He blew out a stream of smoke and pushed the hood of his sweatshirt back. He had on a black knit hat that made him look like he was up to no good. In fact, everything about him made him look that way. The bruise on his cheek, the black pants and heavy boots, the small tattoo of a cartoon Road Runner on the back of his hand by his thumb, the thick, dark eyebrows over emotionless eyes, and the downturn of a mouth that was too soft and pretty to be on such a hard face. With the obvious power harnessed in his big frame, he was not a guy I wanted to be in a tiny place with on a good day, and I hated—absolutely hated—that he didn’t say anything to me or that I couldn’t tell what he was thinking behind that curtain of black in his gaze.
“He never went to school?”
That seemed like a weird question to take away from everything I had just laid on him, but I had no choice but to play along.
“No. He used his tuition money to support us for a few years. He also pulled me out of public school and put me in private school for my last two years.”
I bristled automatically. “The school I was at had metal detectors, the students and the teachers were armed, and a girl got raped in the locker room. I never knew if I was going to get homework or attacked. It was awful. Race wanted something better, and since Lord Hartman refused to do anything about it, he took it upon himself to.”
“He couldn’t save me, so he decided to save you?”
I had thought the same thing, many, many times, whenever Race brought up his incarcerated best friend. A guy who looked that tough shouldn’t be so sharp. He should be all muscle and no brains. His perceptiveness made him a million times more dangerous in my mind.
“I don’t know what his reasons were and I didn’t care. I had someone who loved me and cared more about me than a hit. He offered me a chance at a normal and stable life; he showed me what family could be. He went to battle with the lord and lady of the manor for me, and I will do anything—and I mean anything—to keep him safe.”
Race was more than just my big brother. He was my hero. He was my savior. He was the only thing in the entire world I couldn’t live without. Money, objects, security—none of it mattered; it was all an illusion. The sacrifices Race had made for me, the way he had swooped in and showed a lonely sixteen-year-old from the way, way wrong side of the tracks that there was more to life than just getting by . . . I could never repay him for that. I would give anything and everything I had to keep my brother safe.
He put out his cigarette on the heavy tread of his boot and pushed away from the window. He pulled his hood back up around his face and walked past where I was still on the couch. When he got a few steps away, he looked down at me. Those eyes of his were just an endless dark void in a face I was sure I would never forget.
“Keep your head down. If Benny or anyone shady comes poking around, call this number.” He rattled off a bunch of numbers I would never remember but I nodded anyway. “If Race makes contact, any kind of contact, tell him I’m out. Tell him to find me, that Novak is my problem, not his. Tell him the slate is and always was clean until I say differently. You got all that, Copper-Top?”
I hated that nickname. Being broke was one thing, being broke and having flaming red hair that everyone wanted to make fun of on top of it was another. However, he was not the type of guy I was going to quibble with over a stupid nickname. In fact, he didn’t look like the kind of guy that took to quibbling, no matter what it was over. He moved toward the door and I jumped to my feet.
He looked over his shoulder at me and pulled the rickety door open.
“Unless you know anything that might actually help me, then yeah, that’s it.”
I glared at him. “I meant, what happens now? What do we do to find Race?”
He lifted a dark eyebrow at me and the corner of his mouth pulled down in a frown.
“We do nothing. I hit the streets and make people talk. I need to figure out what Race was working on the back end that Novak wants bad enough to have Benny looking for him. You just let me know if you hear from him.”
He was out the door so silently and quickly I had to scramble to follow him to the stairwell. I was tall and had long legs. He was taller and had longer ones. He also moved like one giant dark shadow against the other ones on the wall.
“I want to help you. I need to help. I owe Race everything.”
From a few steps below he looked up at me where I was nervously hovering. It made me shiver. No one’s eyes should be that cold, that flat.
“He might not be my brother by blood, but he’s my brother just the same, and I know him well enough to know that whatever he did for you, he did because he wanted to, not because he had to. Race loves being the hero.”
I didn’t know how to take that, and by the time I got my thoughts in line, he was already all the way down the steps. I knew if he disappeared, I would never see him again and I couldn’t let that happen. He was my only link to Race, no matter what that meant for me.
“I need to help.”
He looked over his shoulder at me and I knew enough not to follow him any farther.
“You couldn’t even help yourself. You really think you’re going to stop anyone with a Taser and a frying pan?”
I also had a loaded nine-millimeter in a nightstand next to my bed that Race had made sure I knew how to use, but I figured that was information he didn’t need to have.
“I’ve been waiting for you. I knew it was you.”
“And if it hadn’t been me and you missed with the Taser, you would’ve been f**ked. Literally. I work better alone. I don’t know what’s going on and I don’t need some farm girl slowing me down or messing with my flow.”
I felt my eyebrows shoot up to my hairline. I had heard a lot of things about the way I looked, some more flattering than others, but never had anyone insinuated I looked like I belonged on a farm.
He laughed, at least that’s what I think the noise was supposed to be, and jumped down a few more stairs.
“It’s the freckles and the ivory skin. You look like a little girl on the farm. You definitely don’t look like you belong in the inner city, and you sure don’t look like you’re twenty.”
Well, he didn’t look like he was just a couple years older than that, but there was no denying he totally looked like a criminal and all the dark and dangerous things he supposedly was.