Carter reed 2, p.5
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       Carter Reed 2, p.5

         Part #2 of Carter Reed series by Tijan
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  return would cause resistance from some of his relatives who had enjoyed their power.

  I dipped my head in a nod. “They’ll fall in line, Cole. There are too many who respect the old way.”

  “And you support me.”

  “That won’t matter. I’m out.”

  His mouth formed a mocking grin. “Could’ve fooled me.”

  “I am.”

  “For your woman?”

  “I’m in business with the Bartels.”

  “And with us, right? That was the deal. You continue to make both families rich so your woman can live with no retaliation.”

  “Yes.”

  “And if anyone violates that deal?”

  They already had. They’d gone after Cole, and one family couldn’t move against the other. But Cole had technically been living outside of the family. They would argue that, saying they hadn’t broken the agreement because he’d been in isolation. It was a game now between the two families, each watching the other to see who would make the next move.

  I motioned to the middle of the room. “We can discuss this later. Let’s keep fighting.”

  “So you can keep kicking my ass?” Cole tossed his water to the ground, along with his towel, and came forward. Rolling his shoulders back, he raised his hands in a fighting stance.

  I held back a smile. When would he learn I didn’t fight like that? But instead of saying so, I batted his hands down, swept a leg around his waist and lifted myself in the air. Flipping backward, I used the leverage of my leg around him to pull him over me and threw him against a far wall. I went with him. We were out of the light. He would need to sense my attack.

  He didn’t.

  With one swift punch, I knocked him out.

  You’re gone next week too?

  My phone buzzed as I got the text from Theresa. I’d been in New York for one week and had remained inside Cole’s home the whole time. Carter spent every morning and every evening in the gym with Cole. If he was out late, for whatever reason, that just meant the hour of training got pushed back until he returned. I figured out they were training the second day when Cole appeared with a black eye and swollen jaw. Carter sometimes returned with a swollen lip and a few bruises on his jawline, but that was it.

  He would spend the rest of the day out while Cole remained behind. I never asked what was going on, but I overheard Cole asking him one night in the kitchen, “Salba still refuses?”

  Carter’s voice was quiet, but sneaking closer, I heard him say, “—matter. We move forward as planned. You’ll be initiated Sunday.”

  “And you?”

  “Me?”

  “Will you remain here?”

  Carter’s voice was muffled so I couldn’t hear his reply, and Cole didn’t respond.

  Feeling guilty about spying, I snuck back to the room. I had just gotten under the covers when Carter came in. He stopped, shook his head, and closed the door behind him.

  “What?” I asked.

  “Did you get the answer you wanted?”

  “What are you talking about?”

  A faint smirk teased at the corners of his mouth, but he sighed and tossed a file onto the bed. With one motion, he pulled his shirt over his head, and my mouth dropped. His face had remained relatively clean after the sparring sessions, but not his chest. Carter had avoided showering with me or undressing in my presence all week, I now realized. His chest was full of cuts and bruises. There were welts over his ribs, too.

  “Oh my god.” Scooting toward him to the edge of the bed, I stopped right before touching one of the cuts. “Carter.”

  He looked down, surveying his chest. “They’re mostly superficial wounds.” He bent and pressed a kiss to the top of my head. “No need to worry about me.”

  As he went into the bathroom, I followed him. He turned on the shower, and I perched on the counter.

  “Is that why you’ve not undressed around me this week?” I asked over the water. He’d slid into bed late at night, after an hour in the gym with Cole and showering. He kept the lights off so as not to wake me, and he was gone when I woke. When he returned to shower and change, I was working in the office. My eyes roamed over his body, and I ached for him, but not in the usual way. Some of those cuts looked nasty.

  He stepped inside, but left the door open and angled his head so he could still see me. His eyes found mine. “It wasn’t on purpose.”

  I tucked my hands under my legs. “Did you get them checked out, to make sure you haven’t broken anything? None of those cuts are infected, right?” I eyed one in particular. A red circle had formed around it.

