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Maya Banks


  He took the express elevator that only ran between his penthouse and the lobby, praying the entire way that Evangeline would even look at him, much less listen to anything he had to say.

  God, let her be sweet, generous and forgiving one last time and he’d never give her reason to doubt him again.

  As soon as the elevator doors opened, he bolted into the apartment yelling her name. He winced when he saw the mess in the kitchen, the contents of what appeared to be an extensive menu dumped on the floor, skillets and pots strewn across the bar, the stove and the floor along with the contents.

  When he hit the living room on the way to the bedroom, his dread only increased when he saw the silver trays with appetizers scattered all over the room, liquor and wine bottles smashed and huge wet stains on his furniture and carpet.

  Paying them no heed, he burst into the bedroom, prepared to beg, on his knees, for her to forgive him. He had a hell of a lot of explaining to do, and that explanation would raise questions he wasn’t prepared to answer without further fear of driving her away. If he hadn’t done so already.

  But Evangeline was nowhere to be seen. All the jewelry he’d gifted her with, including the items she’d worn tonight, were scattered on their bed, and the remnants of the dress she’d worn lay in pieces on the floor.

  When he checked her closet, it was full except for a couple pairs of jeans and a few casual shirts and one pair of tennis shoes. Most noticeable was that his small travel bag was missing.

  He sank to his knees, his chest so tight it felt as though it were being crushed.

  His worst nightmare had come to life. She was gone. He’d driven her away. He’d treated her despicably.

  Not since his childhood had he felt such desolation and helpless despair. But this, this was his doing. He’d done the unthinkable. He wasn’t the victim. Evangeline was. His sweet, innocent angel whose only crime was loving him and wanting to take care of him and show him he mattered.

  And he’d repaid her by taking her gift and throwing it back in her face in the most despicable way a man could hurt the woman he cared about.

  He buried his face in his hands, raw agony clawing at his insides. “I fucked up, Angel. But I’m coming for you. So help me God. I know I failed you. I let you down. But goddamn it, I will not let you go. I’ll never let you go. I’ll fight for you with my last breath. I can’t live without you,” he whispered. “You’re the only thing good in my life. The only sunshine I’ve ever experienced in a life steeped in gray.

  “I can’t live without you. You’re my only reason for living. You have to come home, because without you, I have—I am—nothing.”


  “Find her,” Drake said harshly, the nights without sleep evident in his haggard appearance. “This is your only priority, your only job. Find her and bring her back to me.”

  He’d gathered his sentinels. The only men in his inner circle, a tight band of men—brothers—his partners in business and the only men he trusted with his life—and Evangeline’s.

  The only men he’d allow to see him at his lowest, unguarded. Vulnerable. Nothing mattered to him. Not exposing his weakness. Not allowing his iron control that had maintained him through most of his life to slip. They all knew that Evangeline was . . . special. All important. They liked and respected her. Rare enough to garner one of those traits. Unheard of for a woman to have been awarded both.

  Because of this, they were all pissed. At him.

  “Goddamn it, Drake,” Maddox hissed out. “How could you do it? There had to be another way.”

  “There was no other goddamn way and you know it!” Drake raged, fury and helplessness eating him alive, gutting him until there was nothing left but a soulless shell of a man standing helplessly in front of his brothers begging for their help.

  Looks were exchanged. Some of sympathy, some of resignation as they realized Drake was right, and still others of quiet fury that Evangeline had been treated—betrayed—in such a despicable manner.

  Goddamn useless woman. Can’t even give good head. Your only use is in my bedroom.

  His cruel words sliced through his mind, a jagged cut making him bleed all over again, a vicious reminder of the unforgivable things he’d said to her. All in the effort to convince the fucking Luconis she meant nothing to him.

  When in fact, she was his goddamn world. And, he couldn’t find her!

