Falling in deeper, p.31
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       Falling in Deeper, p.31
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         Part #11 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black

  Before Jack could answer, Stone’s phone on the console beside him buzzed. As he swerved around an elderly couple taking a leisurely drive, he scooped it up, heart racing. He hoped to fuck it was Lily.

  A glance at the screen dashed that hope. “One-Mile says he followed a woman with a baby taking Lily, who looked sleepy or drugged, into a motel room. He’s been trying to get the sitch since. Three men have entered in the last few minutes, the first with a bulging bag from a hardware store.” That made Stone’s guts knot up. “The second one sauntered in waving a knife in her face. Jesus! The third wore a Dodgers cap.” The guy on the balcony at Lily’s apartment building? Again, Stone didn’t believe in coincidences. “Why the fuck didn’t One-Mile barge into the room or shoot everyone on their way in?”

  “It’s a public motel.” Axel scowled. “First, you don’t know what room someone is entering until they’ve actually gone inside. There’s all kinds of hell to pay for shooting an innocent bystander. Second, if they’re smart, they’ve drawn the drapes. If that’s the case, One-Mile can’t see inside to shoot the bad guys. And he can’t barge into a motel room without knowing who’s there and lacking backup or any idea what he should be prepared for. It could get both him and Lily killed quickly.”

  Stone didn’t like it but he grasped the concept. “One-Mile has taken up position on the roof of the Philadelphia Christian Church off of 167.”

  Axel frowned. “If he’s on the roof, he’s reconnoitering from his sniper position and is waiting to take them out as they exit. What’s near that church?”

  Stone hadn’t paid that much attention to the places of worship since he’d come to town. It sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

  “It’s right next door to the Royal Inn, a scuzzy little motel with a name that’s way loftier than its reputation,” Jack informed them.

  “Taking Lily to a no-tell motel would make sense.” Stone snapped in the direction of Axel’s phone, despite being worried out of his fucking mind. Still, he had to focus and stay calm for her sake. “Gutierrez isn’t from around here. He’d need someplace to take Lily where people could come and go in a pretty transient fashion without raising too many questions. He’d want a bed.” And a place to restrain her so he could do his worst. “And he won’t be alone.”

  Do you have any way to reach her? he tapped back to One-Mile with one hand on the wheel.

  To his shock, One-Mile actually began to respond. The three tiny dots in the text bubble said he would get an answer, but it seemed to take forever while anxiety gnawed at Stone’s composure.

  If I did, would I be wasting my time texting you?

  “What is he saying?” Axel asked.

  Stone gritted his teeth and shoved the phone in Axel’s face so he could read for himself.

  “Ask One-Mile if he knows anything else pertinent to the sitrep,” Axel insisted. “We don’t have a minute to waste.”

  “No shit. You think I’m not entirely fucking aware of that? That knowing every passing moment could be Lily’s last isn’t utterly dismantling me?” Stone snarled. “Hold the wheel.”

  Once his big passenger had a firm grip, Stone pulled up the text message and replied. There in less than 10. Do you have Lily’s exact position? What else do you see?

  Again, One-Mile answered promptly. Royal Inn on 167. Facing church. Second floor. Can’t see anything. Drapes drawn. Looks dangerous. Get here.

  At the man’s reply, Stone tried to stay calm. At least he knew where to find Lily. They couldn’t leave the room without One-Mile seeing. Problem was, Stone wasn’t worried about them escorting Lily from the building. He was concerned that when they opened the door again, it would be to dump her body somewhere. One-Mile might be a great sniper, but he couldn’t start shooting through a covered window without potentially hitting Lily. And if Gutierrez’s wife was still inside, it was possible the baby was in the room, too.

  How long has she been in there? Stone typed back to One-Mile.

  10. No more texting unless emergency. Concentrating.

  No doubt about it, One-Mile was a douche—exactly like Stone thought when he’d first met the guy. But he also couldn’t argue. As much as he wanted information that might help him understand what Lily was enduring and how he might best rescue her, he didn’t want to distract the sniper from such a critical task.

