Always With You
Cassidy Kimball stood on the cement sidewalk and faced the red brick Pennsylvania state penitentiary building. Hot July sunlight glinted off the razor wire that looped in circles at the top and beside the chain-link fence. Off to the right, the circular guard house, with its tinted windows, glared down at the parched brown and empty exercise yard.
Her stomach twisted like mangled metal in a car accident.
It could have been her on the inside. Not here, of course. But somewhere.
She glanced at her watch before dragging her clammy hands down her skirt. Please, God, don’t let my makeup melt before he walks out. A simple request; she shouldn’t care what her makeup looked like, although right now, it felt like much-needed armor. Plus, she’d learned the hard way to be thankful for little things.
And big things. Like not serving the ten-year prison sentence for vehicular homicide that should have been hers after she T-boned a car with Torque Baxter’s pickup when she was nineteen. Nope, she didn’t serve it. Because Torque was serving, had served, it for her.
Hot and turbulent doubt swirled in her stomach. Would he see what she had become and think his sacrifice had been worth it?
Part of her wanted to announce her sacrifices to him, to tell him of her charity work and the people she helped. That he had played the gallant knight in shining armor to her Cowardly Lion, but that it had not been in vain. Part of her wanted him to see it for himself. All of her craved his approval. Or maybe just his forgiveness.
Swallowing the nerves that clenched her throat, Cassidy twisted the delicate linked gold of her wristwatch. Any minute now. Would she still recognize him? Of course, she would. The question was, would he recognize all that she had done as a tiny down payment on the huge debt she owed him?
She reached the same conclusion she had every day for the last ten years. There was nothing she could do to pay back her monstrous obligation. There was no way to atone for the cowardice that she had shown. How could she have been so yellow?
When he’d seen the passengers in the other car, when he’d known what the consequences were going to be, he’d never wavered. His brown eyes had been steady and level as he said, “Get out of here and don’t look back. You don’t know anything about this.” She hadn’t understood at first what he was going to do. Still shaken from the accident, she’d not really been thinking straight. But she hadn’t needed her brain to be fully functioning to know that she was in deep trouble. She’d already been fighting the urge to run. His command had prompted her to do what she subconsciously wanted to. “Hurry, before anyone comes.”
Then, he hadn’t accepted her calls, hadn’t graced her visits with his presence, hadn’t used the money she deposited in his account. Her letters returned unopened, and her emails disappeared into the prison of cyberspace. She didn’t know, couldn’t know, what he thought or felt.
She assumed he hated her.
A bead of sweat trickled down her temple. Her watch chain snapped under her shaking fingers. She shoved the broken links into her clutch.
Her hands stilled as the prison door opened. The jaws of a monster spitting out its prey. Prey she had fed it.
A man, tall and straight, strode out into the sunlight. Her eyes devoured him. Same casual arrogance dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. Same confident walk, with only a slight limp. The limp was her fault, too. With his slim build, Torque would never be bulky, but she could see the t-shirt that probably fit him when he first walked into this building as an almost-eighteen-year-old now stretched tight over shoulders that had widened and filled out.
Cassidy bit her lip and lifted her chin, taking a deep breath to calm the cramping of her stomach and disguise the curl of heat that came to life in her chest. Torque had always had that effect on her. She pushed the feeling aside and channeled her inner upper-crust snob—the only defense that had ever come close to working against the elemental pull that Torque exerted on her.
The last words that man had said to her were, “Shut up, Cassidy.” Now, she intended to get one question answered. Then she had to figure out how to pay him back. What did ten years of a man’s life cost?
Torque floated above the sidewalk, taking in big lungfuls of the sweetest smelling air in the country. Same air that he’d been breathing for the last decade, but it smelled different on this side of the fence. Felt different, too. He wanted to lie belly-down and kiss the ground. He resisted the urge.
Instead he exalted in the unchaining of his spirit, in the freedom and openness that surrounded him, in the beautiful blue sky, in the purple mountains of his home state unobscured by fences or bars.
His stomach rumbled.
A small talon of anxiety poked his rib. He’d have to find his own meal tonight. After years of his basic needs being met on a schedule with no thought of his own being necessary… He pushed the thought away. He’d taken care of himself for years before he went up. It was a privilege to do so again. He couldn’t think of it any other way. He certainly was not going to worry about it. There were things that, to him, were more important than eating, anyway.
