“Come on Gus, you have to drink your milk or you won’t grow big and strong.”
The tiny pot-bellied pig just looks at me like it’s not amused, and turns its snout up.
“Okay then. Don’t say I didn’t try.” I sigh, taking the bottle from his face. I jump a little when I hear the door rattling. Who on earth could be knocking at this time of night? I check my watch. It’s almost midnight.
Knock! Knock! This time the knock is more forceful.
“Who’s there?” I call out. If it were either of my annoying, spiteful brothers they’d just walk right in. So whoever this is, they’re out in the middle of nowhere, looking for trouble perhaps, or worse? I wait a few seconds in silence. Who the hell is on the other side of that door? Anxiously, I scamper to my feet. Grabbing a hay rake, I head to the door.
“I’ll ask one more time, who’s out there?”
“It’s me,” a man chuckles.
“Me who?” I stop dead on the other side of the wood. Raising my rake, I yank the door open. I reckon my brothers are playing another prank on me and I’m so not in the mood for their crap right now. “Come on then! You want some, huh?” I growl, looking out into the night. My eyes lower, grazing the top of a shiny, bald head.
“Do I want some?” The old fella smiles up at me, making his eyes crease at the sides. In the darkness, I’d place him in his late seventies at least. He wears a brown tweed suit and a red dickey bow; he looks a lot like my old science teacher. “Maybe?” He shrugs.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” I lower my rake.
“You didn’t. I’ve faced actual dragons you know.”
“Right.” I must look confused as the old guy wiggles his bushy grey brows at me. “Do you need help? Are you lost?”
“I’m not lost.” He crosses his arms. “Are you?”
“What?” I frown. “Look old man, it’s late. I’m tired. What can I do for you?”
“More like, what can I do for you?” The guy takes his little round glasses off and rubs them on his sleeve, before putting them back on. “That’s better, I can see you clearly now. My, you are handsome…pity you hide yourself away back here.”
I blow out my cheeks. “Look, do you need me to call someone for you? Come in for a minute and I’ll get you a blanket and a warm drink.” I step back to let him pass. “You’re miles from the road and it’s freezing tonight.”
“Fiddlesticks.” He waves away my offer. “I do need some help with my car though. The old girl seems to have broken down on me again. I was hoping, since you’re so good with engines, that you could come and take a look-see?”
“Tractor engines maybe…but… how did you know that? And, why didn’t you knock at the house? Why come all the way around the back to an old empty barn?”
“But it isn’t empty is it? You are here. Besides, I knew those idiots up at the house would be of no use to me, or I to them.”
“You’re a bit strange. ” I scratch my head.
“Strange but worth helping?” He raises both brows above his glasses. “You look like a sturdy young man, looks like you keep in shape. I remember when I was your age. I had muscles like a sailor.”
“You are so…odd...” I feel uneasy, like I’m the punch line to some bizarre joke.
“I am, right? My Nancy used to say that to me all the time.” He grins.
“Your wife? She’s…passed?” Is this guy just seeking out company? Maybe we aren’t so different after all. I mean, what harm could it possibly do to help him? The poor guy’s probably escaped from an old folk’s home or something.
“Oh yes, for a while now. She’s gone up with the butterflies. But I know I’ll see her soon.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.” Is all I can think of to say.
I go over to the table and grab my toolbox. “Gus, you be good whilst I’m gone.” I bend down and cover my little pig in a blanket, carefully tucking it in to the sides of his box. He opens one eye before going straight back to sleep.
“Come on then, let’s take a look at this car of yours.” I fling my jacket on and pass the man, who I presume is following me. I stride across the fields toward the road and he has to skip almost to keep my pace. But it’s cold and I’m exhausted, as usual, so the sooner I fix his car, the sooner I can sleep.
“So,” I break the silence. “What’s your name?”
“Gerry,” he pants. Feeling bad, I slow down slightly.
“Hi Gerry. I’m Ash.” I stop walking and offer my hand, which he shakes eagerly.
“I know. It’s so nice to meet you, finally.” He squeezes my hand in his. I quickly pull away.
