ï»¿ Remy remembered where his trip started, chasing a beauty from New Orleans straight up to New York, refusing to believe that such a lovely woman could be taken.
She had mocha skin and white hair that wasn't dyed, it was just...white; legs that seemed to go on forever topped by a body straight out of a man's fantasies. She was in New Orleans on a modeling shoot, she told him over a few drinks. She'd only just been discovered, though how that happened he'd had no idea. It was her first shoot, and now that it was done she planned on taking a leisurely trip back home.
They traveled up the eastern seaboard together, or as together as he could manage; him flirting shamelessly, she flirting back slightly, all the while telling him that she was married despite the fact that she wore no ring. Her name was Ororo, Swahili for great beauty, she told him over dinner in Charleston, and he had to agree that whoever named her was right on target. He didn't know what was more appealing, her beauty or her calm; a physical presence that seeped into him over him whenever she was near. It was a feeling he had little experience with, that kind of cool calm. It washed over him like a wave, spreading in gentle swells and eddies until he found peace.
Who could let a woman like that go?
They reached New York city after a week of traveling together, and he finally met her husband. Now there was a mismatched pair if he'd ever seen one. Scott Summers, a computer nerd who worked out of a hole in the wall and was probably worth more than Donald Trump in liquid assets. He'd been amused when his wife told him that her scruffy companion had been chasing her for the better part of a week, only lifting one brown eyebrow before returning his eyes to the computer screens in front of him. All he knew was that if she were his wife and he hadn't seen her in a week, he wouldn't be staring at a screen.
Found out later that the guy worked for a man named Xavier who ran a school somewhere in upstate New York for runaways with his wife Moira. Boarding school at that. He'd been doing it for years; they'd even adopted some of the children, went as far as to take the parents to court and get legal custody of the child if the parents found out where their child was. Summers was one of those adopted children, one of ten, and Xavier had paid for his college education as a birthday gift. Remy couldn't imagine someone willingly taking on that kind of responsibility without an angle, but than again the only things he'd had to worry about were himself and Lucky, so who was he to judge? Scott said Xavier was a remarkable man, a psychologist who worked with the kids and their parents, all pro bono, and he had the tax readouts to prove it. Xavier paid him to keep his books in order and track his investments, easy work that paid well. Scott offered to introduce him, told him that the old man was always on the look-out for people with experience, people who knew what his kids were going through and could relate on more than a text-book level, but he declined. Working with kids wasn't for him.
After about a week of crashing at their place, something he couldn't believe they allowed, he found his own; not nearly as nice, but livable. Worked a few odd jobs, made easy money in the less savory side of society, and was on his way in his new car, won in a back room poker game.
Remy Etienne had been on the road for a few days when he decided where to go. Definitely not back down south, or east. Been there, done that, needed new scenery. Saw a picture of the Santa Monica pier in California and decided that was where he was headed. It was one of the better things about having no one who cared where you were he'd decided years ago, after turning eighteen and officially losing his 'ward of the state' status. You got to go where you wanted, when you wanted, and how you wanted.
He'd been driving for hours when he saw her, a mop of orange hair and a splash of denim standing on the side of the highway outside Marshalltown, Iowa. She was bathed in the after glow of a sunset, something he was coming to appreciate in the flat lands he was traveling through. They sprayed pinks and purples and crimsons across the sky, almost too beautiful to look at. If she hadn't looked so lost and alone he probably would have driven right past, but he knew what it was like to be a stray trying to catch a ride to anywhere, so he pulled over. Kid couldn't have been more than sixteen, looking cautiously into his '69 Dark Horse, surprised when a large golden retriever stared back from the back seat. He asked her where she was headed, she said anywhere. So, her old duffel bag was thrown in the trunk and they were on their way. Her name was Paige, no last name, just Paige. That didn't bother him, he knew what that was like, too.
Less than an hour later she was asleep, the seat leaned back as far as it would go, the stretch revealing a pale stretch of hip from her low slung jeans, a hip dark with bruises. He didn't stare though, he'd had his share when he was a kid, and if she wanted to talk, she would. So there was silence, except for the occasional whine from Lucky, but that was to be expected; the dog hated traveling for long distances.
