Carter reed 2, p.23
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       Carter Reed 2, p.23

         Part #2 of Carter Reed series by Tijan
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  “They won’t understand why I’m leaving again,” I whispered hoarsely.

  “They will.”

  I held his gaze, a lump forming in my throat.

  “They just don’t want to admit it to themselves, but they know why. They’d do it, too.”

  “I’m being comforted by the reason I’m leaving.” I flashed him a rueful smile. “There’s gotta be irony there.”

  He chuckled. “You would’ve left whether I was here or not. Amanda and Theresa talk about you a lot. I’d like to think I’ve gotten a pretty good feel for what kind of person you are, and you would’ve gone anyway, for them because you know the less they’re around you, the less they’re involved with that life.”

  He was right. I felt a tear slipping down my face again, but I had to leave. I had no words. And I didn’t think I could talk anyway, so I turned and went.

  I had no idea how I made it downstairs and into the waiting car. I got in, huddled in the corner, and bent my head down. I couldn’t keep the tears at bay anymore.

  The car stopped, and my door opened. But when I got out, I wasn’t at Carter’s place. I stared up at a three-story brick mansion. Two large, white posts flanked the front door, stretching all the way to the roof. I glanced around me. Three large men now stood by the car, waiting for me to enter the house. They wore black winter coats and stoic expressions. The guy closest to me was still holding the car door, but he stared straight ahead. None of them made eye contact with me. It was like they were robots.

  At that thought, a shiver went down my spine, but I was locked in. A brick wall surrounded the house, and a thick wrought-iron gate had closed at the end of the driveway. I couldn’t scale it, and I didn’t think I could climb over the wall either.

  “You work for Cole Mauricio?” I asked them.

  No answer. No one moved. Nothing. I shivered again, and a sick feeling formed in my stomach. I swallowed. This wasn’t good. Wetting my lips, I started to get back in the car. Now the guy moved. He reached around the door and grabbed my arm as another guard rounded the back of the vehicle to help him.

  I froze. My heart pounded against my chest. “Uh. I’d like to go back. Is Carter here?”

  They didn’t answer.

  The guard picked me up and carried me to the front door. The other two followed behind him as the car pulled away. I tried to twist around. I wanted to see the car leave. Maybe there was a code for the gate? I could escape and use that to get out? But no. The car paused in front of the gate, and it opened a beat later. That’s when I saw the camera. Someone had activated the gate. That meant they’d be watching for me, too.

  As the guards and I entered the house, passing between the two large posts, I looked up and saw more cameras. I counted five, all pointed at different directions. This place was a fortress. And okay, my fear officially started to spread. The shivers had been a forewarning. Now, full-blown panic. My lips started to go numb, and my hands shook.

  “Emma?”

  Cole came down the stairs, frowning as he studied the guys with me. The guards holding me lowered me to the floor, but my knees sagged, and I couldn’t stand. Thank god. My lips moved, and I thought those words, but they didn’t come out. I couldn’t talk, but I was so relieved to see Cole.

  He stopped halfway down and tilted his head to the side, still studying the men. Then a wall came over his face, and he was unreadable. His hand lifted from the bannister, and his foot moved up a stair. He began moving backward, away from us.

  “Boss?” the guy holding me said.

  At that moment, a door down the hallway opened. A man swept out, followed behind by six more giants. They matched the giants around me—all robot-like movements, black coats, and staring straight ahead. The guy leading them stopped in front of me. He looked closely at me, his lips pressed together, and my eyes traced the scar that went across his forehead. Five of the other men went around him and walked past us to the stairs.

  “Gene?” Cole didn’t move any more.

  Recognition flickered in my mind. This was Gene, a guy I’d seen with Carter before. I never liked him, and I thought he’d been killed. After Carter killed Frank Dunvan, this guy never came around again.

  Instead of watching the robots around him, Cole focused on the guy in front of me. “What is this? What are you doing, and why is Emma here?”

  “Because,” Gene sighed. “This has gone on long enough. I must end this before it gets out of hand.”

  “Out of hand?” The men escorted Cole down the stairs. As he walked past me, he asked, “And Emma? Why is she here? You can’t do anything to her. Carter will find out. He’ll kill you.”

  Carter trusted Gene. I remembered that now. He was his mentor.

  But he didn’t like me. I had known that right away. Still, that couldn’t be this guy. He’d been wary of me before, but now his features were cold, a look of impatience on his face—like he needed to deal with us before he could go home for the night, like we were a chore for him.

  Saying nothing, Gene stepped aside and the men led Cole and me into a back room. He followed behind. The room was massive. Bookshelves lined the walls, with a set of couches and a chair at one end of the space, and a desk and two chairs at the other. A large window overlooked a backyard covered with snow. I searched for the brick wall that surrounded the house, but I couldn’t see it. A row of trees blocked my view, further encasing this house. As I kept looking—there must be some way of escaping—Gene walked over and closed the curtains.

  We were in complete privacy now.

