15. Comfort From the Storm
Amber rested her hips against the cold porcelain of the sink in the bathroom. Eyes closed, hands still cold from the water she had splashed against her face. She was tired, drained. Exhausted. Her bed called her from just down the hall; she had even moved the bat there, to its place beside the bed after one of the men that had been in her house had moved it from its place by the couch.
She was afraid to go to sleep, afraid to lie down in her own bed. That sort of pissed her off; it wasn’t fair, to come all of the way out here and still be afraid. It wasn’t hard for her to picture that thought, that fear, going through the mind of another woman. That other woman would likely look in the mirror and convince herself, probably quite easily too, light-hearted laugh and all, that she was being silly.
It wasn’t silly, it was serious, dead serious. It was one thing to hear someone say they would kill you. People said stuff like that all the time. It was something else entirely to look into someone’s eyes and know that they would in fact kill you. There was no shame in being afraid; it just made her feel tired. This wasn’t what she wanted to be.
Hands pulled down across her face, dragging her good eye open with them as they sank. There was no shame in the fear but she wouldn’t live in that place anymore. “This is fucking dumb, Amber. You can’t live like this,” she muttered at her reflection; the dark purple bruise said it wasn’t dumb, not one bit.
Flicking water off her hands and drying the rest off on her pajama bottoms, Amber took a deep breath and stepped out into the hallway, looking up automatically at the wiring hidden up there. They had done a good job; if she hadn’t known where to look, she never would have seen it. She wasn’t completely sure if it made her feel safer or not.
Tenuous, it lacked solidity. Amber knew that if she hit the panic button by her bed, or in any of the other places that they were installed throughout the house, that an alarm would sound in the garage next door. Surveillance cameras outside would capture anything amiss. All of that had the feel of something that would capture an event that had already happened. Too late. “The footage would likely move the jury to tears,” but it wouldn’t do her a damned bit of good, she thought out loud.
“I’m talking to myself again.” Shaking her head as she walked down the hallway to her bedroom. Silently crossing the threshold, Amber walked over and sat on the edge of the bed, picking up the baseball bat. Not quite absently. The red bow looked even more bedraggled than before, sweat stained where it wrapped tightly around the handle. Not able to laugh off being afraid, she could laugh at that, that ridiculous bow. That was a solidity she could get behind. Not quite enough to make her unafraid, but it was a start.
When the knock on her front door came, she let out a startled squawk, knuckles white on the bat. Without thought she had jumped to her feet. Not in preparation for escape, but ready to fight. Only when the knock came again did her heart stop its painful slam in her chest. Alan wouldn’t knock.
Not willing to drop the bat, perhaps not even aware she still carried it, she walked out to the front door. Cautious. Dom had his fist raised to knock once more when Amber pulled the door open. She looked at his raised fist and he dropped it. Dom looked at the bat still gripped tightly in her right hand, ready to swing on anyone that came through the door. Amber rested the bat against the door jamb, just inside, before grinning up at Dom. “That was friendly, I guess.”
Dom snorted, an almost cocky grin pulling up the corner of his lip, as he took a step back from the door. Eying the plates he carried, Amber stepped out onto the porch, barefoot. The plates balanced along the length of one arm, the edges braced against his chest; he would have needed a free hand to knock on the door. Mia had said that he helped out in the diner; that was still sort of hard to picture, even now.
“Mia said you’d probably not want to cook anything,” he said by way of an offer, holding out a plate to her.
She hadn’t been hungry and, if the plate wasn’t right there, it would have been morning before it occurred to her to eat again. Except now that it was right in front of her, she was ravenous. The huge cheeseburger and mountain of fries was about the finest meal she had ever seen. Her belly roared out its appreciation, a deep rumbling noise that had Dom raise his eyebrows at her, the smirk a full blown smile.
The polite thing to do would have been to step back, ushering Dom into her home where they could eat at the table with the benefit of cutlery and decorum. Instead, as though pulled forward by her nose, Amber stepped closer, took the offered plate and sat on the top step of the porch, the plate balanced on her knees.
A hip leaning against the porch rail, Dom looked uncomfortable for a moment. Nothing drawn out, nothing that would draw too much attention. Just a moment of unease. Stay or go; he’d never ask. Amber tilted her head in his direction, as she gathered up the burger that she had just flattened, so it would be easier to eat. Sucking ketchup off her thumb, she pointed at the spot beside her on the top porch step, before turning back to her burger.
Dom sat beside her on the top step, making sure to keep a good foot and a half between them. It wasn’t something he would have thought about with anyone else. You sat down, you ate. Except here he was worrying about making her nervous; he didn’t want her to be nervous around him and, from the casual way that she had invited him to sit beside her, she wasn’t.