Paige woke up to the sun shining in her face- not quite noon, but close enough- and a wet nose exploring her ear. Her benefactor had thrown an old trench coat over her, and while that might have been nice last night, she was boiling now. They weren't moving, so she snuggled further into the bucket seat, inhaled the scent of old tobacco and leather. Vaguely she remembered that the tobacco smell was from cheroots. She'd waited for the questions to begin last night. Most of her other rides asked as soon as the car started, the 'where are ya headed,' or the ever present, 'if ya want to talk about why you're runnin I'm a good listener', deals. He didn't, though. All he did was ask her name, give her a hard look, then they were on their way, the only sounds that of the engine and a whine from his dog.
"So, you gonna lay there all day, or are you hungry?"
One pale blue eye opened, settled first on a handsome face, a fall of auburn hair, and then even lower to a large bag, bottom soaked through with grease.
"Definitely hungry," she answered, and it was true. The last real meal she'd had was five days ago, and that had come from the back of a restaurant.
'Nice ass', she thought as he walked around the hood of the car, 'Nice everything, from what I can see.' And that was just about everything, considering the fact that his clothes were molded to him. He got in, handing her a large soda then began digging through the bag.
"I don't have any money, you know," Paige said before he pulled out a burger. "I cant pay you back."
The man smiled without turning his head. " If I thought you did, I wouldn't have picked you up last night. Here," he said, handing her a burger. " Didn't know what you wanted, but I decided that chili was a good bet. There's fries too, and a chili dog, if you want it."
Paige just looked at him for a moment, trying to read him. It was something she had to learn fast, especially after her first two rides from her small Kentucky town were less than pleasant. He turned to face her, and she looked into his eyes a warm honey color that she hadn't seen before. Most people would look away if they were hiding something, but he didn't. He let her look her fill, not saying a word.
She nodded her head, then grabbed the offered food as if she expected him to take it back, tearing at the grease soaked paper and taking a large bite.
"You might wanna slow down, Paige. Your stomach might not take kindly to a lot of food."
She didn't listen to him, and was halfway through her third bite when her stomach revolted.
"Oh, shit," she whispered, wrapping her food up and lunging out the door, trying to get as far away from the car as she could before she lost it. She managed to get to the brush before she gave up, tears running down her face as her stomach gave up its meal.
"I told ya, petite," she heard the man say as he came up beside her, grabbing her long hair and pulling it out of the way as if it were the most natural thing in the world for him to be standing next to a girl as she vomited. " Ya need to take it slow for a while, that's why I got a lot, so you wouldn't feel hungry once your stomach adjusted."
"Yeah, thanks," she whispered, spitting out the last of it, hating the taste of bile in her mouth, the acid burn in her throat.
"Here." She straightened, taking the cup he offered, and swished the liquid around for a moment before spitting.
They walked back in silence, she leaning on him a little because her stomach still rolled slightly, him pretending that she wasn't. She was surprised the dog hadn't attacked the food while they were gone.
Paige's knees were shaking by the time she sat down and put her head between them, fighting dizziness. "I feel like shit," she said, cradling her head in her hands.
"You will for a while, just take it slow and easy."
He kneeled in front of her, taking her chin in his hands and lifting her head. " You think you can ride in the car without loosin' it?"
She nodded, and he went around to the drivers side. Paige barely had time to get her feet in and close the door before the car was moving again.
"Name's Remy, case you're wonderin'," he said before she could ask. "Figured if I told you last night, you wouldn't remember."
He held out one hand, the other remaining on the steering wheel. "Paige Guthrie," she said, shaking his hand.
"Nice ta meet you, Paige. The dog in the back seat's Lucky. If ya want, he has a burger in the bag, plain one."
The rapid thumping of his tail was all she needed before she was digging in the bag and offering the flat hamburger. She smiled as she watched him expertly snuffle out the meat before attacking the bun, then laying down with what she could have sworn was a contented sigh.
"Ya not from 'round here," she said an hour later. There was nothing but rolling hills for as far as she could see, only broken by the occasional tree or fence.
"Nope, from Nawlins." He smiled slightly. "Been tryin' to get rid of the accent though. I hate it when people treat me like I'm from Bumfuck, Nowhere."
She laughed, " I heard that. Been tryin' for the longest ta get ridda mine, haven't had much luck, though."
"Takes time n' effort, and a change of scene. Can't learn something new if you've never heard it."
"You're funny, you know that?" she asked, feeling like an idiot. She could almost see the car pulling over and getting tossed out.
He just laughed again, a honey bourbon sound that gave her shivers. "Jus' cause I haven't asked why you're running like everyone else? Thought you might like your privacy. Figured you'd tell me when an' if you wanted."
