Falling in deeper, p.26
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       Falling in Deeper, p.26
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         Part #11 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black

  Oh god. “So it’s true. I shouldn’t be surprised. You’re a nobody and I don’t deserve love. Of course you know all the reasons why.”

  “Baby . . .” Stone started toward her. “I care about you, not the deal.”

  God, how stupid did he think she was?

  “Don’t touch me,” Lily hissed. “You must really have been fist-pumping and mentally high-fiving yourself when I said last night that I would testify.” She shook her head in self-loathing at her own idiocy. “You were damn good. I didn’t just reluctantly agree, no. I volunteered. So cunning and clever, I’ll give you that. You mentioned it, pointed out all the reasons it made sense, then let me stew on the idea while you plied my body and unhinged my mind with pleasure. You’re a brilliant man. I wish I’d listened to my logic in the first place and stayed away from you.”

  “Baby, I turned the deal down last night,” he swore.

  Stone looked so earnest. Then again, he must be one hell of an actor if he could sleep with her to earn his freedom.

  He’d been lying to her from the start. Why should she just believe him? “So you can prove that to me right now?”

  “Not this instant. I called my FBI contact, Bob Bankhead, and I expect he’ll come after—”

  “If you can’t prove it, I don’t believe it.”

  “Let me call him.” He patted his pockets. Finding them empty, he looked around the room for his cell. “I can prove it if you let me call him again.”

  “You know what? Forget it. I don’t believe anything you say anymore.”

  Axel reached out, coming toward her again, his big face full of empathy. No, pity. “Come here. I’ve got you.”

  Stone whirled on Axel, blocking her former mentor’s progress with his own body. “Stop trying to come between us, you meddling prick. Leave her alone.”

  “Oh, I have a feeling she’d ten times rather come with me now than be anywhere near you.”

  Lily stared, dry-eyed and stunned. Her entire world was falling apart, and they were sniping at each other?

  “I’m not a thing or a possession. Or a trophy,” she hurled at them. “I’m a woman with a heart that used to beat.” She pressed a fist to her chest. “And now . . .”

  “Sweet Pea,” Axel called softly.

  Lily shook her head. She wasn’t that woman anymore. “Why did you come here?”

  “Because I worried about you after Thorpe told me someone had rigged your car with a bomb. As soon as I found out you were hunkered down with a convict you barely know and I heard about his scheme, I came to rescue you.”

  “Why? You agreed to introduce us in the first place. Oh, but you only did that so you could get together with Mystery. I was a good bargaining chip, but you didn’t care enough to tell me that you weren’t actually sanctioning Stone for me. And now you’re going to throw him under the bus for using me, too.”

  Axel flushed, and Lily couldn’t think of a time she’d actually seen him rattled. “It wasn’t like that. I never said Stone was good for you. I intended to stay around that night Stone came to meet you, but Mystery ran off from Dominion and—”

  “You left me to him. But suddenly I matter now?” She cocked a fist on her hip, disillusion wiping away everything except the worst pain and a resolution to shove them both from her life.

  “Thorpe told me you’d refused to see him all summer. I didn’t think—”

  “About me? You didn’t. In my book, you’re guilty of the same sin as Stone. Go back to your fiancée, Axel. Leave me be.”

  “I left Zeb to monitor you that night because I knew he would bust Stone’s balls if the bastard did anything untoward. I left you in a protected environment and I came back. That’s totally different than you jumping into a car with a convict, crossing state lines, and shacking up with him.”

  “Don’t call me that again,” Stone warned. “And don’t make her feel stupid for trying to stay safe when you weren’t around to do the job. She’s an adult with a good head on her shoulders and she did what she thought was best in the situation. Why don’t you back the fuck off?”

  “Are you hoping that if you suck up to her enough or sound like you’re on her side she won’t refuse to testify and dump your ass back in prison?”

  “Shut up!” she shouted, her vocal cords rattling in a growl. “Just shut up. I’m leaving now. Don’t stop me. Don’t try to find me. Don’t say another fucking word to me. I’m done.” She turned to Heath. “Will you get me out of here?”

  “No!” Stone and Axel both yelled at once.

  Then they looked at each other as if they were shocked they finally agreed on something.

  “You’re not leaving.” Stone crossed his arms over his chest and blocked her path to the door with a challenging glare.

  Axel stood beside him, their poses almost identical. “What he said.”

  It would have been funny if her heart weren’t breaking into a million pieces. “Neither of you own me. I’m not a child. I’m not a burden.” She cast a pointed glare at Axel, then sent a deadly glower to Stone. “And I’m not a fool.”

  “Of course you’re not,” Axel said in his “patient” voice. “No one said you were.”

  He didn’t mean it to sound condescending, she knew. But it felt that way and it made her want to grit her teeth and punch him. After nearly three years, she’d thought they were friends at least. She’d believed that he cared. Yeah, he’d traveled here from London to see her but now she wondered if he’d done it more to assuage his overdeveloped sense of guilt than because of any real attachment.

