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Lastly, I pulled out the blankets and hoodies. I passed them over to where she sat. Pointing at the wet blanket covering her body, I asked, “Can I?”

The girl froze and her eyes began to narrow. I took the bottom edge of her ruined wet blanket in my hands and held it up for her to see. “This isn’t keeping you warm.” A wash of sympathy ran through me. “It’s making you sick.”

The girl didn’t move. The sympathy I felt quickly morphed into frustration, until she shifted on the floor. Slowly, and what appeared painfully, she lifted her hand and the coffee off the sodden material.

I exhaled in relief. I moved forward until my face was just inches from hers. My heart was thundering in my chest at being this close. And when I looked up, I lost my breath. The girl was watching me so intently. Her dull eyes were flickering all around me, trying to drink in every movement I made, every flicker on my face, every word from my mouth.

Her already labored breathing stuttered with me this close, and this time, I knew it had nothing to do with the cold.

She was terrified.

This girl, this waif of a girl in this alley, was terrified of me. The way her huge eyes tracked me, the helplessness and the sickness I saw in her reminded me of how my mamma was broken on her small bed, and of Lexi when she was ill, too weak and alone, laid up in hospital. It was why I was compelled to stay. That and basic human duty. This girl had stolen from me, taken the most precious thing I owned, but I saw clearly why she did it—this was her life. This damn cesspit of an alley was her entire life.

I gripped the blanket tighter in my hand, fighting the rage of why some people in this world just get a shit hand, when others swan by without a care. The rage was so intense that my hand began to shake. I focused on my hand, knowing I was close to losing it. Suddenly I felt a brush of cold—ice coldness—on my fingers and snapped my eyes up.

The girl… the girl’s small half-gloved hand was laying atop mine. I swallowed, then swallowed again at the sight, forcing myself to look at her face. Her blue eyes were watching me, and when I finally met her eyes, I paused as her head dipped down.

She was saying ‘thank you’.

My anger instantly evaporated. I didn’t move until the girl withdrew her hand. As she did, I removed the wet blanket from her legs. Large rips covered her jeans, only they weren’t for fashion. The anger almost returned when I saw that the top button of her jeans had been ripped off. An inch of her bare stomach was showing above it, and it was lightly bleeding from a recent scratch.

The guy. The guy I’d seen attacking her had done it. If I hadn’t arrived when I did…

Abruptly, the girl pushed her hoodie down to hide her scratch. Her cheeks were blazing red. I knew it was from embarrassment, which pissed me off even more. She had nothing to be embarrassed about.

Forcing myself to remain calm, I took the two blankets I’d bought and laid them over her. I watched with bated breath, when her eyes fluttered to a close and her hand slowly ran over the soft material. I thought my heart would punch through my chest when her lips lifted in a ghost of a smile.

A dry blanket. That was all it took. To this girl, a dry blanket was like a touch of heaven.

I stayed crouched down, just watching her moment of happiness, until a blast of cold wind whipped around us. The chill seeped into my bones. I was already soaked through and freezing. I couldn’t imagine how this girl felt after being out here for Christ knows how long.

I lifted my coffee off the ground and sat before her. When I looked up, the girl was cradling her coffee in her hands, the venti sized cup seeming to dwarf her small frame. As before, her attention was firmly fixed on me. Shuffling on the hard ground, I said, “I know someone who can help you.”

As I spoke I counted the cracks in the asphalt below my foot. “You can’t stay out here. It’s not safe, and you’re sick.”

Still, there was only silence.

I glanced up. The girl’s sad face was all I could see. My stomach fell. I could see by the look on her face that she wasn’t going anywhere. Sensing my stare, she gently shook her head. My jaw tightened as she did, and I begged, “Please. I can’t in good conscience leave you like this,” I gestured around the alley, “out here.”

But the girl simply dipped her head and took a sip of her coffee. Without thinking I touched her leg, causing her to jump. Her gaze slammed to mine. I tried one last time. “Please.”

Wide-eyed, the girl looked away. Loud voices suddenly filled the mouth of the alley. Leaning back, I saw a bunch of what looked like frat guys taking a piss. They were drunk off their asses and staggering around the litter spilling from the dumpster.

I shook my head. She shouldn’t be around this. It wasn’t safe.

Holding onto my coffee, I stood. The girl rapidly turned her head toward me. I looked down at her, and my heart squeezed seeing her big blue eyes regarding me with questions, with uncertainty.

Moving forward, I pointed to the place beside her against the wall. The girl looked down, and then glanced back up, a shocked expression on her face. But she didn’t tell me no. In fact, she seemed to breathe out a crackled sigh of relief.

Slowly and carefully, I lowered down beside her and wrapped my arms around myself to keep warm. It was freezing.

The girl’s arm brushed against mine. Shivers ran down my spine and I knew it had nothing to do with the chill. I had never been this close to a girl, ever. I laughed inside—the first time I sat beside a girl, she was homeless, and I was trying to keep her safe. Jake and Ashton would have laughed their asses off at this picture. I’m sure this wasn’t what Axel had planned for me to do tonight either.

Feeling eyes on me, I turned to see the girl watching me with her eyebrows pulled down in confusion. Her eyes fell to my lips and I said, “I’m staying here a while. It’s not safe.”

Her pretty face molded to one of misunderstanding. I didn’t elaborate, instead I simply said, “Sleep. I’ll keep you safe.”

The girl’s blue eyes filled with tears. I watched, my heart squeezing tight as a tear fell down her cheek, only to splash onto the now-dampening blanket I’d just bought for her.

Unable to see her cry, I leaned forward and questioned, “You’re tired?” The girl hesitated to answer, until she reluctantly nodded her head. Licking my drying lips, I slowly edged forward and stated, “Sleep. No one will hurt you.”

As if gravitating toward the warmth of my body, the girl slumped against my arm, her head falling on my shoulder. She still clutched her coffee in her hand. Her body curled into me, and I glanced down at her blond dirty hair against my arm. She seemed so lost.

I didn’t know how much time passed with her sleeping against my arm, but when her breathing leveled out, I knew it was my chance to get to a phone.

As slow as possible, I lifted the girl from my arm and positioned her against the wall. Getting to my feet, I looked to her huddled down body. Her skin was pale, her thin body shivered, and my stomach dropped. I didn’t want to leave her. But I had to speak to Lexi. I wasn’t sure how much longer she could last out here in the state she was in.

Making sure the blankets hid where she lay, I ran out of the alley and began searching the street for a payphone. It took me four streets and too much time to make the call to Lexi, who answered on the third ring.

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