He scrolled past years of his school work. His financial machinations. She had analyzed these as well. On Rhomian acquisition she had written, “Brilliant. Proof that Bavani can stick his Way of Management up his arse.”
Other notes followed, punctuating the records.
“Continues to lack in patience.”
“I can’t believe he has done this.”
“Either he’s a financial genius or a ruthless brigand, who simply doesn’t care. Perhaps both.”
He wanted to read on, fascinated, but he wanted to find her more. “Lyon’s schedule, next twenty-four hours.”
It was surprisingly easy to capture Lyon Galdes and both of his sons. They didn’t expect a brazen assault in full daylight. He had led the crew himself. They took the three men just outside Cantina restaurant. Bound and gagged, the Galdes were stuffed into the armored aerial and whisked away without an incident.
In the air he loosened Angel’s gag. “Your sister. Where is she?”
“I don’t know,” the youngest Galdes snarled. “She was supposed to kill you. Why aren’t you dead?”
“That’s what I would like to know.”
He questioned them all in turn and once he slid open the door and held Angel by his legs upside down above a thousand-foot drop, he became convinced they were telling the truth. They had no idea where Meli had gone.
Celino had them tucked away in his compound. Thirty hours had passed since her transmission. He hadn’t slept or eaten and still he had no idea where she was.
He had to think like her. If he were her, where would he go?
It came to him finally. He took a fresh aerial from his garage and headed to Dahlia.
The old training hall was dimly lit with portable lanterns. Four interceptors hovered, slowly transversing its length. In the center Meli stood, wearing a light T-shirt and loose pants. Her eyes were shut.
Celino stopped short of the battle line. He didn’t know how she had gotten past the guards, but nothing she did any longer surprised him.
She opened her dark eyes and looked at him. The interceptors came within censor range and streaked to her from four sides.
“I never intended to kill you,” she said. The translucent green ribbon snapped from her hand with ungodly speed and four dismembered metal husks crashed to the floor. “I wanted you to know what it felt like. Angel’s intel is always excellent. The opportunity was too good to pass on it.”
“I was cruel,” he said. “I still am.”
“I know.” She walked across the floor to the first interceptor, picked it up and tossed it into a plastic bin. She still had the same gliding smoothness to her movements that drove him wild. He trailed her on the safe side of the battle line.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“You have my heart. Where would I go without it?”
“Not without what is mine.”
She paused and looked at him with her velvet eyes. “I was never yours.”
“When I made you climax and laugh, when you fell asleep in my arms, when you smiled at my jokes and reached for me, you were mine.”
“What you think of as love are the last splashes of your dying lust. Don’t you have any dignity? Do you really—”
“—think you can change my mind by begging?” he finished for her. He crossed the battle line and strode to her, his movement stalking and sleek. He knew every inch of the old gymnasium. He was a predator in a familiar territory. She tensed as he came near and he stopped a few feet away from her. “I didn’t come here to beg. You were promised to me and I came to claim you.”
She sighed. “I’ve forgiven you for breaking the engagement a long time ago. I have never forgiven my family or yours for forcing it on us, but I’ve forgiven you. You were fighting for your freedom. I respect that.”
“Then why are you punishing me?”
“Because you wouldn’t listen to me, Celino. Had you married me for one day and divorced me the next, I would be free. I would have proof that you no longer wanted me. That’s what I had come to ask of you that night. One day. You didn’t have to consummate the marriage, you didn’t have to attend the wedding, you had only to sign the damn paper and then, twenty-four hours later, sign another. I would’ve been released. Free to choose a mate, free to make my own future, just like you.”
“You were anyway,” he said, puzzled.
“Nobody wanted me, Celino!” The ribbon struck from her hand, mincing the closest interceptor into electronic gravel. “They were afraid that one day you may change your mind, show up on their doorstep, and demand restitution for stealing your bride. You didn’t even marry. The rest of the kinsmen didn’t expect you to lay claim to me but they couldn’t ignore the possibility that you might do it. Just like you’re trying to do it now.”
It finally dawned on him. He bought his freedom with hers.
“I never meant for it to happen.”
She faced him. “I hope that you truly love me. I hope it hurts.”
