Dignity (The Breaking Point #2)(4)

by Jay Crownover

“Well, I was just visiting a friend. I’m on my way back to the Point right now. I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding.”

He grunted and looked from his phone toward me and back. I knew he was checking my image against one on that little screen, and I also knew if I went anywhere with him, no one would ever see me alive again.

Throwing my backpack to the ground, I turned and started to run.

I had no idea where I was going. I had no idea what I was doing.

All I knew was that I couldn’t let that cop get his hands on me.

I made it across one more yard before I felt a lightning bolt blast through my body. It was like being tackled by a charging rhinoceros. I screamed and screamed and screamed, but the sounds of the traffic coming from the road, from freedom, drowned out my sounds of agony as the cop hit me with another charge from his Taser. I laid on the ground twitching, spasming out of control, watching in dread as his black boots got closer.

The last thought I had before everything faded away was . . . help . . . but like always, no one was there to offer it.

I was alone.

Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Stark

Fourteen fucking days later . . .

I couldn’t stop staring at that battered, torn, duct-taped backpack. It had been sitting on my coffee table for two weeks. Fourteen days. Each one of them seemingly longer than the one before. Each one dragging, endless, as I waited for information. I spent hour after hour calling myself every kind of asshole and was pretty sure I had given myself an ulcer and gray hair from the guilt that was tearing my insides apart. That backpack and the person it belonged to were forcing me to feel . . . more than I’d allowed myself to feel in years.

She needed help and I turned her away.

I told her no, shut the door on her pretty, hopeful face like it was nothing, because I wanted to convince myself I felt nothing. I was a void, a wasteland, a dry and arid desert. But I told her no, and now that empty, open space was flooded with the worst kind of emotion. Guilt. Raw, unrelenting guilt.

No one would have known that I had pulled the door open a few minutes later and tried to chase her down and tell her I was sorry for being a dick, but I was too late. Noe was gone. Vanished. Disappeared. The only sign that she’d really been on my doorstep, dark eyes wide with fear, was the backpack I found in the yard a few houses down from mine. It was the same one she’d clutched like a lifeline when I dragged her to meet Nassir. She wouldn’t leave it behind. Not when it was all she had.

Someone took her and it was all my fault.

Once again, I let someone down who thought they could rely on me. The girl before Noe had kept the fact she needed my help, needed me, hidden. I thought I knew her better than I knew myself, but I was wrong, and that mistake cost me everything that mattered. And yet, Noe had been right in my face with her desperation and fear, and I’d still walked away.

I failed to protect someone who was smaller, softer, and far more defenseless than I was . . . again. I didn’t need the reminder that if something didn’t have a motherboard and a Wi-Fi connection, I had no clue what to do with it.

I swore and kicked the leg of the expensive table that sat in front of my equally expensive couch. Half empty beer bottles toppled over, one spilling onto the keyboard of my open laptop. Typically, the sight of one of my babies getting destroyed would make my head explode, but not today. Not until I found out where Noe was. Not until I had her back and knew she was safe. That was the only thing that mattered at the moment. Not the couple of grand I just annihilated with the remnants of a stale beer that I couldn’t even bother to clean up, and not the fact that I now owed the Devil more than a simple favor or two. Selling your soul for a shot at redemption didn’t come cheap.

I was in so deep, I couldn’t even see the sunshine anymore. It didn’t matter, because he promised me he would do whatever he could to get her back. I tried not to cringe when I remembered the hard warning look in Nassir Gates’s amber eyes as he told me it might be her body we got back and nothing else.

I couldn’t think about that. I was good at shutting away whatever I was feeling, locking it down, and pretending like I was immune to basic feelings and reactions. I’d lost the other half of myself, the one thing that kept me human and functioning, so it was easy to pull anything that threatened my tenuous hold on sanity away from the tender places that remained inside of me. I was made of things that were hard, cold, industrial, and it allowed me to feel nothing. Steel, iron, wires, and gears. There wasn’t anything empathetic or gentle left. All of that had died when my twin sister did.

