Dignity (The Breaking Point #2)(13)

by Jay Crownover

Stark gave me a look that I was certain was some kind of warning, but I couldn’t figure out what it was for. They’d spent every second since I’d opened my eyes telling me I was safe, so I wasn’t sure what he was trying to tell me to look out for.

Tired and full, I tugged the backpack onto my lap and wasn’t ashamed to give the battered, ugly thing an actual hug. I didn’t know how he found it, or how he knew it was mine, but I was so happy he’d instinctively known how important it was. He really was a boy genius.

“You kept one of my computers.”

I jolted at the dry statement. He was back with a black washcloth, a towel, and a bowl of water that had a plume of steam rising from it. He walked carefully across the room so as not to spill the water. Everything he did was deliberate and careful.

“You weren’t supposed to know that.” I told him I pawned them all. It was never a good idea to keep something worth that kind of money on you when you were sleeping on the street.

“Why didn’t you pawn it? Why didn’t you take the money from the rest of the stuff you stole and get yourself a place to stay? Hell, I know you don’t make fake IDs for the Hill kids for free. You have the means to get yourself off the streets, so why don’t you? You can’t tell me you actually like being homeless.” He sounded incredulous and confused. I couldn’t blame him. Not many people, even people from the Point, knew what it was like when things were so bad at home that having nothing was preferable.

“People can find you when you have a fixed address.” I set the backpack to the side and held out my hands when he asked to see my wrists. He made a strangled noise low in his throat at the sight of the broken, swollen skin but didn’t say anything else. “When you have a place, you tend to fill it with stuff, and when it’s time to move, time to hide, stuff gets in the way. I don’t want to be tied down to anyone or anything.”

“So, sleeping on the streets is preferable to being tied down?” He wouldn’t understand, even though I could see the wheels in his head turning as he tried.

I winced and tried to pull away when the first sting of the water fell on my wound. I blamed it on the pain when I blurted out, “It’s preferable to my family finding me and trying to force me to go back home.” I groaned when he moved onto the other wrist and squeezed my eyes shut, even though he was moving slowly and being far gentler than a man his size should be able to. “And I haven’t always slept on the street. At one point, I slept in my car. Sometimes, I crash with friends for a few days. The Point has a couple of really well-funded women’s shelters that are surprisingly safe and accessible. I don’t like to be predictable, which you very well know. That’s why you couldn’t find me when Nassir sent you after me.”

He didn’t say anything but his fingers were light and his touch was delicate as he rubbed some kind of oily ointment against the torn skin. Our eyes met as he dipped the corner of the washcloth into the tepid water and brought it up to my face. He swiped it over my chin and across my mouth. I couldn’t hold back a gasp when I felt the rough pad of his thumb trace the damp trail left by the dark cloth across my lower lip. I thought I might have imagined it, but then he moved and traced the upper bow, following the tiny dip in my top lip perfectly.

“You know I’m going to ask.” His tone was gruff, and his eyes were sharp on mine behind his glasses. Of course, he would ask. He needed to understand just as much as I did. “Why don’t you want your family to find you, Noe?”

His dangerous thumb brushed across my bruised cheek and down along the edge of my jaw. My skin throbbed in an altogether alarming way every place his fingers touched. I’d never been so aware of each breath I took, each heartbeat that pounded in my ears. I’d never been so acutely mindful of another person before. I felt like I was memorizing every line of gray and silver striation in his irises, like I was counting each of his dark eyelashes and all the swirls of ink that covered the side of his neck and hollow of his throat. My nostrils flared when he leaned even closer, and I was assaulted with the faint hint of his cologne. Something fresh and clean with a hint of pine. It was masculine without being overwhelmingly so.

He asked about my family and that was enough to act as a bucket of cold water on my suddenly buzzing libido. “Seems odd that a twenty-six-year-old woman should be scared shitless of her family, doesn’t it?”