  “I’m fine.” His eyes slid down my body, lingering where my shirt fell low, revealing some cleavage. “I’m definitely okay enough for you to join me.”

  I smiled, but stayed where I was. “Maybe later.” With him on the bed, me on top, I knew he wouldn’t be hurting…too much.

  His eyes darkened, but he ducked underneath the water, wetting his hair. I waited until he finished showering, and when he was done, I waited some more while he dried himself before going back into the bedroom. As he went to the closet, I spied the folder he’d thrown onto the bed earlier. I picked it up and asked, “What’s this—” as I began to flip through it. My words died as I saw the first picture.

  It was my baby picture.

  “What is this?”

  Carter finished pulling on a shirt and sweats. Both clung to his form in a way that would’ve distracted me thirty seconds earlier. He said, so gently, “The men told me about that man.”

  I heard the shout again in my head. “Miss Nathans!”

  “Oh.” I was six months old in the picture. I recognized it because AJ had given me a similar one. Only the backdrop was different. This picture had a tree and flowers in the background instead of a plain white wall. But it was me. Same dark eyes. I had light blond hair then. Some of it curled upward, like it was standing on top of my head, and my cheeks were plump and red.

  I’d been happy in that picture. Tracing the image, I murmured, “AJ and I never really talked about our parents. He didn’t like to, so I never asked. The few times I did, he got really upset.”

  Carter sat beside me and he took the picture, examining it for himself. “He never talked to me about them either.”

  “Really?”

  He nodded, handing the picture back. My breath caught at the look in his eye. It wasn’t…he rarely looked at me like that, but it was regret and sadness.

  “That picture’s not of you, Emma,” he said.

  I frowned. “What?”

  He turned it over and showed me the back. Someone had written 1988.

  “What?” I was born in 1986. “That doesn’t make sense.”

  “Emma, listen to me...”

  I pulled out the other pictures—my old home, a smiling woman holding me—no, I double checked that picture, too. It was me, but dated 1989. I kept going. More pictures. All of me as I grew up. I shook my head. This wasn’t happening. AJ had had similar pictures of me, but I wore different clothes. His pictures had been of him and me, different times, different places.

  Not these.

  Then I came to one and froze. It was a woman. She was older—maybe early twenties—and she was standing with the man who had called my name twice as I got into the car, or at least the man I thought I’d seen. Biting down on my lip, I tried to remember. I hadn’t looked when he called “Miss Nathans” outside of Joe’s, and I hadn’t gotten a good enough look outside the gun range. The guard shielded him from my view. I held the picture up for Carter. “Who is that?”

  “It’s the man trying to talk to you.”

  On the back of the picture was written Andrea Nathans and Kevin Thorne. That couldn’t be, but…I turned it back around and stared hard at the woman. She had my eyes, my cheeks, my lips. She had my face and even stood how I did with her head tilted to the side and her chin up, just slightly. But her hair was lighter than mine, and her eyes were warm, friendly.

&nbs
p; Mine were sad. It was a thing I’d noticed as I looked at my own pictures growing up. I’d been sad until…I glanced up at Carter—until now.

  Lonely. That’s what I’d been.

  This woman wasn’t lonely, but she had my face. Feeling so many knots in my stomach, I asked, “Who is she?”

  Carter didn’t answer that question. Instead he said, “Kevin Thorne is a lawyer, and he hired a private detective to find you.”

  I didn’t give a shit about Kevin Thorne. I raised the picture higher. “Who is she?” Carter’s eyes held mine over the photograph. They were understanding and sympathetic. I didn’t want to see his sympathy. I wanted answers. “Carter.”

  “I’ve been in contact with the private detective. He’s the one who supplied us with these pictures.”

  But they weren’t of me.

  “Who. Is. She?”

  “He said Mr. Thorne reached out to him years ago. He wanted him to find you, but he never could. He said there were no trails, no paperwork. He didn’t understand it until—”

  Until Carter. Until my face became a permanent fixture with his in the media.