  He couldn’t blame her. He’d devastated her. Had ripped her to shreds until she was bleeding from the verbal wounds he’d inflicted. And Jesus, his physical treatment of her. No, the only person at fault was himself.

  Silas had remained silent, his features carved in stone, but his eyes were a dead giveaway in a man who usually gave away nothing at all.

  “She didn’t deserve this,” Silas said in his quiet voice. But then he never had to raise his voice to make his point. When he spoke, others instinctively ceased talking and listened to him. He was a man who commanded authority and respect.

  “No, she didn’t,” Drake said hoarsely. “Don’t you think I know that? Do you think a single night goes by that I don’t replay the image of her broken, in utter despair, her tears—goddamn it, her tears—and worse, her fear. Of me. Of her humiliation. Her absolute belief in every insult, every word I hurled her way in an effort to make sure the goddamn Luconis never suspected what she meant to me. I’ll never forget. As long as I live, I’ll never forget that night.”

  His tone grew savage, fury radiating from him like a beacon.

  “She could be anywhere out there. Alone. Afraid. Her parents haven’t heard from her. And those bitches she called her best friends . . .” He broke off and had to visibly compose himself.

  He and Maddox had gone there first only to discover that they hadn’t heard from her either. Except, when after making their disgust known, they’d turned to leave when Lana caved, admitting tearfully that Evangeline had called that day, the day she’d planned to visit them. To reconcile. And that she’d told her not to come. Guilt had been reflected in the eyes of all her “friends.”

  It was then that Drake had understood that she’d never planned to execute her surprise to him, hadn’t lied to him in order to set up her playing hostess for him. She’d been hurt by her friends’ rejection, and so she’d turned to the one true thing in her life, seeking his approval, needing it, because she had no one else.

  And Maddox felt as guilty as Drake did because if he’d gone up with Evangeline, as he usually did, he would have known her girls weren’t home and he wouldn’t have hesitated to take her somewhere else for the evening. He’d never expected her to make her escape and hurry back to Drake’s apartment to pull off her surprise for Drake. To let him know he mattered to her. She’d put everything on the line for him and he’d repaid her with a betrayal so cutting, so deep that he’d destroyed something so beautiful and innocent that he couldn’t think about it without losing his tenuous grip on his sanity.

  Justice cleared his throat and ran a hand through his hair, hesitating almost as if he worried about Drake being even more pissed than he already was at what Justice was about to say.

  “This may sound crazy, Drake,” Justice began warily. “But hear me out, okay?”

  Drake made a sound of impatience. Every moment they stood in his office talking was another moment Evangeline was God only knew where on the streets, alone, devastated, thinking he’d lied to her about everything.

  “Make it quick,” Drake snapped. “While we stand here discussing her, she’s out there, cold, alone, hungry, with nothing.”

  Grief swamped him all over again, and he was forced to sit down in the chair behind his desk or risk collapsing. He covered his face with his hand
s, missing the shocked looks of his closest men and the uneasy looks they exchanged.

  “I think you’ve gone about this the wrong way,” Justice said quietly.

  Drake’s head came up, his lips twisted in a snarl. His other men stared questioningly at Justice, wondering if the man had lost his mind by crossing Drake or questioning his judgment.

  “Hear me out,” Justice repeated. “You’ve protected her at all turns, kept her secret, afraid she would be used against you. Which is why you had to do what you did when things changed and there was no other way to protect her.”

  Silas’s brooding expression became one of distaste, letting Drake—and the others—know exactly what he thought of what “had” to be done to ensure her safety—her life.

  “Instead of hiding her, keeping her secret, I think you should go public with her. Very public,” Justice said emphatically.

  “Are you insane?” Drake asked hoarsely. “Are you just trying to get her raped, tortured, killed?”

  Justice held up his hand in the same request for Drake to hear him out. The others also fell silent, suddenly very curious as to where on earth Justice was going with this.

