Authors: Nicole Brightman
Room to Breathe
By Nicole Brightman
This book is dedicated to my mom, Cyndi DeLong. Thank you for always believing in me no matter what. You have been a constant source of strength and an example of what I hope to be. No one is more kind and generous than you are. I love you more than chocolate!
I wipe the bar counter for at least the fifth time in the past hour. I really thought that two days after New Year’s Eve would be slower, but in the tiny English village of Edgecombe, entertainment is hard to come by. So I am not surprised a Lord from the area visiting the pub has caused such a commotion. It is a small pub, not unlike most little English pubs. It feels as though it has been here forever and is always a happy and lively place. The inside is mostly wood and maybe a little too dark, but it has a warm, inviting atmosphere.
“Cora, I need another bottle of scotch,” Maggie says as she places her tray on the bar. Maggie is my cousin and my only friend in England. We have become so close that it is obvious we are blood relatives, but we couldn’t look less alike. She is about ten years older than me and looks it. She is very slender and has pretty much no curves. I have always had more of an athletic build with round hips and backside. Her hair is straight brown and much longer than my own blonde that falls a few inches past my shoulders.
“Really? Another one?” I ask, raising my eyebrows. “That would be the third. How is that guy even still sitting up?”
I push my hair behind my ears. Maggie is always after me to keep it pulled back while working but I really prefer to have it down. She gives me a small look of annoyance, which I ignore.
“He isn’t drinking it all, Cora. In England we like to buy each other drinks as a sign of goodwill,” Maggie rolls her eyes at me. “Really, Mr. Johnson has had more than his Lordship.”
“Yeah, believe it or not people do that in the America too.” I roll my eyes right back at her. I have lived in Edgecombe for two years but most people still treat me as though I just arrived, even Maggie. I place a new bottle of scotch and some clean glasses on Maggie’s tray. “Here, and make sure that Mr. Johnson gets a ride home.”
“I will,” Maggie says, picking up the tray. “I pity him when he goes home. Mrs. Johnson won’t care if it was the Queen herself he was drinking with. You know Cora, you should be the one bringing his Lordship drinks. He is terribly handsome and it’s completely wasted on this happily married woman.” Maggie smiles broadly at me.
It seems as though every week Maggie has found someone else that I am destined to be with. Three days ago it was fate that the new liquor delivery driver was single. I have never had trouble finding men to be with. I don’t think I am super-model beautiful but I do think I am pretty. If you also consider there are not a lot of single girls my age in the area it is pretty easy for me to find a man that I could be with. The hard part has been finding a man I
to be with.
“Um, that’s okay. He isn’t my type,” I smile, shrugging her off. Honestly, I barely glanced at the Lord when he came in. I have been way too busy to try to check out someone I am certain I won’t ever see again. Even if I try, at my average height I am sure I still won’t be able to get a good look over the crowd of local men around him.
“Ha! Oh, dearie I forgot handsome and rich is so unappealing,” Maggie laughs as she walks away.
I remain busy until about an hour before closing time when Maggie comes and tells me she will finish up for the night. I am grateful to be getting off my feet and out of the chaotic bar. I kiss Maggie’s cheek and go into the back to grab my jacket and bag. I hear the noise in the pub swell and decide to leave out the back door.
I step out into the night air and take a deep breath. It has gotten colder since night fall. I pull on a grey zip-up hoodie over my black V-neck shirt and jeans. It has been unseasonably warm for the past few weeks, so I had decided to walk to the pub earlier. I only live a few blocks away so the cold shouldn’t be too bad.
Growing up, winter had always been my favorite season. I spent my whole life prior to moving to England in a small town in Oregon. It is a popular tourist destination so the winter was our down time. My father had grown up in Edgecombe before moving to America. He always talked about how wonderful it was, so when my cousin needed help with the pub and caring for my ailing aunt, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. My aunt passed away nine months ago. I have found myself unable to decide if I want to return to America or stay here in England.
Looking around the small town while walking home it is easy to see why I am torn. The narrow street is paved with cobble stones. On either side are a variety of businesses that make life a little more convenient in the country. They are so close to each other that the majority of them are touching at least one other building. Most of the buildings are centuries old and have apartments either above or behind.
My cousin’s pub is no exception with a two bedroom apartment above. Maggie uses the second bedroom as a sewing room leaving only the main bedroom for her and her husband. I had been living with my aunt when she passed. It didn’t really make sense to try and find a different place to live so I stayed. The apartment (or “flat” as everyone here calls it) is small but very cozy. It is attached to the local barber shop and usually pretty quiet.
I am about half way home when Mrs. Johnson drives by. She is probably on her way to collect her husband from the pub. I have seen her come in to get him a few times before. Maggie is right to pity Mr. Johnson. His wife is going to kill him.
I am so busy laughing to myself about poor Mr. Johnson’s fate that I trip over an uneven stone. I am lucky and in arms reach of an eighteenth century lamp post to catch myself. I stand up just in time to hear what sounds like another car coming from behind me. I turn to see if it is the Johnson’s and notice the headlights are pointed right where I am standing. I scream and throw myself to the right to get out of the path of the car.
I hear the unmistakable sound of a car screeching to a halt followed by metal on metal. I lay on the ground for a moment too scared to move. I do a quick inventory and it seems that my right arm and ankle are hurt. Considering I was almost run over and killed, I am okay.
Holy fuck, I was almost run over and killed.
As soon as the thought enters my mind I feel my chest tighten. I can’t breathe. I can feel the panic start to take hold of me as I hear the driver get out of the car and start walking towards me. I need to get up. I need to get out of here. I sit up but my head spins and I can’t stand.
“Are you alright?” he asks with obvious concern in his voice.
