Authors: L.J. Wilson
“Pass the carrot sticks,” Alec said, bumping Aaron on the arm.
He’d re-acclimated far enough into society not to flinch, instead holding out a plate of veggies. “Really?” Aaron said. The Jets-Pittsburgh football noise was an old Sunday staple in the Clairmont house, but an odd match to the
. “Last time we did this you ate an entire vat of hot wings.”
“Jess, she’s one of those healthy eaters. Sometimes it’s all that’s in the fridge in my apartment. Guess I’ve gotten used to it.”
“How ’bout that,” Aaron said, reaching for his beer.
“How about what?” Alec dropped the carrot, fist-pumping the air. “Neutral zone infraction! Yeah, baby!”
“Alec Clairmont, pussy-whipped into a better lifestyle.” Aaron leaned into the couch and folded his arms. “And I thought the military was tough on you.”
Alec’s attention jerked from the game to Aaron. “Uh, hell no. You got it all wrong. Jess is my roommate. She needed a place to crash, I had an extra bedroom. It worked out. That’s all.”
“The hot blonde I saw at the party?” Aaron said. “That’s who we’re talking about, right? That woman sleeps in a different bedroom? ”
“Yeah—with the door shut. What’s the big deal? We’re friends. Her ex moved back to South America, or wherever he’s from, and she stayed here.”
“And there are no benefits to this, um, odd
“Aside from lower cholesterol?” Alec shrugged. “No. Not a chance.”
“Seriously? Alec Clairmont hasn’t offered that big broad a shoulder to cry on? Because, man, there was a time you didn’t hesitate to use whatever means to get a piece of—”
“Shut up. Jess is different—plus she’d see right through it. We get along because we respect each other’s space, not to mention our nomadic lifestyles.”
“Interesting. Distance isn’t the vibe I got when I saw her here.”
“Yeah, well… Your relationship radar’s been off the grid for a while.” He looked at Aaron, who looked completely unconvinced. “Listen, she’s a photojournalist with a passion for adventure. Jess lives for stories in odd corners of the world. I’ve seen all the odd corners. I’m good with my current gig. I’m even better without a significant other.”
Aaron skirted around Alec’s military past. “Fair enough. You like your current work, security detail for celebrities, politicians… whoever. I appreciate that. And in your downtime you…”
Alec tossed the carrot stick back onto a platter. “Don’t fuck my roommate.”
Aaron was one of a few people who would challenge an Alec Clairmont stare.
“Look, I get that Jess is attractive. I have eyes.”
Aaron laughed. “But clearly not the roving wolf drive you did a decade ago.”
“Nothing wrong with my drive, bro. Just wise enough to get that Jess and I are better as friends.” Instead of the carrot, Alec picked up his beer. “Jesus, have you been talking to Honor? She can’t get her head around it either, the friends-roommates only concept.”
“Last time Jess was here, Honor couldn’t believe things were
between us. Jess is just coming off a marriage that I’m not too sure is completely over. I mean, she still talks to her ex, or almost ex—Julian… a lot, and it’s not about property settlement. I definitely don’t have an interest in being part of that scene.”
“I guess you don’t,” Aaron said.
“Yeah, well, tell that to Honor,” Alec said, thumbing over his shoulder toward the kitchen. “Your sister, the matchmaker.”
Aaron looked in the same direction. Honor was busy putting the finishing touches on dinner. It was his first Sunday dinner with the family, a tradition started by Evie and Sebastian, and one the Tribe of Five (less Jake) had managed to hang onto. Aaron glanced back again. It was going to be a tribe of three if the youngest Clairmont was a no show. “Alec, what’s the deal with Troy?”
“Other than being a parentless, barely post-teenage kid with a girlfriend, who, I suspect, is really too hot for him to handle?”
“Uh, yeah, that’s not quite what I meant. Chloe Pike is another conversation entirely. Aside from her, what’s his deal? Troy hasn’t said more than ‘Hey’ and ‘Can I have my DVDs back’ since I’ve been here. I’ve tried talking to him, but…”
“I know. I’ve had my own dead-end conversations with him.” Alec’s head tipped right and left, as if mulling over Troy. “But if I recall, you weren’t chatty yourself at that age. When I came home on leave, I remember saying to Mom, ‘What the fuck’s his problem?’”
