His expression turned deadly and he gritted his teeth. “There are two people in the world I love. Preston is one of them. And he’s really f**king happy right now because of Megan. A woman you are putting in danger because of your cowardice.”
“I’m not a coward. I’m trying to protect them too.”
“Oh yeah? The first thing about being a smart fighter is knowing when to tap out. Too much pride will get you or someone else hurt.”
The way his eyes flashed with so much pain, like he’d experienced this firsthand, made something in my chest ache for him. The man was bitching me out and I stood there wanting to hug him.
I looked around the messed-up apartment. God, what if Megan had been here? No, I couldn’t think of that. Because I knew exactly what kind of man Mase was. A dangerous man.
That empty pit in my stomach I’d carried around since childhood was throbbing. It was the same pit I had become a pro at covering up with false ideas of hope and human interaction being more than just an exchange of goods. Reminding me that the emptiness was still very much alive and I was still the same girl I always was. Trash. Running from her past.
But this time, I wouldn’t take those I cared about down with me.
I met Rhys’s stare and knew a man like this would never be weak. Never surrender. Never be in this position. I cared about the few people I had in this world more than myself. And staying away from them was the best thing I could do. And Rhys was my best bet to achieve that. The only one left.
“Rhys . . . I need help.”
I let out breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. Standing there, amidst the ruins of my life crumbling around me, I waited. Rhys’s expression shifted.
“Okay, Emma.” He walked toward me but stopped before actual contact, which, for whatever reason, I was really wanting some of. I’d never been a big hugger or emotional kind of girl. But right now, a little bit of that bliss I had had with Rhys the other night sounded like perfection.
“I’ll help you,” he assured. “But we do this my way.”
I looked up at him. “Adam can’t know. Neither can Megan or Preston. No one can.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“Ah, you want something in return.” Should have known.
“What?” He frowned. “No. I mean, you start by telling me everything. And you have to remain honest and listen to me. Understand?”
I nodded. Half hating this weird surrender of some control, and half liking it because with it came half the burden.
I took a deep breath and spoke quickly before I changed my mind. “Ten years ago I testified against this small-time drug lord, Castor James, and it put him in prison. He’s up for parole, the hearing is in three weeks and I’m due to speak on the state’s behalf to keep him locked up. His brother Mase is the one after me.”
“And Mase is the one who slipped you something last night and did this to your apartment?” Rhys glanced around.
“Yeah. He found me in Chicago, which is why I came here in the first place, but he found me again.”
“How?” Rhys asked.
I lifted a shoulder. “I don’t know. But if I can stay away from him until I get to the trial and keep Castor locked up, everything will be fine.”
“We still need to find this guy who’s after you.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve been on my own till now and I’ve just been trying to stay hidden and alive long enough to make the hearing. Without hurting those around me,” I added for good measure. “I know that Mase has a warrant for his arrest, so I’m hoping the police will eventually catch him.”
“You’re operating with a lot of hopes and ifs,” Rhys said.
“That’s because I don’t have a hell of a lot more to operate with.”
He scanned my face, staying silent for a long moment. Finally, he moved on as asked, “Castor, how did you get mixed up with him?”
Never losing my nerve, I said, “He was my master.” When Rhys’s face reflected what I assumed was moderate shock, I finished with, “Ironic, since I’ve never done drugs.”
“What do you mean, your master?”
This was the part I always hated the most. “He saw me, picked me up and I had to do what he said or else get beaten.”
Rhys’s eyes were the widest I’d ever seen them. “I’d love for you to elaborate right now.”
Another deep breath. I’d never spoken of any of this out loud and had a feeling that this conversation wasn’t close to over. But telling it this way, like a story, felt like I was explaining someone else’s life instead of my own. Allowed for some disconnect, which was helpful, and it was the only reason that talking about this didn’t make me want to cry or anything.
“I grew up on the streets, bounced in and out of group homes. That’s how I ended up meeting Adam. But one of the times I was out and back on the homeless block, Castor decided I was to be his woman, slave — or whatever.”
I shook my head because I never did come up with a good term to call that situation or to call myself. But all I did know was that I never really had a choice.
“How did he decide this?” Rhys asked, a vicious undertone to his voice.
“I was hanging out by the lake, scrounging for money. Castor merely pointed at me and told his brother, I want that one. He got me a roof and food and I was basically his slave.”
“How old were you?”
Rhys muttered something that sounded like the lord’s name and looked around the apartment. He was so calm, his face inscrutable, as if trying not to show emotion, but the twitch in his jaw showed that he was struggling. Which I kind of appreciated. Pity wasn’t something I wanted.
“How did this end?”
“It was a deal gone bad. Castor was caught, Mase got away.”
“What do you mean?”
“What happened to you, Emma?” He asked like he was genuinely interested in how this story ended.
“Adam was the only one who kept track of me,” I said, hoping that he wouldn’t push for more details.
Adam was there at the hospital when I woke up from the stabbing and stood by me throughout the indictment of Castor. These were memories I didn’t really want to relive, so I moved on quickly before Rhys could ask more questions.
“Adam made his money and took care of me. I went to college and the rest is as you see it.” I said, opening my arms.