Authors: Lisa Cardiff
We landed in Cancun at ten o’clock last night. Hospital visiting hours had ended, so Hattie and I took a cab to the hotel instead. I didn’t know where Rever went, and I didn’t care. Even though he said he didn’t want to see Ignacio, I assumed I’d see him at the hospital sometime today.
“What are you going to do today?” I asked Hattie.
We hadn’t exchanged more than a few sentences on the plane or last night. It didn’t appear the trend would reverse course this morning either. We dressed. We walked to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. We ordered food. We sipped our coffee and ate, but we had only said a handful of words to each other.
Every unspoken word and missed opportunity to reassure her pressed against my chest, suffocating me. Anxiety leached from her pores. Her hands shook every time she lifted her fork. Her eye twitched. She was nervous about being in Mexico with me again. I understood her concerns. I hated being here again too. The ghosts from the last time we were in Mexico haunted me. I wished I could erase all her pain and sadness with happier memories.
Hattie set her silverware diagonally across her plate and pushed the plate away from her. She hardly touched her food. “I’ll do some research and try to work on my thesis, or maybe I’ll lounge by the pool. Swim some laps. I haven’t thought about it.”
“You can come with me,” I offered. “You don’t have to go in his room or anything. You could wait in the lounge area. We could go out to lunch.”
Her eyes locked on mine for a second, then they flickered away. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I don’t like the idea of you sitting at the hotel by yourself.”
She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “I’ll be fine. I have plenty of things to occupy my time. Don’t worry about me.”
I frowned. “Of course I’m going to worry about you. You’re pregnant and—”
She held up her hand as she chewed the corner of her lower lip. “P-pl-please,” she stuttered, struggling to force the word from her throat. “Not right now. Not when you’re leaving me here alone for the rest of the day. Not when I won’t have anything to distract me from analyzing every word you said. Every word I said.”
“Hattie,” I said, lowering my voice.
“No.” She moved her head from side to side. “Later, okay?”
I wanted to grab her arm, pull her against my body, and kiss her until she understood how much I loved her—how much I wanted to pack our bags and get on the first plane back to the States. I didn’t do any of those things.
“Sure.” She ran her fingers along my jaw. “What time do you think you’ll be back?”
“I’m not sure, but I’ll try to make it back here before dinner.” My cell phone rang. It was Emanuel. I didn’t want to take the call in front of Hattie. “I have to go.” I pressed a kiss to the corner of her mouth and stood up.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so quiet. I’m just…” She cleared her throat and averted her eyes.
“Nervous about being in Mexico again,” I said, finishing her sentence.
She swallowed. “Yeah, but I don’t want you to think I’m mad at you, because I’m not.”
“I know. I get it. I know this trip is uncomfortable, but it means a lot to me that you came.”
“Thanks for understanding.” She squeezed my hand. “Call me and tell me what’s going on.”
I sat in a chair next to my dad’s hospital bed. The smell of medicine and antiseptic filled my lungs. He looked smaller and older than I remembered. His skin was ashen, and his cheeks were sunken. He had a black eye and scratches on the side of his face.
According to Emanuel, the doctors successfully removed the ventilator earlier this morning, but he still had a chest tube to help his lungs function and remove any residual fluids from his chest cavity.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“About as good as I look,” Ignacio croaked.
“So you feel like shit?”
His lips twitched. “
” He closed his bloodshot, filmy eyes. “Where’s Rever?”
“I don’t know. He said he’d be here.”
“Hm,” he muttered without opening his eyes.
I reached out and grasped his hand. “I’m glad you’re going to be okay.”
“That remains to be seen.”
“You’re not out of the woods, but you’re breathing on your own. That’s a good sign.”
He opened his eyes. “I heard you brought Hattie with you. Is she in the waiting room, or did you leave her at the hotel?”
I dropped his hand and rested my elbows on my knees. “She’s at the hotel.”
“I figured as much. I can’t imagine she wants to see me.” He lifted his arm and winced.
“She’s busy writing her thesis,” I said, ignoring his comment. Hattie didn’t want to see him, and I couldn’t blame her.
“How are things with her?”
“It’s a mess. Senator Deveron linked my two identities and not a day goes by without another threat.” After the confrontation in the alley with his goons, Senator Deveron hadn’t backed down. In fact, his threats had escalated. Some of the shit he said about Hattie and my family turned my stomach. I wanted to meet him in a dark alley and beat the shit out of him.
“Are you worried?”
