THE MORNING AFTER
By Meg Gray © 2015
A bonus chapter for SOMETHING TO REMEMBER
“Fire him,” Ava said, pushing into her mother’s penthouse suite at The Hotel Provence.
“Fire who, darling?” Louise backed out of Ava’s way.
“Ned! I’d do it, except I’d be inclined to claw his pathetic blue eyes out first.”
“Well, I can’t do that.” Louise turned away from Ava and strode into the living area of her room, her silk robe flowing behind her.
“But, you have to.” Ava balled her fists. “I just found him and Blair together in a suite downstairs.”
“Oh my.” Louise spared Ava half a glance as she sat down on the antique sofa centered in the room. “That’s quite a development now, isn’t it?”
Ava marched over to her mother’s side and folded her arms firmly against her chest, momentarily stilling the angry tremble in her arms and hands. “There’s no room for a man like him in this hotel, and I want him gone by lunch.”
She was about to leave when her mother spoke again. “I’m sorry but I can’t do that. It’s not my place. I don’t own this hotel anymore.”
Ava whipped her head around, the perfectly groomed bun in her hair shifting slightly. An ache in her neck briefly reminded her of the fall on the ice she took the night before. “What?”
“Well, I sold it. Last night.” Louise nonchalantly picked at an invisible piece of lint on her robe, avoiding eye contact with Ava.
“Why would you do that?” Ava screamed. A tray of glasses nearby reminded her of the fit she’d pitched when she found Blair and Ned together, and her desire to throw something sprang up again.
“It was Ned’s idea.” Louise’s eyes grew big as if she were trying to pull off an act of innocence.
“You sold my hotel?” Ava’s voice was controlled and even. “Without asking me first.”
“Yes, I did, and for a very good price considering—”
“You sold my hotel without consulting me first?” Ava said slowly.
Louise blinked as Ava’s voice grew frightfully calm. “Yes, darling I did.” Louise brightened. “And now that this thing with Ned is over you can join me for Christmas in Whistler while we hunt for our next project together.”
Digging the high heel of her boot into the carpet Ava whirled around and left the room, slamming the door behind her.
Returning to her suite, she noted the other suite across the hall, where she’d found Ned and Blair wearing next to nothing less than an hour ago, had already been cleared out. A vacuum ran across the carpet, the raspy sounds of glass being sucked from the fibers could be heard from behind her closed door. With incredible haste, Ava threw everything she owned into a suitcase and left The Hotel Provence for good.
* * *
Icy rain splattered onto Ava’s windshield. The dash of snow this part of the state received overnight had been brushed to the sides of the road by other motorists. A small berm had formed on the shoulder, the wintery white line defining the edge.
Typically, Ava wouldn’t be out driving in these conditions, but typically she wouldn’t wake up to find her boyfriend, her best friend, and her own mother had all betrayed her in one night. She had started out heading south, for no other reason than the fact that her mother was heading north. No particular destination had come to mind and she was going to keep driving until something did. For all she knew she’d keep up until she hit Tijuana. It was about time she put another stamp in her passport. Then again, she and Blair had taken an unforgettable trip to Mexico not long ago, and the last thing she wanted to do was be reminded of anything remotely related to that woman or her mother or Ned ever again.
She saw a sign for the Ocean Beaches and decided to change tack. West was an even better choice than south.
At a Mom and Pop gas station she’d gotten directions for a small coastal town she’d heard about that had a quaint spa. She hoped the holiday weekend had everyone else staying at home with their families and that she’d be able to get a room.
The attendant with his hair as white as snow and a merry twinkle in his blue eyes told her to stick to the road she was on and she’d end up right where she needed to go.
It sounded simple enough and so she’d continued on even as the rain had started to fall. A pair of headlights had appeared behind her not too long ago, but had grown distant as the midday fog thickened. The melancholy of it all had Ava tearing up, blurring her vision of the snow streaked road.
How had life turned around so suddenly? What had she done to deserve this kind of treachery from everyone in her life?
Her tears were a stream of misery as she approached a curve in the road. She reached for a tissue at the same moment she should have braked into the turn and when she forced her foot on the pedal a fraction of a minute too late her tail end kicked out from the front of her car and she started to spin. Once, maybe twice, she wasn’t sure. The tall green and white trees spun in and out of her vision. The car tipped, the back end leading her down an embankment. She closed her eyes and then as quickly as it had all began, the car stopped moving.
* * *
Ava crossed her arms over her steering wheel and laid her head atop them. How could this day get any worse?
Loud tapping rapped the window of her little red sports car. “Are you okay?” a man’s voice called through the glass. More tapping.