  The men shoved me into one of the chairs by the desk and Cole into the other. A flicker of sympathy flared in his eyes before he shut it down and turned to face Gene, who now stood behind the desk. Everything about Cole was stiff. Gene wasn’t. He leaned forward, resting his hands on the back of the desk chair and let out a deep breath, looking from Cole to me and back again.

  I didn’t think this was the time to start yelling, but I wanted to. Every cell in my body screamed for me to run, try to fight, try to leave. It was useless. There were so many men between the door and me. And if there were cameras in the front of the house, there’d be more behind it.

  I was a prisoner, whether I wanted to accept it or not.

  Please, Cole. I prayed to myself. All those training sessions with Carter need to pay off. Surely he was preparing now, and when he fought back—that’s who Carter would’ve considered a brother, someone who fought back, someone who would try to save me, too—I would do anything and everything to help him.

  A weapon. I would need a weapon.

  “What is this, Gene?” Cole asked in a low voice.

  I scanned the room for a weapon, but paused and looked at Cole for a moment. He was so stiff in that chair. His hands were flat on his legs, and he stared right at Gene. His jaw clenched, and then his eyes narrowed.

  Weapon. Weapon. I needed something.

  Gene laughed. It came out as a smooth baritone, but I couldn’t hear any amusement in the chuckle. “You, Cole. You’re what ‘this’ is all about. None of this was supposed to happen.” He shook his head as another bitter laugh trickled from him. “The goddamn bloodline prince. That’s what you are. Your family was supposed to be wiped out, but nope. Carter saved you, and then he hid you from everyone. The fucking weapon I helped build did his job too well.”

  “Weapon I helped build.” I held my breath as those words registered. Gene helped create Carter. “Did his job too well.” I glanced at Cole, who still showed no reaction. My god. Gene wanted Cole dead.

  “You sent the Bartels to me,” Cole said.

  “Yes.” Gene straightened from the desk and stood tall.

  Neither man looked away. If Cole hadn’t been so still, he would’ve seemed calm. He wasn’t, though. I knew he was far from it.

  “You were supposed to die, but you never did,” Gene continued. “I’m not saying I organized the attacks on your family back then. I didn’t. I wasn’t even on the periphery of it. But yes, you we
re supposed to die along with your family. The elders were going to form a democracy. After a few years, I was brought in. I was educated, and yes, they blamed me for you still being alive.”

  His steel eyes flickered to me, then settled on Cole again. I felt singed from even that short contact.

  His jaw hardened. “Carter was my assignment. They had me scout him. No, sweetie.” He looked back at me and the corner of his mouth lifted, but it didn’t form a smile. It sent fear through me instead. “He didn’t just happen to come to us. We knew his old man. We’d been scouting him for a long time. Your brother getting killed was our lottery win. It was the right move, the right time to push Carter over the edge. Oh, yeah. Who do you think gave him those guns to clean house? I’d been talking to him long before that.”

  “You knew what Carter would do?” Cole asked.

  As Gene swung his attention back to him, I felt like I could breathe. He’d been pinning me down, crawling inside me and poisoning me. This man—he was why all of this had happened. He was to blame. I felt another surge of fear, but I squashed it.

  Fuck the fear. I was going to kill this man.

  Gene let out another soft sigh. “We had no idea what he’d do. His old man was an asshole. We thought Carter would be, too, and then his best friend was killed and the kid turned into a nuclear bomb. When we saw what he was capable of, we scooped him up right away. He came to us, but we led him with crumbs. And yes, since then he has surpassed everything we thought he might achieve.” He grinned and a genuine chuckle came from him. “We just wanted another street soldier, to be honest. Never could’ve predicted it, not what he’s become.” The amusement slid away, his eyes went flat, and his head lowered, like he was going to charge us. “And since then, he’s become what we need for the family.”

  “What are you talking about?” Cole asked.

  “You.”

  “Explain.” Cole’s tone was soft, but it was a command.

  Gene laughed again, shaking his head. “Figure it out. You were supposed to be dead. I told them where you were. It took me three years to find you, but I did. You weren’t supposed to live.”

  “They killed my friends.” Cole’s mouth flattened. “You killed my friends.”

  “Yeah. And I’m going to kill you, too.”

  “You set everything up. Finding me. Why?”

  “I just told you!” Gene flung his hands in the air. “My god, are you that dumb? You were supposed to die, but you didn’t. And after dealing with Franco Dunvan, the elders realized we needed to follow one man again. Democracy doesn’t work for us.” He stared at me. “Take a guess who was chosen.”

  “Carter.” Cole cursed under his breath. “This was all about him. He’s been out because of her—”

  “—and she’ll be the reason he’ll come back in,” Gene finished.

  “You wanted him to be the leader, your man in charge, but you told him to stay out at first.” Cole shook his head. “Carter told me you urged him to stay out.”

  “Why do you think? You had come back. You weren’t supposed to. You were supposed to be dead. I needed time to clean up my mess, but then I realized Carter was like a dog after a bone. He wouldn’t rest until you were voted back into leadership. I hated that. You have no idea. We were being force-fed your bloodline again after we’d done so much to get rid of your family.”

  “We?” Cole spat. His eyes were wild, and his chest heaved up and down. “We?!”

