House Without Lies
I looked both ways as I headed into the back alley behind the store, not because I was embarrassed, but because I didn’t want to get Payden in trouble for slipping out to meet me there. The boy was going to a lot of effort to help me, and my runaway girls always needed the food he donated. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my car today, and I was already balancing two bags of groceries I’d purchased when I’d gone inside the store to signal Payden that I was here. So whatever he had for us would make my walk home that much more difficult.
He was already outside in the alley, waiting at the back door by the green Dumpster, his round, heavily-freckled face grinning as always. The roundness made him look younger than his seventeen years, and rather innocent.
“Hey, Lily,” he greeted me, shifting the large box in his arms so he could give a friendly wave. His blue apron was splashed with something that had turned it purple, and the sagging material made him look chubby. He puffed a breath upward to blow away the straight-cut brown hair that hung like a shield over his brown eyes.
“Hey, Payden.” I hooked the grocery bags over my wrists and pushed them toward my elbows, freeing up my hands so I could take the box from him. “Thank you so much.”
“Got bread, bagels, muffins, and cookies today. Should last if you freeze them.”
I could also see dented cans, a few vegetables that would make a fabulous soup, and a gallon of expiring milk. “This is great. Are you sure you won’t get into trouble? That other clerk in there was looking at me kind of strange.”
He shrugged. “Makes no sense to throw it in the trash if you’re right here.” He laughed. “I can always say you wrestled me for it.” His smile dimmed slightly, and he waited only a second to add, “How is she?”
“Elsie’s doing great. Really. The bruising is almost gone. I’ll try to bring her next time, if she’ll come.”
His smile returned. “Then she didn’t run away again.”
“Nope. She still thinks whoever she’s running from is looking for her, but no one’s tracked her down yet. Plus, she’s worried child services will find her and make her go back.”
He folded his arms, looking for all the world as if he wanted to do battle for her. The expression sat oddly on his young face. “They probably would. She’s better off with you.”
If going back to her family or staying with me were the only options, I was the better choice—one glance at the picture I’d taken of Elsie after finding her in this very alley three weeks ago was proof of that.
I’d heard Elsie’s pitiful sobs from the main street and hurried to find her collapsed on the ground near the Dumpster, which she’d apparently been trying to open to find food. Her numerous cuts were old, but not healing, and a deep black and green bruise mottled most of her feverish face. When I’d lifted Elsie up, her battered ribs showed through a gaping rip in her shirt.
That’s when Payden had found us and given me that first box of expired groceries. He was a kindred spirit. Too bad he wasn’t five years older. But then, even men my age seemed too young these days. All they cared about was partying, scraping by in their university courses, and more partying.
“Thanks again.” I didn’t tell him Elsie hadn’t gone outside at all since last week when our neighbor on the second floor had seen her in the stairwell and questioned her about where she lived. Knowing would only make Payden feel bad, and it wasn’t something he could change.
“You’re welcome.” He turned to go inside but hesitated at the door. “Hey, you should really talk to my cousin. I told you he’s working at a place here in Phoenix that helps troubled kids. Teen Remake, or something. He’s got connections, you know? He’s dropping some stuff off for me soon. If you wait just a minute, I could introduce you.”
“I don’t think so. I can’t betray Elsie’s trust. She’s been through enough.” I could probably be charged for harboring a minor, and if my own family found out, I suspected they would come down on the side of the law. Well, all but my sister, Tessa, who had helped me out more than once in the past few months. Anyway, it wasn’t likely Payden’s cousin could do anything more than I could about helping Elsie.
“Think about it,” Payden urged.
I trudged up the alley, tripping once on an old tire someone had left in the way but catching myself before I fell. Lugging the groceries all the way back to my apartment on foot wasn’t something I was looking forward to. Saffron, the oldest of the runaways who lived with me, had chosen a rotten day to borrow my car, but her job interview this morning had to come first.
Cars honked and whizzed past as I reached the main street. Downtown Phoenix was never quiet, it seemed, and today was particularly busy. The air already felt hot and dry on my face.
I turned at the voice and saw Payden, but this time he stood in the front doorway of the small grocery store. A man I’d never seen before was with him, and I hoped Payden wasn’t in trouble for helping me. Would they take back the groceries?
As I watched, the man pushed past Payden and stepped out onto the wide sidewalk. My heart stopped. He was a good two heads taller than Payden and handsome enough that I remembered I wasn’t wearing makeup, and that my messy ponytail had to be more mess than ponytail.
