“You alright?” Travis glanced around the bare, grey cell, his mouth curling down.
Hunched against the far wall, arms wrapped herself, Rosie didn’t answer. When she turned her head, his stomach clenched at the shine in her eyes. She pushed off the wall and swung around, arms dropping to her sides, her eyes dry and shuttered, her face settled in familiar disdain.
“Do I look like I’m alright?” she asked, her voice that bit too sharp. “Does this look like someplace I belong?”
He held up his hands. “Okay, stupid question. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Turning away, he glared at the cop blocking the doorway, like a piece of ill-placed furniture, the indistinct and helpless rage quietening as he recognized the look in the young man’s eyes. It was the kind of bewilderment most men felt when they looked at the contradictions of Rosie Blackburn. Small-boned, her body whip-taut, possessing more strength than easily imagined. A wild mass of dark curls framed a face of delicate features and smooth skin, the crow’s feet around her eyes and the lines bracketing her mouth fine, deceptive of her age. It was more the brittle expression she wore that suggested she might be middle-aged. Travis recalled the first time he’d seen it, remembered the way it’d hit him, somewhere low down in his gut. The expression of someone who’d lost trust a long time ago…and didn’t believe it could be found again.
“What else do we have to do here?” he said. The cop returned his gaze reluctantly, a last furtive glance at the woman standing behind before responding. Didn’t take a mind reader to see the what-the-hell-happened-to-her? thought.
“Uh, just see the Sarge at the desk. He’ll sign her out.”
Nodding, Travis stepped into the corridor, his skin prickling with awareness of the unconscious and involuntary oscillation that seemed to fill the space around Rosie. He caught the movement of the cop’s arm from the corner of his eye too late.
“Lady, you let this — ”
That was all the kid had time to get out before she jerked her arm free, the flat crack of her palm striking the side of his face echoing down the confined hall. She reversed instantly, slamming into the corridor wall as Travis stepped between them.
“Sorry about that,” he said, looking at the small, flaming red handprint. “She doesn’t like to be touched.”
He could see the struggle in the man’s eyes, between pride and something lower, something meaner. The cop’s hand rested on the butt of the handgun holstered at his side.
“That’s what the report said, wasn’t it?” Travis pressed as much as he dared, jerking his head toward the door that led out. “From the transfer? Not to put your hands on her, Deputy — ?”
Eyes narrowing as his gaze darted to Rosie and back, the younger man nodded. “Yeah, I didn’t read it all.”
“No harm done.”
The hand slipped from the gun. Travis forced a smile as the deputy’s shoulders lost their stiffness.
“You better keep her under lock and key,” the deputy suggested. His jaw was tense, lips compressed, the words wiggling out from between his teeth.
“She’ll be fine.” Travis threw a look over his shoulder. Rosie was staring at the far door, her eyes fixed and her face slack. The dulled expression was misleading. She always listened. Her senses were always stretched out too far in every direction, like an animal that’d been hunted every day of its life.
She started moving without looking at him, and he followed, half his attention on the sounds behind them, the deputy’s footsteps in the cell and the clang of the iron door closing. He switched focus when they reached the exit door, reaching around her to open it, his teeth setting slightly at the noise that assaulted them from the other side.
Rosie’s jaw muscle leapt into prominence at the same time and he risked slipping his arm around her to hustle them through the chaos. Catcalls and fluctuating volume punctuated the arguments surrounding the counter and in the thirty seconds it took for them to reach the desk sergeant, he heard a legion of emotion in the cacophony, both real and put on. The cynicism of most cops had never surprised him.
With Rosie’s few possessions back, the plain manila envelope clutched to her chest, and her over-sized patchwork coat on, Travis trusted once more that she’d allow him be a shield to the front door. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders as they wove through the press of the crowd, hiding his surprise when she burrowed against his side, her head tucked down, cheek against his chest. They cleared the doorway and continued down the short stair to the street.
He wanted to ask what had happened, what was happening. The call he’d received had mentioned a protest rally, getting out of hand. Instinct kept his mouth shut. For the first time, she was accepting his help. He didn’t want to screw that up. Her scent rose on the warmth between them, and it took a forceful and concerted effort to keep his attention on getting them to the car and away.
The growl of the big V8 engine settled into a low rumble when he cleared the city traffic and took the on-ramp to the highway. As he headed east, the neat, white houses of sprawling suburbia, bathed in the unlikely golden glow of the sun sinking through distant and deepening layers of smog, thinned out and disappeared.
Travis turned on the headlights, and shot a sideways glance at Rosie. She was staring through the windshield, her profile revealing nothing but the slight protrusion of a mulish pushed out lower lip. In her lap, her hands were knotted together, the tension in them shown in the gleam of bone through thin skin.
He reached for the dash, turning on the radio. Strains of sweet melody filled the car. Rosie’s unclenching was felt more than heard. He risked another swift look. The lower lip had retreated, her hands lay loose and somehow helpless on her thighs. Against the fading light, the sight of her long, graceful column of her neck tightened his chest.
He was too old to keep wanting.
