An excerpt of The AssetBy Anna del Mar
My finger twitched on the trigger as I stared down the barrel of my shotgun. A stranger stood on my stoop. The mere sight of him shoved my heart into my throat and sent my brain into default. I widened my stance, tightened my grip on the gun and aimed at the stranger’s chest. No way. He wasn’t going to take me alive.
A sharp bark startled me. The largest, darkest, most handsome German shepherd I’d ever seen stood next to the stranger, head tilted, ears forward, nose quivering in the air. It uttered a quiet whimper and padded over to me without a trace of aggression, circling me once before it leaned against my legs.
I kept my shotgun leveled, but I spared another glance at the stunning dog. The plea in his eyes tempered the adrenaline jolting through my body, reined in my runaway heart and gave me pause to consider the stranger before me.
Framed by the Rocky Mountains and the lake, the man at the threshold blocked the morning’s gray light and cast a huge shadow over my little porch. Raindrops tapped on his leather jacket, dripped from the rim of his cap and ran like tears down the sides of his face. Despite the exhaustion etched on his features, his glacial blue eyes narrowed on my gun.
“That’s a pretty old Remington,” he rumbled. “With the damn safety off, no less. Who the hell are you expecting, Jack the Ripper?”
“Stay back.” I forced the words out. “I’ll shoot if you come any closer.”
“Damn it, girl,” he said. “If you want us to leave, just say so.”
The scowl on his face contributed to his dangerous appearance. So did the scruffy beard and the shaggy hair sticking out from under his baseball cap. If he hadn’t come all the way out here to get to me—and that was still a big “if”—what on earth was he doing here?
I couldn’t see any weapons on him. Was he a drifter? He didn’t look dirty, but a metallic scent wafted from him, an odd, ripe trace I couldn’t place.
He must have seen my nose wrinkle. His whole body stiffened. He drew taller than six feet by several inches, but it was the outrage I spotted in his eyes that reinforced my fears.
“Aren’t you a spitfire?” He pulled out a rumpled piece of paper from his pocket, balled it and dropped it at my feet. “Secluded, cheap and quiet, that’s what the ad said. But I don’t think you want to rent out a room, at least not to me. Come on, Neil,” he said to the dog. “Let’s leave this little hellcat to count her bullets.” He touched the rim of his baseball cap. “And a good day to you, ma’am.”
He braced on a pair of sturdy crutches and hopped down from the stoop. Crutches? I should’ve noticed those before. The sable shepherd looked up at me, then nuzzled my hip and trotted off after his owner. The rubber bottoms of the man’s crutches stabbed the ground as he shuffled to the black truck parked in my driveway, a supercharged Ram 3500 that matched its owner’s brawn.
I exhaled the breath I’d been holding. Bad guys didn’t knock at your door. They didn’t back down, attack while on crutches or hobble away after they came for you. They didn’t call you ma’am, either. I picked up the crumpled paper and flattened it against the stair’s wobbly baluster. It was indeed the one flyer I’d dared to post at Kailyn’s convenience store, printed on pink paper, complete with the ten tear-off rectangles that listed my cell phone number.
The ad. My brain came on line. He was here about the ad?
Crap. Terror had a sure way of wiping reason from my mind. The ad talked about a stone cottage but didn’t include the address. True, mine was the only stone cottage around. Still, my stomach churned.
I stared at the paper in my hands. He’d taken down the ad. Now I had exactly zero chance to rent out the room, which also meant that, since I’d have no money to make the rent, I was going to lose my little stone cottage. I was going to be homeless and I’d have to move on. Again.
But I liked it here. The place suited me well. People in this secluded valley were nice and I’d managed to build a semblance of a life hidden out here. And what about my little friends out back? Who’d take care of them if I wasn’t around?
The pound, that’s who.
I took a deep breath and looked down on my flannel pajama pants and my extra-large sweater. With my hair up in a messy tail, I was pretty sure I looked like a gun-toting, gray-eyed witch, brimming with hostility. I’d just scared away my first and only customer.
A top-notch German shepherd like that couldn’t belong to a crook. It was obvious that the owner took excellent care of his dog. If that wasn’t enough, the man got around on crutches. He couldn’t hurt me and, if he tried, I wouldn’t need a shotgun to defend myself. I’d just have to trip him.
God, the things I thought about. Was I going to live in fear forever?
Yes, I would, but living in fear was better than not living at all.
I considered the paper in my hand. My rent was due next week.
