Out of the Ashes by Lietha Wards - Read Online
Out of the Ashes
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Summary

Kara Shaw just lost her beloved brother overseas in a military explosion. They'd been struggling to make ends meet since the death of her parents when she was twelve. Besides dealing with the tragic grief of losing her brother, she had to figure out how to survive financially. Then her brother's wealthy best friend offered her a way out, but at what price?

Published: Lietha Wards on
ISBN: 9781476156545
List price: $2.99
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Out of the Ashes - Lietha Wards

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author.

CHAPTER ONE

Get in the car.

Nathan.

The deep, familiar voice barely penetrated her thoughts. Not much would do that at this moment, but somewhere in the back of her mind, she heard it through the haze of her grief. Out of all the people there, his was probably the only voice that she would notice right now.

It’s going to rain, Kara thought, tilting her head up and looking at the dark thunderclouds forming overhead. It seemed fitting for a funeral―almost symbolic. If the weather was a reflection of her sorrow, though, it should have been a torrential downpour.

A light fall breeze blew up and brushed over her upturned face, pushing her bangs to one side of her forehead. Her eyes closed and she took a deep breath of the autumn air. She wished this was just a dream―even discovering it was a nightmare would be welcome about now. At least she could wake up from that, and then everything would return to normal.

Normal.

Kara hadn’t known normal since her parents had died years ago. Now this.

When she didn’t respond to the soft command, a large, strong hand gently squeezed her shoulder. The concerned voice returned, but he leaned down to speak in her ear this time so no one else would hear his words.

Get in the car, honey. I’ll take care of the rest.

Kara heard the compassion vibrating in his voice, and she was too upset to argue with him. Her eyes slowly shifted towards him as if she were in a trance, and she nodded without saying a word. She let him lead her through the throng of black-clad mourners like a mindless puppet.

She could feel their sympathetic looks and purposely avoided their gazes. It was better for her to focus on other things than on what was happening there today, right then. She absently stepped across the manicured grass and around headstones as he moved her towards a sleek black stretch limousine with the gentle guidance of one hand against the small of her back.

The weirdest things kept popping into her mind as she walked, distracting her from the pain. Why did people wear black for funerals? It’ just made them so much more depressing. She didn’t need any more help in that area.

The chauffeur dutifully opened the door, severing her thoughts momentarily. With the assistance of a strong hand, Kara climbed into the car’s luxurious interior. The lush surroundings made no impression. Instead, she looked out the window at the combination of headstones, statues, and crypts scattered through the cemetery. She didn’t ride in expensive cars such as this very often―never, in fact―but the thrill it should have caused was eclipsed by her sorrow.

She heard him say he’d be a few minutes and she nodded in response, but couldn’t speak or look at him. A faint click reached her as the door closed. She wasn’t avoiding his eyes out of disrespect―she was crying and didn’t want him to see her tears. The drops slipped from her emerald eyes and glided down her pale cheeks as an overwhelming feeling of loneliness surged through her. She had no one now. Her brother, the last surviving member of her family, died overseas in a senseless war. He had been paying to put her through school, but it was unimportant in the face of this tragedy. Eric was dead.

Everything that Eric had encouraged her to do had ground to a halt. They still owed on the mortgage their parents had taken to buy their house, and Eric had been paying it down. The house wasn’t a huge asset―they’d never had much money, so it was small, but it was theirs. It was all they had after their parents had died.

I need to get a job, she decided, dropping her half-formed intention of finishing college without further thought. She knew she wasn’t thinking with a full deck, but she couldn’t keep her mind from trying to work through the shock. She was unusually well grounded and responsible, but this―all of this―had thrown her world into chaos. It felt as though something had knocked her legs out from under her and she was hovering over a dark, bottomless pit. Her mind kept focusing on things that seemed completely unimportant. What would she do without Eric? He was all she had. More tears fell.

God, she hated funerals. They meant you had to say goodbye, and she couldn’t do it. Not to Eric.

Kara could still vividly recall her parents’ funeral. At twelve years old, she hadn’t understood why someone had to stand and cry in front of a bunch of strangers and friends. She still didn’t―she wanted so badly to be left alone with her grief, not to be forced to weep in front of people. It had been a horrible experience back then, and now that she was older, it was worse. She was so alone―completely alone.

