The cab driver is talking loudly. Has to over the music blaring from the tinny speakers. Is this what India deals with all the time? She takes cabs all the time when she travels. And she travels all the time. I wonder if it grates on her nerves as much as it’s grating on mine or if she sits in the back, legs crossed in one of those sexy-as-hell skirt suits she wears and scrolls through emails on her Blackberry or chats with—okay, more likely, yells at—one of the people she manages.
No wonder she’s so glad to give up control when she gets to me. The noise and the hustle and the million details she has to keep track of at any given moment—just watching her work is exhausting. A hell of a turn-on too. Yes, I should think of her working. Cussing someone or other out on the phone, drafting a report, poring over miles of spreadsheets.
Don’t think of her bruised, bleeding, hurt, afraid.
I check my phone again, just in case I missed a call or a text from Rey, but nothing. Not since the ones I had when the plane landed.
She woke up for a few minutes. She wasn’t angry that you called me and she’s thrilled you’re coming. Don’t worry. She looks terrible, but she sounds like herself. She’s going to be fine.
The few that had come after that were all the same:
Still asleep, Preston’s still here. Will let you know if anything changes.
I’m glad she’s sleeping. She never gets enough sleep. Yes, think of her sleeping. Like how before she’s fully awake, she scoots closer, seeking the shelter of my body. How her breath is soft and even, how her eyelashes flutter when she’s dreaming. The first time I shared a bed with India I fully expected her to steal all the covers and thrash around; for her to be as volatile in sleep as she is awake. Which was stupid. I’ve seen her sleep before, checked on her many times. She’s almost eerily still. Even so, I’d been surprised.
I should picture her in my bed; or in hers, with my arms around her. Think about her on her knees, or restrained; her lithe limbs flexing against the bonds of rope or leather. Until she gives up because she believes I’m strong enough to contain her. Remember how much fun she’d had when she’d argued with my father, her face flushed and her eyes bright. How she shifts her weight, foot to small bare foot, as she chops things in the kitchen.
But no matter how many times I try to summon those images to my mind, the others keep overwhelming them. India battered and lying in a hospital bed; nameless, faceless men beating her senseless. Yes, I beat her. Spank her, slap her, whip her. Use canes, floggers, paddles. Turn her pale skin bright red, dark purple, pale blue. Hurt her. But never, never—
My anger flares and my fingers curl into a fist. I rap on the dingy plastic between me and the driver who’s still on his fucking phone.
“How much longer?”
He shouts a few more things in a language I can’t even begin to guess before telling me, “Two minutes.”
When I step through the doors into the hospital, I get directions from a polished administrative type behind an information desk. Room 1707, that’s what Rey said when I’d called him while walking through the airport. I find the bank of elevators that’ll take me to her, but before I walk into the corridor and punch at the buttons, there’s a small sign that catches my eye.
I haven’t been to church in…I don’t even know. I had gone, my whole childhood. My mother’s a fairly devout Catholic and my father… Well, my dad loves my mom. Suddenly I crave the comfort, the familiarity. I check my phone one more time and find the same message, the one I’ve gotten every thirty minutes, like clockwork. India’s asleep, her father’s still here. Rey will let me know if anything changes.
India’s father… That’s an ounce of rage I have to swallow with the rest.
In the meantime, I follow the placards through the warren of hallways, the masses of people. The room I find is somehow vaguely spiritual even though it’s just a dimly lit space with rows of chairs lined up on either side. But the platform at the front, raised a few inches above the floor, is evocative enough that I feel like I’ve found what I was looking for.
The place is empty so I find a seat toward the front and sling my bag onto the chair beside me. I finger the small ring in my pocket, wondering if India did the same thing with the medal I gave her. For all the good it did. I should’ve known better. Should’ve come to be with her. This never would’ve happened if I’d been here.
I close my eyes tightly and let the tiny circle of metal glide through my fingers. I wonder if it will fit. If I’ll ever get the chance to find out. If she’ll ever be able to promise herself to me the way I’ve promised myself to her. Doesn’t matter. I’ve made my choice and my choice is to be with her. Something I should do now.
But all of this is so much bigger than me. I am a single, imperfect man. The people I love deserve more than I can possibly give. So I get down on my knees and bow my head, cross myself; the gesture automatic even after all this time.
Please let me keep my father a little longer. I’m not ready to let him go.
Please let my mother’s well of strength last until I can be with my parents again.
Please let India be okay. I’ll move to New York if she asks me to. I will honor the vow I’ve made to her until the day I die or until she tells me to go. I’m honestly not sure which will come first.
Please let me be worthy of the people who have placed their trust in me. Let me be deserving of their faith, love and affection.
I don’t know who I’m asking. I don’t know that it matters. I just need to ask.
The door to the chapel opens and a family spills in, speaking in rapid Spanish or maybe Portuguese. It sounds like they’ve lost someone. Or maybe are in the process of losing. I get to my feet, take up my bag, and head back to the elevators. I’d like to be there the next time she wakes up.
