We stop when we reach the security door side entrance and I text Ghost to let him know we’re here. The door opens and I just about swallow my tongue. There he stands wearing a tighter-than-hell black muscle tank, black sweatpants and white sneakers.
Gah! Those arms.
My high deflates a little when he doesn’t even look at me. He says to my sisters, “Helena. Nina. Give us a minute will ya?” Both my sisters nod and he instructs, “Follow the hall then turn left at the end. They’re all here.” Helena smiles at him and squeezes his arm and Nina winks at him before closing the security door to leave us in the alley alone.
His eyes search me. We stare at each other for a long moment before I ask quietly, “What am I doing here, Ash?”
He rubs the back of his neck nervously and states, “This was gonna be hard, you know? Any way you did it would’ve been hard. We should just get it out of the way with everyone here, so you don’t have to explain it over and over. I was gonna wait til you were ready, but I can see you’re putting it off.”
I shrink into myself. I’ve been set up.
Avoiding his eyes, I focus at his shoulder. “That wasn’t your decision to make, asshole,” I say quietly.
Ghost reaches up, takes my chin in his hand and gently forces it up. I turn my pitiful gaze to his soft one. Anxiety settles in the pit of my stomach. I whisper, “I don’t want them all to know.”
His eyes flash in anger before immediately softening. Still holding my chin in his firm fingers, he says quietly, “You need to tell them, pretty girl. If you don’t tell anyone about it, it’ll eat away at you. You’ll stop seeing your friends and you’ll stop going out. You’ll be a fraction of the person you were without their support. You’ll lose that fierce about you and just become cold.” He exhales loudly and continues, “You’ll become me.”
He holds my questioning stare but doesn’t say a thing. I feel weak and exposed. I know I have to do this, but I was hoping to do it in a way that would tone down the situation. I tell him, “I can’t tell them.”
His face falls. He doesn’t mask the disappointment he wears. He drops his hand from my chin, nods once and replies on an exhale, “Okay. I’ll take you home.”
As he moves to step away from me, I take his hand and entwine my fingers with his. He looks up at me and I explain, “Shit, Ash. I meant I can’t tell them. I was kind of hoping that you…” I don’t finish the sentence. Realization dawns on his face. He knows what I want. My expression pleads with him to take on this responsibility.
With smiling eyes, he comes forward once again, grips the back of my neck in a firm hold and states, “All you had to do was ask, Hot Lips.”
With narrowed eyes, I ask, “Hot Lips?”
Ghost’s smiling eyes peer into mine, he nods his head and informs, “Hot Lips McGee, actually.”
I place my hand on my hip, my face set in disbelief. “You have got to be kidding me? That’s the best you could come up with?”
He lowers his head, his body shaking as he silently chuckles. “It’ll grow on ya.”
Leading us inside by our joined hands, I mutter under my breath, “Oh, sure. Like a freakin’ fungus.”
We walk down the hall together and just before we enter the main hall I pull him back by his hand. He stops and turns to me. I can’t help myself, I’m dying to know. “Why are you doing this for me, Ash?”
One side of his mouth quirks up, he lowers his forehead to mine and he quotes me, “You and me. We’re the same kind.”
And it melts my icy heart a little.
I grin and feel his smirk when he kisses my forehead. Before I can say a thing, he pulls away, winks at me and with joined hands leads me into the main hall.
The sounds of infectious laughter, teasing and conversation come to a halt when we enter. I lower my head, avoiding the questioning stares of my friends. Before anyone has a chance to say a thing, Ghost starts, “Okay. I called everyone here tonight because there’s something we need to discuss with everyone.” I know it sounds like Ghost is implying we’re here as a couple, but I don’t even feel the need to correct it. It actually feels good to have him speak about the two of us as an us. He goes on, “So let’s get straight to it. Two nights ago, Nat had a date with Cole. There was a disagreement and Cole felt the need to put hands on Nat.”
My throat clogs with emotion as I hear Tina, Mimi and Lola gasp in shock. I can’t stand feeling their stares on me. I inch behind Ghost, hold his tank at his hips and push my head into his back like an ostrich trying to stick its head into the ground. I’m immediately calmed by his hand rubbing mine.
