Carter reed 2, p.12
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       Carter Reed 2, p.12

         Part #2 of Carter Reed series by Tijan
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  The amusement fled from his face. He grew somber. “Are you okay?”

  I swallowed a burst of emotion, hearing the tenderness from him. “I’ll be fine. I want to know what happened, but I’ll be fine for now.”

  “Okay.” Carefully so he wouldn’t hurt me, he pressed his lips to my forehead. The entire thing was so tender, so gentle, that I felt like crying again.

  “I have to go,” he said. “It started last night. I have to make sure everything will be okay, for us.”

  War.

  He didn’t say the word, but that’s what it was. I knew what a bomb in Cole’s nightclub meant.

  Carter slipped from the bed, going through the door I’d wondered about into the bathroom. I watched him, taking in his trim waist and the way the muscles in his back moved, gliding seamlessly under his skin. He was beautiful to look at, from behind as well as from the front. And he was all mine.

  But I was terrified.

  The war had started.

  When I walked into the Mauricios’ house, the conversations grew silent. I knew Cole had moved his base of operations here, taking the library as his office. Ignoring looks from the men and a few of the women, I headed straight there. Cole had told me to stay out when we spoke last night. He was the leader, but that was the thing—if I wasn’t in the family any longer, he wasn’t my leader.

  Shavon met me outside the closed doors. A serene smile on her face, Cole’s cousin looked sultry and dangerous all at the same time. “Carter, Carter, Carter.”

  I narrowed my eyes. I’d been coming to this same house, smoothing over Cole’s initiation, almost every day for the last month and today she met me like I was a long-lost stranger? “Don’t press me, Shavon.”

  A smooth chuckle came from her. She cocked her head to the side, studying me. Her smile never slipped from her face. “Press you? Why? You’re more family than he is.”

  I got it then. She wasn’t doing Cole’s bidding. She was going against him. I shook my head. “I’m not interested in that.”

  As I moved around her, she stepped with me and blocked me. “Come on, Carter. Can you hear me out?” Her hand rested on her slim hip. Moving closer to me, she trailed a finger down my chest. “You used to have all the time in the world for me. Remember those days?”

  Pre-Emma and never again. “Back up, Shavon. I’m not in the back-stabbing business.” My eyes flashed a warning, and this time, I physically held her in place so I could go around with no problems. I ignored her swift intake of breath and walked inside, thrusting both doors open. Not waiting for them to close, I announced, “Just so you know…” Cole looked up from the desk, as did the three other men in front of him. “Your cousin is plotting your demise.”

  “Carter!” Shavon gasped from behind.

  The doors slammed shut, and I didn’t need to look to know she was scurrying out of the house.

  Cole grinned, standing up from his chair. “Did you just take care of a problem for me?”

  “Knowing Shavon, she’ll be on the plane for Florida in the next thirty minutes, and she’ll be there for the next six months.”

  “Well, then.” Cole’s gaze slid to one of the men and lingered there. “I hope your daughter doesn’t play with knives, Leo.”

  Shavon’s father chuckled, shaking his head. “My daughter, well, what can you do about her? She does what she does.”

  Cole narrowed his eyes, but didn’t say a word.

  I did. “If your daughter is moving against the family’s leader, I’ll be paying her a visit one day.” I let that hang in the air. I’d been their Cold Killer before.

  “Well then.” Cole cleared his throat. He gestured to the man on the far right. “Carter, this is Police Chief Smith. He’s been bringing us up to date about the bombing at the club.”

  The police? He was on the payroll?

  Cole nodded, seeing my unspoken questions, and I leaned against the wall. Folding my arms over my chest, I tucked my head down. I was content to wait, but I wanted to hear everything this man had to say.

  He gave me a nervous look. Holding a baseball cap in his lap, his hands fidgeted with the strap, and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down.

  Cole said, “Ignore him, Jack. Carter’s woman was at the club. No, he’s not with us, but he wants to know everything so he doesn’t worry about her any more than he needs to.”

  “Oh.” He kept looking at me. He didn’t look appeased.

  I didn’t care. Sending Cole a slight nod, I signaled for him to continue their meeting. “So, Jack. You were saying the results were…”

  “Uh.” He sent another skirting glance to me before swinging back to Cole. “Yes. We think the backpack had been left there when the club wasn’t open. It was in a back locker, and when we checked to see what employee used it, there was no one. It was an empty locker.”

  “Prints?”

  He shook his head, but glanced at me once more. I stared him down. This cop was dirty. I shouldn’t look down on him, but I did. I’d killed. I had blood on my hands, but I was loyal to those I loved. If I had taken an oath to serve and protect, I would’ve followed that allegiance to my death, no matter what. But this man, he was here, sweating and wiping his hands on his legs. He was betraying his family for a paycheck. A lot of people told us things, did things for us, because we paid the best and the Mauricio name was honorable. But this man wasn’t worthy. He got a paycheck because of his job. That was it.

