The woman didn’t belong. She was as out of place in the dark winter streets of this part of Pittsburgh as a poodle in the jungle. More so, since there was a chance the poodle might have a dog instinct or two buried deep down in its psyche somewhere.Eli Court deliberately looked away. She wasn’t his problem. He had other business to take care of. Important business. The most important stuff was done, but he still had a loose end or two to tie up. He shrugged deeper into his coat wishing the leather had a little more insulation, and propped a foot against the aged brick behind him.
She walked down the street like it was broad daylight out in Squirrel Hill or wherever it was she lived. She didn’t have a clue what was around her, digging in her purse for something as she walked. Probably her keys. The streetlight sent glittery sparks through her dark hair as she passed beneath it, white in the almost black. She wasn’t as young as he’d first thought. And why in hell was he watching her again?
Eli dragged his attention back where it belonged. She’d first caught his eye because she didn’t fit the gray crumbling desperation of the neighborhood, but he didn’t know why she kept pulling him back. She was anything but hot. Her hair was undyed, her body unsculptured, her face bore a bare minimum of makeup, if she wore any at all.
Maybe that was it. She looked real. Like what you saw was what you would get if you knew her. She looked…soft. Kind. Gentle. All those words Eli barely remembered.
And Eli had as much chance of knowing her as that poodle had of surviving the jungle. One look at him and she’d be backing away, pulling that dark green trench coat tight so it wouldn’t brush against him and get contaminated. Her eyes would narrow and her lips would curl like she smelled something bad. He’d seen that expression before. Too many times.
He leaned back against the wall and folded his arms, giving up the fight. He’d watch her until she got to her car and drove away, back to her safe suburban world. The guy he was waiting for wouldn’t show up for a while yet.
When the junior-age street punks came out of the narrow gap between the old narrow houses, Eli was moving before they approached the woman. They were on her quickly, two of them, grabbing for the purse she instinctively clutched to her.
“Hey, Mama, whatchu got in there?” The tall one in gang colors moved into her space, backing her up.
“I’m not your Mama,” she said, sounding amazingly calm, “and if I were, it still wouldn’t be any of your business.”
“That’s right.” Eli stepped up behind her. “I don’t have a clue what’s in your purse, do I, Mama?”
She whirled around, startled. Eli slung his arm over her shoulders, hoping to keep her quiet, hoping she’d follow his lead. She was almost as tall as he was.
“No, you do not.” Her crisp voice made him grin.
He let the grin go feral as he looked at the others. “I know you guys don’t want to go bothering my mama now, do you? Not when she’s come down here just to visit me.”
The gangbanger wanna-bes looked for a minute as if they wanted to argue, until Eli showed them the truth in his eyes. He would not allow them to harm this woman, whatever he had to do to prevent it. Whatever he had to do.
“Sure, dog.” The tall one spread his hands as he eased away. “No problem. We didn’t know she was your mama. We’re cool.”
When they were gone, the woman turned to look at Eli. Her gaze raked him head to toe and back again as she stepped away from his arm. Eli waited for the sneer.
She smiled, as if at a small, private joke. “I don’t believe I’m your mama, either. I’d definitely have remembered spanking that backside.”
Eli couldn’t hold back the bark of laughter. “Come on, Mom. Let’s find your car.”
Now her eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“So you can get the hell out of here before those idiots come back with all their homies.” Eli took her elbow and hustled her down the street in the direction she’d been going. “What are you doing here after dark anyway? Do you have a death wish?”
She sighed. “Sometimes I wonder. But tonight I lost track of time. I tutor at the Youth Center.”
“Noble of you. Which one’s yours?” What did she mean by that “Sometimes I wonder” crack? Was she suicidal?
The woman blinked and paused to look around. Then she pointed back the way they’d come and across the street. “There. The white one.”
“That barge?” Eli’s eyes widened as he saw the elderly vehicle, a wide, squared-off luxury car from a dozen or so years back. Maybe she wasn’t quite as foolish as he’d thought. Nobody’d steal that car, even here.
He escorted her across the street and waited while she unlocked the door. But instead of opening it, she turned back to face him.
“Thank you,” she said, offering her hand. “I suspect I owe you a great deal more than mere thanks. I wish–”
“Thanks is more than I expected.”
Eli pulled his hands back out of her reach. He wanted to take her hand, wanted to hold it in his and the wanting felt too weird. He looked at her outstretched hand, needing to lighten things up. “Better just go. Whoever heard of a mom shaking her son’s hand?”
She smiled then, a twinkly-eyed grin. “You’re right. Whoever heard of that?” Before he could react, she cupped his cheek in her hand, leaned forward and kissed his other cheek.