All those rigid things that made me who I was were churning and grinding under my skin at the thought of what Noe might be going through. The pipes had run dry for a long time and now there was a river of fury and regret blazing through them. I slammed the door in her face because she was the one person who made me feel something I couldn’t ignore. Even when I thought she was a boy, I was curious and confused. Lured in by her sharp wit and outright rebellion. She seemed fearless and it called to me. Her defiance echoed loud in the cavernous depths that were left behind when my soul was ripped away from me. I couldn’t get away from the feelings that she energized within me, and I couldn’t shake them off fast enough.

She needed me and I couldn’t handle it. I relinquished the desire to be needed by anyone, and I willingly accepted that I didn’t want to need anyone. I couldn’t stand with the weight of others’ expectations on my shoulders because I was weak, because I was scared and scarred from things that had nothing to do with her. I disappointed her and put her in danger. Whatever happened to her was on me, and I was fully prepared to accept any and all responsibility. If she was dead, well, then the hard fact of the matter was that I didn’t deserve to draw another breath. Her life had been in my hands and I let it slip through my fingers without even attempting to hold onto it. I’d lost another fight my mind couldn’t afford to lose.

From the start, Nassir had use for me in his criminal empire. He considered me a valuable commodity, and more than that, his business partner long considered me a friend. Neither would let me go without a fight, but if Noe didn’t make it out of this, I wouldn’t either. The emotions I’d ignored for so long would take over, and I would be helpless to stop them. I wasn’t strong enough to survive looking at the still, silent face of another innocent woman taken because life wasn’t fair. I was a failure and eventually both men who ruled the Point would realize I was more of a liability than an asset. Over the years, I had perfected the art of faking being useful and invaluable. The expiration date on my usefulness was fast approaching, I just knew it.

I kicked the table again, this time sending the liquid-laden laptop and Noe’s backpack crashing to the floor. When it hit the hardwood, the broken zipper split open and her few meager belongings spilled onto my cork floors. All she had were a couple of old t-shirts, a pair of sneakers that also had duct tape on them, a water bottle, a paper-thin blanket, and a laptop that I knew cost as much as the one I just ruined. After all, it was one she’d jacked from me when she robbed my place. I wasn’t surprised to see it when I went through the bag trying to find any kind of clue as to where she might be.

She had good taste in computers. She snatched one of my more tricked out toys. I was also suitably impressed that she got past all my security firewalls in order to use the damn thing. I told her that her brain was sexy, and I wasn’t lying. It was the first thing I noticed about her. Intelligence was the only thing that ever really caught my attention and held it. I was impressed that she had alluded me for so long when Nassir sent me after her for information. I was intrigued by the way she showed no fear when she faced me down. That day, my anger had been hot and heavy, uncontrollable from lack of use. It raged between us in my empty, unplugged apartment. I wasn’t sure where it was going to land or how to handle it, but she hadn’t even flinched. I was curious about her defiance in the face of a well-known threat when she went toe to toe with Nassir. I was very aware of her on every single level and I hadn’t even known she was a her, at the time. That anger and fascination with her from the start was a lot to process for a man who had been mostly numb and entirely emotionless for far too long.

Now that I knew she was, in fact, all female, and a particularly cute one at that, I let myself like more than her mind. I liked her dark, untrusting eyes. I liked the sassy arch of her midnight-colored eyebrows and the little beauty mark that rested high on the sharp curve of her cheekbone. I liked her full lips and the way they looked like they were painted a rosy pink even though I knew she didn’t wear any kind of lipstick. There was no makeup in that tattered backpack. She didn’t need it sleeping on the streets. I was secretly obsessed with her streaked hair. The red looked like fire, and the black was so dark and shiny it didn’t look real. She wore it short in the back and longer in the front so she could pull off her androgynous look if she wore a hat, but it suited her. It was no-fuss and striking at the same time. I hadn’t liked anything about anyone long before my mind had been broken and my heart had been shattered, but even with everything inside of me misfiring, I could tell I was attracted to Noe Lee. It was another reason I had to turn her away. I didn’t want to work through new feelings when I could barely contain the old ones.

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