It was nearly two weeks later when Ava saw Liam next. Despite her best efforts, she’d run through the range of emotions. The first few days she couldn’t think about him without seeing Sarah wrapped around his neck. It was a rolling anger and she was unsure to whom it was directed. Liam for standing her up so quickly or Sarah for getting between them in the first place?
And she hated herself for caring, for letting someone in close enough that it mattered in the first place.
But after a couple days, Ava started to worry. Since first meeting him, Liam had been in the bar regularly. Maybe something has actually happened to him? Maybe he’s been hurt? Her pride stopped her from asking Dee, who seemed to know everything about everybody. Plus, she wasn’t quite sure she wanted to hear the answer. As twisted as it was to think, a part of her hoped he was hurt and unable to come in. At least that would be better than the alternative… him deliberately ignoring her.
And she hated herself for thinking that.
After going through all that, she’d finally fixated on the idea that Sarah had told him all about Open Arms, her family, the rescue and Liam wanted nothing to do with her. It was understandable, predictable even, but still…
And she hated that her history was holding her back from her future.
By the time Liam walked in the front door two weeks later, Ava had resigned herself to never speaking with him again. He obviously doesn’t care about me… I don’t have to care about him, she’d think when her mind drifted back to him. But there he was with a black eye, busted bottom lip, and a smile that could’ve melted the icecaps, and it took Ava all the strength she had to not smile back. Instead, she allowed her gaze to glide right over him as if he didn’t exist. She turned her back and continued stocking the mini-fridges, acutely aware he was in the room but pretending like hell he wasn’t. Like her first night, she felt like she was on show, that every movement was almost a performance. The dip of her head, the loud laugh she gave at one of Dee’s jokes, it was done with an air of theater.
And she hated herself for doing that.
“Hey there,” his deep, familiar voice rumbled from behind. Ava’s gut clenched with an odd mixture of happiness and anger.
She fixed a smile on her face and turned. “Oh, hey. How have you been?” I’m not going to ask about the black eye. I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of showing that I know he’s been missing for…
“I’m good now,” he said as he reached for her hand.
Ava gave him a tight smile, slowly pulled her hand away, and took a step back. “Can I get you something to drink?”
Liam’s brow furrowed as he leaned back, unconsciously matching her posture. He ran his hands along the shaved sides of his head and looked as though he were working out a puzzle. “You’re pissed at me.”
Ava shook her head. “Nope, not at all. Why would I be pissed off?” She swallowed hard when she realized her tone was far from convincing. “Do you want anything or what?”
He jumped onto the bar, leaning as far as he could on his elbows. “You. I want you, darlin’.” She desperately wanted to taste his crooked smile, but stood firm.
“Uh huh. Doesn’t your girlfriend have something to say about that?” Ava rocked back on one leg, crossed her arms, and waited for the excuses. I might not be world-wise, but I can smell bullshit from a mile away, she thought.
Liam jumped back to his feet with a thud. Ava expected him to protest, to fight and defend his actions, tell her she was imagining everything. She expected everything under the sun except for the words that came out of his mouth.
“I can see why you might think that.” His expression changed so much Ava’s heart tugged a little. He looked away, obviously struggling to explain. His full lips worked silently before he finally shook his head in defeat. “One day, I hope I’m able to explain everything to you because Ava, I really like you. You’re the best kind of girl and I’d hate to lose you before… well,” he chuckled sardonically, “before I fuck it up any more.”
Ava swallowed, her mind swimming for some intelligent response. After a few expectant moments, she squeaked out, “Okay.”
Liam grinned like he’d just been handed a giant lottery check. “Okay! Good!” He took a few steps before throwing himself back against the bar. “Don’t give up on me, Ava. Not yet.”
She laughed despite herself. His goofy, sexy good nature was impossible to totally ignore. “Okay.”
He turned and cheered, throwing his fists up into the air in celebration. “She said okay!”
The bar erupted in drunken cheers, not knowing or caring what they were celebrating. Ava laughed harder as she watched Liam disappear into the crowd like a hero. Dee squinted at her questioningly, as if to ask, “What’s gotten into you two?” Ava rolled her eyes and shook her head, unable to answer even if she’d found the words.
Liam kept his distance for the rest of the night, but she could feel his eyes on her the whole time. Still, those walls he’d managed to chip down were firmly back in place. It would take a lot more than a cheeky smile and boyish attitude to gain her trust again.