“My name is Marilyn,” she murmured in his ear, lingering close enough he could feel her warmth against his chilled face. “Don’t call me ‘mom.'”
With a pat of his cheek and another twinkly smile, Marilyn got in her car and drove away, leaving Eli staring after her.
What was wrong with him? He felt hot and cold at once, his insides all churned up, both body and mind out of whack. How could a touch and a kiss on the cheek, for Chrissakes, get him so stirred up? She had to have ten years on him, minimum.
What was wrong with her? Didn’t she have any sense of self-preservation? Why didn’t she turn up her nose? Sneer? Didn’t she know bad news when she saw it? Why in hell would she kiss him? Was she that hard up?
Couldn’t be. She was probably on her way home right now to the guy she married right out of high school. Off to fix a big pot roast and sit down around the table with the kiddies–three at least–and talk about “what did you do today dear?” And she’d tell them about the guy who saved her by pretending to be her son, and they’d all laugh, and her husband would tell her he didn’t want her coming down here anymore, it was too dangerous, and she’d smile and say “you’re right, dear,” and she would stay home in her suburb where she was safe.
And Eli wouldn’t have to worry about seeing her again or what to do with his hard-on if he did. He could stop wondering if she would tell them about kissing him and wondering why she did it, because it wouldn’t matter. She’d be gone. It wasn’t like it was a real kiss anyway.
Eli turned up the collar of the coat and walked back up the street to the bar where the guy he was looking for hung out. <***>
What an interesting young man. Marilyn Ballard cranked up the heat in her car and turned the fan to low to wait for the engine to heat up as she headed for the freeway. He could have joined the others in stealing her purse or tried to take it after chasing them off. Instead he’d escorted her politely to her car. A regular knight in black leather.
Why had he chosen her as his damsel to rescue? Marilyn stopped at the light and hit the auto-lock button. Just in case. Her knight might not appreciate his damsel-rescuing being wasted if somebody decided to carjack her. The conceit amused her, though her laughter never reached surface. Her knight indeed. Still, he was an attractive young man, in a hard-edged, “rebel-without-a-cause” sort of way.
He had been absolutely flummoxed when she kissed him. Amusement swept over her again as the light turned green. He’d probably thought she was just an average suburban housewife, someone who always did the expected thing, the “right” thing. Three months ago, he’d have been correct. But lately, she’d taken a kind of perverse delight in doing the unexpected. Shocking people had become her greatest pleasure.
The trickle of air flowing over her feet began to feel warm and Marilyn clicked the fan up a notch as she made the turn toward the onramp and accelerated onto the freeway. She unbuttoned her coat and reached inside to pull her scarf free. But it wasn’t there, looped around her neck. She reached deeper into her coat, groped down her back and finally pulled over to the side and stopped to search more carefully.
Her scarf wasn’t anywhere. Not in her purse, her pockets or slid down into a sleeve. Marilyn fought down her panic. It was stupid to be so attached to what was nothing more than a length of cloth. It had no magic powers, wasn’t even particularly valuable, though it was cashmere. But Bill had given it to her for Christmas four years ago. Their last Christmas together, only days before he’d driven into a fatal encounter with a trucker twelve hours past his designated rest stop.
She pulled back into a traffic lane and hunted for an exit. It was more than a mile before she found one and was able to get off and turn around. She must have left the scarf at the center. She had a key. She could park in the alley right beside the back door and find her scarf before anyone knew she was there. Okay, so it was crazy. Stupid, even. But she couldn’t go home without the scarf. If it was crazy, so be it.
The street was empty where she’d been accosted, lights shining dim through the heavily curtained windows of the tall, skinny row houses. The storefront Youth Center passed. Marilyn turned into the cross street and wheeled the big car into the alley, holding her breath until she was sure she would clear the buildings to either side. Then she lifted her foot off the gas as her brain took in the scene her headlights illuminated.
Three men, armed with tire tools and baseball bats, froze in mid-blow over a fourth man slumped on the ground.
They stared into the light, predators on the hunt. The man on the ground moved. He was alive. Needed help. Marilyn slammed her hand down on the horn, hoping the noise would scare them off, hoping they couldn’t see through the lights, couldn’t see she was a woman alone.
At the raucous sound, the three men broke and ran, scattering at the far end of the alley. Marilyn accelerated slowly, digging in her purse for her cell phone. She needed to call the police, an ambulance, help.
Their victim struggled up onto all fours. Slowly, as if it cost him a fortune in pain, he lifted his head, shielding his eyes from her headlights with a forearm, and Marilyn saw his face. She slammed on the brakes, staring. He was battered, discolored and bleeding, but she recognized him–the man who’d rescued her.
She threw the car into park and got out, rushing to him. “What did they do to you? How bad are you hurt?”
