A Soft White Damn
Rating: PG-13 (language)
Summary: Ashleigh has morals. Brad doesn't. This could present a problem.
A/N: Immediate sequel to Fire and Ice in our Blood. (title courtesy of e.e. cummings)
It's snowing dainty flakes that drift and whirl and settle like confetti in the mane of the horse. She can see them clinging to her eyelashes, and feel them sticking wetly to her face. She's daring for a moment and brushes her nose against the material of his coat, trying to wipe them away.
If he feels her messing around back there, he doesn't say anything. He's too busy guiding the horse, which is picking its way down the slippery, freshly snowed over trail.
Her arms are locked around his waist, trying to make riding double in this environment look easy. Or at least slightly less treacherous.
"The horse is fine," he tells her when she voices her concern yet again. "I think you're just too enthusiastic to plaster yourself to my back."
"You go ahead and think that," she sniffs. "If it makes you feel manly, or something."
She knows he's grinning. She can feel it in his words as he says, "Oh, it really does. It's the biggest rush in the world to have Ashleigh Griffen clinging to me for dear life. After, you know, I saved her from freezing to death in fucking Kentucky, of all places."
Her mouth drops open because she's moderately offended. "Hey, as we've seen it's actually possible to do that. It's not like this is New Mexico. It gets cold here. Do you see the snow?"
"I do see the snow, Ash," he says, bothering to send her a look over his shoulder. She glowers at him, but still makes no effort to relax her grip on his waist. "I saved you from it yesterday. That was like ten hours ago."
"Jerk," she mumbles against his coat.
"I was thinking more like knight on shiny chestnut gelding," he says.
"This horse is not shiny," she says. "He's got a manure stain on his right hind."
"I think you're missing the point of what I'm saying here."
"Believe me, I'm not."
He reaches behind his hip and pats her on the thigh. She sinks her fingers a little into his abdomen in retribution, despite the little thrill she gets as he touches her, the deprecating taps becoming a stroke down to her knee. It's like fire all the way down her leg, and then up, warming her skin all over. Ashleigh's eyes slip closed and she rests her forehead against his back so there's no way he can twist around and see whatever ridiculous, embarrassing look she has on her face.
Wow, she has got to stop this. Right now would be good. Perfect, actually.
He lifts his hand, and she wants it back where it was. A little ball of something solidifies in her throat and she's forced to swallow thickly, forcing herself to get a grip. It's just a touch. It's a touch after one night of….
Well, she'd like to stop herself there, but then all of those details come immediately to the surface and she knows she's blushing so hard that she keeps her head down for the rest of the ride.
When they get to the farm, no one is there to greet them.
"Great," she says, trying hard to bury the feeling that no one cares if she lives or dies. "I can see how worried everyone was."
"Griffen," Brad says, lifting a leg over the horse's neck and jumping to the aisle. "It's not like I had time to call everyone so they could form a parade. It's snowing, there are no works this morning, and this is the private stable."
She gives him a look as he turns toward her, motioning her off the horse. She stays put, and the horse gives her an annoyed cocking of his ears. She doesn't blame him.
"Since when do you call me by my last name?"
He puts one hand on the horse's shoulder and looks up at her. His hair glints with droplets of melted snow, and she clenches her fingers around the cuffs of her coat sleeves to keep herself from reaching out and touching. She's not too sure where she stands here, and she's pretty sure she's currently located somewhere in the vast gulf between enemies and lovers.
It's weird. She's pretty sure she doesn't like it. But there's this need in her now, and it's directly related to him. For the fifth (sixth?) time in the past hour, she wonders how on earth that happened. She wonders if that's a monumentally awful misstep. The melted snow in his hair glistens in the barn lights and she wants to brush it away, sink her fingers in and pull.
Then he opens his mouth.
"Well, I'm fairly positive that happened somewhere between first and second base…"
She rolls her eyes and stops listening, electing to get off the horse instead. She comes down with a muted thump and turns to shove him in the arm.
"You are horrible," she declares.
"And here I was going to offer you my shower," he sighs, pulling the horse's reins over the animal's head and leading him down the aisle.
"You what?" Ashleigh jumps to attention, the promise of warm water and soap too much to ignore.
