Excerpt from “Cowboy” by Staci Stallings…
Fatigue hit Ashton hard as he pulled up next to the small establishment winking an OPEN sign. For the first ten seconds after he killed the engine, he considered simply calling Meredith and asking her to come get him. But as he sat and the quiet came around him, the thought that he didn’t want to have to deal with her—or anyone else ran through him. For a few more minutes, he just wanted to be alone, and this looked like as good a place to do that as any. He glanced out the window to the light shining from the plate glass door out into the darkness. Warm. Somehow it looked so warm, and he felt so very cold.
It took everything he had to get the car door open. His head hurt, his eyes hurt, his body hurt. Everything hurt. Maybe he should call Meredith, he thought as he stepped out and right into the middle of an ice-cold rainwater puddle. With a jerk he yanked his foot out, but the muddy water seeped through the holes in his shoe just the same. Trying not to feel the chill oozing through the fabric of his sock, he pulled himself out of the car, making sure to miss the puddle the second time. Once standing, he started slowly across the puddle-strewn lot for the door. However, the wind whipped the icy droplets of rain seemingly right through him. When they found his all-but unprotected body and his neck, all thoughts other than getting inside vanished. In a dead run, he crossed the lot and stumbled inside.
“Nice night,” the waitress at the counter said.
Ashton brushed the cold ice water drops off his shirt and shivered. “I’d hate to see a bad one.” He stomped his feet on the ground, sending mud and water scattering in little fans on the mat and across the hard tile floor.
She grabbed a menu. “One?”
It took a moment to process the question as he brushed at his cap and neck. “Oh, uh, yeah,” he said, glancing up. “One.”
“Right this way.”
Without question he followed her across the diner to a corner booth. He reached up and repositioned the cap on his head, cupping the bill of it in one hand.
She stopped at the back booth cornered by a wall and a window. “This okay?”
“Fine.” He slid into the seat.
With a smile he barely saw, she laid the menu on the table. “I’ll bring you some water.”
“All right.” When she stepped away, he squeezed his eyes closed to shut out the fatigue flooding over him and shivered again. “Tell you what…”
She stopped short and turned back.
He forced his eyes open as he ran his hands down his now-wet jeans. “Just bring me some coffee.”
This smile at least made it to her face. “Coffee it is.”
He looked down at the menu under his fingertips. Although it had been several hours since he’d eaten anything, eating right now just didn’t seem appealing. He tilted his head to one side and then the other, trying to work out the kinks that were going nowhere.
“Here you go.” With a small clink, she set the coffee cup in front of him and filled it.
Gratefully, he glanced up. “Thanks.” But before his gaze managed to get to hers, the pain slashed through him again and pulled his gaze down lest she see.
For one second and then two she stood there. “I’ll take your order when you’re ready. Let me know.”
“Oh, okay.” His hands found the warmth of the cup. It felt wonderful. He didn’t really know how, but he knew she had walked away. Slowly he lifted the cup and took a sip. It was the most wonderful thing he’d ever tasted in his life.
Beth watched him from her perch at the counter. Something about him gripped the middle of her soul. Maybe it was the slump of his shoulders as he bent over the cup, or maybe it was the ache on his face. Whatever it was, her gut told her that he was in trouble. Big trouble.
Sitting in this diner so far away from everything he had come to know was like sitting outside his body and looking in, and for the most part, Ashton didn’t like anything he saw. It wasn’t the clothes—it was the shell of the man inside them. Being here felt so familiar. He’d been in many all-night diners driving back from gigs in far away towns.
He let his mind drift back to those days when playing for a couple hundred people was a good night, when making enough money to get the band to the next stop was a major accomplishment. Slowly his mind traced back through the band. Greg, James, Evan. All friends he’d somehow lost track of during his climb to the top. All friends he’d sat with in places just like this one, dreaming of living the life he now found himself in. But dreaming about this life now seemed totally absurd. It was more like a nightmare.
“Refill?” she asked, materializing in the front of the table.
He looked up into her smiling face and pushed the cup over to her. “Sure.”
She refilled it without ever losing the smile. “You ready to order?”
“Oh umm… I’m not really hungry.” He reached down and raked one hand down the side of his jeans. Then he glanced up into her smiling blue eyes, and all motion stopped.
“That’s okay,” she said softly. “Enjoy your coffee.”
“T-thanks,” he said, and she retreated back to her seat at the counter.
In a way it was odd, he thought as he dragged his attention back to the coffee cup, sitting here in what could at least pass as being in public—and not being mobbed or even asked for an autograph. Anymore he couldn’t go anywhere without constant chaos surrounding him. Everyone wanted autographs. Everyone.
He remembered the first autograph he’d ever signed. It was at one of the broken down bars he’d played so long ago he no longer remembered its name. The young girl had sat in the front row clapping and cheering after every song. After the second set, she’d come up and asked him for his autograph. It had been the first of many. His mind drifted back to that minute as the present ceded control to the past.
