Sustain, p.23
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       Sustain, p.23

           Tijan
 
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  It was coming.

  “Wait.” I crossed the room to grab my jeans.

  “You’re getting dressed?”

  “No, just the jeans.” The corner of my lip twitched up. “If we’re going to have this talk, doing it naked would make me feel weird.”

  “Oh.” She looked down at the blanket.

  I was an ass. I could grab her clothes and toss them over to her, but I liked having her naked. I liked having her in my bed. I should even the playing the field, but I didn’t want to. She was mine. I made a vow to myself. Every chance I got, her clothes were coming off. That vow would stick, no matter how this conversation went. Being away from her for another year had been the worst thing I’d done in my life. It was time to rectify that.

  “Bri, listen.” I raked a hand through my hair, sitting on the bed beside her. “I have to apologize to you—”

  “No.” She surged forward. Her hand rested on my arm, stopping me. “What I did, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. He…” she broke off. Her fingers curled around my arm and held on tightly. “He,” her voice was guttural and full of emotion, “I shouldn’t have gotten into that car, but I did. I shouldn’t have done what he told me to do, but I did. I shouldn’t have hidden it from you, but I did. I did so many things that I can’t undo.”

  Tears formed in her eyes, and they slid down, one by one, as she talked. She ignored them, and I recognized the look in her eyes. She was back there, remembering every detail. The urge to crush her against my body and make her forget everything crawled up inside me until my hands were digging into the blankets. She needed to talk about this. I could see that. I had to let her, and if I stopped her, I knew that same demon would keep coming back and haunting her.

  “I was a coward.” Her head looked down. “I—”

  I couldn’t listen anymore. My hand reached for her chin, and I lifted it, making her look at me again. All of those tears were still there, just pooling on top of each other. She looked broken. Cursing inside, I knew some of that was because of me. “I’m sorry.”

  “What?”

  “I’m. Sorry. Me.” This was half my fault. “What I said to you, when you finally told me, was wrong. I was an asshole. I was hurt, but I was wrong. You don’t have to apologize to me. I have to apologize to you.”

  She shook her head. “What are you doing? No, you don’t. I do.”

  “No, you don’t.” I cupped the side of her face, my fingers sliding through her hair. “You already apologized, Bri. You did the night I kicked you out of the band. I’m sorry for what I did. What I did—I gave us another year apart—I have to apologize to you for that.” I pointed at the fourth bird on my shoulder. “This is me. Because I left you, and I never should’ve done that. I’m so sorry, Bri.”

  “Luke—”

  “Stop.” I held her face with both of my hands and leaned forward, my eyes locking with hers. “You were a little girl. I remember your dad. He was an abusive bastard. Bri, how many times did I crawl into your room and sleep in the closet with you and Braden? How many times did you put Band-Aids on my bruises from my own dad? Both our dads were horrible. I get it. I do. You can’t blame yourself for doing what your dad told you to do. What would he have done if you hadn’t listened to him? That’s what has haunted me for the last year.”

  “Luke?”

  She wasn’t getting it. She blamed herself for everything. I wanted to crush her to me, but I’d be so wrong, so fucking wrong. “Bri.” I waited until her eyes focused on me again. They were still watering, and she had looked away. When they came back to me, I started, “You saved me. In a fucked-up way, you did. He left that night. He thought he killed me, and he left me. You gave me freedom, and I’ve never thanked you for that. If I knew that would’ve happened, even with the beating, I would’ve done it again. And again. And again. As long as I knew he was going to leave, I’d have done almost anything. Yes, it hurt me when you didn’t come to see me in the hospital. Yes, it killed me when I found out you were dating Elijah, but now knowing why, thank you.”

  As the words were coming from me, I realized I had been so wrong about so many others things. Tears and emotions swirled in my gut. I was struggling from letting everything spill out. “Bri, I’m the one who is sorry. I’m sorry I got mad at you. I’m sorry I didn’t push to find out why you were dating Elijah. I’m sorry I accepted it, and I didn’t fight for you. I’m sorry that when you finally told me, I was stupid and blind. I’m sorry. Not you. You don’t have anything to be sorry about.”

