Spinning back around, I glowered up at him. “Don’t you ever push me again!” I shouted. “And don’t you ever tell me what to do.”
Jude’s expression flattened before lining into desperation. “Please, Luce. Just go inside.”
His plea was so raw, his eyes so helpless, I almost did. But then the three figures were upon us.
“You been holding out on us, Jude?” one said, stepping into the firelight. He wasn’t as tall as Jude, but he was stocky. Running his eyes down me like he was peeling off my clothes in the same motion, he said, “You unearth some fresh piece of ass and don’t have the decency to share with your brothers?”
“Brothers?” I whispered this time, letting Jude step in front of me and stay there.
“Metaphorically, baby,” the stocky boy answered. “And brothers that share everything.” Jude’s broad back was the only thing saving me from another eye raping by stocky boy. “Everything,” he repeated, telling a crass story with one word.
“Vince,” Jude said, his voice murder. “Get the hell out of here before I make you.”
Vince laughed. “I know you like yourself a little piece of ass, whether you’re kicking it or screwing it, but I doubt you’d be able to take all three of us down before we took you down.” The two other boys, who must have been twins and hygiene-impaired, stepped into the circle. “Right before we took your girl down. Each took your girl down.”
I should have been terrified. Every survival instinct inside me should have been firing at top speed. Teenage girl had nightmares about situations like this.
But I wasn’t. Whether it was Jude’s balled fists, or the fury rolling off of him, or the fact that my survival instincts took a hiatus, I felt as calm as calm could be.
“Let’s find out how that goes for you,” Jude said, his jaw set. “Come on, you dip-shits. Which one’s going to be the first one to come at me?” Curling his finger at each of them, he waited.
We waited for a while. No one, least of all the stinky twins, looked like they could come away alive, let alone walking, if they came at Jude. From the looks they were shooting at him, you would have thought he was walking death with a pair of fists that packed a powerful punch.
“We’ll leave you alone,” Vince said at last. “Let you finish up what you came here for. One last summer screw.”
Jude made a noise that sounded more animal than man. “That’s a smart move, but isn’t going to save you from catching an ass-whooping the next time I catch up with you.”
“As always, Jude, such a pleasure,” Vince said, following after the twins who were already halfway down the beach. “And a word of advice for you, girly,” he said, stepping to the side so he could look at me. When he did, a smile that was nasty by every definition of the word curled his mouth. “Make sure he uses a condom. You don’t want to catch what that man whore’s got growing down there.”
Jude’s entire body jolted forward, he wanted to chase after those guys and do who knows what to them, but he stopped. Glancing back at me, his shoulders dropped and then his arms relaxed back at his sides.
The man had been insulted in as many ways a man could be, threatened, taunted, and teased, and here he stayed. A foot in front of me. A man who I didn’t doubt could end all three in ten seconds time judging from the rage and confidence I’d witnessed in his eyes.
And he stayed behind with me. Whether to protect me in case the three stooges made a return trip or to pick up right where we’d left off, I wasn’t sure. And I didn’t care.
“Hey, Dickweed!” I yelled at any and all of the trio ambling down the beach. Not able to make out any details, I guessed from them stopping they were looking back my way. I made sure to step into the fire light so they could get my full message. Raising my middle finger, I yelled, “There’s plenty of this to share!”
“What the hell are you doing, Luce?” Jude hissed, pulling me behind him again. I didn’t take Jude for the chivalrous type, but I liked it, more than any woman of the twenty-first century should.
“Not even a fraction of what I’d like to,” I said, as the only reply the three gave me was a chorus of laughter.
“Listen, I dig your spunk and your take no prisoners attitude, I do,” Jude said, turning to face me, “but you don’t mess with people like this.”
“People like this or brothers like this?” I said, so much nervous energy bouncing out of me from the highs and lows of the past ten minutes I didn’t know what to do with it.
“Those are your brothers?” I actually said a quick prayer it wasn’t true.
“In a way,” he replied, closing his eyes.
“In what way?”
Opening his eyes, he reached for my hand. “In the way that doesn’t matter.”
“Then screw them,” I said, letting him take my hand when I knew I shouldn’t have before I had some clarification as to who or what he was. “I should have flipped them off again. They’re all bark.”
“No,” he said firmly. “Please, Luce. These are the kind of bastards that have no bark. They sink their teeth into you without any damn warning.” Grabbing my arms, he pulled me close, looking at me like he could force his words to absorb. “Don’t mess with them. If you see them coming down the sidewalk, cross the street.”
This earned an eye-roll from me. Surely he was exaggerating. I didn’t doubt the doofus triplets had done their fair share of pot and defacing public property, but they weren’t ballsy enough to do the stuff that would earn them hard time if they were caught. Coward was stamped across every one of their foreheads.