Before he’d been locked up, he’d been well on his way to his goal of owning his own diesel garage. But technology had moved on without him. A few outdated Popular Mechanics weren’t enough to update his knowledge of emissions standards and computerized motors. Still, surely there was some diesel garage that would hire a hard worker and a quick learner. With a rap sheet.
First things first. He scanned the sidewalk for his brother Turbo or at least a monster pickup that would be Turbo’s latest project. All he saw was a slender woman in a slim skirt with miles of legs reaching down to impossibly high heels. She stood at the T in the sidewalk. Long brown hair streaked with blond. Big shades. Not Turbo.
He didn’t allow his eyes to linger. Beautiful women had been few and far between in the lockup. But he wasn’t going there, although his eyes were drawn to this one like air to the intake valve. He had a life to put back together first.
She stood with one hip jutted out. A hand with shiny red nails rested on it. Her whole bearing screamed money and class.
Most definitely not for him.
He altered his direction, aiming to give her a good ten-foot birth on the right without being obvious about avoiding her. His infatuation with one such girl was how he had landed in the pen to begin with.
Whatever. It would have driven him to step between her and a bullet. That would have been a heck of a lot faster than what he actually did, which was put himself in her place, and she had allowed it. He’d told her to. He’d volunteered to do it. He’d kept his word and protected her through it all. That was great. But his sacrificing days were done. Not going down that road again.
The woman casually removed her shades.
Torque’s heart rammed to a stop the way a rod shot through the side of a block kills an engine.
What was she doing here? All his body systems slammed into overdrive.
He clenched his jaw and kept walking. He’d be ready to face her when he had put his life back together. When he could meet her on equal footing, and she no longer looked down her cute, rich-girl’s nose at him.
Who was he kidding? Like he’d ever be good enough.
Turbo had to be around here somewhere. Please, God. Another sweep of the visitors’ parking lot revealed only a low-slung, red sports car.
Mere feet from Cassidy, he surrendered to the inevitable and stopped. Her scent overwhelmed him. Exotic fruit. The memory of a hot summer night slammed into him. Radio on. Cruising. Country air blowing into his truck and tangling with the incense of the girl next to him. Suddenly the urge to turn and run surged through him. Back into the prison, back where the smell of perfume and the twitch of a lip didn’t turn his brain to mush and make him do the stupidest thing a man had ever done for a woman, back to where his brain and heart weren’t engaged in all-out warfare and where it would be easy to remember the only smart choice he needed to make: stay away from Cassidy.
Those soft red lips, the ones he’d dreamed about for years, the ones he’d heard later that same night scream in terror, opened. “Why’d you take my place, Torque?”
Torque schooled his features, refusing to allow the longing her voice elicited to show on his face. Rich, yet friendly, living in her mansion on the hill, Cassidy had infatuated him since this poor, trailer-park trash saw her in the kindergarten lunch line. He had plenty of experience in shoving that magnetic attraction aside and pretending indifference.
He didn’t have to fake the bitterness.
“Didn’t hear you on the witness stand contradicting my story.”
“You told me to shut up.”
“Has to be the first time in your life you listened to anyone.” Was that hurt that flickered across her features? Couldn’t be. Not Cassidy. Tough as tempered steel. “You’ve got a mouth, and I’ve never seen you afraid to use it.”
“My dad wouldn’t let me.”
Torque snorted. What a line of crap. “Your dad wouldn’t let you ride with me either. But that didn’t stop you.” Heat spread up his side as he remembered how she felt snuggled up against him on the bench seat, her hair whipping in the wind, her laughing eyes and flashing teeth grinning up at him. Her hand clenching his leg. For that one short ride, he’d forgotten that she was rich and he poor and that their futures, headed in completely opposite directions, would never merge into one.
But where he’d been since then wasn’t so easily wiped away, and he allowed his heart to harden. She was tempered steel. He was titanium. She would break first. This time.
“After the accident, it was different. He wouldn’t let me out of his sight until you…” Her voice trailed off, and she looked away.
“Until I was locked up?” he asked with a sardonic lift to his brow. He wanted to close the step between them and take her in his arms. Not that she needed it or wanted it. It was simply the effect she always had on him, like there was a vulnerability to her that no one but him could see, and it brought out every protective instinct in his body. He hated himself for it. He hated her even more.
“Yeah,” she whispered. A breeze lifted her hair, showcasing the elegant curve of her neck. She turned her head, and he looked away.
“Plus, you had given the police a lie. I wasn’t going to contradict that without talking to you.” Her chin tilted. “You wouldn’t talk to me.”
