He didn’t look like any kind of geek—computer or otherwise. He looked like a brawler, a leg breaker, a leviathan. He looked like a beast, except for those dark, thick-framed glasses that sat over his slate-colored eyes. They were undoubtedly out of place with his fierce expression and intimidating appearance. They didn’t belong with the nearly shaved head and the tattoos. His eyes were narrowed at me under lowered brows. His mouth was in a hard, flat line as he grabbed my upper arms and purposely set me away from him. His hands were rough, calloused, and abrasive, but his hold was gentle. He crossed those massive arms over his broad chest once I had my balance, muscles popping and flexing with the smallest movement. It was annoying that he was so impressive to look at. I already had a semi-crush on him for his magnificent brain and the lure of his rumored sense of honor. I liked that he wanted to right wrongs, that he looked out for those who were constantly overlooked. It wasn’t fair that he was ridiculously hot on top of being the smartest guy I had ever encountered, willingly or not. I didn’t want to like him, and I really, really didn’t want to need him.
“What are you doing here, Noe Lee?” I couldn’t stop the little shiver of delight that worked down my spine when he remembered my name and said it right. Not that N-O was all that hard to remember. I liked the way he strung my first and last name together so that it sounded like Noley. When we first met, he thought I was a boy. It was a ruse I often used to keep unwanted attention off myself. He was obviously annoyed that I’d been able to fool him. He was supposed to be too smart to be tricked by a street rat. There was no way he could make that mistake today. My black and red hair hung in a shiny sheet, arrow straight where it brushed my jaw. My bangs were long enough that they touched my eyebrows and also hung pin-straight across my forehead. I even scrounged up some lip gloss for this little charade and put on a v-neck shirt that showed a hint of cleavage. I hated it. I usually went out of my way to make sure no one knew I had boobs. I was way outside of my comfort zone, but I would do what I had to do in order to survive.
“You already took everything that wasn’t nailed down the first time you paid me a visit. Don’t have anything left for you to steal.” His voice was a deep rumble that matched his fearsome appearance. No high-pitched, nerdy whine for Snowden Stark. Again, he was annoyed. This time because I’d managed to breach his supposedly secure fortress. I guessed he wasn’t the type to forgive and forget.
I cleared my throat and twisted my hands together in front of me. I hated being intimidated, but he effortlessly towered over me so there was no getting away from it. I was on the short side as it was, so even regular-sized men tended to come across as looming and overbearing. Stark was anything but regular, so I was feeling slightly unsettled and anxious even though he wasn’t doing anything.
I figured that even though he was still pissed I’d ripped him off, he wasn’t missing any of his gadgets and toys. I knew for a fact that the guy was a tech-junkie. There was no way in hell he hadn’t gone out and replaced his stash the second he knew it was gone. He couldn’t survive being unplugged. He was all man, but very much dependent on machines. They were almost an extension of who he was. It was obvious in the cold, calculating way he dealt with people. There were no unnecessary or needless pleasantries. There was no warmth and compassion. Stark was not a guy who oozed sympathy or even basic human understanding. He wasn’t a guy who had patience or any kind of practiced civility about him. Humans were flawed and defective. Computers weren’t. They did what you told them to do and reacted in predictable, expected ways. Computers didn’t break into your house and steal all your stuff. Computers didn’t irritate you and disrupt your precise and orderly life. Computers didn’t expect anything from you. I got the feeling that was exactly why this man surrounded himself with them instead of a bevy of beautiful women and throngs of impressed hangers-on. He could easily be ruler of the intellectually elite, but instead, he lived like a hermit and rubbed elbows with crime lords. It might be off-putting to anyone else, but since I tended to lean toward cold and calculating myself, I appreciated his lack of normal social graces. It meant I didn’t have to force myself to play nice with him.
He was all legend and myth. No one knew what the real Snowden Stark was like or what he was about, but I’d gotten a glimpse when he dragged me to meet the Devil. He was furious that I’d disrupted his routine and touched his stuff. He was livid, even, but he never hurt me. He never used force or threats. His anger simply popped and snapped like an electrical current between us. Cold fury. Like being in the middle of a blizzard with no protection and nowhere to hide.
No one and nothing in the Point operated that way.
