In his keeping, p.14
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       In His Keeping, p.14
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         Part #2 of Slow Burn series by Maya Banks

  Questions he wanted answers to because Ari damn well deserved those answers.

  “She’s in a lot of danger. You need to be aware that these people will stop at nothing to get their hands on Ari. They know what she can do. What she’s capable of. And they’re determined to use her, and it’s not for good,” he said quietly. “We—I—thought she would be safe with Gavin Rochester. He had a certain reputation for ruthlessness. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. To give up that baby girl. But I knew we couldn’t keep her safe. That we didn’t have the resources or the means to ensure she was never found.”

  “Just who is we?” Beau demanded.

  There was a pause and when the man spoke again, sorrow was reflected in the soft words. “Her mother and I.”

  “There’s a lot I don’t understand,” Beau cut in. “But we’ll start with the most pertinent. How could these “people” as you call them—and we’ll get to who they are in a moment—but how could they possibly know a mere infant could possess the kind of powers she would later exhibit? Her adopted parents didn’t discover it until she was nearly a year old.”

  “Because she was an experiment,” the man cut in. There was suddenly a sense of urgency in his voice and he became more hushed. “Look, I don’t have much time. So you need to know what sort of men you’re up against. The whole reason they discovered Ari, and it was years ago, not just days ago, as you may think, given the media attention raised when she did use her powers.”

  Beau was nodding, though the other man couldn’t see. Zack had pegged this one entirely. It had been a very thought out, methodical plot to infiltrate Gavin Rochester’s ranks, gain his trust, and then when he least expected, strike and take Ari. But where and why?

  “How did they find out?” Beau said, tired of this delicate dance between them.

  “Ari’s mother and I were selected to participate in a program for the development and research of psychic powers. We both possessed unusual talents. Ari’s mother was dirt poor and struggling just to make ends meet. They hired her to be a surrogate mother, not really explaining that the baby wasn’t going to an actual family. They posed as a legitimate adoption agency specializing in surrogacy. They played on her vulnerability and she agreed to carry a child because they offered her a lot of money, free housing, bills and expenses paid.

  “I was the sperm donor. Same song, same dance. Only Ari’s mother and I fell in love. And when we discovered, by accident, just what this organization really was and what their plans for our child was, we ran. And we kept running. Each brush was more difficult to escape than the last, and we knew when Ari was born, there was simply no way for us to be able to keep running when we had a baby to support. So we went to . . . your father for help, and he directed us to the Rochesters, who by all accounts were unable to have children of their own.”

  Beau’s response—reaction—was explosive. “What the hell? What does my father have or rather what did he have to do with any of this? You better damn well explain yourself.”

  Beau was struggling to take it all in. It was like a bizarre science fiction movie, but it was chillingly real. All of it. It fit too well with the background information they already had on Ari and her parents. But now it was suggested that his father was in some way involved? And then he remembered Gavin Rochester’s vague association with his father. His blood chilled in his veins. Gavin had been the last person—to their knowledge—to have seen their father alive. Had Gavin silenced him in order to protect Ari? Or had he done it to protect his own selfish interests?

  To Beau’s seething frustration, the other man completely ignored Beau’s impassioned demand and continued as though he hadn’t just dropped a bombshell.

  “They found Ari, or rather found out who had Ari, because they caught up to us and took my wife.” Pain radiated from the choked words. Grief was tangible through the phone connection and Beau automatically tightened his grip on the cell and glanced up at the monitor just to reassure himself that all was well with Ari. “They tortured her,” he said hoarsely. “They did unspeakable things for three days until she finally broke and told them who she’d left our daughter with. Then they killed her and dumped her body where I’d find her with a note that this is what happens to people who cross them. So you need to know who you’re dealing with, Mr. Devereaux. You need to know they mean business and they will not simply give up and go away. It was four years ago that they murdered my wife. And they systematically began to put the wheels in motion that would allow them access to Ari, and believe me when I say that them being thwarted just makes them all the more determined to succeed in their objective.”