“My autograph?” he’d asked in disbelief never seriously thinking anyone would want his name on a piece of paper. “What for?”
Her soft, satiny face framed a smile that melted his heart. “That way when you become a big star, I can say I knew you when.”
In the present he smiled at that. He hadn’t thought of that conversation in a very long time.
“Oh, well, okay,” he had said as professionally as he knew how at the time. “Who should I make this to?”
“Just make it to Sharon.”
His heart filled with the memory, and before he could stop them, the tears in his heart were on his lashes. He swallowed and knotted his forehead to keep them from falling. She was so beautiful. He could see her standing there in the dim bar light. Right from the start she’d been his biggest fan—never wavering in her belief in him or his music. She had been with him every step of the way, and now she was gone, and he would never hear her voice or smell her perfume or see her smile or feel her touch again. Like a tidal wave the pain washed over him.
“’Nother refill?” the voice standing above him asked, and he looked at her before he thought better of it.
Beth saw the tears and the crushed, pain-filled look instantly.
“Are you sure I can’t get you anything?” she asked as concern for this tattered stranger traced through her. “Maybe there’s someone I can call, or…”
But he just shook his head and tried to smile. “No.” He looked back down at his empty coffee cup. “I’m all right.”
With pursed lips, she refilled his cup and set it down in front of him. “I’ll be right back.”
And she disappeared again. Ashton squeezed his eyes closed to stop the tears, but there were too many, and they had been held back for too long. Slowly, his head bent over the steaming cup in front of him, and he gave up. How could he ever have known that night as he’d looked at Sharon the first time how quickly it would all end? How could he ever have seen how much the top resembles the bottom when you have no one to share it with?
It was true, he had people around him 24 hours a day, and yet he had never been so lonely in his life. Suddenly the rain-soaked accident scene began to look rather good compared with going back and facing the emptiness his life had become. Barry and his checklists, Meredith and her constant demands. They said they cared, but they really didn’t. They would be gone in a flash if anything ever happened to him.
He’d had only one true friend in his life, and now she was gone.
“Here,” the waitress said, suddenly standing at the edge of his table again. When he looked up, confusion overtook everything else. With a twist of the plate in her hand, she set it down in front of him. “I know you said you weren’t hungry, but I think it would be good if you just had something to eat.”
His gaze fell to it. “But…”
“It’s okay,” she said with a smile. “Don’t worry about it. This one’s on me.”
“But…” he began again looking through the blur of tears at her and then to the scrambled eggs, sausage and toast now lying before him.
“No, buts. Now, eat.” She pointed to the food. “I’ll get you some more coffee.”
In utter disbelief and confusion, he watched her walk back to the counter.
Beth couldn’t explain it exactly, but she wanted to do something for this poor, lost soul who had stumbled in from the rain looking for a warm cup of coffee and a place to cry. She’d been there. Running, climbing the invisible railing between life and death, wanting only for the pain to end. It was no place to be. She smiled when she got back to the table. “Here you go.”
He looked at her as if she might disappear if he blinked. “You really don’t have to do this, you know.”
Her gentle laugh jumped from her heart. “It’s okay. You look like you need a good meal… and maybe somebody to talk to?”
He ducked his head as she picked up his cup and refilled it.
“So, there’s your meal,” she continued never losing the softness in her voice, “and if you need somebody to listen, I’m here.”
Carefully she set the cup on the table and looked at him, waiting for some sign that he wanted to come back over the railing, but he didn’t move. Then in a breath he looked up from the table and right into her eyes. The deep brown of his eyes held only pools of pure anguish.
Ashton knew the second their gazes met that he should look away or she would know everything, but for some reason he couldn’t. His brain scrambled trying to remember the last time anyone had looked at him like that. Offering only and not expecting anything in return.
“Well,” she said softly, “I just thought I’d offer.”
“Oh.” His senses crashed back to him. “I’m… I’m sorry. Where’re my manners? Please, have a seat.”
“Please,” he repeated, indicating the other side of the booth.
After only a second more, she slid gracefully into the other side and set the coffee pot down between them. “All right.”
He watched her intently, knowing in his heart she must be some kind of apparition that was going to disappear if he took his gaze off of her again.
She smiled at him and pointed to the plate he had forgotten. “Your eggs are getting cold.”
He looked down to where she was pointing and laughed. “Oh, yeah.” He glanced back across the table to make sure she was still there and then picked up his fork and stabbed it into the one mound of eggs. The first three forkfuls were in his mouth before he had a chance to think again. He was starving, and he hadn’t even realized it.
“So, you work the graveyard shift?” he asked between bites as she sat on her side folding and unfolding the edge of a napkin between her finger and her thumb.
“No, I’m mostly a day girl,” she said off-handedly, “but Harry needed help tonight, so I came in.”
“That’s nice of you.” He stabbed another forkful of eggs. “With the rain and all, I mean.”
She shrugged. “Yeah, well we’ve had a couple of waitresses out this week with this and that, so I fill in when I can.”