Everyone kept looking at her as though she was something to be pitied, and because of it, she couldn’t let go and cry her heart out. She felt as if everything was unreal―a ghastly dream from which she couldn’t wake up.

More people had shown up this time than were present at her parents’ funeral. Eric was well liked, and everyone in town knew him. As had happened before, the looks of pity were too much for her to bear. Everyone bore that hated expression on their faces, except for Nathan. His expression was unreadable. Although she knew he shared her grief, no one would know it from his steeled expression. As odd as it seemed, she found it comforting.

Fifteen minutes later, the door opened again. Nathan slid in on the opposite side from her and placed a folded American flag beside him on the soft leather seat. Her eyes went to it. She remembered holding it graveside after someone had given to her. She must’ve dropped it, forgetting she even had it in her numbed hands. Nathan had obviously noticed her distress, which explained why he’d told her to go to the car.

He didn’t say anything, just leaned forward to hand her his handkerchief. She was grateful―hers was saturated now. She mumbled a thank you, but kept her gaze averted, feeling his vibrant blue eyes focusing on her as he rapped on the glass divider to indicate to the driver to go. The engine started and the car began to move.

Nathan was her brother’s best friend. The two had gone to high school and college together, but when her parents had died in a tragic car accident, Eric quit college and took a job at the local hardware store to make ends meet. Nathan went on to become his father’s prodigy, taking over the family empire and prospering while she and Eric struggled from paycheck to paycheck.

Through it all, the two men had somehow remained close. Kara never understood the connection between them, but it was obviously quite strong. Nathan came from money, and Eric didn’t. Nevertheless, Nathan never acted as though he was better than either his friend or his friend’s sister.

He looked it, though.

Every bit of him looked as though he was worth a million dollars, but she knew he was worth more―much more. Even in her haze, there was no mistaking the crisp, expensive cut of his dark gray suit, hand-tooled shoes, and custom-designed overcoat. There was also the way he carried himself with utter confidence. However, she knew that underneath all of that was a grief-stricken man, and she was likely the only person on the planet who knew it. Nathan didn’t let many people get close to him, but he had with her and Eric. He loved Eric like a brother, and they’d known each other for almost twenty years. The two friends had grown into fine young men together.

It was an odd friendship because Nathan’s family was wealthy, but he still attended a public school. She overheard him explain it once to Eric―his mother was from a middle-class family, and she thought that Nathan needed to understand that side of life. She didn’t believe in boarding schools or private schools. She wanted her son to be normal. His father was so much in love with her that he would have given her anything, and so Nathan went to public school, as she’d wanted.

Unfortunately, his wonderful, amazing mother had died. When his father remarried, ’the woman had been nothing like his first wife. It was then, in their teens, that Nathan and Eric became inseparable.

Nathan’s stepmother wasn’t as loving as his biological mother. She wanted Nathan to quit hanging around with the lower class and start acting like he was wealthy and elite. She also threw lavish parties and expected him to play the part of a loving stepson.

One thing Nathan wasn’t was dishonest. He’d had difficulty warming up to her and wouldn’t betray his own morals. He ignored her requests and didn’t show up, or wouldn’t act like a lovable, doting stepson when he did. She was furious, but for some reason, his father told her to let him be. Maybe it had something to do with his first wife’s wishes. She didn’t know.

Nathan spent more time around them than around his own home, even after his stepmother began leaving him alone. Then again, they had no social restrictions, so Nathan could be himself when he was with them. There was no façade, no strict rules―they’d spent a lot of time just enjoying themselves. Eric had made life fun. He’d take them fishing and hiking, and he planned other outings that didn’t cost anything except time.

The years passed quickly, and soon Kara was graduating from high school and her big brother and his best friend were striking young men. The only difference between the two was that Eric was a clerk making minimum wage and Nathan was filthy rich and ran his own company. Other than that, they were still as close to each other as they had been as kids.