  “No, you don’t hide her,” Justice said quietly. “You make her your fucking queen. You let the goddamn world know she is yours and that you’ll kill anyone who so much as looks at her wrong, threatens her, tries to use her to get to you. Think about it, Drake. You are the most feared man in the city. Do you honestly think they would be fool enough to go after what you value the most?”

  “He has a point,” Silas said quietly, surprising the others by speaking up. “We would double, even triple her security, but the thing that will protect her the most is your name. Think about it, Drake. When have you ever publicly laid claim to a woman or made it clear that anyone harming her will die a long, agonizing death?”

  Drake growled impatiently. “Having a security detail, even as good as all of you are, won’t protect her from a sniper, a bomb or someone simply walking up to her and shooting her.”

  Maddox swore and sent Drake a look of disgust and agitation. “You’ve lost all intelligence and rationality when it comes to Evangeline. Killing Evangeline does fuck-all for your enemies except piss you off and have you out for blood. Their blood. Something that no one wants, not even the most powerful of your enemies. They’d be stupid fucks who could kiss their lives and empires good-bye the minute they ordered Evangeline’s death. The only way Evangeline could be used to ‘get’ to you is if they take her alive and keep her alive to extort what they want from you in return for her release. And in order to get to her, they would have to go through her security detail and there’s no way in hell that’s ever going to happen.”

  “We,” Justice interrupted, thumbing toward the other men gathered in the room, “would never allow someone to get close enough to Evangeline for someone to abduct her, and someone will be on her twenty-four-seven when she’s not in your place. And when you and Evangeline are out, a security detail protects you both and monitors your every movement.”

  “Only in private will you not have the security team. Your apartment’s security system is top of the line. Better and more sophisticated than most classified security systems. At the push of a button the entire building goes into lockdown mode and you have a safe room that is impenetrable, even to explosives,” Silas interjected. “I know because I installed it myself.”

  “I don’t want her to be a goddamn prisoner,” Drake said in an agonized voice.

  “It won’t be any different than before,” Jax said, speaking up for the first time. “When did Evangeline go anywhere without one of us? She never seemed to mind. Hell, she liked us. Or at least she did . . .”

  His voice trailed off in what sounded like regret and remorse, as if Drake’s actions would alienate her from them all. And judging by the looks on his men’s faces, it was something they’d all considered. And didn’t like very much at all.

  His men adored her. They liked her when they truly liked no women. And now they were faced with losing her trust every bit as much as Drake was. He couldn’t find it in himself to be jealous. The only emotion he could conjure was guilt because through his actions, Evangeline would lose people who’d become important to her, people she’d taken under her protective wing, and she’d made them all feel as though they were important, that they mattered.

  “I and only I bear the responsibility for what was done to Evangeline,” Drake said in a low voice. “And you know as well as I do that Evangeline doesn’t have a vengeful bone in her body. She’s sweet to the core and has the purest, most honest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. She won’t hate you. Only me. And that’s my cross to bear. None of you will suffer for my arrogance and stupidity.”

  He paused, pondering the conversation, lowering his head in thought, so much rushing through his mind. God, had it been that simple? Had he been so stupid, so wrapped up in keeping Evangeline from the world out of fear? But no, that was only part of it. The selfish part of him hadn’t wanted to share her with anyone, not even his brothers, though it had been necessary.

  “You’re right,” Drake said tiredly. “Goddamn it, you’re all right and it’s something I should have thought of.”

  His tone was full of self-derision. He who was always in control of any situation. Every possibility accounted for. But Evangeline had turned his carefully ordered life upside down and when it came to her, he didn’t think clearly, rationally, and if he didn’t get his head back in the game, it would get them both killed. His brothers too.

  Silas cleared his throat and once again, heads turned in surprise. He’d already broken his characteristic silence once, and now it appeared he had more to say.

  “There’s more you’ve done . . . not right,” he said, amending what he had been going to say, but the words floated in the room as if they had indeed been spoken.

  There’s more you’ve done wrong.

