What the fuck?

Nat’s dad sees me holding the leg with what is probably my what the fuck face and he says a heavily accented, “Is prosciutto. Very nice. Salty ham. We do every year. Is traditions.”

He motions to the bar, and satisfied that he’s not going to kill me…yet, I move over to him. My eyes widen once more when he pulls out two shot glasses and an old bottle of something clear. He pours them both and says, “My Natalie. She smart. If she bring a boy home, I know she love him.”

I pipe down the urge to puff up my chest and bang on it like Tarzan while doing a jungle call. He goes on, “So, I must ask. Nina tell me about the other boy, the one who hits her. She say a good man help Nat. Is this man you?”

My gut knots. I had no idea her sisters would tell her parents.

Nodding, I tell him, “Yes, sir. I helped her.”

Nodding with me, he allows a moment’s silence before he asks slowly, “You make him pay?”

Looking him direct in the eyes, I say with sincerity, “In a way he’ll never forget, sir. Ever.”

He nods once more and I know he gets me. Playing with his glass, he asks quietly, “Are you worthy?”

Puffing out a big breath, I tell him, “I- uh- I really don’t know. I hope so because I love her. So much that I’d do anything for her. I’ll protect her til the day I die, if she’ll have me. She makes me a better person.”

Seeming satisfied with my answer, he raises his glass and motions mine. I fumble for it so quick that I almost knock it over. Lifting it high with his, he says, “živeli!” and it sort of sounds like zhiv-yell-ee.


Not knowing what it means and seriously not giving a fuck, I clink my glass to his and say “živeli!”

He smiles for the first time and downs his shot like it’s water. I sniff it. It’s strong as horse piss. Not wasting another moment thinking on it, I shoot it. And it burns my mouth and throat simultaneously.

Horse piss? More like paint remover!

Being the man I am and wanting to impress him, I coax down the cough that threatens til my face turns blue. He belly laughs when he sees my face, “Cough or you die!”

Taking his advice, I nod once then cough. And cough. And cough so hard I almost gag. And cough a little more.

Once I get myself under control, I look up at him and wheeze, “That was strong shit.”

He smiles so hard he looks almost proud and says, “Homemade. Remedy for any-ting. Cough, burn, cuts…any-ting.”

Putting his arm around my shoulder, he walks me over to the steps and says, “You call me Boris.”

I think I just won over Nat’s dad.

When Ash and dad emerge from the basement, I exhale the breath I hadn’t known I was holding. Dad wraps his arm around Ash, smiling and says to us girls, “I give him a small drink.”

The rakija.

It always comes down to the rakija.

Rakija is a homemade alcohol that most Croat families make. It’s pronounced rah-key-yah but you have to roll the R. For any Croatian family, sharing rakija at your table is a sign of friendship which makes me glad. My dad sharing his best reserve with Ash means he’s accepted the fact that I’ve brought a guy home.

Now you just have to tell them you got married.

Thanks for reminding me, brain.

Now that everyone is in the room, I stand, clear my throat and move to stand next to Ash. I tell them all, “Sorry, guys. I wish we could stay but we’re heading back home tonight.”

Dad’s brow furrows and he says, “Why? You stay tonight and go tomorrow.”

Mom nods, “Yes. Stay tonight. We have plenty of room here.”

Shaking my head, I say, “We weren’t even meant to be gone this long. We both have to get back to work, but we’re here because we’ve got something to tell you.” I look up at Ash and take his hand. He smiles down at me and I suddenly feel lighter. Looking back at my family, I announce, “Asher and I got married yesterday.”

A huge smile crosses my face and I watch as everyone falls into a stunned silence.

A minute passes and no one moves or says a thing. I squeeze Ash’s hand in a way, mentally yelling Help when finally my mother comes forward to stand in front of Ash. She says quietly with a small smile, “I’m Ana. Welcome to the family, Asher.” Then she steps forward and pulls him down into a gentle hug.

My throat clogs.

When Mama steps back from him, Ash says quietly, “Thank you, Ana.”

