“He told me he was getting ready to head out and that you were downstairs working. I should have asked him before he left. My head was itchy and I decided I couldn’t wait. You can turn around now.” She sounded slightly amused.
Slowly, I turned to face her. She was wrapped up in the comforter from the bed. Her hair was inky black and blood red where it was slicked back from her face. With the bruise on her cheek and the cuts on her wrist, she resembled a superhero who had just saved the world. I took my glasses off so that she was slightly out of focus. Staring at her was making my heart do some crazy things. I’d never felt it beat so fast. Usually, it ticked slow and even like a metronome.
“I’m so sorry.” The words rushed out, blurted with no tact or grace. Realizing in that moment that I wasn’t sorry for watching her but for so many other things. I slammed my glasses back on my face and raked my hands over my head in frustration. “I’m sorry I didn’t help you. I’m sorry I shut the door in your face. I’m sorry you got taken and that you got hurt. I’m sorry I couldn’t find you sooner. I’m sorry you feel safer living on the streets than you did at home. I’m sorry guys like Goddard and your adoptive brother exist, and I’m sorry guys like me aren’t better at stopping them. I’m sorry Benny didn’t put a bullet between Goddard’s eyes so this was all over.” I stopped so I could suck in a breath. I lowered my head so I was looking at the floor between my boots. “And I’m sorry there was no towel for you when you got out of the shower. I’ll go find one.”
I knew good and well there were some things an apology couldn’t fix. I also knew just because you gave one didn’t mean the person on the receiving end had to take it. This girl didn’t seem like she wanted much, and accepting my apology meant she was going to have to hang onto some pretty heavy forgiveness for as long as we were in each other’s lives.
I was at the door when she called out my name. I paused and looked over my shoulder at her. She was perched on the edge of the bed and the comforter was barely staying up around her breasts. I knew now that they were a perfect handful, small but tipped with enchanting and delectable looking nipples that were a dusky peach and caramel color. I wanted to taste them. I wanted to put my hands on them. I was so much bigger than she was that it would be easy to smother her, to suffocate her with all the unchecked desire and wild emotion that was rolling off of me. I needed to get myself together. I needed to compartmentalize and organize everything she made me feel, so I could work past it.
“What happened before has nothing to do with you. I didn’t give you that piece of my past so you would feel sorry for me. I gave it to you so you would know that nothing that happens or has happened to me would ever crush me. I do what I have to do in order to survive, and I make no apologies for it. When I asked you to help me,” she trailed off for a second, her eyes searching mine. “I saw the fear in your eyes. I heard the panic when I mentioned the Mayor was involved. You have your own story and your own reasons for doing what you do. You’re just trying to survive, as well. I’m not going to lie, I was very disappointed in you, but I don’t blame you, Stark. I’m the one who put myself on Goddard’s radar, no one else.”
Fear, disappointment, and pain. They were the holy trinity that defined my life. “I’m still sorry for all of it.”
She rolled her eyes and pointed to the doorway. “Don’t be sorry, be useful. Get me a towel and then come back and tell me your plan to destroy Jonathan Goddard.”
I nodded woodenly while trying to stifle a jaw busting yawn. I blinked at her from behind my glasses when she cocked her head to the side to consider me thoughtfully.
“When was the last time you slept?”
I shook my head to clear the fog and grumbled, “A couple of days ago.”
“Jeez. No wonder you look like a zombie. New plan, get me a towel, take a nap, and then fill me in on your diabolical plot to ruin the Mayor’s life. Why haven’t you been sleeping?”
I was surprised she had to ask. I gave her the only answer I could. “Hard to sleep when you’re choking on fear and disappointment.” She gave a little gasp that I ignored. “I’ll be back in a minute with a couple of towels.”
I felt her eyes boring into my back as I exited the room, and while they didn’t feel like daggers, they still poked and pricked and made me bleed. She saw too much and I was nowhere near ready to give her my story in return. She was strong, unbreakable, and indestructible. There was no way I wanted her to know I was fragile, brittle, and ready to shatter with even the slightest touch. If she knew how just how weak I was, she would never trust me to keep her safe. She wouldn’t believe that I could handle Goddard and his perversions. She would go after him herself, because she was a hero.