“My cousin’s going to help you get those to your car,” Payden said, nodding encouragingly. He jerked his head to the side, as if listening to someone from behind him. “Gotta go.”
The relief inside me that Payden wasn’t in trouble was canceled out by the amused smile on the man’s face. Without introducing himself, he reached for the box. “So, where’s your car?”
His black hair was short except on top in the front, where it partially waved, arching up and then down in a way that I found compelling. His eyes, also dark, spoke of something exotic. Up close, not even one freckle marred his face, but there was a bit of a five o’clock shadow, as if he’d missed shaving today.
This was Payden’s cousin? If I’d known he was this attractive, I might have hit him up for help a long time ago.
I kept hold of the box. “I didn’t bring it. Sorry. But it’s okay. I don’t need help.”
“I don’t mind walking to your place. Where do you live?” He tugged again gently on the box, his bronzed arms brushing mine. I couldn’t tell if his skin color came from heredity or the sun.
“Are you sure you’re Payden’s cousin? Because you don’t look like him.”
He laughed, a sound that warmed me clear through to my stomach. “People say that a lot. But we are cousins—our mothers are sisters. I just have a bit more variety in my gene pool from my dad’s side.”
Definitely a combination that was working for him. “Well, I’m used to carrying the boxes Payden gives me. But thank you.”
He lifted the box from my arms anyway. “What kind of gentleman would I be if I didn’t walk you home?”
“Maybe you just want to know where I live.”
Again the laugh. “Actually, I do want to know. That way I’ll know where to pick you up when we go out.”
When we go out? A thousand butterflies took flight in my stomach. “Who said I’m going out with you?”
He gave me a slow grin that only increased my heartbeat. “You’ll come around. Now where are we going?”
All at once, I wanted to let him help. I’d been doing this alone for so long, and I couldn’t recall when I’d last been on a date—or flirted with a guy. Certainly not in the past six months.
“Okay,” I said. Letting this gorgeous stranger carry a box ten blocks wasn’t going to hurt either of us. “But keep up. I have stuff to do. And my roommates are waiting for me.”
“I have a few.”
Six to be exact. Girls living on the street seemed to have some kind of internal radar where I was concerned. They appeared in my vicinity, obviously in need, and I couldn’t help taking them home. Elsie, our newest addition, had been the last straw for my old roommates, but I was still trying to see getting kicked out of their apartment as a good thing. My new place was a dump, but at least the girls didn’t have to hide in my room or sneak in only at night to sleep. And there were no complaints about them stealing food.
“So, have you lived here long?” I asked him.
“Five years. I came for school, but I love it here and I don’t think I’ll ever leave. I’m from Tucson originally. You?”
“Flagstaff. I’ve been here for most of three years. It’s a nice place—well, not downtown so much but the city in general.” I wouldn’t tell him what I liked best was being away from Flagstaff and my parents. “Is your whole family here?”
“Just Payden and his mom. His dad died a few years back. That’s one of the reasons I moved here, to help them out. My family’s still in Tucson. I have three brothers and two sisters.”
He laughed again, and it made me smile just to hear it. “Yeah. You have any?”
“One sister. She’s here, too. Across town.” Tessa didn’t know I’d moved, and I was a little embarrassed to tell her. She’d warned me it would happen, but how could I have left Elsie in the street?
No, Tessa would understand, and she’d volunteer to help, if I needed her. She managed the swing shift at Crawford Cereals, our dad’s factory, so our hours overlapped, and it would be easy enough to pull her aside and tell her there. If my parents got wind of it, however, there would be repercussions. They’d wanted me to come home after the college semester ended and, when I’d stayed, had barely let me continue my part-time job at the factory.
They didn’t know about the girls, or that I was their only support. Now that school was out, I was thinking about finding a second job. The twenty hours at the factory weren’t cutting it, and I’d already used much of my savings account.
Beside me, Payden’s cousin slowed. “Hey, where’d you go?”
I refocused on him. “Sorry. Just thinking about something I have to do later.” Then before he could probe further, I said, “I don’t even know your name. But I can keep calling you Payden’s cousin, if you want.”
“If I tell you, will you go out with me?”
“If you don’t tell me, I won’t go out with you.”
“That’s not exactly a yes.”
“Nope.” I gave him a slow grin.
“Okay, my name is Mario Perez.”
