Jack Harris woke up to the sound of himself screaming. He reached for his gun and cocked it and was about to pull the trigger until the sound of glass breaking caused him to focus. Starr Elizabeth stood at his bedroom door frozen in place. He lowered his weapon.
She didn’t look scared, the raven haired young ten years his junior had been through enough in her own life to be able to deal with him. “Nightmare?” She asked calmly as she stooped down to pick up the broken glass at her feet. Starr never looked scared. Never acted scared. But there were nights when her torturous screams chilled him to the bone in the middle of the night.
She wasn’t his lover but a valued friend. Someone who had pulled his ass out of the fire on more than one occasion and put up with enough of his bullshit to know when to call him on it. Starr disappeared for a moment and returned to the door but didn’t come in any further. It was a rule she’d given herself. She’d only agreed to his gift of shelter if she worked for her keep.
For a moment it looked as if she might cross the threshold to come comfort him. A look of tenderness flitted across her delicate features.
“Do you have your cigarettes?”
“You know you can come in here. I don’t bite,” he said softly.
“I don’t need to come in there. You have company.”
He looked over beside him and a blonde woman was passed out in the bed with him. Apparently he was naked. Thank god he was beneath the covers from the waist down.
“If you want a cup of coffee I’ll put on a pot. It’s six o’clock. This is my time to be up anyway.”
Starr had this distinct way of letting him know when she was hurting or scared without ever admitting it by putting distance between her and him. Which was exactly what she was doing now.
“Yeah, I’ll have some coffee.”
Starr said nothing and walked away. Starr had been the last case he’d worked as an agent with the bureau. Her father had been a real piece of work. It had been five years since then and he found he couldn’t escape it.
Angela had been his girlfriend at the time. He’d gotten in deep with Starr’s meth ring and Angela had paid with her life. Starr had tried mightily to save them both. And in the end she had testified against her father Stan Kieslowski. He’d gotten death. But he had gotten life. Most nights he relieved finding Angela’s mangled body. And no matter how much he drank, or how many women he brought home he couldn’t get away from it.
Starr’s inability to completely trust him wasn’t shocking. And the fact she didn’t seem phased by him pointing a gun at her, he hated to think what that was all about.
Soon he smelled the coffee brewing. He decided to put the gun away and crawled out of bed. Grabbing his jeans he hit the shower.
Starr had this quality about her that was hard to deny. She had every reason to pierce and tattoo her body and dye her hair jet black. Instead she dyed her dark hair midnight blue which you really couldn’t see unless she stepped out into the sunlight. She was quiet, tough on the outside, soft on the inside, and without a doubt the most loyal person he’d ever known. Her violet eyes had a way of letting you in while holding you at arms length and on the rare occasion she did open up you just wanted to protect her from the world.
This morning she sat on the kitchen counter top staring out the window. It was raining. She took a drink from her mug. He looked at the table, his coffee mug was already setting on the table. He came in and sat down. She didn’t acknowledge him. Not at first anyway.
“Today’s the day you know.”
He thought about it for a moment and realized what it was she was talking about. The man who had left such an impact on both of their lives was to die today. He thought he would feel lighter. Redeemed. He didn’t. He felt the loss of Angela more sharply today than he had in five years. He heard a sharp intake of breath.
He glanced at Starr. There were tears coming down her face. She needed to be comforted. He wanted to shield her from the awfulness of losing her father but was that why she was crying? He was about to say something when he heard the clearing of a throat. Damn. The woman in his bed.
“Jack baby I’m lonely upstairs.”
He turned around. “Now’s not really a good time. Go back upstairs I’ll call you a cab in a minute.”
“A cab?” She looked horrified.
Starr closed her eyes and clenched her jaw.
“Let’s be honest hon’, last night was great but we both know what it was about.”
The woman struck him hard across the face. It stunned him more than anything, but it wasn’t the first time. He had a certain reputation around town.
Starr was off the counter and had the woman pinned by the throat against the wall. “You ever think to raise your hand to him again and I will cut your throat.”
The look on the woman’s face was of sheer terror. This wasn’t the first time he’d had to intervene.
