Authors: Holly Hart
I looked back down at Kitty, and a tear burned its way down my cheek, carving a path like a drop of molten lava.
"Maybe it's best if they take you, hon," I whispered, choking. I looked around the room, at the faded couch, at the mold forming on the walls.
"This ain't no place for a baby. What kind of life is this? What kind of life am I giving you? Maybe they'll put you with a nice family. A rich family, who'll love you like their own. Be able to pay for nice clothes, and summer camp, and all the stuff I can't. Maybe –"
I broke off, choked up, silent tears streaming down my face. I couldn't imagine a world without my baby by my side, a world where I couldn't kiss her to sleep at night, a world where someone else cooked her food and tied her shoes.
Maybe it's for the best
I shook my head, fierce conviction burning inside me. I didn't believe that. Maybe another woman could buy Kitty nice things, dress her smart and give her a good life.
But you can't have two mamas
And just like that, I knew what I had to do. Truly, I had no other choice. I couldn't stay here; I sure as hell couldn't go home.
I had to go to Val, and beg for his help.
here the hell is she
A fleck of spittle escaped my mouth as my worry threatened to overwhelm me. It was irrational, I knew – but I feared it wasn't. After all, Cara's life clearly wasn't all sunshine and roses. I knew little enough of what had happened to her while I'd been gone, but it didn't take a genius to realize that something was wrong. Not in the state I found her.
The man, Anatoly, I thought his name was, shrugged. He did it at an almost insolent pace, rolling his shoulders and cocking his head to one side, perhaps still seething from the way I’d brushed his hand aside to save Cara from his bullet.
"Not sure, boss," he said. Or was it a lie? As ever, when the adrenaline surged through my body it was hard to tell what was real. The chemical, natural though it was, was as addictive as any drug I'd ever tried – and I'd sampled more than my fair share. It made the world clearer – and turned everyone into an enemy, just to be sure.
"She left the hotel?"
"On her own?"
He shrugged again. "I think."
So I couldn't tell whether the man standing in front of me, with his sharp, wolf-like features was telling the truth…
I knew that I was losing control, and along with it, my men's respect. I knew that no one who'd ever led them before would have allowed himself to fall apart like this, especially not over a woman.
But she's not just any woman
Cara made me want things, think things, desire things that I thought I'd mastered. I told myself the lie that my body was my servant, and my mind too. I told myself this, and I believed it, because it had always been true –
– always, until Cara.
She did something to me, broke the wall that protected my innermost thoughts. It terrified me, because I'd built the wall to protect me from them, and she risked letting them loose.
This is good. She's gone. Focus on the task at hand
The voice that drove me forward whispered now, as always. It thirsted for revenge, hungered for the taste of my father's blood on my blade. Even now, it pushed me to forget about Cara, and I knew that it was right.
If the darkness inside me scared even
, then how could I let it out into the world?
If Cara was the key, then it was my duty to hide from her. She was most at risk of my madness. When I closed my eyes, I saw the marks I'd left on her body branded on the underside of my eyelids. An acidic well of shame rose in my throat until I bit it back.
But I couldn't resist her call, no matter how I tried.
I folded, my resistance crumbling like chalk, not finely honed steel. She had disappeared, someone was chasing after her, and she was at risk. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t act.
"Find her!" I ordered hoarsely.
Anatoly hesitated just a second too long, nodded his head a second too slowly, and left.
* * *
into minutes turned into hours turned into days, at least in my head. Seasons turned, gray hairs sprouted, grew, fell away and I aged a decade in an afternoon. The maid came to clean the room, and left without a word, casting a worried look at me from deep brown eyes.
I assumed the position that had carried me through years of torment – cross legged on the floor. I closed my eyes, deepened my breath. I searched for that place inside my mind – that refuge from all my earthly fears.
I filled my lungs.
My brow furrowed with confusion. Behind my eyes, instead of darkness I saw light – and Cara's face. Heart racing, I blinked, and cracked my neck. My mind was a sanctuary, had to be, but Cara had even wriggled in there, lodging herself in my brain. I closed my eyes again, breathed deep again, but as before her face appeared behind my eyelids as light and bright as a beacon flaming in the night.
Hours passed like that, as I struggled to force my mind to meditate, to return to a place it had been so many times before. A place that, until now, was as familiar to me as breathing.
My cell phone rang.
Time slowed. I feared answering it, considered simply ignoring it. If I didn't pick up, then my deepest worries could never be confirmed. Living in a torment of eternal unease – of not knowing – would surely be better than the truth.
Unless the truth was that one thing I never wanted to hear; or didn’t know whether I could
But I had to know. Hiding from hurt had never been my way. If I tried, I'd never have made it through the torment and torture of the past two years. The thought played on my mind that Cara could be hurt, in need of my help. That was the only encouragement I needed.
I tapped the screen and brought the slim black device to my ear, making no attempt to disguise the hoarse rawness of my throat. My men already knew what this girl was doing to me, there was no hiding it. I'd only make things worse for myself if I tried.
"Boss…" A voice said. I didn't recognize it, though perhaps that was my worry speaking. "We found her. Well, she found
My heart stopped dead with relief. "Where is she?"
"She's here, boss, at the hotel. She came back. We’re bringing her up now. And boss –"
I cut him off, not listening. "No, don't bring her up here. Take her to the apartment. My place, it's safer there. Stay by her side, you understand? If anything happens to her…"
I left the threat unspecified. I didn't need to spell it out. A man's imagination, left alone to wonder, is the greatest torture humanity has ever devised. An afternoon wallowing in worry had taught me that, at least.