One of his dark eyebrows lifted and the washcloth made its way down the side of my neck. “You don’t look like you’re twenty-six. You don’t look a day over eighteen.”

I got that a lot. It was a mixture of my Korean heritage and my size. People always assumed I was much younger than I actually was. This benefited me when I was on the streets. It made the cops rousting the runaways go easy on me and made everyone underestimate my particular skill set. No one knew they were looking for a grown woman when they came looking for me, so it made staying out of sight easier if I wanted.

“Old enough to know better about most things, still young enough to fuck all those things up over and over again.” His lips twitched in a reluctant grin, and it made him look almost approachable. I sighed and turned so my back was to him when he asked me to do so. Maybe because I didn’t have those intense eyes of his watching me that I managed to choke out, “I was adopted.”

The scratch of the washcloth on the back of my neck stilled for a moment, but he didn’t say anything as his hand lifted my hair so he could get off all the blood that was keeping several longer strands stuck to my skin.

“Anything you’ve heard about families not wanting daughters in Asian countries is true. My parents already had one girl, and when I made an appearance, they decided they were plenty happy with the little girl they already had and didn’t want to bother with another one. I ended up in an orphanage for girls outside of Seoul. That’s in South Korea.”

Stark snorted from where he was hovering behind me, and I closed my eyes as I felt him carefully running his damp fingers through my gross hair. “I know where Seoul is, Noe.”

I cleared my throat and crossed my arms over my chest. “Yeah, you would. Sometimes it feels like there isn’t anywhere else in the world besides the Point. Like nothing outside of here is real. Anyway, I was adopted by a family from the Hill when I was six. I didn’t speak any English, had never been anywhere besides the orphanage, had never really seen a white person before. It was all terrifying. I felt like a little doll they dressed up and toted around when they came to Korea to finalize the adoption. I cried so hard on the plane to the States I made myself sick. Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright were appalled and apologized for my behavior endlessly. I didn’t know what they were saying, but I could tell they were disappointed. I was so sure they were going to turn the plane around and take me back. I honestly wanted them to, even though the orphanage was overcrowded and underfunded. It was what I knew, and everyone there looked just like I did.”

I sighed and closed my eyes as his fingers worked against my scalp. He was good at that. I’d like him to do it when he wasn’t trying to pick chunks of dried blood out of my hair.

“The Cartwrights. June and Bradley. They seemed to be nice people. They’d been trying for another kid for a long time with no luck. She really, really wanted a little girl. I’m not sure how they ended up looking at foreign adoptions, but they did and found me. It was a good life for a while. They didn’t have a ton of money, but it was enough. I never worried about being hungry or cold. They put me in special classes so I could learn English, and once I picked that up, it was clear I was pretty gifted. They never balked at giving me the kind of education I needed.”

He grunted behind me and I felt his fingers work against the base of my skull. It pulled a groan out of me and loosened some of the pressure and pain that had my brain in a stranglehold since I opened my eyes.

“Something went wrong.” It wasn’t a question. He was smart enough to know a girl didn’t give up a sweet deal like that without a very good reason.

“Went way wrong,” I snorted and tried to fight back the way those memories made my skin crawl. “June and Bradley had a son who was four years older than me . . . Aaron.” I felt the air stir dangerously behind me and I wanted to warn him that he hadn’t heard anything yet. “When I was little, he acted like I didn’t exist. Classic only child syndrome. He never liked that he had to share his parents, or their time and energy, with me. He was resentful and mean, but the Cartwrights always believed he would grow out of it when he was older. He did, but what he grew into was something much worse.”

I shivered and pulled my legs up so I could hug them and rest my cheek on my knees. “When I started to develop, when I started to look like a girl instead of an androgynous blob, people started telling me how pretty I was, how exotic and striking I was. What they meant was how different I looked with my white family. They never thought we were related to begin with, and as I got older, more and more people just assumed I was Aaron’s girlfriend and not his sister. It made him proprietary and possessive. He started acting like he really did own me, like I belonged to him in some sort of twisted way.”