Authors: Sara Fawkes
Ethan immediately raised his hands in the air, brandishing the weapon he held, then tossed it inside the car. “Almost there, baby,” he called out to the redhead. My heart ached for the woman, who was stumbling blindly toward her husband, only able to use the sound of his voice to navigate. Twice she almost fell, a dangerous proposition as her hands were tied behind her back, but she managed to catch herself each time.
“How quickly do you think you can take your wife out of range?” Smug superiority fairly oozed from the car speakers. “Let’s play a game: Is the bomb on your wife triggered by radio signal or by cell phone? You get one guess. And don’t try to use the car when you escape, I might have that similarly wired to blow.” A dark laugh came from the sound system. “How far will you have to go to ensure her safety if this all goes sour, or I decide to be a real son of a bitch?”
Ethan growled, his body vibrating with the sound, but his voice was strong and sure as he continued to call to his wife. Her answering cries were full of fear and as she came close, Ethan stepped around me and caught her in his arms. I saw a red mark across one high cheekbone and what looked like a small burn on one shoulder, but otherwise she seemed okay. The redhead’s loud sob ripped through the tension as the bald man crushed her against his body, kissing the top of her head for a long moment before pulling the blindfold from her eyes and picking her up into his arms.
I knew the moment Celeste saw me because she gasped. “What’s Lucy doing here?” she demanded, voice suddenly strong. Her eyes fell to the handcuffs on my wrists and she gave her husband a piercing look, fear giving way to confusion.
“My finger is getting itchy on this button,” the assassin’s impatient voice came through the speakers, and a dawning horror flowed across the redhead’s face.
“No,” Celeste blurted out, “you can’t leave her here.” When Ethan didn’t reply but only turned toward a nearby alley, Celeste’s protests rose to shrieking levels and she struggled in his arms. The small woman had no chance, however; her hands were cuffed behind her and there was no way Ethan would let her go. I watched them fade into the distance, the man’s huge loping strides taking him far away quickly. A detached numbness came over me as I realized I was well and truly alone, and more than likely about to die. How did my life come to this?
Across the way, the driver’s side door opened and a man unfolded himself from the car. He was dressed casually, with only a thin leather jacket to protect him from the frosty air coming in off the water. His slacks flapped lazily in the breeze as he made his way toward me, footfalls from his wingtip shoes growing steadily louder. He wore narrow-framed sunglasses, despite the overcast light, that fit his face well. A detached part of my brain noted he was almost handsome but in a muted way, the “nice guy” who you never really noticed. Given the day’s events, I doubted I’d ever forget this man’s face if I lived through this.
I stood my ground as he approached, leaning against the car for support. My legs were jelly, threatening to collapse from the fear, but I faced him head-on and tried to emulate Jeremiah’s stoic stare. No mean feat, especially when he finally stopped close enough to for me to touch. He examined me silently and I met his gaze, my breaths coming quick, but I was unwilling to back down anymore.
“It’s rare I actually meet one of my targets face-to-face,” he said finally, quirking one eyebrow. “Of course, it’s also rare that they see me and live to tell the tale. Truth be told, I prefer it this way, watching a person’s face in those final moments.” He chuckled, the sound hollow of any real mirth. “Of course, you were never a target until you survived my poison. Tricky girl.”
The fake smile on his face didn’t reach his eyes and sent a shudder through me. His eyes were dead, dark pools that held nothing else beneath. I struggled to keep myself under control, clamping my lips tightly together so I wouldn’t make a sound. As determined as I was not to beg, the prospect of dying left me faint and I clung to the car mirror to keep from collapsing.
“Not that I don’t enjoy our time together…”—he glanced at his watch—“but we have less than ten minutes until the cavalry arrives. Six, if they have a method in place for physically tracking either one of you that I don’t know about. These factories are a maze, tough to get through even with a map.” The assassin reached behind him and pulled out a black gun, caressing the barrel with his free hand without taking his eyes off me. He saw me watching and shrugged. “It was a blow to my professional ego when both of you survived my poisoning attempt. That won’t be a trick I use again, but still, I need to correct my mistakes.”
