By M.A. Stacie
Copyright © 2015 by M. A. Stacie. All rights reserved.
First Print Edition: August 2015
Limitless Publishing, LLC
Kailua, HI 96734
Formatting: Limitless Publishing
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
For anyone who has ever been hurt
by those who should love you the most.
Your happy ever after is waiting.
You just have to trust. I promise.
Table of Contents
The kindness of others…
The wind whipped around him, the rain like icicles lancing across his face. The thin coat he wore did nothing to stop the chill as it seeped bone deep. He pulled it tight across his torso anyway.
Even though it was growing late, the streets were still filled with people. They carried bags and parcels, all preparing for Christmas and celebrations with their families. To Asher it would be just another day. Another argument. Another punch. Another night sitting out in the cold until it was safe to go back inside.
He shuddered, blinking as the rain began to turn to snow. The flakes caused him to wince when they landed on the open cut marring his cheek. Swiping at the skin, he tugged his knitted hat further down, hoping to cover the vulnerable cut. It didn’t hurt as much this time. Maybe it was the cold numbing the area? Or maybe he was just growing used to it? Either way, he was coping.
The crowds of people swelled as he turned on to the main high street. He just needed to stay away for a few more hours. It would be safe then, and he’d be able to take a shower and eat; if there was anything in the cupboards. Until then he resolved to keep hiding in plain sight.
A loud bark of laughter startled him, the sound crashing around his skull and making his pulsing headache worse. Asher peeked through his fringe of dark hair, noticing a group of teenagers heading his way. The gang had him shying away. He recognized the uniform. He wore an exact replica underneath his coat. Only his was threadbare, older and didn’t fit him as well as it had eighteen months ago. In fact, it didn’t really fit him at all. It never had.
Hanging his head, he tried to blend into the crowd. Invisibility was key after an altercation with another of her boyfriends, but the blonde girl in the group noticed him. She smiled, splitting off from the others and walking over to him. Asher tried to act as though he hadn’t seen her. He ducked down a side street only to hear her shout after him.
She was nice; he knew that much about her. She’d loaned him a pen during English class, telling him he could use it for the rest of the day. No one loaned him anything. They barely even made eye contact with him.
She’d also offered him half of her sandwich when they’d been on a school trip a few weeks ago. However, the last thing he wanted right now was to explain why he was out in the cold with a swollen eye and busted lip. She hadn’t understood why he’d had no packed lunch on a school trip, and he hadn’t cared to explain that after he’d paid for the trip with the money he’d earned from delivering newspapers, there had been nothing left for food. Conversations about his wounds were definitely out.
“Ash, wait.” Her hand touched his shoulder, stopping his retreat. “Are you okay?”
Mumbling he was fine, Asher turned his face away from her, but it was too late. Her gasp of horror told him she’d already seen it.
“Oh my God! What happened?”
She reached up, her fingers touching the split in his lip. It caused both of them to hiss. Her blue eyes grew wide, her expression dripping with sympathy. He hated that. “I’m fine, Emma. Go back to your friends.”
To her credit, she didn’t even glance toward them. “I can’t leave you. I think you should go to the hospital. It looks so sore. It could need a stitch or two.”
Asher pushed her hand away, starting to walk back up the street, well aware that she was following.
“Then go home instead. Don’t stay out here,” she shouted over the noise of some approaching carol singers. “Someone needs to take a look at it.”
He froze, swinging around to face her and growled a denial. “Leave me alone.”
Emma’s shoulders sagged, her lips drawing into a tight, thin line. Her brow furrowed. “Don’t you have anywhere to go, Ash?”
No one called him Ash. His father rarely referred to him as anything but ‘little shit’.
Knowing he shouldn’t involve her, knowing he should keep his stupid mouth shut, he shook his head and swallowed back the threatening tears. He hadn’t cried over a beating for years, the new boyfriend wasn’t the first, so he wouldn’t cry now. Not even with the prettiest girl in the school giving him sympathy. He couldn't understand why he was being so honest with her. This was his secret to bear.
“Can’t you go home?”
“Not until he’s gone to the pub,” he muttered, staring at the thin layer of snow on the floor.
Thankfully, Emma didn’t ask anything else. Instead, she grabbed his hand, opened his fist and slapped something into his palm. “Take this. Go and sit in the cafe for a while. At least you’ll be warm in there until it’s safe to go home.”
Asher gawked at the money in his hand, his mouth opening and closing. He had no idea what he should say. She wasn’t pushing for more information like others had done in the past. She was only giving him a way to stay away from the abuse for a few more hours. He barely knew her, and yet she was showing him more care than anyone had done in a very long time.
