Through Fire,Portland,ME, Book Three

Violence corroded her.

Obedience defiled her.

Fear kept her chained.

For forty-four year old Ruby Soto, freedom is pipe-dream.  She rusts nobody–feeling shackled to the demons of her past. Yet in the span of a second, Ruby grabs a single opportunity and runs straight into the sanctuary of a pub at the end of a wharf.

Friendship is foreign to her. Ruby has never felt the connection of a true and loving relationship. She’s as innocent as the driven snow and yet tainted with vile and sinister corruption. Still, Ruby finds herself surrounded by people who accept her, without even knowing the first thing about her. But one man is determined to dig deeper.

Quick to judge, Tim Veldman steers clear of committed relationships, yet he treasures his friends completely.  He likes his life comfortably predictable and entirely controlled. Until it isn’t. For months, Tim has avoided interacting with The Skipper’s newest addition–a curvy, flirty Latina woman. Tim knows that once he looks into Ruby’s liquid brown eyes that he’ll be lost forever.  But with their palpable attraction, neither can resist the undeniable draw they have for one another

When Tim’s present and Ruby’s past puts them both on the brink of change, can  they forge through the fire as one?


Madre de Dios!

The place looks like a box of crayons exploded. My eyes scan the colorful space as I follow Viv through the sparsely furnished apartment.

When she first suggested I could rent her apartment, I didn’t take her seriously. Why would I? I’ve never rented an apartment in my life. I’ve never had a space to call my own. Not in all my forty-four years. I certainly have never had someone offer me anything without there being an ulterior motive. Something in return. So I was suspicious. But after Pam—my counselor at Florence House, which has been my home now for close to six months—explained that Viv was simply paying it forward, I started thinking. Maybe I could let my guard down a little. Maybe it was safe. So far I haven’t seen any sign of them and I’ve been very careful. I never catch the bus to work at the same stop twice in a row, which means I sometimes have to walk a bit, but I don’t mind, even though it’s getting pretty cold out. I’d been nervous initially about working in a bar, but it’s not the type of establishment I would ever expect to see anyone I know. Still, so far I’ve been careful to keep my head down most of the time. But I’m slowly starting to relax a bit, thinking maybe they’ve forgotten about me.

I don’t trust easily. Hell, it took me an entire month of daily sessions before I gave my story to Pam. The story I decided going with, that is. A hint of truth. Just enough to explain why I came there in the first place.

Six months ago I knocked on her door, while keeping an eye on the street behind me. I’d heard about Florence House from one of the girls who used to work with me. A safe place for women, she told me. A safe place is what I needed and Pam seemed to recognize that the moment she opened the door, pulling me in as she herself scanned the street behind me. She didn’t ask anything at first, just asked if I had something to sleep in and if I needed a toothbrush, before showing me to a tiny bedroom with only a single bed and a little table as nightstand. She apologized for needing to look through my tote bag but assured me it was standard procedure to ensure the safety of all the residents. Finding only the few clothes I’d managed to grab and my single picture frame, she handed me back my bag and showed me the bathroom. When she went to grab a few towels for me I couldn’t help flipping back the covers on the bed to find to my surprise the sheets were clean and smelled fresh. I think that may have been the first time since I was a little girl back home that I slept soundly.

Pam is also the one who set me up with the job at The Skipper, a local pub out on Holyoke Wharf. Viv is the manager there. She had some personal stuff going on when I started working, so it was a few weeks before I even met Viv. She’s nice, just like most everyone else there. But I’ve seen nice before and often it masks something darker. I don’t really trust nice.

Tending bar and waiting tables is not new to me and it was pretty easy to slip into the routine. My first pay felt good. I never held a fistful of bills I could keep. I’ve saved most of it in the toe of my winter boots. Every now and then I take it out and count it, not quite able to believe it belongs to me. What little I brought with me, when I landed on the doorstep of Florence House, fit into a large tote bag. The additions to my limited wardrobe were courtesy of the local Goodwill store and Pam. She’s not a small woman either, although much taller than I am. Luckily over the years I’ve become handy with needle and thread and was able to hem the hand-me-downs to fit me better. Having my own money is a different experience. Gunnar, my boss, said he didn’t have a problem paying me cash, as long as I understood that at some point, when I have my shit together, I’d have to go on the books. When that time comes, I know I’ll have to move on.

