Victoria wasn’t a hundred percent comfortable with sitting in Theo’s truck as he drove, but taking herself out of her comfort zone was part of the reason she was doing this trip.
Before getting into the car, she made sure to grab her purse.
The man had frowned and told her she wasn’t expected or going to pay for anything.
She ignored his comment and took it anyway. At the same time, she grabbed her small denim jacket from the back of her car to put on before joining Theo in his truck.
“You really want to travel around the country alone?” He asked glancing at her before looking back to the road.
“I… I…” She paused and rethought what she was about to say. “My therapist thought it w..would be a good idea. Get me out of my comfort zone,” She didn’t stutter half as bad when she spoke to a single person. But she was still nervous.
“Therapist? Is it really that bad?” He asked dumbly.
“When… When my Mama died…” She looked down to hide the build-up of tears in her eyes. “Her lawyer tried to speak to me about Mama’s finances,” A hint of amusement covered her sombre expression. “I went to speak to him, but nothing came out. I got myself all in a fluster, had an anxiety attack and fainted. I woke up with a paramedic over me. The lawyer thought he had killed me,” She laughed, but Theo didn’t. She peeked over at him. His dark look was back, but there was a hint of something else.
“You are speaking alright to me now?”
There was a slight pause and she nodded. “I am… I am getting better, slowly. But … But I am b..better speaking to one p..person at a time.”
He nodded slowly. “Maybe you’ll be able to speak to both Kray and me together by the end of the week,” He thought out loud. “We are not happy about you traveling alone. What if you have another attack or something when good persons not around?”
She said nothing. She knew he was just trying to protect her, but she didn’t understand why.
“Did Marshall or Irena tell you about us? Kray and I?”
“Yes,” She replied quietly.
“Well, then you know that we ran away from a group home when they were thirteen. We had never seen a real horse or the countryside until we arrived in town.” He had a small smile remembering the time.
“We arrived in town and started asking around for work. But no one wanted to take two runaways on. Well, all but one. Your grandfather took us in, fed and clothed us. We didn’t know until later, but he also contacted social services and they agreed – after some checks – to let the pair foster us.” His smile grew. “They treated us as if we were their own. Even standing up for us against the bigoted people in town. They were family…” The car slowed down and she noticed for the first time they were in a less rural area, coming to a stop outside one of a dozen stores.
“That makes us as good as family,” He said regaining her attention. He must have noticed her confused expression because he soon added, “They were our family, the only family we ever had. They were your family and so that makes us family… Kind of, right?” He sat looking at her.
“I know we didn’t grow up together or anything. But they spoke all the time about you to us.”
Not giving her a chance to answer he pulled his keys out of the cars ignition, unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the car door.
“Come on, Vicky. Let’s go shop before everything’s gone.” He stepped out of the car and she timidly followed. After locking up the car, he walked over to the entrance and grabbed a shopping cart before turning to Victoria to make sure she was following. On the front of the store, there was large sign above the door which read ‘Oakbery’s General store.’
“Don’t worry if anyone speaks to you. I’m with you, so you don’t have to speak if you don’t want. Alright?” He offered sweetly. She nodded her head silently, looked up his tall frame and gave him a small smile which he returned.
“And don’t think of grabbing a cart. Put anything you need in this one,” He added before silently indicated for her to follow him.
Inside was much larger than she expected and there were, at least, a dozen people doing their shopping. They all seemed to look at her and Theo as they entered. He completely blanked them and she noticed his expression had turned cold again. But knew it wasn’t because of her.
“What kind of stuff do you like to eat, Vicky?” He asked her casually grabbing a large sack of potatoes from the fresh produce section at the front of the store.
She looked around and resolved herself to the fact that he wouldn’t let her use her own cart, but should put her foot down when it came to paying.
“I…” She looked around to make sure no one was close enough to hear her. She hated eavesdroppers. Thankfully most of the people in the store looked older and seemed to be avoiding the giant man beside her.
“I l..like cooking from scratch.” She began grabbing things and dumping them in the cart.
She probably wouldn’t use it all, but the guys surely would.
“P..rocess..s..sed stuff lose..s flavor.”
“You a pretty good cook then?” He asked adding a huge amount of mushrooms to the cart.
She looked at him curiously. “Kray is addicted to the things. He eats them with everything.”
Hearing that gave her ideas of what to cook. She would have to make sure to buy all the correct ingredients.
“Yes, I’m a good cook. Mama and Nan taught me. Mama…” Her voice wobbled with the last word.
“Shh, Vicky,” She jumped slightly, from surprise when she felt a hand on her back.
“Sorry. I just want to let you know you don’t have to talk about her if it makes you sad,” His tone more sympathetic than normal. Even his expression had softened.
“I..It’s alright… I j..just… I’m not used to people touching me,” She mumbled looking down embarrassed.
He didn’t say anything else on the matter, but he did politely and silently usher her along. He glared at the people who was staring at them and most scurried away, as though scared. A couple of the women on the younger side didn’t notice his glare at first, too busy staring jealously at her.
