He cocked his head to the side and silently considered me for an annoyingly long moment. When he spoke, his voice still lacked any kind of real emotion or investment. “Why haven’t you done for yourself what you do for everyone else? You could be in the wind, gone, and no one would be able to track you down, not even Jonathan Goddard.” It was a shock to hear him call the bastard Mayor by his given name. I’d taken to thinking of his title as more of a supervillain name, like the Joker, or the Riddler . . . he was the Mayor.
Frustrated, I blew out a breath and tugged on my multi-colored hair. I was used to having it tucked under a beanie or hidden under a ball cap, so the loose strands bugged me. I had to remember how to be a girl half the time. “You’re right. I can go. I could have a new identity, a new name, and place to call home in under five minutes. But why should he be allowed to get away with what he did to Julia? Why should he have the opportunity to do that to any other girl who’s too young and too scared to fight back? Someone needs to stop him. I need to stop him . . . but I can’t do it on my own.” I really couldn’t. The man had too many people on his payroll, too many dirty cops who wouldn’t hesitate to hurt me. I’d spent so many years telling myself I wasn’t scared anymore, that I was the one in control. I hated that it was all slipping away, and once again, I felt trapped. It would have been so easy to send an email blast to the media with the accusations, but with Julia in hiding, there was no proof. I wanted to protect her almost as much as I wanted to stop the Mayor in his tracks. “I need you to help me.”
He was shaking his dark head before I even finished speaking. The tattoos on the sides of his neck flexed as he clenched his jaw, sending a muscle in his cheek twitching. “I learned a long time ago not to pick fights I can’t win.”
I snorted and then slapped a hand over my face to muffle the sound. He watched me as I cleared my throat. I couldn’t stop an eye roll when I muttered drily, “I’m having a hard time picturing any fight you can’t win, Stark.” He was too big, too smart, too shrewd, and too controlled not to come out on top time and time again. He didn’t strike me as a guy who ever lost at anything.
He shook his head again and pushed off the frame, one hand reaching out to grab the edge of the door like he was ready to close it in my face. “I don’t mess with people who have their hands in politics, Noe. It’s a bad idea. They have too much to lose and know how to keep their secrets buried deep. They play by a different set of rules and they don’t share the playbook. They have an army of very rich, very entitled people at their disposal who have too much to lose when they fail. They leave graves all over the place, and they might be just as good as you are at making people disappear. I was dumped in one of their holes when I was stupider and younger. There was no climbing out of it no matter how hard I tried. I barely made it out with my sanity intact, and I have no intention of ever going back. You might as well pack a bag and hit the road before he really gets desperate to find you.”
I knew he had things in his past that built up the enigma of who he was, but I had no idea that they still scared him. He didn’t seem like the type of man who was afraid of anything.
“I can’t let this go. I’m so sick of guys like Goddard thinking they can do whatever they want with no repercussions. Everyone should be held accountable for the bad things they do.”
“When you have money and influence, there’s no need for accountability.” He sounded like he knew that from first-hand experience. I gasped as he fell back a step and started to close the door.
“Wait!” I shoved my battered boot into the swinging door and slapped a hand on the surface as it inched closer to shutting out my last hope and lingering resolve. “That’s it? You’re really going to ignore everything I just told you? You’re going to throw me to the wolves and let a guy like Goddard get away with doing despicable things?” I couldn’t believe it. That’s not who he was rumored to be. He was supposed to fight for the little guy. He was supposed to believe in justice and fairness.
He was a lie.
He frowned at me and looked pointedly at my hand on the door and my foot bracing it open. “I don’t have a dog in this fight, Noe, and I know you’re smart enough to know exactly what you were getting into when you helped that girl ghost out of town. You knew the risk and you took it anyway. You’re a smart girl who made a very dumb choice.”
Of course I did. I was a fucking human being and not a machine like he apparently was. I had a heart. It was a used one, one that didn’t run right half the time, one I had to wind up every single day if I wanted to feel any damn thing, but it was there. Tiny but beating furiously. His seemed to have been replaced by circuit boards and wires somewhere along the way.
