5. 1

I slowly come awake, pushing the covers down to my waist. It’s hot… unbearably so, and I’m sure that’s what woke me up. Bringing my hand to my face, I wipe at my brow and find it drenched in sweat.

Taking a deep breath through my mouth, I’m confused that the air itself feels hot and dry. My lungs feel compressed and I struggle to take in another breath of air, this time through my nose.

I smell smoke.

It’s getting hotter by the second and then flames erupt from the floor, starting to climb the walls on either side of the bed. I try to yell out… to Flynn… to anyone… but smoke is now overwhelming me and I can’t even make a sound. A hacking cough sneaks out, and I cover my mouth and nose with my hand, trying to filter the air.

Then I hear laughing.

Peering through the smoke, I see Juice standing by the door. He’s leaning against it casually, with his arms crossed over his chest. He just looks at me… and laughs, and laughs, and laughs.

I sit up in bed and reach down to the chain I know is wrapped around my ankle, intent on trying to pull myself free. When I reach down, I’m stunned to find my leg is free and there is no manacle keeping me in this bed.

The smoke is so thick now. I can’t see which way to the door, so I drop to the floor where I know the air quality will be better. Frantically crawling in the direction I believe the exit to be, I can only hope the flames haven’t spread enough to prevent my escape. I don’t even worry about where Juice is. My body is on autopilot and it’s working only to get away from the fire.

Suddenly, hands reach down and grab my shoulders. I shudder in relief.

Flynn!

My body is pulled up and I thankfully look into the eyes of my savior.

Except it’s not Flynn.

It’s Juice.

And he pushes me back down onto the bed and quickly locks a cuff around my ankle, shackling the other end to the bed frame.

Casually tossing the key over his shoulder, he turns around and walks into the smoke, disappearing from my view.

That’s when I start screaming.

“Rowan… wake up.”

Someone is screaming. A woman, I think.

I struggle to open my eyes and when I do, the shrieking noise stops.

Flynn is sitting on the bed beside me, holding onto my shoulders lightly. He’s looking at me with worry lining his face. Capone is lying beside me, his head resting on my lap. His beautiful brown eyebrows are scrunched inward with an equal look of concern.

Sitting up, I rub at my eyes with one hand and absently stroke Capone’s head with the other. “Who was screaming? Is everything okay?”

Flynn’s hands drop away and his worried look increases. “You were screaming. Scared the shit out of me.”

“Me?” I ask, stupefied.

But then, it all comes pouring back to me.

My dream.

Juice laughing at me, a fire raging around me, searching for Flynn to save me and knowing that I was going to die chained to a bed.

“It was just a bad dream. I didn’t mean to wake you.” My voice is soft, barely above a whisper. My body shudders hard and I feel like I’m going to vomit.

The remnants of the dream still linger with me now, so real that I wouldn’t be surprised if Juice stepped out of the closet to continue his taunts. I can’t help myself when I pull my legs up, just to verify they aren’t chained to the bed. Relief floods through me when I realize I’m free from restraints.

In all my life, I know I’ll never experience anything as traumatizing as what these last three days have been for me. I hate admitting weakness, but damn if Juice didn’t about break me. I had come so close to escaping…Capone and me. So close to having freedom, I could taste it. Just as I can now actually feel Juice’s claws sink into my shoulder as he caught me sneaking out the door.

“Think you can handle a shot of whiskey?” Flynn asks.

I nod my head, thinking there’s no way I’m getting back to sleep without it.

“I’ll be right back,” he says as he stands up from the bed.

Flynn had put me in his guest room, which has nothing more than a bed in it, but it was more than comfortable enough for me. I mean… it didn’t have chains attached to it.

I should feel comfortable… relaxed… safe. But a sudden surge of fear courses through me and I jump out of the bed. “I’ll come with you.”

Flynn glances over his shoulder, again with another worried look, but then walks out of the room with me hot on his heels.

I follow him into the kitchen and sit at the table, while he takes out two small glasses and pours healthy shots of whiskey in each. He sits at the table and picks up his glass, waiting for me to do the same.

In the harsh fluorescent light of the kitchen, and away from the darkness of my dreams, I just now notice that Flynn is wearing a pair of sweatpants… and that’s all he’s wearing.

I knew he was a big guy, but without his shirt on, I can definitely appreciate that this big guy clearly works out. He has a beautifully artistic cut to his muscles… well-defined ripples but not a bulked-up, steroid look.

I’m not interested… but I’m not dead either.

“Here’s to a dreamless sleep,” he says, and then raises his glass in toast. As his arm reaches out, I notice a tattoo inked onto the inside of his bicep. It says, “Semper” and I wonder what it means but I don’t bother asking.

Like I said… I’m not interested.

I clink my glass against his and then toss the whiskey back, reveling in the burn as it slides down my throat, hitting my stomach in a warm puddle. Flynn follows suit and downs his drink.

I don’t even wait for him to set his glass back down before I pick up the bottle, finally noticing the brand.

Jameson’s. Good choice.

I pour two more healthy shots. There’s no toasting this time.

I pick up the glass without waiting for him and shoot it back just as fast.

Flynn doesn’t touch his though and just stares at me. “Want to talk about it?”

I run my finger along the edge of the glass and consider pouring another, but I’m really not that big of a drinker. I’m also not that big of a talker, and I can only assume the whiskey has loosened me up because I’m absolutely surprised by myself when I answer him.

“I dreamed I was in a burning room and trying to escape, but then Juice caught me and chained me to the bed. No brainer, right?”

