Story Title: Obstacles
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“How’s she doing?” asked Jackson.
“Okay, I think,” said Karen. “She didn’t say much, but it’s a lot to process.”
“I bet. You know, I’m sure she appreciated it, but I didn’t want you to get physical with that guy,” Tony said to her.
“Then he shouldn’t have gotten physical with her,” said Karen. “Besides, it’s not what you think. He grabbed her arm, and I made him let go, then right before you came up and it looked like he wanted to hit one of us, she turned to get between him and me. She was protecting me.”
“Oh.” Tony didn’t know what to say and fell back on sibling banter. “Like you needed it.”
“I know.” Karen sighed. “She’s something, isn’t she? Wow, I’m glad we found her. I think she would have gotten away from him, but it might have taken too long. He was such a creep. I’m glad I talked her out of doing this by herself.”
“Me too,” said Tony. Dean had no doubt taken his anger out on Mary’s sewing machine, and Tony was sure Dean would have taken it out on Mary if she’d been alone.
“Found her,” Jackson said with a smile. “Like she’s a stray.”
“Don’t knock it,” said Tony. “You were a stray too.”
“Yeah, yeah, I was,” Jackson agreed. “Thanks, guys.”
Karen smiled and patted his arm. “Any time. Okay, now that we’ve had time to regroup, the question is what do we next? None of us want to leave her here alone, right?”
“Damn straight,” said Tony.
“Oh, Tony, before I forget, I checked in with Ashlee. She told me your two o’clock called and rescheduled for four.” Karen yawned.
“All right.” Tony thought. He wasn’t sure how well the idea would go over, especially with Mary, but it was worth a shot. “Since that’s the case, what if I stay here for a while? At least until Lacey gets home? I don’t want to make Mary uncomfortable, but we need a plan.”
“Hold on, let me text Lacey.” Karen sat up took out her phone. “She usually comes home around three or so, but sometimes she gets held up.”
“I’ll go back to the shop,” said Jackson. “We shouldn’t leave Ashlee alone for too long, and I do have an appointment.”
“Maybe you should stay,” said Tony, rethinking the plan. “She likes you better. We could offer to reschedule, maybe even give a discount.”
“Well, sure she likes me better,” said Jackson. “I’m not as scary as you. But don’t worry. She’ll warm up when she gets to know you. Just don’t be, so, you know, intimidating.”
“Thanks,” Tony said drily.
“Hey, Mary. You okay?” Karen asked as the other woman came down the stairs.
“Yeah, mostly.” She tried a smile, but Tony could see it was an effort. “I didn’t realize you’d all still be here. Thank you so much for everything.”
“Now, listen,” said Karen, “you’re about to say that we should go and you’ll be fine. And I’m sure you would be, but I’m going to ask you to humor us.”
“Right,” said Jackson. “Especially me. I didn’t like that guy. So, if you don’t mind, one of us is going to stay here at the house with you for a bit. We’ll take turns so you won’t get too sick of us.”
Mary laughed softly. “I see. Well, I don’t see how I could refuse, and I’ll be honest, I don’t want to. I don’t know what I would have done without you, all of you.”
“Good, that’s settled.” Karen smiled. “Jackson and I are going to head to the shop and Tony will stay for a bit. Lacey should be home around three, she says.”
Mary thanked them again and Karen and Jackson got up to leave, with Jackson already speculating on lunch possibilities. Tony smiled to himself. That was Jackson, he thought, moving on and not dwelling on things.
“I see you got the short straw,” Mary said.
He was puzzled. “Pardon?”
“Well.” She cleared her throat and looked away. “I mean, I appreciate that you’re staying, and I won’t get in your way. I know I can’t be your favorite person, and I don’t blame you. I’ll just go upstairs and you can hang out or whatever until Lacey gets back.”
Tony stared at her like she had three heads, and she seriously wished for a time machine to undo the last fifteen seconds.
“You think I don’t like you?” Tony asked.
“I’m sorry. Never mind.” She shook her head. “That was a really tactless thing for me to say, especially after all you’ve done. Whoa.” A wave of light-headedness swept over her and she grabbed onto the chair in front of her for support.
