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Authors: Brinda Berry

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #New Adult, #Suspense

Chasing Luck (8 page)

BOOK: Chasing Luck
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“I think we'll both work better on a plan this morning if you get some food in you. I know you probably didn't eat yesterday. You can't help me if you pass out."

I brace myself to argue and then change my mind. He’s right. I need to get over my awkwardness with him. He’s just a person. A person who most likely has any girl he wants and definitely has no interest in a freak like me.

I rub my hand along the countertop, searching for something to say. "Can I help?"

"Can you crack an egg?" he says.

"I think so. I’ve watched chefs on television do it. I mean, how hard can it be?"

"Ah, I detect a hint of doubt. Allow me to impress you with my culinary skills. I'll show you kitchen tools. Things like a spatula and frying pan."

Ace moves around the coffee machine, examines knobs, and proceeds with making coffee here like he's done it every day. I inhale deeply and the smell of coffee makes me think of JT. Maybe it won't taste like an ashtray this time.

After pouring the black liquid into a cup, I take a sip and wrinkle my nose.

"That's why it tastes like an ashtray." Ace moves to the counter. "You have to doctor it up. See, you need some cream or milk…" He searches in the refrigerator and pulls out a carton of milk. "And you need some sugar."

"Sugar," I repeat. I open and close cabinet doors until I find it.

"You sure you live here?"

"Ha ha," I answer. I place a plastic container of sugar on the counter.

"This is how I like mine. I put about this much milk in and some sugar—I don't like the artificial stuff—and you'll see the color resembles cocoa now." He holds out the cup to me. "Taste."

I take the tiniest of sips, expecting it to be a bitter abomination. Then I take a bigger sip. "Can this one be mine?"

"That one is yours." He pulls another cup from the cupboard. "This is the most important part of starting any day."

"I think I can see why JT did this every morning. Thanks." I sit in a chair angled where I can still watch Ace. He's opening cabinet doors and drawers.

"Oh, sorry. I almost forgot. You wanted to show me spatulas."

"I was kidding. Stay there." Ace removes a cartoon of eggs from the fridge. He pulls butter and milk out. He moves with an ease that makes me understand he has this relationship with a kitchen somewhere else—maybe his own place. He grabs a bowl and cracks eggs into it.

I watch him like he’s some master chef. "I don't cook."

"I guessed that."

"How did you know?"

"You don’t know how to crack eggs and you don't know where anything is in here." He smirks. "How do you live here and not know where the sugar is?"

"We have a cook." I shrug, a little embarrassed and then angry because I have no reason to be embarrassed. It's not like JT let me do it myself or I would have. “She comes in and makes meals for the week. They’re frozen. I use the microwave and oven a lot.”

The table is positioned near a row of windows looking out onto the east lawn. I stare at a squirrel that runs up the side of a massive oak trunk.

Ace stirs the eggs. "Lots of people don't cook. I mean, really cook. I don't count nuking in the microwave as cooking."

"That counts me out then. Nuking is my specialty."

"It's understandable. You're a kid."

I bristle. "No, I'm not. I'm eighteen."

"A kid." Ace nods and pours the scrambled yellow liquid into the frying pan.

"And you are how old?"

"Twenty." He raises his eyebrows and points the spatula at me. "But I've lived like I'm thirty-five."

"Well, Old Guy, who taught you to cook?"

Ace pours the eggs into a skillet on the stove. "I taught myself. My parents got divorced when I was a kid and my mom always worked a couple of jobs. I had a brother a couple of years younger." He says this and shrugs. "Cook or starve. So who makes sure you have stuff to nuke?"

"There a lady named Gertrude who comes in to clean and do laundry. But that changes sometimes. She's been with us for two or three years. Maybe longer, maybe not. She never talks to me."

“The woman has worked here for years and you don’t know her?”

I don’t answer. The smell of cooking fills the kitchen.

He scoops steaming eggs onto a plate. Somewhere along the line, he placed bread in the toaster and I hadn't noticed. He adds those to the plate before bringing it to the table and placing it before me.

"Don't wait for me. Cold eggs are terrible," he says.

I take a bite and moan. "Oh my freaking goodness. These are the best eggs I've ever had."

"Best coffee, best eggs. Hmm…" He brings another plate to the table and sits across from me.

"I can make toast." I roll my eyes. That was the stupidest thing that's ever left my mouth.

