Once Savannah was cleaned up, Cole stepped back and met her eyes. They were still swimming with tears and her breathing was little more than shallow gasps for air. He could tell that the slightest thing would set her off again. Shit. So much for relaxing.
Savannah was an absolute mess. To be expected. She’d probably been through hell and back these past several days, and getting bruised up earlier had sent her over the edge. A girl like Savannah, who’d grown up so sheltered with such a strange upbringing, had no defenses to protect herself from the pure chaos this world dished up. He knew from the FBI files that the women and children were rarely seen outside the compound.
Cole, on the other hand, was hardened, bitter, and certainly not delusional enough to believe in happily-ever-after. He’d seen too much working for the Bureau the past six years, and experienced pain firsthand when his parents were hit and killed by a meth addict who was drunk and high at the time of the accident. Still, he felt for Savannah, felt sorry for her in a way. She wasn’t the type to fare well on her own, that was obvious.
He lifted her chin and rubbed a slow circle against her jaw. “I’ve got you. It’s going to okay.”
She gave a heavy nod and somber eyes met his. “So what happens now?”
Cole could read the apprehension on her face. The honest truth was, he didn’t know what happened next, but he knew one thing was certain; he wasn’t taking her back to that house. They both needed some sleep, and they would figure the rest out later. “Now we sleep. Come on, I’ll show you around.”
He helped her from the counter, and led her through the condo, giving her a brief tour. He guided Savannah to the living room and encouraged her to sit on the sofa. He was about to turn and head for the kitchen to get her some water and pain reliever, but she silently took his hand and held it in her own, her eyes pleading with him to stay.
He sat down beside her and she wordlessly lowered her head to rest against his thigh, nestling herself into him. Cole couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. He dared not move with her head resting on his denim clad thigh. She bent her legs up onto the couch beside her, curling into the fetal position, and closed her eyes. He didn’t know what to do with his hands and settled for fisting one beside him, and placed the other carefully on Savannah’s shoulder. He let her sleep, unwilling to rustle her from the spot she’d claimed.
When he woke a short time later, it took him a moment to realize who the warm body pressed against him belonged to. Savannah. He lifted his head and surveyed his body, and in turn hers. They had shifted in sleep so that he was stretched out on his back, and she was lying half on him, and half on the couch. Savannah woke when he moved and their eyes flicked to each other’s. He mumbled an apology and disentangled himself from her grip.
He scrubbed a hand across his jaw. He’d never felt so out of place in his own house. The rumble of Savannah’s stomach made him smile and broke some of the tension. She clapped a hand over her belly. “Are you hungry?” He chuckled.
“Yes.” She nodded.
“Come on. Let’s see what we can rustle up in the kitchen.” He led her into the large kitchen at the front of his condo. “I have to warn you though, I don’t cook.”
“I do.” Her hand on his forearm stopped him, and she motioned for him to take a seat at a stool tucked under the kitchen island. “Let me.”
“Are you sure you’re up for that?” Cole questioned.
“It’ll help me feel better, more normal. I used to cook all the time at the compound.”
Cole relented, sinking onto the seat. The time blinked at him from the clock on the microwave. It was three in the morning. He suddenly found himself thankful that he didn’t have to go to work in a few hours, though given the hour, he wasn’t as tired as he expected. He watched Savannah move about his kitchen, surveying the sad contents of his fridge, removing items from the pantry and cabinets as she went.
“Sorry I don’t have much.”
“You have eggs,” she said, placing the carton on the counter.
He frowned, not able to recall the last time he went grocery shopping. “You might want to check the expiration date on those.”
She lifted the carton to read the date printed on the bottom. “Hmm. We don’t have eggs.” She pulled a box from the pantry. “Pasta then.”
It didn’t escape his notice that she’d said we, implying it was the two of them together against all the bullshit they’d suffered so far. He didn’t know what to make of that, but nodded. “Fine.” She was holding up surprisingly well, given the craziness of the situation.
She dumped an entire package of penne pasta into a pot of boiling, salted water. Cole watched her movements, and decided he liked having her in his kitchen. A satisfied little smile tugged at her lips, and she moved about effortlessly.
Only once they were seated in the small breakfast nook, nibbling on pasta with a rich sauce she made from milk, butter and parmesan cheese, did he venture to ask about her past.
“Can I ask you a few questions about the compound…and how you grew up?” He knew some of the details from reading the files on the case, but he wanted to hear the story in Savannah’s own words.
She nodded reluctantly. Her eyes were skittish—looking anywhere but at him.
“You just let me know if there’s anything you’re not comfortable answering. And we won’t talk about it.” He didn’t intend to push her too far tonight. She’d been through enough, but he figured if she was going to be staying in his home, there was some basic information he’d need to know, if only to make sure she felt as comfortable as possible.
“What was it like growing up there?”
She took a deep breath and began reiterating some of what he’d read in the case files. Jacob wanted to create a perfect community: they grew their own food, sold goods at farmer’s markets, and were entirely self-contained. He taught them that the outside world was a dangerous place, and that people were dirty and couldn’t be trusted. He taught them that germs and diseases spread from sexual contact would eventually kill off most of the population and they wouldn’t be able to procreate, so Jacob’s followers needed to separate themselves to live cleanly.
“How did your mother get involved?” Cole asked.
Savannah folded her hands in her lap. “She fell for him. He was a charmer, a smoother talker, confident. Easily able to convince people to follow him.”
Cole knew that much from the information the Bureau had collected in the file.
“He could be very persuasive. When he spoke, people listened,” Savannah explained.
“What about you; did you believe his teachings?”
She nodded. “At first. I didn’t know any different. But as I got older, I began to wonder. I had this urge to see for myself; it nagged at me sometimes.”