  Raking a hand over the stubble covering his scalp, he blew out a breath and turned to Axel, who shouted into his phone as he relayed One-Mile’s information.

  “Got it,” Jack said. “I’ve got some cop friends. I’ll call them. If you get there first, do what you need to do and they’ll help you out. I’m on my way. I’ll see if I can ping the Edgington brothers for backup.”

  Stone didn’t bother commenting, and he heard the call end. Beside him, Axel cursed.

  “This shit is going to be over in fifteen minutes,” Dominion’s security officer said, concern darkening his voice.

  One way or the other. “Yeah.”

  Axel reached for his phone again. “We need a plan. No one is better at that shit than Heath.”

  Had Axel come fucking unhinged? “He lost her!”

  “She was on foot, so he ditched the flashy white SUV to follow. He didn’t expect her to get in someone’s car.” Axel sighed. “And don’t you ever tell the fucker I defended him.”

  Stone didn’t want to argue or joke. He just wanted Lily back. Axel was right about the fact that they needed a plan. His head started whirling with possibilities. He discarded as many as he considered almost as quickly as they popped into his head. How could they get into that room without startling Corey and his posse? He didn’t want them to panic and ice her before he could get close enough to pull her out alive.

  In the near silence of his truck’s cab, Stone heard the ringing as Axel called Heath. The Brit answered almost immediately, his voice sounding clipped over the speakerphone. “I’m still looking. I know she left the parking lot with that woman and her baby.”

  “The Royal Inn,” Axel supplied.

  “Brilliant. Popular place today. A woman approached Canton in the parking lot and flirted. I’m guessing she gave him a sex invite and they headed there as well.”

  Stone heard every word. That seemed awfully coincidental. He didn’t believe it for an instant.

  “At least if Canton is getting his jollies with a stranger, he can’t be hurting Lily,” Heath offered.

  Axel gave the Brit the lay of the land, explaining that the woman in the Walmart was probably Corey Gutierrez’s wife, who was apparently helping him mastermind and execute his revenge against everyone who had anything to do with his sister’s death. In fact, he’d bet the woman who picked Canton up was a plant, too. And that Corey intended to dust the gubernatorial hopeful ASAP.

  The internal ticktock of each passing second pounded Stone’s chest like the blow of a hammer. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if he didn’t get there in time, but as the miles between the swamp and town whipped past, that was all he could focus on. How fucking meaningless would his life be if he couldn’t save Lily? Then it really wouldn’t matter if he went back to prison or they put him six feet under. Somehow she’d become his one reason to live. If Corey Gutierrez took her away, Stone would waste the asshole on the spot—gladly and with joy in his heart. Even knowing he’d go down for murder one didn’t bother him. The scum who had robbed him of Lily’s light and her of a promising future had to go.

  Stone finally turned onto 167 from I-10. Only a couple of miles to go.

  Hang on, baby. I’m coming for you . . .

  “We need a fucking plan now.” And this was where Stone felt at a distinct disadvantage. He’d never been a battlefield hero. Everyone around him had risked life and limb for their country, their loved ones, their pride. He’d stupidly decided to con some assholes out of money because his student loans had seemed daunting, and why would rich people miss a few bucks? “Should we have the motel management send housekeeping up there to kno
ck on the door and stall them?”

  Even as he spoke the words, he knew it was a bad idea.

  “No!” Axel and Jack, via phone, said almost instantly.

  “They could panic and kill Lily,” Axel explained.

  “Or whoever knocks on the door. Or both,” Jack added.

  Axel nodded. “We don’t want to spook Corey and his cohorts. We don’t want to give them any reason to be suspicious. It needs to be a clean takedown.”

