I stopped myself. I did. Not them. That clicked with me.
There was no moral compass here. They were mafia. They worked for the mafia. A slap was nothing to them, but that wasn’t true for me. Not for the little girl who cowered before her father, or the teenager who ran from him, or the adult who was defying him.
I’d been waiting, hoping to lean on others for cues about what to do or where to go. Blade had helped with that before. Carol too. My job. Even the people we hid. But it wasn’t the same here.
I was alone.
Breathing hard, my ribs feeling stretched, I lowered my hand.
But I did not apologize. I would not. It was wrong to use violence, but I wasn’t wrong to have the emotion behind it. Just like it was wrong to act on jealousy. It was an emotion just like all others. You couldn’t deny an emotion. If you did, that sucker burrowed down inside you and would work its way out whether you wanted it or not.
Am I jealous of Brooke? I asked myself.
I was jealous she had a family who loved her. I was jealous she had a family of brothers, because even though Kai was furious with her, he loved her. So did Tanner and Jonah.
My throat stung. “Words matter.” My voice was hollow, but I had to still say it. “Actions matter. To be reckless with words is to be selfish, and combine that with power, and it is dangerous. Be better.”
I walked past her. I walked past the guards around her, and I moved past the house.
There was a trail leading around the side, going into the woods.
I started down to it.
“Leave her,” Kai spoke over the guard.
I didn’t hear whatever else he said. I had already slipped away into the trees.
? ? ?
A twig snapped, and I looked up.
I had walked for a mile until I came upon a large boulder. It was on the side of the trail, stuck firmly into the ground overlooking a small clearing in the trees. The lake glistened before me.
I didn’t move as Kai came to sit next to me. There was just enough room for two of us. Perhaps a third could’ve climbed on behind, but for now, two was perfect.
“I’ll never be a Hider again.”
He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I wondered what that was about.”
“You are a murderer. You hurt people. You traffic women across the nation.” I caught his look and amended, “If you don’t, you allow it. Drugs. Guns. There are so many horrible things you do.”
He kept quiet, letting me talk.
“I loathed you.” My gut rolled over. “I loathe what you do. I don’t think that’ll ever change.”
He nodded, looking at the lake again.
I watched his profile, adding softly, “But I’m beginning to hate myself instead.”
He tensed, his eyes closing.
“You are a big part of the ‘bad’ in life, and I was part of the ‘good.’ I was doing my part. That’s what I told myself. I liked that feeling. In some small way, I was giving my father a middle finger because while he was in Milwaukee hurting someone, I was helping someone twenty hours from him. It meant something to me.”
My chest hurt. I took a deep breath.
“Then your sister showed up, and everything was destroyed. It seemed like it took days, weeks, the last month, but in reality, it took only the moment when she decided to come find me. I helped her. I told her how to hide from security cameras. I told her to use a disguise, walk with someone else, literally be someone else. I didn’t tell her to pretend to be an elderly woman, but she took my advice. She evaded you because of me. I thought I was doing the right thing.”
It was a weird emotion, feeling at the precipice of two worlds. I’d been fighting against admitting this, but I couldn’t any longer.
“I’m going back to my father,” I said.
Kai turned to look at me, a strong emotion shining in his eyes.
I didn’t name it. I looked away. I didn’t care.
“He can’t hurt my cousin. He can’t hurt anyone else. He has to pay for what he did to my mother, what he wanted to do to my mother.”
“I’ll help you—”
“No.” I was firm. “I want to do this myself. I have to.”
He was quiet before nodding. “Okay. When?”
It was getting dark now. “In the morning I’ll go.”
He shifted to face me on the boulder.
I stared back.
One night. I’d give him one more night.
As if reading my mind, he nodded again. “Okay.”
Then, because it’d been in the back of my mind this whole time, I asked, “Why’d you destroy that house?”
His mouth tightened for a second.
I didn’t think he was going to answer, until, in a low voice, he did.
“You think I’m bad, but I’m not. I do bad things. Those people, whoever stayed there, whoever was a floor above my sister, they were bad people.” A sadness came to him. He didn’t move, or blink, or change his tone, but I saw it. I felt it. He gazed out over the lake again. “There was a room in the back that had pictures of children in sexual—”
I blanched. I didn’t want to hear any more.
His jaw clenched. “Brooke was in that house. She was in the vicinity of people who could do that.”
“Were they there?”
I had a feeling it didn’t matter. I had a feeling he was going to find them anyway.
And I had to sit and think again.
I couldn’t slap Brooke; that was wrong. But what I knew he would do? That was murder.
And I didn’t feel any qualms about it, so who was the real hypocrite here?
Kai put me in a first-floor bedroom adjoining his through the bathroom, similar to the last place we’d stayed. Brooke was on the second floor. There was no third floor or I had no doubt she would’ve been put there. As it was, Kai had guards outside her door, outside the house, and in the hallways. Every door and large window had someone stationed there.
It was an odd feeling to step out into the hallway a few hours later, long after it had grown dark outside, and walk past the guards, not having them even blink at me.
I was free.
It was starting to sink in with me. I knew it, but feeling it was different.
“—don’t understand why I’m not with Riley!”
I paused in the hallway to listen.
Brooke’s strident voice was reaching maximum volume above me.
A low murmur responded to her.
“I don’t care!” A slapping sound. “I want to talk to my old roommate. She was my friend first. Where is—”
I stepped forward and looked up. The hallway I’d been walking from my bedroom to the kitchen was beneath where she stood. A sitting room opened up next to me, the high ceiling going up to a loft on the second floor, so the hall outside her room looked almost like a balcony.
“I’m here,” I called.
“Thank God,” she said as she stepped to the railing. She started past the guard, wrinkling her nose at him. “I’m just going downstairs to be with my friend.” She came down the stairs, and he followed.
“Good God, Eric.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to run. I know my brother has men everywhere.”
“Anything you say, Miss Bennett. I just want to make sure you’re safe.”
She snorted, coming to the bottom floor and turning toward me. “Safe, my ass.” Her eyes latched on mine. “I’m a prisoner of my own brother, can you believe that? That’s insane.”
“Imagine that.” My tone was wry.
She laughed, and her whole face lightened. “Can I hug you now? Are we going to get in trouble if I do that?” She glared over her shoulder at Eric.
He didn’t respond, just folded his hands in front of him.
She grunted. “Eric, I’ve seen you naked.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed up, paused, and he swallowed hard. “Yes, you sure have, Miss Bennett.”
“Eric’s family is close to ours. He grew up with us,” she explained. “When’d you come to work for Kai? How long ago was that?”
He wouldn’t meet her gaze, keeping his focus trained above her head. “I’ve been working for your family for five years, Miss Bennett.”
She linked our elbows. “Eric used to run around naked with Tanner and me when we were little. We loved it when Samuel set up the sprinklers. We ran through them in our backyard.”
I assumed Samuel was another guard. Or a groundskeeper.
Brooke tugged me toward the kitchen. “Enough about Eric.” She squeezed my arm. “Are you still upset with me?”
She burst out with a laugh. “Yes. Same Riley. You didn’t mince words back then either.”
I gave her a look. That wasn’t true. I’d barely spoken when she knew me before. If she asked a direction question, I would answer, but I did mince words. I realized now how much I’d tiptoed around Brooke.
I’d wanted a friend. I’d wanted someone to talk to, someone to listen to me, to care about me. I didn’t know how to demand that, so I cared first, I listened first. It was all coming back to me.
Eric was watching me. I glanced up, and he gave me a knowing look.
I looked away, clearing my throat. “Is Kai in the kitchen?”
“He’s in the study.”