Dom wolfed down about half of his burger; Amber wasn’t far behind him, but she had already slowed down. Mia made a mean hamburger. Taking another huge mouthful, he looked over at her as she worked over another bite. He knew that she wouldn’t finish it, but it wasn’t for any lack of trying. Her eyes were closed as she chewed and she let out a contented sigh as she swallowed, absently playing with a french fry. “Oh damn, that’s so good.”
Not much to say either way on that score, Dom just nodded in agreement, the rest of his meal disappearing quickly. His hips shifted as he put his plate on a lower step just out of the rain, boots crossed, stretched out. Just beyond, fat drops of water fell off the edge of a gutter that was badly in need of cleaning.
Amber looked down at her plate, amazed that she had managed to eat as much as she had in such a short space of time. Not really hungry anymore but unwilling to put her plate aside, she nibbled at a few more fries, half-heartedly, before she looked over at Dom and slid her plate towards him. “If I eat another thing, I think I’ll explode.”
Dom polished off the rest of her burger, leaving her the fries, the plate still between them. Amber had moved down one step, so that her bare toes edged out into the warm rain. Absently eating another couple of fries, Dom watched her lean back just a little, braced on her arms, making room for a full belly. That she felt comfortable enough with him to relax, even a little, pleased him; he took the opportunity to watch her.
The bruise across her eye, her fattened split lip, were both on the other side of her face, away from him. From where he sat, the damage couldn’t be seen, outside of a little puffiness in her bottom lip. She was smiling. Nothing radiant, nothing that would get anyone’s attention, but then it wasn’t meant to. Like Mia, she smiled when the mood struck her, not when it would please someone else; she wasn’t even looking at him, but out across the darkening desert sky. At the rain that fell in ever fatter drops until it bounced off the hardened ground. At the yips of the coyotes.
Realizing that he was staring at her again, at the curve of her neck, at the way the cooling night air tightened her nipples through her plain white tank tee, he shook his head. Tearing his eyes away, he looked up before closing his eyes; the rain sounded the same on her roof as it did on his.
She moved quickly, turning, wet feet leaving a pattern of footprints up the steps. “Know what this needs,” she said absently, as though she was there by herself. Leaning back on an elbow, his eyes followed her as she disappeared into the house. Muscles bunched as he automatically prepared to follow and then he relaxed; she was within earshot. Safe. It wasn’t the only reason he wanted to follow her, but that was a thought he pushed far back.
Just as quickly she was back, carrying a half of a bottle of tequila, a couple of glasses and a bag of Oreo cookies. Laughter rolled out of him, it was so unexpected. It shouldn’t have been; he remembered the first day that she had moved in, when she had raised the bottle to him. He had refused then, distrustful and angry; he didn’t now.
The cookies got dropped in the place between them and Amber sat back, on a lower step this time, her toes back out in the rain. The two mismatched glasses got plunked down on one of the steps; Dom had remembered getting rid of her box of broken dishes on a day when she had been at work. Two had been spared, apparently, or she had got them from somewhere else. Gas station glasses. It was fitting.
His hand covered the glass before she poured and she looked up, a little startled. Confused, the start of hurt, all swirled across her face quickly and then she was pulling back. Dom reached out and took the bottle from her hand before she could find that safe small place to hide, taking a pull straight out of the bottle. From hurt, through confused and back to smiling again, until Amber grinned at him, taking the bottle from his hand, taking a pull.
The tequila was good; it bit and burned a path down to his belly but didn’t make his eyes water. “Probably should have taken you up on your offer the first night.”
Amber set the bottle back down on the space between them, sucking in air, letting it out in a whoosh, grinning. “Nah, difficult was fun too.” She felt weird, like laughing and crying at the same time, and leaned forward, hugging her knees.
Difficult. Dom snorted and took another pull of tequila, fishing out a couple of Oreos; most of them were broken. Difficult was one way to put it. Mia had put it a little differently. Called him an asshole which sounded about right even if it had pissed him off at the time. He hadn’t liked the language but he liked it even less when Mia had spelled out all the ways that he was just that, an asshole. Dom muttered around a mouthful of Oreos. “Didn’t mean to be difficult.” He had been, and had wanted to be difficult, but it was hard to reconcile that with how things were now.
Resting her bruised cheek on her knee, Amber looked around at him, quickly. Then turned back to look out into the rain again. A snort. “You weren’t all THAT difficult, believe me.”
‘She’d know,’ he thought. “Still, I could have been nicer, I guess.” That felt awkward, apologizing had never been his strong point and the few times that he had done it, it left him feeling drained.
Amber didn’t turn back to look at him this time, just looked out across her front yard, to the road beyond. Behind her, Dom was quiet and the minutes drew out. Amber broke the silence. “So. You know why I live way the hell out in the middle of nowhere. How about you?”