  Her entire face was coated with tears, and I couldn’t stop myself anymore. I began kissing them, absorbing them one at a time. She gasped, her hands lifting to touch the sides of my face. I moved from one tear to another. I loved this woman. I loved her with every cell of my body, and I needed to show her.

  “Ahem.” Someone cleared their throat from the other side of the door.

  Bri shrank down in the bed, but I turned toward the sound. An interruption, at this moment, had my blood starting to boil. When I opened the door and saw it was Elijah, looking smug in jeans and a sweatshirt, I growled. “Not the time.”

  He jumped back, holding his hands in the air between us. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m getting that. I…” His eyes danced back to Bri, and he cringed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Bri. I thought,” an uneasy laugh erupted from him, “I probably shouldn’t say what I thought either.”

  “Elijah.” His name was dipped low in a warning. “I don’t care that you can handle yourself in a fight. I don’t care what the magazines will say about my face. If you don’t disappear in two seconds, I will be pounding that face of yours.”

  “Okay, but seriously, I wouldn’t have interrupted if it wasn’t life or death.” He dropped his hands and shoved them into his pockets. “It’s life or death, man. For real.”

  “Whose?” Bri asked from behind me.

  He shifted to look at her. Fuck no. I moved, too, blocking him. When he looked at me, my lip curled up. Yeah, right. He wasn’t going to see her like that, ever again. And, as if reading that message in my eyes, he held his hands up again and took one more step back.

  “Bri,” I called over my shoulder. “I have a shirt by the bed. Want to get dressed?”

  “Oh, yeah.”

  I stared straight at Elijah as we both heard her moving around behind me. When she zipped up her pants, he continued to look at me and only me when he said, “It’s Emerson. He’s in trouble.”

  Bri let out a series of curses. We heard her hopping around behind us, and her voice was muffled before it became clearer. “Why am I not surprised? Emerson? Really? What did my cousin do, because it had better be good to interrupt this moment with us?!”

  “He…” Elijah started to look over my shoulder at her, but stopped himself. He said to me, “He’s wearing a wire, and Brute’s about to find out.”

  One second.

  Two seconds.

  Three seconds.

  The room was silent for thirty seconds before Brielle lit a fuse. She started yelling and cursing. “My stupid cousin. What the hell? I’m going to kill him!”

  Elijah and I shared a look. I agreed with every word she said, but it was Emerson. We were going to kick him out of the band, but he was still family. He was still from Grant West, like the rest of us. I knew why Elijah had come to me. I’d help him, no matter what, with Emerson. I already had, and thinking back to that last time, I shook my head. We barely got out of Brute’s alive. How was this going to be any different?

  I said to Eli, ignoring Brielle’s curses, “Tell me you have a good solid-proof plan this time.”

  Brielle stopped yelling. She was quiet for a beat, and then she started laughing. “Are you serious? Wait, you are. We all are. We’re all crazy!” The bed squeaked as she sunk down on it. She was completely dressed, shaking her head.

  “Look.” Elijah stabbed his finger toward the ground. “I am aware of how stupid Emerson is. I’m aware of how much of an asshole he’s been. I get it, trust me,
but he’s up shit creek if we don’t help him.”

  “You’re talking about walking into Brute’s territory again and what?” There were so many things that could go wrong. “If Emerson’s wearing a wire, there’s going to be cops everywhere. Why can’t he say the safe word and have them charge the place?”