I kept my eyes on the other man’s, trying desperately to control my breathing. A dozen scenarios flitted through my head on how to get away: hand-to-hand combat, running away, diving off into the water. In every scenario however, I lost. Badly. The quiet confidence in his face told me everything I needed to know, that his skills in pursuit of prey were far greater than my skills at fleeing, especially out here in the open. A detached numbness spread through my body as I watched him prepare his weapon.
Is this really it? Am I merely ending up as bait to lure Jeremiah to his death?
A narrow tube appeared in one of the man’s hands, and he casually connected it to the end of the gun, spinning it in place. He cocked his head to one side and studied me. “You’re very brave,” he commented. “Most targets would be begging for their lives right about now.”
I’d do it if I thought it would mean anything. The wind picked up from the water, waves crashing into the wooden supports beneath us, shaking the ground beneath my feet. My own shivering ceased with the numb realization that I was about to die.
“I prefer it face-to-face like this,” he continued, “but most people run away and I have to shoot them in the back. Annoying business, that—almost takes away the dignity and pleasure.” He raised his weapon and leveled it with my face. “Don’t worry, my dear, you’ll see your beloved billionaire again soo—”
Something whistled past my ear and the assassin spun around, collapsing onto the ground. I stared down dumbly as he thrashed at my feet, grunting in obvious pain and holding his shoulder, then common sense flooded back with a vengeance. I spun to flee but hadn’t taken a step yet when a hand grabbed my ankle and I toppled to the ground. I managed to catch myself, skinning my knees for the first time since childhood, but was immensely grateful that Ethan had bound my hands in front of me. I squeaked as my hair was grabbed and I was hauled backward and over the assassin until I was all but laying on top of him.
“That son of a bitch,” the assassin muttered, and I didn’t know who he was talking about until a small device appeared in his hand. It had two small buttons, one blue and one red, and looked much like an electronic car key. I realized, horrified, it was probably the one to detonate the bomb around Celeste.
“No!” I grabbed his hand, wrestling for the controls. Something had obviously gone wrong—Ethan had betrayed him, or the cavalry had arrived early on its own—but it didn’t matter; I couldn’t allow him to press that button. All I could see was Celeste’s panicked expression when she saw me, her cries not to leave me even as Ethan hustled her away, and I couldn’t think of letting her die. Not without a fight.
The assassin hadn’t expected my resistance, and I almost pried the device from his grip before he fought back. One of his arms was all but useless—blood poured from a large wound in the man’s shoulder—so between his wounded arm and my cuffed hands, we were almost evenly matched. I also realized quickly he was using me as a shield against the new sniper and didn’t want to compromise that, but he still looped one leg around my waist and jerked me down, trying to wrench the controller from my grip.
A flash of triumph shot through me as I snagged the small plastic device from his hand, but before I could throw it into the water nearby, an elbow exploded across the side of my face. Pain exploded through my skull and, stunned, I hesitated too long and his hand was back over mine, trying to pry the controller from my fingers. Ears ringing, I tried to hold on to it but another elbow, this time to my chest, knocked the wind out of my lungs. Dazed, I struggled to breathe and faltered long enough for him to wrest the small implement free from my grip. Anger and triumph contorted his face, and I watched helplessly as he pressed the red button.
He blinked, then looked down at the controls. His finger slid again over the red button, but whatever he was expecting clearly didn’t materialize if his expression said anything. “Well, fuck,” he said, shoulders slumping in defeat.
I snapped my head back, catching my skull against his nose and mouth. The impact again stunned me, but his grip loosened and I rolled sideways away from him. Our eyes met as his good arm raised up, pointing the gun directly at me.
Then the back of his head exploded, and he collapsed back to the asphalt.
Body quaking, I struggled for breath but couldn’t take my eyes off the grisly sight. Hysterics threatened, sobbing breaths forcing themselves from my lips as I pushed myself upright, chest aching from where his elbow had impacted. Tears, however, didn’t come; a pervasive numbness overwhelmed me and all I could do was stare at the slack face of the assassin, the hole in his skull, and the…the mess behind his head.
I think I’m going to be sick.