“Starr, let her go. I think she gets the point.”
Starr didn’t move. Her eyes narrowed and she let go of the woman just as quickly as she had pinned her. She retreated to her room.
“I think it would be best if you just got dressed and left.”
“So that’s the pit bull everyone was warning me about last night.”
“If you push this it’s not going to end well for you so why don’t you just leave.”
The woman stormed back upstairs to his room. When he turned around he saw Starr standing in the doorway to her room with a look of a scared child in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she gasped as she sank to her knees. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I’m so sorry…”
Tears slipped down her cheeks as she buried her face into her hands. It was as if the weight of the last five years was weighing down on her shoulders and was threatening to break her. He went to her and got down on his knees next to her and held her.
“He hurt you. I tried to stop him but I couldn’t, I tried so hard…”
His chest clenched as he cradled her head and pressed his lips to her temple. “I know you did. And you saved my life.”
“But I failed Angie…,” she said, her voice cracking.
“Sometimes fate is cruel. But her death is on Stan’s hands. Not yours.”
She wrapped her fingers around his arm and started to cry. “Then why do I feel like his death is on mine?”
“He’s a bastard. An evil sonofabitch, but for better or worse, he was your dad.”
And then for the first time that he could remember she folded and started sobbing uncontrollably. The woman walked past and muttered, “Freak…”
Starr’s grief erupted and she launched from his arms fists flying and screaming in rage. She began to pound the woman and it was everything he could do to peel her off.
“Get out!” He bellowed.
The woman’s lip and nose were bleeding and she was going to have a black eye. “I’m calling the police.”
He shepherded Starr to her room and shut the door then was inches away from the woman. “You call the police and it won’t be Starr you have to deal with.”
“You two are crazy. You deserve each other. I don’t see how Angela ever put up with you.”
He wrapped his hand around her neck, everything about him vibrating with rage. “You will never mention her name around me again. Are we understood?”
Her eyes widened with fear. Instantly he removed her hand as she fled out of the house. He shut the door and leaned his forehead to it and closed his eyes. It took a minute but he realized he was sitting on the floor with Starr and he was holding onto him.
“I’ll make sure you don’t bring that one home again,” she murmured. “You’ve got to stop drinking so much on the weekends.”
He patted her hand and said nothing. She needed him to be her friend today. Yet there he was, leaning on her. Weren’t they a pair.
“C’mon,” he said. “Turn the coffee off and get dressed. I’m taking you out for the day. Get your mind off things.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not trying to get in your pants.”
“I certainly hope not. That would be a disaster for your reputation and I don’t do one night stands.”
“How would it be a disaster to my reputation?”
“Do you fuck fat chicks?”
“That’s a bit harsh don’t you think?”
“It’s true isn’t it?”
“Not normally though but I have more respect for women than you’d think.”
She touched his cheek and looked at him wistfully. “I know you do. You’re a great friend. But sleeping with you is like sleeping with a member of the Jersey Shore crew. If I wanted to be with you I’d have to be DTF. And that has nothing to respect.”
“Maybe you’re right, but you have to admit, I’d make it worth your while.”
“Nothing’s worth my self-respect. It’s why I turned on Stan. You gave me the courage to go through with it. I’ll always owe you for that.”
Suddenly he was overcome with the urge to kiss her. An emotion totally foreign to him when it came to Starr. It disturbed him. He cleared his throat and looked away. She stood quickly and said, “Do you want to go now?”
“Yeah. I’ll go pull on a shirt. Go get ready.”
As she walked away he shook his head. What the hell was he thinking? He had to shake it off. Because Starr was right, if he did sleep with her it would be a complete disaster.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
She had been sitting on the kitchen counter with a cup of coffee in one hand and an ice pack resting on the knuckles of the other for an hour now. Starr had said nothing since breaking down and she hadn’t acknowledged him since he had gotten her the ice pack for her hand.
She looked at him blankly. “You don’t want me to talk about it. You’ve been drinking since lunch and I don’t like talking to you when your drunk.”
“Starr I know we’re on the opposite side of this but you should know by now that you can trust me.”
