My body couldn’t decide whether it couldn’t breathe or was going to be sick.
Hard fingers bit into my chin and I cried out, the air rushing into my lungs. Every muscle, every nerve, every piece of bone felt as if it was on fire. I clutched my ribs as Murray held my head up by my chin. ‘You get me that money, lass. I’m renting the flat above the Halfway House on Fleshmarket Close for a few days. You’ve got two days to bring the money to me there. Got it?’
The hurt in my ribs was unbelievable. I could barely concentrate on what he was saying.
‘I said got it?’
I nodded feebly, sighing with relief when he abruptly let go of my chin.
And then he was gone.
The thick scent of beer and nicotine had disappeared. I was lying on the cold ground, my lip throbbing, my ribs aching and my head screaming with fury. At him. At myself.
I should have taken Cam up on those self-defence lessons.
At the thought of Cam I began to cry, cradling my sore side as I pushed myself up on to quivering legs. I swayed against the hillside, feeling light-headed. My body began to shake uncontrollably.
I think I was going into shock.
I shook my head, trying to clear it. I didn’t have time to go into shock. I had two days to get the money to Murray. A burst of pained energy propelled me forward.
Malcolm would give me the money. Malcolm would take one look at me in this state and give me the money, no problem. He was that good a guy.
I stumbled back down the path I’d run up, picking up my fallen purse, desperation and adrenaline making my progress hurried despite the pain I was in. I could phone Malcolm, get him to come and get me.
His name whirled in my brain as I came out of the gardens and did a U-turn at Leopold Place at the top of London Road. I kept to the trees where I could and then in shadow as much as possible in case I met anyone on my way. I didn’t want the police involved. If I got the police involved they might start looking into my whole family life and … I just couldn’t risk it.
If Malcolm paid, this would all go away.
Before I knew it I was standing outside the familiar building.
At the sight of it I began to cry harder, my breath hissing as my teeth caught my burst lip.
Malcolm wouldn’t pay.
Malcolm wouldn’t pay because I didn’t want Malcolm to help me. I didn’t want anybody but Cameron.
I let myself into our building and pulled myself up the stairs, determined to get to him and to throw my arms around him. I cried harder. I needed to feel safe and only Cam could give me that.
I lightly hammered on his door, and sucked in my breath as agony ripped through me. Lifting my arm was like ripping a stitch across my ribs. My body moved forward to lean on the frame and then the door was suddenly wrenched open. My heart was wrenched out of my body with it.
Blinking, I tried to compute the image in front of me. I shook my head to clear it, but it didn’t go away.
Blair gasped at the sight of me bloodied and crying. ‘Jo? What happened?’
My eyes travelled down the length of her and back up again.
Her short hair was wet and curling around her jaw and she was wearing Cam’s QOTSA T-shirt. She was so small it fell to just above her knees. Her bare knees. Her bare legs.
Blair was at Cam’s with wet hair, wearing only his T-shirt at two thirty in the morning?
‘Oh, my God.’ She reached for me and I wobbled back. ‘Cam’s in the bathroom. I’ll just get hi– Jo!’
I was already running, stumbling, falling, tripping my way back down the stairs. In that moment I couldn’t be anywhere near that building. I couldn’t go home to Cole like this, and Cam …
I threw up beside the rubbish bins.
Wiping my hand across my mouth, I glanced up the road.
I needed a taxi.
I needed my friend.
If Cam … I stifled a sob, hurrying around the corner and up London Road … if Cam wasn’t … then I had to go someplace that was safe.
The only good thing to happen to me that night came in the shape of a taxi with its light on. I threw out my hand and the cabbie pulled over. Still cradling my rib, I shakily got in.
‘Dublin Street,’ I told him, speaking awkwardly with my split lip.
He eyed me warily. ‘You all right? Do you need a hospital?’
‘You’re in a bit of a state –’
‘My people are on Dublin Street,’ I insisted, tears pricking my eyes. ‘They’ll take me.’
The taxi driver’s moment of hesitation was long enough for Cam to come skidding around the corner in T-shirt and jeans, his frenzied eyes searching up and down the street before swinging to meet mine in the cab. Features pale and drawn, he moved towards me just as the cab pulled away, his muffled shout reaching my ears over the sound of the engine.
My phone rang seconds later. I picked it up but didn’t say anything.
‘Jo?’ he yelled, the word coming out in a puff that told me he was out of breath, probably from running after me. ‘Where are you going? What happened? Blair says you’ve been attacked? What’s going on?’
Hearing the fear in his voice did nothing to soothe my heartbreak or quell the bitterness I felt for him in that moment. ‘I guess that’s no longer your concern,’ I answered numbly and hung up to the sound of his frantic shouting.
‘I’m going to kill him,’ Braden threatened with such quiet veracity that a shiver rippled down my spine. An unyielding blaze of retribution burned in his eyes. Another shiver followed in the wake of the last just as Joss dabbed at my lip.
