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Igniting Ash, Page 2

M.A. Stacie

  A squeal of delight ripped through the apartment as Meagan danced back into the living area. She held the dress Emma wanted, along with a pair of black heels that Emma was certain no sane person could walk in.

  “These match perfectly. You have to wear them if you’re borrowing the dress.”

  “I’d rather not,” Emma said, shaking her head and causing her curls to catch on her lipstick. She swept the strands away with her finger. “I don’t want my life ending because I fell into a lock and key party. Literally. Besides, I have a great pair of shoes I can wear with it.”

  “If you say so.” With a wave of her hand, Meagan dismissed the conversation in the exact same way she did her cleaner.

  Emma scowled, taking the dress from her and moving over to the counter to retrieve her bag. “I’m going to leave. I promised Dad I’d call in at the office and sort through some files for him. He’s lost without Kim.”

  “Make sure he pays you,” Meagan said seriously, before kissing Emma’s cheek. “I’ll text you the address of the party. Don’t bail on me. I’m not going in there alone.”

  Emma didn’t respond. She gathered up her things and shot Meagan a short wave before leaving the apartment. It was a quick ride in the elevator down to the parking garage, and she used the time to berate herself for being such a pushover. Even the lure of getting to wear a ridiculously expensive dress didn’t ease her self-disgust.

  She needed to be stronger and stop being everyone’s go-to girl. She would start tomorrow night. It was small, only an hour, but it was a start. She could do this.


  Chapter 2


  The dance music pounded loudly from the speakers, shaking the floor and causing Asher Harris’ head to throb. For the third time that night he asked himself why he was here. This wasn’t the kind of party he usually went to. In truth, he rarely went to parties.

  He enjoyed his solitude too much.

  Nevertheless, he was here, dragged across the threshold by Ben, his protests ignored. There were just too many people filling the space for him to feel comfortable.

  Asher shoved his hair out of eyes, acknowledging he could really use a haircut. He toyed with the small padlock that had been handed to him when he’d entered, wondering where in the garden he could toss it. Nobody would know right now as everyone was still in the house, still scoping out who could be a match to their lump of metal.

  He cringed, feeling far too old for the kind of party going on within the house. Ben owed him big time for this favour. Maybe getting him to work a few hours in the bookshop would be enough of a deterrent?

  A screech from inside the house was loud enough to startle him. He flinched, whipping his head around so that he could see through the double doors, but being seated on the porch steps left him with a view of people’s calves and shoes. He could go inside and see what was going on, though he wasn’t really interested. The porch step was cold but no one had bothered him just yet. He might actually see the night through without any awkward interaction.

  The wind grew cooler the longer he sat outside, and the sky didn’t look particularly inviting. It was definitely going to rain. The porch wouldn’t shelter him for the entire night. He needed another plan.

  Asher groaned.

  “Are you okay?”

  He turned to his right, meeting a pair of concerned blue eyes. They were rimmed with a grey liner, lashes lightly curling with a layer of mascara. Her cheeks were tinged pink—a similar shade to her glossy lips, and thin wisps of her wavy, blonde hair slipped across her face.

  Asher blinked, skimming his gaze down the length of her body, drinking in every curve. He swallowed. “Um, yeah I—”


  Frowning, he leaned back, trying to work out how she knew his name. He even looked down to see of he’d left his name badge pinned to his plaid shirt. He didn’t know her. He would never forget a body like hers.

  “It is you, isn’t it?” She walked down the steps to stand in front of him.

  Squinting at her didn’t help, though she now seemed vaguely familiar. “I don’t—”

  “You have no idea who am I, do you? I suppose I have changed a bit. So have you.” She smiled warmly at him. “You’re looking really great, Ash.”

  It was the way she’d shortened his name that had the bells of recognition ringing in his head. Images of snow, borrowed gloves, bad hot chocolate, and immobilizing pain assaulted him, so much that he had to hide his shortness of breath. He ground his teeth together, closing his eyes for one fleeting moment to gather himself together. Falling apart was no longer an option. He wasn’t that boy anymore.

  He was new. Whole.

  “Emma,” he whispered, his stomach twisting. She recalled the old him, the one that had been forever in pain and that didn’t sit well with him.

  He gripped the padlock tightly, the metal biting into his palm.

  “So you do remember me. It’s been a while.”

  Asher shot her a stilted smile. He shouldn’t have come here, should have stood his ground with Ben.

  “I see you’re still not much of a talker.”

  “You’ve just taken me by surprise. It’s not often I bump into people from my past. When I do they act like they don’t know me. The only time they were interested was when they were gossiping about me.”

  He shuffled uncomfortably on the step, trying to make room for her. Not that she’d want to sit down with a dress as pale as hers. It would stain and he knew enough about women to know that wasn’t acceptable.

  However, as Emma had done before, she surprised him. Grinning at him, she nudged his shoulder with her hip and lowered herself onto the stone step.

  “Never did bother me,” she said cryptically.

  Asher frowned, waiting for her to elaborate.

  “Getting dirty,” she added. “Never been a girly-girl. You should remember that much, Ash. Besides, it’s not my dress and I doubt Meagan will ever wear it again. She’s worn it once already.”