  “Baby, you can’t leave. It’s too dangerous.” Stone clenched his hands into fists. Anguish furrowed his brow, and she would have sworn he was swallowing down pain. “I don’t want to lose you at all but I especially don’t want to lose you to Canton. If you leave when you’re unprepared and emotional—”

  “Don’t say another word, either of you,” she hissed. “You both lost that right when you deceived me. Axel, I’ll probably forgive you someday because you sold me out to follow your heart. In a weird way, I get that.” She turned to Stone and shook her head, the tears she felt desperate to shed clinging to the edge of her lashes. She’d almost be amazed if she weren’t so crushed. “But you . . . you used me. And it had nothing to do with your heart.”

  “That’s not true,” he swore. “You stopped being about my freedom a long time ago. I took one look—”

  “And fell in love?” she scoffed. “The me of thirty minutes ago would have believed that and thought it was so damn sweet. That girl would have thanked her lucky stars that someone so kind could love her. God, I was stupid. But I know better now. I just wish I hadn’t told you every single one of my secrets.”

  Axel sidled closer. Wisely, he didn’t touch her. “You’re angry. I completely understand. I’m so damn sorry if I hurt you. But don’t risk your life because you’re pissed off. Canton is out there. Two minutes before I walked in the door, I got a text that police in Iowa found Reaper’s body overnight. Someone put a bullet right between his eyes about eight hours ago.”

  Lily wasn’t shocked at all, but knowing that told her one important fact. “If Canton was in Iowa eight hours ago, he can’t be in the swamp right now. Give me my phone and gun,” she said to Stone. “I’m taking my belongings and going.”

  Axel cursed and looked ready to break the furniture. Stone paced, then roared as he approached a wall and punched it. He shook his hand, and Lily winced. That must have hurt. Already she could see that his knuckles were bleeding. But damn it, he didn’t care about her pain. She shouldn’t care about his.

  “I’ll take you into town, if you like,” Heath offered. “We’ll talk about your plans from there.”

  “I don’t need a babysitter.” She marched toward the bedroom to gather the clothes and the personal items she’d scattered around.

  “So you know where you’re heading?” Heath called after her.

  “No,” she admitted. “But anywhere is better than here, and
Canton should have no idea how to find me. So I think I’ll be safe.”

  “You have money, then?”

  “Some.” She did a quick mental calculation and realized it wasn’t much but it was loads more than she’d left California with at sixteen. “I’ll get by.”

  Just before she rounded the corner into the bedroom, she cut a glare back into the living room. The men all exchanged glances. None of them wanted to let her leave, and they were speaking that silent man language and communicating a plan. No idea what, and she didn’t care. She was going to live her life on her own from this moment forward. When she’d first arrived in Dallas, she’d let Thorpe take her in, a bit like an adoptive father. He’d passed her to Axel, who’d been like an arranged husband. He’d taken care of her, but his heart hadn’t really been in it.

  Stone . . . Well, he’d come at her like a lothario, preying on her desire for love and acceptance for his own gain. Lily wasn’t sure what hurt worse, that he’d done it intentionally or that she’d been naive enough to let him.

  “Lily, baby.” Stone shook his head. “Don’t risk yourself. Please.”

  She swallowed back her anger. He pretended to care because if she walked out the door, there went his meal ticket. Fuck him.

  Still, she saw how this was going to work. They were three strapping men, all protectors by nature. They could—and would—physically hold her here unless she pretended to concede that they were right, she was wrong, and of course, she was helpless without them.

  “I’ll have Heath with me,” she reminded. “On the way to town, he can help me figure out how to slip away from Louisiana undetected. I’ll start over. I’ll be fine.”

  Stone barreled toward her. And he wasn’t stopping. Lily retreated with every step he took, scrambling away until her back hit the doorjamb. Without preamble, he wrapped strong fingers around her nape and tilted her head, crushing her lips beneath his.

  The feel of him taking her mouth, plunging inside to claim her, was a shock. Her senses registered pleasure and safety and love. Her heart wanted to throw her arms around him, melt into his solid warmth, and hold on forever. Her head knew better and revolted.

  Lily shoved him away. “Don’t.”

  “I will fight for you,” he vowed. “I will do everything in my power to keep you. I love you and I don’t want to let you go.”

  His dark eyes pinned her in place with conviction and sincerity and devotion. He really should win awards for his performance.

  In the back of her head, she wondered if, by chance, he was serious. Lily grimaced. Nope. No more of this giving-him-the-benefit-of-the-doubt shit. She refused to be gullible again.

  “You’re wasting your breath, Stone. I’m done. It’s over. See, you—and everyone in my former life in Dallas—decided I was weak. They coddled and deceived me. None of you realized that I don’t have to be loud to be strong. I have survived more in a few years than many do in a lifetime. I admit I have feelings for you. I believed I was in love with the man you pretended to be. He was a mirage. Yeah, my heart is broken. But it won’t break me. I refuse to be a victim again. Now give me the goddamn gun.”

  No one said anything for a long moment. Lily could almost feel the moment he realized that he couldn’t prevent her from leaving.

  “I’ll watch over her,” Heath promised.