  “Because Emerson being Emerson didn’t think everything through. If Brute marks him as a narc, he’s dead. I don’t think you get it either. Brute’s organization is no joke. He’s the reason I’m out of the business. I didn’t want to cross the line of killing someone. That’s what Brute does. Emerson can’t say anything. He can’t be searched. They’ll find the wire, and he can’t call for help. The cops will give it away. We have to get in there and do something to get him out.” He ground out, “I wouldn’t be here if I had someone else to ask. Trust me, I’ve stopped selling. People are pissed at me. You’re it. You’re the only ones I can ask for help.” He skimmed an eye over Bri. “I didn’t know she’d be here, and I figured I couldn’t ask Braden, because—”

  A growl slipped from Brielle.

  Elijah added, “She would’ve killed me.”

  I held up a hand. “Wait, I still have to wrap my mind around this. Emerson went to Brute’s, and he’s wearing a wire?”

  “The dumbass got cornered by the cops. They took him in for something, and this was their bargaining chip.” He shared a look with Brielle. “They tried the same crap with Bri, too, but I’m guessing Emerson was on something. He’s got a big rock star rep to protect. I’m sure they said do this or be incarcerated.”

  “But a wire?”

  “Yeah, cops do this shit. It’s not just in movies. They like to get people to narc on their friends, or in this case, on his own drug dealer.”

  “What’s he doing now?” Brielle asked. Standing, she folded her arms over her chest and narrowed her eyes. “You said he decided against going through with it.”

  “He said they’re searching people for a wire. He didn’t say why or anything.”

  I recognized that look and started shaking my head. “No. No way.”

  “Shut it.” She sent me a scathing look and turned her back to me. It was a deliberate movement, and she asked Elijah again, “What’s he doing to keep them from searching him?”

  Elijah glanced between us, but I caught the familiarity in his gaze. Oh, yes. He’d seen this side of her, too. He knew exactly what was going on. Bri was going to help, and she was doing it no matter what I or anyone else said. If I forced her to stay… I wished I owned some handcuffs.

  “He’s taking a shit.”

  Brielle cocked her head to the side. “Say again?”

  Elijah repeated, “He’s taking a shit. He’s pretending to have massive diarrhea. Once he figured out they were looking for wires on people, he took a dump in his pants. He can shit on command.”

  “You’re serious?” Brielle swung back to me. “Is he serious?”

  I nodded. “He used to practice on the back of our tour bus.” I grimaced. “He thought it was hilarious. No one else did.”

  “Oh my god,” she muttered. “My cousin is an idiot.”

  Elijah’s hand shot up, and he snapped his fingers at her. “Yes, you’re getting it. He’s an idiot, but we all love him.” Brielle’s eyebrows arched high, and he amended, “We all feel some form of obligation toward him. How about that?”

  She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, whatever. Wherever you guys are going, I’m going.”

  Her tone sounded flippant, but her teeth sank deep into her bottom lip. Brielle was worried, just as much as Elijah. This was Emerson. He was in trouble, again. I should’ve been worried, but she was coming. I was livid instead. I cared about him, but I loved her. And he was going to put her in danger.

  Elijah had been watching me, his eyes shadowed.

  I clenched my jaw. Fine. I jerked my head in a tight nod. “Let’s go.”

  That was all Elijah needed. He was halfway out the door before he called over his shoulder, “I have weapons. You don’t need to grab any. I have enough.”

  “Weapons,” Bri murmured to herself. Her head was bent, and she pressed her hands against her side. “Okay. Weapons. We can do this.” She started forward, but I grabbed her arm and pulled her back.

  “You don’t have to do this.” Please, don’t do this. “He has treated you like shit for years. You really don’t have to go.”

  Her hand paused in the air and closed over mine. She gave me a reassuring nod. “I want to go. You’re going. Elijah’s going. And, yes, even my dick cousin—I care about all of you.” Her eyes were tracing my face as she softened her tone. “And I love you.” Her voice was a caress. She cupped the side of my face. “I love you.”

  I leaned into her touch. It was tender, warm, and what I wanted to enjoy—not what we were about to do. “Bri…” Visions of locking her in a room, tying her to a chair, and finding something that resembled handcuffs all flashed in my mind. Anything to keep her from going with us. I had a bad feeling.