“You don’t have to do this.”
The wheel twitched in his hands at the words, Rosie’s voice low but pitched to be heard over the music.
“No,” he replied. “I don’t.”
There was a rustle from the passenger seat and he felt her gaze, burning like a brand against the side of his face.
“Why do you? And don’t try to brush this off with some insincere comment about how…amazing…or…or…brilliant I am.”
Travis let his breath hiss out between his teeth. It didn’t matter what he said — or what he didn’t say.
“You know why.”
“No — that’s just it,” she said, and he heard the break in her voice. “I don’t know. I don’t know why any relatively sane person would put up with the crap I dish out, or this — ”
She waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the road behind them.
“ — I don’t know, Travis. Why do you care?”
The headlights picked out the white lines, unwinding ahead and running beside them only to disappear behind in bloody hue. The road was featureless. Too apt an analogy. He’d lived large. Done a lot. Experienced a lot. Had tested himself…a lot.
It wasn’t enough and there was no escaping that.
“Can’t someone worry about you a little?” he hedged. He wasn’t ready for this conversation.
There was a soft snort beside him. “Sure. A little.”
Their meeting had been unremarkable. Go-away vibes and prickly comments had set off his alarm bells. It hadn’t been until much later that he’d seen the mask fall, just once, a tortured soul looking back at him from within her eyes. She’d turned away immediately, shrugging off whatever expression had been on his face in that moment, and when she’d turned back, the mask was secure, the only emotion visible faint mockery.
Everyone wore some kind of mask to hide the hurts of life, himself included. He couldn’t figure why that fraction of a moment had twisted itself inside, caught at him deeply enough that he couldn’t let go.
“What makes you think anything I tell you is insincere, or — ” He swallowed as another memory rose, glancing at her and back to the highway. “ — manipulative?”
Even in the poor light of the dash, he saw color flush her neck and cheeks.
“Because I’m not — ” From the corner of his eye, he saw her turn away. “ — any of those things you say.”
As if what he’d let slip out — in his astonishment at the passion he saw in her, the acute intelligence, or the way she seemed to have lived more than one life, the way she absorbed knowledge and experience so easily — were accusations.
Between them, tension simmered, needing so little to come to a boil. “Ockam’s Razor, Rosie. The simplest explanation is usually the right one. You like to make too many assumptions.”
“There’s nothing simple here,” she retorted. “And I make assumptions based on action, not words.”
“Then look at the actions, godammit!”
The words came out before he could think on them or stop them, and heat filled his chest as his fingers squeezed the steering wheel. She did this too often. Forced things out of him he didn’t want to share.
He wanted…he didn’t know what he wanted. Life had been complicated. He had as many demons as the next man. Not all of them were under his control. Too many memories lurked, waiting to bite, of tentative love lost to them.
The silence that seemed to swell in the car wasn’t cold or harsh or reproachful, he thought. It comprised of their doubts. He had plenty of misgivings. It was, in a lot of ways, more soothing to live without longing or expectation. He was pretty sure she felt the same way. Risk taking was for the young.
As if he’d said that out loud, there was a long exhale from the passenger seat.
“I understand,” Rosie said.
He chanced a sideways look, unable to see her face. It was tilted down, her gaze on her hands. For the first time since they’d met, there was no energy emanating from her, no sign of life at all.
“I need to stop. I know that,” she continued, her voice so quiet he was straining to hear the words. “Stop wishing for someone…something…that’s never going to happen.”
The car’s front dipped low, lurching sideways as his foot hit the brake. Fishtailing wildly on the gravel shoulder, the wheel shuddering in his hands, he wasn’t sure what he was doing. Alternating waves of hot and cold fluxed through him and his heart accelerated to warp speed.
When the wild gyrations stopped, he let go of the wheel and shifted across the wide bench seat, giving himself no time to think. Rosie’s face was almost comical, her mouth open in surprise, her eyes huge and dark.
“What — ?”
He covered her mouth with his own, cutting her off, his arm around her shoulders, one hand cupping her cheek. For an agonizingly long moment, she didn’t respond. Then she did.
Cold had gone, replaced by increasing furnace-like heat. She tasted of honey and strawberries, cliché and trite, her hand bunching the front of his shirt, and at the back of his mind he was wishing he’d done this anywhere else but here, in the awkward space of the front seat. His head was spinning. He needed to be closer. Needed to breathe. Needed…
She pulled back, lips glistening, mistrust and hope warring in her face.
He drew in a deep breath, hoping it would stop the tremble in his hands. “If you don’t know how things stand now, Rosie, you’re not as smart as I thought.”
It was a good last line. He slid back behind the wheel, turned the key and put his foot down when the engine caught, easing the car back onto the empty road.
After a moment, he felt her slide closer and moved his arm to the back of the seat. When she was curled against his side, he settled his arm around her, pretending not to feel her shaking breaths against it.
It could all turn out badly, like everything he’d done. Or…maybe this time, it wouldn’t. That was the way of it. You took your chances, no guarantees. His heart gave a peculiar double beat.
The house had to lose sometime.