  Which was, no doubt, code for “Heath wouldn’t let her out of his sight until she either saw reason or Stone found a way to persuade her back into his arms and bed.”

  Fat fucking chance of that. But Lily played along to get away from the million memories of Stone’s seeming tenderness—all a lie.

  “Let go,” she demanded in a hoarse whisper.

  Slowly, Stone released her and stepped back. Reluctance stamped itself all over his face, and he looked as if he wanted to grab her, caveman-carry her to the bedroom, and screw her until she was too sated to care. What did it say about her feelings that she was a little bit tempted?

  Before her hormones and her heart took over, she held out her hand for her weapon. With a sigh, he pulled it from the small of his back, checked the safety, and set it in her palm.

  “You never took the gun-safety class. If you don’t know what you’re doing, at least let me take you out this afternoon and we can practice—”

  “No.” Because that sounded as if he was stalling for a way to keep her there so she could cool down while he used his masculine wiles on her. “Please get out of my way.”

  Stone made a great show of agony and regret as she marched down the hall and back to the living room with a growled curse. As she gathered up her belongings and tossed them back in the suitcase, she could hear the men talking among themselves in low tones. Scheming bastards. Still, a fresh cleaver of pain threatened to split her chest in two. How could any part of her still love a man who had deceived and used her? Who had plotted to do whatever it took to turn her into a lovestruck idiot, willing to risk her life so he wouldn’t have to return to prison?

  Lily knew that if she testified, Canton might finally pay for what he’d done to Erin and her family. She’d love to see that sick sociopath put away for good. But would her testimony be enough? What if Canton went free? She would have gained nothing. And even if she got on the stand and held her hand to a Bible, it wouldn’t bring back anyone she loved. It might curb any potential future violence, true. But it would sure as hell benefit Stone most of all right now.

  She refused to stay another minute so he could find a new vulnerability in her soft underbelly to use against her again. Time to finally let go of the past, both distant and recent, and start over—this time alone and standing on her own two feet.

  Chapter Sixteen

  IT’S quite eerie out here. But peaceful,” Heath remarked as he rowed away from Stone’s skiff and through the swamp, toward the waiting dirt lot of parked cars on the other side of the water.

  Lily wondered if he simply couldn’t stand the silence or he wanted to drag her into a conversation so he could convince her she was making a big mistake. As if Axel’s regret and Stone’s anxiety weren’t hint enough that they both thought her leaving now was as safe as bathing in chum before swimming through shark-infested waters . . .

  She refused to get involved in his conversation. “Hmm.”

  Heath shot her a glance. “All right, I’ll skip the chitchat then. They’re worried.”

  What was she supposed to say to that? Thank you, Captain Obvious. “They’re not my problem. I know they only allowed me to leave because they thought you would make sure I didn’t do anything stupid and that the big bad wolf couldn’t get me. But realistically, you can’t watch over me for the rest of your life, so you tell me what it will take to convince you that I’m safe enough. What do you need to leave me in peace?”

  “I’d rather hoped you would cool off and . . .” He stopped there and sighed. “But that seems unlikely, so what are your plans? I can help. Once I think you’re secure and I’m assured Canton isn’t on your trail, I’ll back off.”

  Maybe. But Lily didn’t believe any of these guys anymore. Yes, they sought to keep her safe, but each and every one of them was cut from the same cloth—convinced they were right, determined to protect, and certain that the ends justified the means. Whether they meant to or not, they made her feel incapable and dependent. She’d been that for far too long.

  Lily didn’t voice any of this to Heath. If she did, he would only stick to her like superglue.

  “I have a few hundred dollars and waitressing skills. They’re rusty, but if you can get me to New Orleans, I can find a job. I’m a pro at dyeing my hair. I’ll splurge on a pixie cut. I’ve got some blue contacts in my tote bag leftover from my Halloween costume last year. I know how to change my name and disappear.”

  Heath was already shaking his head. “Canton found you once. He has resources at his disposal you can’t even imagine. Jack Cole told us that it looks as if Canton had Mafia shanked in prison days ago and Reaper shot between the eyes only last nigh
t.”

  Lily recoiled in horror. After years away from that man’s violence she’d forgotten how swift and cruel it could be.

  “Testify.” Heath drilled her with a dark stare. “That’s the only way this mess ends.”

  Of course he’d say that. And she’d agreed to it last night when she’d been sated, wrapped in Stone’s arms, believing they had a future together. In today’s cold light, she saw clearly they had nothing, especially not honesty. “I’m not doing it simply to keep your pal out of jail.”

  “Stone is no friend of mine. I scarcely know him. And before you imagine that I have any allegiance to Axel, remember that I knew and loved Mystery first. I stopped fighting for her because I could plainly see that her heart was otherwise engaged. It’s actually in my best interest to have you in Axel’s life, causing friction between the two of them. But I’m getting older, and I suppose I have a bit of a sentimental streak. I want what’s best for people since life so rarely gives that to anyone without some finagling or a shove. Testifying and finally closing this chapter of your life would benefit you most of all. I don’t know the details but I know you’ve had a difficult road. Get on the stand and tell the truth. Get closure. Make certain Canton can’t harm
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