We all put ourselves first. We all focused on what was best for us and what would ensure that we stayed breathing a few more days before we considered anything or anyone else. It’s how you had to think and react if you wanted to keep your head above water in this place.
He got exactly what he wanted, obtained what his terrifying employer needed, and he did it all without hurting or threatening me in the slightest. He didn’t push. He didn’t shove. He didn’t use the fact he was bigger than me as a threat. My first impression stuck. He was impressive . . . I was impressed . . . and it had nothing to do with his muscles or his harshly hewn face with its unreadable, blue-gray eyes.
I took a breath and told myself to get it over with. The worst he could do was tell me no, and if he did, well, then I would be back to trying to figure it all out on my own, which was nothing new.
“I’m in trouble and I need your help.” My voice shook and I loathed the little tremor of sound that betrayed just how scared and desperate I was.
One of his dark brows arched over the top of his Buddy Holly-style glasses. The line of his mouth grew harder and turned down so that he was frowning at me instead of scowling. He uncrossed his beefy arms and lifted one above his head to lean against the door jamb. That was a lot of muscle and tattooed skin stretched out in front of me. I would have appreciated the view if it weren’t a clear signal that he was not inviting me into his space anytime soon. I’d worn out my welcome when I stole from him, and as much as I wanted to be irritated by his reluctance to let me in, I couldn’t be. I’d been betrayed more than once, which is why I set out to live my life on my own terms, and I never forgave or forgot those who had wronged me. I could hold a grudge like a mother . . . and it appeared Stark was the same way.
“What kind of trouble? Did you get caught stealing from someone bigger and meaner than me?” No concern. No curiosity. He asked like he would ask about the weather or the time.
I unlocked my fingers from their death grip and slid my hands into the front pockets of my cargo pants so he wouldn’t notice my fingers digging into my palms. “No, I helped someone disappear.”
That was what I did.
If you could find me, if you knew what rocks to turn over and which alleyways to slink through in order to ask for my help, I could turn you into a brand-new person. If you wanted to be older or younger, I could help you out with that. If you wanted to be someone who had a clean criminal history so you could get a job, I could fix that for you. If you were on the run from someone with heavy fists and a nasty temper, I made sure you were impossible to find.
And, if you were a scared teenager knocked up with your stepdaddy’s baby because the man was a predator and a pervert, well, then I would do my best to make sure no one knew who or where you were until you decided what to do about your situation. I would make sure you were safe, even when your stepdad was the mayor of the City: the place where both the Point and the Hill were located. It had never been a secret that the man was as immoral and unethical as the shot callers who ran all the illegal activities that happened in the dark under his less-than-watchful eye. As it turned out, no one really knew what kind of monster he was behind the closed doors of his home.
When Julia Grace found me, I wanted to turn her away. I liked money and she had a lot of it, but I knew helping her would come with more risk than I typically like to take on. But there was no way I could send the poor girl back to that man once she told me the things he made her do, the things he did to her, that made my stomach crawl. No one should have to suffer like that and no one should be forced to bring a child into a situation like that. She didn’t know if she was keeping the baby or if she was going to carry it to term and give it up for adoption. She was nothing more than a confused little girl trying to work her way through problems that were too big and too life-changing for someone her age to face. I helped her, made her disappear, hid her away where no one would ever think to look . . . and now I was paying the price for it.
Her powerful and paranoid stepfather wanted her back and his dirty secrets buried. He would stop at nothing until he achieved both.
Stark lifted his other eyebrow and raised a finger to push at his glasses as the motion made them slip down the bridge of his nose. “You’re good at making valuable things vanish, so I’m unsure why you are standing at my front door.”
Shit. There was detachment and ice wrapped around every syllable. I swallowed and looked down at the ground. It was time to appeal to that rumored streak of righteousness I’d heard so much about. “Stark, the Mayor has been molesting his underage stepdaughter. For years. She found me. I don’t know how, but she did. She begged me to get her out of the city and as far away from the Hill as she could go. She cried and told me all the things that monster did to her. He knocked her up. She’s just a baby, herself. There was so much wrong with all of it, I had to do what I could to make it right.” I lifted my head and stabbed my fingernails even deeper into my palms so I wouldn’t cry. I refused to show that kind of weakness in front of him. In front of anyone. “He’s been looking for me. He has resources and reach that I can’t outrun. I’m out of places to hide.”