"Shower," he says over his shoulder as he stops the gelding and starts to put him in cross ties. The chestnut sighs and swishes his tail. "I know you've got to be begging for it right about now. You're a woman. It's natural."
She really hates the way he says that. "And you don't need one. Right."
"If you're offering to share," he says, undoing the girth and letting it swing under the gelding's belly. "That's another story."
"I am definitely not offering," she snaps, pushing by him and heading out the barn door. "I'll be in the bathroom. The door will be locked."
She hears his laughter as she dashes from the barn.
The guesthouse is unlocked. It's always unlocked. She navigates the bathroom easily enough, sheds all her dirty clothes on his floor and steps into the spray. The warmth hits her like a welcome blanket, sluices down her skin as she leans back to soak her hair.
It is the best feeling in the world, and she stands immobile until she thinks it's possible she might be taking up all the hot water. It's only then that she opens her eyes and looks at the assortment of shampoo and soap, finding her options lacking.
She's going to smell like a boy today, Ashleigh realizes with some trepidation. She recognizes a few things from what Rory buys on occasion, but the urge to be clean is too powerful and so she opens one of the red bottles and goes to work.
She'll just live with smelling like something called Swagger today. She finds herself smiling, because doesn't that make a whole hell of a lot of sense?
When she's done she steps out onto the bathmat that is actually clean, and drips all over the place as she stares at her pile of clothes and wrings at her too-long hair. As far as she sees it, she's got two choices, and she hates both of them equally. After she's fully dry, having even hunted down a well-hidden hair dryer that sounded like it was going to die at any minute, she comes to a decision.
Wrapping a new towel around herself, she pushes the clothes together in a big ball, gathers it against her chest, and emerges from the bathroom into the master bedroom. Brad is sprawled on the bed, sleeping soundly. Boots and coat still on, she notices as she slinks past and escapes to find the washing machine. She hopes he has a washing machine. She's about to give up when she stumbles across the laundry duo in a closet past the kitchen.
She dumps the clothes inside and measures out enough detergent to wash out creek water and mud and sin. When she gets the machine chugging along, she pads quietly out into the family room and sits down. She waits in trepidation for the full cycle, turning on the television and setting it at a whisper to pass the time. When the machine starts to wind down, she sprints for it and waits anxiously outside for the spinning to stop.
She beats the buzzer, transfers the load, and tries to hunt down dryer sheets. She's digging in a cabinet that is far too tall for her when his voice sends her scrambling to make sure her towel is where it should be.
Brad's no more than a few strides away, hair in chaos and stripped of his coat. He looks like he's struggling not to ask questions about why she's prancing around in a towel, while Ashleigh crosses her arms over herself and rubs one bare foot on top of the other. The floor is cold, and she looks at his socked feet a little enviously.
"Here," he says, giving her another lingering once over before he opens up a drawer she didn't get to, tossing her a box. She plucks it out of the air and pulls out a dryer sheet, then starts the machine, which rumbles to life and sounds loud enough to wake the dead.
"Ashleigh," he says, shaking his head in quiet bemusement, "I can provide you with clothes, you know. If you're running around in a towel for…"
"Stop," she says, lunging across the space and pressing the palm of her hand across his mouth. "One more sexual euphemism and I will scream."
She can feel a corner of his mouth quirk up and she gives him her stern look, which doesn't go to help her case.
"Sure," he says when she lifts her hand. "I can do that."
"Thank you," she replies. "So what about those clothes?"
She lounges around in an oversized shirt and sweatpants for an hour, eats a real breakfast, and changes into her old outfit as soon as the dryer tumbles to a halt. Somehow, Brad manages to pass the time without saying something offensive. It must be a miracle, considering.
While he's in the shower, she calls her parents from the kitchen phone and learns that most of the city is shut down thanks to the new snowstorm.
"Just stay over there," her mother says. "I'm sure that if you managed one night up in that cabin, you can spend another in the guesthouse."
"Mom," Ashleigh says, a little mortified before she realizes that her mom knows only what she's told her, which is nothing besides that she is indeed alive. Her cheeks burn, and she switches the phone to her other ear. "I can't just impose myself on Brad. It's…awkward."
"It's better than getting in a wreck," her mother advises. "Tell him I'm making you stay there."
Ashleigh rolls her eyes, thinking that he'll just love that. "We'll see," she says. "If the road looks passable, I'll make him drive me home."
