Kept, Page 2Maya Banks
I’m going to make it, Dad. Just like I promised. I’ve found a place I can afford to rent. I can continue school like you and Mom wanted. One day you’ll see me playing with a prestigious symphony. This is all for you, Dad. For all you sacrificed for me. I only wish you were here to see me the first time I play with a symphony.
A fierce ache besieged her chest and she rubbed, blinking furiously to rid herself of the tears that burned her eyes. It was hard to accept that her biggest—only—supporter was gone. First her mom, whom she’d lost when she was but a child, but Hayley still clung to the fleeting memories she had of her mother. Every time she looked in the mirror she saw her mother’s face. As her father often fondly remarked, she was the picture of her mother.
It was bad enough to lose one parent. Why did she have to lose both? The only two people she had in the world?
She leaned forward in the seat when she saw that they were approaching the street where her current residence was located.
“You can let me off at the corner,” she said to the driver, who hadn’t uttered a single word during the ride. “I’ll walk from there. It’s not far and the rain has stopped.”
The man glanced in the rearview mirror, obviously staring intently at her, though she couldn’t see his eyes behind the shades he wore despite the overcast day.
“I would feel better if I dropped you in front of your building,” the man said, surprising her with the firmness of his statement.
Hayley smiled. “No, it’s okay, truly. I’d like to walk so I can clear my head. It’s been an eventful morning.”
His lips tightened but he didn’t argue further as he pulled to the corner and glided to a halt. When she would have opened her door to duck out, he sent her a look of reprimand that froze her in her tracks. He got out and unhurriedly stepped around the car to open the passenger door not facing the street.
She smiled at him again, ruefully this time, and offered her thanks, squeezing the hand he’d offered to help her out. To her shock, the staid, somber man’s lips turned into a semblance of a smile, only the corners slightly tipping up.
“It was my pleasure,” he offered formally before once more returning to the driver’s seat.
Seconds later the car melted away into traffic and Hayley turned to walk the half block to her apartment, shaking her head at the most unexpected turn of events the day had offered.
She was so absorbed in the task of mentally packing and arranging the few remaining hours left before she had to report to work that she didn’t notice Christopher standing in front of her building until she nearly bumped into him.
“Hayley! I’ve been waiting for you,” he said in an angry tone, as if he expected her to be where he wanted at all times and had been put out by having to wait for her.
She winced inwardly and only barely managed to suppress a sigh of exasperation. She didn’t have time to deal with a classmate who didn’t get the hint, no matter how many times she gently gave it, that she had no interest in any sort of a personal relationship with him—or anyone. If anything it seemed to make him all the more determined.
“I’ve been busy, Christopher,” she said quietly. “I only have a few days to find another place to live before I have to move out of this apartment.”
His lips twisted, his expression becoming sullen. “You could move in with me. You know that. I have money. An inheritance. And I get the bulk of it once I graduate with this ridiculous music degree.”
There was a gleam of satisfaction and greed, as if he expected her to be so impressed that she’d throw herself into his arms. But then at his mention of the “ridiculous degree,” distaste glimmered in his eyes as though he found music repugnant. She was shocked by his reaction. Why on earth was he enrolled in the school if he found it—and music—so abhorrent?
She shook her head because she wasn’t even going there. She didn’t care. Wasn’t going to ask, because she had no intention of doing anything to encourage him, and his raisons d’etre didn’t matter to her. The only thing that mattered was that he finally get the message and move on to someone else. Hopefully someone more receptive.
“You wouldn’t have to work or worry about a place to live. I’d take care of you. You’re just being stubborn.”
As kindly as she could when what she wanted to do was smack his head, she said, “I don’t have time for this, Christopher. I go to school and work full-time. Aside from that, I have no desire to become involved in any relationship. I am quite capable of taking care of myself, and if you don’t stop harassing me, I’m going to the police and swearing out a restraining order.”
The last was said firmly, a hint of warning in her voice that she only had so much patience and that he was fast stretching the limits of it.
His face reddened and his eyes glittered with anger and something else that made her extremely uneasy. Before she could examine that other uneasy emotion and before he could say anything further, she moved quickly around him and escaped into her building, hurriedly punching in the code to gain access so he couldn’t push his way in.
At least he had no idea where she was moving to, and she planned to keep it that way. There was something about him that made her nervous, made her afraid to be alone with him. It was bad enough to have to suffer his presence around others. But at least now, the only time she’d be forced to see him would be in the one class they shared. The one where he spared no opportunity to display his overwhelming arrogance and sense of self-worth.