“O-okay. Not weird at all.” I pick up the pace again. “ Look, is this some prank my brothers have put you up to? ‘Cos if it is, they’re not paying you enough.” I stop walking. “Are they luring me away so they can steal my pig? Is that it?” I turn around ready to run back. They always try to take everything from me that matter.
“No!” The old guy grabs my arm and he’s surprisingly strong. “I promise, your pig is safe. He likes his milk much warmer by the way. Look there’s my car.” He points down the road and I can just make it out.
“Okay.” I turn back. “But if I get back and my Gus is gone…let’s just say that I won’t be so nice.”
“Got it.” He nods and we head for the car.
“Right, let’s take a look.” I pull up the hood making it creak with annoyance.
“I think you woke her up. She can be ever so cranky.” Gerry pats the rusty, old Mini lovingly.
“I know the feeling.” I grab a torch from my toolbox and have a poke around the engine.
“So, what is it that you do, Ash?”
“Don’t you know already?” I half laugh, keeping my eyes on the job at hand.
“You work on your father’s farm. They treat you like a dog by the way.”
“What?” I drop my spanner and it clashes against the engine.
“But you know that already. You have a dream. What is it?” He leans against the car.
“I do, huh? Don’t you know that too?”
“I want to be a doctor someday. I want to help people. That’s all.”
“So why work on the farm?”
“You don’t even like them, not now your poor mother’s gone.”
I feel my jaw clenching. “I see the problem. Looks like someone’s disconnected this wire.”
“Strange.” He widens his eyes.
“Very.” I reconnect it and push the hood back down.
“So you were saying about your mother?”
“ I wasn’t. Look mate, I don’t know what this is, what game you’re playing or why…but you’re starting to freak me out.” I take a step away from him. “Who the hell are you?”
“I told you. I’m Gerry.”
“And what is it you do, Gerry? Besides stalking and roaming the countryside in the middle of the night?” I cross my arms tightly.
“Well I’m a fff…”
“You’re a fff?”
“I’m a fancy dress shop owner.”
“Okay.” I shrug. “Get in and try her now.” I’ve had enough and want him to leave now. He turns the key and the engine splutters to life.
“Oh you are amazing!” He pops his head out of the window. “Thank you so much, Ash!”
“No worries.” I take my tool kit off the car roof and step back from the road.
“How much do I owe you?”
“Don’t worry about it. You just get on home to bed.” Yes, I have little money, only the pittance my father gives me for working his land, but I’m damn sure I’m not taking this guy’s pension.
“You really are a prince.” He beams and for a moment, I have a crazy urge to hug him goodbye. But I don’t.
“Yeah, that’s me, prince of pigswill,” I chunter.
“Ash.” He looks serious, the smile in his eyes disappears.
“When fate knocks again, don’t pitch fork it in the face, okay?”
“Okay then.” I half smile. Rubbing away the sudden goose bumps rushing down my arms. This guy’s clearly off his rocker. Poor old thing. In a way, though I sort of like him, crazy or not, I’ll look back on his memory with a smile. And it was sort of nice for someone to be interested in me for a change. I guess it was just nice to have a visitor.
“Bye then young man. I’ll see you very soon.” He winds his window up and drives away.
I’m standing in the road, watching him leave, wondering why I suddenly feel so empty. The night is too quiet and I long to fill it with voices and laughter, like things used to be. But here I am, alone again…I take a slow walk back to the barn and think over all the strange things he said.
I bolt upright. I must have fallen asleep in the barn again; these days it’s becoming a habit. I look over to the rickety wooden door and watch as it bangs relentlessly against the wind. The rain explodes furiously above me on the old rotten roof. I guess the storm spooked me. Bloody wus. Gus lets out a little grunt. I lean over and give him a pat.
“It’s okay boy. It’s just a storm. Go back to sleep.”
There it is again. Shit, something’s in here with me. Carefully, I rise to my feet. I grab my weapon from before and tiptoe nearer to the sound. Even though it’s dark, I have the advantage; I know this place like the back of my hand. My heart’s hammering against my chest, but I have taken on enough wild animals and hateful brothers in my life, so I don’t know why I’m feeling so anxious now. Whatever this is, it shouldn’t have chosen my barn to raid tonight. A shadow catches my eye as it drunkenly stumbles around knocking buckets over and banging into walls. The figure is cloaked, leaning over a tractor with its back to me.