I fell back a step and threw my hands up in aggravation. “You’re unbelievable, and not in the way I was hoping you were.” I was no longer impressed . . . I was devastated.
He nodded in agreement, mouth dipped low in a fierce frown. “It’s good not to have expectations. When you do, you’re bound to be disappointed. Keep your head down, Noe. Buy a bus ticket and put the Point in your rearview. You can start over somewhere else. You can get off the streets and do something useful with that big, sexy brain of yours.”
I wanted to tell him to take his advice and stick it so far up his ass he choked on it. I came here for help, not for a lecture on all the ways I’d gone wrong in my life. I was very aware of just how badly I had screwed up, but before I could say anything else, the door was unceremoniously shut in my face. It was a definitive ‘go-away’ and I couldn’t have been more disappointed if I tried. I felt like he sucked all the optimism and confidence out of me, leaving me deflated and empty.
Swearing, I kicked the closed door, taking immense satisfaction in the greasy, black streaks that my boot left on the white surface. I thumped a balled-up fist on the hardwood as well and swallowed hard so the threat of tears wouldn’t spill over. I hated feeling defeated. I was a survivor. I was a fighter and a master at making any situation work for me. Over the years, I’d had no choice. In this moment, his closed door mocking me, I hated that not only did I no longer have the upper hand, but that I was barely holding on as things were spiraling quickly out of control around me.
Sucking in a breath, I pushed my bangs back from my face and gave myself a mental shake. So, I’d struck out with Stark. I knew there was no guarantee he was going to help me out, but that didn’t mean I was willing to walk away from this fatal game of hide and seek I’d started. The Mayor didn’t get to sit in his mansion and chase little girls while his corrupt city burned. Someone had to hold him accountable, and even though this situation sucked and was scary as hell, that someone was going to be me.
I quickly walked back down the front steps of the townhouse, pulling my beanie out of my pocket and slapping it back on my head as I went. I tucked all my hair up in the cap and stopped at the line of decorative hedges that dotted the front of the property so I could pick up my backpack from where I stashed it. Everything I owned was in that camo knapsack, and I felt naked without it. I also paused long enough to pull on a hoodie that was two sizes too big and covered me almost to my knees. No more minimal cleavage on display and no more pretending that my limited feminine wiles would get me anywhere with the moody, distant, computer genius. His heart was missing, and in its place was a processor that did nothing more than calculate and compute.
Sighing and lost in thought, I wasn’t being as careful as I should have been as I walked across manicured lawns and cut across driveways full of expensive cars. I wasn’t blending in or sticking to the shadows like normal because I was in such a hurry to leave Stark, and my disappointment in him, behind.
I was almost out of the subdivision, almost back to the main road that led into the Point, when I heard sirens and realized the blue and red flashing lights were for me. I was so close to the road—near plenty of gullies and ditches to slither through. The road that was relatively safe. I was so close to getting away. I’d never been a fan of law and order, but now that there was a price on my head, I’d done my best to avoid any kind of law enforcement or people in uniform. Too many were in the Mayor’s back pocket. I’d let desperation cloud my judgment. I should have known the police would be present in a nice neighborhood like this. It was their job to keep out people like me.
I contemplated dropping my backpack and making a run for it, but the cop car was too close and I didn’t, for one second, doubt that whomever was driving would put a bullet in me to slow me down.
Swearing, I slowed and lifted my hands to face the burly, mean-looking cop. He climbed out of the car, one hand on the grip of his gun, the other on his phone. I had a sinking suspicion every cop in the city had my picture and a basic description of me. They were all looking, and like a dumb ass, I put myself right in their line of sight.
“Can I help you, Officer?” I tried to keep my voice calm, but there was a thread of fear in it that I couldn’t hide.
“Got a complaint about a trespasser.” He was lying. I hadn’t been here long enough for anyone to complain, and even if Stark wasn’t my biggest fan, there was no way he would turn me in. I wasn’t sure how I knew when everything else I thought I knew about him turned out to be so wrong, but I knew it all the way to my bones.