Kai put his arm around her and could feel she was trembling. With a lurch, the car started. “It’s okay,” he said. “Come on.”
The guys were laughing at their success at the back end, while Kai and Erin passed through the front door onto the rocking platform outside the car. Erin looked through the window behind them. “They’re coming after us.”
“Let’s get to the conductor car.”
The subway going into the city was fairly empty this time of evening, while trains passing the other direction were packed full. They passed through two more cars until they reached the conductor’s box blocking the doorway at that end. There wasn’t a window on the inside, but Kai knew he could rap on the metal door to alert the conductor if things went really crazy.
He took up position in front of the door. Erin looked scared, and he took a moment to assure her, “It’ll be fine now. They won’t do anything with the conductor right here.” He was stroking her arm. “Now get behind me. If anything happens, bang on that door until he comes out.”
He shifted her so she was standing behind him, her hands trembling on his back. He was ready to do whatever it took to keep them from getting to her.
The scattered people in the car knew that something was wrong even before the homeboys arrived. Kai's adrenaline was pumping. He would have backed away from any guy as hopped up as he was right now.
It was a bad moment when the guys came into the car. Kai lifted his fist to pound on the door if they made another move. They knew conductors, and this conductor had just seen three guys jump the train.
They stayed at the back end of the car, talking and cursing loudly, making arm motions to punctuate their words. Everyone was watching them intently, with a few of those closest getting up and moving away. At the next station, almost everyone poured off, and he could see the passengers getting back onto cars on either side of them. Someone called out a warning to the conductor that he better watch out, but nothing happened. A couple of the passengers stayed, obviously eager to see a fight.
Kai half-turned towards Erin, more to try to defuse the situation than anything else. She looked up at him imploringly. “Why are they doing this, Kai?”
He felt a deep pang. It was his own fault. But he couldn’t admit it. She would have been fine if she had walked to the subway on her own. Oh, they probably would have made comments about the “fine little mama” as she passed by, but that was par for the course out there. He was the one who had caught their attention with all of his running back and forth, frantically searching for her.
Then he had gotten all defensive over her. He knew better than to come back at a gang like that. But from the first moment, he had been ready to fight them all. He hadn’t felt this way since he was a teenager confronting a friend who stole a girl away from him.
He let out his breath with a long sigh, realizing this wasn’t going to stop until he let it go. He was reacting like a caveman protecting his woman. And he didn’t even know her!
Kai forced himself to calm down, to take deep breaths and slow his pulse rate. He no longer wanted to look back at the homeboys, and they jeered louder, feeling like they’d cowed him enough to claim victory.
“My station is next,” Erin said. “What if they follow us off?”
“Just do what I say.”
As the subway car began to slow down, Kai told her, “Don’t move,” as she started to shift. “I’ll tell you when.”
She stayed perfectly still as the car squealed to a halt. The doors opened. He waited a couple seconds to time their exit just before the doors closed, then grabbed her hand. “Come on.”
As soon as they hit the platform, Kai turned to finally look back at the guys who had chased them down. Then pointedly he looked at the conductor’s window. Right beside him, the conductor was in the window watching the stragglers board the train. Kai hoped that if the conductor saw a fight start, he would keep the train in the station and call the cops.
The guys almost jumped off, but when Kai made no move to talk to the conductor, they contented themselves with yelling curses at Kai, pointing their fingers at him as if they were weapons.
The doors of the subway pinged closed, and Erin let out a relieved breath. Kai waited until the train pulled away, watching their moving mouths through the window.
“Oh, my God,” Erin murmured.
He almost admitted it was his fault. But she was finally looking at him with breathless admiration, the way he wanted her to look at him. It almost made it worthwhile.
He took her arm and walked out of the subway with her. It wasn’t until she reached the top of the stairs that she realized what he was doing. “You don’t have to walk me home, Kai.”
“After that? Do you think any red-blooded man could let you walk home alone right now? I’m getting you there safely.”
She didn’t protest, and Kai felt like he’d said too much. He was just as confused as she had looked in his studio. His defensive reaction was so intense and sudden. And he didn’t know why. He could still feel her hand in his as they waited on the platform, staring down the gang. He had felt invincible because he had to be, for her.
They walked in silence the two blocks to her apartment building. She didn’t chatter nervously about what had just happened, and he was glad about it. He needed time to get hold of himself.
Erin lived in an old tenement building with three floors, and he knew from experience there would be two railroad apartments on each floor. This neighborhood was mixed industrial and apartment buildings, so it wasn’t as bleak as his own neighborhood. Plus the main drag of Williamsburg where the subway station let out was always crowded with people. Her apartment was probably half the size and cost more than his studio. But she had restaurants and boutique shopping right around the corner, just like Manhattan used to be before it got too expensive for anything but chain stores and luxury brands.
Erin took a step up her stoop. “This is me.”
She had separated herself from him, so he didn’t have a chance to touch her again. After all he had done, she still couldn’t trust him because he had messed with her.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have asked first.” She tilted her head, not understanding.
“Before I got kinky with you. I shouldn’t have said those things to you without asking first.”
Now she got it, and she flushed so hard she had to look away. She took two more steps up. “That’s all right.” Even though it wasn’t.
“I didn’t mean to drive you away,” he said honestly. “I feel bad. I don’t know why I did it. I know better than that.”
She hesitated, looking back down at him. She didn’t understand; it was true, she really hadn’t explored her submissiveness. But she could tell he meant his apology.
“That’s okay,” she said, this time meaning it.
Kai suddenly felt better, like a weight had been lifted. His pseudo-fight with the homeboys seemed stupid now. He should have just made it up with Erin the second they were alone. None of this would have happened.
“Put it down to the stupendous stress I’m under,” he admitted, running a hand through his hair.
She smiled, like the sun coming out. “I understand completely. This project is a big thing.”
“It is for me.” Erin nodded, turning away. “Thanks for walking me home, Kai.”
He waited until she was inside the heavy front door, protected by iron over the glass. “I’ll ask next time,” he murmured under his breath, making sure she couldn’t hear him.
For some reason, he waited until she was through the inner door with a wave of her hand, before he turned away and left.