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She'd like to say it was just to get him to say yes. Like...puppy dog eyes. She'd also like to say she was only thinking of freedom, saving her family. But when she kisses Richie Gecko? Honestly, she isn't thinking at all.

It just sort of...happens, like gravity, magnetic poles, some actual concrete force of nature. She looks him in the eye and it pulls her into him, that same something about him that's pulled at her since he stood above her floating in the pool. It's like being hypnotized, possessed.

His lips are warm, and he's soft, so soft with her when he kisses her back.

That's what breaks the spell. This man, he put a gun to her head today, he was going to kill her dad and her brother, and he was -- she has no right doing this with him, and he has no right being nice about it.

Kate pulls back, belly full of ice. His eyes are hazy and so, so blue. "Oh my God," I can't, I can't, what am I doing.

It is without any doubt real live, genuine divine intervention that Seth comes in right then.

"Preacher's daughter strikes again."

Her face burns. Lord, she can't stand for anyone to even look at her right now. She gets to her feet and literally flees, shame pounding in her ears. Somewhere left behind Richie calls after her, but she doesn't stop, can't stop, just runs blindly through the first open door she finds.

It's a corridor, stone like the rest of this place, all red velvet curtains and dim neon light and cigarette smoke. Kate bumps into a few of the girls (strippers?), maybe on their breaks or something. They giggle and coo over her, call her mi cielo and amorcita, pet her hair, her face. Her skin tingles where they touch her, familiar and almost...sexy, and she feels herself being drawn in.

She yanks away and their laughter trails after her, pushes her forward into the darkness. She darts around a corner, thinks she's heading toward the bathrooms.

Or not. There's no light at all now. She turns and feels for the walls, tries to go back where she came in, but everywhere is pitch black. Where exactly is she? She must have gotten turned around somehow, disoriented not being able to see.

This place is so weird. Or maybe all Mexican biker bar strip clubs are built this way. Are there a lot of those?

It seems like she's walking in the dark forever. The hair raises on the back of her neck, like someone's staring at her, or...or following her? Are those footsteps behind her? Breathing? Oh God, it's probably just her mind playing tricks (please let it be just her mind), but she doesn't want to find out and so she speeds up, stumbling on the uneven floor.

Guilt and humiliation have long cooled into dread when she sees a faint red glow up ahead. She could cry a little, she's so relieved. "Thank you, Jesus," she breathes, and hurries toward it as fast as she dares.

She's half afraid it's some...super secret VIP room, and she's going to burst into the middle of something excruciatingly embarrassing like a lunatic, but no. It's an exit sign.

A fire exit. Here. What the hell is wrong with this place?

Prickling urgency creeps through her whole body, knots in her throat, a need to be out, out, out, and Kate frantically slides her hands over the door looking for a handle or knob, something.

Nobody's ever been so glad to feel a push bar click, she's sure of it.

She shoves the door open and bolts out into cool night air, what's apparently the far side of the parking lot. She runs almost to the first line of cars and trucks, heart beating so fast, she's shaking from it, and has to stop before her jelly legs give out.

Deep breaths, slow in and slow out, until her pulse quits jackhammering. It hits her: she's outside. Outside. She can see the RV.

If her family were here, they could leave right now. Drive away and never, never look back. This could be nothing but a bad day, a bad dream, a bad thing that happened to other people. They could just run.

Except that's stupid. Dad and Scott are inside, and it doesn't matter anyway because Seth still has the keys. Seth, who also has a gun and everyone left in the world she loves and will probably be really, really angry she got out here.

Suddenly outside doesn't seem like such a good thing. Kate looks at the crude scaffolding towers spewing giant plumes of fire, the bikers drinking and fighting and racing in circuits around the parking lot, the creeps gathered around burning oil drums already starting to eyeball her, and thinks maybe outside is the worst idea she's ever had.

One of the creeps looks like that sleaze from earlier, the skeezy barker who licked his fingers and called her Cherry Pie.

Kate hugs herself and sidles toward the Titty Twister's entrance, tries to figure out how to sneak inside without getting caught, getting run over, or getting close enough for any of these mega freaks to grab (or lick or...anything) her.

The door opens and slams shut behind her. She whips around.

It's Richie. His glasses gleam in the firelight, and even through the dark and distance, she can see his eyes lock onto her.

Shit.

He heads straight for her, unwavering, focused, long-legged single-minded stride, and she freezes, trapped between the urge to run and a stranger, darker one to be caught. "Kate," he says, low soft voice. It hits her like a fist, knocks the air from her.