“You did not say, ‘What the fuck’ to Mom. I know this because you still have a full set of teeth. Pop would have knocked them right out of your head.”
“Yeah, I guess I didn’t say that exactly.” Swiping a celery stick through hummus, Alec continued to reminisce. “’Course, Evie and Sebastian were around then. So maybe I didn’t feel like it was my job to worry about you. Troy’s life is so different from ours, so…”
“So maybe it’s up to us to drill down to what’s in his head. Assuming he shows, maybe we can tag team him. Pop always used dinner as a frontline tactic for information gathering.”
“Maybe.” Alec leaned forward, putting his beer bottle on the table. “Now that I think about it, I do remember what Mom used to say about you. ‘I don’t know what to do with your brother. When he’s home, all he does is stay in his room with the door locked.’ That’s not so different from Troy.”
“Yeah, but I know what I was probably doing.”
Alec laughed, a grin stretching wide. It used to match Aaron’s until a tire-iron, courtesy of one of Silas Brikk’s flunkies, met with the side of his face. Aaron rubbed the span between cheekbone and jaw. The memory wasn’t quite as numb.
“Seems to me, you didn’t turn into you—or anything resembling a functioning human being until you met Ruby.” The carefree mood dropped like an iron weight. A small nudge passed from Alec to Aaron. “Sorry… that was stupid. I shouldn’t have brought her up.”
Aaron dragged in a breath. The mention of Ruby shouldn’t matter. Not one damn bit. “No… no worries, man. It’s okay. It’s bound to come up. Where I was, in prison… Nobody there was going to mention…
,” he said, forcing her name out of his mouth. “On the outside, I just need to deal.”
Alec picked up his beer and put it back down. “You’ve never heard from her. Not a word?”
Aaron’s gaze was trained on the television. If asked, he couldn’t repeat the score or what game they were watching. “No… not even a ‘fuck you for trying to kill my father’ Christmas card.” He turned sharply toward Alec. “Can you blame her?”
His answer surprised Aaron. “A little. I know how she felt about you.”
“You think she should have forgiven me for trying to blow her old man’s brains out?”
“No story is black and white, and that’s how she chose to look at it—the black side of the story. I would have thought, at some point, Ruby would have wanted to hear your side of things.”
“My side of things? I don’t have a side, Alec. Stop trying to find one. In the course of a few hours, Ruby learned I was a major player—the hometown drug dealer. Worse, my mission that night was to take out the mayor, a man she idolized. It… it was an unforgivable betrayal.” Aaron stared at his hand, the scars from the pins and screws that held it together. There was no point in deviating from the court’s truth or his family’s. “It’s who I was. Accept it.”
Alec dragged a hand through his thick hair. “I can’t. This is where you lose me, Aaron. That’s not you. Not my brother. I still don’t understand…”
“Let it go,” Aaron hissed, glancing toward Honor. “It was a no win situation. I did what I had to.”
“So you’ve said. But none of it makes sense. Not you being a main-line heroin dealer or laundering money through Nickel Springs. Definitely not the part about your plan to put a bullet through Dante Vasquez. Even if the people you were working for had you by the balls—”
“You know nothing about the people I worked for,” Aaron said through gritted teeth. “Let it go.”
Alec’s hand pressed to the air. “Okay… But I know this. You would have done anything for that girl—anything but hurt her like that.”
“Yeah, well, maybe that’s why drug dealers and lawyers all belong in the same place—the bottom of a shark tank.” Aaron offered one more thought. “Ruby’s gone, living her life somewhere else. I’m glad she got the hell out of here.” Aaron wanted to say he hoped she was happy, but he couldn’t get the words past the swell in his throat. He took a long gulp of his beer. “She didn’t have to hear the gossip, put up with the stares. She didn’t have to be
—the one Aaron Clairmont fucked over good.”