That took her off guard. Most everyone asked her a million questions, examined her like they were a doctor when they thought she wasn't looking. He hadn't stared as the bruise she knew she had the covered her neck and part of her jaw, though she knew he saw it. He didn't give her sympathetic looks and 'I understand' eyes. " Just not used to it, is all," she murmured.
"So, you wanna talk about it, or were you afraid you'd have to?"
Little of both, she thought as he pulled over. " Why we stoppin."
"Because you stink, and I thought you migh' wanna bath." He gestured to an ancient pump standing next to what remained of a shack. " Not 'xactly the Hilton, but it's the only thing for about sixty miles."
Shit shit shit, Paige thought as she climbed out of the car. She had a face towel and a bath sheet, but she'd run out of soap a few weeks ago. Instead she relied on the meager soap in public bathrooms.
"You got any soap?" she asked Remy as he got out of the car.
"Always come prepared," he answered, opening the trunk and digging into what looked like an old army duffel bag. He pulled out a large, yellow cake of soap, " Hope ya like verbena, cause its all I have."
She looked at the rough bar while he walked over to the pump. After a few experimental tugs on the pump Remy put all his weight on the rusted lever until it moved with a pained groan. Reddish-brown water poured out the short spout. After a few minutes the stream cleared, collecting in a bucket Remy seemed to get out of thin air. Once it was filled, he walked to the other side of the car, let Lucky out, and faced away from her. "Don't worry, I don' peek unless you ask first," he said by way of explanation.
Quickly, Paige undressed, feeling strange being naked under the sky. A part of her wondered what the hell she was doing taking a bath damn near in front of a man that she hadn't even known for a day, out in the middle of nowhere where no one could help her. Banishing the thought, she dropped her towel in, soaping it and started on her body, wiping off days worth of grime and sweat. "So, where ya headed, anyway?" she asked. The cold water felt good after the heat of the summer day, and she was starting to enjoy herself.
" Started from New York, decided that I needed a change of scene. California looked good."
"You gonna try and be a movie star or something?"
That earned her another of those deep chuckles. " Na, too many of those as it is. I was hoping to get some kind of work, at least for a while, until I moved on."
Drifter, she thought, picking up the bucket and pouring some water on her head so she could wash her hair. " Don't stay in one place much, do you?"
"Not if I can help it. Now I told you where I'm headed, why don't you tell me something about yourself."
Paige shrugged. " Getting away from dead-end life in the middle a nowhere." And a father who thinks I'm part punching bag, part full-time personal whore. "Not a lot of choices in Simmerton, Kentucky."
She stopped, and began inspecting the bruises that dotted her upper arms, faded handprints from the last time her father decided she needed his 'attention'. There were other bruises, along her sides, dark smudges on her stomach and definite handprints on her hips. She knew there were some on her back too; she could feel them, but not see them. The older ones were from her old man, already turning yellow around the edges. Some of the newer ones were from a trucker that picked her up in Illinois, more from hitching a ride with a guy she knew she shouldn't trust, but it was either that, or deal with the group of high school boys who'd been eyeing her all night at a diner.
In vain, she tried to reach around and scrub her back, but her sore muscles refused to obey, and she refused to miss any part of her after going so long without a good bath. Relax, girl, your friends saw more when you had to change for gym, and you faced them everyday for three years, this once wont hurt you. Reaching down, she wrapped her shirt around her waist. "Remy, can ya get my back?"
Sighing, Remy turned around and stopped, eyes narrowing. Paige's back was a literal roadmap of bruises from her neck down to where the shirt rested in the small of her back, older bruises crisscrossing new ones, barely hiding old scars underneath. It spread to her shoulders, and he could see the dull imprint of finger marks in the soft flesh of her upper arms. He'd had scars like that before, when he was in juvie and the older kids smelled fresh meat, when he was still to little to take care of himself. When he'd been on the street and his johns decided that they wanted a little more fun than he was willing to give without more money.
"Sure t'ing, petite," he said, mentally shaking himself. Stress usually sent him back into his accent, pure Louisiana backwoods Cajun with a hint of Creole class for fun.
Paige listened as he walked up behind her. He stopped short, and she saw his hand come around. "Towel?"
She stood still as he washed her, quickly but gently, never lingering anywhere. She felt like she did when she was little and she asked her brother Sam to wash her back, with none of the intent she'd come to associate with men.