She visited the jail once, where he was being held, unable to make bail. Strutting down the corridor in her designer clothes amid catcalls and whistles from the other inmates, looking like she belonged on a Paris runway rather than visiting a good-for-nothing like him, surrounded by all the other lawbreakers and criminals locked up in that dump. He’d taken one look at her and turned away, refusing to speak to her. But it was then that he solidified the impulsive decision he made the night of the accident. She didn’t belong in there. And as much as he couldn’t decide whether he loved her or hated her, he could at least protect her from that.
His dad might have been a lousy parent with even worse child-naming skills, who eventually ran off, but his mother and grandmother had instilled a rock-solid code of ethics in his brain. Women deserve protection. They might not want it. They might not need it. Still. A woman nurtures, a man protects. And with Cassidy, and the hold she had on his over-hormoned teenaged brain…heck, he hadn’t used his brain at all to make that decision.
But with that choice—the choice to become a convicted criminal—went the last hope he harbored that he might eventually be able to knock on the door of her mansion and speak to her father as an equal, seeking and receiving permission to date his daughter.
He couldn’t let her see his weakness. He couldn’t articulate his reasons then, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to now. He changed the subject instead. “Well, it’s been fun, getting reacquainted and all, but Turbo’s gonna be here any minute.” Torque stepped toward the parking lot.
“He’s not coming.”
Torque stopped midstride. His stomach sank like water in oil, a slow, graceful, unstoppable dive to his feet.
“I told him I’d bring you home.” She spoke to his back.
Turbo owned his own truck and was busy, of course, but Torque hadn’t thought that would abandon him to Cassidy. Of course, Turbo didn’t know how twisted his feelings for her were, either.
Steeling himself against the idea of spending the next three hours cooped up in a car with Cassidy, he turned back. “The last time I rode with you isn’t in my top ten best memories.”
Did she flinch? Had to be his imagination.
He wasn’t angry at her. Not really. And he didn’t hate her. But he still wanted to insist that he drive, wanted to dominate her because of the inferiority complex she always brought out in him, but his license was long expired. Just one thing on a long list of things for him to take care of.
Cassidy stepped closer and put one shiny red fingernail on his chest where it scalded like acid through his t-shirt. He couldn’t have moved or looked away from her blue-black gaze even if his shirt had incinerated from his body.
“I asked you why you lied. Why you took my place. Why you served the time that should have been mine.”
He stared over her shoulder. There was no way he was going there.
Her minty breath flowed over his face. “Torque, I owe you. I don’t know what ten years are worth, I’m not sure you can put a price tag on them, but I have to do something to pay you.”
This obligation that she felt didn’t sit right. The feelings that he wanted from her were much deeper and more intimate.
He didn’t want her to owe him, he wanted her to love him.
Stepping away from her dagger of a finger, he started walking again. “I don’t want anything from you.”
“Torque…” Her heels clicked on the pavement as she hurried after him. The red sports car was hers. Had to be.
The “Bus Stop” sign caught his eye. He fingered the small amount of money in his pocket. A small sliver of anxiety slipped through him. It had been so long since he’d done anything for himself. Getting on a bus, paying the fare… Another burst of anxiety, thicker and heavier, tore through his chest.
Suddenly the fresh air, the wide-open space, the looming mountains in the distance, all seemed too big, too much, too threatening.
He set his jaw, refusing to give in to the sudden insecurity. He wouldn’t ride with Cassidy. He’d take the bus, prove that he could do it.
He swung around, realizing that Cassidy had said his name several times, and he’d been so caught up in the grip of anxiety and borderline panic, he’d not even heard her. He hadn’t expected to have that kind of trouble adjusting to life on the outside.
Setting his feet, he crossed his arms over his chest. “Yeah?” he asked, grateful his voice didn’t crack and hoping his face didn’t show the anxiety that still curled in his chest.
“This is my car.” She indicated the beat-up dark blue clunker beside him.
Surprise shot through him. He tried to cover it, but his eyes ripped back to her, the skyscraper heels, the fancy blouse and classic skirt. The perfect hair and makeup. It all screamed money and class. But the car?
“I’m taking the bus.” He turned. Whatever her deal, he really didn’t want any part of it. If he kept telling himself that, he might start to believe it.
He stopped but didn’t turn.
“Listen, I know you’re angry for what happened…”
“Not at what happened. And I’m not angry,” he said through clenched teeth.
