Carter reed 2, p.26
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       Carter Reed 2, p.26

         Part #2 of Carter Reed series by Tijan
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  Cole and I stood side by side as we prepared to walk into the conference.

  It was in a neutral building, in neutral territory, and we made damn sure it was the top floor. That way Cole and I could escape easier than any of the Mauricio elders. They were old and out of shape. We were far from that. The rule was no weapons. That was their condition, which made sense. I’d been their Cold Killer—but I hadn’t earned that name with only my 9mm. My hands helped, but they were tucked behind me as we walked through the doors of the building. Drake, Peter, and Michael remained out front. I wanted them close, but not within shooting range if something happened.

  As we’d walked toward the building, we’d studied the terrain. I saw nothing. No snipers, no Mauricio soldiers hiding in wait. We’d scrutinized every vehicle and saw no one. The only cars were the black limousines each elder preferred to use when attending meetings like these. They were more intimidating and were meant to indicate each elder’s wealth and power.

  Each limousine had a driver, and we knew there were men inside, but those were the elders’ security detail.

  And now, as we stepped through the double doors into the room, each of those elders sat waiting. The tables had been turned to form a U-shape with the opening pointed at us.

  Cole had set up this meeting. After Gene’s betrayal, he went underground. He already had men outside the family he trusted, but he scouted and recruited even more. When his army was big enough, he reached out to his uncles, and this meeting was the result. Because they hadn’t struck against us, they either wanted peace or they didn’t want to be killed. Standing before them now, I studied each one intently. I needed to see their reactions. I needed to gauge whether they were willing to follow Cole, or if they would have to die.

  Cole started. “You all have come tonight because each of us has a wish for peace.” He gazed at me. “We’re tired of the killing, and I have no wish to murder my own blood.”

  That was unnecessary. The unspoken sentiment was strong enough, and I waited, making sure each of them registered the real meaning behind Cole’s words.

  None of them said a word, but they sat up straighter. A few grimaced and looked away. They got the meaning. I knew they had.

  Cole continued. “As you know, I have my own men. With Carter beside me, we have enough holdings and assets to be a formidable enemy.”

  At Cole’s mention of being their enemy, they glanced at each other. Fear. Uncertainty. I caught those two emotions before they could be masked. They quickly went back to being statues, but they were growing restless. One couldn’t keep his hand still, so he tucked it under the table. Another’s eye kept twitching, and he coughed, wiping his face to cover it up. A third leaned forward, his eyes even more intent on what Cole was about to say.

  They needed the family. They couldn’t go against both of us, not if we were together. I saw their surrender.

  Cole paused and looked around the room. He was going to keep going, tell them about all the men he had, how I had built up my own security detail again. Every word he was about to say had been carefully picked to let the elders know we weren’t to be taken lightly, that we were a real enemy, if they chose to go that route. It was either accept us back in, or be damned.

  But I knew it was done. They wouldn’t go against us, not after what I’d done to the Bartel family, who had all gone underground after we took Andrea back. So I cleared my throat. Cole glanced at me, his eyes narrowing for a second. Then he nodded and stepped back.

  It was my time to talk.

  I looked each elder in the eyes before I did. “You know what I did to the Bartels. I cut their family in half. If you touch Emma. If you betray Cole. If there is any attack on my loved ones, I will hold you responsible. I will do more than cut your family in half. Let me be very clear.”

  They were riveted. They knew I was speaking my truth. I would kill them, no hesitation.

  “Emma is why I’m no longer the Cold Killer. If something happens to her, I will hunt each of you down. I will take from you what you took from me. I will do to you what I did to the Bartels, but it will be three times the damage. Do not think this is a bluff. You will die.” I pointed at Cole. “He is the true leader. His bloodline is the true leadership of this family. You will uphold those traditions.”

  One by one, they looked from me to Cole, until all eyes were on him.

  He stepped forward. He was their leader. I saw it. He saw it. They saw it. I didn’t want to kill my own family. I had been praying, hoping this would be the result, and it was, but I had lingering doubts. If they’d betrayed him once, they could do it again.

