The guy was going to get himself killed, no doubt about it.
I picked up the pace when I saw him lumber toward the crosswalk where the light had turned red, shining brightly through the cold night air. When he didn’t stop, I instinctively shouted out to him and felt my gut drop out when a horn sounded and brakes screeched a split-second later. Somehow, the man narrowly missed being struck by a cab but only because the driver swerved to avoid him and ended up hitting a parked car instead.
Chaos reigned as the angry driver got out of the vehicle at the same time the unfortunate owner of the parked car came out of the little convenience store on the corner. My mark seemed clueless at the trouble he’d caused as he stumbled to the other side of the street. His right arm was wrapped around his waist and the little bit of light from the overhead street lamp illuminated the back of the hospital gown that was hanging from beneath his button-up shirt.
“What the hell?” the car owner shouted as he rounded his damaged car and began laying into the cab driver. I ignored the argument that ensued and hurried across the street, dodging the slowing traffic as I went.
I wasn’t normally a guy who gave into my fear, but when I rounded the corner to continue tracking the man and didn’t see him anywhere, the adrenaline rush I’d had when he’d nearly been hit kicked up another notch. This was supposed to be an easy assignment, so losing the guy I’d been tasked to keep an eye on was not going to happen.
As I thought about the possibility of this job going as horribly wrong as my last one, I felt pain start to throb in my lower back like clockwork. I gritted my teeth and tried not to think about the effects of stress on healing injuries.
“Fuck,” I muttered softly as I forced myself to take in a breath and then scanned my surroundings.
This job was my first one back, and keeping tabs on the young man known only as Ben was supposed to have been simple: follow him after his discharge from the hospital and make sure he wasn’t in any kind of danger. Dr. Ethan Rhodes had treated him in the ER after a severe beating and become concerned when the victim had refused to tell anyone who he was or what had happened. So Ethan had talked to his fiancé, Cain, about it and Cain had contacted our boss, Ronan, to see if it was something that should be checked out. That’s where I came in. Just tail the guy after his discharge and see if there was more to the story.
Except, he clearly hadn’t informed anyone of his plans to slip out of there before he was discharged.
Fortunately, I’d decided to monitor the hospital as soon as I’d arrived in San Francisco, but that was mostly because I wasn’t very good at sitting still… not anymore, anyway.
Because sitting still meant thinking and thinking always led me back to places I didn’t want to go… to places I wasn’t ready to go. Too much shit had gone on in the past six months.
The skin along my arms tingled like it always did now, and not in a good way. But like the pain in my back, I ignored the sensation and focused on the here and now. I allowed my eyes to close and waited for the noise in my head to settle so I could concentrate on the one thing that made it possible for me to keep putting one foot in front of the other… both figuratively and literally.
The pain faded to the background, as did the din of traffic and the chatter of the few people who moved past me on the city sidewalk several blocks away from the hospital’s emergency room entrance.
Where would you go?
My mind conjured up the image of the man in the photograph I’d been given when I’d been assigned this job. The guy had been so bruised that I hadn’t been able to make out much about his features as he’d lain sleeping in his hospital bed, but for some reason, I’d still felt a strange stirring in my belly when I’d opened the picture. I’d gotten his basic stats after my group’s tech wizard had hacked Ben’s medical records, but all they’d provided were the man’s general description, height, weight, and outline of his injuries.
What I’d really needed to see were his eyes.
If my childhood hadn’t taught me the concept of how a person could say one thing but mean another, my stint in the military sure as shit would have. Sadly, it had taken me far too long as a kid to figure out all the people who’d clamored for my attention hadn’t had any actual interest in me but had only been seeking access to my powerful father.
I’d eventually learned the lesson though, and while it had been a painful one, I’d walked away with one hard truth.
The first place to look for the lie is in the eyes.
I couldn’t help but wonder again for the hundredth time what Ben’s eyes would tell me. I had no doubt he’d try to lie because the chances he was just some random, innocent victim were slim to none.
Victims didn’t avoid help when it was offered.
And there’d been plenty of help offered for the badly injured man when he’d been rolled through St. Vincent’s ER doors. But instead of telling the staff who he was—and I’d never met a nicer, gentler man than Dr. Ethan Rhodes—Ben had chosen to keep quiet. Even the powerful painkillers he’d been put on hadn’t loosened his tongue much.
If that wasn’t proof he was hiding something, I didn’t know what was.
Of course, to figure anything out, I had to find the guy and make sure he didn’t get himself killed before I decided if his ass was worth saving or not.
I forced the wayward thought away and let my mind go silent, then opened my eyes. I once again looked around me and felt my pulse tick up a little when I saw a slight indentation in the wall about two hundred feet ahead of me. I hurried to it and felt a rush of excitement when I realized it wasn’t an indentation at all but a narrow alley. The smell of garbage, urine, and other bodily odors I didn’t want to think about assaulted me as I made my way down the narrow passage that wasn’t even wide enough to fit a car. There was no light once I got deeper into it so I pulled out my phone and used the flashlight app to guide me. I was both relieved and disappointed when I reached the other end of the alley without any sign of Ben.