An unexpected laugh burst through me. He didn’t look like a Mario Perez. “Mario? You mean like the game?”
“No way, you play video games?”
“Of course I play video games.” Games were one way to connect with the girls, so I learned to play, and sometimes I even enjoyed it.
“Well, that’s really my name. I’m named after my grandfather who came from Spain.”
Europe. So that explained the olive skin and exotic features. “You don’t look like a Mario.” I studied him more closely. In the video game world, Mario was short and, well, a cartoon.
“My middle name is Jameson,” he offered. “But only my mom and my aunt call me that. Everyone else calls me Mario.”
“Okay. I’m sure there’s a story behind that.”
He grinned, and once more that strange heat curled through my belly. If he asked me to go out again, I was definitely saying yes.
“My mother named me, but she changed her mind about calling me Mario after the birth certificate was filed and began using my middle name instead. But my dad said that if Jameson was the name she’d wanted, she should have put it first.” He laughed. “It’s become a friendly little tug-of-war between them. Basically, I’ve learned to answer to just about anything.”
“Sounds fun,” I lied. Not if their wars were anything like the ones my parents waged. Those always sent both Tessa and me running for cover. “You do look more like a Jameson to me. But maybe I’d better pick something safer. Like MJ.” I regretted the words the minute they escaped my lips because MJ didn’t fit him at all.
His grin grew wider. “A nickname. Does that mean you’ll go out with me?”
I was prevented from responding as a motorcycle roared by, and when I could hear again, the moment had passed. I jerked my head toward the four-story apartment complex. “That’s where I live. I can take it from here.”
“I don’t mind walking you to your door.”
As long as it was only to the door. With seven of us crammed into the one-bedroom apartment, I had no idea what to expect of the inside. I’d given the girls chores, but this early most of them would still be in bed, except Saffron, who was at her job interview, and the two sisters I had guardianship over, who were in school.
“It’s on the fourth floor,” I warned, “and there’s no elevator.”
“Of course there isn’t.”
He’d obviously taken in the peeling paint, the planter boxes filled with weeds, and the litter on the ground. But it was cheap, and the owners didn’t mind the girls “visiting” me. Or at least as long as we didn’t make too much noise or come in large groups around the other tenants. Mostly, the place was so run down that they were eager to accept just about anyone.
I hurried up the four flights of open stairs, and Jameson wasn’t puffing hard as he kept up. That was a good sign. But the closer we got to my apartment, the more worried I became. I had a lot to hide, and maybe thinking I could date like a normal person was crazy.
Why did Jameson have to be so incredibly yummy?
He followed me down the inner corridor, where I paused in front of my door. “This is it,” I announced.
He waited expectantly, but there was no way he was carrying that box inside, not when I could guess what was waiting. And I’d have little time to clean before I rushed to my four-hour shift at the factory this afternoon.
A tiny tendril of moisture curled down from Jameson’s temple, and even that was sexy. His dark eyes met mine. “So, Lily, will you go out with me? Payden says you’re my type.”
The door in front of us whooshed open, revealing Halla, a sixteen-year-old with blond hair so short she reminded me of a marine. She also had a penchant for army camouflage and tank tops, which added to the impression. Halla was tiny, though, mostly from malnutrition, so her tough act didn’t carry much weight, but we were working on getting her what she needed.
“Elsie’s on the roof again!” Halla blurted excitedly. “She was just sitting out there on the balcony and then bang, up she went.”
“Oh, no.” I darted a worried glance at Jameson. Forget about yummy or dating; I wished he’d leave.
Another face appeared behind Halla. This time a tall black girl who was only fourteen but looked at least eighteen. Ruth had shoulder-length hair that I usually plaited in tiny, meticulous braids, although today it was a frizzy mess under a baseball cap. She was model gorgeous, but she always covered her lithe figure in too-large clothes to hide any trace of femininity. After what she’d been through, I didn’t blame her.
“I told you we shouldn’t let anyone up there, even with you,” Ruth said. “Elsie thinks none of the rules apply to her.”
She had it wrong. I was pretty sure I knew what had spooked Elsie. I pushed a sack at each girl and reached for the box. “Sorry,” I told Jameson. “Gotta go.”
His eyes went from me to the girls and back. “You need some help?”
“No. Elsie will only get hurt if she thinks you’re here for her.”
“Here for her? Why, what’s she done?” A crease marred his forehead.
