“Was that horrible of me?” Ash asked with a grin. He’d already figured out Ginger wasn’t Crandall’s biggest fan, so he wasn’t worried about her reaction. The relief on her pretty face when Ash sent Crandall back to his cubicle alone was almost funny. He couldn’t even say why he and Crandall were suddenly getting along, but he’d been through it too. Ginger needed a miracle to get on Crandall’s secret friends list. Or so it had seemed to Ash while he had suffered Crandall’s abrasive side.
“He’ll get over it.” Her smile wavered. “He will, won’t he?” She slowed her pace to look up at Ash.
“I think so.” He gave her a reassuring smile, and then they continued walking toward a small coffee shop with a scattering of tables along the sidewalk. “I still won’t claim to completely understand him.”
“Not surprising,” she said with a snort. She took a deep breath and sighed, shaking her head. “I’m sorry. I know he’s your friend.”
“I’m not really this catty. Honest.”
“Crandall, he…” Ash paused. He didn’t know what Crandall’s story was. He only knew the man had been difficult – very difficult — at first, but Mike vouched for him, and finally, Crandall came around. But not until Max forced Ash to out himself to Crandall. He expected snotty comments from the man, at the very least, and possibly downright denigration, but Crandall had surprised him. He’d not only accepted the truth, but embraced their wavering friendship, supporting it with all of the same strong energy he’d previously put into being a jerk.
“You don’t need to explain,” Ginger said, interrupting his musings. “I’m sure he has a good side.”
“Yes, he does. That’s why he came for me the night of the fire.”
“That’s a true friend: one you can call at any hour of the day or night and know they’ll drop anything for you.” She stopped at the door of the café and studied Ash. “I bet you’re that kind of friend right back too.”
With a smile to hide his surprise at her declaration, he asked, “Why do you say that?”
She shrugged. “I just know.”
He raised an eyebrow and held back a smirk. “But you don’t ‘know’ about Crandall?”
She laughed. It was loud and musical. She wasn’t afraid of letting it out, but the sound was still feminine, like a playful ditty with no lyrics. “I tried to be friends before asking about you. He pushed me away.”
“Don’t give up.” Ash reached for the door, holding it open for her. He placed a hand at the small of her back, ushering her in. She didn’t pull away – maybe even slowed and leaned into his touch, though that could’ve been him reading too much into things – but it still gave his confidence a boost. He knew his way around vampires. He also made friends easily enough when he wasn’t distracted by work, and losing his home, and, well, vampires, but pretty girls had always been harder for him. He’d promised himself he’d start out with the truth this time.
It scared the crap out of him. More than any vampire he’d ever hunted. He doubted the decision all day long, but refused to let doubt change his mind. He’d tell her. Maybe not while they waited for coffee at the counter, but before they parted ways. Definitely before he asked for her phone number, so he’d know if she’d be someone he’d want to visit again.
As they sipped coffee and talked, Ash absorbed everything she said. They like a lot of the same music. She barely watched TV; he didn’t own one, not even before the fire. She found ways to relax him with gentle teasing and subtle flirtations, while he never struggled once to find a topic she’d find interesting. It was going well. Too well. Doubt crept in again, warning Ash against revealing his secret. He didn’t want to lose this so soon.
“What kind of martial arts?” Ginger’s gaze sparkled with curiosity sprinkled with flirtation.
Ash smiled, pushing aside the worried little voice in his head. “You don’t want to hear about my job.”
“I do,” she said. She spun the Styrofoam cup between her hands. “I took Jujitsu when I was a kid. I’ve always thought I should give it another try.”
“That’s one.” Ash tried not to get too excited about the common ground. It could just as easily become a chasm of disgust if he told her about his… He shook the angry, fearful words from his head, and refocused on Ginger. “Wednesday evenings.” He felt the blush rising up his neck. “That is, if you’re interested.” He couldn’t seem to help himself. She was going to break his heart with one coffee date.
“I’m interested.” She glanced down to her cup, and when she met his gaze again her shy expression took on a mysterious, mischievous tint. “Do you offer private lessons?”
He returned her smile easily. “I’m sure I could arrange something.”
“Where’s your phone? I’ll give you my number.” She reached a hand across the table, her fingers brushing over his wrist. Her touch sent tingles through his body, making him crave things he’d denied for too long.
“I’d like that,” Ash said. He turned his hand to take hers. “But first I want to tell you something.” He squeezed her hand and lifted her fingers to his lips for a light kiss. “I like you, Ginger. A lot. So I have to get this out in the open up front. It just gets too weird to…”
He shook his head.
Just say it.