Vradin, Chapter Six

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There was something over my eyes, something kind of fuzzy and drapy all at the same time that made it feel very different from my pillow. There was also something warm all along my side and a weight across my stomach. As I breathed in, I realized that nothing smelled right. I shifted under the weight on my stomach, still trying to decide how concerned I should be about all this, and slid along sheets that were far and away slicker than any I had ever owned.

At that point, I decided a small spurt of panic might just be in order.

Then the weight on my stomach moved, pulling me in closer to the warmth at my side and a husky, very male voice whispered, “S’alright. No one’s gonna hurt you, I’m here. Rest s’more.”

Definitely time to panic. Maybe not flail around like a twit, but what the hell?!

The arm around me tensed up, and then the mattress shifted as whoever the hell was beside me sat up. The thing on my eyes was peeled back and I ended up blinking up at Tank.

Fortunately for my shrieking brain cells, Tank was wearing a T-shirt, which made it a lot less likely that anything I would regret right about now had happened the night before.

While I was still processing things (my brain felt thick and slow) Tank reached over and cupped my face, his thumb raising my eyelid. Then his other thumb raised the other eyelid.

“Good, you’re looking a lot better. Earth below, woman, but you gave us quite a scare there,” he said.

I blinked up at him. “What?” was about as far as I got as I realized I was bone dry thirsty. He slid one of his arms under my shoulders and pulled me into a sitting position, rolling over — on top of the covers that I was tucked under, I was glad to note — and grabbing a bottle of water off the nightstand on his side of the massive four poster bed.

The motion of sitting up started a team of miners hammering at the inside of my skull, but instead of the migraine being centered around my forehead and sinus cavities, this one was centered somewhere south and back of my right ear. I raised a hand to the pain site and found a large bump there.

I’m pretty sure the fear I was starting to feel was writ plain as day on my face at that point.

Tank had uncapped the bottle and slid one of those bendy straws into the mouth. He held it out to me, every line in his body shouting that I was drinking one way or another. I opted for the easy way seeing as I wanted the water any how, but it irked me enough to tamp down some of the fear.

“Yeah, that knot’s gone down a lot in the last couple of days, but-”

I sputtered and said, “Days? What happened?”

Tank pulled back the bottle and looked me over with a fair bit of concern. “What’s the last thing you remember?” he finally asked.

“I was- Oh, shit! Did we get in a car crash? Is Carl okay?” I asked. The last thing I remembered was telling Carl that he had to wear a seat belt.

“What do you remember?” Tanks stressed again.

“Just getting into my car with Carl,” I said. “Please, is he okay?”

Tank shook his head, but before I could totally freak out he said, “There was no car crash. You both got back to the club fine, in good condition. But you seriously don’t remember anything after that?”

I frowned and searched my memory, but it made the throbbing behind my ear a lot worse. “That’s it,” I finally said, giving up.

“Huh,” he grunted. “You were attacked as you were leaving the club. Carl and I witnessed it, and we stopped the guy, but you still spent the night in the hospital. Jody’s fine, she wasn’t there, long story.” I sucked in a breath when he called Jody by her real name, and he smiled at me. “Yeah, Zoe. Your real identities were revealed while dealing with the authorities.”

“Why am I here?” I asked.

“Because when I volunteered, you picked recuperating at my place over going home with your step mother.”

I opened my mouth to call him a lying bastard, then realized that if Isabel was having one of her bitch fits and Dad had started in on my job, Tank really was the better of the two options. Somewhere in the back of my skull I had come to the conclusion that Tank was an unpredictable sonuva, true, but I no longer believed that he was physically dangerous to me. So I switched to my big question. “And you were lying here beside me why?”

“It was about the only way you’d sleep quiet, having someone near by. You’ve been fighting nightmares a lot.”

I didn’t really have anything to say to that. Witty comments never felt like my forte, and with my brain running like a slug on ganji weed, well, let’s just let it go at that.

Tank seemed to be more perceptive than your average guy because he let it drop. There were questions in his eyes, and I really didn’t want to know which particular set of nightmares I had been fighting that had put those questions there. I had a few to pick from, and most of them were thanks to Dickie Collins, the son of one of my father’s longer term never-made-it-to-married girlfriends. Dickie’s given name was Richard, but after he locked me in a tool shed and threatened to light it on fire I called him Dickie. I was eight and he was twelve. Puberty did not make him any nicer of a fella.

He handed me back the bottle and made sure I could hold it on my own. I would have felt utterly condescended to if the bottle didn’t feel like a full drink tray all by itself. Then he rolled off the bed, and I got a nice view of the lose yoga pants he was wearing. I would have called them track pants, but they were of a nicer, less shiny material and they just weren’t thick enough to be sweats. If they had been stiffer, I would have thought the pants were part of karategi, but there was a fluid drape to the fabric. I had the weirdest urge to run my fingers over the fabric just to see if it was a comfy as it looked.

“I’ll be back with some soup,” he said as he left.

Soup actually sounded good.

I leaned back against the headboard and finished sucking down the water.