“Jack? Is that you?” I whisper, expecting him to turn and laugh in my face. I often catch him hanging around, sometimes he just watches me work, mostly silent, and very creepy. The figure is very still, which is really unnerving. Jack would have definitely unmasked himself by now.
“Show yourself!” I demand, trying to keep the shake out of my voice.
The figure straightens up. I relax a little, as I’m at least a foot taller than him. I walk forward, rake up, ready to attack. “I said…show yourself.” I point my weapon near to its hooded head. This close, I can hear it panting. “Show yourself or I’ll be forced to…”
“Put the rake down.” A soft voice orders.
“A girl?” I lower the rake slightly, but not fully. This could be a trick. She may have a gang waiting outside. There’s talk about town, of gangs looting local farms. I have to protect the animals. “You’re a girl?”
“That’s right. Now put it down before I put you down,” she hisses.
“Feisty. I like that.” I reach for my torch in my back pocket.
“No sudden moves…I mean it.” She’s well spoken; maybe she’s trying to disguise her voice.
“Wait, did Bruno and Jack put you up to this?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you don’t back off right now …I’ll put you on your backside.” I can’t help but laugh. “I’m not joking you…you great lug!” I spot a slight tremble in her words.
“I believe that you believe that.” I go for my torch again.
“Oh, really?” she asks and before I can blink, the rake is snatched from my hands. A sudden pain streaks across the backs of my knees as my own weapon works against me. I watch in a blur as my feet go over my head and then there’s a crashing bolt of pain as my arse hits the floor.
“What the hell?” I’m feeling pretty foolish now. The girl stands over me.
“I told you,” she says, throwing my rake at the ground. I jump to my feet and grab her by the arm. “Please. Don’t,” she pleads.
“What so now you’re scared? I don’t know what you’re playing at, but I’ve had enough for one night. So what? You’ve come in to my home to what? Attack me? Steal from me?”
“This is your home?”
I grab her arm tighter. “Have they sent you in first as a decoy?”
“Back off. I mean it.” The feisty has returned.
“Please.” She pulls her arm away and I let her. “Good. I don’t want to hurt you again.”
“Oh please.” I laugh, “That was pure luck.”
“Really?” She huffs.
“Really.” I flick my torch on. “Take your hood down.”
“Look, I meant no harm.” She puts her hands up defensively.
“Take it down.” I say again.
“I just needed somewhere to rest for a while.” She pulls her hood down and all I see is long white blonde hair tumbling down over her shoulders. I shine my torch to get a better look at my opponent. Her eyes are a deep green, yet so sad. I’ve never seen such sorrow in a person before. I hear my breath catch and I don’t know if it’s because I was expecting a street girl, or that she’s so striking. She’s looking at me like she really sees me. Like I’m not invisible, I’m not a nobody.
I lower my torch down her body. Under the cloak she’s wearing a fancy red ball gown, which looks like a year’s salary at least. I go back to focus on her face.
“You’re…” I want to say beautiful but clamp my lips together tightly. Sounding like some cheesy pervert that sleeps with pigs, would only scare her off. And I don’t want her to leave yet. For some reason, that I can’t quite put my finger on, I feel more awake, more alive in the past five minutes than I have done in years. Was it possible to have a connection with someone so instantly? I never believed in all that flaky romance crap before. Love at first sight is only real in romance novels… Plus this girl has some major anger issues. So why aren’t I throwing her out?
“I’m?” she asks again, her almond shaped eyes widen. I realise I’m still staring at her like some dumb ass.
“I’m what? Familiar? Do you think that you know me?” Her eyes narrow on mine.
“Should I?” I cock my head, squinting at her slightly. Surely, if I’d met her before, I’d remember her…that face…those breathtakingly sad eyes…
“So,” She breaks me out of my trance. “Do you think that you know me?”
“Should I?” I scratch my head. “Look. It’s really late, can we cut the crap please?”