  “You’re not in the family.” A voice in my head reminded me. “If you’re in, you’re in. Stop saying you’re out when your actions show you’re in.”

  “Without video surveillance of your club, we won’t be able to find out who put the bag there. If we had that—” He swallowed again. “We could rule out a lot of scenarios.”

  He wanted eyes inside. He was lying.

  Cole rounded the desk. His eyes met mine for a second and flashed their own warning. He wanted me to back off. I got it, but I’d do what I wanted. And even though there was no visible reaction from me, Cole got that message, too. A slight grin flickered over his features before he turned to face the police chief, his face wiped clean of all emotion.

  A mask stared down at the man, who clutched his cap in a death grip. His knuckles were turning white.

  “Jack, I know there was evidence collected. I know there are little things, things telling you how the bomb was put together, maybe where those pieces were purchased. Bombs have their own signatures. I know this, and you’re sitting here telling me you found nothing except that it was in a locker?”

  “Sir—”

  Cole shook his head, cutting him off. He leaned down, resting his hands on his legs until he was right in the police chief’s face. “I know you’re feeding me a line of bullshit. I don’t know what other family members you’ve worked with, but that won’t work with me. I’m smarter, and I’m less patient. Give me the name of the person behind that bomb by tomorrow, or you’ll find out I’m not as nice as whoever you were dealing with before.”

  The man’s sweating had dampened the collar of his shirt. He bobbed his head up and down. “I will. I’ll find out and bring it to you tonight. I will.”

  Cole’s eyes were still narrowed, but he leaned back, allowing the police chief to stand. “Thank you, Police Chief Smith. I’ll be waiting for you tonight.”

  “Yes. Yes, sir.”

  Cole flicked a hand to Leo. “Escort him out, please.”

  Leo and the police chief left the room, leaving one other family member still with Cole: Gene. He shook his head, leaning back in his chair and resting his ankle across the knee of his other leg. He looked at me. “You think he’s working for the Bartels?”

  I didn’t say anything. I waited for Cole to speak.

  Cole ran a hand down his face as he went to his desk chair. “Has he worked with us before?”

  “He was with Leo,” Gene said.

  “And Shavon?” Cole asked me. “Was that the truth, what you said before?”

  I
shrugged. “I don’t know. She tried to prevent me from coming in here. One guess is that Leo is running his own agenda, and he wanted to see if you’d buy what the cop was saying. Maybe. Maybe not.”

  “Or he is working with the Bartels and wanted the last bit of evidence we might have on them, the cameras?” Gene asked.

  Cole shook his head, frowning. “Either way, I can’t trust some of my own family, or I can’t trust who each of them has in their pockets.”

  “We have family politics, just like every other family.”

  Cole shot Gene a look. “I’m not an idiot, and I know I came in and took over. I knew my place as the leader wouldn’t be met with smiles and thumbs-up, but that was complete bullshit. They have evidence.”

  “Wait and see what he shows you,” I murmured.

  He shook his head, rubbing at his jaw. “I have to order surveillance on all the elders, don’t I?”

  Gene glanced at me. The question hadn’t been directed to me, but I answered it anyway. “It wouldn’t be a dumb idea.”

  I’d thought the takeover was fine. I’d thought the initiation was successful. I was wrong, and I knew I’d been too quick to hope this change would be smooth. I’d hoped because I’d wanted everything to be handled and dealt with so none of it would affect Emma.

  “I can’t trust anyone except you two,” Cole murmured, his voice deep and low.

  I started to shake my head, and he looked right at me. “I need your help, Carter.”

  “I came here for information. I needed to know if Emma had been the target.”

  “I know, and I know you’re technically out, but I’m telling you—I need you in. I need you to help me.” He looked to Gene. “Because of you, I know I can trust my uncle here.”

  Gene stiffened. I knew he was remembering his doubts about his own nephew, but he nodded. “You can trust me. I’ll take care of the surveillance with the rest of the family. I’ll handle it.”

  His gaze met mine, and I knew he was doing that to help me. I was here to protect Emma; that was all. And I nodded, thanking him. That was one item off the list Cole would need help handling.

  “Thank you, Gene,” Cole said.

  Gene nodded, then glanced at me. I nodded as well. He was leaving, letting me have my time with Cole.

  We waited until he closed the door, then I started. “You’re bringing the police chief in here? To see your face? To see mine?”

  Cole tensed, frowning. “What—”

  “That’s reckless. You meet with dirty cops, dirty politicians, whoever, outside of the house. Never in the house.”