"All done," Remy said, handing her the towel and moving back around the car. Paige released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding, picked up the bucket and poured its contents on her, rinsing away the soap and dirt, grateful for the cement slab she stood on that kept her feet reasonably free of the red earth.
She dried herself quickly, slipped on her shoes, and headed back to the car. She dressed in the last reasonably clean pair of pants and tee-shirt she had. Gingerly she sniffed her bag, wincing at the smells that assaulted her. They definitely needed a washing. " Done," she called, wringing out her hair.
"Good, now I can stand to be near you without holding my breath."
"Hey!" she began, but a shrill whistle cut her off, and she watched Lucky emerge from the tall grass at full gallop. She laughed when he jumped nimbly through the passenger window, settling on the seat expectantly. "Ya got him trained real good."
Remy just shook his head. " Not really. He just knows where his food comes from." He stared at the ground, one foot tapping, then turned his gaze back to her. " When we reach the next town, we can stop at a laundry mat so you can wash ya clothes. My treat."
Brimming was the next town they pulled into, if you could call it that. Little more than a main street crammed with buildings, with an old motel at the very end. It did have a coin laundry, and Remy pulled up to it without hesitation and handed her a few bills, which she promptly refused.
"Ya gonna take it whether you want to or not," he told her, pulling the short girl through the dingy glass doors.
"I ain't no charity case!" Paige fumed. He'd already let her travel with him farther than anyone else, bought her food, and found her a place to bathe. There was no way she was gonna cost him more money.
"You don't do it, I will. And I know you don' want me to be going through your underwear." He raised one eyebrow and gave her a lecherous grin as he reached for her bag.
"Fine!" she yelled, grabbing her duffel bag and heading to the furthest row of washers. There were some locals sitting near the front, waiting for their own clothes, watching them with ill-concealed amusement.
Satisfied, he walked out, and she held her breath again, praying that he wasn't about to leave her stranded there. When the car started she felt her stomach drop to her feet, the rest of her gittery with panic. She didn't even know where she was, or if they'd passed a state line during the night.
The sound of a dryer door slamming made Paige jump and whirl around. The two women in the front of the laundry hadn't moved from where they sat, but both were looking at anything but her, though both kept glancing her way. Paige gave them both her best smile, a simple stretching of her facial muslces, and concentrated on her clothes, separating them and throwing them into the machines.
By the time her clothes were dry Remy was back. " I got us a room at the motel down the street. Get your stuff so we can drive down."
So, hot clothes in hand, they made their way into the Flamingo hotel, a low, flat-roofed structure painted bright pink after its namesake. She'd seen its type before; a dial-a-whore place, she called them, even been invited to work at a couple. They filled her with disgust, but hey, it was a room, and a shower with warm water.
"You take the bed, me n' Lucky got the couch," was all Remy said before stretching out on the old sofa, Lucky curling into the space that was left. By her watch it was only one thirty, but Remy drifted off instantly. Paige sat down gingerly on the bed, wincing at the loud squeak it gave under her weight. The top cover was thread bear, but looked clean enough. She stretched out on it, her muscles twanging as they began to really relax after nearly two weeks on the road.
"Rise and shine, Paige."
Paige carefully opened one eye and shrank back intot he bed. Remy was leaning over her, so close she could only make out the brown of his eyes in the blur. "What time is it?" she asked, trying to cover over a pang of fear.
It didn't work. Remy straightened, the smile on his face slipped before setting back into place as he yanked the covers off her. "Its time to check out. I only got the room for a few hours." He smacked her thigh. "Up! You have twenty minutes to use the shower, if you want. Me and Lucky'll get dinner."
Paige jumped at the chance to use hot water, and within moments was locked in the bathroom, immersed in the smell of chlorine and hotel soap. There was already a stack of wet towels in one corner, so Remy must have taken a shower before waking her. Fifteen minutes later they were on the road, leaving the small dive town they were in within moments.
"Wow," Paige whispered as she watched the sun setting, crimson piled on top of gold with swirls of purple and blue. "The one good thing about not having real mountains, you get great sunsets."
Remy shrugged. "Don't know, seen some great pictures of them in the Rockies."
Paige shook her head. " I don't think so. It's the one thing that I used ta look at a lot, sunsets .My mamma used to say it was God showing people how tie-dye's should really look."
"She has an imagination, that's for sure."