Ace smiles across the table at me. "So, have you called the hospital to check on Billy?"

"I called several times during the night. He's in stable condition. You were right. It was his heart. The doctor says I can see him this morning."

"Good. I'll take you to visit."

"Then what?"

"Can we find out where those boxes were manufactured?"

"I'll do a web search. There's a signature."

"Signature?"

"Yeah. You know how an artist will sign a painting? The artist signed the largest box." I take my coffee cup to the pot and fill it. Then, I follow Ace's exact instructions on milk and sugar.

“So does this help us?”

“It should be easy enough to find the artist online. Everything is online these days.”
Except for you, Ace Sloan.

"Perfect. I'll clean up here and you try to find the manufacturer."

"Ace? Thanks for what you're doing."

"A paycheck is a paycheck."

The answer disappoints me, but what did I expect?

13
Ace


I
’m running on empty
; come closer. Fill me up.” ~Jelly Bean Queen

I
n Malerie's kitchen
, I open cabinet doors and take inventory like I’m preparing for the apocalypse. One full cupboard after another stretches out in front of me like a never-ending cornucopia. Checking out the supplies is a nervous habit. I don't even realize I've been doing it for ten minutes until I've completed the circle of cabinets, opened every door, checked the fridge, found the pantry. It’s like a magic hidden door to a wonderful place that could hold my living room inside. Shelves upon shelves of canned food and jars and spices in its belly. It's stocked with enough food to survive a nuclear fallout.

“What are you doing?” Malerie strolls into the middle of the kitchen. Her head’s cocked to one side and she takes baby steps toward to the commercial grade stove.

How long has she been standing there? I'm not ashamed of my idiosyncrasies, only kicking myself for doing it subconsciously.

“Nothing. Just curious,” I answer as nonchalantly as one can when caught exposed. I’ll start whistling a damn tune next if I exaggerate any more.

The fact is, no matter how far I get from my past, food matters. I take a lot of pride in the fact I made her a meal she enjoyed so much. Granted, anyone can do scrambled eggs.

My little brother Joe didn't care if I cooked or what I cooked. But I did it anyways. Truth be told, I was the hungry one. Not him. And that scared me because I was always healthy and always hungry.

It's sad that I fall into doing food inventory when I'm a grown man. I mentally mark it on my list of bad habits to break.

“Are you looking for something? Not like I know where stuff is, but I could help you look.” She takes another step forward.

“No.” I laugh at myself. “Going to get cleaned up.” I leave the kitchen and grab my socks and boots from the living room. I can’t wait to get in the shower. If the kitchen is stocked, I bet all the bathrooms are, too.

God, I love this house.

I’m not disappointed. I step into the shower that is wider than the closet in my apartment. The plate-sized showerhead has more settings than an air-traffic control room.

A half-hour later, I'm standing in front of the fireplace mantel fully dressed when she walks into the room. Her expression is very different from the earlier one when I was shirtless and she stared at me like I was buck-ass naked.

"When was this taken?" I hold up the picture frame in my hand. A younger version of Malerie leans on JT with her arm hooked into his, adoration on her face.

"Um … I think I was twelve. Maybe thirteen." Malerie sits in a chair. She opens a laptop and begins typing.

I pick up a second frame. There’s a boy, older than Malerie, standing inches from her. “And this one? Who is the guy?”

“A tutor.” She dismisses my question as if it’s of no importance.

“Not a boyfriend?”

"Umm. No."

She ignores me again, and I’m positive she doesn’t want to talk about this. Her head is bent and she’s typing on her laptop again.

The girl is so strange, but so am I. So, I let it go.

“So, what have you found?”

She glances up. "Listen, I've found the name of the artist in the San Francisco area. It came up in the first two search pages. He's been there for years."

"He has a shop?"

"Uh huh. His name is Theodore Hamlin."

"I guess he's not Asian."

"Why would he be? That's not posted on these links." She's frowning at me. "Are you stereotyping? Because I look Asian?"

"No," I protest. Her face is blank and I can't tell if she's making fun of me. "Are you Asian?"

She narrows her eyes. "Yes. Sort of. And, white boy, are you Caucasian?"

"Yeah. And I didn't call you a name." I eye her distrustfully. "The boxes just seem like they might be Asian."

She doesn't respond.

"Don't they?" I'm starting to sweat because I really think of all the things I could say to purposefully irritate her, the Asian remark is not one. I could say she's privileged or sheltered or condescending.