A few days later, Ava was just finishing up her shift.
She slung her purse over her shoulder and waited until Dee looked up from counting the registers. “You sure you don’t need anything else?”
“Yeah sweetheart, get on out of here,” she replied with a wave of the hand. “Go get into some trouble or something.”
Ava snorted. “Yeah. Loads of trouble going down at Audrey’s place. Almost got into a rumble over whose turn it was to control the volume on the TV.”
Dee blew a piece of hair away from her face. “I’m sure if you look hard enough, you might find something interesting.”
“What about you? You doing anything tonight?” Ava asked hopefully. She liked Dee and thought if they spent enough time together outside of work, they might actually become good friends. But growing up the way she had, it wasn’t easy for Ava to connect with people.
“Thirty, forty, fifty… going to a party… sixty, seventy…”
“Oh, cool!” Ava replied hopefully.
Dee grimaced and set down the money. “I’m sorry sweetie, I just don’t think that’s a very good idea. Sarah is gonna be there, maybe Liam. It’s really more of a family type thing,” she explained apologetically.
Ava nodded and adjusted the purse strap on her shoulder. “Totally get it, no problem.”
“I really am sorry. Let’s have a night just you and me some time, okay?”
“Sure, yeah.” Not wanting to make Dee feel any more awkward than she already had, Ava made a quick apology and ducked out the back door.
Out of habit, she scanned the empty parking lot as the door shut. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw the orange glowing ember of a cigarette floating in the darkness. She stumbled back against the door, scrambling for the handle.
“Wait! Don’t go back in,” a deep voice cried out. Stones crunched underfoot as someone came running towards her. She shielded herself with one arm while pounding on the locked door with the other, all while waiting for Rock to jump out of the darkness. “Ava, wait!” Liam grabbed her wrist gently, pulling her around to face him. “It’s okay, I just…”
Before Ava had a chance to respond, Dee’s voice carried through the metal door. “I’m coming, hon. You forget something?”
Liam’s bright blue eyes went wide. “I’m not here. Don’t say anything, please!” before slipping back into the shadows.
Ava fought to get her breathing under control, spinning around as Dee opened the door. “Sorry! I thought I’d left my keys inside but I just couldn’t find them in my bag.” She forced a smile, hoping Dee wouldn’t notice how flustered she really was.
Dee did cock her head slightly and smirk, but otherwise didn’t comment. “Alright hon, you have a good night.”
“You too!” Ava chirped, turning back towards her car. She carried on walking until she heard the door slam shut behind her. Then she called out into the shadows with a harsh whisper, “Alright, where the hell are you?”
“Here,” Liam whispered back as he jogged forward. He rushed to her, both illuminated by an orange streetlight above. “I’m so sorry I scared you,” he said, taking her face in his hands. He dipped low and kissed her, his lips softer than she could’ve imagined. The tender kiss only lasted a moment, but Ava knew she’d be dreaming about it for years to come. “Are you okay?” he asked as they parted an inch.
“Yeah, I’m…” Wanting you to do that again? Stupid for letting you back in my life? Absolutely crazy obsessed with you? She couldn’t pick one and ended up staying silent.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he kissed her cheek. “I don’t have time to explain, but I really need your help. Will you come with me?” He threaded his fingers into hers, tugging her towards his car as he spoke.
Ava dug her heels in, pulling back towards the bar. “Wait, what? Help with what?”
He bit his lower lip as he studied her face. “There’s no quick way of explaining it right now. We don’t have long. I… I need you, please. I promise to tell you everything someday, but right now…” He trailed off, looking to his car like getting her there was going to be a huge obstacle.
A part of her wanted to dive head first into the experience, for better or for worse. Though she’d been going nuts those two weeks she hadn’t seen him, she was thankful for the experience. Liam made her feel alive, made her feel things she’d never felt before, and isn’t that what she always dreamed of trapped on her parents compound?
The other side resisted, balking at the idea of helping with anything. What if he was the sort of person who dipped in and out of people’s lives whenever he needed something, using his charm as currency? She thought his intentions were genuine, but how could she be sure?
“You gotta give me something. We robbing a bank or something?” she laughed nervously. She let him pull her a little, showing she wasn’t completely resisting.
Liam glanced over his shoulder. “I need to break into Sarah’s house.”
Ava stopped dead in her tracks.