  Cole looked at me and nodded, a fierce determination coming from him. “I will fulfill my father’s leadership, and my first order of this family is to release Carter from us.”

  A stirring sounded from the men.

  I silenced them, holding my hand in the air. “Cole is granting my request. I asked to be released. After this day, all my business shares will be sold to Cole. He is taking my place in more than one way, but if he needs me, I’ll be at his side.”

  They needed to accept that, and as they stood, coming around the table to me, I knew they had. A line formed, and each one of them hugged me before returning to his seat.

  Cole was the last. No words were spoken. This was the end, and we knew it. I would go back to Emma, and I would live my life free, like I had before AJ was murdered. Cole would always be a brother, and he was the one they needed to fear. As I left, I heard him announce the other reason for this meeting. “There are three men among you who are traitors to the Mauricio name because they aligned with Gene. They supported him as he was going to kill me and Carter’s woman. To show your loyalty to me now, those three traitors need to stand up.”

  I paused outside the door. Cole already knew who the men were. He’d searched for them, but the elders needed to hand them over. When I heard the first name spoken, I started forward. It was done. As I went to the stairs, I heard the last two names.

  I was almost to the next floor when I heard the gunshots.

  One.

  Two.

  Three.

  It was done.

  A woman stood in front of AJ’s tombstone with a bouquet of flowers in her hands. Her head bent down, but I could see, even through the car window, that she had my build. Her shoulders were slender, and her dark hair whipped around in the wind. That was all I could tell. But Andrea and I looked so much alike that we must’ve taken after her.

  It was the logical conclusion, but I wanted to know. A part of me didn’t want to look like her. AJ had taken me away, and I couldn’t remember most of my childhood. I knew that was because of her, and in some way, some small way, I blamed her.

  If she’d been the mother we should’ve had, none of this life would’ve happened. AJ would’ve been alive. Andrea and I would have grown up knowing each other. But then there was Carter.

  I glanced over my shoulder as he waited for me. I might not have known him. No. He was my soul, the other half of me. I had to believe we would’ve found our way to each other, even if things had been different. And gazing at him now, I knew that would’ve happened. Somehow. Some way. At some point, we would’ve found each other.

  But life had turned out the way it had, bringing me right to where I now sat, watching a stranger who never should have been one.

  Carter had awakened me this morning and told me there was something I needed to see. I didn’t question him. I got out of bed, dressed, and followed him to the car. The guys hadn’t come with us. Michael, Peter, and Drake opted to spend time with their families, so they weren’t with us for the week. Carter was really out of that life, so they weren’t needed as much as before. For a few days alone, just Carter and me, we’d get by just fine.

  “That’s my mother?” I asked now, but I knew. I think I just needed to hear it affirmed out loud.

  “Yes.” Carter nodded. “My guy notified me she was coming here today.”

  “How’d she find
his grave?”

  “I had her told.”

  “What?”

  “She was my other reason for returning home when you were in New York. I had my investigator research your sister fully, and he found your mother. I meant to tell you earlier, but I needed to know what she was like. She abused you, Emma. I couldn’t bear it if she hurt you again. I didn’t talk to her, but I saw her. My investigator talked to her. He told her about AJ. She asked about him. She asked about you. He was instructed not to give her any information about you, but I told him he could share this with her.”

  He had known...I was glad he hadn’t told me. “Why did you tell her about this?”

  He looked at me, his eyes searching mine. “Because AJ told me he wanted her to know.”

  My breath caught in my throat. “He did?”

  “A long time ago he did. He used to talk about your mom when he was drunk. I thought she was dead, so I never thought about what he was saying, but he said someday he’d meet with her again.”

  “What else did he say? If he ever met her again?”

  “That he would forgive her.” Carter’s blue eyes darkened, and the sides of his mouth stretched tight. “I thought he was just rambling. That’s what he did when he was drunk. If I’d thought your mom was alive, I would’ve found her a long time ago for you.”

  “No.” I reached for his hand. Finding out about Andrea was enough, but this, but her—I didn’t want to know her now. “It’s good that he would’ve forgiven her, but I’m not going out there.”