“Wait!” I jammed my feet into my weathered rubber boots, gripped the gun in one hand and the umbrella in the other, and rushed out into the rain. I caught up with him as he slammed the door of his truck shut.
“Hey!” I waved the flyer in the air. “I didn’t know that you came for this.” I tapped on the window. “Could you please, like, talk to me…please?”
He rolled his eyes, but the window whirled down. “What now? You want to sue me for stinking up your stoop?”
“Oh, no.” I blushed all the way down to my toes. “I just wanted to say—I’m sorry. I’m…um…skittish, you know? Living out here in the boonies all by myself…”
“I get it.” The man’s glare didn’t waver. “Lots of folks don’t like dogs. Or vets. Sorry I scared you.”
“You didn’t scare me,” I lied. “I love dogs. I was just…being careful, that’s all.”
“Careful?” His mouth twisted into that terrible scowl. “Is that why you’re still toting that thing around, cocked and loaded no less?”
My eyes shifted to the shotgun, still clutched in my hand, and then back to the stranger glaring at me. “Oh.”
“That’s what I thought.” He turned the key on the ignition.
On impulse, I stuck my hand through the window and placed it over his on the wheel. He flinched. I cringed. He was hot, and I mean scalding hot, to my touch. The look he fired in my direction burned just as bad.
“I…I…” I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I think you should come back inside.”
“No way,” he said. “I hate the wrong end of the barrel.”
“It didn’t register,” I said. “I didn’t realize that you were a vet.”
He growled like a cranky bear. “I don’t want your damn pity.”
It was a good thing I recognized pride, fury and defiance when I saw it. Otherwise, I might have forgotten the whole thing and fled back to the cottage with my tail between my legs. Instead, I steeled my nerves and stuck out my chin.
“I’m not offering you any pity,” I said. “But I do need to rent out a room. So let’s start over. Okay? I’m Lia.”
“Lia?” He lifted his cap and scratched his head. His eyebrows drew close together in a frown that deepened the two little vertical lines above his nose. “Have we met before?”
“Not in this lifetime.”
He let out an exasperated sigh. “I don’t think I’m the kind of tenant you were looking for.”
“You might be right about that,” I said. “You’re grouchy and we didn’t exactly get off to a good start. But right now, I’m offering you a cup of coffee. So follow me. If your references check, if you’re not a serial killer or wanted by the FBI, then we’ll talk.”
The dog barked and, stepping over his owner, stuck his huge muzzle out the window and licked my face.
“Come on, boy.” I opened the door. The German shepherd bounced out of the truck, running around me in an explosion of energy. I petted him as he loped beside me on the way to the cottage.
“Neil!” the man shouted. “You traitor. Come back right this minute!”
Neil sat on his hind legs halfway between the house and the truck and woofed.
“See?” I said. “Even your dog wants you to come in.”
The man slapped the wheel and cursed some more. Oh, Lord. He was stubborn. All that anger stiffened my shoulders and churned up my belly. Did I really want a bundle of rage as a tenant?
But Neil wasn’t moving either. This was a war of wills if I’d ever seen one. The umbrella sprang a leak so I got out of the rain, set it on the porch to dry and wiped my feet on the mat. I brought the shotgun into the kitchen and settled it on the counter for easy access. Better safe than sorry. I prayed that my instincts were right on this one.
The German shepherd trotted into the foyer, ears forward, mouth agape and long tongue lolling. He pawed at me, licked my hand and yapped in a way that sounded a lot like commiseration.
“That’s a surly owner you’ve got there.” I scratched him behind the ears. “He’s lucky to have you, yes, he is. I would have shot him without batting an eyelash, but you? No way. You’re too gorgeous.”
I went into the kitchen, grabbed an old towel and laid it on the floor next to the stove. Neil shook his coat and settled on the towel. I set up the coffeepot as the man shuffled with his crutches into the foyer and hesitated at the threshold. I kept my face blank but my senses on alert.
“You look goddamn comfortable,” he said to the dog, before his gaze zeroed in on me again. “He’s never done this before. Go with a stranger? Never.”
“Don’t take it personally.” I set out a pair of mugs. “Animals like me. I like them too. They’re better than people any day.”
“Amen to that,” he muttered, his glare leaving no doubt that I belonged in his despicable human race category.
“Take a seat.” I gestured toward the kitchen table and placed the clipboard at one end. “Fill that out. Coffee will be ready in a moment.”
