Authors: Tammy L. Gray
“Popcorn and Hot Tamales.” His hand slid away, and his voice shed the counselor’s purr it’d contained minutes before.
“My favorite food combination. You mix popcorn and Hot Tamales together.”
“And you said mine was gross?” She faked a gag.
“See, this is why I couldn’t tell you. Now I have to go get some and prove I’m right.”
“But the movie’s about to start.”
He jumped out of the back of the car. “I’ll be quick.”
Katie let out a long breath as she watched him walk across the dimly lit parking area to the concession stand. He’d somehow guessed she needed a moment alone to push away the sadness.
She slid from the back of the SUV and walked around it. Leaning against the side, she tried to imagine what it would have been like to spend her weekends here instead of drowning in whatever substance she and her friends could get their hands on. Wondered what it would’ve been like to date Asher back in high school, before her sins had become too numerous to escape.
She would have been happy. That much she knew, without question.
A sleek black Jaguar crossed in front of her, bouncing as it navigated the potholed gravel. An elbow hung out of the open window, and Katie immediately recognized the snake tattoo an inch above it. Her eyes followed the line of the man’s bicep past his shoulder and up to a profile she could still draw in her sleep.
A man in jeans and an army-green T-shirt approached the driver’s side, bent down to the window, and blocked Katie’s view. Seconds later, he walked away.
An exchange. Quick. Stealthy. Dirty.
Katie knew the drill. She knew it so well, her mouth went dry and her stomach knotted until she felt the need to bend over and dry heave.
“Cash only,” Slim said.
“It’s worth way more than what you’re giving me. Come on. I need this.” She shoved the ring back in his face.
His gaze slithered down her front. “There are other trades that can be made.”
“You know I don’t play that game.”
“And I take cash only.”
“I’m one of your biggest customers. Do you want me to find someone else?”
His eyes became thin slits. “Okay, fine, I’ll take it, but you gotta do something for me now too.”
That night. That stupid, stupid night. And for what? A quick high. A fool’s escape. A twist of reality that could never, ever be sustained.
She forced herself to stand and wiped sweat from her brow. The car had circled around and out of sight. Gone, but never far enough away to stop haunting her.
Katie’s throat constricted, but she refused to cry. Asher had said she needed to feel, but he was wrong. Emotions were fleeting, uncontrolled, and dangerous. But at the same time, it was becoming impossible to tuck away the past. Everywhere she turned, there were reminders.
Maybe she’d been doing everything wrong. Maybe God hadn’t just brought her back to Fairfield to help her parents. Maybe it was to give her a chance to fix her biggest regret. To go back to the beginning of the end and make restitution.
That one tiny piece of jewelry had set off an unstoppable chain reaction. If she could find it, if she could right that one wrong, then maybe the reaction would work in reverse.
Maybe then she could find a way to heal.
sher tapped on the glass counter as he waited for the popcorn to pop. The kid working concessions was new, and it took three tries before he could get the kernels spinning. The movie had started five minutes ago, but Asher was actually relieved to have a second to breathe. He’d broken through Katie’s thick shield. Only a little, but enough to know he wanted more.
Chatter surrounded him, as did the steady
of the arcade games in the corner. A little girl with pigtails begged her dad for chocolate, and Asher chuckled to himself as the man melted in her chubby little hands.
Finally, the popcorn and box of candy appeared in front of him. He handed the teenager a ten and waited for change. The scent of salt and butter swirled in the air and he inhaled, feeling comfort that for the first time in a very long while, that smell didn’t bring regret.
He slipped his change into the pocket of his shorts and walked out, balancing his loot.
A familiar giggle raised the hair on his forearm. He shouldn’t have looked, but it was instinctual. Platinum-blonde hair, blue eyes, a purse ten times bigger than she needed. All three blurred in front of him. He hadn’t seen Jillian in six months. But there she stood, only ten feet away, purring while she kissed a man who must be the new boyfriend his mom had mentioned.
The two were oblivious to everything but each other, while Asher remained rooted to the concrete. He’d been on guard every other time he’d been at the drive-in, but not tonight. Being with Katie made him forget that demons lurked in the night.
The happy couple turned in his direction, their fingers interlaced, but Asher quickly walked the opposite way before he ended up face-to-face with the woman who made Jezebel look like a saint. The paper bag of popcorn shook in his hands, and heat engulfed his neck and cheeks. He wanted to curse. Or find something to hammer. Maybe he’d go ahead and tear out that tile in his bathroom tonight after the movie. Anything to make the hole in his chest close back up.