She stands rooted to the spot, breathless and languid, and watches him come toward her like a vision.

Richie closes in toe-to-toe then keeps going, walks her backwards 'til she bumps into one of the cars, some old station wagon, cold and hard and immoveable. He boxes her in with his body, an arm on either side of her, not touching, not quite. This should feel threatening. Predatory. She stares up at him, and he's tall enough, his broad shoulders nearly black out the night sky. All she can see is him.

Her stomach flip-flops crazily, delicious thrill of heat and fear pulled taut like a string through the middle of her.

"It wasn't just to trick me, was it."

A statement, not a question. Like a passenger in her own body, she distantly feels her head shake. "No," it should have been. It was supposed to be. Would've been better if it had been.

She doesn't know what kind of person this makes her.

He leans closer, and heat crackles in the shallow space between their bodies. She's uncomfortably aware of him, his proximity, suit jacket ticklish grazing her arms, the solid physical mass of him. He smells like gunpowder and cigarettes, some old-fashioned aftershave, like blood and clean sweat. "Why did you run? Are you scared of me?"

No. He's scared her plenty, badly, but not for herself since the RV, since he closed his eyes and prayed with her. You're not like them. "I -- I couldn't -- I --"

"I would never hurt you," he brushes her hair back like before, ghosts a knuckle over her flushed cheek. "You know that. You feel it, I know you do."

(he'd been uncertain, tentative, cool fingertips just barely touching her offered hand at first, but there had been an instant spark of connection, opening, and he must have felt it because his fingers had curled tight into hers; he'd trusted her, he had every reason not to, but he had)

"I know," she whispers.

"You wanted me to come find you," looking her right in the face, that flat impassive mask expression, the endless tug underneath. "You want me to kiss you again."

It terrifies her how true that is -- the strength of this urge. Kate shakes her head again, desperate, tries to regain control over her spinning scrambled brain. "No," she says, and can't stop looking at his mouth.

Watches him lick his lips (Dad was right, she's a terrible liar). "Yes, you do," neon-glowing eyes in the dark, electric behind the dark brow of his glasses, bluer than anything, and in this moment she believes absolutely that he can see inside her.

Richie cups the back of her neck in one large hand, and kisses her.

He's tender with her, delicate, almost chaste. Any resistance she had left crumbles and melts into him. She could fight against harsh, against mean or rough. She has no defense against kindness.

Kate lays cautious trembling hands on his chest, white cotton over warm skin, muscle, bone; his heartbeat is wild under her palms, hand unsteady on her neck, and there's the truth under his shell of cool, composed. He's as swept up -- stirred up -- by this as she is.

She arches her back like a bow to fold herself into him, wants to push closer, crack him open and taste that hidden inside. She wants to drink him in.

He groans against her, breaks away with a wet sound, breath on her cheek. "Up," he pants, shoves her flat against the car. "You want to drink me up," and her jaw falls slack, how much do you see on the tipping edge of her tongue, but he catches her lips, catches the words and swallows them. Tangles his fingers in her hair, and opens her mouth under his, pushes inside.

It was never like this with Kyle.

Nothing chaste or delicate now. Blood rushes through her whole body, scorching shuddering wave from the top of her head to her feet. 'Kiss' isn't enough to describe this -- it's like he's the one trying to drink her, plunder and devour her. His mouth is hot, demanding, and she clutches two fistfuls of bible-selling jacket for dear life, runs her tongue along the sharp edge of his teeth to feel him shiver.

Cold metal and glass under her back, her shoulders, wheel well at the back of her legs. His hand digs into the curve of her spine, molds her tight against him like she could (like she would) move, like she isn't already pinned between the station wagon and his body. She's coming out of her skin, can hardly think or breathe, but it doesn't matter.

His knee presses between her thighs, upwards. Every nerve in her body is lit up and jangling.

Dim gradual awareness of whistling somewhere, a thousand miles away, underwater maybe, but getting louder. A rising chorus of hooting and catcalls in Spanish, and finally there's no ignoring it anymore.

Kate comes back into herself, twists her head away and gasps for air. She peers around his shoulder, sees men laughing and grinning, looking at them. "They're watching us."

His lips are full and parted, eyes glittering, pupils blown dark. "I don't care," hoarse as he had been at the poolside (didn't your daddy tell you never to do this?), and he reaches without taking his eyes from her, gropes blind for the car door handle. He yanks it open, holds it for her like some kind of gentleman (and he is, strange as it sounds, weirdly awkwardly courteous right when you don't expect it). "Come on."