Shaking off unpleasant thoughts of Christopher’s persistence and the equally unpleasant thought that he wasn’t one to give up so easily, she instead turned her attention to her new apartment and the manager’s kindness. As a thank-you she would bake him her father’s favorite dessert. Homemade triple-chocolate brownies. She’d bring them to him when she went in two days to pick up the keys and be let into her apartment. It wasn’t much, but it was from the heart and hopefully he would appreciate the sweet treat.
Her apartment. Giddiness assailed her. Finally something of her own. She would be self-reliant and not dependent on the generosity and goodwill of strangers. Not that what the Forsythes had done hadn’t been welcome and deeply appreciated. When she first arrived in the city, she hadn’t the first clue of just how expensive housing was, and if it weren’t for them, she would have been on the first bus back home. But now she could make her own way, and that instilled satisfaction deep within her. She was one step closer to fulfilling her dream—and the promise she’d given her father as he lay dying.
* * *
Silas strode into Drake’s office, meeting Drake’s look of surprise.
“You’re late,” Drake said unnecessarily.
Silas responded with a nod. “Something came up.”
Drake lifted an eyebrow in question. “Anything wrong?”
“Nothing business related,” Silas said vaguely, knowing Drake wouldn’t pry even if his curiosity had been aroused.
“Any problems last night?” Drake asked, moving the conversation to the matter at hand.
Silas relaxed, easily shifting gears, effectively ridding himself of thoughts of a raven-haired young innocent and the fact that he’d acted on impulse, something he never, ever did. And he didn’t want to delve into the reasons why, when his life had been a study of remaining in a state of complete control over every aspect of his life.
“Everything went according to plan. The Vanuccis are spooked and have fallen back to regroup. They’re not happy about the alliance between you and the Luconis.”
“That makes two of us,” Drake said grimly.
Drake had always had a policy of not aligning himself with anyone, preferring to reserve his loyalty for his men, his brothers, and they for him. But his hand had been forced when Evangeline had been abducted and he’d had no choice but to ally himself with the Luconis in order to save her. His original plan had been to pit the two crime families against one another and watch them both fall. Now his focus was on keeping the Vanuccis in check w
hile maintaining a civil relationship with the Luconis but at the same time keeping a very close eye on their dealings.
“They’ll want revenge,” Silas warned softly. “We can’t afford to stand down or assume they’re cowed by our alliance with the Luconis. They’ll do what they can to pit us against the Luconis and vice versa, hoping for an eventual war, but while they aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, they’re smart enough not to plant all their hopes on that eventuality. Nor are they that patient. They’ll try to arrange partnerships with other smaller syndicates to build their power, and they’ll bide their time, looking for an opportunity to strike when we least expect it. Which is why we have to expect it at all times and never relax our guard.”
Drake’s lips tightened, his expression going cold. Left unsaid was that Evangeline would most assuredly be a target given that she was Drake’s greatest and only weakness. And now that she was pregnant, she was more vulnerable than ever.
To distract Drake from the paralyzing fear of losing his new wife, Silas leaned back with a smile and said, “So how is she doing? Still throwing up around the clock?”
Drake sighed, suddenly looking haggard, a different kind of worry darkening his gaze.
“Pretty much. It’s driving me crazy. I’ve never felt so fucking helpless in my life. That shit’s supposed to stop after the first trimester, but someone apparently needs to tell her that because I swear it’s worse now than it was.”
“Think she’ll be up for our takeout date tomorrow?”
Evangeline was assigned one or more of Drake’s men any time Drake wasn’t with her. And when she and Drake went out, at least two of his men accompanied them. Her security measures were tight, but necessary given the inherent risk to her. She’d already been abducted once, and Drake was determined that no harm would ever come to her again.
Early on in Drake and Evangeline’s relationship, Silas had formed a friendship with her, and he genuinely liked and respected her. They had a weekly takeout date where he would get her favorite takeout foods and bring them to Drake’s apartment, and they’d eat together. Tomorrow was their scheduled date, but with Evangeline’s sickness, Silas wanted to make sure he wouldn’t make things worse for her by choosing foods she couldn’t eat.
“Even if she didn’t feel like eating, she would want your company,” Drake said with an indulgent smile. “She likes you and enjoys your time together. But here’s a tip. Her current cravings are anything Thai, pickles, cookies-and-cream ice cream, and I swear she eats Wagyu steak every other day. A monster has been created.”
“I thought pickles and ice cream was just a pregnancy cliché,” Silas muttered. “Pregnant women actually do crave that shit?”
“Apparently so,” Drake said ruefully. “I keep a stock in the apartment. Crazy woman gets up when she should be sleeping and has both. At the same time.”
He emitted a shudder and Silas had to work to contain his own.
“Okay, then. Thai, pickles, ice cream and Wagyu steak it is,” Silas said with a grin. “Surely that will earn me brownie points and at least one home-cooked meal.”
