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Ashes to ashes contempor.., p.1
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       Ashes to Ashes: Contemporary Romance Novella, p.1

           Tess Oliver
 
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Ashes to Ashes: Contemporary Romance Novella


  Ashes to Ashes

  Contemporary Romance Novella

  Tess Oliver

  Contents

  Ashes to Ashes

  1. One

  2. Two

  3. Three

  4. Four

  5. Five

  6. Six

  7. Seven

  8. Eight

  9. Nine

  10. Ten

  11. Eleven

  A Bend in the Road

  A Bend in the Road

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Cricket

  Cricket

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  About the Author

  Ashes to Ashes

  Copyright © 2017 by Tess Oliver

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  One

  The gas station had changed owners and brand names, but it was easy to recognize. Mostly because it was probably the only place on earth that boasted being a traveler's one stop shop for gasoline and world famous chili dogs. It was also the only station between miles of nothingness. Dad and I had driven the same stretch of highway together more than a dozen times, twice a year, on Christmas and on his June birthday, until I turned eighteen and became too self-centered and frankly, too stupid, to have time for my dad. On each of our trips to his mountain cabin, his writer's retreat and a place he spent a good portion of the last fifteen years of his life, we stopped for a chili dog. It was a tradition that we'd continued even after George, the original station owner and chili dog creator, had died and been replaced by people who were much less adept at cooking chili.

  It was midday, and the station, including the extra spots that had been designated for chili dog customers, were empty. Not a good sign. Even though the place was in the middle of nowhere, when George was alive, the lot was always packed and customers would be standing around the small square building getting high on the scent of onions and chili powder.

  I pulled my truck up to the pump and turned off the rumbling engine. My girlfriend, Emma, hated my Ford relic, as she not-so lovingly called it. She'd been trying to talk me into something new and far more boring, a sedan of some type. Which model didn't really matter because in my opinion they were all the same.

  I reached over and patted the top of the blue and white urn for the hundredth time since I'd left home. Dad had considered himself lucky in that he was able to put all his affairs in order, whatever that meant, and even pick his final resting place. A week before his death, I'd climbed onto his hospital bed and sat next to him with my laptop so he could pick just the right urn.

  He'd already made the decision early on, with the grim prognosis from his doctor, that he wanted to be cremated. 'Don't put me in the ground, Luke. I don't want to sleep with the maggots and earthworms. I'd much rather go out in a blaze of glory.' He'd laughed when he said it, but the words were followed by the hollow, dark gaze of a man who knew his end was as near as it was premature.

  I climbed out of the truck. A cool fall breeze tickled the tops of the long weeds growing along the highway and it even put in enough effort to toss some impressively large tumbleweeds across the two lanes. The view from the station in both directions was just as I'd remembered it, acres of farmland crisscrossed with the occasional cow or wire fence. Even the few abandoned houses, stucco boxes with roofs that were rotted down to the beams and rusted jalopies heaped like fossilized dinosaurs across the yards, were still standing like landmarks. The station itself consisted of two rows of pumps, the mini market which housed the chili dog kiosk and a portable metal building with a roll-up door.

  A faded yellow car with one blue door and a piece of plastic taped in as a passenger window chugged into the station and pulled up to the pump behind my truck. Heavy metal music was blaring through some grainy sounding speakers, but I could still hear the driver and his passenger arguing inside as I stepped up to the pump and pushed my card into the slot.

  The driver's door on the pieced-together car creaked open, and a giant, mean-faced guy climbed out. The car squeaked as it shifted back from the release of weight. He was wearing a backwards baseball hat and a shirt with the sleeves torn off, most likely a fashion decision based on his need to let everyone know that he had big arms and lots of menacing tattoos. He reminded me of the type of dude who would guzzle a twelve pack at a party and then entertain everyone by crushing the cans on his skull. I decided he was also the kind of person who it was best to avoid direct eye contact with. Behind my truck, I heard the passenger door open and shut sharply.

  I let my tank fill with gas as I went in to buy a hot dog. Beer can dude was at the counter counting out some cash for gasoline. The woman behind the counter nodded at me as I walked past her to the hot dog cart.

  Nothing about the new owner's chili looked or smelled right, but I'd somehow convinced myself that on my journey to take Dad's ashes to his cabin, I had to stop for the hot dog. It just would have been wrong not to. I pinched the bun and dog between the white paper holder and ladled on the chili. I topped it with some cheese and onions, just like my dad had always done, and carried the towering mess to the check stand.

  The beer can dude, the only other customer in the store, turned around. "Denni, where the fuck are you?" he yelled through the store.

  Light, frilly footsteps followed. I glanced in their direction. A girl emerged from the snack food aisle with a box of chocolate chip cookies in one hand and a carton of milk in the other. She was young, maybe twenty two or three with a mass of wavy dark brown hair tamped down by the purple baseball cap on her head. The rips on her faded jeans looked like railroad tracks of skin laid across worn denim. She lifted her chin enough to reveal a big pair of hazel eyes, the kind that could make even the coldest heart melt. There was a fading black bruise on her cheek, the only mark in otherwise creamy, flawless skin.

