A hand lifted and her fingers streaked through the entire length of dirty, tangled hair that hung around her face. She wasn’t even certain you could tell what color it was any more it was so grimy. Could it even be considered dark brown any longer or was it simply dirt-colored?
With a small frown, she rummaged through her backpack. Tonight was going to be chilly, she could feel it in the air already. Her fingers drifted over items in the bag and she wondered why she hadn’t grabbed more stuff before she’d run away. Eyelids drifted shut for a moment, there was nothing for it, she would have to see if any of the shelters had room tonight. The thought caused her to scowl. She couldn’t do it. Her eyes scanned the rapidly darkening alley, it wouldn’t be safe to remain here any longer. She dragged herself up and wandered down the street, keeping her head down as she walked, watching people without seeming to do so.
In the past two weeks, she became very good at it, watching. Bobbie knew she could never return home—not now—not ever. She needed to figure out a way to get to her brother’s home. It was a hell of a long way from where she was and she only had a few precious dollars left. No car and no one to turn to for help.
She leaned wearily against the nearest building to rest for just a moment or two before moving on, she felt a bit faint because she hadn’t eaten in two days. After a minute, she pushed away from the building and wandered a few more blocks. Up ahead was a small convenience store, one of those twenty-four-hour deals. Squaring her shoulders, she came to a decision. She needed to get to her brother’s house, Phin would be there for her, he would help. He’d promised to come back for her when she turned eighteen. He’d told her she just needed to stick it out until then.
She hadn’t made it.
She knew she looked like hell, she prayed the clerk didn’t boot her out the moment she walked through the door. All she needed was one of those road atlas things, then she could find a way to her brother. Hitchhike or ... something, she wasn’t certain. The guy behind the counter watched her as she entered, he didn’t look wary only curious. It took her a few minutes to locate the rack with the maps. She grabbed the atlas and took it to the counter.
The clerk smiled at her, a genuine smile, not a fake get-your-filthy-butt-out-of-my-store-as-quickly-as-possible smile. She returned the smile, noticing he was close to her age. Lord, what was she doing? It wasn’t like she was planning on dating the guy, not that he would consider dating her the way she looked. The smile was probably simply him being nice to a customer. Once she’d counted out the precious few bills she had left and paid, she snatched the atlas off the counter and headed for the door. As she pushed it open she heard a woman calling to the clerk.
“Hey, Colt, can you please stock the ice freezer before you clock out? The thing is nearly empty again. I hate going in there, damn thing reminds me of the friggin’ morgue!”
Bobbie heard his laughter, noticing how nice it sounded. She shoved the thought aside, so not here looking for a date. She didn’t go far, just out front where she dropped to the ground and leaned back against the wall. The store was brightly lit and she felt safe remaining close to it. She flipped the atlas open, studying the large map of the U.S. in the center of the book.
“How do I get from New York to Las Vegas?” she muttered.
“Trying to figure out how to get out of this rat trap?”
Startled, she looked up to find the clerk from the store standing beside her staring down at her. She couldn’t understand why he was talking to her. “Uh, kind of,” she answered.
He chuckled and it caused a tiny shiver to run down her spine that had nothing to do with the cill in the evening air.
“Hey, I brought you a surprise. Actually, it’s more of a bribe,” he said with a huge grin.
“Whhhhat?” she stuttered out.
He had the most adorable lopsided grin she’d ever seen. His hand came out from behind his back, dangling from his fingers was a bag, he held it out to her as he took a seat beside her, close enough to smell her she was certain. The stench didn’t seem to bother him in the least.
Warily, she peered into the bag, inside was a sandwich and a can of soda. Her stomach growled loudly and she wanted to weep with relief. A tiny part of her wanted to fling his charity back in his face, she didn’t need his pity. Too hungry to care any longer, she unwrapped the sandwich and took a huge bite, her eyes closing. It was heaven.
The sound of the soda can being opened caused her to open her eyes, he was holding it out to her.
“Hey now, slow down you don’t want to throw it back up. When was the last time you ate anything?”
She felt the warm heat of a blush creep up her cheeks. “None of your business!” she snapped around the mouthful of sandwich.
His grin didn’t waver. “I did say it was a bribe, you get to eat but you have to talk, honey.”
She scowled. “I am not your honey.”
He inclined his head. “Fair enough, you aren’t, sorry. You gonna talk or do I take my sandwich back?”
She couldn’t help the smile his words caused. Let him try and take it back, he’d discover she wasn’t some helpless little waif. “Two days.”
“Isn’t there someone you can stay with?”
“Not here, that’s why I needed the map, my brother is in Vegas. I need to get there. He told me if I could stick it out until I was eighteen he’d be able to come get me.” She sighed and took a swing of soda. “She wouldn’t let him take me until I was eighteen and I couldn’t leave on my own, she threatened to call Child Services to fetch me back.”
“Who would have?” he asked with a frown.
