I gazed at her, long and hard. You didn’t leave your co-agent behind, and Brooke had become that for me, but I wouldn’t get to Milwaukee if I stayed. That was just the truth.
“Go. Wait! Here.” She was still sobbing, and now wheezing. She pulled her backpack off and thrust it at me. “Take it. I mean it. Go, Riley. Go. I know your dad is down there. It was seriously shitty of Kai not to take you with him, and he knows that. For what it’s worth, I think my brother loves you. He might not know it yet, but he does, and I know he’ll feel bad about not taking you with him, but he won’t come back for you. He just won’t.”
“How’d you know he was going to Milwaukee today?”
She quieted, rocking back and forth from her ankle pain. She didn’t answer. Her lips pressed tight together.
“Brooke. Tell me.”
She clenched her eyes shut tight, shaking her head, then sighed. “Fine. Fuck it. I know because Eric told me. Do not tell! Kai will kill him, literally. He let it slip one night, said he only had three more days of this shit. He hates when I tease him, but he tends to slip up because I rattle him. He doesn’t even know I heard him. I just guessed on the Milwaukee part because that’s where Levi’s family is.” She was panting now. “Oh, God. This hurts so much.” Sweat rolled down her face. “Not that I don’t love you and love having gotten to know you again, but can you go? I’m about to die if I don’t get a painkiller in me stat.”
I still hesitated. It feels wrong to leave an injured person behind. It’s rooted deep in your core.
“Go! For real!” She waved at me frantically before holding her ankle again. “This is really starting to throb. I’ll hold off as long as I can before calling for help, but seriously. Get the fuck out of here, or I’m two seconds from calling and not giving a damn if they catch you. I’m in that much pain.”
I still hesitated.
“Go,” she croaked. “They’ll send Tanner back to me, and I’ll try to talk him into flying the coop, but I can’t beg you again. I’m dying here, Ri. Just go. Seriously. Kick my brother’s ass when you find him too.”
When she reached for the radio, I was out of time.
I backed away, still feeling wrong, but I knew I needed to go.
When she raised the radio to her mouth, I turned. I was full-out sprinting within seconds.
I’m coming for you, Dad. I’m coming for you.
I heard the guards shouting and dogs barking just as I ran down the last hill. A rusted white minivan was pulled over on the road with only two tires on the gravel, and I knew that was my ride.
As I jogged toward it, the back door opened.
Blade greeted me, a dark green blanket full of camouflage ribbons thrown over his shoulders. He waved me in, and as soon as I was inside, he gave me my own blanket.
Carol sat behind the wheel. Dark red sweatpants, a banana-yellow hoodie and her hair in curls wasn’t even the icing on her disguise. It was the cigarette between two of her fingers.
Carol didn’t smoke.
“Let me guess,” I said, trying hard not to smile. “A tired, middle-aged mother.” It was good to see them, both of them.
“Yep.” She blinded me with a smile so I could see her yellowed teeth, and she pointed to the bags under her eyes. “And this isn’t makeup. I stayed up two full nights for you.”
“The alarm was raised?” Blade looked into the woods behind us.
I moved to the side. “She’s not coming. She rolled her ankle and couldn’t make it the rest of the way.”
“That’s too bad.” Blade reached around me, shutting the door, and then he lay down in the back. “Get down here.”
There was a whole setup of boxes and bags of Christmas ornaments. Nestled in between everything was enough room for two people to lie down. I knew as soon as I got down there, he would reach up and pull the rest of the stuff over us. They’d made the back look almost like a hoarder’s minivan. It was perfect.
I began climbing back. “Drive north. They’ll expect you to go south or even east. Go the opposite direction. We can hit the interstate and make up time that way.”
Carol shot me a look in the mirror. “Pffft. You act like this is my first day on the job.” She waved me down with her cigarette. “Get down, you mafia-kept woman, and let me rescue your madamhood.”