“So, you’re saying that you’ve never seen me before? Not on television or in the news?”
“Oh, are you one of those reality stars or something?”
“Sorry to hurt your feelings, but I don’t really get time for all that. Look, I’m sure you’re great, but I have a life, so sorry if I don’t ask for a selfie.”
“No, that’s great actually.” Her frown magically disappears before she winces; her eyes close for a second.
“It’s nothing. I just hurt my foot pretty badly.”
“Let me take a look.” I offer her my hand.
“Err…” She recoils a little. “Why would you help me? I’ve just hurt you. Why would you do that? Do you expect something in return?”“What? No. Why would you even think that?”
“People usually want something for nothing.” She sighs.
“Wow. Your world sounds pretty messed up.”
“You have no idea.”
“So?” I offer my hand again.
“Err.” She puts her hand out towards mine then retracts it.
“Look if I was going to hurt you, I already would’ve.”
“You could try and I will put you down, again.” She nearly smiles. “Now will you get that torch out of my face…please?”
“It’s okay. I know a little about injuries. Look, I promise I won’t touch you without your say so.” I gesture the light towards a hay bale so she can sit. She limps a little, and I can tell she’s doing a great job of holding in the tears. I take her elbow and wait for her to approve. She nods and I let her lean on me and I help her to sit.
“No worries.” I smile and she gives me a wide grin, which shows off a little sexy gap between her two front teeth. I feel heat rush into my cheeks. “You know you look a lot less constipated when you smile.” I shrug, waiting for a slap across the head. She reverts to scowling at me again. “So, can I take a look?”
“Go ahead.” She pulls her gown up over her ankle and sitting at her feet, I can see that the hem is covered in thick mud. “Any funny business and I’ll scream though.”
“Get over yourself. Besides, no one would hear you out here.” I don’t look up; I just concentrate on her foot, which is looking rather sorry for itself. “That is one messed up foot. What’ve you been doing to get it in that state?”
“You really want to know?”
“I’m asking aren’t I? Sorry, I guess it’s none of my business…”
“No, it’s fine. I lost my stupid shoe, running away from this guy…”
“Did he hurt you?” I feel all my muscles clench. “Do I need to find this guy?”
“Calm down. Thank you though, you know, for defending my honour. But I can easily do that myself.” She smiles and I instantly relax. “But no really, it’s my fault for wearing designer, one-of-a-kind shoes. I just didn’t have time to break them in.”
“Oh, the busy life of a celebrity.” I smirk and look more closely at her foot.
“What was so one-off about the shoes anyway? Isn’t a shoe just a shoe?”
“These were very unique, these were made of glass.” She pops her left foot out from under her huge dress, showing me the remaining glass shoe.”
“Wow. As you can see I’m no fashion expert. “ I gesture to my plaid shirt and ripped jeans, which aren’t ripped as a statement, more ripped on the wire fence on the cow field. “But that looks more like a weapon than a shoe. Pretty fancy though.”
“Fancy and impossible to dance in and totally not meant for running.”
“So, why were you running and dressed like that?”
“I was attending a ball…a charity ball.”
“For a minute then, I thought you were gonna say a royal ball.” I wrinkle my nose up.
“You don’t like the royal family?” Her frown has turned into a deep crevice stretching all the way down her forehead to the top of her nose.
“Again I have no time to like or dislike them. Haven’t really taken any notice of them for quite some years. But if you ask me, people with their kind of money and contacts could do a whole lot more for the world than the occasional parade or street party ‘cos one of em’s farted.”
“Oh.” She glances away quickly.
“I mean no offence, I guess someone like you would like that kinda lifestyle.” I shrug.
“Someone like me?”
“Well spoken, upper class. So anyway, a charity ball huh? I guess that’s good, you ‘celebs’ doing stuff for a good cause. Maybe you could auction off the other shoe? It might fetch a good price in for a good cause.”
“It is beautiful I guess, but I don’t see the point of breaking my neck to look pretty in a pair of shoes that no one can even see.” She kicks it off in disgust.