Of course, he didn’t understand what she was saying, how could he? It was clear he was confused, his face was scrunched and she could see it in his clear blue eyes. She gave herself a small mental shake when she realized she was staring at him. He was really cute. “Our mother.”
“Your own mother kept you from your brother? That’s horrible. Why did he leave if your mom is so bad?”
She had no desire to explain things to this strange guy. It didn’t matter how nice he was. “Look, it’s a long story, okay?”
He shrugged. “Fine, come on then.”
“Huh?” She stared at him in confusion, the sandwich held in front of her mouth for another bite.
He stood, a hand held out to her. She studied it as if it were a pit bull aiming to tear her arm off. “Come on, you can take a shower at my place. I bet some of my sister’s old stuff will fit you.” He eyed her five-foot-two frame, then shrugged. “She’s a bit taller than you though. You can explain everything to me after your shower.”
Go with him, to his house, a total stranger. A male total stranger. Hell no! She knew how things like this usually went, she wasn’t that stupid. She folded her arms over her chest, glaring up at him. He couldn’t be that desperate for female companionship, he was good-looking enough to attract a herd of women. Maybe he was just sick in the head.
Colt felt an urge to roll his eyes as he watched the fear war with the anger in her eyes. She didn’t want to go anywhere with him. Honestly, did she think he was some psycho? Fine, he’d have to resort to the last tactic left open to him.
He was going to lie through his teeth.
She needed food, a shower, and someplace to sleep that was safe. The shower should probably come first. She needed to get off the streets. Something inside him was pushing him to protect her. This was definitely the most irrational thing he’d ever done in his life. For all he knew, she’d rob him blind the moment he went to sleep. Strip the apartment clean. His dad would kill him if she took the big screen.
“You can meet my dad. I’d like to say you’d meet my sister too but she’s away at college, so I won’t lie about that,” he told her with a straight face. Yup, his dad was going to murder him is she did a happy-help-yourself to everything in the apartment.
She unbent, taking his hand so he could pull her to her feet. They walked around to the back of the building, where she stopped dead when she spotted his car. The poor little thing.
He found her reaction to his car comical. “Something wrong with my car, honey?” She didn’t even snap at him for calling her honey, she was too busy pitying his car.
“You need to put that poor thing out of its misery. The poor baby.” She patted the roof of the poor little Honda Civic Coupe as she rounded it to the passenger side.
He chuckled, then released a small sigh, he couldn’t afford a new car. Not now. The Honda had a newer engine, he’d put it in last year, it was rebuilt but it ran well enough. The body of the Coupe would just have to do. It was an ’87 so too bad, so sad for it. “It has a new engine so don’t feel too bad for her, okay?”
“All right if you say so.” With a shrug, she got into the passenger side. “Is that duct tape on the dash?”
“Maybe. You know, just a little,” he responded as he slipped behind the wheel.
“You sure this thing is safe to drive?”
“Perfectly. I drive it every day and I’ve survived so far.”
She sent him a skeptical look but said nothing further, though he noticed she hurriedly put her seatbelt on as he started the car.
“I live close by so it won’t take long to get there.” His apartment was only about ten minutes from the store, made it convenient for him.
He pulled the car into the lot and parked when they arrived and herded her inside to his sister’s bedroom. He headed straight for the dresser that sat against the wall to the right of the bed to rummage through it. He tossed several items onto the bed he thought might fit.
“You don’t have to do this.”
He shrugged. “You need it so why not?” He pointed to the door across the hall from the room. “Bathroom is in there go ahead and take a shower, I’ll be in the living room.” He left her to sort through the clothing and take a shower.
While she was scrubbing off layers of dirt, he started a pot of coffee, then went to take a shower of his own before settling on the couch to wait for her. She emerged freshly scrubbed wearing a pair of his sister’s old pajamas. Pink with little bunnies rioting across the pants. He grinned while pointing to the spot beside him on the couch, waiting until she dropped down beside him to speak.
“First thing, what’s your name?”
“Roberta Rantini, but most everyone calls me Bobbie.”
“Colton Sullivan, I go by Colt though. Right, now that we have that out of the way, why are you on the streets?”
Her shoulders slumped. “It isn’t a story I want to repeat, not even to my brother.”
“Well, I’m a good listener and I swear I won’t judge.”
With a nod she looked up, meeting his eyes. “Our father left when we were both little. Phin was ten and I think I was five. Our mother has never been exactly what you’d call a perfect mom, I’m not certain if that’s why our dad split. Maybe he just didn’t want a family. For as long as I can remember she’s been a heroin addict. Phin is the one who raised me, made certain I got to school, did my homework, ate a decent meal. He did everything. As soon as he could, he took a job so he could be certain all the bills were being paid and we wouldn’t end up on the streets.”
“Your brother was the only adult in the house, wasn’t he?” he asked quietly.