I hissed at the sting of TCP against my cut and threw Joss a wounded look.
She winced, pulling back the cotton wool. ‘Sorry.’
Braden took a step towards me, all bristling angry male and even in a T-shirt and jogging pants he was intimidating. ‘Where is he?’
I shook my head.
‘Tell me, Jo.’
When I didn’t he took another step towards me and demanded coldly, ‘Tell me.’
‘You, back off!’ Joss yelled up at him, her own eyes bright with anger and anxiety. ‘You’re starting to scare Jo.’ Her voice quieted but didn’t lose its authority. ‘And I think she’s been through enough for one night, don’t you?’
They stared each other down for a moment and then Braden muttered something under his breath and stepped back. Renewed respect for this woman took hold in me. She might be small but she was extremely fierce – the kind of friend everyone needed on their side.
When Joss had opened the door after I hammered on it for what felt like five minutes, she’d stared at me in shock for a second, standing there half asleep in pyjamas with her hair a wild mess around her shoulders. When I tripped towards her, my expression pained, dried blood crusted on my face and shirt, it was the first time I had real evidence of how deeply she cared about me. She pulled me inside and I felt her body trembling with anger as she helped me to the living room, her hoarse voice shouting to Braden for help.
I collapsed on their couch, exhaustion leaching all strength out of me now that I’d got to them. While Joss tried to clean the cut on my lip, I explained to them what had happened. Then Braden’s scary caveman threatening began.
‘Is it really bad?’ I asked Joss softly, my quaking fingers tentatively touching the area around my lip. It felt tender and swollen.
Joss scowled. ‘You’re lucky he didn’t knock out a tooth.’ She looked down at my left side. ‘You’ll need to have your ribs looked at.’
‘I don’t think they’re broken.’
‘Oh, are you a doctor now?’
‘Joss,’ I said with a sigh, ‘if you take me to the hospital there will be questions and police and I can’t have the social services looking into our situation right now. Mum is worse than ever. They might take Cole away.’
‘Jo, your mum can’t help her illness, and you’re there looking after him,’ Braden spoke up, his voice reassuring.
With my eyes I told Joss I thought she was amazing. She’d kept my secret and she’d even kept it from Braden. I appreciated it hugely, but I was more than a little tired of having the secret in the first place. As if it was something I should be ashamed of. ‘Braden, my mum doesn’t have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She’s a bedridden drunk.’
Other than the slight raising of his eyebrows Braden didn’t really react to the news. We sat in silence for a moment and then he stepped forward and lowered himself to the coffee table so he was sitting directly in front of me. For a moment I got lost in those concerned pale blue eyes of his. ‘I’ll have my family doctor look at you in the morning. He can be very discreet. Will you agree to see him?’
‘Yes, she will,’ Joss answered for me belligerently.
I wasn’t even looking at her and I could feel her eyes boring into me, daring me to defy her. I nodded at him and I felt the couch move as Joss slumped back with relief.
‘Before I see a doctor I need a plan.’ I glanced from Braden to Joss, desperation and determination vying for a place in my eyes. ‘I can’t let him near Cole.’
‘And he wants money from Malcolm?’ Joss curled her lip in disgust.
‘Why didn’t you go to Malcolm, then?’ she asked, more than a little curiosity in her voice. ‘He would give you it.’
‘He would,’ I agreed, my voice soft but laced with an edge. ‘But he’s from a life I don’t even recognize anymore, and I don’t want to go back there. Facing him, ensuring his loyalty, it means becoming someone else again. I can’t do that. I’m just “Jo” now. And I know I can’t do everything by myself any more.’ I gave her a wobbly smile. ‘Good thing I finally realized I have friends I can trust.’
Joss swallowed hard and reached for my hand, threading her fingers through mine. ‘You do.’ Her eyes turned ferocious as she looked over at Braden. ‘We’ll get him off your back. We’ll pay the a**hole to disappear.’
As I turned my head I caught Braden’s reluctant nod. Braden didn’t want to pay him back in money. He wanted to pay him back in blood.
The ache in my side and my battered pride made me tend to agree with Braden. Would money really keep Murray away or would he eventually come back for more? He’d always been like that when we were younger. He’d take whatever extra cash Mum had lying around, disappear for days on end, and then return home when he’d run out. The only time he ever disappeared completely was when Uncle Mick beat the crap out of him and started playing bodyguard arou –
‘Uncle Mick!’ I breathed the words in excited, sudden realization, my hand gripping Joss’s so hard it was probably painful.
‘Mick?’ Braden’s eyebrows knitted together in confusion.
I nodded. ‘Mick. I’m not letting you guys pay Murray. He’ll see that as weakness and he’ll come back for more. No.’ I looked at them, unable to smile in triumph because of the cut. ‘There’s only one person Murray Walker has ever been afraid of and he thinks that person is in the States.’