"Don't take any unnecessary risks, Ashleigh," her mom says. "It will warm up tomorrow. You and Brad don't seem to have good luck in this sort of weather."
"We don't have good luck most of the time," Ashleigh mutters, but her mother doesn't hear, rambling on and on about the snow and how Ashleigh should stay put.
"Okay," Ashleigh finally relents. "Okay, Mom. Happy?"
"Yes, sweetie. I'll see you tomorrow."
Ashleigh hangs up the phone and rests her hip against the edge of the granite counter, wondering how her life took this weird turn right into the gutter. She's chewing on her bottom lip, considering whether or not she should just toss what she promised her mother when she feels his very bare arm wrap around her waist.
Something uncoils inside of her at the touch, while the rest goes on high alert, anticipating every move he might make. She feels his chest at her back, his warmth spreading into her skin through the layers of clean clothes she's retrieved fresh from the dyer.
"You smell like Old Spice," he informs her, close to her ear.
"Is that weird for you?" she asks, turning her head a little to look at him out of the corner of her eye. She sees the pull of a half-smile as he tugs her around and into him. She lets herself be guided into the counter, the solid granite digging into the small of her back.
"It's unsettling," he shrugs, running a hand up her neck and into her hair while the other rests on her hip.
"It's all I could find," she says, tipping her chin up defiantly, finding herself so much closer to his mouth. She takes a breath as he studies her for a moment, heartbeats away. Her blood is thundering through her at a racing gallop, and Ashleigh knows that she should tell him to back the hell off and go get his truck because they are leaving now. She can't stay anywhere near him, not when she can't trust herself.
"I think I'll get over it," he says, kissing her.
A part of her thinks, well, fuck it. If she ever shared that thought with him, she knows he'd definitely approve. That knowledge alone makes her feel dirty.
She leans into him, plucks at the damp t-shirt he must have pulled on right after his shower, and rises up to get closer. He eases her mouth open, pushes her back, and takes what he likes while Ashleigh finds herself in the increasingly confused position between crazy wanting and crushing logic.
Logically, this is utterly wrong. Ashleigh understands that, but it happens to clash with the fact that every dark look he gives her sets her heart racing and her skin flushing. Logic just isn't going to win against something like that.
She pulls away for a second, takes a needed breath while he moves his hand from his grip on her hair back to her neck, brushing his thumb over the line of her collarbone and watching like it's the most fascinating thing he's ever seen. Ashleigh reaches up and tugs at his short hair, getting him to lift his head enough so she can kiss him, making him rock back.
"Fuck," he mumbles against her mouth. "Ashleigh."
She pulls away again, liking how his head drops to follow her. She sinks back on her heels and smiles, licks her lips. He closes his eyes and says, "You're a tease, you know."
She shrugs, because she can't argue against that. "Only with you," she states, and he groans, letting her go.
Spinning away, she puts some space between them, wishing her heartbeat would return to normal. She decides right then that they have to get her off of this farm, because the way she can feel the blood pulsing in her wrists has got to be a bad sign of things to come.
There are some things you don't rush into. Staying the night with the bad boy you've always supposedly hated after a few heated moments and half-thought declarations after he theoretically saved her life is one of those things. In fact, it's just one of those things you don't do. Period. Ashleigh needs to remove herself before he pulls her into another kiss, or before she drags him into one. It's with some sudden horror that she realizes she's been encouraging most of this from the start.
A willing participant. That's what she is.
"You've got to take me home," she announces, and he looks at her like she's insane. She expected this. "Seriously," she says, opting for the truth. "I know you probably heard me promise my mom and everything, because you're like that, but there is no way I'm staying here."
"You can sleep in the main house," he offers. "Because I'm seriously not looking forward to driving you across Lexington."
"That's not good enough," she shakes her head, going for yet more truth. "I think we need a city separating us right now."
"Ashleigh," he starts, but she holds up both hands like she can stop the words in their tracks. He stops anyway and leans back against the counter, letting his head drop back in defeat. She finds her gaze settling on the line of his throat, and she almost misses what he says next. "You're probably right."
"Did you just agree with me?" she asks, blinking at him like she's never seen him in her life.
"Yes," he sighs. "I did. Because you're right. You stay on this farm another hour and we're going to do things we'll probably regret later, after you've realized you've compromised your whole complicated moral system."