“Great imitation,” she said, half under her breath.
He spun. Couldn’t stop himself from taking a step toward her, reaching out, and grabbing her forearm. “I had enough time in the last ten years to figure out I was just a toy for you. Something you played with when you were bored with your high-society life. I get it.” He dropped her arm like it had erupted in hot grease. Her skin felt soft and warm and alive under his fingers. Fingers that hadn’t seen much human contact and definitely not the softness of a woman in the last ten years. He shut his mouth, clenched his fist, and stomped off.
“I’m your sponsor.”
He skidded to a stop. Turned slowly. “No,” he said drawing the word out even as he racked his brain for where he might be wrong. “I served my whole sentence. Every day of it. I’m out, free and clean. No parole. No stipulations.”
“It’s a new program. Officially called the Reintegration into Society Sponsorship Program, it’s designed to help people who have been in prison for a while readjust to society, find or keep a job, update on the latest technology, brush up their skill sets, that type of thing. It pairs a professional with a former, uh, inmate.”
He smirked as she stumbled over the word. Like she didn’t know what to call him. “Ex-con. Pairs a ‘professional,’” he said it in a jeering tone, “with an ex-con.” Then he snorted at the irony. “Do they know they paired this ex-con with the ‘professional’ who should have been in prison in the first place?”
“No.” Her tone was small, and he felt instant guilt. It had always been his intention to protect her, not hurt her.
He sighed. “I supposed that’s what the meeting they told me I had to attend tomorrow is about?”
“Yes. It’s a small program, just starting. There are eight pairs, including us.”
“So, let me get this straight. You’ve kept up with diesel mechanics over the last ten years, and you’re going to help me catch up and land a job?”
The last time, her tone had been affected, but now, for the first time, her confident carriage seemed to wilt. “It wasn’t very fair of me to ask to be paired with you, was it?”
She had asked to be paired with him. To torture him? To rub in his face that he was an ex-con and she wasn’t? Or, worse, out of pity?
“This isn’t mandatory for me.”
“No. Not for you, since you’re not out on parole. But,” she tilted her proud head, and her eyes almost seemed to plead. “if you were to ever get in any kind of trouble again, this would look good when you came up before the judge.”
“Lady, maybe you haven’t figured this out, but when that judge looks at me, all he sees is street trash that’s better off out of society and behind bars.”
He wasn’t going to fall for her lies. Not a second time. Once, he’d believed she’d seen more in him than anyone else, that he could be successful and climb out of the gutter he’d been born into, where no one expected him to do more than get an entry-level position in some kind of manual labor job and keep it until he retired. Nothing wrong with that, but Cassidy had made him think he could be more.
He could be. He knew it. And he didn’t need her to help.
“I’m not planning on getting into trouble again.”
“You didn’t plan this, either.”
He shrugged. She was right about that.
“Listen. I might be able to help, but I need you to do this program.”
“Help?” he said derisively. “Like you helped me ten years ago?”
“You told me to leave. If you had given any indication that you wanted anything from me, I would have done everything I could to do what you wanted.”
“Big words. Actions don’t back ’em up.”
“You wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t accept my mail…”
He held a hand up. “Enough.”
“You keep acting like this was my fault.”
Her lips pursed together, and she looked away. He should have felt satisfaction, but he only felt the nagging sense of guilt. Guilt for hurting her. Never mind the last ten years. Guess his heart had missed that part. It had always been on her side.
“You’re the one who stole my truck,” he said roughly.
“It was hardly stealing.”
True. He would have given her his truck to go along with his heart, of course. The problem was he should have taught her how to drive it.
He fingered the money in his pocket. It was all he had in the world. But he wasn’t getting in a car with Cassidy. He could work. He could fight. And he’d never quit. But she was his weakness. Always had been. If he were going to get out of the hole he was in now, he needed to keep his distance. She could derail his good intentions with one small touch of her hand.
Once more, he turned to go.
“I’ll give you a ride.”
“The bus is safer.” It was a slam, and she flinched, which did not make him feel better.
She lifted her head, like she was ready to take it on the other cheek. “But you’ll come to the meeting tomorrow?”
He stopped but didn’t turn around. The rumbling of a motor sounded in the distance. His ride was about to arrive. “I’ll think about it.” He shouldn’t go. Should protect himself with everything he had, but chances were he hadn’t learned a thing in the pen, and he’d be there, just because he’d see Cassidy, and he’d never been able to resist that.