  “What, you’re the All Mighty Trainer? Do you have a rulebook? How to be a Mafia Leader for Dummies?”

  “Cole.”

  “What?” His eyes flashed a warning. “You trained me to fight and to kill. This stuff I have to learn on my own.”

  “Trust Gene.”

  Cole scoffed. “Right, because my uncle isn’t judging every mistake I make, huh? Because he really thinks I deserve this chair.”

  Well, fuck. He’d sensed Gene’s reservations. “He means well.”

  Cole waved me off. “My father was the head of the family. I just—” His hands fell to his desk, and he held onto it for a second. “This was his. This whole house. This chair. I have so many memories of watching him in here, and now it’s me and…” Shadows flitted across his face. “There are a lot of ghosts in here, Carter. More than I thought there were going to be.”

  His father, mother, brothers, sisters—and he would’ve been another. I softened my tone. “I’ll help you, with what I can.”

  “Oh, gee.” His lips curved in a mocking grin. “Thanks so much for that.”

  “Don’t be an ass,” I growled.

  I kept getting pulled in. Granted, I had come myself, but I needed to know for sure. “Who do you think was the target?”

  Cole sighed. “I have no idea. I really don’t. How’s she doing?”

  She’d been sleeping when I left. “Bruised, sore, resting.” I needed to get back to her.

  “You’re at your place?”

  I nodded.

  “Are you going to be training tonight?”

  I raised my eyebrows. “Always.”

  “I’m going to come over.”

  Despite all the complications, at a basic level, it felt good having him back. We’d fallen into our old routine. When AJ died, Cole had replaced him as my brother. I hadn’t been looking for another best friend, but we were alike, and when I took him away from the family to hide and train, we became even more alike. Neither of us had blood family. I had been in the shadows, watching over Emma, and he was in the shadows, just surviving.

  I stood by what I’d said to Gene on the plane. Cole would be a good leader, but he had to find his own way. Only he could be the leader. I couldn’t do that for him. However, training him, making him the best fighter he could be, I could do that.

  “Carter.”

  “Hmm?” I’d been distracted by my thoughts. “Yeah?”

  “This is different for me.” He hesitated. “I’ve been out in the cold, you know, and I’m coming back in. It’s just…different.”

  I didn’t comment. I don’t think he expected me to. As I left, my hand curled around the air, and I could almost feel the weight of my gun. It was coming back to me.

  I heard the dull thunk from the top of the stairs. The closer I got to the basement, the more the sound grew. Carter was in the gym. Even before I rounded to the doorway and saw him, I knew what I heard.

  I found him hitting a punching bag, wearing a sleeveless sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his head. His feet danced lightly as he struck again and again. His hands were wrapped in white tape, but it had become smudged black and worn out.

  I must’ve made a sound because Carter stopped and looked over. “Hey.” His voice was so soft. My heart melted.

  “Hey, yourself.” He was sweating, his muscles glistening. I wanted to drag him up to bed. Instead, I said, “Teach me.”

  “Teach you?”

  I gestured to the punching bag. “How to fight. I want to know.”

  He stepped back and unzipped his sweatshirt. A shine of sweat covered his chest as it heaved for air. He rested an arm on the bag, watching me. “You want to fight?”

  I’ve killed two men. “It wouldn’t hurt.”

  “No.”

  I hadn’t been expecting that. “Excuse me?”

  “I said no.”

  He started to turn for the bag again, but I caught his arm. “Why not?”

  Instead of looking me in the eye, his gaze went past my shoulder. “Because you shouldn’t have to fight. That’s my job,” he answered, with his mouth stretched tight.

  “Hey.” I reached up, took his chin, and forced him to look at me. “Fighting is both our jobs. Dunvan. Ben. I killed those men. My hands are already bloody, and I’m in this fight. Whatever it is—I’m here. I’m at your side. If the woman you love doesn’t know how to fight, she shouldn’t be there.”

  A stricken look came over him, and the corners of his mouth softened. “Emma.” He reached for my hand.

  I moved back, my hand falling away from him. “No. I’m by your side, Carter. This is our life now. A bomb went off. You can’t protect me all the time. I know you try. I know the guards are there, but if anything happened—I have to know, too.” My throat constricted. “And if something happened to you, god forbid, I’m going to be there, trying to protect you, too. I’ll do it whether I know how to fight or not.”

  “Emma.” His voice was so quiet.

  I swallowed over a lump. I was right, and he knew it. “Look, I understand. You love me. You don’t want me to deal with this life, but I’m here, and it’s happening. Teach me to fight, and maybe I can help, in some small way.”

  He touched the side of my face. “If anything happened to you…” He hesitated.

 
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