She crouched beside him, unwilling to kneel in the near-frozen puddle, and caught his arm. “Don’t get up,” she said as he leaned hard on her, pushing upright.
“Have to,” he gasped.
“You need help. I’ll call the police.” Marilyn held him up, though she wasn’t sure she should. Might he not be better off staying down until an ambulance arrived with people who were trained in this sort of thing?
“No. No police.” His grip on her arm tightened. “I’m fine.”
“Like hell you are.”
He blinked, as if her feeble profanity had startled him. “What are you doing here?” His voice sounded full of rocks, things broken inside it.
“Rescuing you.” She started toward her car, bearing him along. He resisted, but hadn’t the strength to resist much.
“I don’t need rescuing.” His speech became less distinct as his mouth swelled by the second. “I can take care of m’self.”
“No, you cannot.” Marilyn opened the passenger door and pushed him into it. He cried out as one of his legs hit the side panel. She fought back tears and anger, helping him lift his feet inside. “Why don’t you want me to call the police? Don’t you want them caught? Punished?”
“Who’s going to catch them? Half the cops in this town would probably rather help them.”
“Why? Who are they? Wait.” Marilyn shut the door and rushed around the car. She hesitated, keys in hand. She could be in and out of the Youth Center in a minute. But he was hurt. The living had to take priority over the dead.
She got in and started the engine. “Who were they?” she asked again. “Why were they beating you?”
“Why do you care?” He slumped in the seat, staring straight ahead.
Marilyn considered his question. “Actually, I don’t.”
There was a hospital somewhere in the area nearby, but she didn’t know how to get to it. The hospital where Bill had died after lingering a week wasn’t much farther and she had intimate knowledge of all its access points. She pulled into the street.
“That is,” she said, “I don’t care who they are except as to how likely it is that they’ll do this to you again.”
He stared at her a long moment. She could feel his gaze almost as a tangible thing.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “That’s a gay bar. They were waiting for somebody to bash. I was an easy target.”
“I doubt you were.” Marilyn pushed down on the gas, slipping through the light on the tail end of yellow.
“Must have been. They caught me, didn’t they?”
“Put on your seatbelt,” she said, as they neared the freeway.
“Put it on anyway.”
He scowled at her. She scowled back and he did as she asked. He glowered out the window a moment. “Where are you taking me?”
Marilyn slid onto the freeway between two long-haul trucks and sped up to get away from them. “I’m taking you to St. Anthony’s Episcopalian.”
She smiled. “A hospital.”
“You don’t have to do that. I’m fine.”
“Will you please stop talking garbage? You are not fine. You are not anywhere near fine, and you won’t know just how not-fine you are until someone with some medical expertise checks you out. I don’t want to hear any more idiocy out of you.”
He fell silent for a moment. “Why are you doing this?”
“Doing what?” Marilyn was pretty sure she knew what he meant, but she wasn’t sure she had any answers for him.
“This.” He gestured at his surroundings. “All of it. Chasing them off. Picking me up off the street. Letting me in your car. Why the hell were you in the alley to start with?”
“I left something in the Youth Center. I was coming back to get it. I figured I could get in and get it before anyone knew I was there.”
“So why didn’t you?”
“You were there, hurt. What did you expect me to do? Leave you there?”
He didn’t answer. Obviously that was what he expected.
“Why didn’t you leave me to be mugged?”
“That’s different.” He swayed against the seatbelt, though the car traveled down the highway straight and steady.
“It’s exactly the same.” Marilyn shot him a worried glance. “Are you all right?”
He turned and peered at her through his right, less swollen eye. “Yeah, ‘M fine.”
He didn’t look fine. Not in the least.
“Stay with me, son. Don’t go blacking out on me, okay?” She increased her speed.
“I’m not y’r son.” The words came out mumbled and run together.
Marilyn wasn’t sure she’d heard what he meant to say. “What? Is it better if you talk to keep awake or stay quiet because it hurts?”
“I’m not your son,” he said with careful precision. “You’re not my mother and I’m not your son.”
“Well.” Marilyn tapped the brake and signaled a lane change. Her exit was coming up. Then came the twisting through the streets around the hospital. “Now that we’ve established our relationship, what do you suggest I call you?”
“Eli.” He watched her with the same care he gave his speech, his attention tangible again. “My name is Eli Court.”
“I am very pleased to meet you, Eli.” She made the turn that brought her to the maze of entrances and found the sign directing the way to the emergency entrance. “I’m Marilyn Ballard.”
“Marilyn. I r’member.”
“Good.” She parked the car in a non-ambulance spot and pocketed the keys. “So maybe your brains aren’t too scrambled.”
Eli opened his door and was trying to get out when Marilyn made it around to help him. He gasped when he put his left foot down and immediately she put her shoulder under his arm.
