Falling in deeper, p.28
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       Falling in Deeper, p.28
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         Part #11 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black

  “Then one of your thugs did.”

  “I no longer have thugs. I’m a businessman these days, nothing more. And following you has been a full-time job. When you disappeared into the swamp, I kept trying to figure out how to explore the area and pinpoint your location. You had your phone off for days and—”

  “You were tracking my phone?”

  “How else did you imagine I could find you? Once I figured out your alias, I had an associate who works for your wireless provider keep an eye on you. If you veered more than fifty miles from home or work, he alerted me. Thankfully, you rarely did.”

  “Cut the crap,” she growled at him. “You’re no humanitarian. You had Mafia shanked in prison a few days ago. You had someone put a bullet between Reaper’s eyes last night. You’re going to off me, too.”

  She wasn’t sure she would be brave enough to confront him if she weren’t surrounded by people coming and going in the little eatery. An elderly couple sat in the middle of the area, both talking loudly to each other. A pair of teenage boys stared at the girl behind the counter, one openly flirting. A blond woman bounced a baby girl on her lap and picked at a sub. Lily thanked god she wasn’t alone with this savage psycho. He might kill her, but she’d get to speak her mind first.

  “Mafia met with an unfortunate event during his incarceration,” Canton advised. “Such a shame that he made enemies behind bars. I guess he’ll never get that deal for a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony about our past . . . dealings.” He shook his head in mock sympathy. “Not my fault at all.”

  Which meant he’d totally been behind Mafia’s murder. The thought made her sick.

  “But Reaper?” He frowned, looking genuinely puzzled. “Someone killed him last night.”

  “How did you hear? Didn’t he live in Idaho?”

  “Iowa.”

  “Ah, yes. He’d found God. I remember. Well, hopefully he’s at the pearly gates now being welcomed with open arms. But I had nothing to do with that. Truly.” He leaned forward and dropped his voice so that even the bored blonde trying to eavesdrop over her baby’s squeals couldn’t pick up their conversation. “Look, I’ve done some things in the past that don’t match the image I’d prefer to convey now. You’ve been a quiet, unobtrusive girl for years. That tells me you’re reasonable. So I’m willing to compensate you for continued good behavior. I have some paperwork in my motel room, a fairly detailed nondisclosure agreement. Come with me to look it over.”

  Was he crazy? “Go to hell. I won’t follow you anywhere. I won’t sign anything. And I especially won’t go to your motel room.”

  “It’s worth half a million dollars to you.”

  “It could be half a trillion but if I’m dead, I can’t spend it.” And she had little doubt the money was a ruse to lure her someplace he could kill her. Besides, what kind of price tag could she possibly put on the lives of her loved ones? Five hundred thousand dollars was probably more money than she’d ever see in her lifetime but that amount for three of the most precious people on the planet to her seemed awfully cheap.

  “I’m hurt.” He pouted, and she didn’t buy it for a minute. Canton didn’t actually have feelings, just ruthlessness, greed, and ambition. “I’m trying to engage in simple commerce. You’re being difficult.”

  “What happens if I refuse?”

  He gave her what he probably thought was his most concerned smile. “I’d hate for a serious, maybe even fatal, accident to befall you. But these unfortunate things sometimes happen. So sad.”

  Of course. To be honest, she was surprised he’d offered to pay her anything, but she was pretty sure he merely meant to scam her.

  “Before you reply, I’ve learned over time that money can contribute to a much higher quality of life. You might enjoy the windfall.”

  No. She’d feel terrible every moment of every day she had the blood money with all those zeros in her bank account. As far as Lily was concerned, she’d heard enough. She needed to grab her stuff and get out of the store before Canton caught up to her. “Fuck you.”

  She stood and grabbed her cart from behind the table, then darted around the maze of tables in the little place. A glance back at Canton told her that he watched, shaking his head. “We’re not done, Lily.”

  The blonde with the baby shot her a concerned glance, then stood, anchoring the little girl to her hip. Lily didn’t wait to see what the bystander would do. She needed to escape before Canton or his goons grabbed her.

  She dashed to the checkout with her box of dye, burner phone, and other assorted goodies. When she reached the front of the line, Lily used some of her precious cash to pay for her items. As she did, she scanned for Canton or his thugs—anyone who looked as if they were watching her too closely and waiting for a chance to pounce. But she saw no one suspicious inside the store.

  Now she just had to get outside, through the parking lot, and escape. Obviously, if Canton was going to run for governor, he wasn’t going to shoot her himself in a place teeming with cameras. She didn’t have the time to wait for a taxi or the money to pay for one. It was a thousand freaking degrees out there. She had everything she owned in her luggage, and she needed to move fast. To do that and make a clean getaway, she needed to make sure Canton couldn’t follow her.

  As she hustled to the exit, the store manager stood next to a big guy wearing a name tag pinned to his vest. “Excuse me. I’m hoping you can help. I was accosted by a man in the store earlier. He’s about five foot ten, midthirties, wearing a white golf shirt.” Lily turned and spotted Canton lurking around a nearby impulse aisle, pretending to be engrossed. She pointed. “Can you help me? Just keep him here until I can get to my car and leave?”

