Authors: Melissa Pearl
Tags: #coming of age, #justice, #young adult, #fugitive, #contemporary romance
His footsteps were catching up too fast.
Hurtling over a log, she dashed towards a patch of darkness before the bottle bashing guy could snaffle her. Her feet were already leaping towards the black, when she realized it was a steep slope that plunged straight into a river. She didn’t have time to stop. Her body slid the short distance and was quickly assaulted by the freezing water. Scrambling for air, she kicked her heavy feet and grappled with the water. She managed a frantic gulp before her head went under once more.
She knew how to swim, but had never been strong, so she tended to avoid anything more than splashing around in a pool or the shallow ocean. The freezing water made it hard to think clearly and her weak muscles were doing her no favors.
Maybe she should give in. Maybe this was a sign it was time to join her parents…but for some reason, her will wouldn’t let her do it. She kept kicking, kept thrashing her arms until she popped into the open again. The current was strong, tugging her along. Looking for rocks or anything to cling to was hard in the dark. The one rock she managed to touch was slippery and impossible to hold on to.
Her head went under again and she thought she could hear a distant yelling, as if the guy was still chasing her. Part of her wanted to stay below the water in case that were true but she didn’t have a chance to make that choice. A hand slapped onto her back and gripped her jacket.
Her body was hauled from the water.
The surprise made her freeze momentarily and the grunting person dragged her onto the dry bank easily.
The shakes started swiftly as she lay on the damp earth. Bark and pine needles dug into her cheek, but all she could do was shake. A hand rubbed her back briefly, then gently picked the wet clumps of hair off her face.
“We need to get you dry and warm,” he muttered. “Come on.” Gripping her upper arm, he helped her to her feet and walked her further into the bush. The shadows grew thick and comforting. Lucy was glad she couldn’t see the details of her captor’s face. She didn’t want to know what he might be thinking.
She kept her eyes on the ground and allowed him to pull her along. Her mind was already ticking with escape plans, but her body was too weak and cold to implement them.
Finally he paused at a clearing. “This’ll do.” Dumping his canvas bag on the ground, he unbuckled it and pulled out a few bits and pieces. Lucy couldn’t see what they were and she didn’t even care.
That’s all she could think.
Her teeth smashed together as her jaw jumped up and down like a jackhammer. Her insides were quivering. She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to control the shivers.
While Lucy focused on getting her knees not to buckle, the guy at her feet scrambled around. A few moments later he was lighting a lantern and laying out a tatty sleeping bag.
“Take your clothes off and get in there.”
Lucy’s fear spiked. She backed away from him and promptly tripped over a tree root, landing on her butt with a thud. Her head was shaking, her mind racing with one sick scenario after another.
He rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to hurt you, but you’ll die if you don’t get warm. You have to get out of those wet clothes.”
Lucy knew he was right, but it didn’t help that he was shrugging out of his jacket and pulling off his sweater as he said it.
“Wh-what are you do-doing?”
“Body heat, it’s the only way to really get you warm.”
Breaths spurted from Lucy’s nostrils. Terror was bouncing so fast through her insides she thought she might throw up. “I’m not…I’m not getting naked with you.”
Would he force her?
She tried to push herself up, to get ready to run again.
“You’re what, twelve? I’m not into that sick shit.” He threw his shirt on the ground and walked towards the sleeping bag. Shuffling inside, he held the flap open for her. “Now do you want to live or die?”
The fact that he had left his jeans on was a comfort. Only his chest was bare. Bare and no doubt warm. Lucy closed her eyes and slowly sat forward. With trembling fingers she stripped down to her bra and panties. She noticed the guy was kind enough to look away as she did it.
She felt sick as she stepped towards him and got into the bag. She had to force her limbs to obey. Every part of her wanted to run. Every part except the logical instinct in her brain.
As soon as she snuggled against him, the guy zipped up the sleeping bag, wrapping his thin arm tightly around her. She rested her head on his chest, her convulsing body making it impossible to relax. She didn’t know what to do with her hands so she sandwiched them between her thighs until he sighed and grabbed the top one, throwing it over his body and tucking it into his armpit.
He rubbed her shoulders and back, enforcing warmth into her muscles. Slowly, slowly, her body stopped quivering. Lucy closed her eyes and tried to separate her mind from her body.
If she stopped to consider the fact that she was lying practically naked with a total stranger in a grimy sleeping bag, her brain might short circuit.
“What’s your name?” The guy finally asked.
Lucy shook her head.
“It’s Lucy, isn’t it? Like the one on the news?”
Lucy shook her head again, fear clogging her throat.
She went still, tears stinging her eyes. She squeezed them shut and bit her lower lip so hard she thought it might bleed.
“That’s okay.” The guy rubbed her shoulder. “You don’t have to tell me anything. If you are that girl, I know you didn’t do it.”
“What makes you so sure?” she whispered.
“Because I saw you in that diner. I know that look on your face. That lost, scared kid look.” He sighed. “I’m really sorry about your folks.”
Lucy’s insides spasmed as she drew in a sharp breath.
“It’s okay,” he whispered. “It’s gonna be okay.”
Lucy sniffed hard, blocking off the emotion before it could drown her. “Is that why you’re helping me? Because I look lost and scared?”
“Pretty much.” He squeezed her. “I’m Marlin, by the way.” Lucy glanced up at him through the darkness. He was gazing up at the sky, his angular jaw tense. “My brother gave me the name when we were kids. He said I was a slippery little fish because I could always get away from my old man before he beat me too bad.”
“So, you’re a runaway then?”
“Something like that.” His lips pinched tight.
His cryptic answer made Lucy nervous and he must have sensed it. Marlin gazed down at her, a smile making his tight lips relax. “I ain’t gonna hurt ya. I’m not like my old man. I just want to help you. That’s all.”