His quick steps brought him back to his car faster than he’d intended. Katie stood at the side of it, leaning with her head tilted toward the sky. She could be a model in a photo shoot, the way the residual movie lights reflected off her skin.
The sight of her was a balm to his ache. Jillian had dimmed something inside him, but Katie brought a hope that he could once again be whole.
She must have heard him approach, because her head dipped and she flashed a smile that continued to ease his pulsing anger.
“I didn’t want to watch the movie without you.” She eyed his tight posture and the death grip he had on the bag. “Everything okay?”
“Uh, yeah. Sorry I took so long.” His voice sounded strangled.
She hesitated but didn’t press. “No problem. I think all we missed were a few explosions anyway.”
Asher attempted a weak smile, but he suddenly forgot how to pretend.
“And maybe a meteor attack, although it was hard to tell because the chick was in black spandex and her hair was way too perfect for an apocalypse.”
Funny. Yet he couldn’t laugh. Not yet. He climbed into the back of his SUV and helped Katie in over the bumper. She’d stopped talking and was watching him as if he, too, was about to explode. He wasn’t, but his pulse still hadn’t settled yet either.
A quick stretch over the seats to turn up the radio, and his speakers boomed with shrieks and feet pounding. They matched the turmoil in his head.
He wouldn’t do this, let Jillian spoil another night. She’d already stolen so much; he refused to let his time with Katie be another casualty.
Asher poured some popcorn into a paper bowl and mixed in the Hot Tamales. “Okay, now
is how you should eat popcorn.” He held up a finger when she appeared ready to protest. “Nope. No judgment until you try it.”
The bridge of her nose wrinkled in the cutest way, and he felt himself relax.
She reached out and grabbed a handful of kernels and candy. With her nose still scrunched, she dropped the mess into her mouth and cautiously chewed. Quickly, her expression shifted from dread to surprise “Oh my gosh, that’s so good.”
Asher’s tension uncoiled even more as he took his own handful. “Never doubt my knowledge when it comes to food.”
She snuck more out of the bowl, and they watched the movie in silence until the acting got so bad that Asher couldn’t stand it anymore.
“This movie is terrible,” he said.
She burst out laughing. “The absolute worst.” Her expression shifted to feigned panic. “Oh, Hansel, what will we do? New York is destroyed. I will never wear Jimmy Choo again!”
He lowered his voice to a deep bass. “Not to worry, my pet. I have fifty-inch biceps, so I can save the world when I flex.”
“Oh, my hero.” She drew her hands to her chest. “Let me kiss you with music in the background while two cars explode right next to us.”
He shook his head and crawled to the front to turn off the stereo. “How in the world did this film get production dollars?”
“Hot girls in spandex. Equally hot guys in spandex.” She leaned back on her elbows and stretched out her legs. “I remember now why I never go to the movies.”
Asher laughed, and the act finally felt genuine. A breeze whistled through the back of the car as they both watched the screen in silence. A nice silence. One that wasn’t awkward or forced.
She shifted her attention to him. “You don’t have to talk about it if don’t want to. But you seemed really upset when you came back from the concession stand.”
He still hadn’t adjusted to Katie’s bold honesty. Jillian would have ignored the two-ton elephant and pretended they were having a wonderful time. That was the church way, right? Put on the smile, the mask; tell everyone you’re fine when really you’re dying inside.
He didn’t want to be that person anymore.
“I ran into my ex.” Even with effort, he couldn’t keep the disgust from his voice. “Our breakup wasn’t under the best of circumstances.”
Katie sat up and faced him. “Who did the breaking up?”
“I did.” He ran a hand through his hair. “But she certainly did the most damage.”
“I really hate when people pry, but if you want to talk about it, I’m a good listener.” She played with a dangling bracelet on her right wrist. “Although my past relationships don’t exactly give me any authority on the subject.”
“Why’s that?” He welcomed the shift in conversation. Focusing on her was easier.
She pulled her dress farther down over her crossed legs. “I have a bad habit of picking men who aren’t good to me. It’s a character flaw. Really. It’s like I know going in: this guy is cruel, selfish, and stubborn. Yet that’s always who I end up with.”
Asher scooted toward her until their knees almost touched. There was something about Katie when she let down her defenses that wrenched his insides. Made him want to hold her. Comfort her. “Maybe you were trying to punish yourself by being with them.”
She shrugged. “Maybe. I think it’s more habit. There’s a draw to the familiar, even when it’s no good.”