Great. I’d known his following me home like a Boy Scout was a bad idea. I yanked the box from his unwilling arms and shoved it at Ruth. “Nothing. Goodbye, Jameson. And thanks.” I pushed past the girls and entered the apartment, leaving Ruth to get rid of him. She was a protective mother hen, and she’d know his presence here was dangerous.
“So no nickname?” he called after me.
I didn’t answer. What had I been thinking? Any kind of a romantic relationship now was completely out of the question. I had to think of Elsie and the other girls. Two of them had already tried to kill themselves.
The balcony ran the length of our apartment, which meant the living room and the bedroom, but the ladder that led to the fire escape and up onto the roof was located on the living room side. I stepped over blankets and backpacks and other strewn belongings on my way across the tiny living room, where a lump told me one of the girls was still sleeping. I kept walking a few paces until it dawned on me that I had no idea who the lump might be. Elsie was on the roof, Saffron at her interview, Ruth and Halla were here, and the other two were in school. I shook my head. I’d have to deal with whoever it was later.
It was my fault Elsie was on the roof. One night I’d climbed up in search of privacy, and when a couple of the girls had come looking for me, I’d answered their calls. Before long, all of us were up there.
Now it had become almost a nightly ritual for whichever girls were home, a place where we could talk in the dark with only the stars as witnesses. I’d learned more about their lives there than anywhere else. Except for Elsie, who never talked but would sometimes reach out and clutch my hand.
The rules were that no one could go up without me because while the roof was large and barely slanted, we were on the fourth floor and some of the girls were still recovering from substance abuse. A couple of them also had quick tempers or were big jokers and as of yet didn’t understand things like gravity and permanent consequences.
I jumped on the chair and climbed the ladder, easing over the edge on my hands and knees for a few feet until I reached the almost flat part and could walk upright. Elsie wasn’t in plain view, but I found her hiding behind several air conditioning units that were already working overtime. Her forehead was pressed to her bare knees, and her long hair splayed outward in a wild, tangled mess, looking dark against her pale skin.
“Hey,” I said, sliding into the empty space next to her.
She looked past me before replying, her brown eyes deep and unrevealing. “Is he looking for me?” The throaty words were full of dread.
“Oh, honey. No. Never.”
She gave a little sob and pushed into my arms. At twelve, she was the youngest of the girls, and with how beaten she’d been when she arrived, the rest of us felt protective toward her—a good thing, or Halla and Ruth wouldn’t have even noticed she was on the roof.
“Who is he?” she said after a few moments.
“Payden’s cousin. He helped me bring home some groceries.”
The remaining tautness in her body eased. “Good.”
“Is there something you’re not telling me?”
Elsie pulled away and nodded. “Yesterday when everyone was gone, I was on the balcony and I saw a little cat out in the parking lot. I thought I’d just go down to pet him for a minute and see if he was hungry, but that guy downstairs saw me and followed me, so I ran around the block and snuck back in.” Elsie’s teeth clamped down on her lips. “It was like he knew something and wanted to ask me more questions.” Tears filled her eyes, spilling over when she blinked. “I won’t go back. I’d jump off this roof before I’d go back.”
Terror clutched at my chest. “No, Elsie. That’s not going to happen. We’ll find a way. Once I graduate, it’ll be different. You’ll see.”
Changing my major twice now seemed ridiculous. The nursing classes had come in handy when Elsie arrived, but I should have pushed on with the business degree my parents had wanted—or at the very least avoided the year deviation into psychology. I could have finished by now, and have a good job cutting paychecks and balancing books at Crawford Cereals, even if it was a job I knew I’d detest. At this rate, I’d be an old woman before I graduated and had a job with enough money to do my dream work of helping lost girls.
The terrible irony was that I had money—a lot of money—just out of reach. An inheritance left to me by my grandfather, who’d founded Crawford Cereals: a half million dollars and monthly payments thereafter. But I had to be twenty-five and married, or thirty if I was still single, to access the funds. My parents had means, but convincing them would be impossible.
I needed to find a way to become legitimate, so the girls could get health and dental coverage and other benefits, but I didn’t know where to begin. Risking that Elsie or any of the others might be sent back to the horrible situations they’d run from was not an option. At least with me, they didn’t have to prostitute themselves or endure abuse by the very people who were supposed to protect them.
At Elsie’s soft words, the fear in my heart melted. I would make it work. Somehow.
Until I did, gorgeous and witty guys like Jameson were a distraction I didn’t need.