Ghost waits a moment before he informs, “We’re getting this out in the open tonight. Whatever you want to ask is going to be asked tonight. As soon as we leave the club, no one brings it up again. Nat’s asked me to explain what happened that night so here it is…” He spends a good five minutes explaining what happened. With his gruffness and clinical explanation, my heart stops squeezing and the anxiety fades. He’s good at this. Feeling brave, I step back at his side, entwine our fingers and, finally, look up at my friends.
Tina stands in front of a clearly upset Nik, silently weeping, and immediately I feel the need to comfort her. I walk over to her with open arms, she sinks into me and I hug her while she cries. She whispers, “I’m sorry, honey. So sorry.” I hush her and feel arms come around my waist and neck. I look up to see Mimi and Lola have joined our group hug. Lola doesn’t say a thing. She doesn’t have to. Immense sadness is written across her face. Mimi says quietly, “If I ever see that son of a bitch, I’ll kick his sorry ass back to the hell he came from.”
Chuckling at her threat, I tell them “It’s okay, guys. I’m okay. Ghost helped me. He handled it. Both times.” I speak to the girls but look up and into his eyes, “He’s a good neighbor to have.”
The next few minutes are spent with me in the arms of each of the guys.
Nik hugs me so hard I almost stop breathing. He cradles the back of my head into his chest so tightly that I have to pinch his nipple to get him to let go. With a yelp, he backs away, rubbing his nipple and scoffs in disbelief. “So much for caring!”
Smiling, I stand on my tiptoes and kiss his cheek gently. “You know I love you, Niki. I just don’t like the whole fuss thing.”
His face softens. “Yeah, I get ya. You know you could’ve come to me, right?”
Immediately, I concede, “Yeah, I know. I know I could’ve come to any of you. I can’t really explain why I didn’t. I guess I just thought Ghost was the better option, being so close and all.”
Just as Nik opens his mouth to say something, I’m pulled back into a hard chest. Strong arms come around my waist and a cheek rests on my head. “I’m pissed at you, babe.” That heated remark comes from Max. And I get it. Max and I, we’re friends. We talk about anything and everything. We flirt, we joke, and we have great deep and meaningful conversations. He’s pissed I didn’t come to him.
I rub his arms with my cold hands and sigh. “I know, Mad Max. I know.” I turn in his arms and hug him tightly. I talk into his chest. “I hope you understand how hard it is to talk about something like this. It made me feel weak. You know how I feel about that.”
He kisses my forehead and says against it, “Yeah. I know. Doesn’t mean I’m not gonna kick this guy’s ass. He’s banned from the club for life.”
I move back and look up at my friend. I cup his cheeks and pull him down to give him a soft, barely-there kiss on the lips. I tell him, “I love you. You know that, right?”
He nods gravely, “Yeah. As a friend though.” He throws his fisted hands up in mock despair. “Fuckin’ Friend-Zoned!” I burst out laughing but turn when someone taps my shoulder.
Trick. Dear, sweet, silly Trick. He looks so upset. I take hold of his hand and squeeze it. He opens his mouth but nothing comes out. I tease him quietly, “Oh, dear God. I broke Trick!” He chuckles and pulls me into a warm, comforting hug. I hold him tight.
He strokes my hair and utters, “I’m so glad you’re okay.”
“Yeah. I’m good, big guy,” I sigh.
We rock gently and he whispers, “Could’ve been worse. So much worse. We could’ve lost you.”
My heart skips a beat. He’s so right. It could’ve been much worse. But rather than think that way, I state, “Fuck him. I’m good. You’re good. We’re all good. And we all fucking rock. Fuck Cole.”
He releases me from his hold and his smiling face looks down at me. “Right on, sister.” Grinning like a couple of fools, we bump fists. He puts an arm around me as we walk to the center of the room.
Ghost booms, “Self-defense one-oh-one.”
Oh, sweet Jesus.
I knew this night was about to get interesting.
“OUCH! MOTHERFUCK! HURTS LIKE A BITCH!”
Okay, so I may have been a little rough with my kneeing technique. I mutter, “Pussy.”
Max straightens and fire almost shoots from his eyes. He points at me and yells, “You grazed my nads!”
