Which brought my traitorous thoughts back around to Snowden Stark. His name did sound like something out of Game of Thrones, but it also suited him. Equal parts soft and hard. Both unusual and in your face. It would take a guy built like Stark to both physically and mentally withstand the childhood taunting that was bound to come with a name like Snowden. I couldn’t picture him as a kid or as a teenager. He was far too serious and way too intense for any vestiges of youth to remain. His cold eyes were aged way beyond his actual years, and his entire demeanor screamed he wasn’t the kind of guy who was ever carefree and happy-go-lucky.
When he told me he couldn’t stand to see the dried blood that was streaked across my face, caked on my arms and hands, and crusted on my chin and neck, he really meant he couldn’t stand it. The sight made his hands curl into fists, the corner of his eye twitched behind his glasses, and his entire body vibrated with something that was both scary and reassuring. I’d heard Booker call me ‘his girl’ and waited for Stark to deny that we were anything to each other. When he hadn’t, it made me shiver under the pain that was coursing through my body, and the confusion was turning my brain inside out. I was the one to set the other man straight, we weren’t anything to each other besides an annoyance, but the look in Stark’s eyes when I finally managed to look up at him was anything but annoyed. There was so much relief and regret in that steely gaze that it stole my breath for a second.
He hadn’t helped me when I needed him and now he looked at me like he was never going to let me out of his sight again.
I was relieved when he walked out of the room a couple of minutes ago, allowing me to gather my wits and take inventory of the situation. I tried to move my arms and my legs. Both responded to the command sluggishly with a fair amount of protest. My entire body felt like a giant, tender bruise. I’d taken a couple good hits when the container flipped over and sent me flying. My head felt like it was on fire, burning from the inside out. I probed at the gash that was now sporting a neat row of tiny metal staples. It hurt, but not as bad as my shoulders did when I contorted to reach the wound. The muscles, bones, and everything in-between were still protesting from being locked in an awkward, uncomfortable position for days on end. The rush of blood to those sensitive areas had me groaning and shifting in agitation under the covers that had fallen down around my waist.
The air felt like it got heavier when Booker entered the room. There was something about men like him, men cut from the same fabric and sewn together with the experiences that came from living in the Point. They made the space around them charged and come alive with something electric and dangerous. The warning that pulsed around them tended to reach a person before the actual man was within touching distance. It was powerful and it was impressive. I also found it reassuring.
The dark-haired man was holding a paper plate that had a giant slice of pizza hanging over the edges and some kind of colored sports drink. He let his gaze slide over me, seemingly pleased with the fact that I was sitting up and still alive.
“The doc said you need electrolytes and probably some vitamins to get you back up to fighting weight. He mentioned it didn’t look like you’d had much to eat in the last few days.”
I groaned as the scent of the food in his hand hit my nose. My mouth started to water and my stomach made a noise so loud that Booker obviously heard it from across the room. His lopsided grin pulled at his mouth again and I realized he was actually an alarmingly attractive man underneath the intimidation that surrounded him.
“They got me stuff out of the vending machine at the motel once a day. They usually visited in the morning, worked me over the best they could for information and fed me Doritos or Funyuns. They would come back late at night so I was off balance and sometimes they would give me a soda or juice.” I gratefully took the plate and sighed when the warmth hit my fingers. I wondered if he would mind if I shoved my face directly into the greasy melted cheese that covered the top.
“If they left you alone, how come you couldn’t find a way out of the room? Boy genius seems to think your brain is almost as big as his.” Booker slumped down in the seat next to the bed that had been holding Stark’s bulk until he ran away from me.
I lifted an eyebrow and blew on the edge of the pizza before sinking my teeth in. I didn’t bother to hold back a groan as the spicy tomato sauce hit my tongue. I closed my eyes and savored the bite as if I was eating my last meal.