She hesitates. A parking lot out in the open was one thing -- or even that private back room inside, where anybody could and did walk in -- but this would be alone for real. No limit on whatever might happen, and a whole lot could happen in the backseat of a car.

There are so many reasons not to get in with him. And she really, really shouldn't. A good girl (a smart girl) wouldn't.

Sweet foreign taste of him, still heavy on her tongue. Agave. Cinnamon. Macadamia. Her palms are sweating.

Kate brushes past him to climb in, and can't believe she's really doing this.

It smells like old upholstery and new car smell cardboard tree air freshener, and Richie has to duck low when he follows her inside. He closes the door behind them, locks it and the front passenger door. Looks at her over the top of his glasses, heavy lidded, expectant. She swallows, locks the doors on her side as well.

The air in the station wagon is thick as jelly, almost as sticky. Something dips, thrums in her stomach as he slides toward her, and she shifts to meet him, touches his face like she's wanted since that first moment she saw him; square jaw, high cheekbones, tender freckled skin and rough planes of stubble. She traces the long line of his nose, and he wraps her hand in his, holds and nuzzles into it, presses an open-mouthed kiss to her palm. Stares her right in the eye, and sweeps his tongue along her lifeline.

Some small helpless noise comes tumbling out of her, and he smiles, teeth slick at her wrist. A tingling flood rushes over her whole body, catches in the swollen ache between her legs. Want, wanting like nothing she's ever felt. She grabs him by the hair and pulls herself up to half attack, half kiss him, and he's more than happy to let her, to help her the rest of the way onto his lap, one knee on either side of him.

Straddling him like that stripper had been when she'd found them, had watched uneasy and impatient. Intrigued.

He's...he's hard under her. Kate blushes, hot strawberry lip gloss red. It makes her feel dirty, feel powerful. Never in a million years did she imagine this would be her, here, this way. She doesn't do this.

"This was meant to happen," he murmurs between kisses, between his hand splayed wide across her back like a brand and the slow slide down, down. "I knew you were special. I knew we were supposed to find each other."

She doesn't know if it's true, doesn't know anything except that she's never felt this way before. All she can do is close her eyes and let her head fall back as he nips at her chin, her jaw, finds the pulse in her neck and sucks.

Outside, somebody's blasting Blue Oyster Cult, Burnin' For You, and she is, her whole body is throbbing bright. She writhes against him, trying to ease the pressure, ease that tightening heat. "Fuck, Kate," he hisses, cold on her wet burning skin. Both his hands are digging into her hips, gripping her ass (and it has to hurt, the raw gaping hole in his left, but he doesn't seem to care). Richie's panting like she is, biting and mouthing her neck, her shoulder, and he guides her to grind over him where it makes his breath hitch.

She needs more of him, to feel him, she's feverish, dying for it. "Up," she tugs at his shirt, trying to untuck it. Their hands tangle in the hurry pulling it free, the undershirt beneath as well, and that's all she needs to slip her hands inside, revel in his superheated bare flesh. Muscles jerk and flutter under her roving fingers, her scratching nails over soft skin, fine hair.

Richie jams one knee against the front seat, and arches underneath her. His eyes roll like a shark's, teeth clenched and white.

Yeah, she could get used to this.

Not much time to feel smug, though -- Richie's already flattening one big hand low on her stomach, heel of his palm heavy on her pubic bone. She bites her lip, reddened and kiss bruised, kiss swollen and drunk, as he runs that hand up her slight soft tummy, up her ribcage.

Tension and temperature rises alongside that creeping hand, twists inside her, heart stuttering, unbearable, oh God, just barely skirting the side of her breast. When his fingers finally curl over it, her world has shrunken to this pinpoint, like she's watching them through a telescope. She can't help herself, she jerks, penny stuck in an electrical socket, cries out something that might be his name or please or maybe nothing that makes any sense at all.

He's staring at her, mouth soft and reverent, like she's holy, like she's the word made flesh. "You're so lovely," he sounds awestruck, kneads her so gently, thumbs her nipple through her shirt, her bra, and he's actually killing her. She never knew someone else's hands on her could feel like this. She'll die if he quits. "You don't even know how beautiful you are right now."

"Please, Richie, please," she begs, pushes into his hand, and feels his twitch trapped between them, feels him honest to God swell.