I smirk. “Whatever. Assume the position! I’m having a blast!” And I really am. Who knew learning something so simple could be so fun and empowering. I feel like I could take on anyone right now.
Max looks anxious as he assumes the fighting stance Ghost told the guys to take. Just as I pull my knee back, Ghost yells out, “Change it up, new partner!”
I burst out laughing when Max sinks to his knees in relief and kisses the dirty ground. I jump on his back and we both fall to the side, laughing it up. Tonight has actually turned out to be a good night. I’m so glad I came and everything is out in the open. I guess I have Ghost to thank for that. Max reaches up and squeezes my boob while making a honking noise. “You little shit!” I squawk before giving him a nurple. He squeals like a pig getting porked and I laugh hysterically.
Someone clears their throat and we both look up to find a not-so-impressed Ghost, glaring at us. Ghost opens his mouth, but I beat him to it. “Yeah, yeah. Change it up.”
I stand and walk over to Nik who has his back to me while he talks sweetly to Tina. Halfway there I take a run up and jump onto his back like a baby Koala. His reflexes are damn good. He catches me under my knees just as I start to fall. A laughing Tina decides to jump on his front and join our little hug. Nik stands tall and proud with me chuckling on his back and a giggling Tina on his front; he walks around with us on him and boasts, “Not even breaking a sweat.”
I yell out to my sisters and tell them in Croatian to jump aboard the Nik train. Tina, Helena and Nina all burst out laughing and Nik utters, “That doesn’t sound good.” Nina jumps on my back and Helena climbs up Tina and wraps her legs around Tina’s waist. Nik bursts out laughing. “Oh my God. Four women at once? It’s a good day to be alive!” Our people ball shakes with laughter and I hear Mimi, Lola, Max and Trick all laugh from the sidelines.
Ghost booms, “C’mon guys! Take this shit seriously. It could save your life.”
And just like that all the fun is sucked from the room. Nina climbs off me and then I climb off Nik, Helena slides down Tina and Tina remains holding onto Nik. Nina puts an arm around my waist and walks me to the center of the room where Ghost is. She stands next to him and explains quietly, “Humor. It’s how we deal with bad situations. It’s not that we aren’t taking this seriously. We are. I swear it.”
Ghost looks down at my blank expression and nods. With a squeeze of my hand, Nina leaves us. He takes my chin in his hand and whispers, “I want you to be prepared, pretty girl. I can’t be there all the time.” I half roll my eyes in annoyance. Knowing he’s not getting anywhere, he changes tactics. “Would you please do it for me? Just knowing you know some of this stuff will be a huge relief for me.” He sighs then whispers, “I can’t see you like that again.”
And, by God, it works.
I look up into his eyes. “What do you mean?”
He looks around. When he sees that no one’s watching, he leans forward and says softly but firmly, “Knowing that motherfucker had his hands on you…” He stops and exhales loudly. “When I saw your face that night, I damn near lost my mind. But I held it together, for you. I could’ve easily killed him the other night, Nat. I swear, I even thought about it. I could’ve got away with it too. All I kept thinking was I just got you back after seven months of not having you around.” He grips the back of my neck, forcing my eyes to lock with his. His expression is dark and serious as he says, “I can’t do that again. You’re like pain relief to me. I can’t explain it. You just are.”
My brow furrows in confusion. I start, “I don’t underst-” but he cuts me off with a shake of the head, “I can’t explain it. Maybe one day you’ll understand. Either way, I’m telling you now that I’m glad we’re friends.”
And just like that, I got Friend-Zoned.
The morning after teaching the self-defense session at the club, I wake up early to shower then lay back in bed, naked.
I’m fucking wasted.
It was exhausting showing the girls all those techniques and tricks. But I gotta say, it felt really good seeing ‘em flip a guy Nik’s size. The truth is, during a time of panic, it’s hard to remember anything at all, but I’m hoping if they ever encounter someone they know is dangerous, at least one of the techniques will stick.
I look over to the digital alarm clock on my bedside cabinet. The bright red numbers flash 6:35am.
I normally get into work at seven but I told Nik last night that I’d be in late if I was gonna come in at all. Everyone thinks Nik is my boss, but being that I actually own part of the club, he never questions my need to take time off. He knows if I need it, I’m going to take it.