Aaron bolted upright from the sofa. He needed to stand. He wanted to climb out of his own skin. The best he could do was to fling his beer bottle at the growing recycle pile, the sound of colliding glass filling the air.
From the adjoining kitchen, Honor’s eyes jerked from Aaron to Alec.
“Sorry,” he said. “It slipped.” He looked back at his brother. “Hating me, it’s where Ruby should have ended up.” He felt Alec’s stare as his own burned through the adjacent wall. “A guy like me, I was replaceable. Dante Vasquez lived that night. I died. In the end, it’s all that mattered.”
Alec was quiet, letting game-day noises run the room. “Sit,” he said, opening another beer. He held it out to his brother. “Let’s, uh… let’s just talk about something else, okay? How, um… how’s the new gig at Abstract Enchantment?”
Aaron took the beer and sat—time served had that effect. It made it possible to ignore everything exploding inside a person and follow basic instructions. “It… it’s fine.”
“And the people?”
Aaron shrugged, watching the game, drinking the beer. “The guy I answer to, Tully, he’s all right. Typical hardhat. His, uh,
… revolves around the success of his lunchtime Keno bets and if he imagines Shauna, the very out of his league woman who runs the office, is checking him out.”
“So, in other words, a no-brainer to deal with.”
“Tully? No. He definitely doesn’t require an FBI profiler.” Aaron looked toward Honor. She smiled, fussing over something that smelled damned good. “What’s not so clear is the dude in charge… Stefan Gerard. You met him?”
“Only at your homecoming. But I’ve heard Honor talk. I got the impression she had a thing for him.”
“Definitely… me too,” Aaron said, his interest piquing. “Did you know he’s engaged?”
It was Alec’s turn to glance over the back of the sofa. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, in fact, his love nest has been my ‘special project,’ getting the adjoining suite ready. The will-be wife arrives soon. My guess is she’s going to be the definition of high maintenance. The place looks like a satin-covered sex cave. But you’re right. I got the same vibe off Honor. When I mentioned his engagement, she looked like a deer in headlights. Then she faked it pretty good, acted like it was no big deal.”
“Do you think there is… or was something going on between them?”
“Honor insisted not. Stefan said the same thing in a roundabout way. I guess it was just a mixed signal. Still…”
“Still what?” Alec sat up straighter, Aaron seeing his brother’s special ops radar go up.
“The guy’s a fucking curiosity. I don’t know, maybe it’s the European edge—something I don’t get.” Aaron shook his head. “He’s been here and gone—a few days at Abstract Enchantment, then back to the city. It’s hard getting a solid read off a moving target. On the surface, Stefan’s hasn’t been anything but straight with me.”
“But something’s telling you otherwise.”
“That’s just it. Stefan’s not doing anything that should make me suspicious. When I see him, he asks if I’m liking the job. He even talks about what I’ll be doing after all the construction is complete. He’s like this self-anointed prisoner-to-the-streets transition team.”
“And that’s not a possibility?”
“Alec, I’ve sat across from those guys. Trust me. Benevolence is not part of Gerard’s natural skill set.”
“What’s the take from the other employees?”
“The usual complaints. Tully and his crew, they see him as a suit in the current blue-collar environment. But they’re coming from a different place. Stefan’s only signing their paychecks, not offering a second chance. He’s not neck-deep in their sister’s livelihood.”
“I see your point,” Alec said. “But if there’s something off… Honor’s about to throw a good chunk of her business into Abstract Enchantment. This contract with Gerard is a big deal.”
“Yeah, I know. I haven’t said anything to her because…” Aaron glanced over his shoulder again. “Well, because there’s really nothing to say. For now, the best I can do is keep my mouth shut and my ears open. Honor’s smart. But she also likes to see the best in people. So I don’t think we’re being too
by keeping tabs on the situation.”
“Sounds like you’re in a good position to do that—I mean, being as you’re in charge of Stefan Gerard’s love nest and all.” Aaron laughed at his brother’s remark, but Alec didn’t. Instead, his brow knotted tight and his stare turned examining.
“What?” Aaron said.
“I was just thinking, the way you’ve been talking… It’s a lot of concern from a guy who insists he’s a would-be killer.”