  She avoided looking at the jerk as she walked past him to the counter.

  "I told you to buy one thing. I'm not made of money," the guy spit as he motioned toward the cookies and milk.

  "Why would I want milk without cookies, and how the hell am I supposed to eat cookies without milk?"

  Somehow, the asshole caught me smiling at her very cute and circular reasoning.

  "What do you find so fucking funny?" he growled my direction.

  I shrugged. "She has a good point."

  The brim of the girl's hat lifted ever so slightly as she turned my direction. There was a lot in her face, as if she'd seen a lot in her short life, and not much of it good. But there was also a sparkle that showed through that caught my attention and held it.

  I wasn't big on getting into fights, but I was never one to give any kind of credence to a bully and this guy was a big one. Fortunately for me, he wasn't in the mood to pick a fight in a gas station with a guy clutching a chili dog.

  He reluctantly shelled out money for both the cookies and milk. The girl shot me a secret glimpse before grabbing her snacks and heading back out to the patched together car.

  "Where's the bathroom?" the guy asked as he shoved his wallet back in his pocket.

  The cashier pulled a large metal ring with a key out from under the counter. "Around the back of the building."

  He grabbed the key, muttering some angry cuss words under his breath about the inconvenience of a key and headed outside.

  The woman, relieved
to have him gone, rang me up with a shake of her head. "Do you need some napkins to go with that hot dog?"

  "That'd be great." I thanked her and went back out to the truck. I placed the chili dog on the seat next to Dad's urn and straightened out of the truck. I topped off my tank and watched with amused interest as the girl hopped back out of the car. She finished zipping up her backpack, as if she'd just shoved something inside of it, before swinging it onto her shoulder. She looked anxiously around, no doubt for her mean friend, and then dashed on long legs across the station to the outbuilding at the far corner of the parking lot. She disappeared behind it.

  I finished filling my tank and climbed back into the driver's seat. The guy returned looking somewhat less mean after his apparently successful trip to the bathroom. He swung the ring around on his arm and whistled as he walked back into the store to return the key. He didn't seem to notice that his car was empty.

  Full with gasoline, my truck purred as I drove away from the pump and parked in the empty spots in front of the metal building. I ate my hot dog and watched in the rearview mirror as the guy returned to his car. He leaned inside and then pulled his head out to look around. He walked back into the store and came out seconds later looking red with anger. His heavy stride marched him around to the back of the market. His fists produced thunderous sounds as he pounded on the bathroom door.

  My eyes flitted toward the metal outbuilding. Behind the dust covered windowpane, the top of the girl's purple baseball cap appeared and then her big, round eyes followed. An unlocked door or open window had helped her find her way inside the building. She caught me watching her and pressed her long finger against her lips before ducking below the window.

  I took another bite of hot dog and watched the entertainment through my side view mirror.

  Something quickly drew the guy back to the car. I was sure he was going to get in and drive off. But after a few seconds in the car, he shot back out and yelled. "Denni, you fucking little thief, where the hell are you?" His rage-filled eyes turned in the direction of my truck and the outbuilding. What had been comical and of just enough interest to let me forget how crappy the world famous chili dogs had become, now seemed dangerous. I worried for the girl.

  I rolled down my window as I saw him march toward the truck. He stopped behind the cab and looked through the back window into the passenger seat before turning his angry focus on the outbuilding. I didn't need to know either of them to know that the woman inside the rusty outbuilding was in danger. I needed to think of something fast.

  I hung my head out the window.

  "Are you looking for your friend with the milk and cookies?" I asked.

  His nostrils were wide enough to suck in a large moth as he spun his face my direction. "Yeah, did you see her?"

  "Sure did. When you walked around to the bathroom, I saw her head straight out to the road and lift her thumb. An eighteen wheeler stopped, and she climbed inside."

  His meaty fists balled at his sides. I hoped to hell that I'd convinced him with my lie. He looked mean but he also looked plenty stupid.

  "Eighteen wheeler? What did it look like?"

  "Not sure. The sun was working against me from this angle, but I think the cab was bright blue and it had a big silver trailer with a Tradesmith logo on it. He was heading south." I was just making shit up as I went, and the big idiot seemed to be swallowing every word.

  "I'm going to fucking kill her," he grunted as he turned and ran back to his car. His tires screamed along the asphalt, and the bottom of his car scraped the edge of the driveway as he flew out onto the southbound highway in pursuit of the elusive eighteen wheeler.

  Two

  I climbed out of the truck and waited a good long minute to make sure the idiot didn't turn back around. I tapped on the window. "He's gone for now."

  The purple cap popped up from the shadows inside the building, and her face appeared through the hazy windowpane. "Thank you," she said through the glass. She disappeared for a few seconds and reemerged on the side of the building, brushing vigorously at her shirt and jeans to rid them of dirt and cobwebs.

  She was tall and thin and moved with the graceful speed of a dancer or athlete. Her smile lit up beneath the shade of the hat as she stopped in front of me with her hand out in greeting. "I'm Denni."