"Hey," she says. "Don't be a jackass. You agreed with me. Shut up."
"I did agree with you," he says. He looks at her like he'd really rather enjoy doing a host of things other than take her home. "And I won't shut up."
"More reason to take me home," she says. "My car isn't going to make it, so we need one of the trucks."
"Fine. Whatever," he shrugs. He's slow to move. In fact, he seems planted against the counter. "Anything else you'd like to demand before we run off and get stuck in the snow again?"
"Not at the moment," she says, pushing her arms into her coat sleeves with a savageness she doesn't want to feel. She hates that this man-this horrible, awful man-is the one to make her feel this way. This man, who as far as she's seen in her many years of knowing him, doesn't come within a stone's throw of seeing anything her way. Moral system? Brad Townsend doesn't have a moral system. Brad Townsend is a black hole from which no moral could ever escape.
She zips up her coat and does up the buttons, all very angrily. He watches her go through the entire process before he goes to retrieve his coat, shrugging into it in a way that makes her want to walk over and pull it off of him. Mortified, she bites the inside of her cheek and keeps her eyes on the door as she listens to him bang around in the kitchen for a few minutes.
"What are you doing?" she finally asks when curiosity gets the better of her.
"Food and water," he says, emerging with a plastic bag of items and pushing a bottle of water into her hand. "I'm going to have to start preparing before I go anywhere with you."
"Please," she says. "Like twice is a pattern."
"How many times have we ever gone somewhere alone?" he asks her, and she shuts up. Then she opens her mouth and he gives her a look.
"Technically speaking, we've never gone anywhere together. You know, for a reason or something. Alone."
Now he just looks confused. "Is this a suggestion I'm not catching?"
"No," she says quickly, feeling that flush creep up her skin. "It's not a suggestion at all. I'm just saying that you and me don't go places alone. Ever. So technically speaking it's our chance meetings that suck."
"And therefore you're saying that if we actually went somewhere together with purpose it might actually turn out well?" He cracks open his bottle of survival water and takes a large gulp. Ashleigh watches his throat work, and swallows.
"Well," she says slowly, considering what she says carefully. "It's either that, or pure catastrophe."
"And you want to test this theory today, on the drive home."
Brad doesn't look impressed, which Ashleigh is used to.
"It's just a thought."
"Fine," he says, shrugging. "I'll try to not drive into a ditch, and you can not be distracting or annoying. Sound good?"
"Outside of the fact that you are such a jerk, yes."
He smiles and reaches out before she can dance away, snagging her and saying close to her ear, "See, Ashleigh, that falls under annoying."
"So stop being an asshole and I won't be so annoying," she smiles up at him, then extricates herself and heads for the door.
The drive is slow. The truck slips along on ice and slides a few times coming out of turns, but they make it. To a bar.
Ashleigh sits bolt upright in the seat and says, "This was definitely not the plan."
"Yeah," he shrugs, putting the truck in park and turning off the engine. "Sometimes your plans are shit, and after last night I think this is deserved."
"We were in agreement," she argues. "No interaction for the next…"
"What, twelve, twenty-four, thirty-six hours?" He laughs, pulling the keys from the ignition. "You've got to come back to the farm eventually, Ashleigh. Your car is there, the horses are there, and the last I checked so am I. Consider this neutral territory."
"I'm going to be annoying," she promises him as he opens the door, letting in a gust of freezing air. He jumps out of the truck and turns to look in on her. "And distracting," she adds.
"I have no doubt," he says. "Come on, princess."
Her mouth falls open, because really that was uncalled for. With a huff, she opens her door as he slams his closed, making the leap out into the parking lot. Of course, it's nearly full. Kentuckians certainly don't let a little snow get in the way of the watering trough, and Ashleigh wrinkles her nose in distaste.
The place is old and decrepit, a flickering neon sign proclaiming that the establishment is open despite it being eleven thirty in the morning. Ashleigh couldn't feel more like a lush, and she rarely ever drinks. It feels just about as wrong as it normally does to enjoy being in Brad's company.
Brad swings the door inward and the hinges squeak. She follows on his heels, huddling into her coat as a swirl of snow surges against her back. Inside is dim, with clusters of people around the bar and the pool tables. She can hear the clinking of glass and the cracks of billiard balls striking against each other.