Hell, had my instinct failed me? On my first job back?
I tried to ignore the automatic fear that went through me at that. I’d lost nearly everything six months earlier when I’d taken a couple of bullets for a man I was protecting. While I was still struggling to get my body back, one of the only things that had kept me going had been the knowledge that my gut wouldn’t fail me… not again.
But what if that was gone now too? What if the flames that had licked at my skin and the bullets that had stolen my ability to control my own body had taken one of the only other assets I had left? I had nothing without my work.
I was nothing.
As the helplessness I’d first felt when the doctor had imparted the grim news that I might never walk again threatened to overtake me, I heard a raised voice.
“Oh yeah, we’ll help you find him.”
I automatically reached for the gun at my back because despite the helpful-sounding words, the voice was anything but.
I couldn’t make out the response, if there was any. And there was no sense of relief as my instincts led me across the dark street at the end of the alley and toward the corner opposite me. A bus shelter came into view but the dim street lamp above it only afforded me a view of three figures… one sitting, the other two standing.
I saw one of the figures yank the sitting one to their feet. The soft moan of pain had me quickening my pace. I had no doubt the sound had come from my mark.
“Check him for a wallet!” the first voice ordered.
Ben—and I had no doubt whatsoever that the moan had come from Ben as he’d been pulled upright off the bench—appeared to protest and pull free of the man but his struggles ceased completely when the man seemed to grab him by the throat.
I was running by the time I reached the shelter, and neither the man with his hand wrapped around Ben’s neck to subdue him or the second guy who was going through Ben’s pockets noticed me. As much as I would have liked to just shoot the fuckers, I had rules I needed to follow. I tucked the gun at my waist and kicked out with my right foot. Pain hissed up my spine at the movement, but I managed to keep my balance as my boot connected with the back of the first man’s knee. He shouted in pain and released Ben who fell backward against the bench, barely catching himself. The guy who’d been searching Ben’s pockets came at me, but one punch had him sprawled out on the ground. I was about to go after the first guy again when Ben’s coughing caught my attention.
Panic ratcheted through me as I leaned down to help him to a sitting position on the bench. I could hear the one guy rousing his friend behind me, and I quickly pulled my gun from my waistband in case they tried to rush us. But when I realized they were stumbling off in the other direction in their haste to escape, I turned my attention back to Ben.
“Try to take shorter breaths,” I said as I realized the younger man was starting to panic when he couldn’t fill his lungs completely with oxygen. He tried to yank free of my hold, but he was completely unmatched when it came to my size and strength. Still, I found myself releasing him because I knew he couldn’t get far. I put my hands up to show him I wasn’t a threat to him, then remembered my gun.
Fortunately, Ben didn’t seem to even notice because he’d dropped his eyes to the ground as he struggled to take in air. He crawled along the bench until he was practically huddled up against the corner of the bus shelter. His hand palmed the dirty glass as he tried and failed to pull in deeper breaths.
I knew I should call someone, but something inside me that I didn’t understand—and most certainly didn’t want to question—caused me to slide closer to him. With the glass wall at his side and his back, he was pretty much trapped and seemed to know it because his breathing got even worse.
“Look at me,” I said, softening my voice so it hopefully didn’t sound too gruff or intimidating. I found myself reaching for Ben’s face and gently turning it so he was looking straight at me. He tried to resist, but not much.
And I had no doubt it was because his fear of not being able to breathe had overtaken his fear of me or anyone else.
“Ben, look at me,” I said gently when he closed his eyes.
His eyes popped open and suddenly his fingers closed around my left wrist. I flinched as his nails dug into the still very sensitive skin through my shirt sleeve.
“Breathe with me,” I urged and then quickly held my own breath.
He shook his head dramatically, and I knew it was because his body’s instincts were telling him to take breaths, not hold them.
“Trust me,” I whispered with a nod.
Something shimmered in his gorgeous green eyes for the briefest of seconds but it was gone before I could identify it. My initial fear that his assailant had done some kind of physical damage to his throat eased when Ben visibly held his breath.
“Now let it out.”
Ben did as I said and as soon as I told him to hold it again a few seconds later, he did. My instinct that whatever he was experiencing was more of a psychological reaction to the trauma helped my own hammering heart slow.
“Let it out,” I repeated. I continued having him hold his breath and release it for a good two minutes before I told him to try breathing on his own. The panic in his gaze had subsided a little and when he dropped his eyes to the ground as if he needed to concentrate on breathing on his own, I let him.