“So you think you’re pretty huh?” I look up at her and her mouth gapes open slightly. “Okay, I’ll need to clean the blood off and see how deep the cuts are. So you ran across miles of roads and muddy fields in one shoe? The guy must have had serious breath issues or something.”
I get up and grab my first aid kit, which I always keep close by. “Don’t go running off on me now.”
“Couldn’t if I wanted to.” She winces again.
I kneel at her feet and I gently place her foot in my palm, cleaning up her skin. It feels weirdly intimate to be holding the foot of a woman I’ve literally known for all of ten minutes, yet it feels sort of right and she doesn’t look disgusted when I touch her, her being all lady, and me being a bit of a tramp. I’m not one, but I guess on first appearances, I could look like I’d rolled around in pig crap. But someone worth it would look under the dirt and see me, Ash. I’ve never really cared before now what people think. One day I’m gonna be far away from this place. But weirdly, I care what this girl thinks. I have no clue why or if she’d ever lower herself to be friends with someone like me. I shouldn’t care because any moment she’ll leave and none of this will even matter. She will go back to her pampered life and famous friends. I’ll just be the guy she knocked on his butt. My pride has taken a bit of a bashing tonight, but I’ll live.
“Let me know if this hurts.” I start dabbing carefully at her bloody, blistered foot.
She bites down on her lip, which draws me into how full and juicy they look. I shake myself mentally. If I were her doctor right now, I would be behaving very unprofessionally. Finally, when the foot is clean, I place a few plasters on it. We are both silent for a while. I keep trying to think of things to say and then change my mind again.
“So, good news. None of the cuts are very deep so you won’t need stitches. May hurt to walk on for a day or two though. The swelling should go down pretty quickly too.”
“Thank you so much. How do you know this stuff?”
“I’m sort of studying to be a doctor one day. Just an online course whilst I wait to hear back from colleges.” I shrug, knowing she’s not really bothered; she’s just making small talk to be polite.
“That’s amazing. So why are you sleeping in a barn?” She looks around and I can’t help but feel ashamed.
“I have my reasons.” I say, getting to my feet. “And I don’t even know your name so I’m holding off on telling you my life story.”
“Gosh, where are my manners!”
“So?” I raise my brows.
“So, what’s your name?”
“Hi, Ellie.” I put my hand out and she shakes it. “I’m Ash.” Her hand in mine feels warm. Hers are soft like silk gloves. I pull away quickly; mine must feel rough and dirty to her. A look of confusion flashes in her eyes.
“So, what happened?” I change the subject from our awkward hand holding moment. “This guy propose or something?” I laugh and start packing my bandages back inside my first aid kit.
“Or something,” she whispers. When I turn around, she’s crying into her palms.
“Hey.” I bend down and put my hand on her forearm. “It’ll be okay.” I squeeze once for reassurance. I pull away before she can blink.
“No.” She sobs harder.
“You’ll wake the chickens,” I joke to no effect. “Hey, look at me.” She doesn’t, so I gently prise her hands from her face. She’s covered in smeared makeup and a little snotty.
“Don’t look at me.”
“Why not?” I sweep a runaway hair away from her eye.
“No one’s supposed to see me like this.” She sniffles trying to hide her face again. I softly hold her chin and pull it up slightly.
“I’m great at being nobody. In fact, I’m pretty darn good at it.”
“I don’t know what to do, Ash.” I notice my stomach tighten when she says my name. She looks at me with such desperation. I drop my grip from her chin and put my hand in hers, hoping she doesn’t find it too gross; too beneath her.
“Maybe I can help?”
“You and your hay rake?” Her thumb accidentally brushes across my palm, which sends dozens of tiny electric tingles racing over my skin. I feel my face heating up. I remove my hand from hers.
“This guy…is he a real shit or something? You can say no, you know. This is the twenty-first century.” I await her response but I’ve just made her cry even more. “I didn’t mean to upset you, Ellie. I’m sorry.” I get up and walk over to the sink.
“Don’t leave.” She sniffles.
“I’m just getting you some tissue.” I offer her it and she blows her nose hard. “So what’s so bad about this guy?” I sit next to her on the hay bale.
“I’m only nineteen. I’m far too young.”