Knots tightened in his stomach. Jillian had been familiar. Perfect on paper. Her father was a deacon, her parents close friends of his own. They had the same social circles, the same taste in movies and music, the same value system. Maybe that was why he’d felt so trapped. Heck, he used to get asked weekly when they were getting married.
“Do you regret the split?” Katie’s blue eyes flickered over his face.
“No. I regret what happened before the split.”
“Things got complicated. Lines got crossed. Mistakes were made. The usual.” He’d moved closer than he realized, and at some point his hand landed on her knee. The dress underneath his palm was stiff, but also soft.
She inhaled. “But you still care about her?”
“No. Trust me. The only thing I feel for Jillian is relief that she’s out of my life.”
Katie smiled then, and he liked that his words were the cause of that smile. She was so beautiful and real and unlike anyone he’d ever known.
She carefully laid her hand over his, and when she lifted her forehead, he was startlingly close to her face. Close enough to see a scattering of freckles by her nose, the small ball of silver in her earlobe, the quick way she swallowed when their eyes met.
Her fingers trailed a line down his forearm, exploring, inviting.
He shouldn’t do this. It was too soon for both of them. But her breath touched his chin, and soon all rational thought disappeared.
Her hand traveled to his shoulder, and her thumb traced his collarbone through his shirt. His eyes closed, his pulse jumped, and soon his own hand sought out the hot skin of her neck. Fingers danced on both sides. His near the shorter strands of her hair. Hers tightening around his collar, pulling him closer and closer until his lips trailed centimeters above the sharp line of her jaw.
Just one taste, and he’d pull away.
But as his lips brushed the patch of skin he’d imagined kissing more times than he cared to admit, a rush of guilt consumed him. Katie was vulnerable. She’d told him she didn’t like to feel. Told him she looked for ways to numb herself, and he’d almost given her permission to do the same with him. He abruptly let go, forcing space between them that was nonexistent just moments before.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean . . .” But he had meant it. Just not like this. Not as an afterthought or an escape, and especially not before he had time to truly grasp what this step would mean for both of them.
“It’s fine.” She pulled her hair back at the nape of her neck and then released it. She wouldn’t look at him. “I’m thirsty. Are you thirsty?” She grabbed her purse and slid out the open tailgate.
“Katie . . .” Her name lingered in the air, and the warning in the tight line of her mouth brought on a new surge of regret. He’d failed her. “I’ll take a root beer,” he said, even though his cooler was still full.
She glanced at the screen as the hero walked past a row of waiting soldiers. “I’ll be right back. I’m gonna have a field day with this scene.” With a forced smile, she ducked out of his line of sight.
As it turned out, when it was needed, Katie could act with the best of them.
atie almost turned around twice but in the end found the courage to pull into Fairfield Fellowship on Sunday morning.
She’d been avoiding Asher, mostly because she needed to figure out what the heck she was feeling. Figure out why, when she’d hopped out of the car, half of her was grateful they’d stopped and the other half was furious at the horror in his expression.
Her mother’s words ticked inside her brain for the hundredth time.
I’ve seen his type. She was tall, blonde, innocent as a daisy, and practically wore a halo.
And Asher deserved all of that. He deserved someone good and honest. Not someone who would inevitably hurt him. So why did she feel so shaken?
Car doors slammed all around her, and the sanctuary stood boldly in her line of sight. She shouldn’t be here, not at Asher’s and Mary’s church. But she needed to feel some kind of encouragement, especially when she planned to confront a fire-breathing dragon this afternoon.
She’d made a decision. She’d go to that neighborhood. To her old dealer. And find out what he did with the ring. She’d find a way to make it right again.
With a determined sigh, Katie walked down the sidewalk to the entrance. She’d come on time today so she could be sure to get to the far right side, away from Mary Blanchard’s seat. Not that Mary would shun her. What Katie dreaded was worse: Mary would be kind and loving and completely oblivious to Katie’s betrayal.
The glass door swung open before she could reach for it.
“Good morning.” An old man greeted her with a smile. He had a full gray beard and wore black slacks and a polo shirt with the church’s logo stitched on the front.
“Morning,” she said, and stepped through the door with her head lowered.
She moved past a gaggle of people who stood in a circle talking and found the seat she wanted. Her row was empty, as was the one in front of her. Katie fumbled with her Bible, searching for anything to read while she worked to remain unnoticed.