“I can’t take this. Thank you, but I can’t.”
Emma crossed her arms over her chest and pouted. “Well I’m not taking it back.”
What option did he have? “Thank you,” was all he managed to choke out.
Emma toed the ground. “I could give you my number—if you want. Just in case.”
Shaking his head, Asher thanked her again. “I do this a lot. I’ll be okay. I don’t have a phone anyway. And the payphones are trashed on this street.”
She scowled, and began to remove her gloves. “Take these too. Seems like it’s going to get colder, and the snow is starting to get heavy. I’d better get back to my friends.”
Reaching out, he placed his hand in hers. A tingling warmth
spread across his palm and shot up his arm. Trying to ignore the odd sensation, he met her bright blue eyes. “Thank you again, Emma.”
Her smile spread wide across her face. “My pleasure, though don’t order the hot chocolate. It’s disgusting from that place.”
Smirking, she turned and raced down the street to meet her friends. Asher watched her leave, curling the ten pound note tightly in his fist. He remained fixed to the spot, looking at the path she’d taken, until someone bumped his shoulder. He’d do exactly what she’d asked him to. He’d wait it out in the cafe until he knew his mother’s latest boyfriend had gone down the pub.
He’d order coffee instead of hot chocolate.
“So the date was horrid then?”
Emma Carnes grimaced at her friend, recalling the previous night. Meagan had set her up on a blind date, certain that Carl was the man for her. After the date with Carl she wondered whether Meagan really knew her at all. It hadn’t been just his physical attributes that had turned her off, though they certainly added to the lack of attraction. The man had an odour, one that wasn’t disgusting but it wasn’t pleasant either. It was musty, the kind of smell that lingered on a wet dog.
Emma rolled her eyes in Meagan’s direction. “As if you didn’t know. Bet he called you. What possessed you to think I’d like him?”
“He reads books,” Meagan stated, flipping her long, dark hair over her shoulder. “You like books.”
Emma stared at the other woman, wondering how they could have been friends for so many years when they were so very different. And she wasn’t just referring to their appearance.
Meagan’s father and her own were partners in a law firm—had been since before the girls were born. It was expected that the offspring of the men would become fast friends, which was exactly what had happened. However, where Meagan relied on her father’s wealth, rather than forging her own path, Emma battled to be independent. She rarely asked for anything she hadn’t already worked for.
“You’re seriously telling me you think books are all we need to have in common before I jump into bed with him? You need to reassess your expectations, Meagan.”
“Why?” she responded, checking her lipstick in the mirror. “I’ve had sex with men that I had nothing at all in common with. Carl is okay.”
Emma exhaled, glancing around Meagan’s expensive apartment. It was pristine. Everything had a place, and had been put there by the designer. Meagan barely spent any time in the apartment, and certainly not enough to cause any wear and tear on the furniture or accessories. There were very little personal possessions in the open-plan living space, and Emma knew most of Meagan’s treasures were kept in her bedroom out of prying eyes. It was the only room the maid was not allowed to enter.
Meagan had secrets just like everybody else.
Turning to her friend, Emma picked up her mug of tea. “Carl was not okay. I’m actually more than a bit offended that you think he’s the one for me.”
Grinning, Meagan reached for her compact and opened it, ready to powder her nose. “So exactly how long did you stay before you made an excuse and left?”
“You know me too well. I texted Eric and he got Dad to call me with an emergency. I lasted about half an hour. I left around the time he got talking about his bedroom at his mum’s house.”
“His mum’s house?” Meagan spluttered.
Realization struck at her friend’s words. “You didn’t know him at all, did you? Oh my God, Meagan, who the hell did you set me up with?”
“It’s not as bad as it seems.” She held her hands up in mock surrender. “He’s an intern at the firm. See? He can’t be all that bad if both of our fathers employed him, right?”
Emma stared at her friend. “Since when have either of them been a part of the recruitment team?”
“You’re just being argumentative now. Look, I get it, you didn’t like him. Though I fail to see why that’s my fault.”
Emma knew better than to try and make Meagan see sense. She saw what she wanted to see, not what was in front of her. So, sighing heavily, she gave in, took a sip of her tea and changed the subject.
“What’s the new dress for?”
“Do you like it?” Meagan smiled and reached out to touch the purple sheath dress that hung from the door frame. “I got some killer heels to go with it. I’m going to get jaws dropping.”
“Whose jaws and where?”
“You’re joking, right?”
Emma shrugged, having no idea what Meagan was referring to.
“Em! The lock and key party tomorrow night? You promised you’d be there.”
