The Favor:A Marriage of Convenience Romance(9)

By: Suzanne Wright

At least the argument hadn’t started until after I’d finished my bath. I’d needed the quiet time to wind down and relax before dinner.

Too tired to cook, I dug a microwavable mac and cheese meal out of the freezer. It might not be terribly healthy, but the meal would suit me just fine.

As I closed the freezer door, I almost knocked down one of the drawings I’d attached to it with magnets. I gently skimmed my fingers over the sheet of paper. There were five stick figures beneath which Freddie had written the names Maggie, Simon, Freddie, Vienna, and Deacon in his childish scrawl. The first four figures stood together, but the fifth stood alone—Deacon always did.

My heart squeezed. I wished I could do more to help them, particularly Simon, but I didn’t have that power. And I damn well hated that.

Once my meal was ready, I sat at my small dining table and dug into my mac and cheese. My neighbors, sadly, continued to row. And said row got louder and louder.

I closed my eyes, wishing for silence, knowing from experience that it could always be worse. This area of Redwater City, Florida might not be glamorous, but it was nicer than most. My building was secure and stable. Although my apartment was small and cramped, it was clean and well-maintained … unlike the one I’d lived in as a child.

I could still remember the smells of stale air, spoiled food, cigarette smoke, and body odor that greeted me each morning. I could remember the taste of rusty water. Could remember how hot it would get when the air conditioning failed to switch on. Could remember the dirty dishware in the sink, the piles of unwashed laundry, and the rats … God, the rats.

More, I could remember the burn of a palm slapping my face so hard it felt like my eye exploded. I could remember hands shoving me hard, feet kicking my legs or ribs, and fingertips digging into my jaw as my mother screamed in my face. It would have been a relief that she left if my entire world hadn’t then imploded. But I was grateful that I’d been fostered by Melinda and Wyatt—who’d always supported my contact with my father—even if my early years with them hadn’t been smooth sailing.

A door banged shut as the arguing cut off abruptly. Moments later, knuckles rapped hard on my front door. I pushed out of my chair, left the tiny kitchen, and crossed the equally small living area. I opened the front door, and Ashley marched inside.

“That man thinks he can lie to me and get away with it,” fumed Ashley, a flush staining her dark skin. “Nu-uh. Not as long as I’ve got a hole in my ass.”

My mouth twitching, I followed her into the kitchen. She looked about to make herself some coffee, but then she spotted the mac and cheese. “Smells good.” She sat at the table. “You done with this?” she asked, helping herself to the food.

I smiled. “I am now.” Taking the chair opposite her, I tilted my head. “So, what happened?”

Ashley shoved a forkful of food into her mouth. “I dreamed he cheated on me.”

I waited for her to expand. She didn’t. “Okay.”

“I told him about it. He said he’d never do that. But he blinked when he said it.”

I would have chuckled if she didn’t look so serious. “I don’t think he’d ever cheat on you. He loves you.” The guy worshipped her, and Ashley absolutely adored him in return. She might have a harder shell than he did, but she was a softie on the inside.

Ashley sniffed. “Hmm. He liked some bitch’s photo on social media. When I confronted him, he accused me of cyberstalking him. Like I even have time to monitor his lying ass. He shouldn’t have a problem with me logging into his account from time to time either. How is that a problem?”

“He’s probably just hurt that you don’t trust him.”

“I trust him with my life. I just don’t trust that he’s not doing stupid shit online. Heaven knows he does it at home. He keeps denying that he turned the thermostat up. Like I can’t see he did it.”

Another knock came at the front door—this one gentler. “That’s probably him,” I said, pushing to my feet.

Ashley straightened in her seat and pasted an aloof look on her face. “Probably.” But she didn’t rise from the table.