Then he's yanking her plaid shirt off, shoving her henley and tank up over her breasts, under her chin; fumbles with clumsy hands to unhook her striped bra and it's not just the bandage, the wound, making him struggle, palms damp.

She's flushed pink all over, she knows it, skin flaming. Sound of stitches popping, then finally her bra springs loose. He pushes it flustered out of his way, and her first instinct is to cover herself, but he catches her hands and pushes them out of the way, too, pins her wrists to his knees behind her and licks a path along her breastbone. He kisses her breast, takes the nipple in his mouth, and they moan together.

It's a blur of skating squeezing hands, laving tongue, searching lips. She has his shirt halfway unbuttoned from the bottom up, has at least a dozen hickeys blooming all over her. He's kissing her stupid, messily, licking into her mouth with his right hand inside her jeans and slipping into her underwear.

She's a shrug away from half-naked in a stranger's station wagon, and Richie's fingers find the place she's only barely opened the map to herself, guilty and secret. Her mouth falls open, breathy high-pitched sounds she doesn't even recognize coming out of her. She clamps her quaking thighs around his hips, hangs on as tight as she can. "God!" he rolls his hand against her like a wave, and her vision goes dark and sparkly around the edges. "Lord Jesus."

"Richard," he reminds her, sly deadpan humor, and she might have rolled her eyes if she could think straight enough, but his rocking fingers have her barely in one human-shaped piece.

Dizzy, melting embarrassingly wet in his hand, and he hums his appreciation, rubs slick, steady. Her legs jerk and quiver; she's shaking, pressing against him without any clear idea what she's doing except that she needs more, coiling tighter and tighter inside, winding like a spring. It isn't fair that he can make her crazy like this, fistfighting to even try and string a thought together, and be so cool. She's not even on the same planet as coherent, and it's not fair at all.

She reaches between her legs, lays her hand right on the hard ridge of his erection, and levels things out a little.

He grunts, sharp and surprised. "Kate," halfway warning, halfway pleading, and she grips him through way too many layers of clothes. "You don't -- ah! -- you don't have to."

She lifts her eyebrows, challenging. "I want to," skims her thumb up the center of him, feels him (it) jump, and it's overwhelming and okay, maybe a little scary, too, but it's also really, really hot. Her smile is coy. "Sure feels like you want me to."

"Yes," he gasps, spreads his legs wider and hers with them. "Yes."

Between (in spite of?) their three available hands (overeager, overzealous), they get his belt unbuckled. The clinking sound of it shoots a jolt through her stomach, lower, and she pops the button on his pants with trembling fingers, reaches for the fly, parted tingling lips, eyes wide. His hand fits over hers, and they lower his zipper together.

Richie's looking her in the eye when his fingers dip inside the elastic of his underwear. He pulls himself free, one corner of his mouth twitching.

And she wants to be cool about it, like oh huh there's your penis ho hum, no big deal. But it's a big deal. It's just...big, alien and dark and swollen. It stands stiff against his stomach, jerks under her shy fingertips, and there's nothing cool about her. His face is slack and almost incredulous, eyes shut, brow creased. He's summer hot in her careful, featherlight grasp, silky and wet, and she can't even believe this is happening, this is unreal. "I've never -- I mean -- tell me if I'm doing this wrong," she blurts out, doesn't even pretend she's talking to his face, angling him this way and that and just trying to wrap her mind around this whole situation. He's so smooth. She's never felt skin as velvety soft as this.

"You're fine," he rasps, warm husky voice, and flexes his hand in her rose-printed cotton panties, reaches for her face with the other to pull her close. "Now come here."

The windows are all fogged up around them. His glasses are fogged, too; hair raked messy, damp and curling a little in the humidity. They're both sweaty and out of breath, moving together and against each other in a jumbled, building rhythm. She's whimpering, toes curling in her boots, trying to coordinate gripping his shoulder and working her hips and sliding her hand up and down him, and nobody ever told her but this is a real workout.

He's flushed just as dark as she is, tic in his jaw, soft needy sounds coming deep from his chest. "Do you trust me?" he breathes into the side of her neck.

"I..." he's a thief and a killer and he hurts people, he took her family hostage and he would have shot her dad and Scott. "Yes."

Somehow it's true.

She lets out a startled squeak when Richie twists, flips them over so she's laid out across the backseat underneath him. It's awkward at first, all his too long arms and legs crammed in such a small space, elbows in the wrong places and his hurt hand and her getting squashed. He takes the gun from the back of his unfastened pants before it falls out, stuffs it under the passenger seat, and it's a very sudden, very cold reminder of who and what exactly he is.