I waited for him to say something, but he remained silent. When his body suddenly slumped, I started reaching for him again. But to my surprise, instead of collapsing against the side of the bus shelter, he actually ended up leaning against me. A jolt of awareness went through my entire body in response.
“Ben?” I said as I started to move away, but then his hand suddenly closed over my wrist. The same wrist he’d dug his nails into only moments earlier. Only this time the sleeve had ridden up and he was touching my scarred skin. Heat and humiliation warred inside of me at the contact, and I waited for him to comment on the ugly, raised flesh. It was all I could do not to push him off of me, especially when his thumb began stroking over my skin.
“So warm,” he mumbled as he continued to touch me. I looked down at him and saw that his eyes had drifted shut.
“Ben,” I said.
I had to say his name two more times before he opened his eyes again. His body was relaxed against mine and I realized why when he looked up at me. The light above the shelter showed that his pupils were blown, and it wasn’t hard to figure out why. Between his injuries, the way he’d been stumbling along with his near miss as he’d crossed the street, his obliviousness to the accident he’d caused, and finally the way his body was coming down so quickly after the assault, it was suddenly very obvious that he was likely still on some heavy-duty pain medication.
“Never thought I’d snuggle strangers on a city bus bench,” he mumbled with a dopey grin. “But it’s nice. You’re nice. Smell good,” he added as he shifted just enough so he could nuzzle my neck. “Like cotton candy.”
Despite the seriousness of the situation, I found myself smiling. Luckily, Ben didn’t seem to notice.
Just like he hadn’t noticed my repeated use of his name.
It was proof of how far gone he really was.
“Ben,” I said with a gentle shake when he’d appeared to doze off for a second. “We need to get you back to the hospital,” I said as I put my arm around his waist to help him straighten up. It absolutely wasn’t an excuse to touch him.
I’d barely gotten him upright when he completely flipped and tried to push away from me. “No! No police! No!”
I didn’t even get a chance to point out to him that I hadn’t mentioned anything about police because he was stumbling to his feet. But whatever pain medicine he’d been given seemed to have kicked into high gear because he fell almost the second he stood. I threw my arm around his waist to catch him before he hit the ground.
“They said no police!” Ben said fiercely as he struggled against me. His words were slurring more and more so that I couldn’t understand more than a couple of them.
I had no trouble physically subduing Ben, but he refused to calm down and I could sense his breathing changing once again.
“Okay,” I quickly said as I rubbed my hand up and down his arm and settled us both back on the bench. “No hospital, no police,” I said almost desperately. “Do you hear me, Ben? No cops. We’ll just sit here a while until you feel better.”
Ben stilled but his body remained tense as he tried to hold himself at a distance. He didn’t respond for so long that I was sure I was going to have to figure something else out, but then I saw his eyes dart around us before settling back on mine.
“Promise,” he insisted, his voice thick with confusion and exhaustion.
I knew in that moment that he’d likely forget any promise I made him anyway, but I didn’t just spit the words out like I should have. My entire life had been about empty promises. I couldn’t… wouldn’t do that to this man.
My eyes shifted to the hospital band on his wrist. His skin was pale and covered in goosebumps. He was freezing in only a shirt and jeans in the early spring air. The hospital gown that he hadn’t taken off in his haste to get dressed added little additional protection. He was wearing sneakers but the laces weren’t tied. It was a miracle he hadn’t stumbled over them and hurt himself even more. I sighed as I considered the situation.
What the fuck was I supposed to do? It wasn’t like I could just leave him there. Nor could I tell him who I was. And if I called my boss, he’d probably tell me this case was more than I could handle and that it’d been too soon for me to come back to work. No way in hell could I deal with not having the normalcy of my job to look forward to.
Just lie to him.
I actually shook my head at my inner voice.
“I promise,” I finally said.
I could see the way his mind was battling with the drugs in his body, but the drugs seemed to win because he once again relaxed and I found myself welcoming his smaller frame as it crumpled against mine. The arm I had around his waist tightened instead of loosened as his head rested on my upper arm. His light brown hair was cut short, and my fingers twitched with the need to touch it. Instead, I balled my hand into a fist and tried to make a new plan.
I pulled out my phone to search for a nearby hotel. As I struggled to work the thing one-handed, Ben mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out. It sounded a lot like George, which was the name he’d said shortly after he’d unwittingly told Ethan his own name.
“Is that who you’re running from?” I asked. “George? Is he the one who hurt you?” I tamped down the urge to find the faceless George and give the asshole every one of the same bruises Ben carried on his skin.
God, what the fuck was wrong with me?
I didn’t have time to consider the question because Ben’s next words had my blood running cold.
“Georgie, not George,” Ben said on a sigh as he rubbed his cheek against my bicep and settled his hand on my chest. “I gotta get her back ’cause they took her and ’cause she’s scared and ’cause I love her and ’cause she’s just a baby.”