  He nodded, as though he understood but truly had no idea what she’d just said. Women’s thought processes eluded him. That was one of the reasons he stayed clear. He didn’t need that level of interaction. He was happier alone.

  At least that was what he continually tried to tell himself.

  “So, how have you been?”

  The caution of her carefully placed words reflected in her eyes. She was trying not to mention that night, or what had happened afterward. The silence would only last so long before curiosity got the better of her. He knew that without question.

  “I’m good,” he replied, not giving a thing away. “I suppose I still owe you some cash and a pair of gloves. You look well though.”

  Nudging his shoulder again, she placed her hand on his knee. He jumped at the contact, the area beneath his jeans warming in ways he wasn’t used to. It wasn’t unpleasant but it was more than he liked, and was too much from someone who knew him. Someone who knew his past.

  “Don’t try to change the subject. You were always so good at that. I guess you really haven’t changed.” She sighed. “I’ve thought about you a lot. I moved away that Christmas break. My mum and dad split and I went to live with her, so I never saw you after—”

  “Don’t,” he said rather sharply. They startled as laughter burst from within the house. He clutched the padlock tighter, gritting his teeth as a wave of nausea hit him. If she wasn’t around when everything happened then there was a chance she didn’t know. A chance he could be a blank slate. “Just leave it there.”

  “Oh, Ash, I don’t want to upset you. It’s so good to see you. I only want to talk—see how you are. I’m not asking for a detailed account of the last ten years.”

  If he was gullible he would have believed the softness to her tone. That was no longer possible. The jaded walls he surrounded himself with were his protection, and he doubted five minutes in a garden with Emma would alter that fact.

  Asher cleared his throat, th
ough it made no difference. It still felt like he was being strangled. “Things are okay for me,” he croaked out, giving in a little. “They have been for a while.”

  “Good,” she responded a little too excitedly. “So what do you do? I mean for work?”

  A smile broke out across his face, one he had little control over. It always happened when he spoke about his passion, and it was further confirmation she didn’t know his story. “I run a bookshop.”

  “What, like a manager? That’s fantastic, and I can tell you enjoy it.”

  Shaking his head, he stared at her hand. It was still on his knee, her thumb swirling in circles, offering a small comfort.

  “Actually, I own it—have for the last four years.”

  Her blue eyes widened, her hand gripping tighter on his knee. “That’s amazing!” she exclaimed, clearly shocked that he’d managed to do so well for himself given his start in life. “How on earth did you manage to have your own business? What were you, twenty-two?”

  He nodded, his hair flopping into his eyes again. “Truthfully, it just sort of happened. It wasn’t a plan or anything. Anyway, enough about me. The spotlight hurts my eyes. Who’s this Meagan you spoke about?”

  “Do you remember her? We were friends at school. Our dads own a law firm. We kept in touch while I lived with Mum, and started as though we’d never been separated when I returned a few years ago.”

  Shaking his head, Asher shrugged. “I try not to think about that time. I never really paid attention to the kids at school. It’s not like they were interested in me, not unless they felt the need to bully someone.”

  “It was tough for you, huh?”

  He didn’t waste his time answering that particular question. She had been witness. She knew.

  The noise from the party grew louder, the doors and windows thrown open wide to cool down the excited people within. Asher and Emma remained seated awkwardly on the steps, though she didn’t show any signs of wanting to remove her hand. Normally he wouldn’t allow that type of contact, so he questioned why it was okay with him now. He surmised it was because Emma had been the only person who he trusted, who he had responded to. The night she’d given him the money and told him not to choose the hot chocolate had been a defining moment. Everything centred on that night.

  She had no clue of that though.

  Emma seemed to sense his reluctance, swiftly filling the silence with her rather pushy conversation.

  “Anyway, Meagan and I have been friends forever. This is her dress. She spends a fortune on clothes every month, or rather her dad does, and like I said, she’s worn it once already, so there’s no chance she’ll wear it again.”

  “But you’ll have dirt on it when you go back into the party. Doesn’t that bother you?”

  It was Emma’s turn to shrug, twirling the small key in her fingers. “I didn’t want to come here to start with. Meagan has the ability to make me feel guilty for not doing what she wants. I told her I was staying for an hour, and that I didn’t want this.” She raised the key.

  Asher smiled reluctantly. “Yeah, can’t say I’m interested either. My Meagan is named Ben.” He lifted the padlock. “And I don’t want this.”

  They both stared at the padlock and key in their hands. Asher’s heart began to pound. The longer he stared at the pieces of metal the more he began to wonder. The silence was somewhat suffocating, and just as Asher opened his mouth, finally mustering the strength to ask, Emma spoke. “What are the chances, Asher?”

  She tapped the key against his lock, asking the question he was pondering only moments ago.

  “Shall we try?” she prompted.

  He took hold of the key, horrified to see his hand was shaking. Emma didn’t point it out, leaving him hoping she just hadn’t seen it.

  “Shall we make a deal,” he finally managed to blurt out, stalling his movements.


  “You don’t even know what I’m going to say.”

  “You wouldn’t ask anything bad of me.”