I rubbed my jaw, carefully considering my answer. “I have enough dirt on him to make him think twice about acting on any of his threats, but…”
“But what?” he prompted.
“I’m worried about your arrangement with him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t worry about me. Do what you need to do. You and Rever are good at that.”
I nodded as I studied his face. “Do you know he made threats against the Vargas Cartel and you? He said he’d back the Alvarez Cartel.”
Ignacio breathed hard through his nose as his ebony eyes collided with mine. “Have you changed your mind about taking your place with the Vargas Cartel?”
“Great, then why the fuck do you care?”
“Are you saying I shouldn’t care?”
Ignacio groaned. “Why are you here?”
“I’m here because you’re my father and I care about you. Isn’t that a good enough reason?”
“No. I have nurses to sit at my bedside and change my bedpan. I need help with the family business. I need someone to watch over my interests while I’m in here.”
“I can’t do that. I don’t want any part of that life.”
“Obviously, I can’t count on either of my sons.” He shook his head. “Just go. I don’t want you here right now.”
I pushed out of my chair. “So it’s all or nothing? What happened to your speeches about doing what I needed to do?”
His lips twisted, and the angles of his face stood out in sharp relief like they were carved from the cruelty and violence he doled out without a trace of conscience. “I changed my mind. I don’t have the luxury of having people in my life with divided loyalties. If my sons don’t respect me, nobody will. I’m tired of this game. I’m tired of waiting for you to realize your place. You don’t respect me. You aren’t loyal.”
My hands balled into fists. My fingers itched to grab him by the collar of his hospital gown and shake him. I’d given up so much and done so many regrettable things, but it’d never be enough for him. Every time he needed help, I was there. It was pointless to keep living like this, never belonging anywhere or with anyone. Fuck him and his cartel. “I think it’s time for me to leave.”
“I think you’re right,” he said, his eyes deadly calm. “Don’t contact me until you’re ready to assume your legacy.”
My nostrils flared as poisonous words dangled from the tip of my tongue, but I didn’t say any of them. Instead, I walked out of the room and out of his life without looking back, removing myself from my father’s venomous glare and toxic life. My muscles tensed with regret, my head throbbed with the realization of how much time I wasted on my father, but my mind was clearer than it’d been in years. He liberated me from guilt and family pressure. I wished he’d done it earlier. I wasted too much of my life trying to please him.
“Don’t bother,” I spat as I passed Rever in the corridor next to the elevator. I slapped the palm of my hand against the elevator call button.
“What do you mean?” he asked, following me into the elevator.
The doors slid closed, and my wavy reflection in the satin metal taunted me. “You were right,” I barked as I stared at floor numbers, a symbolic countdown until I could walk out of the hospital and Ignacio’s life forever.
A wide Cheshire grin crept across Rever’s face, swallowing his features. “I’m glad you finally realized it, but what are you talking about?”
Rever chuckled. “Ah. He gave you an ultimatum. He never lets a crisis go to waste.” The elevator doors opened, and I stepped into the lobby without answering.
“See you later.” With my back turned to his, I lifted my hand in dismissal and started walking.
“Wait. I came to find you, not to see Ignacio. I don’t have any intention of visiting him. I already told you that.”
I pushed open the door to freedom. I squinted and slipped on my dark aviator sunglasses. The morning light was intense and harsh after the yellowed light in the hospital.
Ignacio thought he gave me an ultimatum, but he didn’t. He gave me freedom. Freedom to be with Hattie. Freedom to walk away from him forever. Freedom to never look back.
“We need to talk.”
I wheeled around to face him. He looked better than he had in weeks. Good for him. He wore a white collared shirt and tan linen pants. He had shaved his face and the circles under his eyes had faded.
“Start talking. I don’t have much time.”
His dark eyebrows slanted downward into a thick line. “Why not?”
“I’m done here. I’m flying home.”
He looked down and tapped the tips of his fingers together. “You can’t leave until you help me with Anna. We agreed.”
I shrugged. “I changed my mind.”
“Just give me one more day. Everything is set for tomorrow. I have the money. Anna will be at church. Emilio will fly us from the Vargas compound to Isla Mujeres and back. I booked a flight to Panama for Anna and me.”
I stuffed my hands into my pockets. “What’s in it for me? You’re paying Emilio, but what are you going to do for me? Why should I risk anything for you?”
He raised his hands in supplication. “We’re brothers. That’s what brothers do for each other.”
