I shut my eyes. The only two people in my life I care about are being beaten, being abused, and I am helpless to stop it. “Your father?”
“Not this time.”
I kneel beside the armchair he’s in. “Who then?”
He sighs and leans his head all the way back. “Some assholes.”
I run my hands over his leg that’s closest to me—his thigh, his calf, his ankles. He doesn’t flinch or pull away, so I hope that means this side is okay. “Where does it hurt? I can get some ice.”
“No ice.” His voice has gone deeper.
A part of me, some deep and ancient part of me, knows it’s because my hands are on him. It makes me bolder. I move closer, between his legs now. “Or maybe some bandages? Did you have any cuts? You should put antibiotics in them so you don’t get an infection.”
His laugh is harsh. “No bandages, bella.”
God, his voice when he says that. I can almost forget he’s injured. I can almost forget he’s seventeen and I’m fifteen. I can forget that our fathers would kill us if they found us together.
“What then?” If I can make him feel better a different way, I will. I run my hands up his calves, his thighs—his hands grab my wrists, stopping me.
“No anything,” he says, his voice thick with pain. Or with something else.
I don’t fight his hold on my wrists. I let him keep me there. And I rest my head on his thigh. It’s not really meant to be seductive, even though I can feel the slope of his jeans. Even though I can see the bulge just inches away from my face. I know he’s not going to do anything dirty to me. I’d probably like it if he did, but he won’t. Just like he won’t kiss me again. But he doesn’t make me move away.
Instead he lets out an unsteady breath and releases my wrists. I remain there, kneeling in front of him, resting my cheek on his thigh.
His broad hand brushes over my temple, my cheek. He plays with the braid of my hair for a moment before resuming his gentle, rhythmic stroking. He’s not touching anywhere below my neck, but my whole body lights up with it, tense and languorous at the same time.
It’s a strange feeling, like being a beloved pet. An owned thing. Cared for. Cherished.
It’s somehow sweeter than being the unwanted bastard daughter.
“I shouldn’t let you come here,” he mutters.
“Don’t,” I say. I can’t bear when he talks like that, as if he might not show up one of these days. It’s a lifeline for me, a breath of air while I’m drowning. And if I run away with Honor, then each one of these visits could be my last. Tears spring to my eyes, dampening the denim of his jeans.
“Shh,” he soothes. “I won’t make you stop.”
He traces the line of my jaw and the curve of my ear. His blunt finger trails all the way down my neck.
“So pretty,” he says. “Do you know, bella? I hurt with it, how pretty you are.”
And then I’m hurting too, his words like whiskey. They will take getting used to. I need so much more.
“Byron is hurting her,” I whisper. Because it’s the only way I know how to tell him. We’ll have to leave soon. I can’t let him keep hurting her.
His hand stills, and I think he must understand my secret message. “All the men hurt women here,” he says. His tone is so dark, so unlike him.
I look up at him. “Gio?”
His hand encircles my neck, forcing my chin up. He just rests his hand there, his palm flush against my skin. Not squeezing. Just holding. “Are you afraid of me?”
I tremble because of the pain in his expression
, in his voice. I am afraid—for my sister, for him. I’m afraid I’ll break down and stay just so I can be near him, even if that means condemning my sister for life. But I’m not afraid that he’ll hurt me. “No.”
“You should be.” He leans forward and whispers in my ear. “I’ve done things you couldn’t imagine.”
A tear slides down my cheek. Whatever these things are, they cause him pain. I see it in him. I feel it. And he has no choice—no more than Honor has a choice.