  Shock echoed through Beau’s mind as he grappled with the ramifications of what Ari’s biological father had just revealed. God, if they’d done that to Ari’s biological mother—a defenseless woman—then they certainly would do no less to Ari’s adopted parents. He couldn’t face Ari, if one of her parents appeared on their doorstep or in a place they knew the body would be discovered by DSS. They’d want Ari to see—to know—exactly how serious they were and it only made Beau that much more determined that they would never get their hands on her.

  There was background noise and then the man spoke hurriedly. “I have to go.”

  “Wait!” Beau quickly spoke up. “How do I get in touch with you?” There was a damn lot more he wanted to know from this man, particularly how his own father was involved in this complete clusterfuck.

  “You don’t,” the man said tersely.

  And then the call ended just like that, leaving Beau frustrated, even more questions than ever vibrating through his mind.

  “Goddamn it,” Beau swore, flinging the phone toward one of the leather chairs in the security room, where it landed with a soft thud.

  Once more he glanced up to the monitor, fear seizing him as he watched Ari sleep the sleep of an innocent. Someone who didn’t live in a world where women were tortured and then discarded like yesterday’s trash.

  The question was whether he should tell her what he now knew to be truth. Or at least what he’d been led to believe was truth. Because it seemed his—and her—lives had been a tangle of lies from the very start.

  NINETEEN

  “THE first thing I want to do is inject an undetectable tracking device on Ari as a precaution,” Beau said to the gathered members of DSS who had been called in the moment Beau had gotten off the phone with Ari’s “biological” father.

  Ari had slept, very likely exhausted from the events of the last forty-eight hours, and only when his brother, Zack, Dane and Eliza had arrived on the heels of Beau’s urgent request for their presence had she stirred. He had gone to the bedroom and told her to take a nice long bath and relax, that he’d call her when breakfast was ready.

  He winced over the lie, but he wasn’t ready to fill Ari in on things that may or may not be true and he needed time to go over all he’d discovered with his team before making any decisions with regard to her.

  Ramie was in the kitchen, fixing the breakfast Beau had promised Ari, most likely deciding to opt out of what was likely to be a volatile meeting and difficult for her when she absorbed so much of the negative emotions in others. Beau knew for certain he didn’t want to touch his sister-in-law and subject her to his seething thoughts of murder, revenge and utter ruthlessness if it came to that. He also had no intention whatsoever of divulging the potential role his own father had in this clusterfuck until he was certain of the facts. Caleb would be enraged and objectivity would fly right out the window, to Ari’s detriment.

  “Good idea. You can’t be too careful,” Dane acknowledged. “We can plan to the nth degree, but with the resources this group has and their utter ruthlessness we can’t possibly cover all angles when we don’t damn well know who and what they are and what their higher purpose is.”

  “It’s obvious they have no problem torturing innocent women,” Zack said darkly. “Caleb, I’d think you’d want to lock Ramie down and make damn sure she is under strict
guard 24/7 because if these assholes have already made the connection between Ari and DSS, which is obvious given they were shot at coming out of the DSS building, then no one connected to DSS, particularly their loved ones, is safe.”

  Caleb’s eyes became glacial, his features carved from granite. “You can be absolutely certain I will protect my wife,” he said in a deadly quiet voice.

  “Quinn and Tori both will be under mine and Eliza’s constant guard,” Dane said. “Though Quinn is pretty damn pissed and said he doesn’t need a goddamn babysitter and that he’s more than capable of taking care of himself.”

  Beau leveled a hard stare at Dane. “I don’t give a fuck what Quinn says. You sit on him if you have to. Until this is resolved, no one in this family—or DSS—goes it alone. I expect you to inform all your guys, Dane.”

  “We’re on it. We’ve got everyone on our end handled. You just worry about yourself,” Eliza said softly. “I’m concerned that you and Zack are basically going it alone with Ari. And she’s the primary objective. Not the rest of us.”

  “But they don’t want to kill Ari,” Zack argued. “She’s got to be recovered at all costs, which means all of you are expendable. Ari is not. She’s probably the safest of all of us.”