"My mother was Chinese American. I’m half," she says without looking up from the laptop.

"I only asked because I thought it might give us a clue related to the boxes."

Her head pops up. She gives me a surprised smile and I try to remember if I’ve seen her smile before. She exudes sex-and-candy promises without any effort. She has no idea of the things I’d like to do with her. I was better off before she pulled out the big guns that could make me offer to do anything.

"So what does it say about the artist?" I ask, wanting to get back on track and needing her to quit smiling.

"He's got a shop in the Mission district. I have an address." She moves from the chair and produces a pen and paper. "Here's the address. I'll pay you for all the travel, of course. You should leave immediately."

"Wait up. I said I would help you, but I'm being paid to provide security. Like a job. I can't just up and travel cross country to find this box maker."

I watch her face and she's got this odd look. She closes the laptop lid one centimeter at a time and she's breathing deeper than she was earlier.

It's the same look she gave me the first time in the restaurant and it's not the same. This time is more controlled.

"Oh. Sure. I don't need you. I can go do it myself," she says.

"Okay," I say. But it’s not okay. She is killing me with the way she looks so vulnerable. Breakable. "No. I mean, no. You can't. Someone almost killed you here last night and you can't go by yourself."

"You can't tell me what to do." She's pale and I swear she’s shaking. She clutches the laptop to her chest and bolts from the room, her feet on the stairs before her exit has even registered.

I shake my head at where I know this is leading in spite of my better judgment. So much for thinking I’m wiser.

"Wait, Malerie," I yell from the bottom of the stairs. She's not in sight and I take the steps two at a time. It's a hotel-length hallway and I'm noticing that all the doors look alike. Hers is the one at the end with an open doorway. She sits in the center of her bed still holding the laptop. Her head is down on her knees.

"Hey. Are you okay?" I sit on the bed slowly like I might detonate her with movement.

She doesn't answer.

I lean forward and put my palm on the back of her neck. Her hair is covering her face and I rub a thumb across her skin. "It's going to be fine."

"I know," she says with her head down. "I need to go. I know I do. And it's too much to ask you to help me.” She raises her head.

"I think…” I stop talking. I haven’t felt protective urges like this since Joe was alive. It’s the-same-but-not-the-same and it scares the hell out of me.

"No. It's fine." She pauses. "I can do this. I'm not afraid," she says. "I'm not afraid," she repeats.

I have to stop her before the third time. "Okay. I'll go. We'll go together."

T
he hospital is
a maze of white corridors and antiseptic smells. People walk by us with preoccupied looks—focused on what comes next for someone they care about. The fact that the layout of this building is so convoluted still troubles me. Why an architect would make it so difficult for people to find rooms is beyond my comprehension. I'd never build it like a Halloween cornfield, full of turns and dead ends.

But I memorized the hospital blueprint one summer. I could walk this place with my eyes shut.

I attempt to shake the morose feeling that's settled on me.

A pretty nurse smiles at me when Malerie and I pass her station. She's standing, shuffling paperwork behind the counter, looking professional and efficient. The look she gives me isn't professional. It's interested and assessing.

I smile back and it helps to shove my depressing thoughts to the storage closet of my mind.

"I'm sure she'd give you her number," Malerie says.

"Maybe. Who said I wanted it?" I don't break eye contact with the nurse.

"Whatever."

The ICU area is sectioned into tiny rooms with glass walls. Curtains can be drawn across the glass if a patient needs more privacy, but most of the walls are open to the nurses' station.

I can feel the nurse still staring at me, which is my own fault since I gave her the once-over and ended with a let’s-get-friendly smile. The nurse is not going to be enough to neutralize the thoughts pinging around in my head.

I stand back to let Malerie enter the room first. If I hang back and wait outside the door, I'll be stuck in the same room with the nurse. So, I follow Malerie inside.

Billy lies with both hands folded on his chest. His face is slack and breathing steady. There's an IV tube attached to his left hand and a heart monitor beeps low. Hushed voices at the nurses’ station bleed into the room.

Billy's eyelids flutter, hesitating in motion. He whispers, "I…”

"Hey.” Malerie's voice is gentle. "How are you?"

"You can only stay five minutes. Visiting is very limited in this area," A nurse says. She reads a machine and punches keys on a tablet she rolls on a stand around the room.