Why? She couldn’t understand. He and she were simply employer and employee, maybe a family of sorts if the words he said earlier were truthful. But nothing more, nothing romantic.
She wasn’t going to deny either his or his friend’s looks, they were two of the most handsome men she had ever met. But that didn’t mean anything in the long run.
The women are probably reading too much into the pair shopping together, she thought internally.
If they would ask she would be sure to tell them the truth, if she could speak clear enough to get the words out that is.
“C..Can you c..cook?”
He glanced at her and shook his head. “Not very well, toast, boiled eggs, basics. But Kray does most of the cooking. Actually… Now I think of it, he actually does most of the house cleaning too.”
“So, he is the wife and you, the husband…?” She didn’t realize she thought out loud until she heard a booming laugh.
“That is great,” He wore a huge smile, that only made him more attractive. The women they passed swooned. “I’ll have to tell him that.” Seeing her worried expression he quickly added, “Don’t worry, he seems scary. But he is just like me. Though he finds it harder to trust strangers. Well, we both do really, but still…” He trailed off.
“But I’m a stranger…?” She said confused.
“Not really,” Was all he had said before they continued shopping.
By the time they got to the checkout, the cart was completely full. The people continued to stare at them, but none said anything. Well, except the checkout woman in her thirties scanning their shopping. “Hello. You visiting with your family?” The woman’s name badge said ‘Marian.’
Victoria opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Everyone was staring at her and she felt, even more, nervous than meeting the guys the first time.
Without thinking, she inched closer to Theo’s side.
Theo was surprised that the small woman was looking for comfort in him after their first meeting.
But the pair had quickly bonded and he could quite honestly say he cared for her more than most of the people in town – other than Kraven, of course – but that wasn’t hard. He and Kraven had never really been people persons, which was why he suspected most in town were surprised to see him laughing and joking with the girl. But as he had told her, she was as good as family.
He loved her grandparents and they loved her. They often spoke of her and tried to make them feel included. Even surprising them by leaving money in their will for the pair. They often said that if her mother was different they would have been happy to take them along on their visits. But they didn’t mind.
The men didn’t like her mother much from the little they knew and the times they had spoken to her, but they weren’t going to tell her that. She was too fragile. He felt protective of her. He knew Kraven was too or he would have never mentioned staying at the house or traveling alone.
Without thinking, he drew his arm around her tiny shoulder and pulled her to his side.
“She doesn’t speak,” His words sounded almost like a threat. He knew by the expression on Marian’s face that it sounded bad for him, so he reworded his last sentence.
“She isn’t good with people.” He didn’t give her chance to say anything, he moved to begin packing the items and returning them to the cart with Victoria still close beside him.
He didn’t even notice her open her purse and pull out a bunch notes until Marian was handing her the change.
“Vicky!” He said low, almost under his breath, but loud for her to hear.
She looked up at him innocently.
“Don’t give me that look, you know what you did,” He said accusingly.
“How much did it cost?” He asked completely turning to the checkout woman.
“I can’t remember,” She replied with a shrug of her shoulders.
Marian indicated to Victoria, who was heading out the door with the cart.
“What the…” He hurried after her, he heard the women behind him saying something and laughing, but he could hear what.
“Vicky,” She stopped beside his car and looked at him through her lashes.
“A… Ar.. Are y.. you a.. a.. a.. an..angry at me?” She struggled to speak.
His expression softened hearing the fear in her voice.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Vicky,” He took a step closer and reached down to her face.
Standing straight beside her, her head barely reached his chest, without the small platform on her shoes it would be worst.
“I am not angry, baby,” He lifted her face to look at him. “I was just annoyed because I don’t want you paying.” Without a thought, he placed a chaste kiss on her forehead.
“Now, go sit in the truck. I’ll load these, you are too short to reach.” He didn’t fail to notice cheeks turn scarlet as she scurried away into the truck.
He brushed it off as shyness and went to load the bags.
Once he was done, he got into the drivers. “How much was the shopping?”
She said nothing.
“Come on, I’m just going to give you a bunch of money if you don’t tell me,” He said seriously.
“Mama s..s..said you shouldn’t expect p..people to pay for you.”
I sighed and pulled out his wallet and took out a few notes, “You are lucky. If you were any other girl, I would have taken you over my knee and spank your sweet ass until you told me.” He pushed the notes inside the small opening in her bag.
She blushed again making him wonder. “How old are you, Vicky? If you don’t mind my asking.” He knew what Thomas told him, but he still found it hard to believe.
“T..t..t…” She had to pause, look down and take a few deep breaths. “Twenty-f..five. Why? How o..old are you?”
“Thomas said you were, but we thought you were much younger,” He admitted. She didn’t seem surprised. “I’m thirty-four, so is Kray. We’ve been together, best friends since as far back as I can remember,” He said the last part without thinking.
He went to put the keys in but stopped. “I almost forgot.” He went to get back out of the car and paused. “I got to get something from the bakery or Kray will kill me. Do you want anything?”
She shook her head, “I’ll wait here.”
“Okay, baby. I’ll buy you something anyway,” He said sending her a wink before exiting the car.