We don’t talk during the rest of lunch. He finishes his sandwich, and stands. “Come over tomorrow after school. Got some shit you might like to see.”

He walks away, and I can’t help but wonder if I really just made a friend.

I stare at the object in my hands with wide eyes in complete awe.

Nik says through a smile, “You like that, huh? Pops gave it to me last year. It came from Russia.”

It’s a .45 caliber pistol. I lift it, hold it up and point it out the window. Nik snatches it from my hands, waving the gun in the air and says, “My dad says never to aim at something you don’t intend to kill.”

I need to figure out how to steal this gun.

Curiosity gets the better of me. I ask, “You ever used it?”

Nik nods his head then hands me a bag. I take it but don’t open it. It’s soft. I’m guessing it’s clothes. “If something doesn’t fit, just throw it away.”

I wonder why this guy has my back.

Regardless of how hesitant I am, something tells me to stick around and find out.

I don’t know why I’m so nervous, but I can’t stop watching Nik’s dad. I think I’m waiting for the ball to drop.


Why did Nik get a dad like this and I got mine?

The funny thing is Ilia (weird name - it sounds like Ee-lee-yah) watches me just as closely. It’s like he can see inside me. See what I’ve been through. My heart races as I sit at the dinner table in between Nik and his brother, Max. Max is okay. He’s annoying, but in a lot of ways, he’s like Nik. They really don’t give a shit where I came from.

I’m surrounded by a loud, happy family. And it sucks. Reminds me of what I don’t have.

Nik’s mom looks at me through saddened eyes and I want to leave. I don’t want to be a charity case.

“Thank you for dinner, but I need to get home.” I stand and make to leave.

No one says a word. I can see Nik’s mom is disappointed. Ilia stands and says in a thick accent, “Come. I’ll walk you out.”

Keeping my head down, I don’t say goodnight to anyone. Ilia puts a hand on my shoulder and I want to burst into tears. When he closes the front door behind us, he motions to the front steps and I sit. He says, “You ever need any help, son, for anything at all. You call Niki and he’ll tell me. I’ll take care of it.”

Stunned, I look up at him and he states, “Bruises on your arm there, they look just like a grown man’s handprint. Now, I’m not saying that I saw what I saw but scars are not easy to hide.”

Leaning back he whispers, “No man should ever lay a hand on a child. Children are innocent. They deserve better. If you ever feel like you’re unsafe, you come here. If I find out through Niki that you came to school with bruises, I’ll go see your parents myself and I can’t promise I’ll be nice.”

I want to ask why he’s offering this but I change my mind. A bed in a safe house with warmth and food, I’d be stupid to pass that up. I tell myself it has nothing to do with the fact that I like Nik and Max. Looking up at him, I nod in agreement. He smacks my shoulder in a fatherly way and I stand to leave.

Walking away from Ilia, I turn halfway down the drive and tell him, “I hate him. I wish he was dead. Some nights, I wish I was too.”

Ilia’s face softens. I don’t wait for a response.

I walk home to whatever kind of hell waits for me.

Sixteen years old. Later that year…

I pack whatever I can fit into the gym bag.

Cannibal Corpse blasts ‘Hammer Smashed Face’ from the cassette player, and I imagine doing every single thing this song says to my father.

I’ve been sleeping at Nik’s place. A lot. Truth is, I don’t want to be here anymore, not even to protect my mom, so I’m packing a bag and leaving right now. The other week I came over pretty late and when Cecelia, Nik’s mom, saw my bruised face, she cried for me and hugged me tight. It felt nice to have someone care. Ilia took me aside and ordered, “You will pack whatever you can and come back here. I will not send you back to your death.”

I argued that my father wouldn’t allow it but he said, “Leave him to me.”

I got a sick sense of satisfaction knowing my father would likely have his ass handed to him.

As I run out into the hallway, my mother stands there. When she sees the bag in my hand, she crumbles. I yell at her, “Don’t even, Ma. Don’t you fucking cry. Run! Just fucking leave. He’s going to kill us if we don’t.”

Looking up at the bruises on my face, she whispers, “Nothin’ more than I deserve, Ashy.”

With one last look at her, I turn and swear to never come back to this place.