Dom realized that she was making conversation. With some other woman, he’d know where it was leading. Not that a hell of a lot of talk was required, but that wasn’t where Amber was going. Her talk was just talk. He leaned forward and absently took another pull from the bottle before passing it back to her, nudging her shoulder with it.
Stifling a yawn, Amber reached back and took another pull. It was dark, cold. She’d been through hell and should be in bed, but wasn’t. All day, there had been people around to keep her mind off this moment, when she would have to go back to her house and be alone. She was scared. ‘Took you long enough to catch on.’
Taking the bottle off her, Dom scooted down one step. A little closer to her, but not close enough to touch, he came back to the question she had asked. “Coming out here was as far away as I could get without leaving the country.” He didn’t look at her when he said it, just looked out across the road. Which is exactly what he had wanted to do, leave the country. Parole made that difficult and if he simply left, he could never see Mia again. Asking her to drop everything, her life. Brian, her kids, and go with him wasn’t an option. It might have been when he was younger, but not any more.
Turning on the stair, Amber looked back up at him, laughter bubbling up out of her. Catching Dom’s sudden frown, Amber held her hands up, turning a little more, taking in the porch and the tiny house in the middle of the desert. The middle of nowhere. As far as she could go without having to get shots.
“S’pose so.” Dom’s smile was quick, and left just as quickly. It was more than that for him, her too; they both made light of the situation. Why Amber had left was painfully clear; it was why she was out here now, afraid to go to sleep in her own house. A flip answer wasn’t what she deserved; her life had been ripped open. She deserved more. “I’m a parolee, I can’t leave the country anyway.”
He expected condemnation; he hated that he had gone to prison and hated more when he had to tell anyone. He got none; Amber was quiet, holding her knees as she took a deeper pull from the bottle. It was as though she was just listening to his voice. Enjoying his company. It occurred to him that women didn’t really talk to him, not to talk, and he rarely talked to them. They would throw themselves at him. Sometimes he would offer a few words back, but it wasn’t a conversation, just killing time until he got what he wanted. Until they did.
Quietly, he told Amber about prison the first time, and the team. The feds. She turned once, a little surprised, when he told her about Brian. About prison the second time. Dom couldn’t remember the last time he had talked so much to a woman. Even Mia, but then again, Mia knew his whole life already. There was Brian, and of course Jim, but that wasn’t really the same thing at all. Amber didn’t know anything at all about him. Not the ‘old‘ him, not what he used to be. It felt strange to divulge that, but if anyone had earned that honesty, Amber had.
Trying to be polite, Amber hid her yawn, turned away from him, but he could see the tendons at the side of her neck stretch with the strain; she was done in. “Guess we both left a lot of stuff behind,” she added, with a short laugh.
He had spoken for about half an hour, more or less, but Amber spelled it out in a mere handful of words. “I should go grab a sweatshirt or something if I’m going to stay out here,” she slurred a little; part of it was the tequila, but most of it was exhaustion. It wasn’t like she had that much to drink; a few ounces on a full stomach.
Dom sat behind her before she could stand up, pulling her back down easily. She stiffened a little as his arms went around her; he could feel her heart race, right through her back. If she was someone else, he would have done a lot more. Then again, if she was someone else, he could have had what he wanted long before now. It wasn’t like that with her, it wasn’t about fucking, which is what he would have done. A long time ago. “You’re cold,” he said simply, his hands not traveling to her breasts but to her arms which he rubbed up and down.
Slowly she settled, her heart stopped racing and she relaxed a little. Dom didn’t push; if she left now to grab a sweatshirt, or just to break the tension, she might not come back out. It wasn’t hard to imagine her sitting on the other side of the porch, away from him. It caught him off guard a little, just how much he didn’t want that to happen. The night before, he had held her as she slept on the couch. Wasn’t planned, by her or him, but it was nice. Loneliness was something he tried not to think about too often but it was there all the same, whether he wanted to deal with it or not.
They talked a little more. Amber asked him about racing and he answered, but it was her nerves talking. Relaxing into him finally, fatigue settled over her, lulled by the drone of his voice. He talked about Race Wars and the cars, about the team. Even talked about the women, as she fell asleep.
The skin across her arms raised in goosebumps where it didn’t touch his and her bare feet were pale but still Dom didn’t move her. Although he knew that he should. It felt a little cold to him. Staying out here in the cold with her just to do it was stupid and selfish. At least he knew it.
Eyes closed he rested his nose against the skin of her neck, ready to pull back if she woke. She didn’t. Given everything that had happened to her in the past twenty-four hours, that she let him hold her, even if she didn’t really have much choice in the matter, affected him. He was too old to lie to himself about that.
She had closed the door behind her when she came out with the booze. When Dom finally moved, he had all the reasons in place for what he did, running them through his head. It sounded logical but only right at that moment, and he knew that it wouldn’t wash. Not later when he thought about it, and definitely not with Mia.
