Call them!” Dad barked.

She nodded swiftly, glanced at me, and as usual gave me absolutely not one bit more. Even after witnessing that whole debacle, she looked after herself and her safety and scurried away, digging in her purse.

It was just then, at that moment, held by my man, this suddenly lost its power to hurt me.

I took my eyes from Mom and, held close to Ham, his hand still at my throat, I watched my father get patted down, handcuffed, and read his rights.




“I so totally wish Xenia was here,” I whispered to Ham. “She would freaking love this.”

“Cookie,” Ham started, I looked up at him and even when I did his hand didn’t fall away from my throat. “How in the fuck can you make me want to laugh when I’m this goddamned motherfucking pissed?”

I shrugged and replied, “It’s just me.”

His eyes studied my face then his hand slid down to my chest and his gaze moved over my throat before his hand slid back up and his eyes again caught mine.

“Yeah. It’s just you,” he murmured and the warmth and approval in his eyes made me melt into him.

“Thanks for nearly choking my dad to death after he assaulted me,” I said and Ham blinked before he stared and finally his lips twitched. When I saw the lip twitch, I went on. “And also, thanks for making that nearly choking him, seein’ as it might be difficult for us to get married and me to get knocked up if you were serving time for involuntary manslaughter.”

At that, Ham’s lips stopped twitching and curled up.

I shifted to his front, got up on my toes, and wrapped my arms around him before I assured him quietly, “I’m all right.”

“You always are, baby,” he replied just as quietly.

“And you’re always there when I need you,” I returned.

Ham’s eyes flared. His hand at my throat shifted around and up into the back of my hair and he bent his head to touch his lips to mine.

“Champagne!” I heard Nina shout as Ham lifted his mouth from mine and we both turned to see her close. “Two counts of assault and trespassing!” she declared and clapped with excitement. “Isn’t that great?” she asked but didn’t wait for an answer.

She turned to Arlene.

Before she could say a word, Arlene started toddling toward her car, announcing, “I’m on it.”

“I’ll go with,” Kami called, following her.

I didn’t get the chance to look to see what was happening to Dad as, with Maybelle as sentry at my free side, Latrell playing sentry to her, some of the crowd following close at our backs, others staying to watch the finale to my Dad’s arrest, Ham firmly led me back into the house.

But I was able to break away in the excited shuffle once we got inside.

When I did, keeping an eye on a mindful Ham, who clearly wanted to keep an eye on me, I managed to perform a miracle. I snuck to the front door and looked out the window at the side so I could watch as the cruiser pulled up and Jeff and Pete shuffled my dad to one of the back doors, Jeff putting his hand to Dad’s head after Pete opened the door, and folding Dad in.

So engrossed in this, when my hand was taken in a firm grip, my body gave a slight jump and I turned to see Aunt Wilona, her eyes aimed out the window.

“It’s all but over,” she said to the window.

“I figure it is,” I agreed.

She looked at me.

I smiled at her.

Her eyes dropped to my lips then came back to mine and she smiled back.

“Cookie, get away from the fuckin’ window!” Ham ordered loudly even though he was only five feet away.

I rolled my eyes at my aunt, gave her hand a squeeze, then moved from the window.

Lifting my hand to my forehead in a salute directed Ham’s way, I yelled, “As you wish, mein herr!”

Ham shook his head.

I turned to my aunt, looked at her cheek, and whispered, “Let’s go to the kitchen and get you some ice.”

She nodded. We did that. I left her with Wanda in the kitchen, found Zander with Mindy and Becca in the guest bedroom, and I relieved my girlfriends.

Once they left, I gave him a good onceover. I didn’t know him all that well but I could still tell he was freaked mostly because you couldn’t miss it.

I sat next to him on the bed and took his hand. “It’s all cool, darlin’.”

“Uncle Reece was real mad,” he replied.

He was not wrong about that.

“Yep, he likes me a whole bunch and doesn’t like it when someone hurts me, but he’s okay now,” I assured him.

“Is Nona okay?” he asked.

I nodded. “I’ve got a good friend takin’ care of her.”

Zander’s eyes moved over my face, possibly in an attempt to make sure I was telling the truth.

I figured he believed me but still, he asked, “Can I go to her?”

He was a good kid and he loved his Nona. Which meant she’d earned that love.

Without delay, I got off the bed, pulling him up with me. “Let’s go.”

I took Zander to Aunt Wilona. They huddled. I hung with them, taking their pulse, and when it seemed Aunt Wilona had it covered, I wandered out of the kitchen and found Ham.

I moved right to him and fitted myself to his side.

When I did, one of his arms went around my shoulders and he lifted his other hand, shifting my hair away. His fingertips gliding over the shell of my ear, and they slid down my neck and across my throat.

“All good?” he murmured.

“Better than ever,” I replied and when he looked like he didn’t believe me, I leaned into him whispered, “I think you may have noticed this already, but some of us Cinders, we’re survivors.”

He held my eyes and lifted his hand to cup my jaw as he bent his head to mine.

“Don’t know about the others, but I know that’s true about you.”

My arms already around him tightened.

“Love my cookie,” he said softly and I felt a smile curve my lips.

“And I love my bruiser,” I replied and watched a smile curve his.

Then he dipped his head farther to touch his lips to mine, and when he was still doing that, we heard Arlene shout, “Got the champagne!”

Ham broke our contact and we turned our heads to see Arlene and Kami at the door and each held a bottle of champagne in both their hands. Arlene’s eyes were on Ham.

“Big bear of a hot guy, there’s a case in my car. I reckon you won’t have problems liftin’ it. So get your hind end out there and do that,” she ordered.

I laughed as I heard Ham’s chuckle. Then I got two squeezes and my man let me go in order to move to the front door.

I watched him go.

Then I looked through my house at my friends, Xenia’s friends, knowing my nephew was in the kitchen with my aunt, and listening to muted music, unmuted chatter, then finally hearing a champagne cork pop.

My eyes slid to one of the framed photos of my sister on my bar.

“Wish you were here, darlin’,” I whispered across the room to the photo.

As ever, I got no reply.

Then I moved that way in order to find cups.

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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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