As soon as I step out of the property line, I breathe a sigh of relief.

I’m going home.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Shit hits the fan

Sitting up in bed, Ash rests his head on my stomach with his arms tightly wrapped around me. He squeezes me in his sleep while I run my fingers through his hair. I listen to his deep breathing. My only form of comfort right now is knowing he’s sleeping soundly without nightmares of the abuse he suffered as a child.

My heart is heavy.

I’m feeling helpless and withdrawn. I never feel like this. The last time I felt like this was when Mia died. Tina’s daughter was a huge part of my life. I was her aunt, and it affected me as much as it did Tina. I loved that little girl with all my heart.

Cursing myself, I lean my head back on the headboard with a soft thump.

I wanted to know what happened to him. I was the one who pushed. He told me it was fucked up, and I pushed and pushed til he had no choice but to tell me. And now I wish I didn’t know.

So now I sit here, tears streaming down my face in devastation for what this beautiful man endured as a child. I will never forget what I was told tonight. It was as if he zoned out. Like he wasn’t even in the room with me. It seemed like he spoke for hours, when in reality all it took was about a half hour for me to get the general idea of how his life was before he met Nik.

Next time I see Nik, I’ll be lucky if I don’t burst into tears. I knew I liked Nik before, but now…now I am grateful for him.

Burnt. Cut. Bruised. Choked. Hit.

He was just a fucking baby.

All I want to do is find his parents and punish them. He told me his father died quite a few years back and to take pity on his mother, he said, “Mom never hurt me, but she never helped me, so I guess she did hurt me regardless, but she was weak. Weak physically and weak in character. Whatever dad said, she went along with. Didn’t have it in her to fight. She’s not like me.”

If Ash is anything, he’s a fighter alright.

He had a broken arm for three days before they took him to the hospital. It was infected so bad that the doctors thought he might lose it. Trying to downplay it, he told me he didn’t remember much of it. But I don’t care. Given the chance, I’d hurt them as badly as they hurt him.

When I asked him if he had any brothers or sisters he said, “Nik, Max and Trick are my brothers. Only ones that matter.”

So many questions came to mind. I asked him why they call him Ghost, and he said that during his time working for the Russians, they discovered he had a knack of getting in and out of places undetected. And Ghost was born. I think it digs deeper than that. I think it hits him somewhere right in the center of his chest.

There’s more to it. I know there’s a reason he gets pissed when I call him that.

I lift his head from my stomach and scoot down the bed. I take a moment to look at him. Really look at him. He looks so peaceful while he sleeps. Imagining the years of torture he endured followed by years of night terrors…it makes my heart ache. I watch him a moment longer then wipe away my tears. Leaning closer to him, I kiss his lips whisper-soft and say quietly, “You’re not invisible to me, Ghost.”

I snuggle closer to him and wonder if he feels that warmth. The same warmth that I feel when I’m with him.

Taking his hand in mine, I link our fingers and close my eyes.

“Sweet dreams, Ash. Love you.”

Something taps my nose. I flap my hand about to get rid of it.

Again with the nose. I growl and put my head under the pillow. It smells like lemon and berries under here.


“Asherrrr.” Nat. She says this in a sing-song voice, and I know I have to look up at her.

When I lift my face, I rub the sleep out of my eyes and freeze.

There she is, standing at the door wearing only my shirt and panties. Sexy as sin and cute as hell all rolled into one.

Then I’m doused in water.

In defense mode, I snatch her pillow and hold it up while I roll off the bed army-style. I hear her pump the damn water pistol and she yells out, “Fair’s fair,” then she throws something on the bed.

Her footsteps running away from the bedroom fill my ears. When I think it’s safe, I lift my head and look on the bed. I smirk.

Picking up my own huge water pistol, I pump it as far as it’ll let me. I check the water level. It’s full. My lips pull down, raise my brows and tilt my head. The little minx didn’t stiff me.


Oh, now she’s gone and done it.

Stealth mode takes over and I crawl around the bed til I get to the bedroom door, dragging my legs behind me. I stick my head out from the bottom of the door, and I see a tiny mouse head slipper sticking out from behind the kitchen counter. I smirk.

