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Damaged Like Us: Chapter 12

MAXIMOFF HALE

I STIFFEN, my face padlocked of emotion. Except for my sharpened cheekbones. My first thought: avoiding Farrow was always going to be unavoidable. In every alternate universe, I’m stuck with him.

My second thought makes me cringe.

“What?” Farrow asks, his fingers absentmindedly nudging his silver rings. He notices how I’m eyeing his hands. His know-it-all smile fucking kills me, and I swear he’s one second from saying, do you like that?

And I think, too damn much.

I’m not sharing the intimate details of my second thought. How his father checked up on me when I was eleven and had a rash on my dick. From chlorine irritation. Imagine if that Dr. Keene had actually been Farrow—cringe with me.

I gesture to him. “I had a mild stroke at the thought of you being my doctor.” I feign surprise. “If only you were my doctor, you could actually save me right now.” My mouth falls. “What an idea.”

“You wouldn’t be talking if you had a stroke.”

I wear my irritation, and he laughs on cue, loving to pop whatever humor I cast into the world. It shouldn’t turn me on, but most people just placate me. Farrow does the opposite.

When his laughter fades, he stares at me with a peeking smile.

I bite into an ice cube, my stomach tossing in a weird way. Almost excited. “What?” I ask now.

“You want me to save you?” His brows rise with his barbells.

“I’d rather die,” I say instinctively.

“Maximoff.” He stretches closer to me. Over the table, and his voice drops to the deep, rough octave that strokes my cock. “As your bodyguard, I can’t let that happen.”

My gaze latches intensely onto his. And his brown eyes plaster onto my green. So strongly that I’m drop-dead positive we’re forcing ourselves not to look lower. Not to our lips, not to our bodies. Not to any forbidden place that’d cause disaster.

I try to master restraint, but my eyes say what my mouth can’t.

Kiss me.

He reads them.

I know he reads them, and our chests collapse and rise in heavy unison. Jesus Christ.

can’t.

We can’t.

But I think, fucking kiss me.

Just do it.

Farrow moves his hand. To put his earpiece back in, and then he sits his ass down. “They’re coming inside, behind you.”

I turn my stiff neck, and sure enough, Janie walks through the entrance with Quinn out in front. Headed towards the table. She wears a pastel purple tulle skirt and a striped top that put her on Celebrity Crush’s Worst Dressed list this morning. She didn’t care.

I blink once, and they’ve already reached us. Jane collapses on the chair beside me, and I wrap my arm around the back of hers. I push beyond whatever the hell just happened with Farrow. I have no other choice but to move forward.

Janie very subtly glances between Farrow and me, but thankfully says nothing about any lingering tension. “Dis-moi qu’ils ont du café,” she whispers, hands in prayer formation. Please tell me they have coffee.

“Je ne sais pas.” don’t know.

Quinn takes a seat beside Farrow and says, “Another reminder that I really need to read that French textbook Akara gave me.”

Jane’s eyes glimmer with curiosity and she places her chin on her fist, elbow to the table. “And how is that going?”

“Bien.” Good. Quinn shrugs. “It’d be easier if you two just switched to Portuguese.”

I’d tell Quinn that we don’t know Portuguese like him, but I’m super-glued to the fact that he’s actually learning French. I look at Farrow. “Did Akara give you a French textbook, too?”

“No. Because he knew it’d go straight into the dumpster.”

“I’m glad we’ve found the location of your apathy,” I tell him.

Farrow laughs. He tosses a fry in the basket and then eyes me, mostly.

My neck is on fire, and I keep rubbing my jaw.

Quinn scans the table for food. His stomach audibly grumbles. I slide the basket of fries away from Farrow and to Quinn. Farrow makes a face at me. Like I just passed his cellphone off to a stranger.

“Do you not know what sharing looks like?” ask.

Farrow slides the fries back between me and him. “Quinn needs to learn how to order his own food.”

Quinn doesn’t let Farrow bother him. “Where’s the waitress?” he asks.

“Yes, please, coffee coffee,” Jane says. “One sugar, dollop of cream, and strapped to an IV.”

“You have to order at the bar,” I tell her.

“Merde.” Her head slumps on my shoulder. She’s exhausted from today’s putt-putt debacle.

“I’ll go for you.” Just as I’m about to stand, Quinn and Farrow motion for me to stay seated.

“I can go alone,” Quinn tells Farrow while I sit back down. “She’s my client.”

“Akara would want you to stay with her,” Farrow says.