The stools against the bar are plain wood, and Ashleigh hops onto one and perches, glaring at Brad's back as he orders. The bartender is a woman, and her eyes light up at the sight of him. It's an effort not to roll her eyes as Brad turns on the charm. The two make conversation, and Ashleigh tries her hardest not to pay attention as she takes turns alternating between staring at everything else and scowling at the back of Brad's head.
The bartender brings two beers, and Brad slides one over in front of Ashleigh. She raises an eyebrow at it, and watches him take a long swing from his brown bottle.
She slides her beer back in front of him. "When you're done with that, you can start on this one."
The bartender laughs and says, "Oh, I like her."
"You would," Brad says.
"Don't think I'm the only one," the woman says, a knowing smile curling up her mouth that Ashleigh absolutely hates. Brad just slides the beer back in front of Ashleigh as the bartender walks off to take care of other customers.
"One," he says, lifting the beer and placing it back on the bar for emphasis. "That's it."
"I still don't think so," Ashleigh says, indignant. She pushes the bottle back at him, skidding it along the polished, sticky wood. "I don't drink, and I really don't drink in the morning."
"Fine," he says, taking the bottle and scooting it past him to the burly man sitting on the other side of him. "Hey, man," he says, getting the guy's attention. The man blinks at him, like he can't figure out what Brad is saying let alone who he is. "This is on the lady."
"It is not," Ashleigh blurts as the man considers the beer and peers around Brad to get a look at her. Ashleigh, in turn, gets a good look at him—grease stains, cigarette stench and all. He gives her a leer that sends a thick wave of revulsion sweeping through her stomach. Ashleigh's eyes go wide, but she shivers and straightens her spine before she'll cower behind Brad Townsend. "It isn't."
"So," the stranger drawls, "what is it, sweetheart? Mine or yours?"
Brad stifles a laugh, and Ashleigh smacks him on the arm. She's sure he barely feels it through his coat.
"I don't drink," she tells the man. "Have at it."
"Shame," he sighs into his nearly finished beer, tipping it back and finishing the dregs. He picks up the beer that would have been Ashleigh's, gives her a wink, and pushes away from the bar to saunter off to the pool tables.
Brad snickers to himself, and Ashleigh smacks his arm again. "You are a horrible person."
"So I've heard," he says. "It's repeated so often it's like background noise."
"Maybe you should consider that statement for more than half a second," Ashleigh says. "Really ponder it. Some amazing conclusions might be drawn. It could be your personal great enlightenment."
"Nah," he says, shrugging a shoulder. "It's not worth it."
"Why not?" she asks. "How can it be not worth it?"
"The way I figure it," he says, taking a swig of the beer and turning to face her. She squeaks (damn it) when he puts his hand between her legs and hooks his fingers under the edge of the stool, dragging her over to him so their legs mesh together. Ashleigh feels the warmth radiating off of him, and fights the urge to steady herself by putting her hands on his thighs. Not a good idea. She keeps her eyes on his and her hands on the stool.
He smiles at her, and something hard clenches in her chest. "I've gotten this far without altering a thing. Changing things up now would seem counterproductive, don't you think?"
"If you're suggesting that I like your horribleness, you're wrong," she informs him.
He rotates the half full beer bottle on the bar, the glass rubbing against the wood and trailing condensation in rings. Ashleigh glances at his fingers tracing through the damp, and then back at him. He's smiling again. It's that ridiculous, cocky smile. Again.
"I have a feeling you're just as much of a masochist as I am," he tells her, takes another drink.
The sound she makes is one of disgust mingling with disbelief and denial.
"Besides," he goes on, purposely ignoring her prolonged scoffing. "We had this conversation this morning. We both know that you like me for some reason, otherwise you wouldn't be here right now."
"I'm here right now because you dragged me here without telling me in advance," she says, fuming. "Also, there was that hypothermia threat. I shouldn't be held accountable for any of my actions."
He rolls his eyes. "Right. That makes tons of sense, Ash."
"It makes more sense than any other explanation," she says, steadfastly refusing to admit to anything he's saying. Part of her thinks that the second he drops her off at her house and goes home, gives her a few days to wash him and his stupid body wash off her skin and clothes, she'll return to normal and the part of her that happily acknowledges him will shut the hell up. It's like her life doesn't make sense anymore. No fall in a river should cause this much emotional turmoil. It's not natural. None of this is natural.