The voices around her grew louder, and a few people slid by her to get to the inside seats. She kept her head down and held her breath until they were seated and engaged in conversation amongst themselves.
The new voice came from in front of her, but she didn’t look up.
“Is this your first time at Fellowship?” the voice persisted.
Katie swallowed, no longer able to deny that the woman was talking to her. She raised her head and let out a breath of relief when she didn’t recognize the lady.
The woman had twisted in her seat, draping her elbow over the chair. Her brown hair was curly and impeccably styled and hung just above her shoulders. But what pushed Katie past her unease were the kind eyes and genuinely warm smile that awaited her answer.
“Second time,” Katie choked out. She did a quick check to her right and left. The sanctuary was even more full than it had been the last time she’d come. More people would see her. More people would talk. It seemed the buzz in town had been fairly quiet, but she doubted that would continue, especially after the little field trip she had planned for later that day.
“I’m Annie. We moved to Fairfield a couple of years ago, and half the time I forget who all I’ve met.”
So Annie was a transplant. Good. “I’m Katie. I was born here, but I just recently moved back to town.”
“Really? Well, I love it here. When my husband picked this small town, I thought he’d lost his mind, but who knew we’d be so happy?”
This woman liked Fairfield? Moved here on purpose?
“Why?” Katie muttered before realizing she’d spoken out loud. “I mean, why did you move here?”
“My husband works in Jacksonville, but the prices anywhere near the city were outrageous. We found this amazing plot of land with twenty acres for a third of the price we would have paid in Florida. And it’s a good thing we grabbed it when we did. Word is getting out about this town, and land values have skyrocketed. An hour from Jacksonville, thirty minutes from the coast . . . it’s really amazing Fairfield has stayed so small.”
Katie’s mouth surely hung open. Since when had Fairfield become desirable? They were only a few miles from swampland, and she’d always considered her small town to be the armpit of the Southeast.
The band started their set, and the congregation stood.
Annie turned around fully and rested one knee on her seat cushion. “So, we have a home group that meets on Wednesday nights. Since you’re just getting settled, I’d love for you to come. There’s only about eight of us, so it’s real casual.”
Home group? What the heck was a home group? “Um, yeah, okay, maybe.”
Never. Not happening.
Why was this woman still talking to her?
Annie tore a piece of paper from her notebook and scribbled in handwriting as cheerful and bubbly as she was. “Here is the information with my phone number and address. So nice to meet you. I really hope you come.” With one last grin, she turned back around and stood next to her husband.
The paper crinkled in Katie’s hand and she rose slowly.
Judgment, she’d expected. Cold shoulders, quiet mutters, rude glances. All those things came with the territory of attending church in her hometown.
But friendliness? An invitation to someone’s house?
Katie didn’t see Asher until the end of the service, when he stood and greeted a bunch of his parents’ friends.
He was in a suit today with no tie. His sandy blond hair curled just slightly over his ears, and his mouth moved in short sentences. She’d spent enough time with him to know he wasn’t relaxed. His neck and shoulders were strained, and his attention kept drifting to the left side of the sanctuary.
Curiosity got the better of her, and Katie let her gaze roam across the seats where several people still mingled in bunches and a few kids ran between the rows, laughing.
She stopped her search when her eyes landed on long, bleached-blonde hair, carefully arranged over one shoulder. The girl was store-bought pretty, with too much makeup and a dark tan that looked like it had been sprayed on. Katie knew the difference because Laila had the same coloring, only hers was natural.
The girl wore a long, strappy sundress with multiple thin bracelets on one wrist. Her other hand was latched on to the arm of an equally attractive guy with extra-broad shoulders and short brown hair. With their plastered-on smiles, the two could star in a toothpaste commercial.
Was that really Asher’s ex? Was that the type of girl who appealed to him?
Katie stared down at the dress she’d last worn under her high-school graduation gown. It wasn’t ugly or too out of style, but it certainly wouldn’t land her on any “best dressed” lists. Neither would her flip-flops and cheap hoop earrings. She’d been called white trash her whole life but had never owned the title. But compared to Asher and his blonde Barbie, that was exactly how she felt now.
Her old minister’s words pushed through her doubt.
God doesn’t care what you wear on the outside. He only cares about the condition of the heart.
Reverend Snow had said a lot of things to Katie that no one had before. Things that pulled her out of her darkness and depression. He’d also found her a job, a rented room at a church member’s house, and a prayer partner. She’d gone from homeless to cared for in less than a week.