“Shit, Luce,” Jude said, crossing his arms behind his neck and spinning towards the beach. “This is exactly the reason I told you to stay away. So you didn’t find yourself eyeballs deep in my shitty life.”
Now his words of caution were starting to make sense. Why he said I should stay away from him if I was smart.
The thing was, if staying away from him made me unsmart, I never wanted to be smart again.
“Jude,” I said, looping my fingers through his belt.
Turning around, he looked at me with weary eyes. “Yeah?”
And, after a moment’s pause, he did.
I didn’t have a clue what time it was by the time Jude and I were finally able to pry each other away from one another, but as I tucked myself into bed that night, I knew the sun would be making its debut in a few hours max. That meant I’d have to get through a killer three hour ballet practice on two hours of sleep. I didn’t care. Every minute of sleep lost was spent losing myself in Jude’s arms.
Forcing myself to close my eyes and turn off my overheated mind, I opened them a heartbeat later. Rambo went off like a hurricane warning.
I jolted out of bed and ran to the window. Rambo wasn’t a barker; he growled, smiled, and gave an occasional yap, but I’d never heard him go off like this. It was like either him, or someone close by, was about to have the life strangled from them.
I couldn’t make out much other than the gleam of his kennel and what could be shadows winding in the wind or people moving around the perimeter. Lifting the window to get a better look, a wall of flames exploded up and around Rambo’s kennel.
It wasn’t something I thought about. It was purely a gut decision. Crawling out of the window, I scooted down the roof. The only thing on my mind was saving Rambo from another fire. One I could actually save him from.
How or whom had started the fire wasn’t even an afterthought; I just had to get to him. To save him.
Swinging my legs over the edge of the roof, my feet landed on the porch rail, and then it was a mere jump to the ground. I’d done it a dozen different times, but I didn’t think this instance qualified as sneaking out of the house.
Rambo’s barks had stopped at the inception of the flames, and I wasn’t sure if that was because he was scared barkless or dead. It seemed wrong to hope for the former.
Grabbing the hose around the side of the house, I cranked it on and sprinted down the yard. The hundred yards to the beach where the kennel was took an eternity to cross. Thrusting my thumb over the end of the hose, I sprayed the kennel door first, hoping to kill the flames there so I could open it and free Rambo. I couldn’t see him through the fire, but I had to believe he was all right.
I couldn’t tell you if the laughter behind me had just started or had been going on for a while, but when clapping accompanied it, I finally took notice.
Keeping the hose aimed at the kennel, I looked over my shoulder to find Vince and the twins ambling towards me. Without Jude’s formidable frame blocking me, they, and the menacing looks on their faces, terrified me.
“So we meet again,” Vince said, separating himself from the other two.
I felt like I could vomit, but I didn’t let that keep me from replying. “I was hoping we would since I wasn’t sure if you got a good look at my parting message.” Separating one hand from the hose, I performed a repeat flip off.
I knew it was childish, I knew it was out of place, and I knew it was useless against three men and whatever they were going to throw my way, but it felt so damn good at the time.
Vince’s face dropped, like he couldn’t believe I was giving them the bird when my dog was very likely on fire and three boys that personified disturbed were looking at me like I was next up on their climb towards crime escalation.
“I’m going to enjoy watching you burn, bitch,” he said, spitting to the side. “Grab that whore so we can teach her some manners.”
I should have yelled, I should have ran, I should have at least dropped the hose so I’d have use of both hands when the twins came at me, but I’d never been the girl that did what she should have.
Keeping the hose firing at the kennel, I glanced over at Jude’s house, waiting for him to come barreling out the front door any moment to save me. Two sets of arms grabbed ahold of me, twisting me around with such force the hose snapped free of my hands.
“You better let me go right now!” I shouted at the two of them, struggling against their grips. “Unless you want a fist dent to your foreheads.” Another look over my shoulder revealed no sign of Jude, not even a hint of light in his house.
“He’s not coming to your rescue, honey,” Vince said, stepping forward. “Jude’s not the kind of guy who likes to play hero. He’s more the anti-hero type if you catch my drift.”
This earned a couple of snickers from either side of me.
“Ha,” I snorted. “This coming from the person who lit some helpless dog on fire to lure a girl out of bed so he could attempt to intimidate her. That sound like someone who would recognize a hero when he saw one?” My mom had told me from the time I was three my mouth was going to be the death of me, and gauging by the flash of murder across Vince’s face, she was right.
“So what exactly are you calling me?”
Narrowing my eyes, I sunk my heels in the ground. “A coward.”