I didn’t know how long I sat there, staring at the bloody mess before me, before I heard car tires approaching our location. Too numb to move my head, I nevertheless watched dark sedans and SUVs move in, surrounding us on the narrow waterway road. People exited the vehicles, milling about the scene and wearing the familiar dark uniforms I’d seen for nearly a week now. None of Jeremiah’s people approached me, although one man did gently pick up the remote that had skittered out of the assassin’s hand when he’d been shot. As much as I wanted to say something, tell them what it was, I couldn’t take my gaze off the assassin’s face, the man’s expression forever frozen in astonishment.
ing sound drew closer, and I finally turned my head to see a helicopter appear through the fog over the water. A tall man stood on one of the skids, and as it approached land’s edge he leaped off, landing effortlessly and running straight toward me. The long rifle hooked across his shoulders bounced with his loping gait, and when he came abreast of me he fell to his knees and immediately folded me into his arms.
My body shook, the action uncontrollable and fierce, and a sob burst its way out as I finally gave way to the emotions I’d kept bottled inside. I clung to Jeremiah as he picked me up gently, keeping me pressed firmly against his body, and loaded us inside one of the waiting SUVs.
The ride home was quiet, for which I was eternally grateful. Jeremiah kept me on his lap, his hands caressing my back and arms in a rhythmic pattern that helped calm me. There was no demand in his touch; perhaps a touch of possessive protection but I desperately needed that form of safety. The earlier numbness had worn off but I was too tired to cry or scream. All I wanted was to curl up in a dark room, safely away from society, and try to forget the past several hours.
My brain, however, kept reliving horrible scenes: the guard dying in front of me at the house, Anya’s final moments, Celeste’s wails as she was carried away to a safety I’d been denied, the assassin’s head exploding in a splash of gore. When I’d found a drop of what I thought was blood on one sleeve while in the SUV with Jeremiah, I’d almost gone crazy trying to strip out of the contaminated clothing. Only Jeremiah’s deep voice, his hard hands deftly peeling the offending layers from me, kept me from falling into the hysterics in which I so desperately wanted to indulge.
Any hope of solitude, however, was dashed when I saw the vehicles lining the front of the mansion, unfamiliar shapes and uniforms standing guard at the entrance. I whimpered when Jeremiah’s car door opened, not wanting to be in the middle of yet another circus, but only clung to his neck as he carried me out of the vehicle. His lips grazed my ear, breath warm along my skin as he asked, “Can you walk on your own?”
The urge to answer no, to stay safely against him as long as possible, was a strong temptation. I nodded, however, a spark of independence goading me to take control of myself. Jeremiah still didn’t release me for several more seconds as we walked through the unfamiliar crowd, then he gently set me to my feet once we were inside the entryway. I teetered for a moment, keeping my grip tight on his arm, but he didn’t seem to mind. “Who are these people?” I said finally, clearing my throat. My voice sounded thick to my own ears, likely due to my earlier crying.
“They’re government officials, here to take my brother into custody.”
Jeremiah’s lips were a thin line and I couldn’t tell whether or not he approved, but the idea of Lucas going to jail was disheartening. In the lobby, the scarred man was staring at a nearby body bag, a tired look on his face. Lucas’s gaze followed the body as two men in Coroner uniforms hefted it up and eased it outside, then he looked up at me. Relief flashed in his eyes. “I’m glad you’re safe, my dear,” he said, giving me a small nod. “There are already too many casualties in this debacle.”
“Thank you for your help,” I replied, sighing. “I wish it didn’t have to end this way for you.”
“It was the risk I took in coming here.” Lucas hitched a shoulder, one side of his mouth lifting in a smirk. “I appreciate your concern however. It’s…sweet.”
I frowned, trying to determine whether the statement was a compliment or an insult, and my dilemma seemed to amuse him. “Good-bye, fair lady,” he said as the officials in suits tugged him out of the house. “Hopefully we will meet again soon.”
Jeremiah stepped sideways, blocking the path through the door. “Brother,” he started, but Lucas shook his head.
“Don’t. Whether you’re apologizing or condemning me, I don’t want to hear it. The truth is out and now we each live with our own consequences.”
The brothers stared at one another for a moment, two matching profiles against the fading light outside. Finally, Jeremiah stepped out of the way, and Lucas was led silently out to the waiting vehicle. I watched, disappointed, as the car containing him and the various officials rolled out toward the main gate.