Quinn considers this for half a second, and then we all look over at the six-foot bearded bartender who approaches. He stops and towers over the table. Nearer Janie than to me. He fingers his gnarled beard and appraises the length of her body.

Hovering on her chest.

I’m on edge. Anyone who appraises us like we’re cattle—I don’t trust. From experience, they’d rather hurt my family than make cute small talk.

Likewise, Quinn’s guard seems to rise tenfold. He angles his body towards Jane. Sitting straighter. More menacing. Like a boxer about to face off an opponent. If I didn’t know, it’d be hard to tell that he’s new to the team.

“Hi,” Jane starts, but the bartender cuts her off with, “You’re Jane Cobalt.”

“Yes.” Janie’s voice is stiffer than usual. “You wouldn’t happen to have coffee

“Your mom is hotter.”

I glower. “What the fuck did you just say?” I see blood red, and I’m already halfway out of my seat. Our bodyguards are right behind me. Where Farrow has an at ease demeanor, as if this is just another normal day, Quinn’s eyes widen and darken. Horrified.

Pissed.

He probably hasn’t gotten used to hearing the vitriol people sling at Janie.

I wish it was something you didn’t have to get used to.

The bartender doesn’t balk. “I said Rose Calloway is a hotter piece of ass than that chubby bitch.”

I charge forward, venom in the back of my throat, but chairs clatter, more than just me shooting up completely from their seats. I instinctively stand in front of Janie. In my peripheral, I notice her hand gripping her watermelon purse.

Where pepper spray and a pink switchblade lie.

I may’ve cut off Jane, but Farrow cuts off my path, his hand on my chest. He says something to me that I don’t hear. I stare past him, hawkeyed on the bartender who watches Jane’s reaction.

“Fuck you,” I sneer, trying to steal his attention away from Jane.

The bartender laughs at me and then says to her. “You can’t cry if it’s the truth.”

Jane isn’t crying. She sighs into an angry growl and tries to ignore him. “I ask for coffee, and instead receive an unsolicited opinion on my looks. Disastrously unequal and a complete nightmare—Moffy.” Fear spikes her voice, grabbing my wrist when I try to step towards the bartender.

Farrow and Quinn break our hands as they shift around us. The bartender opens his mouth to speak again, and I hear the beginnings of the word slut and Quinn growls, “Fuck off.”

Farrow raises a hand to him, and I hear him hiss, “Cool down. Just focus on getting her out of here.”

Quinn’s nose flares and he nods. Quickly, Quinn begins to lead my cousin safely out of the pub. I hear Jane protesting and shouting, “I leave no one behind!”

Farrow rests a strong hand on my shoulder. Trying to steer me towards the exit.

With one move, I tear out of his hold. I’m seething from the inside out. My skin is crawling. Our eyes meet for a heated second. Both of us are headstrong. And I’m not moving on his accord.

Farrow warns beneath his breath, “Don’t jump out in front of me.” He rotates, protectively shielding me from the bartender. Using his body as a barrier between me and that bastard.

Bodyguards are required to deescalate aggressive situations. Calm them. Stop them.

Not fuel or even win fights.

In case you aren’t already aware: I make that difficult.

I should leave right now. I should forget the bartender’s crude gaze. And malicious intent. I should. And Janie won’t leave until I do. Even if Quinn drags her out, she’ll dig her feet into hardwood or pavement and claw herself towards me.

I want her somewhere safe. Far away from here.

So I open my wallet and toss money on the table. Unable to leave without paying. Even if I’m paying a fucking douchebag.

“And you’re Maximoff Hale,” the bartender says. Don’t engage, my parents always tells me. Ignore the hecklers, they say. They’re trying to incite you, they remind me.

They want to fight you.

No shit.

I can handle overwhelmed, overzealous fans. I can handle competitive paparazzi. I can handle the tears and the autographs and the selfies. I can even handle tonight. The fucked-up part of fame.

The sick hatred. Chipping bit by bit at our humanity.

You want to know what the few other people in the pub are doing? They’re filming. With their cellphones. Like I’m the star of a fucked-up drama. And the title is This Is My Life.

Welcome. Take seat.

I put my wallet in my jean’s pocket.

“How does it feel,” the bartender starts up again, “knowing a thousand-plus dicks have been inside your mom? She must’ve been stretched out when she had you. Bet you just fell out of her vagina.” He laughs right at my face.

I have tunnel vision. I see red. I see the bartender.

