Carter reed 2, p.25
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       Carter Reed 2, p.25
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         Part #2 of Carter Reed series by Tijan

  I shrugged. “The guy’s old. You’re a spring chicken compared to him.”

  “Nice. Thank you. I just escaped death, and you’re giving me shit.”

  Peter and I shared a grin. Cole was lucky to be alive. We knew that. He would’ve handled all of them, I was sure, but Gene had Emma in the room. I didn’t need to ask to know that Gene had done something to even the odds—maybe had a gun to Emma’s head or something. But I didn’t want to rehash it. I’d heard enough to know he’d gone rogue.

  I held out my hand. “Come on. Let’s get your head checked out, then plan our next move.”

  “Our next move?” Cole took my hand, and I pulled him up. He gave me a wary look. “Do I want to know?”

  I was done. I had to be done. “We’ll figure it out.”

  “Not all of the elders were with him. Just a small group of them.”

  “We’ll find who it was. We’ll take care of them.”

  “And then?”

  I knew what he was really asking: what would happen to this family and me. I would find the traitors. I would kill them, and then I was done. But to him I said, “That will be talked about then.”

  I didn’t want to talk about it anymore, and he respected my silence as we got into the truck and headed home.

  I’d been frustrated at how long I’d been questioned. Emma was alone—that was all that had been going through my head. I hadn’t left any orders in place in the event that she was released from the police station and I wasn’t.

  The cops at the station didn’t have enough to arrest us, but that didn’t mean they weren’t trying to find something. It was self-defense. Both Emma and Andrea had given statements to back that up, and my lawyer threw out enough legal jargon to get the cops to back down. They’d wanted to pin something on me, but with no evidence to contradict what Emma and Andrea were saying, their hands were tied.

  When I couldn’t get Emma on the phone as we finally left, I called Drake, who said she’d been sent to Noah’s place where they were planning on picking her up once the detectives left them at the hospital. Then a call to Noah told me what I needed to know. Someone had picked her up, and those men weren’t mine. I went to the Mauricio house for answers. What I got, as soon as I walked through the door, was a betrayal.

  I waited a few blocks before I asked Cole, “He didn’t say who was with him?”

  “He said a small group. He was quiet about it, but I got the sense that not all the elders backed him. I don’t know if they knew what he was planning.”

  But we didn’t know. That was the bottom line.

  “Look, Carter—” Cole started.

  I shook my head. Too much fighting. Too much blood. Too much death. “I’m tired, Cole. I don’t want to keep fighting. If they weren’t a part of it, then…” All those elders. All their families? Pain like I hadn’t felt since AJ’s death burrowed deep in me. “They were my family, Cole.” After AJ. When Emma was in foster care. Before she came into my life. “They backed me up to help her out.”

  The thought that they would take her from me? After helping me keep her?

  “Gene had a gun to her head.” Cole was quiet as he said that. I heard the resignation, and I knew what he was saying.

  “We have to make sure who was with him and who wasn’t.” I pinned him with a look. “We have to. All those lives, Cole.”

  He grimaced and cursed under his breath. Raking his hands over his head, he groaned and rested his head back against his seat. “We have to be unified. You and me. Nothing will work otherwise.”

  “We are.”

  He glanced sideways to me as Peter kept driving. He studied me for a moment, but then he nodded, and I could see the relief go through him. His shoulders relaxed, his head dropped, and all the fight seemed to disappear.

  “Thank you,” he said quietly. He laughed a second later. “She bit him, Carter.”

  “What?”

  “Emma. That’s why he was leaving. She bit him hard enough to draw blood.”

  I grinned. Of course, she bit him. She was a fighter, my fighter.

  Four months later.

  Amanda was quiet beside me. We watched from the car as Theresa and Noah went to the door and knocked. We’d been parked outside of Andrea’s parent’s home for a half an hour.

  Finally Theresa had said they’d go first to scope it out, but the truth was I couldn’t move from the car. I didn’t know why. I just couldn’t.

  “Are you nervous?” Amanda asked.

  I shot her a look. “If you were to guess?” Thirty minutes. That’s how long we’d been there.

  She flushed and grinned. “Sorry. I know. I’m nervous, too.”

  “Why?” I turned back toward the house. The question was more for myself than her. There was nothing to be nervous about. I’d been at Andrea’s bedside every day she was in the hospital. We were still strangers, but we were a work in progress now. Her parents had come too, but our paths only crossed one other time. Andrea had wanted me to come in the afternoons, and her parents were allowed in the mornings.

  She’d been in the hospital a week for monitoring, and I knew some of her stay hadn’t been smooth. She’d fought with her parents, and she hadn’t said much to me. We talked more about what we remembered from our pasts, about AJ and our mother.

  I had no reason to be scared to go into her parent’s home, but I was.