  Silence greeted Zack’s blunt statement and then there was grudging acknowledgment that he’d scored a direct hit. They knew he was speaking the truth. And that the rest of them were in danger because they could and would be used to manipulate Ari.

  This mysterious group reeked of fanaticism and yet they operated with patience and methodical coldness. If DSS was waiting for them to eventually fuck up and make a mistake, they were likely going to be waiting a damn long time.

  “I’ll take care of the tracking device,” Dane said. “The rest of you should go. Cover your tracks and act as though you’re being followed and monitored at all times. Lose your tails and then make damn sure you use a location that isn’t linked to us in any way.”

  “We think it’s a good idea for you to move Ari as well.” Eliza spoke up, her gaze connecting unflinchingly with Beau’s.

  “I’ve already considered that,” was Beau’s quiet response. “I don’t want to stay anywhere with her more than a few days at a time. I want to keep her on the move constantly, making it that much harder for anyone to follow a trail leading to her.”

  Ari grew impatient with waiting for Beau to come get her. Surely he didn’t intend to carry her into the kitchen. Enough was enough. If she felt well enough to indulge in the sexual antics of the night before she could certainly manage walking on her own.

  Warmth invaded her cheeks as her thoughts drifted to the night in question. She was deliciously, decadently sore in intimate places, the ache certainly enough to distract her from any discomfort she might feel from a lingering headache and the cut in her side that had stitches.

  Funny but she hadn’t given either a thought until now. She was more focused on those more intimate hurts. She frowned. Hurt wasn’t an appropriate descriptor.

  Aching awareness? Yeah, that pretty much nailed it. She was tantalizingly tender and only the lightest of brushes over her breasts, between her legs, even her mouth—swollen by his all-consuming kisses—was like an electrical charge, lighting her up and throwing her back to the moment when he’d finally taken her over the edge.

  She could stay in bed reliving that experience the entire day and be sated and lazy and definitely wanting to do it all over again.

  Her stomach growled when tantalizing smells wafted into the bedroom. Her mouth watered and she rubbed a hand over it. Who knew having sex worked up such an appetite? She wasn’t normally much of a breakfast eater and in fact rarely ate before noon, but she was suddenly starving.

  She was so tempted to play the wicked temptress and walk into the kitchen without a stitch of clothing on and see how long it took for Beau to take her back to bed. A satisfied smile curved her lips as she remembered how . . . freeing it had felt to actually play a part in a very mutual, very satisfying seduction. Who knew she had this total sex kitten inside her just waiting to come out and play. Instead of being embarrassed or ashamed she defiantly slammed the door on those two emotions.

  Something that good, that heart-achingly beautiful was nothing to regret, to be embarrassed over, and definitely no shame should ever touch something so perfect.

  And then two thoughts simultaneously burst her cloud of euphoria, evaporating it into a fine mist as reality hit her square in the face.

  One, they very likely weren’t alone for her to go parading through the house, butt-ass naked. And two, oh God. How could she just forget? How could she embark on an affair like her world wasn’t upside down and like everything was in perfect harmony, balance and in accord, when in fact her life lay in shambles. Complete and utter ruin.

  Shame, something she’d sworn not to feel, slammed so violently into her heart that she had to sit down on the edge of the bed or fall to her knees. And fear, her constant companion that she’d briefly been able to escape for a few stolen hours, was back with paralyzing vengeance.

  While she’d been indulging in a night of complete abandon, a door to a brand-new, previously unexplored world opening wide for her to breeze through, arms stretched wide, like she was reaching for the sun, her parents’ whereabouts were unknown. Their condition was unknown. Whether they were even still alive was unknown.

  And she’d been happy. Deliriously happy. Smiling. Laughing. Having sex for the first time and finally understanding what all the fuss was about. Acting like she didn’t have a care in the world when her parents were her world and without them in it, she faced a lonely, barren existence.

  Tears stung her eyes and she hung her head. She instantly became aware of the warm slide and metallic smell from her nostrils. Blood dripped onto her lap. She touched it with a trembling finger, already feeling the echo of pain start at the base of her skull and spread out like a spiderweb over the rest of her skull.