Nina and Helena both stare at me for a good minute before Nina squeaks and Helena shrieks, and they both jump on me and Asher, laughing and whooping.

Nina wails playfully, “I’m an old maid!”

Helena wails teasingly, “She’s an old maid!” And Nina smacks her on the back of the head.

We all laugh together and when they release us, my stomach churns.

Tata. Oh shit.

Meeting my dad stare for stare, I tell him confidently, “I love him.”

A small smile graces my father’s face and he utters, “I know. He love you too.” He looks at my hand in Asher’s and asks, “You want this?”

My eyes begin to sting.

Nodding, I choke out through quivering lips, “He’s all I’ll ever need.” Ash puts his arms around me and kisses my head.

Dad nods and concedes, “Okay. Is good. I am happy man if my daughter is happy.”

Barking out a choked laugh, I raise both my arms, fisting my hands and yell out, “Best weekend ever!”

Unlocking the door to my apartment, I gasp when I step inside.

You forgot about the flowers, huh?

Oh, I totally did.

Ash wraps his arms around my waist and chuckles, “Oh shit. I forgot about those. Don’t worry. I’ll call someone to clean it all up. Let’s go back to my place.” He lowers his face to my neck, kissing me. “All we need is a bed anyways.”

Reaching into my purse, I take out my phone and start to take photos of my house. He asks in confusion, “What are you doing, girl?”

Not stopping my photo taking, I mutter, “No one’s gonna believe this unless I take photos.”

Ash walks over to the counter and picks up the parcel I’d forgotten about. “She didn’t even open it,” he mutters to himself.

Walking up behind him, I explain, “I didn’t have time to open it, what with the flowers and me getting ready for work, and you proposing and swooping me off to Vegas, babe.”

Turning, he smiles, “Open it.”

Stepping back from him, I ask suspiciously, “What is it?”

Smiling, he says, “One of the reasons I thought you said yes to marrying me…” He eyes the package. “…but here this is. Unopened.” He cups my cheek and runs his thumb over it gently. He says softly, “You really love me, don’t you, pretty girl?”

Holding a hand over his on my cheek, I whisper, “More than life.”

He smiles a moment before handing me the parcel. With narrowed eyes, I unwrap it and take out the thin black folder. I open it up and read.

Dear Natalie Kovac,

Thank you so much for your anonymous donation to Stop! (Women Against Domestic Violence) in the amount of $250,000.

We are thrilled by your generosity, and I must admit I even shed a few tears when I saw the amount.

I’m not sure whether you yourself have been a victim of domestic violence, but I must tell you, it can be crippling.

I have seen women come through our doors, women who are only a shell of who they used to be. Your money will be invested in many areas. Most of it will go to new housing, self-defense classes, the hiring of therapists and toward the running of our twenty-four-hour safe house.

You will never know just how much your donation means to us here at Stop!

I know the donation was anonymous and perhaps I’ve overstepped boundaries by writing. If I have, please forgive me.

You are an exceptional person and we are in your debt.

Kindest regards,

Barbara Helsen

Founder of Stop! and domestic abuse survivor

My vision blurs and I dip my head to stop him from seeing how much this is affecting me.

Ash wraps his arms around me and moves me toward the front door. “C’mon, girl. Let’s get some sleep. It’s been a long week,” he says quietly.

My husband, as always, is right.

I nod and sniffle. Breathing deeply, I straighten and march on.

God, it’s good to be home.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Just married

For the first time in the history of mankind, Ash and I travel to work together this morning.

And it is weird.

He makes us take his car because it’s ‘his baby’ and I don’t even mind. He narrows his eyes at me like he’s expecting an argument, but I figure we’ll have plenty of years ahead for me to get my way. If he wants this one little unimportant thing, I’m cool with that.

Last night, we spoke about just how we’re going to break it to everyone, and Ash said the best way to do that was to call a family meeting at Nik and Tina’s which I agreed on too.

Oh my God, what’s happening to you?

I have no idea. He takes the fight right out of me. Now that we’re married, I’m looking at us as a united front. Unless we stand together and agree to disagree, we’re going to have problems.