Lucy knew it could all be an act. He could be trying to gain her trust just to use or abuse her later, but right now she had no choice. She had to get warm and then she could think about ditching him.
“I know it’s probably hard for you to believe me right now. But I’ve seen enough grief in my lifetime and I’m not ever gonna make anyone suffer.” He pressed his lips together. “I guess you’re just gonna have to trust my word on that.”
The speech made Lucy’s insides settle. Yes, he could still be lying, but he could also be telling the truth. She knew she had to cling to that for now.
Tonight, she had to trust Marlin and so she closed her eyes and pretended that his bony chest was a pillow and that the sleeping bag around her was the pale blue comforter on her bed in the upstairs bedroom. She imagined that her parents were snuggled up together down the hall and that in the morning she’d go to school, meet up with her friends and then head to the Spring Musical rehearsal where she just might get to kiss Patrick De Luca.
So I won the swimming. Whether she let me or not, I wasn’t sure…and I also didn’t care. As Dani slid into the passenger seat of my car, I couldn’t help letting a smug smile escape.
She chuckled and lightly punched my arm. “So you’re a better swimmer than me.” She rolled her eyes. “But I’m getting a free meal out of this, so I think I’m the actual winner.”
“Think what you like.” I shook my head with a grin. “I’m the one who gets to take out a pretty girl.” I could feel my cheeks igniting with color, but tried to act as though I didn’t. What the hell made me so bold and flirty? So not my style.
I cleared my throat and kept my eyes on the road, not wanting to see her expression.
We reached the Italian restaurant a few minutes later and Dani looked confident and relaxed as she stepped out of the car. I wanted to reach for her hand. It felt like the natural thing to do, but I squished my fingers into my pockets and forced myself to play it casual. I didn’t like this girl and I really wished I didn’t have to keep reminding myself of that fact.
Elliot, Jaeda and Liesl were sitting in a round booth in the corner. I’d warned them all that I was bringing Dani and they were all cool with it. They wanted to check out the girl I’d been giving them regular updates on anyway.
“Hey guys.” I waved at my friends who stopped their conversation short to grin at me and then Dani. Poor girl. To be ogled by my nosy friends was not a great way for her to start the night.
“Hey.” She smiled and slid into the seat next to Elliot, confident and smooth.
Liesl stuck out her hand. “Hi Dani, I’m Liesl.”
She returned the shake.
“And this is Jaeda.” Liesl wrapped her arm around her best friend and squeezed.
“Hiya.” Jaeda’s smile was bright, probably made more so by the glossy lipstick she was wearing. It looked like it had glitter in it or something. I leaned forward for a closer look and she kissed the air in front of me. “Gold Fusion. I bought it yesterday.” She wiggled her eyebrows, appreciating the fact that I noticed.
I didn’t actually know why I noticed this stupid stuff, but for some reason, I’d always been an observer and spotting the details was what I liked the most. I liked that I didn’t miss the small stuff. Like the fact that Dani had been wearing the same pair of jeans all week and that so far I’d only seen her wear a black and a dark grey T-shirt. It seemed strange for a girl who’s father had a job that paid really well. I know I thought of her as a tomboy, but surely she owned more than one pair of jeans and two T-shirts. Maybe she just hated doing laundry.
“This is Elliot.” I pointed across Dani to my non-smiling friend and mouthed over the top of his head. “Be nice!”
Elliot glared back at me and then pushed a stupidly fake smile over his lips.
Dani snickered. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to like me. I’m still figuring out if I like you as well.” I couldn’t see her face, but I was guessing she winked at him. His smile tipped to the genuine kind before dropping away.
“And dinner is served,” AJ announced in a loud French accent as he swung through the kitchen doors into the near empty restaurant.
We always came early, before the dinner rush, which was why AJ was allowed to lavish us with his experiments. It helped that Vincenzo’s was owned by his dad’s best friend. The guy was like an uncle to AJ and let him get away with a lot.
“What’s on the menu tonight, good lookin’?” Liesl tugged AJ down for a kiss after he placed the tray on the table.
Man, those two had no problems at all with the whole PDA thing and it got a little embarrassing. Dani looked at me, squashing a giggle when I rolled my eyes and stuck out my tongue.
“Okay! We get it. You love each other,” Jaeda practically yelled at them. “Can we please eat now?”
She started handing out plates that were ladened with the most delicious smelling food. There was a perfectly cut side salad nestled against a beautiful square of lasagne. It smelt like it’d been made by an old Italian grandmother who’d cooked family meals for years.
“Babe this looks amazing.” Liesl smelled her plate and sighed.
“Wait til you see what I’ve got for dessert.” He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively and Elliot groaned.
“Please tell me you’re serving that one up in the privacy of your own bedroom.”
“You better believe it.” AJ still had his eyes all over his girlfriend as she blushed up a storm.
“This is Dani.” Liesl cleared her throat and pointed across the table.
AJ’s chef’s hat tipped as he turned to face her. Dimples punctured his cheeks as he held his large hand across the table. “Enchante.” He kissed her knuckles dramatically.
I rolled my eyes. She just grinned.
“Nice to meet you too. Thanks for cooking dinner.”
“Angus wants to be a chef.” Liesl poked her fork into the lasagna and broke off a small piece. “He’ll run his very own bistro one day.”
He nodded. Looking pleased that his girlfriend was so supportive. I wouldn’t be surprised if those two lasted the distance and got married. They were so together already - like an old married couple. It kind of reminded me of my parents.
I scooped up a forkful of lasagna. It melted in my mouth, exploding with a whole new set of flavors at the end. It was divine. AJ had mega talent and I really hoped his dream did come true. I’d eat at one of his restaurants any day.