"You got it boss."
The man on the other end of the phone mumbled, an electronic ping reverberated down the tinny cell phone speaker. A set of elevator doors opened, then closed a half second later. "We're on our way. Is that everything, boss?"
I closed my eyes and breathed out a sigh of relief. "Yes. No – wait. You said there was something else?"
The man paused and cleared his throat. "Ah. Yeah…" His hesitation was palpable. I gnashed my teeth together.
" I asked, my tone indicating better than any rebuke that I wouldn't ask twice.
"Boss… She's got a kid."
* * *
hat the fuck
do I do now?
They say love is easy: that when you know,
Well I say
There's nothing easy about life, and less about love. Relationships aren't a straight-line quarter-mile drag race; they're a weeklong coast-to-coast rally. You'll blister in the baking heat of the Nevada desert, and freeze as you climb the Rockies. You'll be lashed by rain and fried by sun, frozen by driving hail and then, when you're ready to quit, a goddamn sinkhole will open up right in front of you.
It's your choice whether you turn back, or drive around.
Or cross your fingers and throw yourself off the edge…
I weaved through traffic on a matte black German motorbike, dodging death with every turn. I'd had it imported specially. There wasn't a bike in the state that could outrace it.
Sure, some had more power, bigger engines, more in the tank. Still, none of them could match it. The Mercedes humming beneath my hips was a thoroughbred, not a racing nag. Light, fast, and her engine was tuned by the best in the business.
And in a city like Alexandria, where the car was king and traffic lined back miles, nothing could cross town faster.
In short, it was the kind of machine that demanded your full attention. Riding it was like flying an F-16. You lose control for even a second, and you're done. You'll slip, slide and tumble until your ragged body stops rolling. And they'll scrape what's left of you into a jelly jar and send it to the morgue.
Barely watching where I was going, my thigh nicked the side of a truck. The bike wobbled and bucked – a thoroughbred turned bronco. I thought the handlebars might rip my shoulders plain off as I fought them for control.
A roar born of sheer effort escaped my lips and filled my helmet. It half-deafened me. Adrenaline dumped into me and woke every nerve in my body as easily as a needle of meth to the leg.
My world slowed around me, and I saw the bike's rear wheel kicking out from above, as if I was having an out of body experience. My mind considered every option in a fraction of a second.
Brake? No – one sure way to sail headfirst over the bike and hello death or else worse, a lifetime in a damn wheelchair.
Jump? No – again, I'd die in seconds, either from the impact or from a truck mowing me down.
There was only one thing left to do. I doubled down. My hand twisted on the throttle, and the bike leapt forward, jumping from eighty past a hundred miles an hour in seconds. The road flashed by on either side too fast to see – but the bike steadied.
I was safe – for now.
Jesus, Val. That was close
I tried to concentrate, but my mind was firing questions at me on all cylinders. Questions like:
do I have a kid? Did I abandon him all these years?
But truthfully, they all boiled down to one simple question.
What the hell do I do now?
The answer was simple. I'd known it all day. Still it weighed on my shoulders, crushing down, pressing the breath out of me.
The rest of the ride passed in a blur, though, after my brush with the afterlife, I slowed the pace down some. Enough to signal to Death that my flirtation with his black embrace was done, at least for today. He knew he'd see me soon enough.
The second I reached Drummond Tower, I cut the engine. The bike glided to a halt in front of the shining metal and glass edifice, and I tore my gloves and helmet off, leaving them on the seat.
I didn't see any of my men, but that was as it should be. They were like me – wraiths in the night. Before many more seconds had passed, a hidden protector would spirit himself from his lair and deal with the detritus that followed me close behind.
I didn't remember the elevator ride up, or pressing my eye to the iris-reader to gain access to my apartment. I didn't see the artwork on the walls I faced, nor did I feel the soft, thick carpet underneath my feet. Nothing registered until I saw a small duffel bag, stuffed fit to burst, and a tiny pink child's rucksack discarded carelessly by the door.
"Boss," Anatoly said, inclining his head. "We got the girl for you, just like you asked."
Something about the sharp-faced man made my spine bristle. I didn't know what it was, but he struck me as untrustworthy: a thief in the night; a snake in
nest. His eyes were hungry, and his tongue travelled a never-ending dance across his lips. He looked like a man restraining an urge with all his might – and the only cause that I could think of was Cara herself. He was a snake sitting on
You did no such thing
, I thought, flaring my nostrils.
She came back on her own
I eyed the man until his cheeks blanched red, and he bowed under the pressure. He rose with a slow, studied act of casualness, but it stank of insolence.
I resisted the urge to grab the pistol off his hip and beat him with it. It took every ounce of strength I had. But I had help. The knowledge that Cara might see me and might judge me slaked my thirst for blood. Still, Anatoly wouldn't have to push me far…
I nodded. "You did well. You can leave."
Anatoly grimaced, and ran his tongue under his front lip. I could tell he was straining to hold back a retort.
"Of course, boss. You got it."
My shoulders didn't relax until I heard the automatic deadbolts thud home as the high-security door hissed shut behind him. I made a note to revoke his ability to enter my home. I couldn't kill him, not yet anyway. But that didn't mean I had to trust him.
I let my head sink to my chest as, just for a second, I allowed my troubles to seep away. The adrenaline of my high-speed ride over, though, never drained away. Whether it was my barely-disguised fight with Anatoly, or just the stress of the last two years catching up with me, I didn't know.