  “I don’t know.” Amanda smoothed her shirt, then rubbed her hands over her jeans. “This is real, you know? I mean, her dad is her real dad. He could’ve been yours, or maybe he can help you find yours. Who knows? He didn’t say anything about your brother?”

  I shook my head. “Just that he asked AJ if I could go with him and Andy, and he refused. AJ’s older than Carter and me—not that it matters—but I guess our mom kicked him out, and he was in the system already. It would have taken too much time to go through the legal stuff for him to take AJ, too. And my real dad took off long ago. That’s what he said.”

  “Oh.” She grew quiet.

  “Yeah.”

  “Still. She’s your real sister. I think that’s good for you to have real family. You never did before. When it was you and me with Mallory and Ben, none of us did. That’s what we bonded over. Mallory would’ve been happy for you.”

  I let out an uneasy breath. The knots weren’t loosening in my stomach.

  “It’s a nice house,” Amanda noted.

  I smiled. It was. It was a mansion. It looked like it had three or four levels to it, complete with a pool around the corner in the back.

  Amanda looked at the backyard, too. “Is that a tennis court on the other side of the pool?”

  I laughed. “Maybe. Who knows? She said her family was wealthy. He’s a hotelier, like Noah.”

  “Does Noah know him?”

  I frowned. “I have no idea. I didn’t think to ask.”

  “That’d be a trip, huh? If Noah knew your sister’s real dad all this time?”

  I didn’t care about that. My hand flattened over my stomach, and I pressed down as if I could calm the nerves that way.

  “What do they think of Carter?” Amanda asked after a moment.

  I lifted a shoulder. I couldn’t look away from the front door. Theresa and Noah were still waiting, and she rang the doorbell again.

  “I…don’t know. I only saw her parents twice, and the second time it was in passing. Andrea told me she forbade them to speak to me until she wasn’t so furious with them.”

  “I think I kinda like your sister.”

  I turned, sharing a grin with her. “Yeah. Me, too.”

  “Emma, I think everything’s going to be okay.” She patted my hand. “You and Carter are back home. I have no idea how everything was resolved, but it seems like it was—and Carter and Brian even met. They seemed to like each other.”

  “They stood on opposite sides of the room the whole night.”

  “Still, Carter didn’t shoot Brian. Brian didn’t arrest Carter. That’s a win in my book.


  Hearing the amusement in her voice, I patted her hand back. Everything was going to work out for Amanda, even though Brian hadn’t proposed yet. He’d assured me that night when he and Carter were both at Noah’s for dinner that he had it planned. Just a few more months…

  “Things are good,” she continued, “really good.”

  I waved her off. “Stop talking. You’re jinxing everything.” Laughing, I tried to soften my blow, but she was making the knots tighten back up again. “Declaring that everything is great is the fastest way to mess it up.”

  “Oh, come on. You can’t believe that.”

  I glared at her. “Mallory. Dunvan. My sister was kidnapped. Let’s just…cool it with the declarations of happiness.”

  “Okay.” She was still grinning. “Oh, look.”

  Theresa and Noah stepped aside as the door opened, and Andrea’s father was there. He was dressed like Noah, in black pants and a sweater. Andrea’s mother appeared as well, in a dress with pearls around her neck. Her hair was pulled back in a bun. They shook Theresa and Noah’s hands, their movements tense and robotic. Theresa gestured to the car, and everyone looked our way.

  They didn’t move and seemed to get even stiffer.

  “Pretty sure the nerves are on both sides,” Amanda said. “They look like they’re going to meet a death squad.”

  Andrea’s mother lifted her hand in a small wave. I returned the motion, but I didn’t open the door. I couldn’t bring myself to leave that car. It was familiar. It was friendly. It was safe.

  Then Andrea’s head popped around the door. She said something to her parents, and her mom gestured to me in the car. Andrea turned her gaze my way, and a frown appeared. She stepped out, but paused and shook Theresa and Noah’s hands before pointing inside. All of them nodded and turned to go inside. Andrea’s father’s gaze lingered on her for a moment before moving to our car, but then he went inside as well.

  Andrea stood on the doorstep and motioned for us to come inside.

  I let out a deep breath. This was it.

  “Come on.” Amanda squeezed my hand. “We’re right there. You’re not alone meeting them.”

  That wasn’t it. I didn’t worry about an uncomfortable dinner. If that was the case, I would’ve had Carter come with me. I was the one who’d suggested he wait to meet Andrea’s family. Meeting me was one thing, but meeting Carter Reed was a whole other deal.

  But as we headed to the house, I suddenly knew what I was scared of.

  “Carter’s not coming?” Andrea asked as we approached.

  I shook my head. “No. He had something to do tonight.”