He set his jaw at a stubborn angle. Yikes. The guy was nothing if not ornery. Neil got up and pressed his body against his owner’s legs. Bluster aside, the man couldn’t resist the plea in the dog’s eyes. He scratched Neil’s head with unmistakable affection. I took that as a good sign, but even as I went about the kitchen, I kept my eye on the man and the shotgun within reach.
“You’re a pain in the ass, Neil,” the guy said as he took off his leather coat and hung it on the rack. “You’re trained a lot better than that. We’ll give this a try, but I’m telling you, this isn’t going to end well. That gun-toting madwoman is not right in the head.”
“I heard that.” I poured some cream into a dish and stuck it in the microwave, “I’m not right in the head? What about you, Mr. Sourpuss who talks to dogs?”
“Neil isn’t just any dog.” He set the crutches against the wall and winced as he lowered himself into the chair. “He’s got brains. He deserves to be talked to. As to the rest, I’m not the one going about in my pajamas aiming loaded shotguns at people.”
“Sorry,” I said, duly contrite. “I’ve only been up for a bit. I’m a waitress, so I work late. But a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do—”
“Jesus Christ.” He stared at the clipboard with open alarm. “How many applicants were you expecting? You do know that the nearest town is Copperhill, population two thousand? You’ve got like ten applications here and each one is five pages long.”
“Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part, but I’m like the Boy Scouts, always prepared.”
“I can see that.” He glanced at the shotgun before returning his attention to the clipboard.
Hackles down, girl I forced myself to breathe. He was only making a point. Still, the permanent knot of fear that churned at the center of my being tightened, an irrational impulse I couldn’t always control. It may have won out, if the ancient microwave hadn’t begun to clatter and rattle like my discombobulated, panic-prone brain.
“Come on.” I pounded on the thing. “Please, don’t break down now.”
“Wow.” The man shook his head. “You also talk to microwaves.”
“If it makes any difference, I only beat naughty appliances that want to quit on me.” I pounded some more until the microwave rattled back to life. “Yay.” I kissed the old clunker.
He rolled his eyes, leaving no doubt that he considered me foolish, eccentric, or both. I watched him from the corner of my eye as I finished fixing the coffee. He pulled out his driver’s license and began to write down his information with a shaky hand. After only a few pen strokes, he stopped midline and dug his fist into his thigh.
The lines on his face set with grim determination. He grumbled something under his breath and jotted down a few more lines. I poured a cup of coffee and parked it in front of him. He squinted, clutching the pen with a white-knuckled grip.
“Are you okay?” I said.
“Fine,” he muttered.
“Are you sure?” I said. “You don’t look fine to me.”
The pen snapped between his fingers.
“Christ.” He stared at the pieces in his hand. “This was a stupid idea.” He pushed away from the table. “I…I need to go.”
He faltered as he tried to get up. I moved quickly. I tucked my shoulder beneath his arm to steady him, but he was heavy and I stumbled under his weight.
“Easy, now.” I helped him to sit down again. Ooof. All that heat coming from his body. It enveloped me like a wave of steam. Neil whimpered. The man tried to stand up again, but he couldn’t.
“Give me a sec.” He slumped on the chair. “I’ll go in a moment.”
This man was sick and in a lot of pain, pain he concealed behind a mask of rage and gruff. He sat there, shivering like a penguin stranded on an iceberg, swaying dangerously in the chair. Who was he and why was he so ill?
I picked up the clipboard and read through the application. He’d only gotten far enough to fill out the top part, but the shaky script spelled a familiar name. I straightened. Holy cow. Could it be? I scanned the driver’s license on the table for confirmation.
“Ash?” I studied the man sweating all over my kitchen table. “Are you really Ashton Hunter?”
I’d never met Ashton Hunter, but I’d heard an awful lot about the town’s very own golden boy. I would have never recognized him from the pictures, but looking closely, seeing beyond the nearly healed scar that split his left eyebrow and all that facial hair…yes…I supposed it could be him. Wynona Hunter’s grandson in the flesh, right there before me, sick as a dog and, judging by his terrible pallor, about to throw up.
I got the pail just in time.
He vomited—such a violent explosion. I almost threw up myself. I did okay with animals, but people? I wasn’t so sure.
Man up, girl, this is Wynona Hunter’s grandson getting sick in your kitchen.
Wynona was the reason I had the cottage in the first place, the one person who’d gone all out for me and possibly the only reason why I’d survived on the lam this long. She was also the closest thing to a grandma—or a friend—I’d ever had.