In a flash, Tony came to steady her. His touch was surprisingly gentle, and whether he meant to or not, he’d gone to her uninjured side, which she appreciated.
“Are you all right?” he asked, and once again, sounded sharp.
Why, she wondered, can I not do anything right around him? She took a deep breath to steady herself. “I’m okay,” she said. “Really. I’m just tired and hungry.” And emotionally exhausted, and confused, she thought to herself.
“That’s right. You never ate.” Tony looked down at her. “How about I go get something? No, let’s get something delivered. What do you like?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know what’s around here. Something simple. A sandwich would be fine.”
Tony placed an order for sandwiches and fries, then pulled out a chair at the kitchen table, indicated Mary should sit down and handed her a glass of water.
He sat across from her. She met his eyes, looked away, then repeated the action and sipped at the water. She had no idea what to say, and was confused because after all that had happened, she seemed to like him. She could feel the attraction on her part, but doubted it was returned, and had to wonder if it was just a rebound reaction to him being so helpful.
“Why do you think I don’t like you?” he asked. He didn’t seem angry, just curious.
Mary shrugged and fidgeted with the water glass. “I can’t imagine I’ve made the best impression,” she said. “I show up out of nowhere and just . . . I don’t know. Ask for help all the time. I’ve been pretty needy for someone you just met.” Plus there was the confrontation with her ex while she hid in the back of their store, and then putting Karen in physical danger, Mary thought but didn’t say.
“Yeah, well, sometimes it happens that way.”
Mary wanted to sink through the floor. What should she say now? With a sigh, she went for an apology. “I’m sorry. I said everything all wrong and shouldn’t have said anything at all.”
Tony nodded and said nothing. Mary was relieved when the doorbell rang. Tony went to the door and brought back the food.
“Hope you’re hungry,” he said as he unloaded the bag.
“Suddenly, I’m starved,” said Mary. “These look terrific. Oh, and a salad. Great. Thank you so much. How did you know to get a salad?”
Tony shrugged. “You seemed like the salad type.”
Mary nodded and sat down, thinking that Dean wouldn’t have done such a thing. He had always rolled his eyes whenever she’d ordered one if they were out, and certainly wouldn’t have gotten one for her on his own.
They dug into the food, eating in a calm and even friendly silence. It was nice, she thought, not to feel as though she had to have a response—or a defense—ready. God, how had she come to think a relationship like that was normal?
“That was wonderful, thank you.” Mary sat back with a sigh. “I think that’s the first stress-free meal I’ve had since I’ve moved here.” She laughed and shook her head. “God, I am such a mess.”
“Mary, I’m sorry you got the impression I don’t like you. It’s not true,” Tony said.
Mary was startled by his abrupt approach, but didn’t interrupt.
“Look, I’ll be the first to say, I’m not the friendliest person. Not the most outgoing. Karen got all those genes. I know people often think I’m angry or rude, and I’m sorry for that.”
“I’m sorry, too,” said Mary. “I shouldn’t have jumped to any conclusions.”
“It’s okay. I’m sure it seemed like I was pissed off, and I was in some ways, but not at you. I was a little freaked out, actually.”
“You were?” She was surprised. “I have to say, it seems like it would take a lot to freak you out. Certainly more than a jerk like Dean.”
“It wasn’t Dean that freaked me out.” He paused, then said, “It was you.”
“Because I like you. A lot, I think. I didn’t like how he was treating you, and I didn’t like seeing you scared. I wanted to do something about it, but I didn’t know what and didn’t think it was my place. That all took me by surprise.” Tony huffed out a breath. “I’m sorry. That’s a lot to lay on you, especially after all you’ve been through. Karen can tell you, I’m not good at being subtle.”
She just stared at him. He liked her? After all this? Did she like him? Should she like him? She was glad she was sitting down because she feared her head might start spinning again.
“Look, I’m not—I don’t—Jesus.” He tried again. “I am not trying to pressure you. I am not going to stalk you, or try to convince you to go out with me. You have a lot to deal with, and you should deal with it.”
“Okay.” Mary nodded. “I, um, don’t know quite what to say.”