*Reminder that this is still in rough draft stage. Apologies for any typos!*
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d talked like this with a woman. Scratch that – he remembered with acute clarity the exact last conversation he’d had with a beautiful girl he gave a damn about. But it had been almost eighteen years since then, and save the time he’d spent around Cheryl and Lisa, he hadn’t been interested in what a woman had to say about anything. He didn’t share Eddie’s affliction – he wasn’t punching too many holes in a trophy belt – but he had a bad case of apathy.
He loved the Russells, though. And the black-eyed, concussion-addled girl sitting on the bed with him was a Russell. That counted for a lot. That made small talk, mysteriously, important.
He learned that she had two half-sisters: Vanessa and Jillian. Her stepfather was in the music business and wasn’t heading for household-name status anytime soon. She shared an apartment with two roommates who sounded like unbelievable airheads. And she was dating some douchebag named Connor who didn’t want to call her his girlfriend. Sly decided this Connor was the stupidest mother*****r alive.
“So don’t see him anymore,” he said more harshly than he’d intended, and licked the last spot of mustard off his thumb to cover his scowl.
She laughed; it was a low, soft, feminine sound, genuine and not calculated. She was toying her with sandwich wrapper, folding it over her last third of sandwich over and over. “Why do you seem to think dating is so easy?” Her eyes cut up to his, a vivid green inside her swelling rings of bruises.
“Dating is bullshit,” he corrected. “It’s what rich brats made up so they don’t have to take anything seriously. But man/woman stuff is easy. He likes you, or he doesn’t. You’re with him, or you’re not. Personally, I think you ought to ditch the loser.”
She blushed again – she did that a lot – and with the bruising on her face, it turned her cheeks a deeper pink than he guessed was normal. “You don’t know him.”
“I know that if he gave a damn, he’d be here while you sat with your dying dad,” he insisted, and then realized that was the exact wrong thing to say.
She glanced away, blinking hard. He watched her swallow and take a deep breath. “Yeah, well…” Her voice was shaky now. “It’s not like I asked him to come.”
“Sweetheart.” She wouldn’t look at him. “That’s not the sort of thing you should have to ask.”
She wiped at the corner of her eye and then winced; her skin was tender, he knew. “Just…don’t bother me about that, okay?” She skated a quick glance to his face. “It’s not like you care, and I don’t feel like arguing.”
He cared. He didn’t know how to classify his disgust with someone a whole country away he hadn’t ever met, but he was sure the anger he felt counted as cared. He sighed. “I didn’t mean…” Shit, how did apologizing work, again? “It’s just that,” he started again, his words careful, “you shouldn’t have to deal with all this” – he gestured to the walls around them – “by yourself.”
She huffed a false laugh. “I didn’t think I was by myself, but then again, I don’t guess I’m part of the family, am I?”
Damn. “I’m not any good at this.”
“No you’re not. But you’re not any worse than anyone else.” She was staring at the wall.
“You know you’re part of the family; Lisa’s the only one with a stick up her ass. What I meant was, I figure, in a situation like this, a girl wants to be able to lean on her guy – ”
“I take it back; you’re the worst.” But she breathed another laugh and shook her head – and then cringed at the pain it caused. She faced him fully again, eyes bright with unshed tears. “Do I really look like such a damsel?”
“Yeah. But lucky for you, I’ve always had a thing for damsels.”
Layla looked as surprised by the statement as he was, but then a smile crept across her battered face. “Lucky for me?”
This was worlds more fun that stalking bar bimbos. He smiled back. “Yeah.”
She sighed, little shoulders heaving under the oversized t-shirt Cheryl had brought her to wear. She wasn’t wearing a bra under it, and watching the way the fabric lay across her breasts was getting distracting. “I’m scared,” she admitted, hands knitting together in her lap on top of the sheets. “I’m…so scared.”
You’re damn lucky you’re not dead, he wanted to say, but that would only panic her. Going by her expression, she knew it anyway. Instead, he nodded.
She rolled her eyes; whether she fought him it on or not, she did feel alone. And she was shivering with fright. A beautiful, beat up, damsel with distracting tits and pleading eyes and no experience with a real man. Leave her alone, he told himself. And if he did, then what? It would be Sheppard trying to ride to her rescue. And which would Mark hate more: his daughter with an asshole cop…or with him?
Instinct won out over common sense. “I’m gonna promise you something,” he said and the tenor of his voice plucked her attention. “And that means something ‘cause I don’t promise too often.”
Her slim brows lifted, but she said nothing.
“I can’t say anything for your idiot brother, or anybody else, but when you’re with me, I promise, nothing’s gonna happen to you.”
Her eyes widened. “That’s a big promise.”
“That’s the only kind to make.”
She held his gaze a long moment, and then extended one small hand for a shake.
He wanted to laugh at her boldness – making him shake on it. He wanted to knock her hand away. Instead, he braced a hand on the mattress, leaned in, and kissed her.