For such a big guy, he could move silently when he needed to, be gentle when he needed to, and Amber didn’t wake when he picked her up. Even then, he stayed on the porch for a couple of minutes to make sure that she was still asleep before he moved. Amber had closed the door to her house when she brought out the tequila. One of the quick excuses that he made, thinking that maybe she locked it. That wouldn’t hold up either but he was most of the way across the gravel driveway, shielding Amber’s face from the rain.
The door to his room was rarely locked and he toed it open, walking soundlessly across the wooden floor. It had been a very long time since Dom had been nervous with a woman. A damned long time. But he was nervous now, that she would wake up and maybe get the wrong idea. She stirred once, as he pulled the blanket back and laid her on his bed. Exhaustion played in his favor; she shifted once, her body curling, seeking comfort.
Gently he pulled the blanket over her, watching her carefully as she whimpered softly in her sleep before being pulled under. Standing, he toed off his boots and curled up behind her, on top of the blanket.
‘Playing dirty pool here, Dom, you fucker.’
Like so many things, knowing it didn’t change it. And his intentions were pure, for what it was worth. It had been a damned long time since he could say that and mean it. In fact, he had never said it, not once before in his life, and it wasn’t as if he had planned it beforehand.
‘No, just took advantage of it when you could. Asshole.’
Except that wasn’t entirely true and he wasn’t really taking advantage. She was exhausted, had a bit to drink, maybe not a lot, but maybe enough. She was afraid. And it had felt so damned good to hold her as she slept the night before. It wasn’t something that she had been aware of, not something either of them had planned on happening either. Just happened.
Dom had fucked a lot of women, a hell of a lot, but he didn’t spend the night with them. He didn’t sleep with them. They left or he left.
There had been Letty. Dom bit his lip so he wouldn’t laugh. The thing that he had come to learn about Letty was that she was a lot like him, so much so that he grew to hate it. When they were done fucking, she didn’t want anything else to do with him. They slept in the same bed, but they couldn’t be said to have shared it.
Letty had ‘her‘ side of the bed, which usually meant all of it by the end of the night. She kicked and sometimes Dom had the impression it wasn’t something that she did entirely in her sleep. She hogged the bed, hogged the blankets. Greedy. When she wanted something, she wanted all of it and didn’t give a shit about anyone else around her. And she snored.
More often than not, he’d get pissed off and go sleep in the garage. That was kind of funny now considering where he lived but he often wondered if it was an act on her part. If she just wanted him out of her bed when she was done with him, much as he had done with countless of other women.
So maybe Letty didn’t really count either. Before Letty there had been Mia. She would get scared too sometimes and run into his room and dive under the covers. Her sharp elbows would dig in, but it wasn’t to drive him out of his own bed, she just wanted to get closer. To be safe. A little girl should never have had to listen to the sound of gunfire at night and try to gauge the distance, but they didn’t have a hell of a lot of money at the time. That’s when he had started to streetrace instead of pushing a broom at the track, to make enough money so that she wouldn’t have to hear that sound again.
Carefully, Dom wrapped his arm around Amber, pulling her close, and fell asleep.
Mia waved one last time as Brian pulled out of the driveway before she darted up the back steps of the diner out of the drizzling rain. “Damn,” she muttered under her breath as she fished out her keys. Most of the time Dom would have been up by now, at least once, to get a cup of coffee or something to eat. He hadn’t always been a morning person; that too had changed when he got out of prison.
Still half expecting to see him sitting at the diner counter out front, she walked out there, looking at the still cold coffee machine. No Dom. His car was still out back and Mia didn’t really expect that he would leave, not with Amber next door.
Circling the kitchen, Mia turned on the flat top and started up a pot of strong coffee, still expecting her big brother to come up the back steps any minute. Setting two cups on the counter, she made him a cup of coffee anyway; if he wasn’t awake now, he would be soon enough. It didn’t happen often but it wouldn’t be the first time that she had to wake him up. Technically he didn’t have to work late, but it happened sometimes. If he was some other guy, Mia would have worried about walking in on him, but she knew that any woman he was with was always gone in the morning; Dom didn’t talk about it it, but she knew.
With the two cups in one hand, she darted quickly out of the back door of the diner and across the driveway, eying the cups carefully when she got under the small cover above his door. She had lost about half of the coffee on the way across. Laughing a little, she dumped her cup into Dom’s and took a gulp of the little bit that was left before she settled a hip against Dom’s door.
Some of the instincts that Dom had picked up in prison never left and when his door creaked open slowly, he woke immediately. His arm still protectively around Amber, he turned to look towards the foot of his bed just as Mia dropped the coffee cups that she held.
“You fucking son of a bitch!”
Copyright © November 2007