  His gaze met Drake’s unflinchingly. Silas was not afraid of Drake. Drake considered him an equal in every sense of the word. Every bit as lethal, if not more. No, Silas didn’t fear Drake, and Drake respected him for that.

  There was a pronounced hush over the room as everyone waited in anticipation of what Silas was daring to do. Suggest that Drake had been wrong about many things. Not even some of his closest dared what Silas dared.

  “You never made her secure about her place in your world—your life,” Silas said in his quiet tone.

  “The hell I didn’t,” Drake said savagely, but he didn’t like the undertone of defensiveness in his own voice. Guilt. Because Silas had struck a chord.

  “You come to her after work and you leave before she awakens. You send one of us to take her where she needs to go, to see to her needs. That’s your job, Drake. She’s your woman and you’ve given her no reason to believe she matters as more than a body to warm your bed, a submissive to your dominance. She exists solely for your convenience.”

  Rage nearly blinded Drake, and only the fact that Silas had scored a huge point prevented him from launching himself at the man he called his executioner. A man who would likely give Drake the fight of his life, because the two men were closely matched, though Drake strongly suspected Silas had an edge.

  “If you find her, if she will listen to you, if she will forgive you or at least allow you the chance to make up for the horrible injustice done to her, you’re going to have to prove with actions and not just words that she is more to you than a woman who will warm your bed for a few nights and be sent on her way with an expensive gift for her time.”

  “You know goddamn well she hates taking anything from me,” Drake snarled. “Gifts, jewelry, clothes.”

  “And why do you suppose that is?” Maddox said, interrupting, his stare penetrating.

  “Because she only wanted me,” Drake whispered.

  And suddenly everything Silas said made sense. He closed his eyes because so much more made sense to him now. Evangeline wanted him. Just him. His time. His he
art. The one thing he hadn’t—couldn’t—give her. But it didn’t mean he couldn’t show her that she did mean something to him. Spend more time with her instead of pawning her off on one of his men every day.

  Then he swore and wiped a hand over his face. “There are other ways to hurt her in order to get to me. Her girls, even if they did toss her. No one else will know that. Her family, her mother and father, whom she’d do, hell, has done, everything for. They’ll have to be protected too because if someone kidnapped her friends or family, Evangeline would be distraught and would beg me to do whatever I had to do to get them back.”

  He grimaced and closed his eyes. “And I could never deny her anything except when it comes to her safety. Her happiness is first and foremost and if someone did take her loved ones, I would be helpless because I could never look Evangeline in the eyes again if I stood by and did nothing, refusing to give in to extortion and blackmail, something I would have never even considered in the past.”

  Some of his men looked dumbfounded. They made no effort to hide their shock, though those closest to him didn’t look surprised at all. There was respect in their eyes as was their equal determination to keep Evangeline—and those she loved—safe.

  Hatcher shifted position, his look one of unease. He opened his mouth more than once only to shut it and press his lips firmly together as if squelching what it was he wanted to say.

  “What’s on your mind, Hatch?” Drake demanded.

  Hatcher sighed. “Christ. Don’t take this the wrong way. I like Evangeline. She’s sweet. Too damn sweet and innocent for her own good, and I don’t want her to get caught up in a mess of our making and get hurt or killed any more than any of you do.”

  “But?” Drake pressed, knowing Hatch had a lot more on his mind than extolling Evangeline’s virtues.

  Hatcher’s unease grew and sweat glistened on his brow. “Just hear me out,” he muttered, repeating the same request Justice had made moments earlier. “You’re in deep with her already. You’ve never even considered keeping a woman this long, much less making her your queen and making sure everyone in the world knows it. Maybe . . . maybe it’s better that way.”

  “What way would that be?”

  Drake’s voice was a whip through the room, coiling and snapping with fury because he had a good idea of where his man was going with this, and if he was right, it was going to take Silas, Maddox and Justice to keep him from killing Hatcher.

