Dignity (The Breaking Point #2)(17)

by Jay Crownover

Occasionally, there was an old flame who drifted through the Point on his way to somewhere better, and we would get together. It worked for me because they were familiar and on the move. There was no awkward conversation about how our time together was nothing more than scratching an itch. All I was after was a mutually satisfying encounter with someone I respected and liked, someone who felt the same about me, and didn’t mind when I walked away in the morning.

I’d never been attracted to a guy like Stark before. There was nothing easy or predictable about him, and I wasn’t sure I liked or respected him after that day he shut the door in my face. I mean, I was totally intrigued by the stories I’d heard about him and the things he’d done, but the reality was completely different. He wouldn’t let me or anyone else handle him and he had the kind of secrets that I tended to run from. I didn’t like surprises, and he was nothing but one unknown after another. I’d also never been the girl who swooned over muscles and tattoos, but it was impossible not to get caught up in how hot he was. Even if I wasn’t invested in his razor-sharp mind, I’d admit to being weak in the knees over the rest of him. I was secretly hoping I’d get a turn to check him out when he was as naked as I’d been. I had a feeling I’d lose my mind and throw myself at him. Just once, I wanted to be with someone who could control me without scaring or threatening me.

Part of me felt that Stark was the only man who could do that because despite everything, I trusted him.

I pushed back from my lurking position and was turning to go to the kitchen where I had left my (his) laptop, when he abruptly made a strangled noise and started babbling, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” over and over again. His head was thrashing from side-to-side and his massive chest started to rise and fall rapidly. His mouth was moving without sound and that furrow in his brow dug in deeper. He looked like he was in some serious distress, and I wasn’t sure if it was better to let him battle it out himself or if I should try and wake him up. The way he was apologizing over and over again made me think he was dreaming about me and the way he unceremoniously sent me on my way, but then his hands curled into fists and he screamed, “Savina!” It was ripped out of him with such force that I fell back a step and put a startled hand up to my throat.

Stark jack-knifed up into a sitting position, eyes unclear, and panic etched in every line of his face and body. His head swiveled around like he was looking for something, eyes squinting when he realized he couldn’t see clearly. He shoved his fingers through his short hair, swung his legs over the edge of the couch, and blindly reached for his glasses. When he got to his feet, tension was rolling off his massive frame in waves. He was clearly unsettled that I’d been watching him and witnessed his memories ripping him apart in his sleep.

“I need some air. I’m gonna step out for a minute. Lock the door behind me.” He didn’t give me a chance to respond or ask what the hell had happened. He prowled to the door, every line of his body rigid and stiff. He slammed the door shut with more force than was necessary, and when he was gone, it was like a vacuum sucked all the life out of the space. Everything felt vacant and empty. My curiosity was buzzing bright and hot, so I finished making the trip to my laptop and powered it on, making sure the screen was facing the open kitchen so that if Stark suddenly reappeared, he wouldn’t get an eyeful of what I was about to Google.

The name Savina wasn’t one you heard every day, so I started with that and tacked on the name of the city where the Point and the Hill were located. I blinked when I got pages and pages of results. Savina and Snowden Stark. Fraternal twins that looked hauntingly alike, born to a Conroy and Geneva Stark. Conroy was some kind of nuclear physicist and Geneva was a biochemical engineer; it was no surprise that their kids were almost immediately tagged as gifted and accelerated. Snowden was a mathematical wizard and wrote code when he was only six years old. They called him the second coming of guys like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. The word prodigy was thrown around liberally when talking about both twins. Savina was a savant. She played the piano and earned a coveted spot at Juilliard when she was only ten. There was article after article about the family’s accomplishments and achievements. Stark designed a program that was used to predict highly probable terrorist attack sites, which the government bought for an obscene amount of money when the program accurately predicted the bombings of the subway system in London and the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subways in 1995. Not only did it predict the location, but also the type of attack for which officials should be on alert. There were a lot of conspiracy theories that the software would have accurately warned the US government about the attacks on 9–11 if they had been utilizing it properly. He was only twelve when they bought it, and four years after that, he disappeared into a governmental black hole. Some said he went to federal prison, some said he’d been recruited by an unnamed branch of the government. Stark had entire chatrooms and forums dedicated to him; he was a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream.

His sister also had a lot of chatter on the internet. Her chatrooms and forums were incredibly unnerving.

The girl was just as stunning as her brother: tall, dark-haired, and she had the same blue-gray eyes that looked like they were constantly trying to figure out how the entire world worked. Where Stark looked like a younger version of the man he was now, minus all the ink and bulk, his sister looked frail and almost waifish. She looked like prey.

I sucked in a breath as I kept scrolling, each headline screaming something worse than the one before. Geneva Stark was killed in a horrific chemical explosion at the lab where she worked. There was a lot of speculation that the explosion happened from the inside to cover up some kind of top secret research and development program. Conroy Stark was arrested for treason when he was accused of trading information on the US’s nuclear program with a foreign intelligence officer. They called him a traitor and a spy. The man was still locked up, and to this day was screaming that he’d been set-up and falsely accused. He swore up one side and down the other he didn’t have anything to do with government secrets and claimed that US intelligence wanted his son, that they had killed his wife to get their hands on young Snowden. It sounded like the ravings of a lunatic, but considering how leery Stark was of any kind of government official, I wondered if there was more to it than the rantings of a guilty man.

The worst were the headlines about Savina. She had risen to fame in the orchestral world. She toured and played for the rich and famous. Somewhere along the line, she also picked up more than one stalker. There was all kinds of press about how scared she was, how she considered quitting performing to go into hiding. There were paparazzi shots of the girl looking terrified, her face covered and her body hunched over. In the background of all those pictures was a furious looking Stark. He was trying to shield her from the lights and from so much more.

I wasn’t surprised at all when I found an article that had her obituary, which made me put a hand to my chest and blink back a hot rush of moisture that pressed at the back of my eyes. She couldn’t take the pressure or the constant threats. She couldn’t handle the loss of her mother and her father going to jail. The media was even more in her face after that. The demands of fame and fortune broke her. She took her own life, and the final picture was one of Stark, dressed in a somber, black suit as he threw a handful of dirt into a freshly dug grave. He looked tortured and turned inside out. His pain was obvious in every pixel of the grainy black and white photo. I could feel it, and I hated that.

The door opened with a swoosh and he strode through it looking far more composed than he had when he walked out. I shut the computer and propped a hand on my fist as I watched him walk across the room. He still looked tired, but he was always quick. All it took was a glance at me and at my closed laptop for him to put two and two together. He sighed as he made his way over to where I was leaning against the counter, fingers tapping on the back of the computer.

“Whatever you think you know, you don’t.” His voice was scratchy and rough.

I lifted an eyebrow and cocked my head to the side. “Is that so?”

He sighed again and dipped his chin in a slight nod. “Google barely scratches the surface. Trust me, you don’t want the real story. You don’t want anything to weigh you down, and every single part that fills in the blanks is heavy as hell.”

I stared at him silently as I worked through the fact that I kind of wanted some of that weight. He was carrying it all, and that had to be exhausting, even with his broad shoulders and strong back. He saved me when he didn’t want to. The least I could do was take some of that burden off him if he wanted to hand it over.

“I let you see a lot of the baggage I carry around with me, Stark. I’m here if you ever decide you want to hand off some of yours.” I couldn’t believe I was offering to take him on, but I really wanted to. In more ways than one. Snowden Stark was the first person in forever who lingered. I was very good at shaking off anyone who seemed like they were trying to get their hooks into me. With this man, I was thoroughly caught and not doing a very good job of wiggling free.