My dad always told me to pick my battles and that’s what I’m doing.

Ash texted Nik last night, calling a meeting for tonight with everyone there, so for one more day, we have to act like we don’t like each other. Well, we don’t have to, but for the sake of keeping up appearances and surprising the hell out of everyone, that’s what we did.

Nik sent Ash to Safira’s today to bring Tina some lunch, and while he was there my stomach was going crazy. I had to turn away from my husband and lean into the counter for support.

Nerves are the worst.

When Tina walked into the store room to get something for Ash to take back to Nik, he pressed up against my back and whispered, “No one does curves like you do, baby. And I am not a compliment giving type of guy but, fuck me, you rock that shit.”

And I almost passed out from the sexual tension fogging the air.

Luckily, the store was deserted. Gripping the counter, I hissed, “Get away from me, ass!”

He nipped my earlobe and drawled quietly, “Softest curves ever, baby. It’s lunch time…” His hand slid from my waist, across my thigh until his palm rested softly against my mound. He whispered, “…and I’m hungry.”

My legs turned to jelly and I flushed crimson.

My man is hot.

No, he’s a blazing inferno.

I whispered, “Do we have time for a quickie after work?”

His breath warmed my neck as he chuckled, “We’ll make time, pretty girl.”

Hearing the door to the store room open, I bumped him back using my booty and said loudly, “God, you’re an ass!”

Tina came toward us wearing a sad pout, saying, “Guys, stop that. Can’t we all just get along?”

Fake glaring at him, I teased softly, “Yeah, Ghost, do you think we’ll ever get along?”

Looking at me through hooded eyes that searched my body, he said cryptically, “Only time will tell, girl.” Then he turned and left. And I was finally able to breathe again.

Tina went behind the counter to shuffle some papers around and without looking at me, uttered, “Now, I know you’re going to tell me I’m crazy or some crud like that, but I really think Ghost likes you, Nat.” It took everything I had in me to stop my hysterical laughter from escaping.

Biting my lip, I muttered, “I don’t know, T. But he is hot as hell.”

Hours pass and Ash and I just had some super happy fun time in The White Rabbit’s parking lot and he mussed me up good. There’s not much room in the car but we managed.

Turns out I know yoga.

Or something like that, because I’ve never been bendy before, but put me in a car with my husband and I’ll go to extreme lengths to please him.

Now we’re on our way to Nik and Tina’s house. Knowing everyone will be there is freaking me out. I don’t want anyone to think we’ve been dishonest or deceiving…even though we have.

The closer we get to the house, the more my stomach aches and my hands shake. Suddenly petrified, I blurt out, “I’m scared!”

Ash nods his head without turning to face me. “Well…Stop it.”

My glare is so strong that at any moment I’m expecting a laser beam to pop out of my eyes and burn him. I yell in disbelief, “You can’t just order me to stop being scared, shithead!”

He smirks. “There. Now you’re angry.” Turning to face me, he bites the tip of his tongue cheekily a moment before saying, “Not scared anymore. I win.” And I want to smack him.

Groaning, I run my hands down my face and pretend to sob. Asher chuckles and rubs my shoulder, then he pats the very top of my head with a stiff palm and says robotically, “There, there. There, there.”

I fling his hand off me and he bursts into laughter. I know what he’s doing. He likes it when I get angry. He says it makes me horny. We’ll see about that. Stupid Ash.

I thought I knew who Asher Collins was, but in the past few days, I’ve learnt more about him and I have to say, I love this Asher even more than the last. The old Asher was a mean and somewhat scary man, stuck in an age of nightmares. My Asher…he’s sweet, funny, goofy and hotter than hell. But most importantly, he’s free. Free from his past and looking toward the future. Our future. I’d like to take credit but I can’t. Maybe I helped, but he did most of it on his own. And I’m proud of him.

My thoughts bubble out of my mouth. I tell him, “I’m so proud of you, Ash. I couldn’t be prouder to show everyone that you’re my husband.”

Watching him drive, his brow furrows. He doesn’t respond, just takes my hand in his and links our fingers. He doesn’t need to say a thing.

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