"Fine," he says, takes a drink like it's no never mind to him.
"What?" she asks, drawn aback by his lackadaisical attitude. It's a ploy. She knows it.
"It is, you realize, only a matter of time." He puts the almost finished beer on the bar. "You've got to realize that, right?"
"Realize what?" she asks, and he tugs her just a little bit closer. She's too close, and he smells like the body wash she wreaks of, wet snow, and beer. It's weirdly not horrible.
"I'll get you to admit that you enjoy the fact I drive you crazy," he says, and she remembers his words from earlier. The ones she'd definitely denied, right before all the making out that happened on the floor of that godforsaken cabin.
"It will be a cold day in hell," she says slowly, enunciating every word. The grin that makes its way up his mouth is slow, and he's so close to her that dim alarm bells are starting to go off. Bells that sound a lot like you are in a bar and there are surely people staring at you because how could they resist? She almost can't stand it.
Her fingers twitch with the need to touch something, to grab and pull and be demanding, but before she can haul herself into his lap or throw him off his stool and fly as fast as she can out of this wretched hole in a wall, he backs off. Ashleigh blinks, stunned.
"I'll take you home, princess," he says, stepping off the stool and motioning to the door. She narrows her eyes and hops down, flouncing past him with an all too girly flip of her hair on her way out the door.
They make it to Griffen Breeding Farm. The truck slides off the road and roars up the drive, finding purchase on the gravel that goes spitting behind the tires. Ashleigh has the door handle in a death grip, but Brad doesn't look all too concerned when they go careening up to the house and plunge to a slippery, idling halt by the front door.
"Brad," she says, letting go of the door handle, "don't take this the wrong way, but you suck at driving."
"Hey," he says, throwing the truck in park, "I'm a Kentuckian in the snow. I can't help having some fun."
"As a fellow Kentuckian driver, I want you to know how scary that statement is."
He nods. "Point taken."
"At least we didn't need your emergency supplies," she says, putting the plastic bag on the floorboard.
"Speak for yourself," he says. "I still have to get home in this."
She undoes the seat belt and lets it go in a slithering rush, then puts her hands on the upholstery on either side of her legs. Her house looks quiet in the snow, lit up and peaceful. Her family is home, but no one comes to the window to look out despite Brad's less than quiet approach.
"You ready for your self-imposed exile, or what?" he asks, and she swings around to look at him.
"Hey, we agreed."
"We did," he says. "Doesn't mean I necessarily wanted it."
"That's because you're a guy," she says. "And I would have regretted it later, because I have morals."
"Yeah, that's shit luck," he says. "I'll see what I can do about that moral issue of yours when you finally come back to the farm."
A thrill sweeps through her, sending little hairs racing to attention and a tingling sensation settling deep in her stomach. It makes her want to get out of the car and sprint to the house before she can do something stupid.
He just watches her, dark and ominous on his side of the cab, like he's waiting for something he can see coming a mile away. Snowflakes settle on the windshield and catch on the flicking wipers, while the truck rumbles underneath her hands. She tells herself no, get out of the truck. Get out and don't turn around, don't pause. Walk. Run. Go.
Something bright and chaotic flares deep inside of her. The rebellious part that flies against logic and the words don't, can't, shouldn't.
Ashleigh was never really one to play with fire, but she never did take instruction very well. Don't do this, can't do that. If she'd followed everyone's restrictions, she'd still be some unknown girl. Unimpressive. Uninspired and insecure. How, then, could she possibly take her own advice?
Bad idea, she thinks. Listen. She does.
She moves over the bench seat in the cab, crawling over the small space and getting a knee between his. His coat is rough under her hands, but she rests her weight against it anyway. Brad's hand finds her hip as she presses just close enough and kisses him. She parts his lips with her tongue and takes her time, relishing this in a secret place she hardly recognized.
It was that little part of her that likes him for all the reasons he claimed. It was the place she'd deny existed the second she jumped out of his truck, so she kisses him and lets him tangle his fingers in her hair.
When she pulls away, he catches the back of her neck and says, "Tease."
She arches against his hold and says, "Only with you."
It's simple enough to break away and run.