I was going to snap that his lecture was unnecessary, that he had no idea what happened the night everything changed for me. He wasn’t around when I realized I was toxic. That night wasn’t just where my story started, but where it ended, too.
I never got the chance to say anything to Asa because at the same time my dad’s massive truck and another big truck, which looked pretty similar, roared to a stop right beyond the barricades the emergency crews had set up. I thought Rome Archer was going to climb out of the other pickup and couldn’t hold in a shocked gasp when it wasn’t the scarred soldier that appeared, but instead there was a beautiful blond man in a perfectly tailored suit. Quaid took a minute to strip his suit jacket off and slammed the door to the truck before stalking towards us in his very shiny, very lawyerly looking shoes. I would have preferred the guy in the jeans and boots for this particular situation considering the smoke and soot in the air, but honestly, I would take him any way I could get him.
My mom and dad got to me first. I was wrapped up in a big hug and almost started crying again when my mom also folded me in her arms and whispered, “I’m so glad you weren’t home. You scared both of us to death.”
I squeezed her then stepped away as Quaid joined our little party.
“Everyone all right? Does the fire chief have any information? Do we know if it was an accident or arson?” He fired the questions at no one in particular as we all gaped at him. He must have noticed that all of us were still shell-shocked at the idea of everything being gone and gentled his tone as he reached out and brushed his thumb over my cheek. “Sorry. I was in court and didn’t really have time to shift gears when I got the call. I’m still in cross-examination mode. Are you okay?”
I sighed and fought the urge to turn my face into his palm. “Yeah, other than the fact that everything I own, not that it was much, is now gone.”
My mom cleared her throat and snuggled into my dad’s side. He didn’t seem to notice because he was too busy glaring daggers at Quaid and the spot on my face where his fingers lingered. “I told your dad, on the way over, that you guys are coming to stay with me,” my mom said. “I’m taller than you, but I have enough stuff in my closet that you can borrow until we can start to replace your own things.”
Shit. I hadn’t even thought about that part of it. Where was I supposed to go now that the only place that had ever been home was gone?
Asa must have seen the panic in my eyes because he offered up, “You guys can come crash at the new house with me and Royal. We have the room and my lady isn’t just gorgeous, she is also armed. Might be nice to have a cop on hand if this is tied to you testifying against the junkie.”
My dad opened his mouth to refuse at the same time I opened mine to accept the offer. I didn’t know how Asa’s pretty girlfriend would feel about having me under her roof, but I would much rather be the bone of contention between the redhead and the southern charmer than the cause of unease and unrest at my mother’s home.
As it turned out the dark horse, or rather the blond horse in the expensive suit, also wanted in on the race. Quaid touched my elbow and, like it had in court, the tiny gesture stilled some of the panic and anxiety that was rampaging inside of me.
“You can come stay with me. If someone is watching you, they’ll never think to look for you at my place, and if this is tied to the case against the boyfriend, I can help navigate the legal waters you’re going to end up swimming in.” He waved at the house. “If this is arson, then it’s a clear threat, which is tampering with a witness, and obvious witness intimidation. The police need to be informed about what’s going on and how this could be tied to something so much bigger. I can help. I want to help you.”
He had been helping from the very beginning, so unsurprisingly I was going to make the only choice that made sense … the absolute worst one.
I nodded at him and saw my dad frown as Asa gave me a speculative look.
“I’m going to stay with Quaid.” And maybe when I was done letting myself fall in love with him, which would inevitably lead to him breaking my heart, I would finally have hit the threshold of hurt I was willing to put myself through as punishment. Because I was pretty sure when Quaid Jackson was done with me, there would be nothing on earth that could feel as bad or be as painful as that was going to be.
The cops grilled Avett for hours. They asked her a hundred different questions about her relationship with Jared¸ about the guys he stole the money and drugs from, about the robbery, and the guys parked out in front of her house. I was glad they were taking the situation seriously, but I was frustrated beyond belief that there was nothing they could do with the minimal information she gave them. All she could tell them was what the car that was parked out in front of the house looked like, and she had a vague description of what the guys that broke into Jared’s apartment and roughed her up looked like. Hearing her halting and jerky words as she went over that evening and the details that she remembered made me want to put my fist through the nearest wall. This girl was a fighter, a tornado full of life and energy, and when those winds died down as she explained how scared she had been, as she told the detective interviewing her how close she had come to being violated and changed forever, the echo of emptiness and fear in her voice ripped at me and fired up possessive and protective instincts that I only seemed to have when it came to this pink-haired hurricane.
The detective told us he was going to speak with Jared, who was still behind bars as he was denied bail, and he informed us that he would be in touch as soon as he heard from the fire department on whether the fire was accidental or purposely set. There was no doubt in my mind the fire was a message, that it had been set for the purpose of intimidating and frightening Avett, but I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to scare her or warn her off of. In my line of work, I knew there was always a motive behind actions, and once we had the motive I would feel a whole lot better about her safety. It was impossible to win a fight if you didn’t know what exactly it was that the opponent had to lose, if they lost.
I hustled a very somber and very quiet Avett out of the cop-shop and offered to swing by the closest mall or Target so she could grab some essentials, but she shook her head and told me that all she wanted was a shower and a nap. Her normally creamy and rosey complexion was deathly pale and her pretty, pouty mouth was pulled in a tight line as she nibbled anxiously on the inside of her cheek. Her colorful eyes were bleak and rimmed with fine red lines as she blinked rapidly to keep the moisture I could see trapped inside at bay. The finality of the fire, the absolute destruction of everything tangible that she held near and dear to her, was hitting her hard. She was trying to keep the enormity of the loss and the emotions that went with it in check, but the pain she was feeling, the hurt that was swirling around her like a living and breathing thing, couldn’t be ignored. I wanted to reach for her hand, to offer some kind of comfort and solace, but she was so close to the edge of entirely breaking that I figured I should wait until we got back to my place. She could shatter once we were there. Truthfully, the place was so sterile, so untouched by any kind of real life, that it could only be improved by the kind of mess that came with someone like this pink-haired handful. Her kind of destruction could be beautiful, if the right person was around to help her clean up the rubble and put the pieces back where they belonged.