After some ridiculous administrative posturing, I’ve finally been given leave to see her. Engaged again. India’s going to flip her shit. I can’t wait for her to be that angry at me. Furious, demon-spawn India I can deal with; unconscious, broken India I can’t. I just can’t.
I pass a small waiting room and there’s a man in a suit yelling at a nurse in scrubs. If I weren’t in such a hurry, I’d stop. I fucking hate it when people are dicks to hospital staff. If you’re yelling at them, it means they’re not taking care of the people they’re supposed to be. Like my father. Like India. If they’re upset, they’re more likely to screw up or miss something. This guy is clearly so self-important he can’t see the forest for the trees. I catch his eye with a glare as I stalk past, and there’s something about him…
That’s India’s father. In that second, I’m dead certain. They don’t look anything alike—Preston is tall and blond, his features strong, easily caricatured—but they carry themselves the same way, have the same tone of voice.
Knowing who he is, I find myself slightly more sympathetic to the guy in a suit that’s worth more than my car. Either of them. Or both. If he and India are alike, he’s lashing out because he’s fucking terrified. I’m glad he’s finally seen fit to stand up for her, but this isn’t the way to do it.
That’s what makes me stop. “Mr. Burke?”
If I’d had any doubts about who he was, they’d be gone now. Despite the eyes on me being a frosty blue instead of one green, one hazel, that is the same exact death-glare India hits me with when she’s really ticked off. I’m more familiar with this look than I’d like to be.
“Who are you?” His scathing tone notwithstanding, I have to bury a smile. The India-apple didn’t fall far from the Burke-tree. Well, in some ways. She’d never treat anyone the way her parents treated her. Which is why I’m reluctant when I offer a hand.
“Cris Ardmore. I’m here to see your daughter.”
The nurse takes the opportunity to scurry off. I don’t blame her. I’d leave, but he’s taken my hand in a firm grasp.
“You’re here to see India?”
He looks me up and down and I have to hold myself back from making some sarcastic comment about me not being the kind of man he’d expect his daughter to be with. No, Mr. Burke, I don’t run a Fortune 500 company and I’m not worth millions. I don’t play polo or drive a fancy car. But I have something you don’t. Your daughter’s trust. And, as much as it makes her uncomfortable and anxious, her love. Preston Burke may be a coward and a jackass, but he’s still India’s father. I should be at least a little respectful.
“She wants you here?” His face and his voice have softened, making him seem older and exposed. He’s hurt, and sorry. He should be.
“You’re the one she called?”
He looks like he’s going to ask me something else, but instead he scrubs a hand through his greying-blond hair.
“Good,” he mutters, looking at the floor. “Good.”
I could volunteer more information. He looks smaller now, deflated. Strained with worry now that he has no one to rail against. But my responsibility isn’t to him, it’s to India. If he’s out here it’s because that’s where she wants him. I won’t violate her trust by giving him anything else.
“I should go.”
He nods as he sits in one of the plastic waiting-room chairs I know so well. “Please.”
I drop a last nod before I head down the hall.
When I get there, I take a deep breath before I go in. She’s going to look awful. Rey said she looked awful and he’s always down-played India’s appearance. Pretty? Fucking A, man, get your eyes checked. I push open the door as quietly as I can and there she is.
Her black hair is lank against the bleach-white linens, and her face… Fuck. The bruises. The stitches. Where her arms aren’t covered with bandages and a taped-over IV, they’re bruised and scraped. She looks so small. I always forget how fucking small she is. Every time I see her, every time we play, I have to remind myself. I forget because she’s so goddamn strong. Except now she’s not. They broke her. All the times she’s taken a hell of a beating from me—and she’s taken more from other people—and these fuckers fucking broke her. My gorgeous little wild thing. I might hunt her, but it’s because I want to study her, tame her, give her a safe place to come home to. They hunted her because they wanted to kill her. Jesus—
The rage that’s blurred my vision dissipates until I can see him clearly. “Hi, Rey.”
India says Rey is like a human tranquilizer and now I understand what she means. The man is calm personified, sitting with an ankle crossed over a knee. He’s got his phone out and with his immaculate suit, looks like he might be sitting on a park bench between business meetings and not by his estranged best friend’s sick bed. His confidence and easy conversation bolsters mine.
“Fancy seeing you here.”
“Yeah, it’d be nice to meet outside of a crisis. Have a beer sometime.”
Does Rey even drink beer? Apparently he keeps better track of my imbibing habits than I do of his because the corner of his mouth lifts. “You don’t drink.”
I make a muffled sound because I don’t know what else to say. My eyes are drawn back to the tiny figure in the bed, still, and pale where she’s not battered. My blood pressure starts to rise again. If I ever get my hands on the people who did this—
“Going to sit down, stay a while?”
