He shifted, his hand catching my chin and turning me to him again.
“But I would’ve watched you,” he said fiercely. “You’re right. I am a prisoner to this life so I would’ve watched you from the other side. And I would’ve loved you from afar. I would’ve done anything in my power to make sure you and our daughter had the life you wanted. It hurt so much when I found out about the baby, but I understand why. I do.”
He stopped, still so stricken. His thumb rubbed over my bottom lip, and he gripped my hand with other. “But I can’t let you go. The first time I tried, it nearly killed me. Please don’t ask me to do it. I love you too much. I need you too much.”
My hand rose to cover his as he cupped my face. “No.” I reached for him, cradling his cheek. “I love you too much to walk away.”
He nodded, his forehead resting against mine. There were tears in his eyes. “I wish I had known about her from the beginning. I would’ve loved her so much. I do love her so much.”
“I know. Me too.”
Tears slid down my face, but I reached for him, and he was there.
Meeting me halfway.
Looking down the bank of the Mississippi River, I met the eyes of a boat captain I’d met five years earlier. This time, instead of ferrying the ex-guard Kai had decided to hide and not execute, he had a woman and two children—another thwarted mafia hit. When Kai had received the news of their planned hit, he’d opted to save them instead, hiding them and sending them up through the Mississippi, taking them the entire way to where I was waiting.
I waited, cloaked in darkness along with Blade and Carol, for the survivors. I stepped forward to see it was a shallow-bottom boat. They must’ve changed to this one when the river started narrowing. It was just sturdy enough to glide over the top of the water. It had no engine, and I eyed the captain’s arms. He set aside the paddles, giving me a nod in greeting as I caught the end of the boat and pulled them to the bank. I got it as close as I could, but we still weren’t quite there. Large boulders blocked the way, but this was the closest point we could find to get them to a waiting vehicle.
The bottom of the boat scraped over the rocks, but it was cold. Even a small amount of water on someone’s shoes could end in disaster on a winter day in Itasca State Park. The temperature had dropped dramatically. By tomorrow this end of the river would be frozen over.
“Any problems I should know about?” I asked.
I wore thigh-high waders and a sturdy coat, and we had a caravan of SUVs just down the trail that would blast the heat on high as soon as we got in.
He shook his head. “No. We were searched by a game warden, but that was farther south around St. Cloud.” He jumped out of the boat, but without the waders. Ignoring my look, he picked up one of the kids, carrying her to the bank. He did that with each of them, helping the woman last as I continued emptying the boat of their bags.
These days my help with the 411 Network was completely off the books.
No one knew about it—and by no one, I meant literally this boat captain, the few guards Kai trusted to me, and Kai himself. Blade and Carol weren’t even here officially on behalf of 411, though they did still work for them. When they got back to work, those two would purposely mislabel files and shuffle their paperwork into the system. So after this, they would have new names and an entire Network behind them to help. The Network just didn’t know about it.
Kai insisted it had to be this way. He had enough people inside the 411 Network to not trust them, but this was my way of helping—Kai’s too. The boat captain was the only one Kai trusted, and Blade and Carol were the only ones I trusted, so meeting in areas like Itasca State Park after it was closed had become a part of the business.
Once everyone was wrapped up in the waiting blankets, I eyed the captain’s wet pants and boots. “You can’t boat back like that.” I grabbed one of the blankets and held it out to him. “Here. Take that. Press the button, and it’ll heat you.”
He took it, then waved me on. “You get going.” He was already splashing back to the boat. Gripping the edge, he pulled himself in. He bent down, and I heard a few thuds as he seemed to be changing boots and socks, putting on dry ones instead. I could hear crinkling sounds before he straightened, reaching for the paddle again. “I got warmers in there now. It’ll tide me over. I got a buddy’s fishing cabin not far from here. Just a few miles back.”
“I’m sure. Once I get enough depth, I’ll put on the small motor and make it go faster. I’m good. Trust me.” He was already starting to row away. He held up a hand. “Tell the boss I’ll be ready for the next shipment. You be safe too, missus.”
I loved one of the fiercest mafia bosses there was. I helped hide victims he knew his rivals had targeted. Safe had gone out the window the day I chose to remain beside Kai Bennett. Then again, I had no choice. I loved him, no matter what. Enemies would come and go—the woman who aligned herself with Blade once upon a time, the man who had taken Kai’s plane hostage for a brief moment. Those were only two enemies that had been a blip in our life together so far. I’d been hiding from my father before that. Kai had murdered his.
Safe was a word that didn’t exist for me anymore. Smart. Cunning. Cautious. Those were words I now lived by. Or I had—my hand touched on my stomach—until this little one came into the world. This was my last errand, the term I’d used when I worked for the 411 Network. Hiding—maybe that was a better term. But helping people like this live, that was my job.
“We’re ready to go.”
Blade nodded, but stayed back as Carol led the family down the path. He grinned. Even in the moonlight, I could see the fondness.
“I’m surprised Kai let you come out,” he said. “You’re what? Eight months?”
I grunted, slipping off the waders and folding them into a watertight bag. Grabbing two warmers from my pocket, I crumpled them up before slipping them into my sneakers. If I had to run, my feet would be extra toasty this way. Blade took the bag of waders and slung it over his shoulder.
We headed down the path in darkness, keeping our flashlights in hand in case we needed them. Until then, we’d use the little bit of moon that filtered through the trees to light the way. It wasn’t a long trek.
“I feel like I’m ten months.” I laughed. “I’m about ready to pop, and no, he didn’t want me to come.” I had insisted. The little girl was the same age our daughter would’ve been.
“Well…” Blade said as we drew close to the two SUVS and a van he and Carol were using. Carol was just closing the sliding door. “Looks like we’re ready to go.”
She headed back to us, raising her arms.
I stepped in for a hug.
She patted my back, holding me tight and rocking us back and forth. “I miss you. I wish we were doing more of this with you.”
I smiled, stepping back. “I know. We’ll do another. Time will go fast. It’ll be before you know it, and you’re welcome for Thanksgiving.”
“You’ll be back in Vancouver?”
I nodded. “We’re heading back in the morning. Brooke and Eric got married the other week, so we’re in transition from there to back home.”
“Really? Brooke got married?”
I laughed. “It was the social event of Toronto. She’s happy.”
“That’s good.” Carol smiled, exchanging a look with Blade.
I knew that look. After another round of hugs, it was time to go. Before letting me go, Blade whispered in my ear, “Carol gave me the go-ahead to tell you…” He paused, leaning back, his smile so wide. “We’re together.”
My mouth dropped, but then I was hugging him again, and I squealed louder than I should have. “Oh my God! That’s amazing. Carol!”
She blushed, grinning over her shoulder as she got behind the steering wheel. She waved to me, but she wouldn’t get out to talk to me again. They had to go. Waiting around with survivors was just never a smart idea.
Blade cast a glance at the SUVs waiting for me. “I know you’re in safe hands.”
“You’re happy?” I asked him.
He nodded. “I’m happy. Truly happy.” He smoothed back some of my hair and pressed a kiss to my forehead. “I know you’re a Bennett now, but you’re always a member of our family too. Don’t forget. We both love you.”
I blinked back tears, feeling warmth all over.
I grabbed for his hand, holding it a second. “Take care of her. Take care of them.” One last squeeze. “Take care of yourself too.”
“I know.” His gaze went to my stomach. “And take care of my future nephew.”
He stepped back. I let go, my hands going to my stomach. “I will.” And as if he’d heard us, my little guy gave me a swift kick inside.