Billy focuses on Malerie with laser beam accuracy for someone who looks like he's about to kick the proverbial bucket. "I'm…"

"You can barely talk. For once, you get to listen to me." Malerie puts her finger to her mouth.

I watch them together. She's fond of him after all. I think. But the connection I saw between her and JT is missing.

He glances over at me and shakes his head. Points. Drops his hand. "You…”

“Shh. I’m fine,” Malerie assures him.

Billy makes eye contact with me and I step forward. "I'm going to take her away from your house for a few days. I'm taking care of everything. Don't worry."

Billy nods.

"I've got this. I'm going to take her out of here now. We'll call and check on you. Okay?"

Billy closes his eyes, nods, and drifts almost instantly to sleep.

As we leave the ICU, I don't look at the nurse because I don’t need the distraction. All I can think about is how I’m going to keep my distance from Malerie for the next few days if we travel together.

S
eated
next to Malerie on the plane, I flip through the pages of the magazine from the seat pocket. It's the first time for me to fly but she doesn't have to know that. I'm in awe that this huge-ass metal beast can lift from the ground.

She fidgets in her seat and bites her bottom lip. I’m hypnotized by the way it reddens her mouth. I give myself a mental shake.

"Hey." I lean forward and look out the window on her left. "Great day. Look at that sky." Overhead, downy pillows of clouds dot the bright blue canvas.

"Really? I'll take your word for it." She's not looking me in the eye but staring hard at the headrest of the blue seat in front of her.

Even though it's obvious she's nervous about something, she doesn't lose that attitude. I can deal with a smart mouth easier than the shaky vibe she's giving off. "What's up, Malerie? Don't like to fly?"

"Like?" She snorts and glares at the ceiling of the plane. "I like it about as much as getting a root canal without anesthesia."

"Flying makes you nervous, huh?" I chuckle. "Statistics say—"

"We could get off now and drive." Her voice rises like piano scales being played. "Come on. We should drive. It would be fun. We could—"

"We can't drive to San Francisco."

She shakes her head and doesn't respond. Her lips are mashed together, her nostrils are flared, and her gaze is drilling into the headrest again.

"Come on. It'll be fine." I glance down and see she’s white-knuckling her knees.

"I—" The rest of my sentence is gone when I see her entire body is trembling. "Hey." My hand moves to her knee. "It's going to be fine. You really hate to fly, huh?"

"Talk to me," she mutters. "About anything."

"How about something to read." I hand her the other magazine from the seat pocket. I'm not so good at the talking thing. An airline attendant moves down the aisle and closes overhead bins. A kid in the seat in front of Malerie stands and peers over the top of the seat at her.

"She gonna be sick?" The kid swings like a pendulum back and forth with both chubby hands gripping the headrest. His white-blond hair reminds me of my brother's.

"No," I answer the kid. I glance at Malerie, who looks one negative thought away from a meltdown. "She's fine."

The kid doesn't turn around. I’d guess he’s about four years old and his mom smiles at us over her shoulder. "What's your name?" he asks.

"Ace." I clasp my hands together and lean my head back comfortably. If I watch Malerie much longer, I'll be as nervous as she is. Flying must be rough.

"Your girlfriend is pretty."

I raise an eyebrow. Girlfriend? Then I realize he's talking about Malerie. "She's not…" I peer sidelong to see she's paying attention for the moment. "Why, thanks little dude. She's really pretty. If you like that overly pretty type—pretty hair, pretty eyes, pretty—"

Malerie elbows me in the side. She's blushing and not looking at the kid or at me.

The kid’s mother orders him to sit and he does. After the attendant gives a set of instructions on how to tighten the seatbelt, how to place the oxygen mask on, and basically how to act like a plane going down is a walk in the park, I steal a peek at Malerie. She's not paying attention but looking out the window.

I lean toward her. "You okay?" I hate to ask. I wouldn't want to talk about my fear with someone if the roles were reversed.

"Yeah. No. I'm fine."

The plane taxis down the runway. We're gaining speed and lifting off the ground. The vibration rumbles through me and matches the accelerating beat of my heart. It's an adrenaline rush I may only get this first time, and I savor it.

Malerie still grips her armrests. Her head is pressed back against her seat, and I'm sure she's not breathing.

"See? We're off the ground. Everything will be okay." I hate that last line that slipped out. I said it so many times in the past to my brother. And it wasn't true.

BOOK: Chasing Luck
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