  “What?”

  I shook my head. She started to pull her hand away, but I caught it and held it there for another moment. We were going into a storm. Her touch would be the only shelter that would keep me going.

  “Luke,” she whispered, moving close. “I know things are weird. I have no idea what the plan is for us, but I love you. I do. I’ve never stopped.”

  My lips cracked a grin. “You’re telling me now?” I couldn’t do anything about it. All those same images of locking her in a room, tying her to a chair, and handcuffing her came tumbling back, but in an entirely different manner. “You’re making this so hard. I want you to stay here.”

  “I can’t.” Her hand pressed against my face again. “You’re going. I’m going. That’s how it is.”

  That was how it was. She meant those words, and they coursed through me. I felt every single one of them and drew in a new wave of strength. She was my woman. She said it right there. Fighting it was useless, because I’d keep coming back to her.

  Her eyes were searching mine.

  I pulled her close. A gleam of relief appeared in her eyes as her other hand grasped my shoulder. “I love you,” she whispered, her forehead resting against mine.

  “I love you, too,” I whispered back. Framing her face with my hands on either side, I drank in the sight of her. Her eyes were sparkling, and her cheeks were pink. Her lips opened, and I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to pull her in and get lost in her.

  “Hey,” Elijah called back, knocking on the wall. “Pepe and Penelope, get your stanky asses up here.” He pulled back and headed to his car, but we heard him say over his shoulder, “We have an idiot to rescue.”

  This was nuts.

  As Elijah drove to Brute’s house, I glanced over at Luke. I could feel the tension radiating off him. I knew he didn’t want me there, but he had to understand. I couldn’t stay back. I was there for him. I was there to make sure he walked out alive. What I said back at The Shack was how I felt. Where he went, I went. That resonated through me, more than anything now. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but if we all survived, I was going with him. I was going to be at his side, and I didn’t care about the logistics.

  Elijah drove the car around the last turn and slowed to park. We were two blocks away from Brute’s house.

  I was going to be at Luke’s side from now on, but we had to get through this first, I reminded myself.

  We should’ve formulated a better plan. We should’ve thought of some way that didn’t include walking into Brute’s house, but as we got out and Elijah handed us each a weapon from his trunk, none of those things happened.

  The street was quiet, and the air felt cold. I didn’t know what time it was. I didn’t know this street or if it was usually this quiet, but I felt it was odd. Brute didn’t live in a great neighborhood. The houses were old and most looked like they needed to be torn down, but a few had toys in the yard. There were abandoned tricycles and bikes on the sidewalk. A dog leash wa
s left in one of the driveways. People lived here. Children played here. Pets were walked here. There should’ve been sounds of life around us, but unlike the last time we walked to Brute’s house, it was eerily silent.

  As I glanced up at one house, I watched as a curtain fell back into place. A second house—the same thing. After the fourth house, I stopped looking. They were all watching. It was like they had known we were coming.

  A chill went down my spine, and I gripped the knife in my pocket tighter. I walked shoulder to shoulder with Elijah and Luke as we made the two blocks to Brute’s house. Before getting there, Elijah cut down a back alley. Emerson was wearing a wire, so there were going to be cops around. Once we started down the alley, he ran ahead. We needed to get to the house before the cops could stop us. There were three houses between Brute’s and us. As we sped past the first house, a car turned down the alley from the other side.

  “Come on.” Elijah picked up his pace.

  The car kept coming.

  We were at Brute’s fence, and Elijah launched himself over it. He opened the door just as the car approached us. I braced myself, not knowing what was next—if a bullet would hit us first or if we’d be thrown into the back of it and whisked away. Nothing happened. They slowed down, and a woman wearing a baseball cap pulled low looked at me. It was the cop who had taken me to the police station a year ago. She met my gaze. A warning was in hers, and her lips were turned down.

  I was grabbed and pulled into the back lawn.

 
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