But then he's cradled between her open knees, and oh, oh wow, holding her hips with both hands now and he thrusts against her, and it's good, it's so good. She can feel him, hard and thick, slide over where she's aching, and she knows what people call this, but 'dry humping' sounds gross and besides, it really doesn't do this any kind of justice at all.

It's dirty and kind of silly, liberating in some totally bizarre way she can't even start on. Kate surrenders to the ridiculous abandon of the moment, rubs against him as shamelessly as he does her, two beings of pure craving and sensation. And even though she isn't ready and it would be insane, beyond stupid, if he asked right now, she'd let him take the rest of her clothes off and put himself inside her. She'd give him everything.

But he won't ask. He won't, she knows it, feels it in her truest heart. He said he wouldn't hurt her, and she believes him. She trusts him (God help her, God help all of them).

He's breathing hard, ragged, above her, hair falling into his face. The whole car is rocking, and she knows what it looks like to the creeps watching outside -- she knows, and can't make herself care. Richie moans something unintelligible and shifts suddenly, bridges his weight on one elbow so he doesn't crush her and yanks her jeans open with his good hand, shoves his fingers down her belly to where she's wet and needing.

The angle's different like this, better than before, and oh Jesus, oh. She bites down on a cry, wraps one leg around his waist. Her other thigh is trapped between both his now, and he grinds against her hip.

"Say it," he pushes one thick finger inside her and his hands are so much bigger than hers, just that much stretches and burns, bright, sweet. "Say my name."

"Richard," she gasps, braces her hands above her on the door and tries to keep her eyes on his, watch the blue flare black, but she can't hold still, she's so close, he's working his palm against her, crooks his finger, and she's -- she's riding his hand. It's weird and embarrassing, the sexiest thing, and that's what does it. All that built up tension snaps; pleasure rushes and trembles out from the center of her body, rolling waves, breaks her uncontrollably, unbearably apart. "Oh God, Richie."

"That's it," he croons, and the world is contracting black and blue, she can feel herself ripple around him, feel how wet his hand is. How wet she is. She's sobbing, digging her fingers into hard plastic, fabric paneling. "That's it, Kate, just let it go."

Nothing about this can be a sin, it's not possible. It's too beautiful. God wouldn't make a gift like this just to hide it away. God would never be so mean.

Sense trickles back into her like water through a sieve. Her heart's going a hundred miles an hour; aftershocks rumble through her, tremors and spasms.

He's kissing and biting her jaw, her throat, sliding leaking across her bare stomach. He rips his hand out of her jeans, grabs and fists himself still slick from her, quick, rough. She slots her hand with his, into his rhythm, squeezes the wet gleaming head of his erection. "I want to see you do it," she whispers, and he jerks, open mouth and harsh stuttering breath, abandons her stroking fingers at the last second to cup his palm over the tip, finishes in his hand instead of on her. His groan is filthy, astonished.

Afterward, they lie still pressed together, shell-shocked, his face buried in her neck, arm slung over her waist. It's like they're both just trying to remember how to breathe.

Finally he moves off her, tucks himself back into his pants and wipes his hand on the back of the driver's seat, slumps against the opposite door. She's still lying flat on her back, one foot dangling onto the floor, a state of absolute jelly-boned disbelief. "I've never made out with anybody in a car before," she says, breathless. Never made out with anybody anywhere, not really.

Richie smiles, glistening sweaty and just that littlest bit but so sweet. "Me either," he reaches for her hand, laces their fingers together.

She gazes up at him, doesn't want to put a name to the warm shimmering feeling in her chest. It's safer this way.

He strokes his thumb in absent circles over the side of her hand, her wrist. "I'll get the keys from Seth," shocked relief lurches awake in her stomach. "Your father and brother can go whenever they want. But you're staying."

Kate swallows. "Richie -- "

He draws her upright to sit with him, faces close. "You really think everything that's happened today is just a fluke? Coincidence?" his eyes look colorless in the green neon light, open and sincere. "You were brought to this place for a reason, just like I was. It's important that you're here. Can't you feel that?"

Despair stings behind her eyes. It's pointless. Dad and Scott will never leave without her, and she's so scared every minute they're stuck here, scared of what could happen to them now they're so close to going free. And yet...part of her wonders if maybe he's right. Richie sees things, knows things, that there's just no explaining. He knew about Mama, that she thought her dad might have -- but she was wrong about that, and so was Richie. He could be wrong about this, too.