I stormed forward. My eyes stung with memories best left in the past. “You’ve never lifted a finger for me or said one word in my defense. Try again.”
Shadows flashed through his dark eyes. We both knew what I meant. Before his mom decided she was done with Ignacio and moved to a different home, she made my summers in Mexico a living hell. She humiliated me and degraded me, never missing an opportunity to remind me I didn’t belong. But no matter how Ignacio’s wife may have schemed to hurt me mentally and physically, it hurt worse that my flesh and blood had allowed it to happen. Ignacio never offered a single word in protest. The selfish bastard was content to let me pay for his sins.
“If I intervened, it would’ve made it worse. She felt betrayed and dishonored by Ignacio. He had a son with another woman and he shoved you in her face, flaunting his affair.”
My head pounded, and I squeezed the bridge of my nose between my fingertips. “I don’t care anymore.” I didn’t. I had stopped caring years ago.
Rever sighed. “I’m sorry. I wish things were different then and now. As a kid, we were pitted against each other, but it shouldn’t have been that way. We were on the same side. My mom didn’t love Ignacio. She never did, but she hated the whispers behind her back about his unfaithfulness. Ignacio only cared about his legacy and the Vargas Cartel. We should’ve fought back.”
I nodded. “Probably. Good luck tomorrow.”
He grabbed my wrist. “Don’t leave me hanging. I’ll pay you whatever you want.”
“I don’t want your money.”
“What do you want?”
I stared in the distance for a moment without answering. “A debt for a debt. A favor for a favor,” I answered, ripping my wrist out of his grasp.
“What’s that mean?”
“You’ll repay the favor when the time comes, no questions asked.”
He studied my face for a few beats. “Fine.” He held out his hand, and I shook it, sealing the deal. I’d help him with Anna, and he’d help me when the time came. It never hurt to have a person indebted to you.
Dressed in a short ivory-colored robe, I paced back and forth in the darkened hotel room, eyeing the door as if my life depended on it. The romantic dinner I had planned sat mostly untouched on the balcony. I should’ve eaten more than a few bites of salad and bread. I was hungry, tired, and pregnant, but at the moment I didn’t care about any of those things. My head throbbed. My eyes watered. I wanted to go home, even though I didn’t know what that meant anymore.
My parents and Vera had blown up my phone all day. Nobody knew where I was. For all intents and purposes, I had disappeared without a trace again. I couldn’t answer their calls. I couldn’t send them pictures. Nothing about being back in Mexico, only steps from where I was abducted a few months ago, would reassure them. They’d think I’d lost my mind and have me involuntarily committed the minute I stepped foot on U.S. soil. As the minutes turned into hours, I started to agree with that sentiment.
Just when I decided to give up and go to sleep, the door opened. Ryker stood, leaning his shoulder against the doorframe. His sunglasses hung from the collar of his shirt. His shirt was wrinkled, his sleeves rolled to the middle of his forearms. I stopped pacing.
I rested my hands on my hips. “I am.”
“Did you eat?” He looked from me to the open balcony door. The ocean breeze had snuffed out the candles hours ago.
“No. Did you eat?” I shot back.
He dragged a hand over the side of his face. “Rever and I ate dinner near the hospital.”
He took a few steps in my direction and I retreated. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You said you’d be back for dinner.”
He ran his hands through his hair. “I know. Something came up. Didn’t you get my voicemail?”
“No.” I rubbed a hand over my face. “I had to turn off my phone an hour ago.”
Ryker set his sunglasses on the dresser and began unbuttoning his shirt. “Why’s that?”
“Because my parents won’t stop calling. They’re freaking out.”
“Ah,” he murmured, emptying his pockets. “I don’t doubt it. Did you tell them where you were?”
“No,” I snapped.
I scrunched up my nose. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“We’re leaving the day after tomorrow. I already booked our flight. Send them a text. Tell them you took a road trip to clear your head, and you’ll be home in a couple of days. There’s no need to make them worry.” He unbuckled his pants and pushed them down his legs. His belt buckle clanged against the tile floor.
My breathing accelerated, and I blinked, trying to erase the lust building inside of me with every piece of clothing he shed.
“I guess not,” I whispered, staring at the wall above his head.
He settled onto the edge of the bed, wearing nothing but a pair of black boxer briefs. “Come here, Hattie,” he said, his voice thick like honey.
“No.” I shook my head.
He grinned. “I want to touch you. I missed you.”
My eyes connected with his. “You did?”