Flynn picks up his glass and takes a healthy swallow. Looking at me over the rim, he says, “It’s not unusual after what you’ve been through.”

I can’t help myself. I’m always on the defensive. “And you want to know all the sordid details, right?”

Setting his glass down and pushing it away, Flynn looks at me with such seriousness, I want to drop my gaze to the table. “Rowan… I could care less if you tell me the details. If you want to, I’ll listen and be a friend to you. If you want to take the story to your grave, I’ll respect it. I’m not pushing you for anything.”

God, he sounds so sincere. I want to believe him. There’s a feeling inside of me that is telling me to trust him. I can only imagine it’s because he saved my life.

And he helped me find Capone.

And he gave me a safe place to stay tonight.

But I don’t easily trust and I just don’t have it in me to share much more. So instead, I remain quiet and I pour myself one more shot of the amber liquid that beckons from the bottle before me. I’m sure he takes my silence as the subject is closed.

“Let’s talk about something that’s actually a bit more important,” Flynn says.

I look at him in surprise. “What’s that?”

“What your future holds. I’m worried about what’s going to happen to you.”

His words are sweet and they warm me slightly, but I brush them off. Rule number one I learned when I arrived in New York… never depend on anyone else but yourself.

“I appreciate the sentiment, but I can take care of myself. It’s not your place to worry about me.”

His hazel eyes regard me warmly and a small smile graces the corners of his mouth. He reaches his hand out, grabbing mine, and I want to pull it away but I don’t. “Yet, I worry about you all the same. And I even worry about that damned, furry beast of yours, too.”

I can’t help how suspicious I am. It’s ingrained into me. I also cannot help the glare that plasters to my face. The cynicism that is melded to my personality almost makes me hate myself. “Why? We’re not your problem.”

Flynn releases my hand and leans back in his chair. He links his hands together and rests them on his stomach. As he crosses one long leg over the other, his muscles bunch and then relax against his sweatpants. “I don’t consider you a problem, Rowan. But I would like to help you if you’ll let me.”

“Why?” I persist. He hasn’t answered my question, and until he does so sufficiently, I have no more trust in him than I do Juice at this point.

“Why not? You seem like a nice girl, you’ve been treated like shit, you got a really cute dog, and it’s within my power to help you. So, why not?”

I’ll admit… that is a good answer. He doesn’t pretend to know me, he doesn’t seem to want anything in return, and his tone of voice suggests to me that he truly wants to help. I push the third shot of whiskey away from me because I don’t want the alcohol clouding my judgment.

Leaning forward, I rest my forearms on the table and lace my fingers through one another. “What did you have in mind?”

“No major plan, really. Just that you can stay here until you get your feet back under you. We can work out the details as we go along, but at least take a few days before you decide what to do, and until you know you have a safe place to stay. We’ll get you some clothes, and you and the fleabag can relax for a while, knowing you’re safe. I’ll help you figure things out, and when we do… you can be on your way, Rowan. I’ll help you to get on your way if you’ll let me.”

The aforementioned fleabag decides to pad into the kitchen. He walks up to me and squeezes his head under my arm, nudging it upward to make room. It’s his cue to me that he wants attention and he expects me to give it to him. I don’t hesitate and my hand immediately drops to start rubbing his neck.

Damn spoiled dog.

I lean down and run my nose along the top of his head. “What do you think, Capone? Want to stay here for a few days?”

He doesn’t answer me, of course, but I didn’t expect him to. I only asked the question out loud so I could ponder it further.

I quickly run down the pros and cons of accepting Flynn’s offer.

Pros include having a safe place for Capone and me to stay, food in our stomachs, and precious time to figure out my life. I don’t think I’ll need long to do so, but at least there won’t be a ticking clock.

Cons include loss of independence and pride. I’ll probably kick myself repeatedly for my weakness.

Lifting my head, I look at Flynn. “Are you sure we aren’t imposing?”

“I’m positive. Stay… relax. It’s not a big deal.”

I don’t like being beholden to anyone and accepting help is foreign to me. But again, something is telling me to trust Flynn. “I actually have a little bit of money stashed away that I can pay you with, especially if you can front me a little for clothes. I can get a few things at Goodwill or something.”

He regards me for a moment and then nods his head. I know he wants to refuse my offer to pay, but I think he knows me well enough to know I won’t accept charity.

“I’ll also handle cleaning your apartment and cooking while I’m here but I’ll immediately start looking for a job.”

“Did you work before…?” His words trail off steeply and his eyes look sad for me.

“Before you found me chained to a bed?”

He nods and I give a very small smile. Not a huge one, but a tiny, tiny one, and it feels weird. “Yeah… I had a job at a bar before Juice put the shackles on me. I bet I could still work there but that’s not really an option. That will be one of the first places Juice will look for me.”

Again, he nods and doesn’t push me for any further details past what I’ve given. “Sounds like we have a deal.”

Reaching my hand across the table, I say, “So… want to shake on it? Temporary roommates?”

His hand engulfs mine and my skin actually tingles from the contact. His hand is dry and I can feel calluses rubbing against my skin. He holds my hand for just a bit and we stare at each other. I don’t know what I’m seeing reflected in his eyes, but whatever it is, it doesn’t make me feel bad. It makes me feel warm… safe… secure. The feeling is alien to me but it’s nice.

Flynn releases my hand and grabs his whiskey. He looks at mine, indicating I should pick it up. I do and he holds his glass out. “To being roommates.”

“To being roommates,” I murmur.

We knock our glasses together and shoot the amber liquid back.

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