“So what do you think?” Viv prompts, propping her hands on her hips and smiling. She stands in front of the big window, with view of the water, in the living room and looks at me expectantly.

“Beautiful,” I tell her honestly, making her smile even bigger.

“Perfect.” She claps her hands before continuing. “I’m sure you’ll love it. If only for being close enough to work you can walk it.”

“Thank you,” I quietly say and watch her face turn serious when she spots me pulling out the stack of bills I’ve saved up. “But I checked some of the other apartment listings and I think you made a mistake. The rent you mentioned is much too low.” I slowly count out the bills on the kitchen counter to make up first and last months’ rent for an amount I found to be more accurate than the $500 Viv quoted me. When I look up she is glaring at me. Reflectively I lower my eyes immediately.

“Ruby.” Her smoky voice is soft yet threatening. “Ruby, look at me.” Slowly I raise my eyes to find hers softer but slightly irritated. “We agreed on $500, no last month needed. What you counted out is enough for four months.” She walks over and places her hands on my shoulders, bending down to look me in the eyes. “Trust me. I’m not ready to sell this place and if not for you, it would just sit empty. We’re both benefitting here.”

Trust me.

“Okay,” I concede on a whisper.

It’s late by the time I let myself into Florence House with the key Pam provided to me a couple of months ago when we negotiated new terms for my stay here. She’d offered to let me stay here indefinitely until I had a chance to find my feet, and I would clean the house and help take care of the new girls that came in from time to time. That was something I was good at, looking after the girls. I have a lot of experience dealing with the inevitable range of emotions that comes from finding yourself somewhere you’d never expected to be. Not to mention the physical and emotional scarring to inevitably was part of why they showed up in the first place.

I’d also tried my hand at cooking, but was soon dismissed of that task after only a handful of disasters in the kitchen. The same kitchen I could now see light coming from. It softly illuminates the hallway and I head that way after hanging my coat in the wardrobe closet. Pam is bent over her book, a hand loosely draped around a mug. The lone light over the stove is barely enough to read by, but Pam seems to dislike bright lights. Hence bending over her book to be able to discern the words.

“You’re gonna spoil your eyes,” I tell the older woman. She lifts up her head, apparently not having heard me come in which is odd. She slaps the book closed, but not before I spot the torn envelope I see tucked between the pages.

“Everything okay?” I ask her, a little worried at the suspicious shine in her eyes.

“Late shift?” She turns the tables on me, obviously trying to avoid my question and I let her. It’s not my place. I’ve felt a deep sadness from her since I met her, but this is the first time I see the evidence.

I dump my tote bag on the table and pull out a chair. “Yes. I stayed late because I went with Viv to look at her place this afternoon.”

Immediately a bright smile lightens up her face. “You did? I’m so glad. Cute place, right? What did you think?”

“I like it,” I tell her. “But she’s insisting on the rent price.” I lean with my elbows on the table. “I know she can get at least double that.”

“So? Not like she needs it and besides, like I told you, she doesn’t want  to let go of the place completely and I’m sure she’s thrilled to have someone she knows live there.”

Her tone is firm, but I have trouble fully believing it. Good fortune is not something I’m accustomed to and I’m pretty sure Viv wouldn’t be so thrilled if she really knew me. But I don’t say any of that. I know better than to try and argue with Pam.

“I told her I’d take it. It even has some furniture so I only have to bring over my bag. She said I could sleep there tonight, but I want to wait until the weekend.” I look down at my clasped hands, not wanting to give away that I’m really nervous. Terrified, really. I don’t think I’ve ever been truly alone. Oh, I’ve been lonely, but never without someone to share a house or apartment with. In fact, most of the places I’d lived had been so crowded, I would often dream what it would be like not to have to answer to anyone, to truly be alone.

Pam’s dark hand lands on my lighter ones with a light squeeze. “Girl, you’re free to take as much time as you need,” she says, understanding in her dark eyes. She sees more than I’m comfortable with. “Although I will say, I’m gonna miss having you around. Especially with the new girls; you have a real connection with them.”

“I will miss you too. Everything…I mean…without you—”

“Hush,” Pam cuts me off. “Not like you’re moving across the country, for chrissake. You’re a few measly blocks away and I’m hoping you’ll pop in to continue our sessions for a bit longer. As for the girls…perhaps if you have time in your schedule, you can help out from time to time. Get them settled in when they get here.”

“I would like that.” I give her a little smile before pushing back from the table. “I hope you don’t mind, I’m tired, I think I’ll head upstairs.”