“Tell him that. Surely he’ll understand?”
“Look at you. You know exactly what you want in life. You want to be a doctor. I barely know myself, never mind if I can ever be more than what I am…I know I could be more useful than being just someone’s wife. Made to look pretty and do my duty.”
“So you do think you’re pretty!” I grin.
“Shut up.” She almost laughs.
“Look Ellie, if you don’t want to marry this guy, then don’t. If your job doesn’t make you happy…if you don’t want to be famous anymore, walk away.”
“Walk away? I guess for someone like you it’s easy to do that.”
“Someone like me? A simple farm boy?” I chew my lip. Is that all she sees?
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“No, I don’t know you. I shouldn’t judge. You will be a great doctor one day. I know it.”
“You only get one life, Ellie, so start living it on your terms. I see you as so much more than some rich man’s wife.”
“Don’t you? You either love this guy or you don’t. If you do then ask him to wait.”
“You’re right. Thanks, Ash.”
“So what now?” I ask, wondering if she loves this man or not.
“No idea. Would you mind if I stay here tonight? Just so I can get my head straight?” She looks at me like she’s asking for the moon. And I’d probably try to give her it when she’s looking at me that way.
“Really? Sure, it’s not The Ritz, but I’d like that. No funny business, you hear! You sleep over there.” I point to my mattress.
She laughs to my relief. “Sure, I’ll try to contain myself. Where will you sleep?”
I start laying a blanket on the floor. “Here’s fine.”
“No, you can’t.”
“Really, take the mattress it’s a bit old but I think it’s comfy, besides you need to rest your foot. I won’t take no for an answer.” I point her toward her bed.
“You’ve known me less than an hour. I attacked you in your own home and yet you still helped me. There are not many good people left in the world.” She smiles sadly. “Not many that don’t expect something in return anyway.”
“I don’t want anything, promise. Actually I’d like it if you didn’t knock me on my butt ever again.” I laugh. She blushes.
“I’m sorry for being such a cow before and for hurting you.”
“It’s okay. Just don’t ever do it again.” I smile.
“It’s weird.” She lies down and pulls the blanket over herself. “I feel like I was supposed to have come here tonight.”
“You’re not the first visitor I’ve had tonight.” I smile and try and get comfy on my damp corner of floor.
“Who else came?”
“No one.” I smile to myself thinking about weird little Gerry and what he told me about fate. Is this what he meant? Is this girl part of my fate? “Get some sleep Ellie, the morning will look much brighter.”
“Night, Ellie.” I can feel her eyes still on me, even when I close mine. I hardly sleep. All I can think about is this beautiful girl who stumbled into my barn, who stumbled into my life.
I slept surprisingly well, considering I spent the night in a barn.
“Morning, Sleepy-head.” Ash stands over me. His black hair wet and ruffled and a towel draped loosely around his bare shoulders. My heart flutters a little; the morning looks great on him. I’d never noticed how blue his eyes were last night, but this morning they look like two clear pools of fresh water. I let my eyes wander over his naked torso; he’s nicely toned without looking like a gym meathead. He has good, strong-looking arms. I catch his gaze again as he smiles down at me with a slight blush to his cheeks. I can’t seem to look away. I become almost giddy and force my eyes to look at anything but him. After all, I cannot afford to forget myself.
I must look like a right fuzzy-headed sight. No one except the help usually sees me like this. This guy is different somehow. Yes, it’s obvious he’s gorgeous in an unassuming way, but I’m sure, like me, that he doesn’t want to be defined by the way he looks, or pigeon-holed because of his position or background. I want to get to know Ash, the guy behind the farm-boy image, the guy that has the most completely overstocked first aid kit that I’ve ever seen. He’s a real person; at least he seems to be. I think he’s the most genuine person I’ve come across in quite a long time.
Ash doesn’t see my crown. He just sees a girl with an injured foot that happened to cross his path. And for me, I want the chance to be just a girl for a change and not a title. Ash doesn’t bow and scrape, bringing me my every wish. I know I’m playing a very dangerous game and I cannot be attracted to him when I’m already promised to another man. Maybe we could be friends?