Finding her plate empty, Cole served up another helping of pasta for Savannah before urging her to continue.
She stabbed a forkful of noodles, looking lost in thought. “Most of all, I just wanted to go to school. Jacob couldn’t understand it. He tried to convince me it wasn’t safe. Boys out there…” she stopped suddenly, her eyes dropping to her plate.
“What? You can tell me.”
“He said the boys would only want one thing from me — to get in my panties.”
Had anyone been in her panties? And why did that thought make him want to punch someone? He had no right — no claim to her — yet he couldn’t help the possessive streak that surged inside him. “Okay. So I take it you didn’t go to school?”
“No. But I refused to relent and finally convinced Jacob to hire a tutor for me, so I could get my high school diploma. We met at the local library twice a week for the last year. I was one of the few given permission to leave the compound.”
Wow. He’d been right about her determination.
They ate in silence for several minutes. Cole didn’t want to push her too fast, he was happy that she was comfortable talking to him at all.
“This is delicious, by the way.” He stabbed a forkful of pasta and managed another bite, though he was stuffed four bites ago. He had a healthy appetite, but Savannah had made enough to feed an army — if the still full platter of pasta on the table between them was any indication.
“You obviously know a lot about me,” Savanna said, twirling a strand of long hair around her finger. “But if I’m going to stay here, shouldn’t I know more about you?”
He shrugged. “What do you want to know?”
She thought about it for a moment, continuing to play with her hair. Cole’s attention was pulled from her brilliant green eyes to her mouth and the way she absently toyed with stray lock of hair.
“No wife? No girlfriend?”
“It’s just me.”
He thought about how to respond, not about why — he didn’t want the responsibility, the heartache that came with loss of a loved one ever again. But he took his time, considering which answer to give her. “It’s the way I like it.”
Savannah frowned slightly. “Doesn’t that get lonely? What about your family? Are they nearby?”
Cole remained quiet, watching the way her hand stilled its movements when she grew unsure of herself, wondering if she’d overstepped a boundary with that question.
“That’s another thing you and I have in common.”
Her eyes searched his, trying to understand. “Your parents…”
“They’re gone. Have been for a few years now. It’s just my sister Marissa and me. She’s three years older and a pain in the ass,” he added, hoping to add some levity back into the moment which had suddenly grown heavier than he’d bargained for.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her eyes never wavering from his.
Realization sparked between them and their gazes remained locked together. Her eyes softened and prodded his dark stare until they were no longer strangers, but two people connecting from a shared loss that wounded so deeply, it never quite healed.
He took a slow, shaky breath. This wasn’t part of the deal. He couldn’t be getting soft now. Just because he’d brought his work home, so to speak, didn’t mean it was okay for him to get all mushy. Christ, what came next? Crying on each other’s shoulders? Knitting a God damn blanket. No f**king way. He’d do what he had to do to help Savannah. He wasn’t okay with seeing a woman suffer. That was all this was. He would not get emotionally involved. Couldn’t. Not again. He had a cabinet full of prescription meds that were the result of him getting involved in something he shouldn’t have once before.
“Thanks,” he bit out, more than ready to change the topic.
The remnants of food between them had grown cold, and Savannah looked positively exhausted. She sat slumped in her chair, her head leaning in her hand.
“Come on, let’s get you to bed.” He placed their dishes in the sink and guided Savannah to the guest room.
Cole’s home wasn’t what Savannah had expected. She wasn’t quite sure what she’d been expecting, but the large, modern third-floor loft with floor to ceiling windows and furniture with sleek, clean lines was unanticipated. She was too exhausted to explore, being overtired and fighting off a panic attack would do that to you, but she dutifully followed behind Cole, trying her best to listen as he pointed out things out to her. The small breakfast nook opened to a large living room with an espresso colored sectional sofa facing a large flat screen TV.
She’d already grown to love the large spotless kitchen, with its stainless steel appliances and rustic butcher-block island, even if the sight of it initially caused a pang of sadness to hit her chest. Thinking of cooking made her think of the compound, which made her think of the children. She worried about where they were now, and if they were being well cared for. Especially little Britta. The five year old girl was so smart and so tough, the toughest little girl she knew, and yet she looked so sad when she was loaded into the van with the other children. She hoped Britta was okay. Wished she could find her… But she’d put that out of her mind as she had worked, whipping up a basic recipe for fettuccine alfredo. She couldn’t say she’d ever made that particular dish at three in the morning, but her options had been limited with such a poorly stocked kitchen.
She found herself wondering who took care of Cole, and thought it unusual that he wasn’t married. He was in his late-twenties, he was kind and attractive. But just as quickly as the thoughts had entered her head, she’d pushed them away. She had no business wondering about his love life.
She followed Cole down the hallway, where he pointed out a large marble-floored guest bathroom and his bedroom, which she’d already seen, before stopping at another door just across from his.
He cleared his throat. “This is the guest room.” He gestured for her to enter.
She stepped around him, entering the spacious room decorated in creams and whites. The large inviting bed in the center of the room drew her forward. When she pressed a hand into the center of the plush bed, there was no way she’d willing go back to sleeping on that hard, stained cot. The bed was outfitted in the softest blankets she’d ever felt. She toured the room, running her hand along the smooth curves of the dark wood dresser and then turned to face Cole. She wondered if she’d be allowed to stay. There was something about him — she sensed it from the first time she saw him at the compound. Though she probably should have feared him, she felt comforted by his presence.
“You can, ah, sleep here.” He rubbed a hand along the back of this neck. His bicep flexed, pulling against the T-shirt he wore. He had large, powerful muscles in his back, shoulders and arms, but somehow Savannah knew he wouldn’t hurt her. He didn’t strike her as the violent type.