  “It sure would help if we could find some way to persuade them to open that fucking curtain so One-Mile could get a shot in there and disrupt them, maybe pick off one or two,” Jack said just before Stone heard a ding over the line and the rough Cajun swore. “We’re in deep fucking shit. Corey Gutierrez was MARSOC.”

  “What?” Stone asked, worry tightening every muscle because Jack made that sound bad. “What does that mean?”

  Axel winced. “Marine Corps Special Operations Command. It means he’s a determined motherfucker with ice water in his veins and he’s probably done some nasty-ass missions in his time.”

  “What he said,” Jack agreed. “It means he’s not some street thug without serious skills. He’s going to be well-prepared and thorough.”

  That worry in Stone’s belly turned to acid as it rolled and pitched, eating away at his insides. “We have to be better.”

  No one argued that point as he passed the Dollar Tree on the right.

  “But according to the report I just received, Gutierrez was discharged a few months ago for ‘adjustment disorders,’ which is the military way of saying he has psychological problems, and they wanted him gone. That fact and his special ops background explains why it took me a while to track his service down.”

  It sucked but none of that mattered now. Stone could see the ugly blue sign for the Royal Inn up ahead. He didn’t want to have hauled ass the last thirty-five fucking miles to get here, then dither about what to do.

  “Plan, guys?” he shouted. “We need one now, or I’m parking this sucker and busting in that door, guns blazing.”

  “Then you’ll get dead,” Axel pointed out in annoyance.

  Stone shrugged. “If it saves Lily, I don’t really give a shit.”

  * * *

  LILY couldn’t imagine a worse nightmare. A guy she’d always thought of as a friend and big brother meant to kill her. No, not just kill her. Violate her in every possible way, then cut her into tiny ribbons and let her bleed out while he reveled.

  “I didn’t know they were following me when I went to the warehouse that day, Corey. I tried to call you and ask you what you wanted me to do but—”

  The sharp rebuke on Corey’s face told Lily that casting any blame on him would only make her death more harsh.

  Did he feel terrible guilt about his sister dying because he’d been stupid and desperate enough to get into dealing drugs for Canton? Because he’d talked to the police? Was he unable to handle the reality that he’d also been at fault? Likely, which was why he found it easier to cast blame on the girl who’d inadvertently given away Erin’s hiding place.

  Corey had always had a weak side, enjoyed using drugs more than facing reality. He’d left his mom and sister to fend for themselves once the police had released him after his arrest. He must have known when he talked to the cops about Canton’s operation that it would get back to the vicious street boss. No way Corey couldn’t know that punishment would come, swift and severe.

  “Erin was perfectly safe until you came along. I’ll bet they threatened to cut that baby out of your belly and kill you, you dumb whore. I heard later that you had a stillborn.” Corey’s lips stretched wide, something big and ugly that celebrated her total devastation. “Couldn’t happen to a more deserving bitch. And when the pigs came looking for you because you knew something about Erin’s murder? I reminded one of Canton’s underlings that your mom and little brother were just waiting at home and that you should be taught a valuable lesson about silence.”

  Lily shrank back in her chair and stared at Corey with absolute horror. At one time, she would have trusted him implicitly. She’d shared meals with him. When she’d been pregnant and scared, he’d promised to hold her hand in the delivery room. Heck, he’d once even given her the shirt off his back after her ex-boyfriend had ripped hers during a fight.

  And now he meant to kill her.

  The shock of that rippled through her. For years, she’d been imagining that Corey, like her, struggled with grief. She’d always hoped she would see him someday, when she got the courage to go back to California, visit everyone’s graves, and make peace with the past. She’d pictured running into Corey and finally sharing her sorrow with the only other person she’d been close to who’d also loved Erin unconditionally.

  “They were innocent!” she protested.

  “So was my sister. In every sense of the word. I made sure no one touched Erin and knocked her up, like you. The one person I trusted, the girl I thought would always have her back. You cunt. You sacrificed her to save your own skin.” He loomed over her menacingly and raised the back of his hand to her face. “I should have seen you for the cowardly traitor you are.”