I see how devastated my mom would be if she heard someone say this shit to me. She’d cry herself to sleep—and you know what that does to me? It makes me want to fucking scream and throw my knuckles at a face. And by a face, I mean his fucking face.

charge.

Farrow restrains me, gripping my fist in his palm, and forcing my hand to my side. He walks me backwards. “Look at me, Maximoff.”

I’m glaring beyond Farrow. At the bartender.

His lips are against my ear. “He’s not worth your attention.”

I’ve said all those words before: be the bigger person. Walk away. You’re feeding into their bullshit. Violence solves nothing. You’re the CEO of a nonprofit. Stop.

Stop.

Breathe.

Leave.

I let about fifteen feet divide me and the bartender. Backing up. Backing away, all the while he’s talking shit. “What about your sister,” he laughs mockingly. “Luna Hale—another wet slut. Bet she puts out twice as much as your mom. Is she a little sex addict too?”

I taste acid on my tongue, but words burn the back of my throat. Dying inside of me.

And Farrow can’t provoke the bartender. If these insults eat at him, he can’t show me either. I’m in a thundering boat of one.

Trying to steer myself towards the door. I almost get there.

And then he says, “I hope she locks her doors at night.”

I go rigid.

Motionless and still faced towards him. “What’d you say?”

He laughs. “I hope she keeps her doors locked. You know how many men would break through just to taste her

I lose it. Tearing out of Farrow’s hold, I take a few lengthy strides. And I swing. The instant my knuckles crack the bridge of his nose, Farrow cuts off my path and then he thrusts back three men who spring up from the barstools.

Blood gushes out of the man’s nostrils, and he shouts the word, sue.

“Go ahead and fucking sue me.” I turn around with rage in my eyes, leaving the mess I burst behind. I forget that Farrow isn’t Declan. My old bodyguard would’ve stayed to cool down the pub. Instead, Farrow sprints and reaches my side.

Step-for-step with me, and I glance at him. His hard gaze holds a raw understanding that says you’re not alone. And as we face forward, his hand falls to my wrist, then my palm—he’s holding my hand for a strong but brief moment.

No one has ever held my hand like that.

He lets go, and we both push through the pub doors. Walking side-by-side towards my Audi parked on the city street. Philly lit up at night.

Paparazzi are here.

I glance at my phone that says:

I saw you leave. I’m in the car, driving home. I’m safe. Text me as soon as you are. – Janie

I text quickly: I’m on my way home.

While I find my keys in my pocket, three cameramen near with their lenses. Asking the same question, “Why are your knuckles bloody?!”

“Did you get in a fight, Maximoff?!”

Farrow pushes a camera aside. “Get out of his face.”

“Sorry,” the paparazzi apologizes, pretty sincere. He takes more than a few steps backwards.

Silent, I unlock my car, and I climb into the driver’s seat.

Farrow is in the passenger, doors locked, and I drive out onto the highway. Like it’s just another day of my life.

I move forward.

I don’t look back.

Flicking on my blinker, I switch to the left lane. Speeding ahead of trailing paparazzi that race after my car.

Farrow reaches across my body. I stiffen, my eyes flitting from him to the road. He seizes the silver buckle by my shoulder and pulls the strap over my chest. Clicking the belt in by my ass.

“You’re not dying today,” Farrow reminds me. “Let me see your hand.”

I grip the wheel with both hands. Skin busted on a few of my knuckles. “I thought we’ve been through this. You’re not my damn doctor; you’re not my assistant. Not a caped crusader or a fortuneteller or my friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. You’re just…”

Farrow.

I swallow a lump in my throat and then I take a chance and look at him.

He wears only the same understanding.

So I say, “It’d break my mom’s heart to hear what he said. You know that?”

“I know.” Farrow was around my mom for three years. He knows. “But it’d break her heart more to see her son get jumped by four men twice his age.” I watch the road as he says, “You don’t want anyone to help you, but you’re willing to put your life at risk for—fuck.” He pops his earpiece out completely and unclips his radio from his waistband.

Hunching forward, he tinkers with the coms.

By the tic of his jaw muscle, I can tell he bites hard on his teeth. “What’s wrong?” ask.

“My radio just died.”

“Well you can’t save everyone,” I say, which makes him smile.

And he tilts his head towards me, pieces of his bleach-white hair falling in his eyes. “Still a precious smartass.”

I nearly smile too, but both of our phones start incessantly buzzing. Family, for me. Security team, for him. It’s going to be a long night of rehashing the same story over and over.

We both reach for our phones.

I’m ready for it.


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