I’d been thirteen when I thought my mother died, fourteen when I found out she was alive, and still fourteen when I lost her again. All because of him.
And suddenly, here I was now, burning with renewed loathing.
I stepped out of the tent, and a guard nodded for me to move a few steps behind a podium.
“You okay?” Kai was next to me in a heartbeat, his hand finding my elbow.
I looked over his face. He was tired. He was tense, but he was alert. I recognized the other look in his eyes. He was hunting. He was my father’s predator, and I swear, a part of my heart swelled, though it shouldn’t have.
I nodded, feeling everything from my chest down go numb. I no longer wanted to feel. “I’m good.” I nodded again, firming my shoulders, raising my chin. “I’m ready.”
He stared at me, a full five beats before his hand fell to mine. “Good.” He moved to stand beside me, facing where my father stood.
He was talking to another couple, an older man and woman. My cousin was beside him, her arm around his waist, and his hand spread over her back. It slid down, cupping her ass, and remained there. She pressed closer to his side, touching his chest and tilting her head back for a laugh.
This was another world.
This would’ve been mine, if he’d let me live.
I would’ve been one of those girls in a sequined dress, arm candy for another man. Perhaps that wasn’t always the case, but my father would’ve wished it. He would’ve wanted me to be with someone who could bring him more power, more money, just more, more, more. And if I hadn’t, he would have gotten rid of me.
I fought back a full-body tremble.
Kai felt it. He glanced at me.
I ignored him, raising my head again.
He let it pass. He was biding his time. He would hunt his first prey, then target his second one: me. But that would be after.
As he turned back to my father, my thoughts wandered again.
I searched for a good memory of my father, but I had none.
That said something, didn’t it?
Most dads, even if they’re assholes, still leave some cherished memory with a child. But I had none. I only remembered when he would hurt my mother, when he would bark at her or me at dinner.
I remembered the effects of him.
I remembered how she would shake at the dining table, how she would spill soup from her spoon if she did something he didn’t like.
I remembered how everyone was so tense when he was in the room, in the house. I remembered the maid crying, running from the room.
I remembered how he’d yelled at our butler. I remember how the chef had cooked six dishes one night, just in case he hated one of them, which he did.
I remembered all the bad.
I tried. I really did, but I couldn’t remember the good.
There was no love in me for my father, and because of that, I ached. There should’ve been one thing I loved about him. There was nothing.
I was cold as I stood on Kai’s arm, watching the man who’d helped bring me into this world.
I felt no warmth for him. Not even a flicker.
? ? ?
We waited for two hours.
Most everyone was drunk, laughing, giggling, tripping over their dresses. The men tried to help hold up their dates, but they were just as drunk. They would topple forward, grabbing onto each other and laughing. There was so much laughing.
I didn’t feel like laughing.
I didn’t feel anything.
I moved when Kai did, and I remained silent, biding my time.
“I thought you said soon before.”
Kai’s arm tightened around my waist. He turned his head, his mouth nuzzling just beneath my ear. “I did. I was told he was going to leave after his speech.”
I suppressed a shudder. I’d been in the booth, remembering my mother when he was speaking, and I was glad. I didn’t think I could take both, not at the same time.
“That was two hours ago.”
“I know.” His hand found mine, and he squeezed. “Patience. That’s all I can say.”
For the first hour, my father had moved through the crowd, talking, laughing with people. I worried he would find us, but Kai was always moving us out of his line of sight. He never saw us. Our guards raised some interest, but not much, and I’d been surprised at that.
One was on the dance floor now. Another two were laughing loudly, encouraging the patrons to drink by the bar. A few were lounging at tables, talking with people as if they were long-lost friends. And there were still more. Two were behind us, standing near the water as if wishing they could be fishing. The nearest ones were the most at attention, keeping an alert eye on their boss. Or their leader.
Kai was more their leader than their boss.
I’d realized that too, watching them and him for the past two hours.
He had been a leader since the beginning.
He waded into the fray. He didn’t stand back, letting them guard him. He was right with them, on the forefront of whatever was happening.
I remembered how he’d been the one to shoot the man on the plane. How he’d been the one to shoot the woman at the warehouse. Him. Not his men. In his way, he protected them as much as they protected him.
That was another reason anyone who went against him would lose.
He didn’t command his men’s loyalty. He’d earned it. I saw it in Eric. He wasn’t a guard. He was more. He was from another family in the council, and it’d been Kai he wanted to learn from. I knew he would use Eric’s allegiance someday. Kai did nothing without reason, without carefully analyzed thought.
Kai smoothed his hand up my side, his finger brushing against my breast. He smiled. “You okay?”
Was I? I thought about my father, why we were there, and the memories that had surfaced about my mother.
I moved my head up and down. “More than okay.”
Kai’s eyes grew hooded, and he held his thumb to the side of my mouth. He pressed there, feeling my lips, his thumb slipping past them for a moment, just an instant before he smiled.
“Good. Because it’s showtime.”
? ? ?
I’d like to say the plan was elaborate and Ocean’s Eleven style, but it wasn’t. It was very simple.
The event finally wound down to the point that only a few people remained. My father was one of them. My cousin was either drunk or beyond exhausted, and she stumbled alongside my father as Kai drew me along the wharf, out to the edge. We trailed them, but neither seemed to notice, and for once, I didn’t see any of our guards around. Though that didn’t mean they weren’t there.
Once we got to the end of the wharf, my father stopped, my cousin next to him. He was focused on his phone and looking down the street.
He was waiting for a car.
Kai drew us up behind them, thirty feet separating us, and he watched.
An SUV turned in, idling in front of them. My father and cousin got in.
The SUV pulled out, and another SUV replaced it, but this time, Kai and I were running. I got in the back. Kai got in the front. “Go when ready,” he said into his phone.
Two more SUVs sped past us, moving to intercept my father’s SUV until it veered and the driver hit the brake. As it stopped, the guards ran from the other SUVs, surrounding the one my father and cousin were in. They pulled the doors open, pointed guns in their faces, and yanked them out. My cousin was thrown to the sidewalk. The man in the passenger seat of my father’s SUV raised a gun and hit the driver in the head with it. The horn sounded until his body was tugged to the side, and that was all they stuck around for.
They forced my father into one of our SUVs, the guards slammed their doors, and off they went.
All over in thirty seconds. Kai’s men worked as a well-oiled machine. My father never stood a chance.
I turned just as we shot forward and caught a glimpse of my cousin, her eyes wide in shock.
She was pale, her mouth hanging open before moving into a cry.
But those eyes. I wouldn’t ever un-see them.
I recognized the look. It was the same I’d had when I learned my mother was dead. Cousin Tawnia had been traumatized. This moment, this memory would be forever burned on her consciousness. She would never be the same.
I didn’t want to think that or feel it, but as I turned back in my seat and faced forward, I knew it was true.
And I had been part of doing that. Whether it was for good or for ill, it just was.
There’s this sense in the air when something important is about to happen.
It’s a feeling around you, but inside you too. Like something doesn’t make sense, like something is off, like impending doom is an invisible freight train and you can’t get out of its way. You’re on the tracks. You can hear it. You can feel it. You can even smell it, but you can’t see it.
You just know it’s coming for you.
Riding in that SUV, hurtling down the streets of Milwaukee in a caravan of two other SUVs, I felt that feeling.
I looked away from the window and watched Kai in the front passenger seat. His jaw was strong, his shoulders relaxed. He didn’t seem rigid, or tense, or anything other than calm.