She smiled, genuinely this time. “What did you do, walk here?”
“Hank lent me his truck.”
Her eyes widened. “Hank? Really?” She shook her head. “He must really like you.”
“I guess so,” I said. “Looks like you’re taking a little sabbatical of your own.”
She shrugged. “Didn’t feel like work this morning.”
“Do you feel like coffee, then?” I asked. “My treat.”
She gazed at me, rocking slightly on her feet and biting her lip. The silence lasted long enough to make things awkward.
I caught the tear that ran down her cheek before she could wipe it away, and I was up the stairs in two strides, holding her by the arms. “What’s wrong?”
She looked away from me, her lower lip shaking slightly as she bit down hard and tried to maintain her composure. I tried to get her to look at me, and that’s when I saw the bruise on her cheek. I frowned, pushing her hair back, only now realizing that the locks hadn’t fallen across her face like tha
She pulled away from me quickly, readjusting the hair to cover her bruise.
“Is that what I think it is?” I asked.
I couldn’t fathom how she could have gotten it. It looked like the result of a nasty beating, only I had been with her for most of yesterday, and I couldn’t imagine when someone could have done that to her.
“Did someone hit you?” I asked.
“It’s nothing, Chance, seriously,” she said, stepping back from me. “I appreciate you coming here to check up on me, and tell Chuck I’m sorry I missed his call. I’ll call him back later. But right now, I’m just really tired. Can we do coffee another day?”
“Ashlyn, what’s going on?”
“Chance, please,” she said, tears welling in her eyes and falling down her cheeks faster than she could wipe them away. “I just want to be alone.”
“Absolutely not,” I said, shaking my head and following her retreat. “I can’t just leave you like this.”
“Yes, you can!” she yelled, and I stopped cold. She looked at me with a mix of sorrow and anger, like I had somehow embarrassed her or something. “You don’t even know me. You don’t owe me anything. Just go. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She was crying freely now, and I had no idea what to do other than what my instincts were telling me to. I closed the distance between us, grabbed her by her arms and pulled her in, wrapping my arms around her tight.
She resisted, for the briefest of moments, then her body went limp and her shoulders shook with her sobs. Her cries came in short gasps and whimpers, and I pressed her tighter against me, burying my face in her hair as I tried to calm her.
“Shhh,” I cooed. “It’s going to be alright. Whatever it is, it’s going to be alright. I’m right here.”
I had no idea just how convincing I sounded, but what I did know for sure was that my blood was boiling. I was skeptical at first, but her reaction told me everything I needed to know. In the hours between last night and now, someone had obviously come here and decided to use her for punching practice. The only question was who.
Her sobbing had eased, and she softly pushed away from me, sniffing as she wiped her tears and turned away from me. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Not exactly the way I wanted you to see me today.”
“Chance, it’s alright. Thank you, really, but this isn’t something you can help with,” she said. “Actually, I wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing you into the middle of it at all. Let’s just leave it at that, okay?”
I took a deep breath and let it out in a long exhale. “How about this?” I started. “You invite me in, I make us both some coffee, and we pretend that we’re at the diner without having to leave the house at all. Then, when you feel comfortable enough, you can tell me what the hell happened.”
She looked at me for a beat, then looked away, biting her lip again. It would have looked cute if not for the bruise on the side of her face and the tears in her eyes.