Bet on It by Jodie Slaughter (Excerpt)

Chapter 1

All things considered, the frozen dinner section of the Piggly Wiggly was one of the better public places to have a panic attack. It was late, only a half hour before closing in a small town where being outside after 9 P.M. on a weeknight automatically branded you a degenerate. That meant the other poor souls wandering the aisles were too glassy-eyed to pay Aja Owens any notice.

Forehead pressed against the cold, wet glass of a freezer door and bright, fluorescent lights heating the back of her neck, she gripped her handheld basket tight. Less than two minutes ago she’d been anxious but steady. Then she’d pulled the freezer door open, and a box of Hot Pockets had come barreling off the shelf and into her chest before clattering to the floor. The life had nearly been startled out of her, sending what was left of “composed Aja” out of her body to levitate above like a spirit, watching with shrewd eyes as her corporeal form descended into outright panic. The sudden fear made her body tense, her throat tightening immediately. Every second that passed saw her heart rate speed up until she could hear the pounding in her ears, drowning everything else out.

She tried to push past her light-headedness enough to calm herself.

One, two, three, four, five. Hold. Keep holding. Now, release.

Even after three full minutes of reciting her silent mantra, the technique was barely working. Her breaths came fast, burning her chest as air was pushed and pulled through her overexerted lungs to no relief. She knew exactly where her anxiety meds were; the transparent orange bottle was tucked safely in a pocket on the interior of her purse. Only, her purse was currently locked in the trunk of her car. It didn’t matter how much relief the Ativan could give if her pills were hundreds of more steps away than she could take.

Aja’s teeth ground together as a tinny voice came through the store speakers announcing that it was 9:15—fifteen minutes until closing. She needed to pull away from the glass. Yank her heart out of her throat, pay for her items, and go home where she could feel some semblance of safety and security. But she couldn’t make her feet move, and the frustration of that made her eyes burn.

Another minute had passed, her forehead freezing against the clammy glass, when she heard a pair of shoes beating against the floor towards her. She figured it was an employee. It would be absolutely mortifying if some frazzled sixteen-year-old grocery clerk approached, begging her to please get the fuck out of the store so they could close up. It might not be all bad though. Her regular, everyday anxiety about being a public nuisance would probably override the attack she was having and send her scrambling. Without her Pepperoni Pizza Hot Pockets, sure, but the end result would be worth it. A groan slipped through her panting lips when the feet stopped behind her. The person said nothing, made no move to get her attention or usher her out. So, it wasn’t an employee. Probably a customer, then. Fan-fucking-tastic. The embarrassment welled up further, making her belly twist into a hard knot. The clench was familiar but that only served to make it worse.

“I saw you when I was walkin’ past the aisle earlier,” the deep voice said, nearly making her jump in surprise. “I saw you still standin’ here when I came back around ten minutes later. I figured I’d … see if you were all right.”

She clenched her eyes tight, half hoping to disappear into thin air, half hoping the guy would get tired of waiting and walk off.

“But I can clearly see that you aren’t…”

Aja kept silent, and when he still made no move to leave, she gritted her teeth and managed a few hoarse, ragged words. “I’m fine.”

He grunted. “Well, we’ve got seven minutes until they lock down the store. You mind if I stay right here with you until then?”

She didn’t know what to say. Yes, she minded a stranger seeing her like this. But no, she didn’t want him to walk away. She felt overwhelmed by his presence and desperately lonely at the same time. The back and forth would have made her head hurt if her temples hadn’t already been throbbing.

“I … I just need…” She swallowed.

“A minute,” he chimed in, his accent making the words run over her like thick, smooth honey over a warm biscuit. Her fist tightened so hard around the basket handle that it dug into her skin, no doubt leaving a lasting mark. “I get it,” he said.

Whether or not he really “got it,” she wasn’t sure, but his tone was colored with empathy. They didn’t say anything else, but he didn’t move from his spot across the aisle, and she felt him the same as she did the chill from the freezer against her face.

One, two, three, four, five. Hold. Keep holding. Now, release.

One, two, three, four, five. Hold. Keep holding. Now, release.

One, two, three, four, five. Hold. Keep holding. Now, release.

When her heart finally slowed, some of the tension in her shoulders fell away. She flexed her toes in her tennis shoes and ran a dry tongue over drier lips. She didn’t pull away from the door until she could breathe through her nose, and she didn’t turn around until the heat in her cheeks was a steady burn rather than a scorch.

Aja could hardly look at him, her eyes still trying to focus as they flitted across his face and body. She caught nothing concrete other than the red birthmark that splayed out on the right side of his lightly tanned neck.

“Thank you for…” She paused, not exactly sure why she was thanking him. Maybe for helping her feel a little less alone, or for not trying to get her to calm down the way other people did—with tons of unnecessary touching and useless suggestions to find your center.

“For standing here with me.”

His chuckle was deep and throaty, and her fingers flexed in response. “Don’t worry about it. Like I said, I get it. Plus … those Hot Pockets are the only reason I even came in, and I’m not leavin’ until I get them.”

On another night, she might have laughed. But while the worst of her panic attack was over, her body was still eaten up with anxiety, and she desperately craved the comfort of her bed. So she just kept her eyes on his shirt and flashed him a shaky smile before turning and dragging her heavy feet back down the aisle—cringing at how she was about to force a cashier to check her out only minutes before closing.

Copyright © 2022 by Jodie Slaughter