  I took hold of her hand. It was smooth and warm. "Luke."

  "Huh, I had you pegged for a David or Bryan. Anyhow, I owe you, Luke." She bit her lip and glanced around. "I could wash your truck or fill the tires with air."

  I shook my head once. "Nope. No debt. I'm just glad I was here. That is one mean guy. Maybe you're better off without him." I reached up and lightly touched the bruise on her cheek. I had no idea what had prompted it, but suddenly, I wanted that bruise to be gone. "Or maybe you hit it on a door handle?" I asked hopefully, not wanting to know that the asshole had hit her.

  Denni's thin shoulders rose with a deep breath. "Nope, the bastard punched me. Knocked me clean out and then stole something of mine."

  My eyes widened. "Stole something?"

  She laughed. It was a good sound. "Not that, silly. Jeez, men and their one track minds. Trust me, that cherry was popped long ago. Well, not long ago, but back in high school. No, he took something even more important, and now I've got to figure out how to get it back." She pointed at my truck. "Where are you headed?" She covered her mouth. "Excuse me. My grandmother always used to scold me and tell me I was a nosy posy. Seems she was right. None of my business." She pointed back over her shoulder. "I'm just going to head out to the highway and try that ole' thumb trick you mentioned earlier. Have a safe trip, whichever direction you head." The long loose curls of her hair bounced against her back as she walked away. She swung her backpack up to one shoulder.

  Aside from the luxurious mass of hair, it was hard not to notice that she had an amazing ass in her tight jeans.

  "I'm heading up to the mountains," I called to her.

  She stopped and spun around, flashing her hazel eyes my direction with just enough gleam to make me lose my train of thought.

  "To the mountains?"

  Her question helped revive my memory. "I'm taking my dad's ashes up to his cabin. He wanted me to spread them out over the forest floor."

  "I'm sorry about your dad."

  "Thanks. He was sick for a year, so it wasn't a surprise or anything. I mean it still hurt like hell to lose him, but I had some time to accept it."

  She walked back to me. "Guess that's the one perk in knowing that you're going to die. You can say good-bye to everyone. My grandmother got up to go to the bathroom one night, and she just keeled over dead. I never got to say good-bye or let her know how much I would miss her."

  "I'm sorry to hear that."

  "Happened back when I was a teenager. She raised me." Her lush black lashes floated down as she stared at the ground. "Well, I need to find a ride out of here before Zeke comes back looking for me."

  "I can take you north as far as you want to go." The words just fell out of my mouth without another thought. Actually, there was one thought. Emma would kill me if she knew. "So what do you say?"

  "If you don't mind? I promise to be a good passenger. I'll only sing when it's a super great song. And I won't eat all of your snacks, and if I do have some, I promise not to drop crumbs. Unless you have those powdered sugar donuts, then the promise is off because those are impossible to eat neatly." She shot me a questioning look that was fucking adorable. "Do you have snacks?" she asked hopefully. "My cookies and milk just left with the creep."

  "I've got half a chili dog and some red licorice whips."

  "Two of my favorites."

  I walked Denni to the passenger side and opened the door. The shiny blue urn was leaned against the seat, tucked in beneath the seatbelt.

  She pointed at it. "Is that Dad?"

  "Yes."

  "How do you do, sir? You have a lovely son." She leaned over and lowered her voice. "He's extremely handsome too." She looked b
ack at me. "Should I hold him on my lap, or do you want me to ride in back?"

  I unfastened the seatbelt. "No, I can tuck this in behind my seat. I just didn't want it to roll around and break." I moved Dad's urn to a safe spot, and Denni climbed inside my truck.

  I walked around to the driver's side and climbed in.

  Denni looked longingly at the half eaten hot dog.

  "Go ahead," I said. "But I've got to warn you, it's not like the ones George used to make." I started the truck and headed out of the parking lot.

  She picked up the hot dog. "Who's George?" She took a big bite and wiped the chili off her lip with her pinky.

  "He's the guy who used to own this gas station. This sounds corny, but my dad and I used to have this tradition where we stopped to have one of George's chili dogs on our way up to his cabin. I thought we'd have one last hot dog together." I reached behind the seat and pulled out a water bottle for her.

  She worked a bit at twisting off the cap and took a sip. "That doesn't sound the least bit corny. And I've never had a George dog, but you're right, this chili dog is lacking." She took another bite, chewed and swallowed. "Fortunately, I'm hungry enough to forgive it."

  "I could circle back and buy you another one."

  "Nope, this is good. Thank you." She finished off the last bite and licked her fingertips, a gesture that grabbed far more of my attention than it should have. Emma would so fucking not approve. Something about that made me extra glad I'd offered Denni the ride.

  Denni slouched down in the seat and lifted her long legs so her knees pressed against the dashboard. She pulled off her hat, rested her head against the seat and turned her face to stare out the window. "Hey, there's actual scenery out there. Viewing the world through crumpled plastic was getting depressing."

 
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