The shower curtain was held together with mold and duct tape. The edges were brittle and broken and it clearly hadn't been used for an actual shower in a very long time. Charlie stared at it without seeing, her thoughts far away. She was fully dressed and curled in the back corner of the rusted tub with her arms wrapped around her knees.
She tried to recall taking showers before the blackout. Years of bathing in streams and rivers dulled all but one memory that tickled the back of her mind. There had been fluffy bubbles. And some floating plastic toys. She could remember giggles and splashing. When her thoughts turned to a small toddler version of her brother, she brought herself back to the present. Even after all this time, memories of Danny were still too fresh. Too raw.
Charlie was startled when the curtain swung open without warning. Bass Monroe towered over her with a gun drawn, his jaw tight and his muscles tensed. He relaxed when he saw her, irritation crossing his expression."Oh, it's you. Again."
"Yeah. It's me." Charlie let the back of her head thump back against tile and sighed.
He squatted down next to the tub, watching her. "Why are you here?"
"Needed a place to be alone." She shrugged, not meeting his gaze.
"And you needed to be alone in my place?" He tilted his head, eying her curiously.
Charlie shrugged. "Thought you were on a mission. Just needed some quiet."
She nodded. "And Miles and all this wedding bullshit is driving me crazy. I am in their way all the time."
He knelt on the floor just outside of the tub. "You are never in the way except for when you are in my tub without asking first."
She frowned at him, ready to offer a heated reply when she noticed the sparkle in his eyes and the way his lips were trying not to smile. "Jerk," she said, but her heart felt lighter somehow. She leaned back against the stained porcelain again, watching him.
"This is becoming a habit, Charlie. Last week I found you in my kitchen. The week before you were sitting in the dark on my porch."
"I like this house," she said. "That's all. It's quiet and safe. And the windows are pretty."
"Uh-huh." His tone was skeptical. "So, you ever coming out of my tub?"
"No. I like it here." Charlie teased. "I think I'll just stay."
Bass chuckled. "If you are looking for less drama with your Mom, I think you aren't going in the right direction. Living in my bathtub will drive her over the edge."
"Screw my Mom."
He grimaced and looked away.
Charlie snorted. "Oh yeah, that's right. You already did that."
Bass stood, shaking his head. "Now who's the jerk?"
She shrugged. "Whatever. You know what this tub actually reminds me of?"
"That you need a bath?"
"Funny." She frowned. "No, the pool. Do you remember? The bounty hunters had us in that old swimming pool?"
"Back when you still thought I was the devil incarnate." He nodded. "I remember."
"I still think you're the devil incarnate," she said with a mock serious expression. "The only thing that has changed is my devil tolerance. Just like whiskey, I can take a lot more than I used to."
"You were a real pistol in that pool. Mouthy and mad and –"
He shook his head and then sighed. "Interesting."
"I don't think that's what you were going to say. What did you think of me?"
Bass rubbed at the back of his neck, clearly weighing his options. After a moment he shrugged. "I thought you were strong and fearless and brave. I thought you were the kind of person I might have wanted to get to know better. You know - under different circumstances."
"What does that mean? What circumstances were you thinking of, exactly?"
He wouldn't meet her eyes. "The kind where I could level up the charm, I guess. Truth is I thought you were kind of hot, Charlie. Young but hot."
"I remember that while we were in the pool, you said I was like my Mom and now you're saying that you thought I was hot. So, are those things connected?"
"You mean do I have a thing for your Mom?" Anger sliced across his face. "Seriously?"
"I don't know. You guys fight a lot."
Bass fumed. "We're not in third grade, Charlie. Fighting with someone doesn't mean I love them. Ask all the Patriots I killed last year." He shook his head. "Never mind. I'm just going to go in the other room now. You can stay as long as you want."
Charlie pulls herself up and steps out of the tub. "Stop. I'm sorry, okay?"
"No, it's not okay. What is it with you bringing up the thing with your Mom? You know it meant nothing and it was so long ago. It was a mistake. You have to know that." He looked pained.
"I do. I think I do." She shrugged. "I don't even know why I care. I shouldn't."
"Is it that easy? Did you care when you caught me with Connor?."
His jaw clenched, and his eyes grew cold. "No. That was not easy."
"But it should be easy for me?"
"I don't know, Charlie. I just know it's stupid to worry about people who don't matter. People who are not a threat."
"A threat to what, exactly?"
"Damn it, Charlie! A threat to whatever the hell this is. This thing between us. Whatever it is."
"There can't be anything between us." Sadness crossed her face.
The silence vibrated with tension. Finally, Bass broke it with a whispered "Why?"
"Because of Danny and my Dad and because of my Mom and Connor."
He shook his head. "I don't think any of those are a good reason."
"That doesn't mean I'm wrong." Charlie frowned, but held his gaze. In his eyes, she could read heat and tension and also desire. Seeing these things so nakedly displayed in his expression scared her a little. It made her heart pound. "I'll go now," she said finally, pushing past him.
He stopped her by gently grabbing her elbow. "Wait."
She hesitated, glancing over one shoulder and finding him closer than she'd thought he was.
His eyes bore into her and his voice was low. "You and Connor, it was just the one time?"
"And did it mean anything?"
"No." She shook her head. "You know that."
"And Danny and your Dad? I feel like we've been over this a million times. I thought you were past that. I thought you didn't really blame me anymore. Not totally anyway."
She shrugged. "I miss them so much but I know it wasn't all you."
"And the thing with your Mom? I fucked her once a long time ago. It meant nothing. If I'd even had an idea that you might come along later or that I'd feel the way I do - "
"What are you saying?"
"I think you know. I think it's why you keep coming around here."
"Tell me what you think I know."
"I like you, Charlie and I think you know that. And I like you not because you are related to Miles or your Mom, but because you are you. I like your stubborn streak and your fierceness. I like your smile and I like the way you are with your knife and your bow. I like how you hum to yourself when you don't think anyone is around. I like the way your hair curls down your back and I like the way you look into my eyes without looking away."
Charlie started to reply but couldn't find the right words.
Bass forged on, "I'm not telling you this just because you asked. I'm telling you because when we finally take this thing between us to its inevitable conclusion, I want you to understand what it means. It will mean that there is something real between us. Something personal. Just you and me. Your Mom doesn't even deserve a spot in this conversation. She has never meant anything to me. You mean something." He leaned in close, his breath hot on her cheek. "When we finally happen, you will know that it's because of who you are and how I feel about you."
Charlie's breath was coming in uneven little bursts. "You didn't say if. You said when."
"Yeah, when." He nodded and smiled slowly, turning her gut to jelly. Little wrinkles appeared at the corner of his eyes. "Maybe you aren't ready yet, and that's okay but I think you're getting closer. I think every time I find you in my house, we're edging toward it."
"I need to think about all this." Charlie's voice was soft and low, barely a whisper.
"Take all the time you need. You know where I'll be."
Bass nodded slowly, his gaze like flame. "Right here, waiting for you."