Losing her had torn me to pieces. Her death had deprived me the opportunity to return her incomparable kindnesses. Which was why now, holding on to her beloved Ash as he puked out his liver, the universe was giving me a second chance to pay her back for everything she’d done for me.
To think I’d confused Ashton Hunter for a drifter. Well, at least he was a local, which explained how he knew where to find my cottage. What was he doing here? Why was he looking to rent a room from a stranger so far away from town? And why was he sick?
“Christ,” he mumbled. “This is embarrassing.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I got a paper towel and wiped his mouth. “Are you really Wynona’s grandson?”
“I am.” He shuddered like a wet dog. “Ash.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m fine,” he said before he heaved again.
“Hold on.” I groped for my cell. “I’ll call the ambulance. It’ll take a little time to get out here, but they’ll come.”
“No ambulance.” He snatched my hand and tightened his fingers around my wrist.
I jumped back, but I couldn’t shake his hold. God, he was strong. Even as he shuddered with fever, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t free my arm.
I choked on a wave of panic fueled by the perverse memories that ruled my subconscious. My heart rate sped into triple digits. My fight response kicked in and I threw my best punch. With the reflexes of a baseball player, he caught my fist in his other hand.
“Stop it,” I said. “Let me go!”
His stare was cold, unfocused and remote, his face blank. He snarled some harsh words I couldn’t understand. Nothing that I said registered in his expression, that is, until Neil barked, a set of sharp, loud yaps.
Neil’s barks returned Ash to his senses. As if waking up from a dream, his eyes focused first on the dog, then on his hands, gripping my wrists, and finally on my face, surely frozen in a grimace of terror.
“Christ.” He released his hold on me. “Did I hurt you? Jesus, I’m sorry.”
I thrust myself away from him, against the wall. My knees shook like babies’ rattles. My wrists throbbed with the memory of his grip. Steady. Breathe. Cope. I rubbed my wrists and stared at the man before me, trying to squelch the dread churning in my belly. He was really sick, I reminded myself. He couldn’t harm me, not if he was truly Wynona’s grandson, the boy she’d raised, the man she adored.
“I didn’t mean to lose my cool.” He braced his hands on the table and tried to get up but his legs wouldn’t hold him, so he sat down again. “I’m not like that, I swear. I just need my meds.”
It took all I had to rally my wits and reclaim my courage—that, and the tremendous pain I spotted in Ash’s eyes, plus the memory of Wynona Hunter opening her world to me.
“This medicine of yours,” I said, cautiously. “Where is it? Is it in the truck?”
“Duffel bag,” he muttered. “Front seat.”
“Sit tight,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
“Don’t call the ambulance. Don’t call anybody. I’m not ready, not like this.”
“Okay,” I mumbled, but I wasn’t sure.
Part of me understood what he meant. Wynona had told me that he was super smart, an extraordinary athlete and an officer in the United States Marine Corps. His family had been prominent in the area for several generations. I sensed he didn’t want to be seen weakened and sick by the folks who’d watched him grow up. Still, the other part of me worried.
My best guess was that Ash had been wounded while serving in the military. It made sense. Other than a curt statement from his unit’s commanding officer notifying us that he’d been “out of reach and on assignment” at the time of Wynona’s death four months ago, no one had heard a word from him.
I’d resented him for missing the funeral. Ash had been Wynona’s last living relative. She’d raised him. He’d been the center of her existence. He should have been there. Instead, he was here, now, four months late, in my house, sick and refusing to go to the hospital where he obviously belonged.
What would Wynona do if she was in my shoes?
I put on my coat, slipped on my boots and ran out to the truck. I grabbed the blue bag sporting the Marine Corps seal from the front seat. Neil waited by his owner when I came back, resting his chin on Ash’s lap. Ash sat slumped over the table, forehead leaning on his crossed arms.
I plopped the bag down on the table and rushed to unzip it. My jaw dropped. A jumble of prescription medicines filled the duffel. There must have been twenty different bottles of pills, liquids and injectables in there, all labeled and marked with instructions.
I forced myself to get over the shock. “Which one do you need?”
He lifted his head painfully and groped through the bag, squinting at a bottle. “No, not this one. It liquefies my gut.” He chucked it aside and picked up another bottle. “This one makes me drowsy. This one makes me stupid. This one, I think.”
I twisted off the cap and handed him the two pills indicated on the label.
He washed down the pills with a gulp of coffee and then picked out a pack containing a loaded syringe. “I’m supposed to have this one too. At least that’s what I think they said.”