“I did try. Bars on the windows and no one cared when I broke the glass. The door had a padlock on the outside and the people in the room next to mine were screaming even louder than I was.” I took another bite and looked at him over the cheese and crust. “I managed to get the dirty cop in the balls during one visit when he came alone. I was almost to the door. I could see escape, but he caught my ankle and pulled me to the ground. That was the day he thought he could touch me without my permission.”
Booker made a noise low in his throat that sounded like a growl, “That the same day you ripped a piece out of his face?”
I nodded and cracked open the drink he brought me, swallowing half of it before adding, “And rearranged his nose.” That was also the day my hands ended up tied behind my back, but I didn’t share that.
Booker pushed up to his feet and ran a hand over his face. “You might want to keep that part of the story to yourself if Stark starts asking about what happened. He doesn’t do well when women get hurt.” He let out a bark of laughter that held no humor in it. “None of us do. Stark’s strength is his ability to detach and look at a situation coolly and calmly from any angle. The man is a machine, and when something causes a short circuit in his wiring,” he shook his head. “That isn’t gonna be good for anyone.”
“Like I said, I’m not his. I don’t belong to anyone. I can take care of myself. I’m no one’s responsibility, and what happened to me happened because of the choices I made.” Except now, I wasn’t so sure how good I was going to be at taking care of myself. I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for this man and the one in the other room. “I asked for Stark’s help because I didn’t have any other choice.”
There was a noise from the top of the stairs near the entrance of the bedroom. Stark was standing there watching the two of us through narrowed eyes. There was a glint on his glasses that kept the sharpness of the gray and blue hidden. He cleared his throat and lifted his chin, “I wanted to see if you needed anything, and if you were ready to clean yourself up.”
He shifted something in his hands; I gasped and practically fell on my face when I lurched to the side of the bed, reaching for the worn and tattered camo backpack he held. “You have my bag,” the words whispered out, and I despised the fact that hot moisture pushed at the back of my eyes. I was used to having nothing.
Nothing to weigh me down.
Nothing to trip over and stub my toe on.
Nothing to keep tidy and neat.
Nothing I would miss if it was suddenly taken from me.
Nothing that I cared about.
The handful of things that did matter were in the bag that Stark was holding like it was made of glass. In this instant, Stark was giving me everything.
I got to the edge of the bed and swung out my legs, belatedly realizing that somewhere along the way, someone had stripped me out of the clothes I’d been wearing for weeks. Now, I was in a soft cotton t-shirt that was way too big and a pair of sweatpants that swallowed my entire lower half in fabric. I didn’t want to think about either of these men seeing me naked while I was unconscious, so I foolishly pushed to my feet and tried to take a step toward Stark and my stuff. Immediately, the room tilted and my vision went blurry around the edges. I gasped and felt my knees start to tremble.
I put a hand out to catch myself on the mattress but there was no need. Hard hands caught me around my upper arms and I was softly lowered down to the rumpled bedding. Booker was closer so I looked up to thank him, but it was Stark’s stormy gaze that met mine. His mouth was pulled into a tight line as he picked up the backpack from the floor where it had fallen when he caught me. He set it on the bed next to me and looked me over with a tick in his cheek and his back teeth visibly clenched.
“I don’t think you’re gonna make it to the bathroom. I’ll get a washcloth and a bowl of water and undo what damage I can while you lie here.” He took a step back, hands clenched at his sides as he looked down to where Booker was watching us both with a speculative gleam in his eyes.
“You don’t need to do that. I’m sure I’ll be back on my feet in the morning. Cleaning up can wait until then.” I really didn’t want his hands anywhere near me. My walls had taken a beating lately and I needed time to rebuild them.
Apparently, I was wrong and it couldn’t wait because Stark grunted and asked Booker in a clipped tone, “You wanna show me where to get the shit I need to clean that dried blood off of her?”
I could have sworn Booker chuckled, but he didn’t really seem like the chuckling type. It was too mundane, too normal for a guy who considered it blasé to describe his occupation as anything more than point and shoot. He climbed out of the chair, picked up the plate and the empty plastic bottle from the bed and nodded. “Follow me, boy genius.”