Fighting Shadows (On the Ropes #2)(4) by Aly Martinez

Where had my slack been when I’d been scrubbing the filth off the floors of our shithole apartment just so Social Services wouldn’t place Quarry and me in foster care? No one had cut me slack when I used to stay awake all hours of the night waiting for my father to come home because I’d known he’d have drugs in his pocket—drugs I could trade to the old lady next door in exchange for a fucking meal to keep us fed. Had slack helped me as I’d searched through the bins at the local church drive for jeans that fit Quarry who, for some reason, wouldn’t stop growing?

No.

I’d had to fight for everything. The same everything that had absolutely never been enough. For God’s sake, hearing and walking weren’t even guaranteed for us.

Fuck the slack. Give me the tension.

Erica was right though. I should have apologized to Quarry, but where would that have left him? He needed to learn that it’s not okay to cry. No one cared about his tears any more than they did the billions I’d shed in my eighteen years. Emotions didn’t pay the bills, or I would have been Donald fucking Trump. You had to get up, brush yourself off, and figure it the fuck out. You found a solution, even if it fucking sucked, and then you moved on. Wallowing got you nowhere, and pity was for the weak.

So, as I lay there in front of my family, I made a decision.

One choice.

Infinite possibilities.

One gigantic lie.

“I’m gonna be okay,” I told the room. However, the announcement was entirely aimed at myself. “Even if this isn’t temporary. I’ll be fine.”

If only I could have found a way to keep from losing myself in the arduous process of pretending to be fine and okay.

“HELP ME! PLEASE!” I SCREAMED, almost plowing the well-dressed man over. The concrete was cold against my bare feet, and the torn sweater did little to protect me from the freezing wind swirling around the city.

“Whoa!” he exclaimed, grabbing my shoulders to still me.

“Please. You have to help me. My dad . . . He . . .” I faded off as tears sprung to my eyes. “I need to call my mom. She has no idea where I am.” I grasped his wrist and pulled his arm around my shoulder, burying my face in his jacket.

“Wait.” He took a giant step away, unraveling me from his involuntary embrace. “What the hell is going on?” His forehead wrinkled as his eyes scanned my face, searching for answers I would never be able to give.

“Oh my God!” I whispered, peeking over his shoulder. “He’s coming. Quick, hide me!”

Using the lapels of his suit coat, I dragged him against me. His arms hung at his side, but his confusion was obvious. Mine was not. I had but one focus.

“Please, mister, just help me. I can’t go through that again,” I sobbed.

His tense body momentarily slacked. “Okay, okay. Calm down.” After glancing up and down the busy downtown sidewalk, he guided me into the small alley between two buildings. “Better?” he asked.

Not yet.

I lifted my head off his chest and peeked up through my lashes to give him the weakest of nods. “I’m sorry.” I shoved my hands into the pockets on my sweater.

“What’s your name?”

“Danielle,” I responded then started chewing nervously on my bottom lip.

“Okay, Danielle. How old are you?”

“Seventeen,” I answered. I would have gone younger, but I was five foot nine with a thirty-two double-D bra. No one bought the truth anymore.

“Shit.” He swallowed hard.

I pressed to my tiptoes to look over his shoulder, and he followed my gaze.

“Who are you looking for?”

I cleared my throat. “I’m not looking for anyone. Can I, um . . . Can I just use your phone to call my mom?”

“Yeah. Sure.” He began to pat down the pockets on his slacks. “Shit, I must have left it in my car.”

“Oh God.” I started to cry all over again.

“No. It’s okay. I’m just parked right out front. We can go grab it.” He smiled, forcing me to look away.

“I can’t go back out there. He’ll see me. You don’t understand what he’ll do if he finds me. I just want to go home.” My teeth began to chatter as I wrapped the ratty sweater tighter around my body.

He dragged his suit coat off and draped it around my shoulders. “You have to be freezing.”

“Thank you,” I said softly, the smallest of smiles growing on my lips.

“Listen, I’ll go grab my phone. You hang out here for a few minutes.”

I nodded and leaned against the brick wall of the building.

“I’ll be right back.” He held my gaze as he backed away. My Good Samaritan cautiously looked up and down the sidewalk before exiting our hidden alley.

“I bet you will,” I mumbled, inching myself to the corner to watch him go.

When he got a few feet away, I made my move.

Once I’d shed his jacket, I dug through my sweater pockets and pulled out the car keys I had easily lifted from his pocket. After a quick swipe with my sweater to remove, or at least smear, any possible prints, I dropped them to the ground beside his jacket.

He seemed like a nice man. It was the very least I could do.

Feeling guilty as hell, but without so much as a backward glance, I sprinted in the opposite direction down the alley. I zigzagged through a few of the side streets finally stopping to pull out his phone and dial the number to my father’s latest disposable phone.

One ring later, he barked, “Where are you?”

“Corner of Price and Fourteenth.” I pressed end.

I waited several minutes until my father’s sedan came rolling to a stop in front of me.

“What the hell took so long? There is a very good chance that I’m going to lose a few toes to frostbite,” I snapped, climbing inside and sliding on the pair of Oscar the Grouch slippers that were waiting on me. “Remind me again why I had to be barefoot?”

“Studies have shown that men are more likely to help women who are barefoot. Here.” He offered a large, plastic cup of water.

Knowing the drill, I dropped my newly acquired iPhone inside. Within seconds, the screen blinked to black.

I cried a little each time we had to inhumanely put such a beautiful beast to sleep. I could have given that phone a wonderful home in my back pocket. He would have been so happy sending out my tweets. I could almost imagine his delight while helping me create cat memes. Unfortunately for me and the shiny little guy, cell phones were traceable. So, regardless of how many of them I managed to pickpocket, they all suffered the same fate.

“Ash, don’t look at me like that! We’ll get you a new phone soon,” he lied.

I heard that promise along with numerous others on a daily basis. All. Lies. I was never getting a new phone, not after he had given mine to his beautiful new wife. The whore.

“Here. You want this one?” He spun the cheap, disposable flip phone in his fingers.

I rolled my eyes. “As amazing as that offer may be, I’ll pass,” I retorted sarcastically, causing him to chuckle.

“All right. What else did you bring me?” he asked, rubbing his hands together.

I dug into the pockets of my sweater. “Watch.”

He lifted it to inspect it. “Oh, come on, Ash. This is fake!”

“Wow. I’m so sorry, Pops. Maybe you should hustle yourself from now on. Are there any studies that show how men react to a comb-over? We should give it a try.” I smirked.

“Don’t you dare catch that attitude with me. That is, unless you want to move up to Minneapolis.” He quirked an eyebrow.

“What? No!” I shouted. “You said we could stay in Tennessee.”

“Then quit your bitching. This place isn’t cheap. If you want to stay here, you need to bring me back something better than a fake Rolex. And don’t even act like you didn’t know the difference when you targeted him.”

I gritted my teeth.

Oh, I knew the difference, all right—which was precisely why I had taken that one instead of leaving it. I wasn’t a bad person. Sure, I was a thief, but I only took what I needed in order to appease my father. I hated every single second of robbing people, especially the nice ones who seemed like they genuinely cared about me. It was freezing outside, and he’d offered me his coat. Unlike my father, who had taken my shoes and shoved me out of the car two blocks away.

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