Her nod was jerky and he saw tears swimming in her eyes. “Yup, the only parent I ever really knew growing up. It seemed as if our mother has a new boyfriend every other week and they were all trouble. It seemed as if that’s what she wanted, a man who could never be permanent. Phin and I kept as far from all of them as possible. When he turned eighteen, he began looking for ways to get a career, something better than minimum wage. He wanted to make a decent living, set up a permanent home for us. Get as far away from our mom as possible.”
“Ambitious considering he probably didn’t plan on going to college first.”
“It isn’t that he didn’t want to, he could have if we had the money. My brother is smart, really smart. You should see him work with numbers. He can add in his head, it’s amazing, give him any numbers and he’ll add it up without thinking about it. It seems to come naturally to him.” She sighed, shoulders slumping further as if she were trying to curl in upon herself. “He decided to head for Vegas, figuring he could get a job at one of the casinos because most don’t require a college degree and he could make good tips. His first job was a porter and somehow, I don’t know exactly, he ended up working at some restaurant. The owner seemed to really like him., he was a high roller at the casino where Phin worked. After a few months, he moved up and before I knew it he was managing the restaurant. He told me as soon as I was eighteen he’d come get me, take me to live with him.”
The shimmering tears leaked from her eyes, when she looked up at him he could see the despair swimming behind the tears. “I didn’t make it. Now I won’t be there when I’m eighteen, he won’t find me.”
“What happened, Bobbie?”
Her eyes dropped to her lap when she spoke it was nearly a whisper. “My mom’s latest boyfriend, I knew he was a lech, always staring at me when mom wasn’t around. He’d make crude jokes, tell me what he wanted to do to me. I tried hard to keep away from him as much as possible, just make it to eighteen so I could be free.”
“I’m guessing you didn’t stay far enough away from him?”
“No. One night my mom decided to go out, she told me she was going to the grocery store. I knew she was probably going out to try to score some heroin. I felt safe letting her go, Tank wasn’t home yet so I was sitting on the couch watching TV. He appeared moments after she left as if he’d been lying in wait, watching for her to leave. He parked himself on the couch beside me, wrapped an arm around my shoulders, and started kissing my neck as if he had every right to do it. I freaked out, punched him in the balls, ran and locked myself in my room. He was pounding on the door, screaming at me. I grabbed as much as I could, shoved it into my backpack and climbed down the fire escape.”
Colt felt an urge to find the man and beat him to death. “How old are you now?” It was close, but he managed to keep his rage at what the man named Tank had done to her, out of his voice.
“Seventeen. I almost made it. Almost.”
It took him several deep breaths to calm down enough to speak to her without asking where her mom’s place was so he could go kill that bastard. “It isn’t your fault, it’s on that bastard. All we need to do is get you to your brother’s place in Vegas.”
Her mouth dropped open and she stared for a moment before she seemed to collect herself. “You’re going to help me get there?”
“Yeah, no problem. I’ll call Doug, my boss, in the morning, I’ve got some vacation saved up I’m sure it won’t be a problem. We’ll leave as soon as he gives me the okay.”
“Wait, what is your dad gonna say about you running off to Vegas?” His lopsided grin made an appearance and she swallowed hard. The guy was too sexy, he was dangerous. Great, now she was losing her mind.
“Well, I’ll just call him and let him know I’m going on a little vacation, I’m old enough to make my own decisions. I’m sure he’ll give me a lecture about being careful, the usual dad nonsense, but he isn’t going to tell me I can’t go.”
She remained quiet for a moment, studying him before blurting out the question that was first on her list of many. “How old are you?”
Frantically, her eyes roamed the apartment. “Where exactly is your dad?” His grin grew and she realized he’d been waiting for that question.
“I may have fudged a bit when I told you he was here.”
She jumped to her feet, taking a few hasty steps away from him. “I knew it! I knew I shouldn’t have come here with you!”
He chuckled but remained seated. “Sit down. I knew you wouldn’t trust me enough to come here unless you knew it was safe. It is safe by the way, I’m not going to hurt you. Sit down.” He waited while she slowly sank back down onto the couch, still staring at him as if he were going to jump her any second. “My dad is a pilot for American. International flights. He’s in China right now or half of the way there, actually.”
“Yes, I’m sorry I lied but I knew I couldn’t leave you out there alone. You needed help and you weren’t going to admit it. Are you going to allow me to help, can you trust me?”
Her hands twisted together in her lap showing her nervousness. The only person she’d ever trusted completely was her brother, Phineas. He’d never lied to her, ever. He told her the truth, even if it hurt. Could she trust Colt, would he get her to her brother safely? More important, could she trust herself trapped in his little car with him driving cross-country? Keeping her hands off him was going to be an issue. Great, her mind was turning to oatmeal.
“Yeah, I trust you.” With those words, she turned her fate over to a guy with the sexiest grin she’d ever seen.
Not only was her brain oatmeal, she was a moron.