Eric had insisted that Kara needed to go to college, even though he struggled to make ends meet. When she turned eighteen, she finally relented and started working on a degree in business administration. Her brother joined the military when she left for college, telling her he could make more money and they’d pay for his degree when he finished his term of service. He had it all planned out, but six months shy of her graduation, she got the phone call.

"Killed overseas," the man on the other end told her.

That was all she heard before she blindly hung up and did the only thing she knew to do. She phoned Nathan. Aside from being Eric’s best friend, he was reliable to the core and no other person came into her mind at that devastating time. She had other friends, but she considered Nathan to be the next-best thing to family―and he was strong emotionally, which she needed just then. She dialed his number without realizing it until she heard his voice. She was already sobbing when he answered the phone after only two rings. Before she said a word, he knew who it was.

Kara? he asked quietly. Then he paused briefly before speaking again. What happened?

He must’ve have heard her crying. "Eric’s been killed. There was a bomb and—Oh God, he’s dead, Nathan!"

There was another slight pause before he responded. I’m on my way. His deep voice cracked slightly.

Now that she could think clearly enough to reflect on that conversation, she remembered that his voice hadn’t raised one iota. Calm as always, she thought, even under great stress. His self-control was phenomenal. Then she’d heard a muffled conversation, as if he’d covered the mouthpiece briefly to speak to someone else before he spoke to her again.

I’ll be there in a few hours. I’m just closing a meeting at the moment. When she didn’t respond, he said her name again. Kara?

I’m here, she heard herself say. Her voice sounded hollow and oddly distant. Nathan didn’t miss it.

Honey, is there anyone who could stay with you until I get there?

I—Well—

"Anyone?" he repeated with a slight edge of concern that only she would detect.

There’s Mrs. Herman. She lives a few doors down. She’s elderly and alone, and I’ve been checking on her for her son who’s— She was rambling without knowing it.

What’s her number? he cut in, bringing her back to focus.

Kara remembered that it was on the fridge, near where she was standing in the kitchen. She turned and read it off, clutching the headset of the phone with two hands like it was a lifeline. From the silence on his end, she figured that he was writing down the number she’d given him. Nathan?

I’m still here, he answered quickly. Don’t worry, okay? I’ll phone her―and in the meantime, put some tea on. She’ll be over in a few minutes. My jet is being warmed up as we speak, honey, so I won’t be long.

Tea. It was funny that he didn’t stop to consider that Mrs. Herman might refuse, but not many women―not many people―ever refused him, no matter how old they were.

Okay, Nathan. She hung up the phone and did as he asked, putting the kettle on for tea. True to his word, Mrs. Herman knocked on her door five minutes later.

Sitting in his car now, she realized that he must have answered his cell phone in the middle of a meeting because he knew it was her. He must have her number programmed into his phone. Just hearing his voice and the reassurance it contained made her feel better. It always did.

She recalled the slight crack in his voice when he responded to her news. He was here now, though sitting across from her with all the composure she remembered in him. It was if nothing had happened at all, but she knew Nathan well enough to know better.

She’d broken her arm at the age of fourteen after falling out of a tree when a neighbor kid, Jimmy Connors, dared her to climb it. He always dared her to do silly things, and now that she looked back on it, she realized she’d always been foolish enough to do them.

This particular oak tree was over a hundred years old and stretched above their little house like a giant’s hand. The neighbor kids seemed to think it was a challenge, not just because of its height, but because of the creepy feeling it gave them to look at it.

It didn’t look so creepy now, though. It was just the thrill that kids her age enjoyed of being frightened by something and using it to test other kids. One rumor said that the previous owner of the house had buried his dead Doberman at the base of the tree, and during a full moon, the beast would dig its way out of the roots and look for kids who were walking home late at night. Kara almost laughed at that story now. It was incredibly silly.

Jimmy had given her a boost up to the first branch, which was about eight feet off the ground. When she hesitated, he goaded her and made her angry enough to climb up to the third branch, which was about fifteen feet up. Then, when she’d reached for the next limb, she’d lost her footing.

Nathan was home from college and visiting Eric that weekend. He must have heard her scream, because he was the first one at her side.

Jimmy Connors was long gone. Nathan had bent down