Paige lowered her head. "Had an imagination. She died when I was twelve." She smiled for a moment. "My aunt said she was gonna be the prettiest angel in heaven."
"Heaven?" Remy asked. "You still believe in all that?"
She met his brown eyes without flinching. "I lived in hell for four years, so yeah, I think there's a heaven."
"Sorry, Paige," Remy said softly eyes staring forward.
The silence that settled between them was heavy, but not uncomfortable. She was about to ask him where they planned on bunking next when a siren sounded behind them.
Remy glanced in the rearview and blinked. "Shit, cops." He looked at Paige, noting her expression of ill concealed terror. "Don't worry, he asks, I'll say you're my cousin. I wont let him take you back home."
The cop took his sweet time walking up to their car, and Remy snorted inwardly. No matter what state you were in, all cops acted the same. "Sir, do you have any idea how fast you were going?"
Remy shrugged, "About seventy, I think, sir."
"Try eighty-five in a sixty zone. Drivers license and registration, please."
Silently, Remy handed over the items, keeping himself calm. Nothing set off a cop to looking into something like nervousness. The cop walked off to check the information.
"This is your car, right?" Paige whispered hoarsely.
Remy laughed at that. "If it wasn't, I wouldn't have been speeding. I've been dodgin' cops for longer than you've been alive, Paige." The words should have calmed her, but one glance let him know they didn't. The girl was pale, her breathing fast and shallow and Remy frowned. If she started having a panic attack getting out of this with just a ticket might be impossible. "Breathe," he hissed when her head footsteps approaching. "They don't know nothin' but what you give away."
Blue eyes glared at him, but she did as ordered, forcing a breath that lifted her shoulders and brought color back to her face.
"Mr. Eitenne, could you step outta the car, please?"
As soon as the door opened, Lucky jumped out and ran into the field adjacent to the car barking happily at his new freedom. "Lucky, get your furry ass back here!" Remy called, following the command with a shrill whistle.
The cop shook his head, "He'll be back, I just want to ask ya a few questions, startin' with the girl ridin' with you, and the bruises she's wearin."
Remy took a breath, then started in at an almost whisper. "She's my cousin's kid," he started, retelling the story he'd been constructing. "Since his wife died, he's been getting a little heavy handed, you know what I mean? She called me two days ago, so I came to pick her up when Jake was at work." Please kid, be listening.
"A long way from New Orelans, aren't you?"
He kept his face smooth. "Just moved to Iowa for work." The lie was easy, one he'd used before. "Hadn't even found a place yet when she called."
The cop nodded, before leaning down and looking through the car window. "What's your name, kid?"
Think think think "Jesse Peters, sir." She look down, making some of her hair cover the bruises on her face. That's right, play the sympathy wrap for all it's worth.
She saw the cops face soften. "You wanna tell me how you got those?" he asked.
"My dad." The tears came unbidden, but they added to the effect. "Remy's takin me to his place, so I can finish high school and get my diploma."
Sympathy was clear in the cop's slightly pudgy face. "Where does your daddy live?" he asked quietly.
Oh, shit, where the hell are we? Imminent domain, Paige, remember, imminent domain. "Kentucky, sir."
"You've reported this?" He gestured to her face.
Paige nodded her head. "Yeah, but I live in a small town, and..well.. my dad kind of knows the sheriff." How the bastard got off for beatin' my mother ta death. The anger that flared at the memory burned away the rest of her nervousness. "It was just easier to call Remy and have him pick me up."
With a final nod, the cop was gone, and Paige released the breath she was holding.
Remy watched the expressions that passed over the officers face, confusion, then anger, then a bitter kind of acceptance. "She gonna be alright with you?" he asked.
Remy nodded. "I'm kinda the only family she has, aside from Jake." He let just enough anger tinge his voice to make his words believable. "This is the second time I've had to come pick her up, and this time I'm not lettin him take her back again."
The officer half-turned towards the car. "God-damn right. I've got a daughter near her age. Just the thought of someone hurting her like that."
Remy nodded in agreement. "I know, sir."
Sighing, the cop handed back Remy's papers. "Just keep it under the speed limit, alright? No sense in getting yourselves killed before you get home."
"Yes sir." When the cop turned around Remy let out another whistle, this one rewarded with a bark. The retriever was almost hidden in the dry brush, the tip of his tail all that was visible. "Lucky!" He whisteled again when the dog showed no intention of returning. "Don't get left in the middle of Iowa! Come on!"