  “Emma?”

  I shook my head. “I’m not. I can’t.” I looked at him. “I don’t want to know her.”

  “Are you sure?”

  I nodded. “She had her chance. I don’t remember what she did to me, and I don’t think I want to. If my memories are blocked, there’s a reason for that, but I can’t get over what she did to AJ. She kicked him out. I don’t care what AJ did, he stuck around. He still took care of me. He fought for me. She didn’t. Any woman like that, I don’t want to meet. She doesn’t deserve to know her daughter.” My pulse quickened, and I closed my eyes. She’d kicked AJ out. She tossed away one child, let another go with her father, and me she treated more like a toy than a human being. I wouldn’t meet her. This was a door I wasn’t going to open. “I can’t, Carter. I don’t want to.”

  He laced our fingers. “You don’t have to.”

  “You said you didn’t talk to her? When you came to find her before?”

  “I didn’t, but my investigator did. He said she was pleasant. She’s been sober for a few years, and she’s lived a hard life. He said she was polite, but he could tell she had demons still with her.”

  I leaned back, resting my head against my seat as I turned to face him. Carter let out a soft sigh and touched the side of my face. He tucked some of my hair behind my ear, his fingers lingering there, just resting on my cheek. It was such a tender caress, and I closed my eyes. I drew strength from him. I would always draw strength from him, and I knew what he was doing.

  He was allowing me closure. Meeting my mother was the last door to my old life. In a way it was still open because of all the questions Andrea had awakened inside me, but being here now, all I could think about was what she did to my brother, what she’d done to me.

  “AJ was a child then,” I told Carter softly.

  His thumb rubbed back and forth over my cheek. I knew he was waiting for me to go on. He knew I had more to say.

  “Whatever he did, he was a child,” I told him. “He was an innocent, and she turned him away. She may be a changed woman, but I have no obligation to her. I don’t have to forgive her. There’s nothing to forgive. I don’t need to know her, and I don’t need to remember whatever she did to me.”

  “Okay.”

  That was it. Carter leaned close and pressed a kiss to my forehead. “You can do whatever you want,” he whispered, his lips grazing my forehead. “If you want to meet your mother at some time, I’ll be there. I’m with you. If you want to get to know Andrea’s father more, and her mother, I’m with you. You can decide. Everything is in your court.”

  I pulled back to look into his eyes. The love there took my breath away, and I felt my throat closing up. “Thank you.”

  We had gone through hell, and feeling like we were on the other side, like we’d gotten through everything and were still together—that was all I needed. I whispered, “I love you.”

  “I love you, too.” His hand touched the side of my face again and he leaned in to kiss me. I loved the feel of his lips on mine, their soft touch as he held there, waiting to see what I wanted. He was letting me control this, too. It was a small gesture, but so much. I felt the hunger for him kick up in me, and I grabbed his shoulder and deepened the kiss.

  He was mine.

  He was home.

  Carter pulled back and gazed down at me, a soft grin on his face. No words were shared, but I was ready to leave, and I nodded to him. It was all the signal he needed.

  He sat back and started the car. As it swung around to head back home, I turned so I could watch her. She lifted her head at the sound of our car and looked in our direction. She did look like me. She had my dark eyes, the same heart-shaped face, and she even held herself the way I did. She seemed to recognize me right before the car completed its turn. Her eyes widened, and she jerked forward, but we drove away.

  That was the first time I laid eyes on my mother. I knew I’d seen her when I was a child, but those were memories. Most of them were still buried, and the others were distant and vague.

  I didn’t know if I would tell Andrea about this or not. No. I knew. I wouldn’t tell Andrea, at least not right away.

  My sister was still too new to me. Getting to know her was going to take time. Her parents had already expressed their desire to get to know me more, but so far, the random dinner once a month was enough for me. I wasn’t ready to take on a new family.

  I glanced down at my hand, joined with Carter’s. He’d left his family, while I seemed to have gotten some of my old one back. But after a moment, I knew that wasn’t true.

  Carter was my family.

  He was the only one who counted.

  Everything else would fall into place.

 
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