Life in the slums was like living in a constant war zone. A person never relaxed completely, never walked the streets without looking around for danger, and never trusted that the person walking toward him wasn’t prepared to kill him to take whatever he had. When you leave and go where that kind of life is as foreign as the surface of the moon, you gain a perspective you never had before. You understand that things could be so much better for you. It makes living in the shithole of society unbearable.
“You look a bit rough around the edges this morning,” Chris said as he checked over his boat.
Calling it a simple boat was inadequate, I thought as I looked over the sleek wooden finish, the white sails, and the stainless tack shining in the sun. It was too big for a boat and too small against the other million-dollar craft around it for the title of yacht. Though it looked like a well-maintained antique, I could see the vast amount of money spent on every detail.
“Late night,” I replied as I tried to decide how I was supposed to join him on the swaying deck from the relative safety of the dock. He didn’t seem ready to enlighten me. I felt that was for amusement, though, rather than a desire to keep me at a distance. He had a small smile on his lips.
In the sun, Chris’s blond hair had highlights that looked like hot gold. He wore a thin white tank top despite the morning chill in the air. His tan shorts looked molded onto his athletic build. This was his element. I was very sure at that moment that it wasn’t mine.
I finally decided to gather my courage and get on board. Like a nervous alley cat, I eyed the tossing water between me and the railing with trepidation. I stepped across and immediately lost my balance when the deck heaved, Chris’s hand was there to steady me. He laughed, but it was good-natured and I didn’t take offense. I was too busy noticing that he had a wonderful laugh and a strong arm.
He helped me sit on a cushioned seat toward the bow and then stood over me, swaying expertly with the toss of the deck. “How did you find me?”
“Asked around,” I replied, though using my cell phone to troll through police files was more accurate. As a narc for the police I had minimal clearance, but it had been enough. My guess that Christopher Caldwell enjoyed the water had been correct. His expensive craft, the Wastrel
, had been listed under his name.
Chris was studying me. I looked completely out of place in my gang clothes. My bruised face and slightly swollen bottom lip attested to my late-night battle with a rival gang. Some of them had gone to the emergency room. One of them had gone to the morgue. My gang had emerged relatively unscathed and high on success, especially after I had handed out the cheaper drugs to them.
“I suppose the next question is, why did you look for me?” Chris said. “I think I made it clear that I wasn’t interested as long as you were employed by my father. Turning a new leaf?”
When he looked at me with his blue eyes and I saw a bit of wistful hope there, I hated replying, “’Fraid not. Your father made it clear that I wasn’t welcome at his home. Since he didn’t give me contact details, I thought asking you to be my go-between this one time would be all right.”
“It’s not,” Chris retorted and then worried a bottom lip between white teeth as he reconsidered his reaction. He said at last, “I suppose I send mixed signals when I benefit from my father’s wealth, but I like to think that not being in the actual business is an acceptable standard.”
How many late nights had I wasted by drawing fine distinctions between what I did and the criminal element I helped the police arrest? “I’m not judging.”
“I’m afraid I can’t be as generous as you are in return.”
I nodded, understanding. “You don’t have to explain. I’m trash. I’ll scrape myself off your boat as soon as you agree to take the money to your father and tell him to contact me.”
“I can’t do that,” Chris replied, “and I don’t really need to. My father will want his money. He’ll contact you.”
Chris cocked his head to one side. The sunlight made his eyes look as clear as glass for a moment before he frowned.
I stood up, thinking it was my signal to get the hell off his boat.
“You must have known that. Why did you really come here?” Chris asked.
I smiled and motioned around us at the tossing waves, the sunlight, and the seagulls drifting by on a breeze. “The scenery is a hell of a lot better than in the slum.” I was staring at Chris as I said that, though, and not at the scenery. His handsome face took on a worried expression. I scrambled to clarify, even though a part of my brain was telling me I had meant exactly what I had implied—I had wanted to see Chris again. “I was used to a life like this before my gang was busted. I want that back.”
“No offense,” Chris replied, “but you don’t look like the kind of man to sip champagne on the deck of a yacht.”
“Ah, insults.” I pretended to be hurt.
“No, just the truth,” Chris replied. “You’re a lone wolf, albeit a handsome one. If I put a tuxedo on you, you will still look like a wolf. It’s your nature.”
I growled and showed him my teeth as I moved to the railing and tried to decide how best to get back onto the dock. “Your father won’t see me directly,” I told him truthfully. “I’m hoping you would mention me.”
“Talk you up to him?” Chris had chuckled at my mock growl, but now he was frowning again.
“Yeah,” I replied. I scrambled awkwardly and managed not to fall face-first as I made it to the dock. “Tell him I’m not a stupid thug and I look like the kind of guy who might do well in his organization.”
“We don’t have actual conversations,” Chris admitted as he came to the railing and leaned on it. “We especially don’t have conversations about his business.” He studied me as if memorizing every line of my face. The part of me used to going undercover was getting nervous.
“What?” I finally asked.
He seemed a little embarrassed as he replied, “It’s nice that you didn’t come here to try and get family secrets out of me.”
“Has that happened?”
Chris shrugged as if it didn’t matter, but I could see it did. He replied, “It’s happened a few times. They think a son who isn’t committed to either the business or his father might be willing to give them damaging information.” I had a feeling that people had used him badly in that respect.
“Are we talking about the police?”
“Yes, for the most part.” Chris straightened and reached for some ropes. “I know exactly how long I would live if dear ole dad ever caught me giving information to anyone about his business.”
“This was a wasted trip, then?” I asked. He was startled at my honesty. He had handed me the perfect opportunity to lie. I hadn’t taken it.
Chris gave me a very long appraising look. “You’re different,” he said finally. “I’m not sure who you really are or what you really want, but everything you’ve said about yourself has been a lie.”
I felt a chill of dread at his obvious confidence. I’d never worn my disguise so thinly before. It was as if the man I had created was losing to the real me, to a dual attraction to an ideal—Snow—and this man—Chris—who, by his clearly stated standards, wasn’t interested in me as long as I remained a drug-dealing gang leader.
Chris was suddenly very intense as he leaned over the rail and held out a hand. “Come with me,” he begged. “Leave it all behind. I don’t know what there is about you, but I find I can’t stay uninvolved. I need you to be a different man, though. I need you to get out of my father’s business.”
His hand was tanned and strong. I could see his tension and his need for me to say yes. How could he decide to want me so quickly? I didn’t know, but I wanted to reach out to him. I wanted desperately to take his hand. It was insane, wasn’t it?
It was hard to step back and put my hands in my jacket pockets. Alley cats didn’t belong on mini yachts and certainly didn’t get to develop relationships with someone like Chris. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t explain, but…”
He frowned. I thought he was either going to show disgust for me or at least anger. Instead, I saw frustration and then resignation. His hand lowered. “If you want to meet with my father where he won’t shoot you on sight, be at 122 Martin Street, Tuesday at nine p.m. That’s when he’ll show his appreciation to some of his contacts where the public eye won’t see.”
That information might cost him dearly. I didn’t know why he was taking such a risk for me when I had just admitted that I had intended to use him. My “Thank you” seemed inadequate.
“Don’t thank me,” he said as he turned his back on me and began casting off from the dock. “You have your information, and you’ve made your decision. Now that you don’t need me, I doubt you’ll want to see me again. I find that preferable.”
That unexpectedly stung. As the boat slipped away from the dock and Chris started the engine, I realized why. I didn’t want it to be over between us. I wanted to see Chris again.