“Lean on me,” she said, kicking the car door shut. “Don’t put any weight on it. You don’t know how bad those sons of bitches might have hurt you.”
“‘M okay,” he protested. But Marilyn noted that he didn’t reject her help.
Before they got through the doors, hospital personnel had noticed them and appeared with a wheelchair and questions about Eli’s condition. Marilyn was able to give them his name and a few sketchy details of the incident, but little more before Eli vanished into the depths of the ER.
She could leave now, she thought, as she turned back into the waiting room. She’d brought him here, made sure he would be properly tended. Her responsibility was done. So why did she linger? Why was she pacing in the waiting room instead of outside getting in her car to drive home?
Maybe because there was nothing at home to draw her. It was empty. Barren. A one-room efficiency with bath, nothing more than a place to lay her head when living alone at the house out in Hillside had become too difficult. Julie was gone, off to college with her scholarship to Penn State. Marilyn was on her own now.
Eli interested her. Nothing else had in far too long. After Bill died, Julie had needed her, and for her sake, Marilyn had smiled and kept on doing the things she always did. She planted her petunias and impatiens in the spring and put mums out in the fall. She cooked pot roast and rosemary chicken, baked cookies when the occasion called. But she’d just been doing things to make Julie happy and give her a sense of security. Somewhere between Bill’s death and Julie’s departure for college, Marilyn had lost any sense of herself.
She had to find it again. She wanted, suddenly, desperately, to feel something again. Anything. She didn’t think she’d been depressed. She had no urge to lie in bed all day or burst into tears at odd moments. She’d just been…drifting. As if she’d simply checked out of her life and let her body go on without her. Was that depression? She didn’t know. But when Julie had moved out, Marilyn had gradually realized that she was a stranger in her own life.
Changes had to be made. So she’d made them, almost randomly. Her apartment was part of that, though she hadn’t sold the house and didn’t know if she would. The volunteer tutoring at the Youth Center was another part. Sometimes the kids–mostly older teens–excited her with their eagerness to learn. Sometimes they frustrated her so much she wanted to bang their heads against the wall in hopes of banging some learning into them. But either way, they made her feel.
So did Eli. Marilyn didn’t quite know what exactly it was that he made her feel. He intrigued her, fascinated her. Not like that. Not in a sexual or even a romantic way. He couldn’t be much older than Julie, for heaven’s sake. Besides, it was entirely possible he was gay–though somehow that didn’t seem to fit.
Maybe it was curiosity that drew her. Maybe it was all that black leather, that aura of danger that floated around him. Or maybe it was the sense she had that he didn’t quite know how to react to her. Whatever it was, from the minute he’d appeared out of nowhere behind her on the street, Eli Court had made her feel alive.
How long had it been since she felt that way? Four years, at the very least. Had it been longer? Did it matter?
Probably not. Doubtless Eli wasn’t at all intrigued by her in return. But she was going to wait anyway. She didn’t have anything better to do. She would stay long enough to make sure he was all right, make sure he had a way home and then she’d let him tell her goodbye.
Mind made up, Marilyn strode to the desk. “Can you tell me how Eli Court is?”
A nurse standing nearby looked up. “Are you his mother?”
Before Marilyn could deny it, the nurse caught her arm and tugged. Marilyn went.
“Maybe you’ll have better luck talking sense into Mr. Court than we have,” the nurse said, pushing open a door to show Eli attempting to get off the examining table.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Marilyn strode in, pointing at the table. “You get right back up there and let these people do their jobs.”
He didn’t, of course. Just scowled at her. “‘M fine.”
“You can’t talk as well as you did five minutes ago.” She stood over him, looking down at him. “Please, Eli.” She touched his hair lightly, afraid to touch him anywhere else. “Please?”
“They want to cut my coat.” He spoke slowly and carefully.
“Then take it off. I’ll help.” Marilyn eased it over his shoulders and pulled gently on the cuffs to slip the sleeves over his hands. She could tell it hurt him, but other than a few deep breaths, he didn’t let it show. When it was off, Marilyn folded the leather jacket over her arms.
“Now that your mother has your coat, will you let us check you out?” The doctor clicked her penlight several times in succession, impatient.
“She’s not my mother.” Eli leaned back and allowed the hospital personnel to position him on the table.
“Oh?” The doctor shot a quick glance at Marilyn who’d moved back out of the way, before shining her light into Eli’s eyes.
He endured the examination with ill grace, opening his mouth for a flash of the penlight and a probe of his teeth. When the doctor moved on, examining a small cut behind his ear, he swallowed, a difficult task with his mouth so battered.
“No,” Eli said in his broken-sounding voice. “We’re lovers.”