  The store manager, a fortysomething African-American man, looked pissed off on her behalf. So did his bodybuilding pal. He nodded. “Go. We’ll take care of him, ma’am.”

  “Thank you. I was scared.” And that wasn’t a lie at all. “I appreciate it. So much.”

  They waved her out the door and stood blocking it as Canton started in her direction.

  Outside, she sighed in relief, then ventured away from the building cautiously, scanning the half-empty parking lot for anyone who might be on Canton’s payroll with a mission to finish her off. She saw an elderly woman driving away. A guy with dark hair and sunglasses, rocking out in his Jeep. He glanced her way once, then apparently lost interest. He didn’t seem threatening, simply as if he were waiting for his buddy or girlfriend to come out of the store.

  And no sign of Heath. Well, the British bodyguard had sworn he was leaving. She didn’t see any sign of Callie’s car. It was just as well. She needed to find some quiet way to carry all her stuff down the road and rent a motel room long enough to dye her hair, change clothes, wipe her devices clean of all data and software, and trash everything she didn’t intend to take with her. She still had a few hundred dollars left. Maybe she could buy a bus ticket and be somewhere else by nightfall.

  Knowing it was now or never, Lily strode away from the store. The craggy asphalt radiated heat, and a mirage cropped up across the half-full lot. The twentysomething blonde with the baby she’d seen earlier approached her, pushing her shopping cart of groceries.

  “You need help? I saw that man talking to you. You looked scared.” Empathy softened the woman’s face.

  Lily really did need help but she didn’t want to involve anyone else in her problems, especially someone with a baby who didn’t look older than six months. Out of the blue, she wondered how the woman felt about motherhood. She’d dressed her precious daughter in frills and pink. It reminded Lily of the one outfit she’d scraped her money together to buy Regina before . . . Well, before everything. She shoved the thoughts away.

  “I’m good.” She tried to smile, aware her hands were shaking. “Thanks. Your daughter is adorable.”

  The woman smiled and stroked the little one’s head. “She’s such a good baby, too. I’m lucky. Have a nice day.”

  “You, too.”
Lily saw the woman stop at a blue compact, then load the baby and her plastic bags in the backseat before she slid behind the wheel. Someday, if she could ever put the Canton mess to bed, maybe she’d find a man who truly loved her and have the blessings that woman seemed to possess.

  But first she had to escape.

  Lily glanced over her shoulder as she rolled everything she owned in the shopping cart and headed toward the far end of the lot. The young mom backed out of her parking spot. The guy with midnight hair still sat in a big gray Jeep with the windows rolled down. When he looked at her again, his dark stare didn’t seem quite so disinterested. She pushed her cart across the blacktop faster.

  “Lily!” a male voice shouted across the lot.

  She turned and spotted Canton running after her between the parked cars. Instantly, her heart revved up and terror juiced her bloodstream. He’d probably smooth-talked his way out of her distraction. And he’d caught her alone. God knew what he’d do now, but she expected he’d have some plan to get her away from here and make her death more horrific than she could imagine. No one crossed Canton and lived. Besides utter terror, the only thing Lily could feel was regret. She’d failed Erin, her mom, and her brother. Her secrets would die with her. And their killer would win.

  “You can’t do this!” But Lily was painfully aware he could do whatever he wanted. She’d been stupid to send Heath away, even if she hadn’t thought Canton could possibly find her this quickly. She’d only needed three hours alone to transform herself, damn it.

  But that was clearly three hours too many. Canton was obviously every bit as devious and determined as he’d always been.

  “Three quarters of a million,” he shouted, charging after her. “Cash, if you sign today.”

  Not that she believed he’d ever give her money for silence, but where would he get that much liquid money?

  “No. Leave me alone.” At the edge of the lot, she picked up all her belongings and tried to run for the sidewalk off the main drag ahead. With cars passing to and fro, Canton couldn’t shoot or abduct her in broad daylight, could he? There would be witnesses or sidewalk cams—something. Right?

  Just then, a car weaved up beside her, stopping between her and Canton. A blue compact.

  The tinted window on the driver’s side slid down, and the woman with the baby turned to her with a worried expression. “Can I give you a lift someplace?” Lily started to refuse, but the woman glanced in her rearview mirror at Canton, who’d now halted. “When I was younger, I once found myself stranded in the heat, carrying most of what I owned on my shoulders, too. A kind soul helped me out. I’d love to pay it back. I could use some good karma about now. And I would feel terrible leaving you with that guy.”

  Lily looked at Canton barely twenty feet away, just waiting for the opportunity to pounce, then to the woman’s earnest face. The baby cooed and shook its rattle in the backseat. Surely a woman carting her infant around wouldn’t be a crazy ax murderer. And the blonde had to be safer than Canton. Besides, the sooner she got to a motel, the sooner she could wipe her phone clean, transform herself, and leave this town.

  “I’m Emma and this is Isabel. I promise, we don’t bite. Well, she’s teething but . . .”

  Lily cocked her head. The sun beat down on her, and she was beginning to sweat. She hated snap decisions, but Canton would catch up to her in the next ten seconds. Still . . .