It’s on.

I crouch and creep towards the kitchen, being careful not to make a sound. Can’t nobody be quieter than the Ghost. When I reach the opposite side of the counter, I mentally count to three, then jump out with a war cry, guns blazing and spraying the shit out of her.

Only, there’s no one there. Just a damn slipper.

My back is suddenly saturated.

I turn and my front becomes drenched too. Cutting my losses, I toss the gun and take two steps toward Nat. She looks beautiful. Flushed cheeks, bright-eyed and laughing her ass off at me. When I think of her, I’m going to see her exactly as I see her now. She really is my pretty girl.

Narrowing my eyes with a cruel smile, she stills a moment. When she realizes what I’m doing, she squeaks, drops her gun, turns on her heel and runs. I yell out, “Run, Forrest, Run!”

C’mon! Even I know Forrest Gump.

There are only three possible places in this apartment she can run to, and she just ran out of the kitchen, leaving her bedroom and the bathroom as her only options. I walk to her bedroom and throw open the door. It looks empty but…

Something falls in the closet and I chuckle to myself.

The closet? She can’t get anywhere from in there! Too cute.

I approach the closet door smiling like a damn fool, take the knob and throw it open. I scrunch my face as water splashes me in the eyes. The little shit has two small pistols in her hands. She’s laughing so hard she’s crying. I snatch the pistols, throw them behind me and pick her up and over my shoulder. She doesn’t bother fighting. I don’t think she could if she wanted to. Her body is weak from laughter.

This is what I like about this girl. She doesn’t treat me like I’m damaged. I know last night must have been hard to hear, but she took it well. Masked her emotions like a pro. The only thing giving her away was her clenching jaw and the way she fisted the covers.

This girl. She’s my girl.

She’s not perfect. Neither am I. But she’s perfect for me, and I’ll do anything I can to keep her.

Walking across the room with her, I throw her onto the bed. She looks up at me with those pink cheeks and smiling eyes…and I’m home. No place I’d rather be than here with my girl just goofin’ around.

Maybe Sheriff was right. Maybe this is love.

If it isn’t, it’s pretty damn close.

I push her legs apart and lay on her, my head on her chest. I listen to her heart race and smile, knowing I have that effect on her. My chest expands and I feel like claiming her. So I do.

I wrap my arms around her small waist and say gruffly in caveman speak, “You woman. My woman.”

She laughs and I listen through her chest, the vibrations tickling my cheek. Stroking my hair, she replies softly, “Yeah. I’m yours, babe.”

The thought of her with someone else makes me irrationally angry. My gut twists and I spit out, “And I do not share. Not with any fucker.”

Gripping the longer hair at the top of my head tight, she pulls my head up to look into my eyes and replies in complete seriousness, “Me too. So tell Tasha you’re not seeing her anymore.”

Even though my scalp aches like a bitch, I smile, “Already did, girl.”

Smiling back, she says softly, “Good. Would’ve been a shame for me to kick her ass. She seemed nice.”

She loosens her grip of my hair and I lay my head back in the valley between her breasts. It’s so warm and comfortable there. I close my eyes and mumble, “It’s different with you. What is it about you, girl?”

She stills a moment before she resumes stroking my hair. She says quietly, “I don’t know, Ash. But I love you. A lot.”

I want to return the sentiment. I really do. But I’m not there yet. Not quite. I feel strongly for her. Stronger than I’ve ever felt for anyone in my life and knowing she’s mine makes me feel like I can do anything. Overcome anything. She took away the one hold my father had on me. Now I don’t even think about him anymore. I feel lighter and happier than ever and it’s all because of her.

Warmth spreads throughout my body. I turn my face and kiss the inside of her breast. I don’t answer her, just squeeze her tight. She wraps her legs around me and we stay that way for a long while, completely comfortable in our silence.

Fuck me.

I think I’m falling in love with my girl.

“Yo, pretty girl, it’s time to go. Get your ass into gear.”


I shuffle out of my bedroom, careful not to touch my still wet toenails, still dressed in my jammies. My brow furrows in confusion and I ask, “What are you talking about, Ash? I don’t have to leave for…” Checking my watch, I tell him, “…another two hours.”

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