Evangeline’s cooking was off the charts and Drake’s men, Silas included, employed any means to extort a meal from her.
“You show with all four and she’ll likely be your culinary slave for a year at least,” Drake said with a chuckle.
“I’m definitely bringing her enough, not only for our date tomorrow, but for leftovers several days after.”
Drake rolled his eyes. “Don’t overwork my woman just because you’re addicted to her cooking. She has no business slaving over a hot stove when she’s been feeling like shit.” His face formed a scowl. “Damn woman needs to be off her feet and rest more, but she’s declared war against sickness and fatigue and refuses to stay off her feet for any length of time.”
“I’ll make sure she sits her ass down and puts her feet up while I feed her tomorrow,” Silas said with a scowl of his own.
Drake snorted. “Good luck with that.”
“It’s too fucking quiet,” Silas said in an abrupt change of subject.
It had been burning in his gut for weeks, but now it was a steady fire, a sense of foreboding he couldn’t ignore.
Drake glanced up, his features drawn in concern. He didn’t question Silas. He never had. He above all people relied on Silas’s instincts, and anything his enforcer said was met with absolute acceptance.
“Think they’re planning something?” Drake asked in a low voice.
“They most assuredly have something up their sleeve,” Silas mused. “They aren’t the kind to suffer insult quietly, nor will they simply go away. What bothers me, though, is that I haven’t heard of any plan, or scheme, or anything. The streets are quiet, and my sources are silent. No one is talking and that makes me nervous, because someone always has something to say.”
Drake’s expression became even more worried, and then he cursed viciously. “So help me God, if they go after what is mine, I’ll kill every single one with my bare hands.”
“With my help,” Silas said by way of agreement.
Their mutual fear was a strike against Evangeline, but Silas worried that, in fact, Drake could very well be the target. The enemy would know by now just what Evangeline meant to Drake. And that she was pregnant with his child. They would know her security would be nearly impenetrable and their hope would be that Drake—and his men—would be so focused on protecting Evangeline that Drake’s protection would be overlooked.
That wasn’t going to happen, but it didn’t mean an attempt wouldn’t be made.
“You need to be careful,” Silas said quietly. “I’m not convinced they won’t try to go after you.”
“I hope to hell they do,” Drake said savagely.
“You have to think about Evangeline. And your child,” Silas said patiently. “You no longer have no one, Drake. Think what it would do to Evangeline were something to happen to you. Your child growing up without his or her father. Alone. Unprotected. That’s why you have to take care. I well know you’d like your shot at the bastards, but you can’t take such a risk. It would devastate Evangeline, and I think that’s the last thing you’d ever want to do.”
Drake paused, anger still blazing in his eyes, and then resignation and acceptance of Silas’s words crept in. He leaned back in his chair and blew out his breath.
“I don’t like being put out of action,” he said with distaste. “Like I’m hiding behind my men like a goddamn pussy.”
“Your brothers,” Silas corrected. “That’s what we do. What you’ve done for us countless times. It’s merely our turn to return the favor. For you. And for Evangeline. For your child.”
“Fuck,” Drake muttered in a tone he always used when Silas had scored a point Drake couldn’t possibly counter.
Silas smiled. “I trust I won’t have to worry about you taking any unnecessary risks, then?”
“Fuck you,” Drake grumbled.
Hayley hoisted her purse over her shoulder and was careful not to drop the container of brownies as she neared the apartment building, tension mounting as she reached the door. Praying it hadn’t been her imagination or that the manager hadn’t changed his mind and rented the unit to someone else, she rang the bell and stepped inside once it unlocked, issuing a shy hello to the manager when he looked up from the reception desk.
A returning smile broadened Mr. Carver’s face as he picked up a set of keys and hastened around the counter.
“Ready to see your apartment, Miss Winthrop?”
Oh God, it wasn’t a dream. It was real! She had found an apartment in a safe part of the city, and the rent . . . She shook her head, sure some mistake had been made, that she’d heard wrong. But no, the amount had been outlined in the lease. An apartment that rented for this amount was simply unheard of. Even the worst accommodations in the seediest sections of the city rented for twice what she would be paying.
She flashed him her most brilliant smile, desperat
ely trying to contain her overwhelming excitement. “Please, Mr. Carver, do call me Hayley. No one calls me Miss Winthrop. Well, except complete strangers, and as you and I will be seeing one another frequently now, you certainly can’t be considered a stranger.”
“Only if you’ll agree to call me Miles,” the older man said.
She beamed at him. “Miles it is.”
“Shall I take you up? It’s on the very top floor, but there are only five floors. Six counting the basement level, but only five floors aboveground.”
“Yes, but first, I have something for you.”