He fumbled with his belt. For a sick guy, he moved swiftly. Leaning to one side and then the other, he dropped his pants, ripped the syringe out of the sterile pack and without so much as a word, stabbed it into his thigh and pushed down on the plunger.
A hiss escaped between his clenched teeth. “Motherfucker burns.”
I stared in horror as the veins in his neck bulged. My eyes shifted between the wicked syringe, dispensing its load of liquid fire, his muscular thighs, thick as tree trunks, and the bandage wrapped around his left calf. The ripe smell I’d detected earlier came from that bandage. Mother of God. I was no doctor, but Wynona’s grandson was clearly sick with a full-fledged infection.
He dropped the empty syringe in the bag and pushed himself to his feet. “Let’s go, Neil.”
“You can’t leave.”
“Why not?” He wavered on his feet but managed to pull up his pants and buckle his belt.
“You can’t drive like this.”
“Sure I can,” he said. “And I did.”
He slung the bag over his shoulder, gripped his crutches and, with Neil at his heels, shuffled to the coat stand. How long had he been running around like this?
“But…” I didn’t know what to say. “What about the room?”
He grabbed his jacket and sneered. “You don’t want to rent me a room any more than you want me to puke all over your damn kitchen again.”
“Well…” I gulped. “I’d prefer it if you kept your breakfast to yourself, but…um…you did say you were looking for peace and quiet. So if you want the room, you can have it.”
His blue eyes lasered through my brain, his gaze dulled with pain but alert all the same. This guy wouldn’t accept help from me, from anybody. He would get in that truck, pass out from the fever and kill himself—and his dog—in the process.
He more or less growled. “Why the hell would you want to rent me a room when that upturned nose of yours finds my stink so offensive?”
I fingered my nose, a little self-conscious. “I knew your grandmother. Wynona.”
“You knew her?” He frowned, a familiar gesture now. “How?”
“She—um—she helped me when I first arrived in Copperhill.” I measured my words carefully. “She took me under her wing, found me this place to live and helped me get a job. She was the kindest, most loving person I’ve ever met.”
He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall. “That she was.”
I had a moment of hope that he would reason with me, but then the grim expression reclaimed his face and he clutched the crutches with new resolve.
“Nona is dead.” His eyes darkened to indigo. “I don’t need help from you or from anyone else. Neil and I, we can take care of ourselves. So get the hell out of my way.”
I had to make a conscious effort to overcome my fears and differentiate violence from desperation, pain from danger. Helping Ash was a bad idea, but could I really let him leave in this condition, knowing that he had no place to go to and no family to take care of him?
“Your grandma and I were good friends,” I said, against my best judgment. “She told me lots of stories about you. And she gave me this.”
I pulled out the chain buried beneath my sweater and showed him the pendant I wore around my neck. I flinched when he reached out, but I got hold of my fear before he noticed. His square-tipped fingers closed over the pendant, a highly polished obsidian crystal mounted on a silver frame. His eyes narrowed on the stylized frog skeleton carved in the center of the stone. It had the look of an ancient fossil, but it was actually one of Wynona’s edgiest designs.
“Damn.” His broken eyebrow rose in surprise. “She gave this to you?”
I nodded, all too aware of his proximity as he leaned in closer to examine the pendant. A wave of intense, metallic-scented heat radiated from him. His pain-sharpened breaths came out in blustery bursts.
“Courage,” I mumbled.
“What?” he said.
“Wynona told me that obsidian was the stone of courage.” I rallied. “She told me it would balance and restore, calm and soothe.”
“Lia.” His eyes narrowed. “Now I remember. Nona emailed me. About you. You took care of her when she broke her hip last year.”
“It was the least I could do.”
He took off his cap and raked his hair with his fingers. “Damn meds. They muddle my brain. But I know who you are now.”
“Will you stay?”
His brows clashed over his nose. “I don’t need you to feel sorry for me.”
“I don’t, but I think your grandmother would have liked it if you stayed, and I need to pay my rent.”
That last bit was the type of rationale I could sell to the proud and the stubborn.
The meds were kicking in. Ash’s eyelids drooped and his legs wobbled. His gaunt complexion matched his nickname. He looked like one of those giant lodgepole pines infected with beetles, colorless and brittle, swaying in the wind and about to topple over.
His words came out slow and slurred. “The house burned down.”
I swallowed hard. “I remember.”
“She was in there.”
I shivered inside.
“I was in goddamn Afghanistan.”
I reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “There was nothing you could’ve done.”