I shake the murderous thoughts from my head. As much as I’d like to beat the living hell out of anyone who’s ever hurt her, that’s not going to do India any good. She’s going to need me, she’s going to need us. My place is here with her, not going on some ill-advised vigilante rampage. I drop my bag by the door and push it to a corner where it won’t be in the way. There’s another chair on the far side of the bed where Rey is sitting, so I skirt the foot of the bed, resisting the urge to touch her.
The chair is hard plastic, molded in a shape that’s supposed to fit humans, but it’s just uncomfortable. I shift and try not to stare at her, because when I do, I feel like my heart has left my body, like it’s lying right in front of me.
“Don’t suppose you ran into the illustrious Preston Burke on your way in?”
I make a non-committal noise. I feel like maybe India should know I met her father before anyone else does, so I take a minor detour around the whole truth. “He’s still sitting in the waiting room.”
“Did you hear him yelling at the nurse?”
“Yeah. Now I know where she gets it from.”
Rey smiles and shakes his head. “Not until you’ve met her mother you don’t. I hope you never will. India always claimed she liked me, but I still had to down a bottle of Maalox after spending more than a couple minutes with the woman. Toxic.”
That’s an awfully disloyal observation. I’d never call India toxic. So hurt and vulnerable on the inside that she’s put up a Fort Knox of emotional defenses on the outside, sure. But if anyone cared to peek behind the barbed wire and cement blocks, they’d be smacked upside the head by fear. The people who were supposed to love and care for her fucked with her head so badly she doesn’t know how to deal with the most basic emotions. Rey of all people should know that. My voice is a little sharp when I say, “So India’s nothing like her mother?”
Rey’s eyes flash to mine. Smug bastard’s amused. “Only the yelling part. And the swearing. And the hair.”
“I thought India’s mom was blonde?”
“Did she never tell you?”
“She doesn’t talk about them much.”
“Would you? No, Samantha’s natural color is jet-black, like India’s. She’s dyed it some shade of Marilyn Monroe for so long she probably forgets. Anyway, Ivy told India she was adopted, and poor little India believed her because Ivy pointed out she was the only one with black hair. Samantha was too vain to tell her otherwise. Preston had to wait days before he could get her alone to tell her and made her swear to secrecy.”
What the hell is wrong with these people? I’ve understood for most of my life that I got damn lucky with my parents, but never had I been so thankful for them until I met India. At least he told her. I still think Preston’s a gutless prick, but it could’ve been worse? I hate that worse is a possibility.
“Kind of makes you wish she were adopted.”
“But then she wouldn’t be India.”
“I’d rather have her be someone else than have her suffer.”
“She’s not suffering anymore, Cris.”
What the fuck is he talking about? As soon as she wakes up, she’s going to be in agony. Not that she’ll admit it, but Rey will know better, just like I will. “That’s a funny thing to say about a girl who’s lying unconscious in a hospital bed.”
“Not really. She’ll walk out of here in a couple of days.”
“That’s awfully optimistic of you.”
“I don’t think so. Have you met India? The girl’s got more stubborn in her little finger than a herd of wild donkeys.”
“Well, that’s true.” My stubborn little wild thing.
“And she can take a beating like no one’s business.”
“So what I’m talking about is you. She’s found someone who can love her in a way she finds acceptable, and she loves you back. Maybe more than she realizes and more than she’ll ever be able to show, but trust me when I tell you she loves you like crazy.”
There it is again, that sickening feeling like my heart doesn’t reside in my chest anymore. I do know that. It doesn’t always feel like it, but as I’ve learned how to see through India-tinted glasses, I’ve been able to recognize all the ways in which she’s given herself to me. How much the smallest disclosure, the subtlest gesture of affection costs her. She’s been trying so damn hard. “I know she does.”
“So she’s not suffering anymore.”
Rey’s voice is deep and earnest. The complete lack of the slightly slick tone I’ve learned not to be offended by pushes at something inside me. I don’t care a whole lot about other people’s approval, but Rey Walter’s means something to me. Especially where India is concerned. I am worthy. I will continue to try to be worthy of her hard-won love and trust. “She’s still going to be hurting.”
“It’s a good thing we’re here to gang up on her then, isn’t it?”
“Think we can take her?”
Rey’s elevated eyebrows and mischievous smile make me laugh and he follows. We should be quiet. But it feels so good to laugh. I haven’t laughed for days. He’s right. If India puts her mind to something, nothing and no one will stop her. She’s going to be fine.
There’s the slightest movement of her hair over the pillow as she turns toward the sound of us laughing. I didn’t want to wake her, but I’d give just about anything to hear her voice, touch her, see those striking eyes of hers.
Sometimes I think I’ve gotten used to them—one green, one hazel—but then the light catches them so the difference is more obvious or she’ll look at me in a certain way, and it hits me again. Fitting indeed. That’s when her lashes flutter over her cheeks and she opens her eyes, blinks a few times. I can tell when we come in to focus, because the corner of her mouth turns up.
“I heard that. You boys are going down.”