“Opposite side of what? My father is a rapist, a drug dealer, and a murderer. Just because he did it in the hills of Kentucky doesn’t make him above the law. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to your girlfriend in time. He can be cruel when going after an enemy.”
He nursed his coffee which was spiked and waited for her to give any indication she actually wanted to talk. She took a deep breath and kept that same blank look. He should’ve been used to it after five years, but he thought of himself as reserved and still waters run deep. Starr Elizabeth, however, had him beat on that front. She didn’t flash her emotions very often but when she did it was like a tidal wave.
“What I don’t get is how come you took me in. I mean I’m the enemy’s daughter. Why do you care what happens to me?”
It was a good question and it often kept him up at night chasing his demons with loose women, whiskey, and cigarettes. “You saved my life. You tried to save Angela’s. You put yourself in danger to do the right thing. I admire those qualities in a person.”
He thought he saw her jaw twitch. “So you admire me. I admire a lot of things, doesn’t mean I’m going to lay down and die for them.” She set the coffee and ice pack aside and jumped down. “I gotta get some air.”
“Starr. Starr,” he said calling after her as she walked out the front door.
He got up and followed her. When he got out the front door he saw her climbing the oak tree in the front yard. It seemed she always went there when her emotions were too much to take. He considered chasing after her. There was enough room in that nook she usually sat in for two. She had been a wreck this morning. Now with dinner coming up on them she was closed off again. Her father was set to die in just a few hours.
He could just leave her alone to deal with it. Take his cue from her behavior. When he lost Margaret though she took care of him, did her best to put him back together. And no matter how many mistakes he seemed to make in helping her she seemed to take it in stride.
Jack looked at her. She didn’t drink. She said she wished she smoked. The one thing she seemed to lean on was his homemade lasagna. He would make any time she wanted. It was a lot of work and really an all day thing with the homemade pasta, but she rarely asked for anything. She was a pretty girl but she didn’t date anyone. But she had plenty of advice for him. Always right on target too. Today was hard for them both.
He’d had the choice of witnessing the execution but in order to be sensitive to Starr he’d opted not to. Watching her now convinced him it had been the right decision. Normally he would leave her in peace. But you didn’t do days like this alone. You needed friends to lift you up and support you. He’d had those once. But when the crime came knocking on his front door people scattered. He walked towards Starr. The closer he got the more he could see she was reading something and in her face he saw fear.
When he got to the bottom of the tree she noticed him and quickly folded the piece of paper up and slid it into an envelope.
“I said I needed some air. Don’t you know how to take a hint?”
This was going to be hard. But no doubt she’d faced him down a time or time in the name of helping him and he owed it to her to do more than ‘give her some space’.
“Come down here,” he said softly but firmly.
“Excuse me? You must have me confused with someone who takes orders.”
She was tough to the core but he could feel it in the air around them. She was frightened. But of what he didn’t know. He needed to get his hand on that letter.
“I said come down here. I’d climb but I’ve been drinking and I don’t want to fall.”
“After five years you should know by now I’m not one of your girls you bring home who want to play house with you. I know what you’re about. I live with you. And I know for a fact you’re going to turn around and walk back into that house rather than do something stupid like climbing up here after me for God only knows what reason.”
He started climbing. Slipped after a few steps, regained his balance and started climbing again. When he got up there she looked at him as if he’d lost his mind.
“You know it’s a lot easier to get up here than it is to get down,” she said scooting over.
“Maybe, but today’s not an easy day. You need friends on days like today.”
“Since when were you so sensitive.”
“It’s part of what draws those women to me,” he said winking at her.
“Jack, you really need to go back inside. I’m fine. Really.”
“Really? Then what was it you were reading that had you looking so scared?”
“After facing Stan down nothing scares me.”
“Hmmm,” he said snatching the letter. He opened it. “You will pay for your actions. Dad.”
He crumpled the letter and threw the letter to the ground. She looked away.
“Hey, look at me,” he said tenderly, “he can’t touch you. And after tonight you’ll never get another letter like this again.”
“He never says anything he doesn’t mean, Jack. And his reach goes much further and deeper than anyone realizes.”