I grinned at her. It was nice to see them again.
Blade tugged me the rest of the way, and a second later he’d pulled the boxes and everything over us. A wood frame held everything in place and kept the weight off of us. We had a cozy little cocoon down here.
A second later Carol was coughing. She muttered, just loud enough for us to hear, “I’d make the worst smoker ever.” Another smattering of coughing. “Okay, guys. It’s about to get cold. I have to open the window.”
A draft hit us moments later.
Blade tucked the blankets more firmly around us.
He lay beside me. In the past he would’ve suggested we share a blanket to conserve heat. He didn’t make that suggestion today, and I knew Kai was the reason.
There was a sadness in Blade’s eyes, one I hadn’t seen before and was hard to see now.
“Are you mad at me?”
He closed his eyes, rolled to his back. When he opened them again, he wasn’t looking at me. “No.”
“You’re sad, though.”
Did Blade love me? I didn’t know. Kai said he did, but it wasn’t my place to ask. The only thing I could control was whether I stayed with Kai at the end of all this. I should’ve regretted what I’d done, but I didn’t have it in me. Not anymore. Not after being with him for the last week, waking up in his arms, being claimed by him. I felt all those dark and delicious sensations rolling around inside me all over again.
No. I couldn’t regret Kai. At least not yet. Not until he did something so bad there was no turning back.
Was that wrong?
Even that question felt bleak to me.
Kai had a pull over me that I couldn’t put into words.
“What does the Network think?”
“I don’t know what—”
“Come on, Blade. Like you haven’t hacked your way into those emails. This is me asking.”
He was quiet a moment.
“They think you’re compromised, but there are some who want to bring you back in, make you an asset.”
They wanted to use me, turn me against Kai. While I stayed with Kai.
“He traffics in women, and drugs, and guns. I mean…” Blade turned to me. His words were fierce. “How can you be with him, knowing that? He is what we stand against.”
I could’ve explained that Kai didn’t traffic those in, except guns. I could’ve explained that he wasn’t a bad man; he just did bad things. That he was the leader of his family, of the council, and he did both of those jobs to keep his family alive.
But I didn’t. My loyalties were now with Kai, and he would want me to say nothing. An ache formed in my chest at that realization.
I loved him. I had fallen in love with him. Even now, even as I was sneaking to follow him, I would go back to him.
I couldn’t explain any of that to Blade, one of my oldest friends, who had done so much for me and was currently risking his job for me.
Wait. Was he?
“What does the Network think you’re doing this weekend?”
He hesitated before responding, his voice dull and low. “They think we’re at a festival in Cowtown.”
He was lying.
I knew Blade. I knew his tells. He’d hesitated. Blade. Did. Not. Hesitate.
I had one guess: they were already moving forward with bringing me back in. They wanted to turn me against Kai.
“He has people in the Network.” I rolled my head to look at Blade directly.
There was no use pretending. I didn’t want that for this friendship. He and Carol were too precious in my heart. I could not be fake, letting their mission wedge even more between us.
“If you’re going to try to turn me against him, you have to know that. He has people inside. He knew things even I didn’t.”
“What are you—why are you saying this to me?”
“You know why.”
He flinched before looking back at me. His eyes were haunted. “It’s the only way I could keep my job. If he has people there, they’re staying quiet. The Network was furious that I tried to get you back without them.”
Now I was the one flinching.
The woman who helped him was dead, because of Kai.
You should get used to it. He’s the mafia, for God’s sake.
That voice. I hated that voice. My reason, my sanity, but also my reprimander. That voice got quiet whenever I was in Kai’s arms.
“Heads-up. We’re about to get tested,” Carol said.
The car slowed to a stop, and her window rolled down.
I bit down to keep from laughing. Carol had been chipper, her usual mood, moments ago. She groused at the person now. I could hear her take a drag from her smoke.
“Shit,” she grumbled. “Here. Hold this.”