Ava didn’t want to lift her head. She didn’t want anyone to see her here like this. She just wanted to be alone in the cold and left to cry her heart out.
The car rocked as the man outside pulled on the door handle. He tried again and she rocked with the movement.
Go away, she thought.
“Hold on,” he yelled. “I’m going to get something to break the window.”
She yanked her head back as he climbed up the small embankment to the road. Jeans, a blue shirt, and vest were all she made note of in the split second she took to study him. Throwing the door open she stepped out, her foot sinking ankle-deep in snow.
“You will do no such thing,” she yelled.
The man turned around, obviously startled, and nearly teetered back down the hill. He kept his footing though and rushed to her.
“Are you all right?” he asked. Dark hair and electric blue eyes that matched his soft flannel shirt captured her attention. “I thought you were unconscious. You didn’t answer when—”
Ava folded her arms firmly, not letting his country-boy good looks soften the anger brew inside her heart. “I was ignoring you.”
“Ignoring me?” He scratched his head. “Why?”
“Because I want to be alone.”
He nodded slowly. A smile teased his lips. “Is that why you spun off the road like that? To get some alone time?”
“Of course not.” Ava’s boot sunk deeper into the snow, the cold bringing a prickly sting to her toes.
“All right, well, if that’s what you want then I’ll leave you to it. Just let me check to make sure you’re okay first.” He took a step toward her. “Does it hurt anywhere?”
She shook her head. Besides her rapidly freezing toes, a minor twinge in her neck, and the splintered pieces of her heart she felt perfectly fine.
“Are you sure you didn’t lose consciousness?”
Ava blew out a breath and shivered, the shady banks adding to the chill in the air. “No. I remember every turn of the car, then I stopped, and put my head on the steering wheel. You came along, knocked on my window, tried to break into my car, then walked off promising to break the window pieces.” Ava pulled her foot from the snow and stepped back toward her car, stumbling slightly on her numb toes. “Now, if you don’t mind I’ve had enough things shattered in my life today and don’t need you adding to it.”
“Certainly. My deepest apologies for trying to rescue you.” The muscles in the man’s stubble covered cheeks quivered and his lips remained in a straight line, but his eyes danced and she could easily see he was mocking her. He pushed his hands into his jean pockets and stepped away. “I’ll just let you get back to being alone then.”
His back was to her when her mouth dropped open. Seriously he was going to leave her here now? She wanted to call him back, but she wasn’t about to look like a fool now. He could leave. She’d find her way out of this.
Ava was about to step back into her car when the man turned around. “Any idea how long this is going to take you? Because hypothermia doesn’t take long to set in and based on the blue tinge to your lips, your shivering, stumbling, and clear lack of judgement I’d say you’ve already entered into the early stages.”
Ava didn’t grace him with a reply. Instead she slid back into her car, the heater still pumping.
“Just let me know when you’re ready to get out of here,” he called before traipsing back up the embankment.
Ava glared through her windshield as a gust of wind blew and rubbed her hands together as she tried to wiggle her still freezing toes. Oh, how they hurt. And oh, how she wished she was somewhere warm and cozy right now. She didn’t really want to face the reality that she was sitting in a ditch in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a flannel-wearing, monster-truck-driving man here to save her. This couldn’t be how her day was turning out. It just couldn’t.
She glanced up at the truck. The man was outside standing at the rear tire, one leg bent and pressed against the wheel. His cellphone was pressed to his ear and as he spoke his breath puffed out, hanging in the air like smoke.
Okay, she tried to reason with herself. First things first. She knew she had to get the car back on the road. The embankment was just a little incline. Putting the car in drive she pressed on the accelerator and felt nothing but the spin of her back tires. She tried again. Still nothing. She chanced a glance up the hill to see her audience was still watching her. And if she wasn’t mistaken it looked like he was trying not to laugh. Fine, she’d show him. One more time she stomped down on the pedal while she wiggled the steering wheel side to side, but the sporty little car didn’t advance forward. This was great. Just great.
The car was stuck and the only way out was with help or as the good Samaritan had mentioned she would freeze to death. With a wicked flick of her wrist, she cut the engine and laid on the horn.
The man got off his phone and came down the embankment again.
She rolled down her window.
He rested his hands on his knees. “Yes?”
“I’m ready to get out of here,” she said, keeping her eyes forward and off the face peering at her with a heavy mask of amusement playing on his fine features.
When had she noticed his fine features? She didn’t think about it. It didn’t matter how he looked only that she got of here and somewhere warm before she lost her toes and fingers to frostbite.