She wouldn’t meet his gaze. “That monster is going to get exactly what he deserves tonight. And not just for what he did to Margaret, but for everything he’s ever done to you.”
“I have family, there are people who are loyal to him. They will come for me. They will do to me what they did to Margaret just to prove a point.”
He tilted her chin up. “I haven’t been drinking so much I don’t know when someone needs a soft place to fall. I love ya’ kid and I’m not about to let anyone hurt you ever again. Okay?”
“Big words,” she said through tears.
He looked at his watch and a cold wind blew through the trees. Stan Kieslowski would be eating his last meal right about now. “I mean it.”
She smiled at him wistfully and said, “I know you do.”
He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and leaned her in close. She’d given him that look earlier too. Starr was such a contradiction he often wondered what was going on in that mind of hers. Now was no different. Women had given him that look before but they’d been wanting more than a night of fun. The thing was Starr would look at him like that then push him away.
“Do you think he’ll suffer?”
Her question caught him off guard. “Do you want an honest answer?”
“The first injection paralyzes him while the second causes his organs to burst. It looks like he’s just falling asleep.”
She rested her hand at his chest and leaned her head against his shoulder. “I still have nightmares.”
Her voice was so soft he’d almost missed it. That whole time had been a nightmare. And she’d been living in it her entire life. He’d only heard her testimony, but it had left him shattered. She on the other hand had been tough as nails. He knew she was suffering, and it didn’t surprise him she was having nightmares, but for her to admit it was a big step.
“Can we stay in tonight? I know you wanted to go out but I can’t face the world just yet, okay?”
He ran his fingertips up and down her arm. “We don’t have to go anywhere. I’ll even make lasagna if you want.”
“No, I’m not very hungry.”
“You have to eat.”
“Can we just sit here for a little while and not talk?”
“Yeah, we can do that.”
She laid her arm across his waist. “That night was horrible. I ran the whole way as fast as I could. You were unconscious, and Margaret…” her body tensed against his. “He was towering over you, I grabbed your gun on the table and fired. I remember thinking you both were dead and that I was going to go to hell for killing my father.”
He pressed his lips to the top of her head and said, “The only one going to hell tonight is your father. You’re much braver than I ever thought anyone could be.”
“Sometimes I have nightmares that I’m too late and you’re dead too. And I’m too slow and he does to me what he did to Margaret.”
“Why haven’t you said anything before?”
She laughed. “You usually have company.”
“What if I didn’t have company? Would you come to me then?”
“As if. You couldn’t go more than one night without bringing a woman home.”
“I used to be a paragon of monogamy. But without Margaret things have just ceased to make sense.”
“My life has never made sense, but the minute I shot dad everything just stopped. He was never even a shadow of a good man, but he was dad. And he was all that I had. He never spared the rod and when he was high he liked to come to my room in the middle of the night. Sometimes I wonder how I ever survived.”
It wasn’t that he hadn’t suspected as much but it hurt him to know she’d suffered anymore than she should have. “He’s a bastard whose time is up. And you are a woman way stronger than she should have to be.”
“Then how come I feel dirty and weak and ashamed every night that I go to bed?”
He sighed and kissed her injured hand. “You deserve a better life than the one you’ve gotten.”
“Maybe. But the last five years have been the best of my short life. And hard times and all I wouldn’t trade anything for my friendship with you. I’m just sorry I lost it with your lady friend this morning. I’m lucky she didn’t call the cops.”
“What would she have said? I had a one night stand and now the occupants of the house want me out?”
He smiled down at her and she laughed. “Doesn’t make what I did right.”
“Maybe not. But it saved me from having to be the womanizing drunk asshole. Instead I was just the grieving one.”
“I bet she was a terrific lady. Angela that is.”
“She was. She deserved a better boyfriend than me. There are so many things that I regret when it comes to her.”
“If she really was as great as you remember her to be then she’s forgiven you of any transgressions during your time together.”
“Ahh, I would forgive you of anything.”
He brushed her hair back. “You may not want anyone to know it but you’re a sweet girl Starr Elizabeth.”
“Well, don’t let it get around. I can’t have people thinking they can take advantage of me.”