  Gene grew quiet, pausing as his eyes lingered on Cole for a moment. “Well, me and a few others. We lost Stephen and Jimmy last year. They didn’t know when to keep their mouths shut about something.”

  “So not all of the elders are involved?”

  There was a beat of silence.

  It extended to another minute.

  Then I got it. Gene wasn’t as connected as he’d made it sound. As soon as I figured it out, Cole must have too, because he started laughing.

  “You’re an idiot, Gene,” he said. “A complete idiot. Have you thought this through?”

  “You think you’re so smart, Cole? You never would’ve figured this out. Ever.” He waved a finger at him, a gleam of pride coming to his eyes. “If it had been Carter on that stairwell just now, he would’ve gotten it the second he saw Emma being held against her will. He would’ve launched an attack then and there. Hell, we’d probably all be dead if it’d been him and not you.”

  He puffed up his chest, as if he were boasting. “But no, lucky for us, Carter’s still being questioned. The police want to pin everything on him. Who do you think he’ll come to for help? To make sure nothing comes back to him? Me. The only thing that’ll keep him out is…”

  His beady eyes swiveled back to me. “…his woman. Thanks to the Bartels wiping out most of his security guards, we were able to scoop you up. We knew right where you were, and for once, you weren’t protected. I can’t let this opportunity go to waste.”

  “You’re sick, Gene.”

  He shrugged. “No matter how much Carter tried to push you onto us, your place was deemed irrelevant the day your father died.”

  “So you’re with the Bartels? You’re working with them?”

  “What?” His eyebrows lifted, but he was grinning. He enjoyed this. I saw it now—it was almost time. He bent down and opened a drawer.

  I sucked in my breath.

  He reached inside.

  No…

  He pulled out a gun.

  “Are you? Are you working with them, Gene?” Cole’s voice rose.

  He was stalling. I got it then. My whole body felt drenched with ice. He couldn’t fight them? Is that why he was stalling for time? If he couldn’t—I couldn’t. I wanted to see out that window again. I wanted to pretend I could find an escape route. Fighting was pointless. They had guns. One shot and everything was done. My pulse picked up. My vision began to swim around.

  Gene had started to come around the desk, with that gun in hand. He was checking the clip.

  “Are you?” Cole demanded.

  He slammed the clip back into place and stopped, only a few feet from me. He held the gun like it was a phone. Like it was nothing to him. It was everything to me.

  He smiled at me, but murmured to Cole, “You don’t think I know what you’re doing? You think I’m that dumb? Waste his time. Ask him his agenda. Ask him anything. Demand it. Make him mad. Make him upset. He won’t think right. He’ll start talking. He won’t know what he’s doing. That’s your plan, right? Wasting my time, trying to stall. For what?” He waved the gun between us. “You’re both going to die. You have to.”

  Talk, Emma! A voice screamed in my head. My throat wouldn’t work. I couldn’t get any noise out.

  A high-pitched laugh started to build in my throat—no, that was my head. I could hear myself laughing. This was hilarious. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. Then I walked away from myself. I saw myself sitting there. She’d been screaming at me, but she waved her hands in the air now. Skipping. She was going away.

  I began to slip away. My mind was leaving the room.

  I heard Gene’s voice from a distance. “That’d make everything better, would it? No. I’m not working with the Bartels. If they got some information, then…that’s a different story. No, Cole. After you’re dead, the Bartels will be wiped out. Carter’s already eliminated half of them. They’re hurting. They’re wounded. You know how an animal can be, if they’re backed against a corner? They strike out, and maybe not in the smartest way.” He winked at me. “Maybe they kill someone they shouldn’t?”

  Me. The Bartels would be blamed for our deaths. I swallowed. Carter would buy it. He had no reason not to.

  The gun was so close to my head. He was going to do it. Any second. My heartbeat raced. It was almost deafening, but I could still hear him. Close your eyes, Emma. I tried to make myself do that. I didn’t want to see it happen, but my eyelids weren’t obeying me. They remained open, almost glued to my face to keep from closing. I fought against myself. I felt my
muscles coiling. My mind was leaving, but my body wanted to attack.

  “If you kill her—” Cole seemed to snap. “You say you want Carter back in, and killing us will do that, but it’s only going to launch a manhunt. Carter won’t buy your story that the Bertals killed her. He’ll find all of them, and he’ll question every single one. He won’t be satisfied until he knows for sure who killed her. He’ll find you. He will.” He softened his tone as he finished, “You’re cementing your own murder if you kill her.”

  “No, Cole. You’re wrong. Carter will come back to us. He will lead us and fine, if he needs to know the truth, I’ll make something up. I’ll pin her blood and hair on someone so he can kill him, knowing he’s avenged his woman.”

  “You’re wrong, Gene. You’re so wrong.”

  I could feel Cole’s anger then. He was furious. No, he was deadly.

  There he was. There was the guy Carter had trained. And, just like that—just hearing that—I felt my mind coming back. There was still hope.

  My pulse slowed, just a tiny bit.

  There was still a chance to fight.

 
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