“It does. I had no idea it could hurt this much.”
She snapped her wrist brace open, sank to the floor, and let her weapon slide from her hand. “Go away, Celino.”
“I can’t. If I could rip out my heart and give it to you to make you happy, I would. I’m not a good man. I’m a coldblooded, brutal, terrible bastard. But I feel human when you’re near me and I know you feel at peace in my presence. Be with me, Meli. I swear I will do everything in my power to make you happy. I will protect you. I will be your sheltered harbor. You will never have to hide from me.”
She shook her head in apathy. “You don’t even know me.”
“I know that you think Magyar’s Revenge started slow but finished well and you consider me a fool for not forcing myself to read past the beginning chapter. I know that you don’t lack in patience and that you consistently forget that the constant of standard return on the planet is 4.58, not 4.56. That’s why all your calculations differed from mine on the breakdown of Parson Takeover.”
It had taken him eight hours to reach Dahlia and he had taken a booster shot to keep himself awake so he could memorize her notes.
She glanced at him. “You hacked the Galdes database. I thought those files were destroyed.”
“I did and they aren’t. I know the details of every assassination you have ever done. They requested sixteen of you and you did eleven, all of which were retaliations for violence done to your family. I think the risks you took with Garcia were idiotic.” He knelt by her. “I also kidnapped your father and your brothers. I would’ve tortured them if I thought they knew where you were.”
She laughed softly, but without humor. “That is an odd way to endear yourself to me.”
“I never claimed to be kind or virtuous. But for you, I will be.” He swept her into his arms, holding her back against his chest, wrapping her with his body. She jerked away from him, but her advantage lay in precision, not in strength, and he restrained her with laughable ease. “I love you, Meli. I didn’t love you when you were sixteen, but I love you now. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I ruined your life. But I will help you build a new one. Be with me.”
“Let me go.”
He growled his frustration. “You’re sentencing us both to misery. In the name of what, Meli? Haven’t you been miserable enough? Wouldn’t a more fitting punishment be sentencing me to a lifetime of making you happy?”
“Let me go, Celino.”
“I can’t,” he whispered and kissed her hair.
He couldn’t force her. He couldn’t bind her to himself if she didn’t want him. His muscles tensed. He went rigid, fighting against a sharp physical need to hold her, snarled, and finally opened his arms. She rose. “I have lived with this for over a decade. You broke me, Celino. You stole my future and my family treated me like a leper. I had excised myself to escape their pity. You can’t fix it with one night of reading through my old thoughts.”
He watched her walk away and felt his heart shatter for the second time.
In the morning, Celino Carvanna retired.
Celino sat on the second-story wrap-around balcony on a large lounger couch. A reader lay in his hand. A frosted glass of tea rested next to him. Below him dahlias bloomed. Two years had passed, but he still felt a sharp spike of pain when he looked at them. They reminded him of her. He forced himself to glance at them once in a while. Perhaps he had become masochistic, he wondered, raising his gaze.
Meli stood among the flowers.
She wore a simple sun dress of vivid red. She had cut her hair. Short and layered, it framed her face in a light cloud.
She had bypassed his guards. It didn’t surprise him.
Meli crossed to the house and took the stairs up to the balcony. When she finally sat in a chair next to him, tucking her feet under her, and he caught a slight scent of citrus from her hair, he decided she was real.
“I should’ve never let them do it to me,” she said. “Even at ten, I should have known better. I should’ve never dedicated myself to becoming an accessory to you.”
“You did what any child would have done. Your parents suggested it, encouraged it, and praised you when you excelled at it. The responsibility is theirs and mine. Unfortunately, I turned out to be a self-absorbed arrogant asshole,” he said. “Both times.”
“The Carvanna finances are suffering. They are threatening to excise you, because you refuse to rescue them from themselves.”
He wondered how she had found out that bit of highly guarded information. “They also demand that I turn over my personal funds to the family to bail them out. They won’t excise me. They’re too attached to the possibility that I might change my mind and return from retirement.”
She arched her eyebrows. “Will you?”
He shook his head. “‘I’ve lost the taste for it.”
“You lie. I’ve read the INSA file.”