(but he's not, not completely, because she does feel something, that undeniable force between them still and it can't be for nothing, she can't believe that)

"I don't know what I feel about anything," she says, and if he's mad at her or disappointed, then so be it. It's the truth. "My own life doesn't make sense to me anymore, let alone any of...of this."

He puts his forehead to hers, bad hand over the back of her neck again, the niche which fits him so easily. "It will," he says, so sure. She aches for that, yearns for any kind of certainty at all with every cell in her body. "You just have to learn to see."

She wavers, gripping his hand threaded through hers, taking comfort where by all rights there should be none. She doesn't know how she got so tangled up with this man. There's something wrong with her, there has to be. "I want to believe you."

"So believe me," he brushes his lips over hers, then again. "Trust me."

God help her. Please, please, God help her.

"All right," she murmurs (it's not like she has a lot of choice). Richie's grin erupts quick, genuine, wide open and eyes crinkled and handsome. Like, model handsome. Like, goosebumps rising all over her skin handsome, and that's when it hits her: they're sitting here having a heart to heart, and her boobs are still hanging out. "Oh my God, my shirt's still -- oh God."

Richie leans back, eyes flicking over her appreciatively. He raises his eyebrows. "It's a good look on you."

Stupid to blush after everything, but she still does it, right up to the tips of her ears. "Yeah, somehow I don't think my family or your brother would agree," Kate disentangles herself enough to pull her bra down, fish around to try and close it. The hooks are all bent out of shape now. Big mystery how that happened.

He straightens to do up his fly, eyes glittering with amusement. "You're half right."

There's a charged, giddy feeling as they get dressed. They keep catching each other's eye, zipping jeans, buttoning shirts, and she's trying not to grin like a maniac, trying to fight down the idiot giggles that bubble up. He's sneaking glances at her through his lashes, hidden sly silly smile, bumping a shoulder into her accidentally on purpose until she pushes him back, and this could be any parking lot, lover's lane, he could be just some cute boy she met at school or church.

But Richie's not just anybody, and he's certainly no boy.

She bends down to grab her balled-up flannel shirt off the floor, and gets a close eyeful of Richie's finger-painting handiwork. "We kind of made a mess in here, huh?" guilty twinge from her conscience. She does a stealthy once-over for any napkins or Kleenex laying around, something to try and, you know, wipe stuff off.

Richie snorts. "Anybody stupid enough to leave an unlocked car in this place has got bigger worries than some DNA on the seat," fastening his belt, and her mouth is wet, eyes and ears drawn by the sound, and she wonders if this is going to be a thing now, some Pavlovian response. He catches her looking, smirk in the shadow of his lips like he hears what she's thinking (maybe he does). "This heap's going to be burned out or in pieces by morning, if it's even still here."

Kate gets up on her knees to help smooth his hair back into place, tries not to think too hard about him tucking his gun back into its.

"I guess," only so much she can fix, just combing her fingers through. Nothing but water and a real comb are going to get that sex mussed wave out of his thick dark hair (why is it guys always get the really good hair? Talk about cosmic injustice). He angles into her touch like a sunflower toward heat and light, and she licks her thumb to slick down a cowlick, tastes the bitter tang of his pomade. "I still feel bad a little."

He adjusts her shirt to cover a peekaboo hickey on her collarbone. His touch is tender, fond. "That's because you're a sweet girl."

And she knows: this isn't just about hands and mouths, hers and his, what he wants to do with them. It's not even just an unnameable pull.

He likes her.

That warm feeling again, unfurling, curling like ivy through her belly. All bad ideas there. She focuses on getting his collar to lay neat. "Not as sweet as you think," sassing but it comes out more like flirting, which isn't too helpful under the circumstances.

"Yes, you are," Richie tilts his head, teasing, sexy; hazy eyed Crayola cornflower blue, staring at her lips, and it shivers down her spine. His hand finds her hip, slides to hook a thumb through her belt loop, fingertips skimming over the swell of her backside. "Sweet as apple pie."

Cherry pie. "Yeah?" lightheaded, breath coming shallow. She's giving some really serious thought to bad ideas, round two. "So what are you?"

His mouth quirks, dark-humored, and he lets her go, reaches for the door handle. "Despicable."

...Lord. She breathes out slow, shaky, head spinning, and crawls after him.

Sure enough, they have a few lingering audience members. Some have even drifted closer for a front row seat to the show, but one flat dead-eyed look from Richie sends them slinking back to the peanut gallery.