  “I love you, Mom and Dad,” she whispered.

  Why couldn’t her psychic power be telepathy? So she could talk to her parents no matter where they were. There would never be any barrier she couldn’t breach. No place where they could be hidden from her.

  What was the use in being able to move objects with her mind? It seemed all she was capable of was chaos and violence. And a levitating bed during sex. Really big freaking deal. Who cared?

  She could almost hear her mother saying in her soothing, gentle tone reserved only for her daughter and husband, Stop being so hard on yourself, baby. You have nothing to prove to anyone. Certainly not to me or your father. We love you exactly the way you are and we wouldn’t change a single thing about you. You are the proudest accomplishment in our lives. The most important. No one makes us happier than you do.

  She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, smearing blood on her face. Then she sighed in disgust. She couldn’t walk into the kitchen looking like something from a horror movie. Beau would freak.

  Feeling the weight of so much sorrow and fear, she trudged into the bathroom and winced at the paleness of her skin and how stark the bright red blood looked against her colorless face.

  She warmed the water and then soaked a washcloth, wringing it out and then burying her face in it, inhaling the heated, moist air. Tears seeped in to mingle with the dampness from the water from the faucet and she dropped the cloth, squared her shoulders and visibly pulled herself back together.

  The last thing a man wanted was to see the woman he’d made love to the night before walk into his kitchen the next morning looking haggard and mournful. Not exactly good for his ego and she wanted to make damn sure he never thought she had a single regret. Because even though she was ashamed of the fact that she’d given her parents no thought during those precious hours, she couldn’t bring herself to regret it.

  It likely made her a terrible person, but she was at least honest. Most important, she was honest with herself. She wasn’t going to be a flaming hypocrite on top
of her other multiple sins.

  But making love with Beau had been like touching the sun after weeks of rainy, drab days. He’d been the only light in her world since it had been irrevocably altered by her parents’ disappearance. He was her anchor. The only thing she had that was real and solid, and she was clinging desperately because she had nothing—no one else—to lean on in her time of very real need.

  If that made her weak and dependent, who cared? It—he—was what she needed, both to find her parents and ensure their safe return—and she trusted him to keep his word—and to be her rock, to hold her when she could no longer keep it together and fell apart.

  She wished she could be a stronger person. More independent. She’d certainly taken steps to be just that. But in the end, she’d failed in even that regard, because at the first sign of adversity, she’d turned to her father. And then she’d been forced to turn to Beau.

  Superwoman she wasn’t, but she could live with that. She just hoped that Beau didn’t wake up one day and look at her in disgust, wondering why he ever got involved in someone who was not even close to being his equal.

  He was strong. He was a doer. She couldn’t imagine him ever needing anyone.

  But he wanted her. He’d chosen her. And he’d gotten very angry when she hinted that he’d done so out of misplaced obligation. And pity.

  She clung to his fierce denial that he hadn’t chosen her and that she hadn’t forced him into anything he hadn’t desperately wanted. It bolstered her spirits and gave her a much-needed boost when her spirits were flagging and she was at her lowest point.

  With a sigh, she quit delaying the inevitable, and she refused to remain here, hiding, despite the fact he’d said he’d come for her when breakfast was ready. The least she could do was face him. Look him in the eye and tell him without words that she didn’t have one single regret for the night she’d spent in his arms.

  She only prayed that she didn’t see disappointment or regret in his eyes.

  Quickly completing her cleanup, she hastily arranged her hair in a messy bun, rummaging in his drawer to find a rubber band. Not the best thing to use in her hair, but she could hardly expect him to have actual ponytail holders. His bathroom was not remotely girly and had no accoutrements that signaled a woman had ever been in here.

  It was a leap in logic to make that kind of assumption, but it gave her absurd pleasure, so she clung to it nevertheless.

  Too bad she didn’t have makeup to disguise her paleness and the shadows under her eyes. With a shrug, she pulled clothing on, leaving her feet bare, and she took a deep breath before leaving the sanctuary of his bedroom to face reality. To escape the bubble where all time had seemed to stop and suspend indefinitely. If only she could go back in time to before her parents had disappeared and beg them not to go.