  “Oh.” Andrea’s smile was shaky, and she rolled her eyes. “You have no idea how relieved Kevin will be. The rumors and stories are getting to his head, and to my parents, too. I swear I think they were worried a mob hit would happen at dinner.” She grimaced. “Kevin suddenly wanted to learn how to shoot a gun this week...”

  She faltered, and we stood in silence. Abruptly, she thrust her hand out to Amanda. “I’m Andrea. I know we met in the hospital, but I was half out of it that whole time. Figured it wouldn’t hurt to do another introduction.”

  “Oh.” Amanda shook her hand. “Hi, I’m Amanda. Emma and I—”

  “Go way back.” Andrea held onto her hand and pumped it up and down. “She told me all about you guys. You and Theresa. My dad knows Noah. Can you believe that? Small world, huh? Actually, he doesn’t like Noah, or he didn’t until he found out he was coming to dinner tonight. The hotels are rivals. My dad’s hotels aren’t as successful as The Richmonds. Not even close. Don’t tell my dad I said that, though. He’ll disown me. Okay, he won’t, but… Yeah…” She released Amanda’s hand and took a step backward. “Sorry. I’m a bit nervous.”

  Amanda looked from her to me and began laughing. “It’s official. There’s two of you.” She pointed to the door. “I’m going inside. The dinner smells delicious, even from out here.”

  Andrea smiled. “Yeah. Okay. I’ll tell the cook. I don’t know what my mother would do without Norma.”

  Amanda smiled back at her before slipping inside.

  Once we were alone, Andrea let out a sigh. “Down to two, huh?” She flinched. “I’m sounding like an idiot. I’m sorry. No wonder you’re not ecstatic about going in there—with me being a fool. I, just… My dad’s an ass with what he did, and I’m sorry he left you—”

  I held up a hand, stopping her. “No. That’s not why I was in the car for so long.”

  “Oh?” She leaned toward me.

  “You were kidnapped.”

  Her head bent down. “Oh.”

  “They had you for so long, and I know you were tortured. I saw when I untied you.”

  She stood there, frozen, like she wanted to disappear.

  I could feel tears building. I could barely speak around them. “I am so sorry, Andrea. And I can’t…” How did I make this right? My face. That’s why she’d been taken. “I can’t make any of that go away. I—”

  Andrea’s head came back up. Her eyes were stricken. “My dad left you behind. That’s been eating me up inside since I found out. I can’t, I can’t make that right. He’s been telling me more about our mom, and she sounds horrible. No wonder you can’t remember your childhood with her, and thank god your brother got you away from her. I—my dad left you there, and knowing you grew up in the foster system after AJ was killed? That haunts me. I can’t make that go away.”

  My voice was soft. “You were tortured.”

  “Not that much.”

  “Andrea—”

  “I wasn’t. Really. They left me alone most of the time. Yeah, they hit me sometimes, but they said it was for effect. They took a bunch of pictures, but then they left me alone.” She stopped and drew in a shuddering breath. “They were angry every day. I could hear them. They were arguing about me. They kept saying ‘it wasn’t working’—whatever that meant. Some wanted to kill me and be done with it, but others kept fighting back. They kept saying I was their ‘only leverage.’ I knew right away they thought I was you. I never told them I wasn’t.”

  “You didn’t?”

  “If I had, I think they would’ve killed me. They needed you alive for whatever they were trying to do. The cops keep asking me what I know, but I don’t know that much. Have they…” She faltered again and bit down on her lip. “They keep thinking I’m lying about that last night, but I’m not. You untied me. We went to the room, and they were going to kill all of us. It was them or us. Carter defended us.”

  She’d been taken because of me. I would never let that burden go. “I am so sorry, Andrea.”

  “Andy.”

  “What?”

  The corner of her lip turned upward. “Andy. Stop calling me Andrea. Please.”

  “Andy.” I laughed. “Yeah. Okay.”

  “And for everything else, it’ll be okay.”

  My eyes clung to hers. Was she being honest? Was that the truth? Would everything be okay? I wanted to believe her. I did.

  She reached out and squeezed my arm. “I have my sister. Whatever bad things happened, it was worth it. I have you back.”

  My hand rested over hers, and I felt my head moving up and down. She was right. What happened, we’d deal with. I squeezed her hand. “I’m glad you came looking for me.”

  “Me, too.” Tears slid down her face.

  My face felt wet, too. I rolled my eyes, wiping my cheeks. “This is a great start to this dinner.”

  Andrea laughed, throwing her head backward. “Come on.” She linked her elbow with mine and opened the door. “Our first family dinner. It’ll be interesting to say the least.”

  As we went inside, she whispered in my ear, “I have so many friends itching to meet you and Carter. I’m the most popular one in our social circles because of you. I can’t wait for you to meet everyone. Next time, bring Carter.”

  I laughed, but I didn’t respond. It would be a long time before any of them met Carter. I wasn’t ready
to share my real family with this new one, not yet.

 
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