“Always.” He held out his hand. “I can’t wait to go home. I hate it here. I’ve always hated it here.”
“So do I.” We gravitated to each other like two lodestones unable to resist the pull any longer.
He hauled me onto his lap and slid his arms around my waist. “We’re never coming back.”
“We’re not?” I ran my hands up and down his arms. When he held me, I felt strong. Safe. Cherished.
“No.” He brushed a gentle kiss across my lips, lingering there without moving, savoring the connection. The smoky flavor of bourbon coated his lips.
“Why not?” I whispered against his lips.
He unknotted my robe and pushed it down my shoulders. “We shouldn’t have come here.” His fingertips trailed over the swells of my breasts. Shivers danced down my spine, and I arched into his touch. Needing it. Craving it. Treasuring the urgency of his touch. “After tomorrow, I’m done with Ignacio and Rever. They’ll be out of our lives forever.”
“Why tomorrow? Why not today?”
“I have one more thing to do tomorrow and that’s it.” He flipped me onto my back and pressed his body into mine. His spicy scent clouded my thoughts and ignited a fever in my blood.
“You’re going back to the hospital?”
He shook his head. “No. Rever and I need to take care of some loose ends at the Vargas compound. I’ll be back late tomorrow night, and we’ll be on the first flight out of here.”
I traced the line of his jaw with my fingers. “Do you want me to come with you tomorrow?”
“No. Stay. You’ll be safer here.” His hands roamed my skin, exploring, caressing, memorizing every curve, and investigating every freckle.
“I was so bored today. I didn’t leave the room. I stared at my computer screen all day.”
“You didn’t go to the pool or the beach?” His lips moved down my neck, splintering my thoughts.
I rolled my head to the side. “Tomorrow I’m going to go running,” I mumbled, more as a promise to myself than him.
He paused and his eyes locked on mine. “Don’t run too far. Stay close to the hotel.”
Fear jolted through my body. “Why?”
He smiled as he cradled my stomach. “Do you have to question everything?”
“I don’t like to be left in the dark.” He kissed my belly, and I ran my fingers through his inky hair. “What are you doing?”
“Giving our baby a kiss. I think he missed me.”
I placed my hand over his. “You’re okay with this? I mean…” Words escaped me. There were so many reasons why I shouldn’t have this baby and only one I should—I loved him, and by extension, the baby.
He smiled. “The timing isn’t perfect. We don’t have everything figured out. Senator Deveron isn’t going to leave us alone, not yet anyway. But yes, I want you, and I want our baby.”
Silent tears slid down my face. I was so fucking emotional. I wanted to slap myself sometimes. “Okay.”
“Hey.” He braced his body on his forearms, and a lock of hair brushed his forehead. “Don’t cry. Everything is going to be okay.”
I wiped my face. “I want that to be true, but sometimes I don’t think we’ll ever find a way out of this mess.”
“Maybe you’re right. I’m just afraid the only way for us to be together is to give up everyone in our life. Our family. Our friends.”
He held my gaze. “Yes,” he said quietly, but he didn’t seem upset by the prospect. He stroked my lower lip, and my heart flew like a bird inside of my chest.
“And you’re okay with that?”
His eyes fell to my mouth. “Definitely. Are you?”
“I don’t know.”
He cupped my breasts as his thumb toyed with my nipples. “We have our own family now. If your family and friends don’t want to be part of your life, it’s their loss, but I think they’ll come around.”
I sucked in a sharp breath as his mouth trailed along my collarbone, and one of his hands slipped between my thighs. Stroke-by-stroke, touch-by-touch, kiss-by-kiss, my concerns dimmed until they faded away entirely.
“What are you doing to me?” I mumbled, my body humming with desire.
He rocked against me, and I circled my legs around his waist. “I’m showing you that we don’t need anyone else as long as we have each other,” he said with a lopsided grin.
I pushed his boxer briefs down his legs. “I like the sound of that.”
He didn’t waste a second before he pushed inside of me. A primitive sound vibrated deep in his throat. He twisted his hands in my hair as he captured my lips with bruising kisses that stole my heart and unshackled my soul. His hips hammered against mine in a brutal rhythm. I answered every thrust with one of my own. Clutching the sides of his face in my hands, I pulled his ear next to my mouth, and I whispered how much I loved him and that having him was enough. More than enough. Minutes later, we both cried out, climaxing in unison. It was the perfect beginning to our new life together. Just Ryker and me against the world. Always.