Beth drew her knees up to her chest and hugged them. The October night was bitterly cold, and the sidewalk sparkling with the first layer of frost. Beneath her, only a thin layer of cardboard separated her ass from the concrete of Monroe Street and behind, the gritty brick wall of a deli pushed harshly against her spine.
She’d lost weight since being on the streets, but that wasn’t surprising.
“Any spare change?” she asked a passerby, noticing him only at the last moment as his scuffed shoes came into view.
He ignored her, the clip, clip of his footsteps quickly fading.
She suppressed a shiver. She wouldn’t survive for much longer. As winter stole the nights, hypothermia would sneak up on her—if it wasn’t already.
How the hell had it come to this?
Oh yeah, because of him.
She hoped he was dead in the desert with coyotes chewing on his bones and ravens pecking at his eyes, but that was wishful thinking.
Someone else was approaching. Beth looked up hopefully. It was a woman wearing a long, pale brown coat and high-heeled boots. Quite smart for this area.
“Please, any spare change?” Beth said, holding out her hand. Her grubby gloves were fingerless and a long thread hung from them.
“No. Get yourself home.” The woman threw her a disdainful glare. “I bet your parents are worried sick about you.”
No, they’re not.
But there was no point answering. She wouldn’t change the woman’s mind. She saw a scrap of a girl, dirty, underfed and living on the streets and figured it was a life choice.
Sleeping rough and begging was a soul-destroying way to live. It was eating at the very core of Beth’s being, reducing her to a mere shadow of her former self.
Once she’d been vibrant and happy. She was Beth Rammada, eldest daughter of India and Brent Rammada, whose illicit operations spanned half of Chicago. No one would touch her for fear of repercussions from her mobster family. Hell, no one would even have said boo to her without risking getting his genitals cut off—her cousin Samuel had been known to roll that way when displeased with men’s attention on family members. Kind of like a Rammada calling card.
The Windy City had been hers for the taking, and she’d grown up cocooned by that way of life. Yes, it was tinged with violence, and there were major ethical issues with the way her family earned a crust, but it was all she’d ever known. And while she’d had everything she’d asked for, to the point of being spoilt, she wasn’t going to question it.
Until that day three months ago.
Then she’d had to get away.
Eastman and his gang had changed everything.
Her stomach growled, and she grimaced at the taste of bile in her mouth. It was something that accompanied extreme hunger, that and the gripping pains in her belly.
Closing her eyes, she wondered if the restaurant around the back of Third had thrown out its garbage yet. She’d gotten lucky a few times and found edible tidbits there. She had to watch out for the chef, though, because he was a mean bastard and had thrown a bucket of filthy water at her the week before.
A deep voice, suddenly right in front of her, caused Beth to open her eyes.
A man was squatted before her, elbows on his bent knees and the collar of his leather jacket turned up. He had a thick spread of stubble around his jawline and his features were doused in shadows, but she could see he had a scar traveling over his forehead and slicing over one eyebrow.
A surge of adrenaline pumped into her system.
Fight or flight?
What did this stranger want? Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be for her benefit.
“Got a few spare dollars?” she muttered, wondering if it would be best to run left or right. Left led onto a busier street where someone might help her, but right took her to a park where she could hide if she managed to shake him.
She studied his narrowed eyes; black as the night, they were trained on hers.
Who was she kidding? She’d never be able to escape him. He was a man who oozed power. Through his coat it was easy to see his shoulders were broad, his limbs likely lean and strong. Her fuel tank was on empty, and he’d take her down as though swatting a fly.
“I have money,” he said, his voice low and gritty, almost as if his words were dragged over sandpaper. “But I won’t give it to you.”
“So piss off.” She jerked her head to the left, shifted on the cardboard and had a quick glance around, wondering if there was anyone who might come to her aid if she screamed.
“That’s not very nice. I only want to help.”
“You can help by giving me money.”
“What so you can spend it on your next hit?”
“I’m not a druggie.”
“Yeah, right.” He huffed, then straightened, looming over her. “There’s a diner around the corner called Metros. Come with me, and I’ll buy you a hot meal.”
“Why not?” He shrugged.
Beth looked away. “I don’t wanna be in your debt?”
“You won’t be.” He stepped away. “If you were my daughter, I’d like to think someone would at least feed you on a cold night like this.”
“But I’m not your daughter.” Though she could be. He was well into his thirties, maybe even forties, and to her nineteen years that seemed pretty old.
He chuckled. “No, you’re not. So…you coming?”
“No, I’ll give it a miss. My mother told me never to go with strangers.”
“She’s a wise woman, but do you really think it’s safer sitting out here than in a warm diner, even if you don’t know me?”
Beth said nothing. The thought of a warm diner, warm food, a chair, for God’s sake, instead of the sidewalk to sit on was heavenly.
“Oh well,” he said, “I tried.” He nodded toward the end of the street. “You’ve got until I turn the corner to change your mind.”
“Okay, but just so you know, it’s a one-time offer. Won’t happen again.”
“What are you, fucking Mother Teresa reincarnated?”
“Probably the exact opposite.” He tipped his head and gave her one last lingering look.
A shiver went through her. Despite his age, he possessed the bad boy look that had always appealed to her—shaved hair, thick neck, a bump on his nose most likely from a brawl.