He nodded as he took a bite of sausage. As he chewed, the air began to return to his lungs.
“So, what brings you out on a night like this?” she asked, treading on each word carefully.
The memory of his flight from the arena played back in his mind, and Ashton forced himself to swallow the sausage. He took a long drink of coffee to wash it down. “I was just out driving.” Appetite gone, he stared at the plate in front of him. “I just kinda ended up here.”
She nodded, and the wave of a curl at her temple swayed. “I’ve been there before. Sometimes the best thing to do is get away—to clear your head so you can think straight again.”
“Yeah,” he said, staring at the eggs without really seeing them.
“You’re not from around here. Are you?” she asked, surveying him for mere moments at a time.
“No.” He didn’t look up. “I’m originally from Montana, but right now…” He stabbed into the eggs just to have something to do. “Well, I’m pretty much here and there these days.”
The napkin edge crinkled under her fingers. “You been driving long?”
“Too long,” he said, thinking of the hours upon hours he’d spent on that road. City after city until he wasn’t even sure which city he was in anymore.
“Must be hard being out there all alone.”
He nodded and forced himself to swallow another bite of eggs as she watched. “Yeah. Sometimes it feels like the road’s the only home I have anymore,” he said as much to himself as to her.
“It can get that way.” Her gaze never moved from him. He felt it although his gaze was on the plate in front of him. “When my husband died, all I wanted to do was run.”
When he looked up, he found himself staring at the part in her hair. For a moment she let that statement settle, then she looked across the diner and then back at him. The sadness in her gaze washed over him.
She smiled obviously forcing the words out. “And I did for awhile—run, I mean. I ran—just packed up and took off. I wasn’t really thinking, you know? All I knew was I had to get away from the pain.” Her gaze drifted over to the counter as her face scrunched on the memories. “But the road can be a weird place when you’re running from something. The harder I tried to run, the more the pain followed me. It followed me all the way to Miami.” She raked in air, then forced it down her throat and held his gaze. “That’s where I found myself sitting in a hotel room thinking I’d just be better off if I ended it all right there.”
At that moment he knew she was an angel, and he couldn’t have torn his gaze from her face if the sky had fallen at his feet.
However, the admission sent her gaze skittering. “I kept telling myself it was the only way, that I just couldn’t run anymore. I was tired of running, and I was tired of hurting. In fact, you know… I was just plain tired.” The story seemed to lose steam in the memories.
He nodded as he gazed across the table. Tired. It was a feeling he had come to know very well in the past few months.
She reached up and scratched the back of her neck just under the fall of loose curls that started at her head and cascaded down the sides of her face. “I was sitting there getting ready to end it all, and….” Her monologue drifted into silence, and the fight it was taking to get the words out was clear.
He shook his head searching her countenance trying desperately to figure out where this was going.
Then, with the smallest of laughs her gaze found his again. “A maid came in.”
“A maid?” he asked as his eyebrows knitted in confusion.
“Yeah.” She laughed, louder this time. “She was there to change the sheets or something, but I’ll tell you what, she took one look at me and forgot all about those sheets. She didn’t know me. We’d never even met before, but I know for a fact she saved my life that day. She showed me that running doesn’t help, and neither will killing yourself.”
“Yeah?” he asked sarcastically as he repositioned himself in the booth. “Then what does?”
Her eyes turned to soft orbs of gentleness. “Letting other people help you through it.”
The burden of fatigue and heartbreak he’d been carrying for months pulled his gaze to the table just as the bells at the door jingled. Although he never looked up, he heard her slide from the booth.
“Finish your breakfast.” She pointed to his plate. “If you need someone to listen, all you have to do is ask.”
And with that she left his booth to go help the other customers.
Let others help, he thought sarcastically. Yeah, right.
He couldn’t trust anyone with this pain. He couldn’t let them in. Besides, they didn’t want to listen—not really. They wanted him to say everything was fine and keep going as though nothing in the world had happened. They wanted him to be Ashton Raines, superstar, and as far as what happened to the real Ashton Raines, they couldn’t care less.
Loneliness descended on him again, and his whole body slumped toward the table with the weight of it. It was becoming more and more difficult to keep himself upright. All he wanted to do was lie down and go to sleep forever.
If he could just think of one friend. One real person he could call, one real person he could talk to.
“If you need someone to listen, I’m here,” he heard her words again in the depths of his soul, and he looked up to see if she was actually standing there. But she was across the restaurant helping someone else.
“I can’t tell her.” He shook his head and clutched the top of his cap, rolling it down around his face at the absurdity of the very thought. “I don’t even know her.”
Then his gaze lit on the all-but empty plate in front of him. She had given him a meal and asked for nothing in return. She had shared a piece of her heart with him and expected nothing. It was by far the greatest act of kindness he’d experienced in a long time. He looked down at the empty coffee cup, closed his eyes, and raised it off the table. “Miss, could I get a refill?”
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