Again he was overcome with the urge to kiss her. But he’d been drinking. And he was a womanizing asshole. He couldn’t risk hurting her anymore than she’d already been hurt. Instead he kissed her forehead and said, “As long as I’m around you have nothing to worry about.”
She laughed softly and blushed. “C’mon, let’s get back inside, it looks like rain.”
“I embarrassed you,” he said with a smile.
She rolled her eyes. “You’re crazy.”
“You don’t have t be so tough around me.”
Again that wistful look. “Yeah I do.”
She started climbing down the tree and scrambled down after her. A wind gust blew up and dark clouds rolled over them.
“I’m going to kiss you.”
Her eyes widened. “You’re what?”
Lightning lit up the sky followed by distant rolling thunder. “I said I’m going to kiss you.”
“I’ve been drinking but I’m far from drunk and if the look you just gave me is any indication of how you feel then you want me to kiss you as badly as I want to kiss you.”
She tried to turn and walk away. He grabbed her by the hand and whipped her back to him and took her face in his hands. And as it began to rain he kissed her. When he deepened the kiss she responded in kind and for a brief few moments the world fell away. When the kiss end she was out of breath and staring into his eyes with fear. She touched her lips and raced inside.
“Starr!” He shouted chasing after her. “Starr…!”
The rain began to pour. What had he just done?
Jack heard the door slam as he came through the front door. He locked up and immediately went to Starr’s bedroom and knocked.
“Starr,” he said, his head leaned against the wall. “C’mon Starr open up.”
Her sobs were loud, wrenching, seemingly without end and they tore and clawed at his insides. He knocked again, this time jiggling the door.
“Starr is you don’t open this door I’m going to kick it down.”
Her cries were unbearable. It sounded as if someone was ripping her heart from her chest. He thought of the night he opened his eyes and saw her staring down at him and cradling his head. He started kicking the door repeatedly.
The more he kicked the more overwhelmed he became. The more overwhelmed he got the more he thought of her alone in that room with her grief. And the more he thought of that the more determined he became to get in her room. Finally the lock gave and the door swung back.
She was in the middle of the room on her knees doubled over and in tears. He got down on the floor next to her and tried to pull her into an embrace.
“Don’t touch me!”
“Starr,” he said trying to control her swinging arms and her hands as the pelted him in hard fists.
“I said don’t touch me!”
She continued to fight him and he continued to try to pull her in close.
“Starr, look at me, look at me damn it,” he demanded as he shook her. “Trust me. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“I’m not one of the sluts you drag in here every night. I don’t care what he says.”
“You are not a slut. Whoever told you that is a liar and a jerk.”
“Then why did you kiss me?” She asked through gritted teeth.
He didn’t know. Yes he did. He was attracted to her. He had been since the day he’d encountered her while working undercover. Her strength in the face of that horror mixed with her fragility now made her irresistible. He knew exactly why he’d kissed her and he was prepared to do it again.
“I love you, Starr. I was just an idiot for trying to drink it away.”
“No you don’t. Not like that. I can’t be Margaret’s surrogate.”
“You aren’t Angela. I could never be the man she wanted me to be. Now you. I can be the man you need me to be. I can be the man you want me to be.”
“No you can’t. You drink, you smoke, you sleep around. I’ve never been with a man, how can you be what I need you to be?”
He caressed her skin and touched her hair. “Not everyone is like your father. I’m not your father.”
She touched his face. “I want to trust you. I want to believe you’ll never bring home a barfly. I want to deserve you.”
He took her hand and kissed her fingertips and pressed his lips to them. “You deserve all of that. And if you let me I’ll give it to you.”
She rested her forehead to his and said, “I love you Jack. I think I always have. As sticky and messy as it has been I think I always will.”
He crushed her body to his and ran his fingers through her hair. Brushing his lips to hers he felt her breath hitch. “I’m going to show you what it means to be loved forever.” He pressed his mouth to hers and they kissed.
He kissed her as if he’d been dying from thirst and hungering just for her all of his life. He ran his hand down her back and they laid to the floor. He loved her. He’d always loved her. He would love her forever.