“Very well,” he said, reaching for the door handle. “May I?”
She nodded as she reached for her purse and he opened the door. Back in the snow her dainty boots sunk again and she stumbled with her steps.
“May I help you?” he asked kind and unsarcastically.
Reluctantly she nodded.
He wrapped a strong arm around her waist and she leaned into him taking some of the burden off her inept feet. At his truck, which stood higher than any normal pickup she’d ever seen, he opened the door and lifted her inside. The engine had been turned off and the inside wasn’t warm, but it blocked some of the chill from the wind. Her teeth chattered.
Climbing in beside her he started the engine again, turning up the heat. He pulled a thick jacket from the backseat where she’d briefly noticed two car seats. Tucking it around her Ava caught a whiff of cologne. Musky and manly all at the same time. He hopped out and came around to her side again.
He lifted the leg of her pants and she tried to pull away.
“I’m a doctor,” he said, a seriousness in his eyes. “Please let me help you.”
She acquiesced and let her head fall back against the seat.
“I’m Lane by the way,” he said as he gently pulled her feet from her boots. “What’s your name.”
“Ava,” she said, straight to the ceiling.
“Nice to meet you Ava. Now can you wiggle your toes for me?”
She obliged, and all ten toes moved beneath her thin stockings. She wanted to tell him the few minutes she’d spent in the snow was hardly enough time to cause any permanent damage, even she knew this. But when she caught the man pulling off his vest, stretching the buttons of his flannel shirt tight, she felt a jolt of attraction and reconsidered. Maybe the cold was doing more to her than she realized.
“Is that better?” he asked, tucking the wool lined vest around her feet. The transfer of his body heat did more to her than just warm up her toes.
“Y-yes.” She tried to pretend it was the cold from the fresh round of flakes falling that brought her a chill and made her stutter, but she knew better than that.
“Good.” He smiled, so soft and dear. “Now, I’m going to ask you one more time. Do you have pain anywhere?”
She shook her head.
“All right. I’ll get you some place warm and send for a tow truck to get your car.”
“No.” She reached out, grabbing his arm. Oh yes, strong muscles definitely resided under there. She shook the silly thought from her mind as she released her hold. “My things are still in there. I need them. Please.”
His eyes softened and she took that as a yes, digging for her keys and handing them over.
Lane took the keys and disappeared down the embankment. It didn’t take long for him to return, empty-handed.
“Where are my things?” she asked as the driver side door opened.
“The back end of your car is pinned against a tree. I couldn’t get to it.” He made a motion like he was going to climb into the truck.
“But…but…” Her vision started to blur. Don’t cry. She wasn’t a crying kind of girl and she didn’t want to start now, but the idea of leaving behind the only things she had left reminded her of all she’d just lost. “But, I need my things.”
Snow fell harder, laying a gauzy film over the windshield.
“I’m going to have to try to pull your car off the tree. I don’t know if I have enough tow line to reach it down there, but I’m willing to try if that’s okay with you.”
She nodded eagerly and wiped away a tear as Lane headed back into the snow. Through her own window which was quickly layering with fluffy white flakes she watched and waited. Just when she was starting to feel worried and maybe even a little ridiculous for having a perfect stranger dig her car out of the snow, he returned dusted with huge snowflakes.
Lane climbed behind the wheel and blew into his cupped hands. “Okay,” he said. “I attached to your car. Do I have your permission to pull?”
“Yes, yes you do.” She sat up a little straighter and watched through her side mirror.
He shifted the truck into drive and checked his mirror before slowly moving forward. The tow line must have gone taut because they stopped for a moment. The engine revved and they shot forward, a loud pop striking the air above the engine’s roar, and Ava got a sinking feeling.
“What just happened?” she asked. “Did it work?”
“I’ll go see,” he said, stepping back into the winter storm.
The next time the driver side door opened, Lane stood there with his hands full of her bags. His teeth chattered as he asked, “Is this everything?”
“Yes. Thank you.” She turned, losing her warm covers, as she tried to help get everything in the back seat, on top and around the car seats.
“I’ll be right back,” he said without looking at her. “There’s one more thing I need to get.”
Ava watched him through the sliver of bare glass that remained on the back window. She saw the blue flannel return and then a flash of something shiny and red was placed in the back. Lane was coming around now and she sat forward, resituating herself so she was ready to go.
Lane climbed in and buckled up without a word. He slowly pulled the truck onto the snow-covered roadway when she thought to ask, “What was it that you put in the back?”
His face remained calm, but she could hear the tension in his words when he said, “Your bumper.”
He broke my car! And just like that the red hot flames of anger reignited.