  Though she knew it was futile, Lily couldn’t help herself. Even if Corey never believed her and it didn’t save her life, he needed to hear the words. She had to tell her truth.

  “I didn’t trade my safety for hers,” she insisted. But he’d clearly expected her to choose her best friend’s life over her own and her baby’s. Would she have made that choice? Could she? Even before going into labor, her instinct to protect Regina had been unshakable. But Corey blamed her when he hadn’t stayed around to protect those most vulnerable in his life. He’d gone into hiding and saved himself.

  “You’re a fucking liar,” he growled.

  Lily shook her head. “Mafia followed me after school. I told him I didn’t know anything but Erin was like my sister, too. Maybe I should have guessed that they wouldn’t believe me. But you didn’t hang around to protect her. You left her at their mercy. You left her to die.” Tears trembled at her lash line, threatening to spill.

  “Shut the fuck up,” Corey snarled, looking ready to commit murder right now.

  “No.” If she was going to die anyway, she was going to get everything out in the open. “I loved Erin. I mourned. I still miss her every day, along with the rest of my family. Having them taken from me left a hole in my chest I can never fill. The last conversation I had with my mom was an ugly fight, and now I will never be able to repair it. You took that from me.”

  Even if her mom had washed her hands of her only daughter and hadn’t known how to mother a headstrong girl, the woman had given birth to her, fed her, probably even loved her at some point. She and her brother had been super close. And they were both lost to her forever because of this man.

  “I can’t believe you suggested their murder to Canton.” She stared at him like the monster he’d become. “What happened to you?”

  “I said, shut the fuck up.” Corey flushed with fury before he backhanded her across the face.

  Lily’s head snapped to one side. Her cheek exploded. Pain bloomed. She tasted blood on her tongue.

  None of that was going to stop her.

  “No. You fucking listen,” she shot back. “Not only did I lose Erin, you took what was left of my family. Then my baby girl died. Imagine Isabel slipping away before you’d even gotten to hold her. I clutched Regina’s corpse wrapped in a pink blanket for five minutes before they took her from me. I already loved her so much and I cried because she would never know me at all. So how dare you think you were the only one to suffer?”

  Anguish and terror steamrolled Lily, crushing her heart already bruised by the seeming betrayal she’d endured from Stone and everyone she’d met since moving to Dallas. The tears she’d shoved down inside her for too many years stung her eyes, nearly closed her throat. They rose, refusing to be denied, and began to fall. Corey would see them as a weakness or a plea, and she didn’t c
are. They were her tribute to those she’d loved, the proof she was still human and cared. They were healing.

  Even if she didn’t have the chance to shed any more tears before death and no one else saw them, she’d know she’d finally let go of the pain and grief and fear that had held her back for seven bleak years. She released it all and sobbed. The hot tears lashing her face felt like the most lovely, delicate pain. With her hands bound, she couldn’t wipe them away—and she didn’t want to. She let them flow, felt the dam of so much latent grief release. Terrible time for this emotional breakthrough. But then again, despite her best efforts, she might not have a tomorrow.

  As she tasted the salt of her tears, she wished Stone could see her now. Even if he didn’t love her, he’d cared at least a little, right? He’d looked after her in so many ways. He’d be proud that she’d finally freed her anguish.

  “The heartbreak I felt over her loss almost killed me,” Lily choked. “In a week, everyone I had ever cared about died or disappeared. I was shocked and alone. And yet I still worried about you. I even tried to find you. And all the while, you were indicting me in your mind, deciding that I’d committed something like treason and I deserved torture and death. All of this—Erin’s death, your misery, my misery—it’s your doing.”

  This was the real betrayal in her life, Lily realized. Not Stone’s. Corey befriending her, seeming to care about her, being close enough to share a past and secrets—then plotting to harm her after they’d established trust and affection. What Stone had done,
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