  “To make a clean break,” Hatcher said, his gaze hardening. “A break that has already been made and is probably best left alone. She makes you vulnerable. Hell, she’s already made you vulnerable. You’re in too deep, Drake. You don’t see it, but the rest of us do, and you’re going to get yourself killed and maybe us with you. She’s going to end up costing you everything.”

  There were mixed reactions, from looks of what the fuck to cold stares that would melt stone and then absolute fury, from Justice, Maddox, Silas, Hartley, Jax and Thane, their faces, eyes, the set of their jaws.

  “You’re already making, or planning to make, concessions you would have never allowed before. Maybe you should consider letting her go instead of making her your queen. Get rid of her, break it off and make it well known you’re finished with her and have no attachment to her whatsoever. It’s what you’ve always done in the past. It’s what you’ve already done, so leave it alone. You’ve never gotten as emotionally involved with a woman and you damn sure haven’t turned over the entire goddamn city looking for one who clearly doesn’t want to be found. If you want her safe, then that is the best way you can do it because no one, especially after you ripped her apart in front of the Luconis, will even think twice about her. But going public with her? You’d be throwing her to the goddamn wolves and you know it.”

  Drake stared so coldly at Hatcher that the temperature became frigid in the interior of the office. The others were visibly uncomfortable because they knew that Hatch, as well-meaning as he was attempting to be, had just fucked up. But then he didn’t know Evangeline. Had spent only a few moments in her presence while the others had spent a lot of time with her and understood only too well Drake’s obsession with her and that he would never simply “let her go.”

  “Evangeline is my life,” Drake said, his rage mounting with every breath. “And if I lose her, I’m dead anyway. If you ever suggest that I get rid of her again, I’ll rip you apart with my bare hands. You are to speak of and to her with absolute respect. You are to treat her with the utmost regard, more so than myself. Evangeline will be your—and our—number one priority. Her happiness, her safety, comfort. Her every need will be met by all of us. And we will extend to her friends and family the same courtesy and protection that we give to Evangeline herself.

  “The most important priority in my life is Evangeline and her happiness and well-being, and I expect—no, I demand—that every man who allies himself with me swears to protect her and be willing to give his life for her just as he would for me. And if there is ever a choice between me and Evangeline, there will be no question. Evangeline is to be saved at all costs and I am charging you, my brothers, with ensuring her safety and well-being if I am no longer around to do it. She is never to want or lack for anything. Are we understood?”

  Hatcher’s eyes reflected his shock at Drake’s vehemence. After a prolonged moment of silence, he finally managed a hoarse “yes” accompanied by a clipped nod of his head. By the looks on more than one of Drake’s men’s faces, Drake wasn’t the only one contemplating beating the hell out of Hatcher for his “input.” Drake made a mental note to never have Hatcher assigned to Evangeline without one of the others with him. Not until he could be sure of Hatcher’s absolute loyalty to Evangeline.

  Drake had had enough and was thoroughly sick to his soul over the idea that one of his men had actually suggested that he allow Evangeline to think the worst and that he’d washed his hands of her. The mere thought made him physically ill.

  He gestured for them to leave but when he looked up, Maddox, Silas and Justice still stood before him, regarding him solemnly.

  For a long moment there was silence, and then Maddox said quietly, “She’s the one.”

  Drake didn’t pretend to misunderstand what Maddox had stated. He knew damn well what Maddox was inferring. Drake had always avoided commitment and relationships like the plague. He’d never trusted anyone but those gathered in his office now, much less a woman. He’d vowed never to become emotionally involved with any woman, not only because he had yet to meet a woman who stirred him enough to want one but also because of the danger and risk posed to her for no other reason than whose arm she was on.

  Now? Yeah, Evangeline was the one.

  But instead of answering the question with a simple yes or no, he simply leveled a stare at them, one filled with determination and fire uncharacteristic of his usual cold, aloof features.