  “This man is dangerous. You’re taking a big risk with your safety and your baby’s.”

  Emma nodded. “Yes, and my husband would kill me. But I know that look on your face, like you’ve lost everything and don’t know where to go. That man is harassing you and you’re afraid. I was in a similar place two years ago. I’ll get you away from here, hon.”

  It was either get in the car with the woman or wait for Canton to wrap his hands around her throat and squeeze.

  “That would be great. Thanks.” Lily wanted to hug the woman and hoped Canton didn’t make the stranger pay for her kindness.

  Everything that had happened the past few hours was catching up with Lily. She hadn’t eaten yet today and didn’t know where she’d be in eight hours. She had no idea where she’d lay her head to sleep tonight. No idea how she would keep herself alive. The thought was enough to make her want to break down and give up. But she was strong and resourceful. She had some money, a gun in her purse, and experience on her side.

  Emma shoved the car in park. “I’ll help with your gear.”

  Together the two women tossed her luggage into the trunk and barely managed to get it slammed shut. A glance back proved Canton stood beside a huge brown pickup encased in mud and stared, wearing a furious glare on his face. Clearly, he hadn’t expected a bystander to help her. But he also wasn’t going to harass her with a witness.

  Once she slammed the trunk, Emma hurried toward the driver’s side of the car. Lily watched and noticed the car had California license plates. She paused, unease trickling through her.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “You’re a long way from California.”

  Emma gave Canton a nervous glance, then nodded. “My husband started his own company recently. He can work from anywhere, so we decided to move closer to my family for Isabel’s sake. The cost of living is cheaper, which is important right now. I’ll miss San Diego but I think here will be all right, too.”

  Emma slipped back into the car and cooed at her baby. Lily hesitated. Not every one of the thirty-something million people from California were involved with Canton.

  Taking a deep breath, she slipped into the blessed air-conditioned comfort of the car. “Good luck with everything.”

  “Thanks.”

  As the woman pulled out of the lot, Lily powered down her cell phone. As soon as she got to a motel room, she would wipe it clean and set up the burner.

  Emma smiled and drove to the main road. “Where to?”

  “There’s a little motel down the road off to the left here.” Lily pointed. “It’s not far.”

  “Oh, we’re staying there too until we find a house to rent.” With that, Emma pulled out onto the road.

  One last glance back told Lily Canton still watched. She didn’t think for one minute that she’d seen the last of him.

  Two minutes later, they pulled into the lot, and Emma put the car in park. “Here we are.” She twisted around for her purse on the floorboard behind her and dragged it into her lap. “Let me give you something before you go.” Lily was already wording her refusal to accept money if that’s what the woman intended. Instead, Emma whipped out a syringe and shoved the needle into her arm. “Sorry. I know Timothy Canton is dangerous.” Her expression melted into something that looked like hate. “But my husband and I are far worse.”

  Chapter Seventeen

  I CAN’T fucking stand this.” Stone paced the floor of Jack’s cabin, nearly ready to crawl out of his skin. “I have no idea what’s going on. Is Lily okay? Is she safe? Where the hell is Heath with a report?”

  He hadn’t liked any of this, especially letting her walk out the door. But she didn’t trust him now, not after the damage Axel had wrought. Lily would have only hated him if he’d refused to let her go or he’d followed. At the time, that had seemed important. Now, he didn’t care. He just wanted to know that she was all right.

  To be on the safe side, he’d texted One-Mile the moment the skiff had disappeared into the swamp and given the sniper her position. As soon as Heath had advised Axel that he’d taken her to Walmart, he’d texted that information, too. But the bastard had never answered, and now Stone worried she didn’t have enough protection. He felt as if someone had shoved a hot poker in his chest, as if his guts were now twisted around a ball of anxiety.

  He wanted to throw his phone that wasn’t buzzing with information across the room. No, he wanted to go find Lily and convince her that the only thing he’d ever wanted from her was her love.

  Instead, Axel and his big mouth had persuaded her that Stone had only been using
her.

  “You think I’m going to let anything happen to her?” Axel scowled. “Hell, no. Heath is watching over her. He knows exactly—”

  “Why the fuck did you show up and undo everything I’d built with Lily?” he growled. “She’d been making so much progress. We’d been growing our trust.”

  “Based on what? A huge fucking lie?”

  Stone shook his head and tensed every muscle in his body. It was the only way he could restrain the urge to rip Axel’s head off. “Nothing and no one is more important to me than Lily, you holier-than-thou asshole. You made a lot of assumptions about my motives without actually knowing me. I have done nothing but try to get that woman’s attention and persuade her to believe in me since the day we first talked about her. I used the FBI’s offer to get close to her because Thorpe and Sean and Jack wanted to hear that I could help her actually have a real future by persuading her to testify. At first, I was in favor, too. I admit that I didn’t want to go back to prison. But now I want her to be safe way more than I care about anything else.”

  Axel rolled his eyes. “Pretty speech but I don’t believe a word of it. You have no way to back that up.”

  He didn’t. Stone gritted his teeth and cursed under his breath. Then something occurred to him. “Actually, I do.”

 
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