“Panic. Attack,” is all I can manage to get out. My voice sounds strange and strangled.
“Do you need me to call an ambulance?”
“No!” I can’t bear that thought.
“Okay, okay. No ambulance,” his tone is soft. I close my eyes and try to stifle the tears I can feel building. It has been years since a panic attack has gripped me this strongly.
“Okay, just breathe. Focus on your breathing and only your breathing. Focus on making your inhale and exhale the same length.” I feel him place his hand on my left arm. His touch is like a guide post, anchoring me back to reality. Even after living in England for two years I can’t get enough of the accent. His is polished and his voice is velvety and warm, making it easy to do as he asks. After a few moments I feel my breathing return to normal.
“Thank you. I am good now,” I say when I am sure the panic has subsided.
I look up at the driver for the first time. He is so attractive that I feel thrown and my cheeks burn hot.
He is wearing a black suit with a vest. It is tailored to perfection and probably cost more than my whole wardrobe. The white button up shirt underneath is open at the neck and worn without a tie. His dark brown hair is trimmed without being too short and the way it falls seems to echo his overall air of casual elegance.
He has kind, rich brown eyes that burn with a fire behind them. His skin has just a touch of bronze to it as though the sun gently kissed him. I couldn’t blame the sun as his lips are perfectly full. They look so soft. I instinctively bite my bottom lip.
“Are you sure you are okay?” he says as he raises one eyebrow. I realize that I have been staring at him wordlessly for too long.
“Yeah, I am sorry. I guess I am still just a little shaken.”
“Are you hurt at all?”
“My arm is scraped pretty bad and I think my ankle is sprained,” I answer as I try to stand up. I wince when I try to put weight on my right ankle. The driver is just starting at me with a puzzled look. “Do you think you could help me up?”
“Oh, sorry. Here, please let me have your arm.” He takes my elbow and holds me steady while I balance on my left leg. “Are you sure I can’t call someone for you?”
“I am sure. I just live over there,” I point to the door leading to my little home. As I pull my arm from his grasp I catch an unmistakable whiff of alcohol.
I instantly start to get very angry. I look over at the damaged Jaguar and lamp post. No matter how stunning this guy may be he could have killed me, or himself, or someone else.
“I think you might want to call someone for yourself though,” I say trying to maintain my calm.
. “What in the fuck do you think you are doing driving? You could have killed me or yourself. If you don’t care about your own safety you could at least try to be considerate of other people. I am pretty sure that whatever your reason is for getting behind that wheel it isn’t worth my life.”
I give him my best glare. He looks at me surprised for a few seconds. He takes a deep breath and then sighs.
“You are right,” he says as he looks down at the ground. “I am sorry. What I did was foolish and self-centered. I was being a stupid bastard. Please let me help you home at least. I really am very sorry.”
He slips his arm around me providing me with enough support to walk. Being this close to him I am able to tell that he is much taller than me. His shoulders are broad and muscular. His arm is strong against me, easily cradling my weight. It seems strange to me how comfortable it feels to be so close to him. His embrace is warm and almost familiar.
“I didn’t catch your name,” he says as we start the short walk to my home.
“Cora; Cora Allen,” I don’t trust myself to say much more while he is still touching me.
“Well, Cora Allen, I am Eric Ashford. I think I saw you working at the pub tonight.”
“Oh, really?” I ask as we reach my door and he releases me. “I didn’t see you but I couldn’t really see anyone since that Lord was taking up half the bar all night.”
“I apologize if that was an inconvenience for you. It was certainly not my intent. I just found your patrons to be so good natured and entertaining I lost track of time. In fact, I am fairly certain you are the only person that was in that pub tonight that didn’t come speak to me,” he says with a slight grin. He obviously finds it funny I didn’t recognize he was the Lord from the bar.
“Oh, no. It was fine. I just meant that I really didn’t get a chance to look around at everyone much because it was crowded,” I fumble, trying to cover. There is no way that worked.
“Well Cora, here is my card,” he mercifully ignores my slip and produces a cream colored card with black writing. “All of my contact information is on here. Please let me know if there are any problems with your arm or ankle. I will be more than happy to pay any medical bills. It was a pleasure to meet you Cora.” He brings my hand to his lips in a very proper way.
“You too, Lord Ashford,” I feel uncomfortable calling nobility by their first name even if he is using mine. I still can’t believe I told off a Lord.
“I greatly prefer Eric and look forward to seeing you again,” Eric says with that slight smile again.
I give him a half smile and go inside. I turn from the door and steady myself for the long walk across the main room. On the first step I am forced to put weight on my injured ankle, I wince in pain. Lord Eric Ashford sure knows how to make an impression.
As Cora closes the door behind her, Eric stands there listening for the lock to click into place. He reaches in his pocket for his cell phone and calls his assistant.
“Dean, a bottle of scotch got the better of me, mate. Can you meet me outside the pub in Edgecombe?”
“I had a feeling that would happen. Jefferson owes me five quid. I will be right there,” Dean agrees.
“You will need to send someone to tow the Jag. Oh and I think I found a new charge tonight,” Eric adds with a grin as he hangs up the phone.
He stands there for a moment staring at the light in the window, thinking about Cora Allen. Eric imagines her lovely body as she slips out of her clothes. He wants to see her large blue eyes sparkle as he runs his hands over her naked form. He wants to make her bite her plump bottom lip again. Eric’s head swims slightly reminding him of his current circumstances. He feels awful about her getting hurt and thankful it isn’t worse. He is shocked by his own stupidity.
As Eric starts to make his way back to the pub he decides he will have to find a way to apologize better. Perhaps tomorrow is a good day to get to know his new favorite bartender.