  She briefly closed her eyes to compose herself just before she turned out of the hallway, in the opposite direction of the living room, and stepped into the kitchen.

  Her eyes widened and suddenly she felt self-conscious when she saw Ramie Devereaux spooning scrambled eggs from a skillet onto a serving platter. Ari paused in the doorway unsure of whether she should go in or not, and for that matter if she was welcome.

  She hadn’t gotten a good feel for Ramie—or Caleb—the day before and had no idea what their feelings were about the fact Beau had agreed to help her.

  As if sensing her stare, Ramie looked up and smiled welcomingly.

  “Good morning,” Ramie said, setting the skillet into the sink. “You’re just in time for breakfast. I just took up the bacon and all I have to do is pop the biscuits out of the oven. Unfortunately grits are a southern thing I’ve yet to master.”

  She wrinkled her nose as she mentioned grits and Ari couldn’t help but smile at the other woman’s easy charm and open manner.

  “Don’t feel bad. I’ve lived in Texas my entire life and I’ve never even tried grits. I’ve been told it’s a hanging offense in some parts of the Deep South, but my parents were from the east coast and so they never caught on to the whole must-have southern staples.”

  Ramie wiped her hands on the dishtowel on the counter and then she walked purposely toward Ari, her hand extended in greeting.

  “We weren’t exactly properly introduced yesterday. I’m Ramie Devereaux.”

  Ari froze, dropping her hands and pressing her palms against her jeans, instinctively taking a step back.

  “You shouldn’t touch me,” Ari said in a low, embarrassed tone.

  Ramie’s expression was puzzled.

  “It would only hurt you,” Ari explained. “I’ve read about you over the years. How you only feel negative emotion. I know it’s silly of me, but I always imagined us kindred spirits of sorts. Sisters from a different mother and all that. You made me feel not quite so alone in the world.”

  “Why would you hurt me?” Ramie asked.

  “Because I’m not having good thoughts right now,” Ari said honestly.

  Ramie smiled gently. “None of us are capable of never having a bad thought, Ari. My gift manifests itself rather uniquely. It’s really more of a curse or a blessing but I guess that determination is better left to others, since they usually benefit from my gift while I . . . suffer.”

  “It’s why I don’t think you should touch me.”

  “What I was getting around to saying,” Ramie said, paying Ari no heed as she herded Ari toward one of the bar stools in front of one of the plates, “is that I sense the true nature of a person. Whether they’re inherently evil. Their sins. Not necessarily thoughts. I realize this may sound completely bizarre and it’s confusing even to me at times. But you strike me as someone who is good to her soul. Just because you have dark thoughts—particularly at a time when you have every right to be thinking them—does not mean you’re evil.”

  As if to prove her point, Ramie’s hand slipped around Ari’s, linking their hands so their palms pressed together.

  For a moment Ramie fell silent and then a frown creased her forehead and Ari tried to yank her hand back, not wanting to cause the woman even a moment’s pain. But Ramie tightened her grip, forcing Ari to remain there, hand still held solidly in Ramie’s.

  Then finally she let go, and a smile replaced her earlier frown.

  “You’re not evil, Ari. In fact, you have one of the sweetest hearts and souls I’ve encountered, and believe me when I say, I’ve seen inside many a heart and soul.”

  “Then why did you frown?” Ari asked, perplexed.

  “Because I did sense your pain. Your sense of loss and your utter helplessness. And I know how that feels,” Ramie said softly. “I frowned because it upsets me to see you in such distress. You must believe in Beau. He’s a good man. My husband is a good man, though he’d dispute such a statement.”

  Her smile turned mischievous. “In fact, he still insists he’s not good enough for me, but he’s too selfish to let me go. I just tell him that’s him being smart. Not selfish.”

  Ari laughed, relief filling her chest.

  And then the magnitude of Ramie’s gift hit her. Her breathing sped up as she recalled the countless news stories over the years. Her earlier conversation with Beau in his office, now seemingly a lifetime ago. About the possibility of Ramie being able to help locate her parents.

 
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