Emma racked her brain, trying to work out when that particular conversation had taken place. She came up blank. A lock and key party wasn’t something she’d forget, especially not when she’d apparently promised to go with her friend.
Unconsciously, she reached around her neck, toying with the key that dangled from her silver necklace.
“And I agreed to do that, when?”
Ignoring the question, Meagan gestured to her new dress. “Do you think I’d have spent almost five hundred pounds on this dress if you hadn’t said you were coming with me?”
“Honestly, Meagan, yes you would have.” Annoyance had her pulse racing, and it took every ounce of self-control not to raise her voice. “Why would you ask me to come? Why is it so damned important to get me married off? I don’t get it.”
“Whoa!” Meagan slumped down next to Emma and took hold of her friend’s hands. She softened her tone. “I’m not trying to marry you off, though that would take the heat off me. My dad would be so excited for you he’d leave me alone for a while.”
She smiled, but Emma was still irritated by her actions. She shouldn’t be surprised. Meagan had been pulling the same shit since they were teenagers. Sometimes she questioned the whole integrity of the relationship they had. More often than not she felt like Meagan’s accessory than her life-long friend.
“I’ll find a guy of my own, if and when I’m ready. I’m twenty-five, not eighty. It’s really not that imperative I find the one right now. I’m not a project you need to focus on. I’m happy the way I am, and sure as hell don’t need a Carl in my life.” She paused, dropping the key pendant and reaching for her mobile phone. “And I don’t need another lock and key party either.”
“Spoilsport.” Meagan pouted. “When am I going to test out my new dress and shoes now?”
“I’m not going, and I don’t think I ever promised you that I would.”
Meagan huffed, stalking off into the kitchen and leaving Emma alone. She tried to calm herself by checking her emails and a few websites on her phone. However, her mind continued to travel back in time, recalling the lock and key party when she was a teenager. It was where she’d first received the key currently around her neck.
The one where she never found the padlock it connected with.
All of her friends had hooked up with some random guy who possessed the padlock to their key, leaving her alone on the porch surrounded by necking teenagers.
There was no particular reason why she’d kept the key; after all she had absolutely no idea who its matching padlock belonged to. And the chances of her meeting that person again nine years later would be near zero. Would she honestly want to know who it had been anyway? Sometimes mystery was far more appealing than stone cold fact.
She just hadn’t been able to part with the key. In some ways it was her symbol of hope, of a future yet to show itself. It wasn’t the only key she’d collected, though it had been the first. Over the next few years Emma had developed quite a collection.
She could never have too much hope.
Startled out of her thoughts, she watched Meagan remove her shirt to reveal a rather minute black, lacy bra. Her olive skin shone with radiance, casting Emma’s pasty white complexion into shadow.
Emma rarely felt envy toward her friend, but whenever she looked at her—truly saw her—that
jealousy would rise. Meagan was stunning. Not a single bone in her body could be described as plain, and when she walked into a room on her six-inch heels people took notice. Unlike Emma, who was merely known as ‘Jonathan’s daughter’.
“Just tag along for half an hour. Please, Em?” Meagan, pull the purple sheath over her head and smoothed it down her body. “Imagine it without the skirt underneath. Does it look good?”
“Great,” Emma replied, shooting her a weak smile.
“Does that mean you’re coming?”
The woman didn’t give up.
Impatience had her sighing heavily. “The thing is, if I go with you, I’ll end up getting a key, because that’s the theme of the party. But I’m not staying and some guy is going to end up with a padlock but with no one to spend the rest of the night with. I think that’s kind of unfair. Besides, isn’t a lock and key party a little…childish?”
“No. It’s fun. You know, drink, laugh, enjoy. Come on, Em, for me.” She tilted her head to the side, fluttering her eyelashes innocently. “You could just refuse the key when you walk in. Tell them you’re only dropping me off.”
Sagging in defeat, Emma groaned. “Okay, I’ll come—but an hour at the very most. I mean it. And you can loan me that cream, gauzy tunic thing you bought last week.”
Meagan’s eyes sparkled, a huge smile spreading across her face. She reached out, squeezing Emma in a tight hug. “You’re the best friend ever.”
“I’m the weakest friend ever,” she mumbled. “You’ll need to give me the address. I’ll meet you there because I’m volunteering at the youth shelter until seven. Now stop with the dramatics. Go and get me that dress.”
Meagan bounced off toward her bedroom, cheering like a child having gotten her own way. Again.
Emma chastised herself for her lack of backbone when it came to her friend. Nevertheless, after many years of backing down it was now a habit. It was far easier to let her think she’d won than suffer her petulance afterward, and it was a cycle they repeated often. One she knew very well that she could stop if she was strong enough.