She ducked her head self-consciously when his eyebrow immediately arched in surprise. She fingered the plastic container and before she could lose her nerve she thrust it toward the manager.
“It’s not much,” she hedged. “But you were so kind to me and you didn’t have to go to the trouble of calling me back when I’m sure you would have no problem renting out the apartment, but I wanted to do something to express my appreciation. So I baked you brownies. They were my father’s favorite dessert. Triple-chocolate brownies.”
Mr. Carver didn’t take the brownies from her outstretched hand, and oddly, a look of intense discomfort entered his eyes. Had she offended him? Then he sighed and ran a hand through his hair.
“I shouldn’t tell you this. It could mean my job, but I can’t accept your very kind gift. It wasn’t at my instigation, you see. The owner is the one who insisted I call you and offer you the apartment immediately. He is the one who is owed your gratitude. I merely oversee the day-to-day running of the building for him, but he is very much in charge and adopts a hands-on approach when it comes to all the tenants, their needs, any problems that arise and so on.”
“Oh,” Hayley said dumbly.
Thinking quickly after having such a surprise dumped on her, she looked back up at the manager. “Do you . . . do you have paper and a pen I could use? I’d like to write him a proper thank-you note, and would you ensure that he receives the brownies then, since you say I have him to thank?”
If anything the manager looked even more discomfited. He fidgeted and appeared very nervous, but eventually he gave in with a nod, returning behind the counter and then producing a single sheet of paper and a pen.
She set the brownies down on the counter and then picked up the pen, positioning the paper just so. Biting into her lip, she gave herself a brief moment to assemble her thoughts and figure out what to say, and then she began writing. A minute later, she folded the paper carefully and then set it atop the plastic container holding the brownies.
“Thank you for seeing that he gets this,” she said softly.
“You’re quite welcome, Miss . . . Hayley,” he amended. “Now are you ready to see your apartment?”
Her smile was instantaneous. “Oh yes, I can’t wait to see it. I’m already packed and ready to go. All I need are the keys and a quick look around, and then I’ll go back and fetch my belongings and move in today.”
He smiled indulgently and then gestured toward the bank of elevators just down a short hallway leading to a fire exit. Hayley was surprised to see two elevators when she wasn’t sure if there would be even one. Some of the other apartment buildings she’d inquired into had more floors but only one elevator. It would appear the owner had the convenience of his tenants in mind when remodeling the building. It was an older building, but it only showed its age on the exterior, so it wasn’t likely the original model had two elevators.
When they reached the elevators, she was further surprised to see a single elevator set off to the side away from the other two. Miles must have seen her perplexed look because he offered an explanation.
“It’s strictly for the use of the owner,” he explained without going into further detail or explanation.
He ushered her inside, and once more she was taken aback by the fact that the elevator appeared new and state-of-the-art. It was also fast. They zipped to the top floor in no time at all. So far Hayley was impressed greatly by her new home and she hadn’t even been inside her apartment yet.
When they got off, Miles turned to the right but she saw two other units to the left, spaced wide apart. It appeared there were only three apartments on the fifth floor, and hers was the one all the way down the hall. An end unit. Even more wonderful. Less chance of disturbing any neighbors when she practiced her violin. Was this perfect or what? It certainly seemed too good to be true.
Miles inserted the key and explained that one key opened the regular lock while another was for the deadbolt. As soon as he opened the door, she was greeted by the smell of . . . new. New paint. New everything. He showed her how to operate the deadbolt and pointed out the chain, which appeared to be sturdy and not easily broken, a fact she was grateful for.
She sucked in her breath when they ventured farther into the apartment. He’d said small, but the living room was spacious. By New York apartment standards, at least. There was a galley kitchen, but she was fine with that. It was perfect for one person and she could cook and bake comfortably within the confines of the small kitchen. The living room was magnificent, though.
She walked from the kitchen into the living room and noted that the hardwood floors gleamed, obviously new and not cheap by a long shot. It was good-quality real wood, giving the place a homey, comfortable feeling.
The furniture, however, surprised her the most. It too was brand-new and extremely comfortable looking. Nothing like the often threadbare furniture that adorned so many furnished apartments, used who only knew how many times and abused in any number of ways. There was no musty smell to indicate old or dirty. Everything reeked of being brand-new and not just new but quality. High quality.
It puzzled her because with the insanely low rent being charged for the apartment, she wouldn’t have expected it to be furnished at all. But so far everything was positively luxurious.
Miles looked expectantly at her. “Would you like to see the bedroom?”
In her awe over the kitchen and spacious living room she’d completely forgotten about the bedroom and the bathroom. She nodded eagerly and followed him through the doorway into the bedroom.
Once again her jaw dropped because the bedroom was nearly opulent. It looked