She clutched those memories and ignored the pressure building in her chest. She’d find the ring, get her parents secured, and then return to the people who cared. People who didn’t see her as the queen of darkness or the town misfit. She was in Fairfield for closure. Period.
Without another look in Asher’s direction, Katie left the church.
Slim would still be home, if he hadn’t moved. He never took calls before two in the afternoon. She knew because she’d tried so many times to get him to.
His neighborhood was just south of downtown and past the railroad tracks. Katie’s beater of a car moaned as she rolled over the metal brackets. The wood between the rails was rotten and broken, creating huge dips for her small tires to traverse.
Familiarity tugged at her. She’d traveled this route a thousand times. Through high school, after graduation. Even after Laila got married and quit partying, Katie still craved the high. It was the thing that had kept Cooper and her together. The thing that kept her dependent on him long after he’d shown her his darker side.
Slim’s house was down the hill and to the right, tucked behind three duplexes and the old fire station. It wasn’t the worst area in town, but Katie had rarely gone there without a buddy. She passed an old Dodge Dynasty up on blocks, its rims either stolen or pawned. A string of empty beer cans littered the yard next to Slim’s, and she had no doubt there were pipes and syringes among the debris.
Saying one last silent prayer, she pressed the doorbell. It’d been four years since that night. Four years since she stood right in this very spot and made the worst decision of her life.
No answer. She rang the bell again.
Finally, she heard several clicks and the door swung open. Slim was in boxers with no shirt. A long scar ran down his right side and into the dragon tattoo that started at his hip. In his hand was a pistol pointed toward the floor.
“Katie Stone. I heard a rumor you were back.” He spoke like a well-bred southerner, not the drug-dealing street thug he was. “Only you would have the nerve to come here this early on a Sunday.” He set down the gun on a nearby table and opened the door wider. “Come in.”
Katie swallowed. She wasn’t dressed for this. She needed her ripped jeans and black mascara. She needed the old attitude that had slipped away months ago. “No thanks. I’m not staying.”
“Baby, you know I don’t do business in public.” That was a lie, but she knew he’d much rather corner her in his house. It would give him control and the upper hand.
Katie clamped her fingers tight to keep the shaking under control and didn’t move from her spot outside his door. “I’m not here to buy. I want to know what happened to the ring. The one I traded before I left town.”
His lips quirked up as his gaze drifted over her body. “I offered a different trade. One that didn’t require you to give up your precious jewelry. You declined.”
A shiver curled down her spine. Four years might have changed her, but he was the same slimeball he’d always been.
“I want the ring back. I’ll pay you what you spotted me, with interest.” Katie had just enough in savings to cover the debt, unless the amount of interest he charged would make the exchange impossible.
Slim’s feigned amicability faded, and his face grew caustic. Katie knew she was navigating a minefield. He didn’t like complications or loose strings. He expected payment in cash. He’d made an exception for her only because doing so benefited him at the time.
“I’m not a storage unit, Katie. I moved that ring the minute you left with your score.”
Her chest caved. She’d known he’d probably sold it long ago, but there’d been that tiny sliver of hope that maybe . . . “Who did you sell it to?”
He stepped toward her, but she didn’t budge. She couldn’t show fear. “Now you’re in my business. And you know what happens when people get nosy.”
The possibilities sent a chill through her bloodstream. But she met his eyes and stared into their cold, dark depths. “The cut wasn’t right. I don’t know if you were trying to save money or if you laced it with something stronger, but either way: you knew that supplier was shady, and you let me take it anyway. That’s why you did the trade. It wasn’t a favor to me, it was an experiment.” She knew from the tic in his jaw that her calculated guess was spot on. “I could have ratted you out, could have blown up your reputation on my way out of town, but I didn’t. That loyalty should matter now.”
He was close enough that Katie could smell his nicotine-coated breath. She wanted to shove him back but knew better than to try. He’d taken much bigger men to their knees for less. He didn’t say a word, and each second that passed curled her insides tighter and tighter.
“Who did you sell it to?” She stood motionless, nose to nose with a man who’d done jail time for assault and many more crimes he’d never been nailed for.
His expression darkened. “There are six pawnshops within fifty miles of Fairfield. I use them all.” He roughly grabbed her chin. “That enough information for your
Katie slapped his hand away. She wasn’t one to be manhandled without a fight.
He only smirked and stepped back over the threshold into his duplex. “Don’t come to my house again unless you plan to make it worth my time.”
Katie fought rising nausea as Slim slammed the door right in her face.