I never wanted her to know I’d never done anything heroic . . . even when the person I loved the most needed me.
It was true. The bigger they were, the harder they fell.
Stark went from being broody, abrupt, and bossy to passed out face down on the couch in the living room of the vacant loft he’d insisted on moving me to. I told him over and over again I didn’t need to be under lock and key, but the man was stubborn and only heard what he wanted to hear. I also told him I wasn’t interested in taking the scary black gun he forced on me after I admitted I knew how to handle a firearm. I didn’t like guns. I resented the false confidence they gave the person who had their finger on the trigger. If you couldn’t win a fight fairly, then you shouldn’t be fighting in the first place. In the end, I took the stupid thing because he looked like he was about to break.
Those slate eyes of his were full of a brewing storm, one that was getting closer and closer to shore. For a guy who was supposed to be mechanical and methodical, he was all over the place when we were alone together. There was nothing measured or meticulous when he apologized to me, there wasn’t any restraint or reserve when his eyes roved over my naked body. There was nothing but heat and appreciation. He didn’t look at me like he wanted to figure me out. He looked at me like he wanted to take me apart with his hands and his mouth. He looked hungry.
At first, I was so surprised to see him that I couldn’t move, and then it was the gleam in those hard eyes that kept me rooted to the spot, unable to cover up. There was something addicting about having a guy who typically ran so cold and indifferent burn at the sight of you. Snowden Stark might be part machine, but even the Terminator melted when things got hot enough. I wanted to crank up the heat and see what Stark would do. I wanted to know what it would take to turn him liquid and malleable, because I knew, for me, it was nothing more than the quirk of his eyebrow over those glasses and the way he shifted his big body when he was nervous or uncomfortable. He looked like a fighter, not a thinker, and it totally got to me when he put both those things aside and was nothing more than a vulnerable man who didn’t have all the answers.
I peeked over the back of the couch and stared at him for a second careful not to make a sound. He went down so hard it was clear he needed the rest, and I didn’t want to wake him up even though I was dying to know his plan to take on Goddard. I knew he had to have one.
He was always the man with the plan.
He was also the man who, even in his sleep, looked way too serious and intent. Between his dark eyebrows, there was a deep V of concentration. His glasses were sitting on the coffee table so I could see his sinfully long lashes flutter as he dreamed. The scar on the side of his head looked jagged and rough up close and totally contrasted with the diamond studs that decorated his ears. The tattoo that crawled along the side of his neck appeared to be an intricate biomechanical design, meant to look like the skin had been peeled away and all his inner workings were gears and wires instead of blood and bone. That same design traveled all the way over his heavy shoulder, underneath his t-shirt, and down his arm. It even covered the back of his hand, and once again, I was reminded of the Terminator. He very well could have been sent from the future to save us all, or he could decide to use his knowledge to bring nothing but doom and destruction to those he deemed the enemy.
He mumbled something in his sleep and shifted so that he was lying on his back, one of his arms hanging over the edge of the couch and touching the floor while his long legs hung over the arm. He didn’t fit. I imagined that was a pretty common problem of his since he was so damn big. The thought sent a surprising shiver racing down my spine and my eyes widened at the thought of other places that might be a tight squeeze for him.
When I first left home and hit the streets, I’d gone a little wild. I was so ashamed and frustrated by everything Aaron and the Cartwrights had put me through, I needed some sort of outlet, some way to prove it was my choice who I gave my body to. I burned through boy after boy because I could, and sometimes because it meant I had a safe and warm place to sleep for the night. At the time, I thought it was liberating and redemptive, but when I got older and ended up back in that house of horrors, I realized I was sleeping around to devalue what sex meant all together. I was trying to prove to myself that it was insignificant, to lessen the impact of the way Aaron had forced it on me for so long. When I escaped the second time, I promised myself I would make better choices all around, including the men I picked to spend time with. I understood I was worth more, and that it mattered when I decided to share my body with someone. I very rarely did anymore.