  Amazed by her faith in him when he was effectively a stranger, he whispered, “You trust too easily. You don’t know me.”

  “True, but it’s nice to be back in touch. I wasn’t lying when I said I’d thought about you a lot. I asked Meagan about you but she walks around in her own world and had no idea who I was asking about.”

  He shook his head, dismissing her, holding to key at the base of the lock.

  “What was the deal?”

  “I was going to say that if these fit together we leave our meddling friends here. I could drive you home. I mean, if you want.”

  Her shoulders sagged, relaxing against him. “That would be perfect. Apart from meeting you again, this whole night has been horrid.”

  Asher tried to ignore the way his arm pinged with a strange electricity. It buzzed around the area where Emma pressed against him, shifting when she adjusted her position. However, nothing prepared him for the shiver that racked his spine when she spoke almost directly into his ear.

  “Are you going to push that in there or am I going to have to do it myself?”

  A small gasp exited her mouth when she realized what she’d said. Asher was unable to stifle his laugh, and moments later broke out in a fit of giggles along with Emma.

  Laughing with her felt so easy, free, and when she rested her head on his shoulder, sighing softly he didn’t move or try to push her away.

  “Well,” he drawled. “After that invitation how could I not push it in?”

  Emma giggled, reaching up and wrapping her fingers around his wrist. “We’ll shove it together.”

  Both still laughing and ignoring the raucous laughter that was filtering into the garden from the party, they both pushed the key into the padlock.

  It didn’t fit.

  Emma’s soft moan mirrored his own unexpected disappointment. Did he really want to drive her home? Spend more time with her?

  “I guess we’re not meant to be.” Emma sighed. “That leaves us with the option of going back in there and finding out who our other half is.”

  “Does it?”

  Pulling away, Emma frowned at him. “The deal was to leave if those locks connected. They didn’t.”

  He wiggled his brows, feeling uncharacteristically playful. “Ah, but we never said what we’d do if they didn’t. Maybe we should make that deal now?”

  Unsure of exactly why he was acting this way, Asher waited for her response. He hoped he hadn’t read her wrong. There was always the possibility that she wanted to leave…and not with him. The last thing he wanted was for her to feel like she had to go with him. He didn’t need her sympathy now, no matter what it had done for him in the past.

  “Are you asking me if I want a ride?”

  “Do you?”

  “Do you want to leave?”

  “Do you?”

  She growled at him, pushing at his shoulder enough to have him lose his grip on the padlock and key. They toppled onto the grass, hiding somewhere in the flowers and mud. Taking the opportunity, Asher spoke first. “I guess now we have no choice. We don’t have the right hardware to be a part of the party. Unless you want to go hunting in the mud?”

  “Stop asking me questions.” Emma stood up and wiped the back of her dress. “Get up, get your car keys and take me home.”

  Asher shot her a mock salute, feeling much lighter than he had when he’d agreed to coming with Ben. He stood, dusted of his jeans and winked at her. “Your carriage awaits.”

  Chapter 3

  Asher had serious doubts about what he was doing. Nevertheless, for the first time in years his mouth had run away with itself, blurting out what he was actually thinking and asking to spend a bit more time with Emma.

  He hated reflecting on what once was. Those times were too difficult, too raw to touch upon, but strangely, when he thought of her it didn’t hurt. The times she’d been a part of his life were some of the few happier memories he had. That in itself was a rather sad fact. She had
n’t even been a friend, just a girl that took pity on him once in a while.

  Was she doing that now? Had she watched him sitting alone on the garden step and took pity on him once again?

  Glancing sideways at her, he couldn’t help but question her motives—he did it with everyone he came into contact with. Most of the time he did it without conscious thought. It was his defence mechanism, a way of protecting himself before anyone got too close. Not that she would ever get that far. He was a loner. It was best that way.

  “Was it only Ben that you came with tonight?” Emma asked softly, keeping a slow pace beside him.

  Asher nodded, pushing his hands further into the front pockets of his jeans. “The guy throwing the party, Dean, is dating Ben’s sister. I always end up getting dragged to these things, usually because I owe Ben a favour. Funny though, I can’t ever recall what it was he did for me for me to owe him anything.”

  Her light laughter floated out into the darkness, echoing off the side of the house as they strolled onto the street. “Meagan does that to me too. She told me I’d agreed to this party. I doubt I did. Sometimes it’s easier not to argue with her.”

  Pointing to his car across the street, he hummed. “I get the feeling you’re the same kind of friend I am.”

  “Taken advantage of?”

  “Yup.” He pointed the sensor, the clicking of the locks interrupting their conversation for a moment. “But then again, we allow them to do it to us.”

  “Point taken.” Emma paused before climbing into the passenger seat. She met his gaze, her expression serious. “You don’t have to take me home if you’re uncomfortable, Ash. Seeing a ghost from your past can’t be easy for you.”

  His stomach clenched, wishing Emma would stop mentioning his childhood. He was finally free of it and certainly didn’t need the refresher every ten minutes.

  “Don’t, Emma,” he snapped, though not intending to. He took a deep breath before continuing, the sadness of her expression tightening his gut further. “Can we make a deal?”