"Are they gonna mess with us?" she asks under her breath, frightened.

"Not if they know what's good for them," he says, hand light on her back, and this is the Richie she knows from the hotel room, from the RV. The one who felt like a threat even on the wrong end of a gun, who would kill anyone that stood between him and what he wanted (funny how being on the winning side of that wasn't a whole lot more comfortable). "Let's go."

He keeps her in front of him, and nobody says or does anything, but she feels eyes on her, sliding over her body. She walks and doesn't look at anyone, and has never been more grateful to be a hostage. If Richie hadn't come after her, if she'd made it a little further alone...she doesn't want to think about what might have happened.

By the time they climb the Titty Twister's steps, her knees feel liquid, her mouth dry, tension a fist in her throat. She hurries to push open one heavy wooden door, get away from here (and back into that snake pit, talk about frying pan and Mexican biker strip club fire), but Richie catches and stops her with a hand low on her stomach.

"What -- " she starts to ask, but he cuts her off pressing close against her back, holding her to him. His face is in her hair, breathing her in, and she doesn't want to want this, doesn't want to shudder, slick between her legs (but she does, she is). She lets out a sharp, jagged breath. "What are you doing?"

"Sugar clouds my vision," is all he says, then he shoves the door open, guides her through it.

Seth spots her instantly, like he has radar or GPS tracking or something. And she was right: he doesn't look happy. At all. "Where the hell have you been? I've been looking all over this shithole for you! I was starting to think you got human trafficked or something -- " he sees Richie behind her, and stops cold. "What the fuck is this?"

Oh God. She tries not to blush, look as guilty as she feels. "There was this really dark hall, and I thought I was lost, but there was a door -- "

"She got outside," Richie says simply, cool as you please. "I brought her back in."

Which is the truth. Part of it, anyway. Seth still gives them the hairy eyeball. "Yeah, well, you've been bringing her back in for half an hour, Nabokov. Parking lot must be bigger than it looks, huh?"

Richie rolls his eyes. "Nabokov's the author, Humbert Humbert is the character -- "

"Do not even start that shit with me, Richard! We are not playing this game," Seth snaps. "You know what, that's it. We're taking the Partridge Family, and we're getting the hell out of here."

Please, please, please, listen to Seth, Jesus, please they need to get out before something terrible happens (but of course he won't and that something is maybe already happening). "I'm not leaving," Richie's dangerously calm, holding onto her shoulder. "And neither is she."

Seth's face contorts with disbelief, frustration (fear). "What is WITH you and this place? And her," he looks her over, disheveled clothes and kiss dark lips and messy hair, and his mouth presses into a tight angry line. "You get some terrified kid to play hide the salami with you, and what, she's your pet now? Your property? You piss on her, too?"

"Don't talk about her like that," Richie bristles, getting louder; a muscle flexes in his jaw like he's grinding boulders. "Kate didn't do anything."

"It's not what she's doing that I have a problem with, and you goddamn know it," Seth is livid, close-talking like crazy, and she really, really wishes she weren't stuck in the middle (a fight between these two was bad enough without being literally in between them, and why oh why does this keep happening to her). "Now we're gonna go collect the rest of the family band, you're gonna keep your hands to yourself, and then we're taking this little meet and greet with Carlos to some other titty bar, all right? Maybe it'll be your lucky night, and we'll find you a stripper with braces and a curfew."

Richie lunges at Seth, right for his throat. They get each other by collars, jacket sleeves, wrestling and shoving, sharp fists and elbows, and Kate shrieks at them to stop it, please, tries to pull them apart without getting dragged in any further herself.

People are staring. Even across the room, Dad's noticed the commotion, and is up and weaving his way through the crowd with a face full of bad news, Scott on his heels.

Oh, this is so bad.

Some men grab them and break it up -- bouncers, bartenders, she's not sure about anything except that they're big and look mean. "You goddamn crazy bastard," Seth socks Richie in the jaw as they're being dragged apart, knocks him staggering to one knee, half out of the grip of the two guys holding him. "What the fuck is wrong with you? I'm your brother! Or don't you give a shit anymore?" Richie just stares at him, icy blank, until he shakes off restraining hands, yanks his jacket straight. "I'm done, all right? Let go, I'm fucking done."

Seth whips around on heel, and shoves past the ring of gawkers, vanishes like blood down the drain.

She's never seen Richie look so closed off, so empty. She reaches out for him without thinking or even meaning to, cradles his face instinctively. "Richie?"