“Night, Ruby.”

“Good night,” I tell Pam over my shoulder as I walk into the hall.

It isn’t until I reach the bathroom up on the third floor, that it occurs to me I’ll soon have a bathroom to myself for the first time in my life. If I want, I can take a bubble bath this weekend. Something I’ve always dreamt of.

“Yo, Ruby! Two drafts, please?”

I turn around from the sink where I was rinsing glasses to find a familiar face. Ike is Viv’s husband and always sits at the far end of the bar when he comes in. But the order came from the man sitting beside him. Tim. I don’t think I ever caught his last name, not that it matters since other than putting in his drink order occasionally on the Wednesdays he comes in, he doesn’t pay me much attention. That’s fine with me. It’s Ike that smiles and thanks me when I drop the drafts on the coasters in front of them, taking away their empties. I give him a little smile back but ignore the large man beside him.

Every Wednesday he’s here, shooting the shit with Viv’s man. They’ve been friends for years from what I picked up. When I first started here, he would come in with whole group of men. I later learned they all play baseball together. Gunnar and Ike too. But apparently the season is over because the last few times I’ve only seen this guy. Did I mention he’s huge? Big, meaty and blond. Not fat, mind you, just…big all over. Big chest, big hands and big voice.

It carries, his voice does. It does now too, which is why I can clearly hear him behind me. “I don’t think Betty Boop likes me much.”

Betty Boop. That’s what I’ve heard him call me before. And I know what he means, I’m not skinny. I’m not even slim. I have curves that have curves of their own and I know it. I put them there on purpose and I don’t give a damn if he makes fun of me.

“Asshole.” I hear Ike respond as I dunk their empties in the sink for a wash. “She’s got a name. Try not to be such a dick and maybe she’ll give you one of those sweet smiles one of these days.”

I dip my head down so my hair covers my smiling face. Ike is nice. Not creepy nice, but nice in a kind way. Almost brotherly, although I really have nothing to compare it to, since I never had a brother but if I did, I would want him to be like Ike, or maybe Gunnar or Dino. Dino scares me a little though. He’s angry a lot. He also sometimes says things that make me wonder if he knows me from before. That would be really bad.

“Ruby. Kitchen.” Dino’s head pokes around the doorway before disappearing.

I manage to get Matt’s attention, yapping on the other side of the bar with one of the regulars. I point to the doorway, which he seems to understand, judging by the chin lift. Viv is clearing the tables now that the dinner crowd has thinned out, which means Dino is in the kitchen alone. Quickly wiping my hands on a towel, I walk down the hallway leading to the kitchen. Dino’s kingdom. Well, unless either Viv or Syd, Gunnar’s wife, are cooking, which they regularly do to give him a break. When I walk in, I find him sitting at the large kitchen table, a pile of notes in front of him.

“Sit,” he says curtly. I don’t hesitate pulling out a chair and sitting down, my hands folded in my lap. If there is one thing I know it’s how to follow orders.

“Ruby…” His voice is much gentler now and I lift my eyes to find his curious gaze on my neatly folded hands. “I’ve been a bear. Sorry. Shit’s going on at home…I’m just…” He closes his eyes and shakes his head as if to clear it. His eyes back on me, he takes in a deep breath before he goes on. “You know Syd had her baby and had some complications, which is why Gunnar hasn’t been around much either. He’s looking after them at home. Viv’s been busy taking up Gunnar’s slack and with Ike not around to maybe lend a hand, she doesn’t have time for the kitchen. So I’m turning to you.”

A sick feeling sprouts in the pit of my stomach. Kitchen? Me?

“I need a couple of days this weekend to sort out some personal stuff. I need you to run the kitchen. I have every recipe written out. Viv will be around if you have questions and I’ll leave you my number. I’ve pre-cooked some of the stews and soups, but other stuff needs to be made the day of. It’s really not hard.” He says the last staring into my panicked face.

“I…I don’t know,” I manage to stutter. “I don’t do too well in the kitchen. Maybe Matt?”

“Please, Ruby. Matt is a disaster in here, but he can hustle the work of two out there, though. I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t desperate.”

The pleading look on the big man’s face goes a long way to soothing his last words. Desperation made him turn to me. I should be used to that, and yet it stings. But only a little. “Of course,” I tell him quickly, watching the instant relief wash over his expression. I’ll manage.

Madre de dios!

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