I had been out of it for a couple of days from the sound of things. I needed a computer, my tablet at least, and an Internet connection to see where I stood with my class at the college. I was taking an introduction to mobile programing course, and the class met Tuesdays and Thursdays from nine to eleven in the morning. I swear the professor was maddeningly disorganized. I needed notes if I had missed a lecture. Half the time he assigned homework and forgot to post it to the class’s web forum until the day it was due.

Was there homework? I think so. I think I had planned to get something, part of a program finished and submitted online during the day on either Sunday or Monday, but I couldn’t remember if it was due Tuesday or the following Saturday, or due at all.

And I should call Joe, talk with him and see about adjusting my schedule for a little. Just the thought of getting out of bed seemed like a herculean effort.

But if I was in bed when Tank got back, would that be taken as an invitation? I didn’t know. A lot of the boy-girl stuff went over my head. The ladies at work laughed and talked about how they made their men toe the line, but those men never stuck around. I generally recognized flirting when it started with a line like, “Your feet hurting, sweet thang? ‘Cause you been running through my mind!” but a lot of the other servers made a big deal out what I thought was just simple politeness, or an expansively friendly nature.

I had been on a grand total of zero dates in my life. I hadn’t even ever had my first romantic kiss — that one drunk in the first month I was working for Joe so did not count. I would not allow it to count.

Of course, I couldn’t really ever recall being attracted to a man, in specific. I mean, yeah, hot actors and men in general were definitely my thing, but an actual, this might go somewhere real life in the flesh man? None so far.

I had the stray thought that Tank had nice lips. What would they feel like if we kissed?

No. That was just wrong. The man was psycho. Maybe not kill me in my sleep psycho, but he was totally unpredictable.

His eyes, now that we were in better lighting and they weren’t covered up, and he was that close, leaning over me, they were blue eyes with flecks of brown streaking from the pupil out to the rim of his irises.

It had felt … okay, there had been scary to him leaning over me, but there had also been something in me that liked it. Was I just being twisted by having my head bashed in?

I was still sitting on the bed, leaning against the headboard, the nearly empty water bottle forgotten in my hand, when Tank returned with something that smelled wonderful and vile all at the same time.

Before I had a chance to more than swallow at the gorge rising in my throat, there was a nice Pyrex glass bowl in my lap. “You shouldn’t be nauseous. How’s your vision?”

I blinked at him.

“Shit, are you following me? Nod if you understand what I’m saying,” he instructed.

I nodded and felt my face screw up with a sarcastic expression. “My vision is fine, and that’s chicken noodle soup from a can, isn’t it?”

He glanced from me to the soup now sitting on the bedside table on my side of the bed (I had a side of the bed? Why was I thinking that?). “Yeah. You don’t like?”

I shrugged. “Got crackers?”

He frowned at me. “If it bothers you, there’s other food in the house. If you’re feeling up to it, we can head into the kitchen together and you can pick out whatever you like.”

I had a lit teacher once tell us that we are a collection of the voices we’ve picked up over the years. There was definitely a Momma Lu voice that lived in the back of my head: “Waste makes want”, “Fear only grows when you run from it”, “Don’t count your tips on the clock”, “Brush your teeth from the back to the front”, and other snippets of wisdom handed down in her smoke-ruined voice. Right now, the refrain on being a good guest means making the least trouble for your host were starting up, but dealing with my particular broken where chicken noodle soup was concerned just felt like way too much trouble.

I nodded at that and moved to slide off the bed. Tank hovered while I stood up, staying close in my personal space, and wrapping an arm around my waist as soon as we both saw me standing on my own two feet. I was glad to note that I had on my own sleep jammies, a sleeveless tank top and soft flannel P.J. bottoms in tie-died shades of blue and purple.

I said, “You know, if I’m so out of it you need to carry me to the kitchen, shouldn’t I be in the hospital still?”

He didn’t answer right away, I guess focusing on maneuvering me out the bedroom and into a spacious hallway.

“You seemed to be doing better yesterday, but you haven’t been eating enough. I’m concerned that maybe you over did things when you checked in with your professor. The doctors warned that you weren’t to do anything mentally trying — like homework — for a few more days. I don’t know if you weren’t worrying at that.”

I licked my lips. That didn’t sound too good. “What day is it? I mean, since you came to the club, how long has it been?”

Tank swept me up and carried me, despite my squawking. “Hush, talking and walking takes concentration. You only get to focus on one thing at a time for now. Besides, you’re light as a feather. You need to eat more.”

I wanted to punch him for the high-handedness, but I knew I was more, ah, full figured than most of the dancers, so being told I was light as a feather was kind of nice, and it felt really weird that that made me less want to hit him, if that makes any kind of sense. It was confusing the hell out of me, so I just shut up and gave him a thin-lipped stare.

“Today’s Wednesday. You were admitted Saturday night, well, technically very early Sunday morning, and discharged Monday morning. Like I said, you were doing a lot better yesterday than you’re doing so far today. It’s almost noon by the way.” He paused in the talking to navigate a broad stair case. “Jody was acting as your cuddle buddy Monday night when the nightmares started up. She got called in to cover for someone who missed their shift last night, and you didn’t seem to notice who was there as long as there was someone there, so I took over cuddle duty. No worries, that’s what you always say, right?”

I let my head rest against his shoulder. “No worries,” I echoed him. Except there were a lot of worries.

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