"Are you okay?" he asks. There's blood on his teeth and lips.

He and Seth just got into a knockdown dragout for real brawl in the middle of a bar, and Dad is staring at her touching a murderer like he doesn't know who she is.

"I -- I'm fine," she looks at Scott, his face like a television set, flickering confusion, betrayal, rage, before just like Seth he turns his back on her and walks away. Her stomach twists. "Are you?"

Richie gets up, open lifted hands in peace so the men will back off, quit holding him in place. "Never better," flat, brittle, and she can't tell if he's being sarcastic or just lying to her (himself).

The long-haired shirtless bartender appears like smoke at Richie's shoulder. "You dropped this," he holds out a hand, something balanced in his palm that looks like bone.

Strange expression from Richie, shock, gratitude. He takes whatever it is, holds it tight in his fist like he can't believe it's really there, like somebody might take it from him. "Thank you."

"You need to sit down," the bartender's eyes rake over her, cold, assessing. It gives her the creeps. "The show is about to start."

He gives them one last spooky look before disappearing, back to the bar, maybe. Wherever he goes, she's glad. He couldn't leave fast enough for her. "Total weirdo," she mutters, turns to Richie, but he's too preoccupied with whatever he gave him to notice anything. "What is that?"

Distant face, tracing his thumb over the white shape, darker inset metal. "A sign," he says, then blinks slowly, slips the mystery gift into his pocket. Something about the whole thing makes her...queasy, uneasy in a deep, primal way she doesn't understand. Richie's hand closes around her elbow, startles her. He tips his head toward the tables. "Come on. Like the man said, show's starting."

"What kind of show do you think it is?" she asks, pang of creeping anxiety. She doesn't know if she's mentally or emotionally prepared for any show a place called the Titty Twister might put on.

Like, Daddy didn't even let her and Scott watch R-rated movies if he hadn't seen them first. "An interesting one, I'd guess," Richie quirks his eyebrows, one side of his mouth. "If there's a donkey, you'll probably want to close your eyes."

God. He's kidding, right? She hopes he's kidding.

Seth's at a table near the edge of the stage, nursing on that bottle of tequila from before. It's a whole lot emptier than she remembers it. Scott and Dad have a table by themselves as far away as they're allowed, which isn't very; Seth likes to keep things close (he's not the only one, Richie holding her arm, thumb pressed in the hollow over her vein).

Richie steers them to the stage and Seth, and there's a stomach sinking moment where she thinks she's going to be forced into the middle again, but he takes the hot seat instead, pulls her to sit at his right.

Not that that's much better. No barrier between them if things get volatile again, and they really might. Tension is still rippling butter thick, oppressive, violent. There's a thrum of something territorial, possessive, all weird murky undercurrents, and she's very aware of Richie's arm on the back of her chair, the hole Seth's burning into them from the side of his eye.

Hard to forget that -- one way or another -- what they're fighting over is her.

She glances over her shoulder, eyes drawn to her family, longing like a lodestone. Scott seems to be pretending none of them exist, pissed off hunched shoulders and stiff back and stare locked on nothing. She accidentally meets her dad's gaze over his head, but he doesn't look angry. He looks scared to death, and that's so much worse.

Just hang on, Daddy. Please, we're almost there.

"Kate," Richie, soft-voiced, soft-eyed, soft hand on her shoulder, leaning close to speak directly into her ear. "Don't let them make you doubt yourself. You're right where you belong."

Doubt. Her life is nothing but these days. And if this is where she's supposed to be, then why is her belly churning? But she swallows and nods, tries to accept the reality of her circumstances the best she can. It's a waiting game now. There's only so much time before this Carlos guy will show up, and Seth can make his deal. Then they'll let them go. They -- he -- promised.

They're going to bury us in the desert, but she doesn't think about that. She doesn't let herself think about what happens if Richie changes his mind, if (when) the time comes and he still doesn't want her to go (doesn't think about if he does, this thing between them, where that will leave her).

She just has to stay calm, stay strong. Keep her head down, and this will all be over soon.

A really good-looking Hispanic man comes on stage with a microphone, and noise quickly drains from the room. Nervous tug in her gut, like being at the top of a roller coaster. The show's beginning (oh God). "Everything gets better from here," Richie murmurs, perfect faith and it's bittersweet in her mouth, familiar. Tastes like home. "You'll see."

Kate takes a deep shaky breath, heart thudding. She hopes to God he's right.

(he isn't)