He tensed beneath my touch like a feral cat, but he didn’t pull back. He stared at my hand with an odd expression on his face, as if he expected me to recoil in horror, as if he hadn’t been touched with kindness in a long time.
“I think Wynona would’ve really liked it if you stayed with me,” I said. “Let’s do this, for her, at least while you get your act together?”
He fingered the pendant once again. “I don’t know.”
“You must have had a really good reason to come back, even if you don’t feel so good.”
“The property,” he mumbled, thumbing the stone. “I have to deal with that. This place is close. It’s nice here. Not so many people around. Besides…” His stare drifted out the window. “I grew up on that lake. I like looking at it.”
“I do too,” I said. “It’s peaceful and beautiful. Wynona told me that the two of you loved to hike around it.”
I nodded and held my breath. Maybe he would go along with my suggestion. Or maybe I was out of my freaking mind. His presence spelled only trouble for me. My life didn’t have room for complications or mistakes. If he stayed, I’d have to worry about his safety on top of mine.
If all of that wasn’t enough, he came across as proud, stubborn and bitter. He scared me, especially when he got angry. It would be so much easier if he just moved along. If I was smart, I’d let him leave in his fancy truck and be done with it. But how could I let Wynona’s grandson walk out when he needed help?
It was a bad idea. It was a dangerous idea, and reckless. I opened my mouth to send him on his way, but what came out of my lips had nothing to do with my impeccable logic.
“What’s it going to be?”
Ash hesitated for moment, then he squinted down at me. “You still want me to fill out that application?”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“What the hell,” he said. “I do need a place to crash. No one wants dogs. Or screwed-up vets.”
Way to go. I’d just persuaded Ashton Hunter to barge into my carefully conceived, little farce of a life. To my astonishment, he pulled out his wallet from his pocket, and, after counting out a few crisp, hundred-dollar bills, pressed them into my hand.
“First, last and deposit,” he said.
It was already spent, but it was more money than I’d seen all month.
Was I doing the right thing? I hoped so. Damage aside, I was basically a decent human being. But kindness was at the heart of catastrophe and evil thrived on good intentions. The danger in my life was very real. If I was going to come through unscathed, I needed to heal him quickly and then send him on his way. But first I had to think of a way of getting him up the stairs.
“Would you like to check out the room?” I said.
“Damn it.” He looked at the steps. “It’s up that way, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t know if you can make it.”
Even in his drug-induced stupor, he wasn’t one to pass up a challenge. He tucked the crutches under one arm and, gripping the balustrade, tackled the staircase.
“I know,” I mumbled. “This isn’t going to be easy.”
Ash nearly fainted on the landing, then regained his senses long enough to get his arm over my shoulder and make it to the bathroom at the top of the stairs, where he did faint. I managed to get him gently to the floor. He came to as I filled up the bathtub.
“What the hell?”
“Two choices.” I knelt on the tiles next to him. “Either I take you to the hospital or we get your fever down the old-fashion way.”
He lifted his head from the floor and contemplated the old claw-foot bathtub with trepidation. “No hospital.”
He groaned when I took off his boots. I bit down on my lips and suppressed the grimace that tried to overtake my face. Ouch. His left foot was riddled with scars and swollen like a rotten gourd. He unbuckled his belt and, between the two of us, we managed to lower his pants. The swelling in his foot connected with his lower leg, which was also flushed and inflamed. I helped him to take off his shirt. I tried to keep my eyes averted from the other scars on his body, but they were many and most of them were still raw and red. My God. He’d been seriously injured.
He hunched over his arms, hugging himself, shaking uncontrollably, glowering at me through lidded eyes. He snapped when I tried to loosen the bandage around his calf.
He heaved himself from the floor to the toilet and from the toilet to the tub and, perching his calf on the ledge, slid into the bath, groaning as he immersed the bulk of his body in the tub, shivering nonstop. A tide of displaced water swelled and spilled over the edges, splashing on the floor and drenching my feet. Within moments, his teeth began to chatter.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to call the ambulance?”
“Sure as shit.”
“I could drive you to the hospital or call the sheriff for help.”
He snarled. “No.”
A tiger trapped in my bathtub might have been a safer bet. A swipe of his paw could take my head off.
Perhaps this was about more than embarrassment. “Ash,” I said. “Why don’t you want me to take you to the hospital or call the sheriff? Are you in trouble?”
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “I’m in trouble all right.”
“With the law?” I said, fearing his enemies as much as mine.
“No, not with the law,” he muttered before he closed his eyes. “With someone a lot more dangerous than the law.”