  “—he was able to determine where you worked and also certain patterns. That’s how Kevin Thorne knew to wait for you outside of Joe’s and the gun range.” He hesitated for a beat. “Emma, I had my own guy check everything out. I had your hair sent in with a piece of hers for DNA testing. They tested everything.”

  “Carter.” It was a soft warning, but I was gritting my teeth. If I didn’t get answers soon… My eyes flashed. “Cut the bullshit. Who is the woman?”

  “Your sister.”

  I had a sister.

  They’d tested, and Carter had said it. I had a sister. I couldn’t…

  I felt myself becoming numb. “Who is she? Are you sure?” I had a sister…

  He nodded. “It was a match.” His hand cupped the side of my face. “I met you and AJ when we were little. AJ didn’t go to school, and I never thought about it. Hell, it wasn’t my place to question it. My own dad didn’t care, as long as I was out of his hair, but AJ made you go. I remember that now. There was a day you two were fighting about it. You wanted to stay home and play. He wanted you to go. He called you Ally that day.”

  Ally.

  “How old was I?”

  He shook his head. “I don’t know. You don’t remember?”

  It was my turn to shake my head. “My memories are jumbled. I remember you coming over and sleeping on the couch. I remember getting excited when you were there and being worried if you didn’t come. I didn’t even care if you talked to me when you were there. You were there. You were safe. That’s what I remember. I hated when you left.”

  He called me Ally. I couldn’t remember.

  “You have information?” I asked. “We can get a hold of this Kevin person?” I didn’t push about her. I wasn’t sure anymore, what I wanted.

  Carter nodded, watching me steadily. “Is that what you want?”

  “I…” I was going to say it was, but now that I was given the option…I didn’t know.

  “You can take your time, Emma.”

  AJ called me Ally.

  I asked, my throat constricted, “Did he call me Ally only that one time?”

  “I don’t know. It was the only time I remember.” He paused, frowning. “He called you Alley Cat a few times. I think I did too, once.”

  “You did?”

  He nodded. “I thought it was a nickname, but it felt wrong. I stopped and only called you Emma after that.”

  “Oh.”

  Ally. Alley Cat. Now this woman, Andrea. What else had AJ kept from me? “He loved me,” I murmured, not wanting to think about why I’d been separated from these people. “He was a good brother.”

  “He was.” Carter covered my hand with his. “He died for you, Emma.”

  “He fed me. He got me clothes—maybe not the best, but we had clothes. We had a place. I went to school. He was a good brother. He let me watch television, no matter if he was watching something else. Well—” I flashed a rueful grin. “—most of the time, he let me. He never brought a girlfriend home.”

  Carter laughed. “He had them, but yeah, he always said they couldn’t go to his place. They always went to their place. He loved you, Emma. Don’t question that.”

  My eyes fell back to the picture. She had my smile, with a twinkle in her eye. “Does she love this man?”

  “I don’t know. The private detective didn’t say. Do you want to know?”

  Did I? Should I open this door? “I don’t think I can not know.”

  “Okay.” He stood and bent down to press another kiss to my forehead. “I’ll send the word and have my own guy look into this. He’ll find out everything.”

  I nodded.

  I had a sister.

  Andrea.

  I was fully numb. This information had come out of nowhere, and I didn’t feel prepared to take it in and digest it. Carter started for the door, but I caught his hand as he went, feeling a desperation I didn’t want to admit to. “Where are you going?” I asked, my voice hoarse.

  He looked down, his eyes warm with love, and turned on the lamp. Going back toward the door, he locked it and turned the overhead lights off instead of leaving as I had feared. The feel of the room changed drastically. It was instantly warm, intimate, and cozy. A safe haven. He returned to the bed, but instead of sliding under the covers, he knelt and slid one arm underneath my legs. His other arm went around my back and he picked me up, but only to lay me down again in the middle of the bed.

  I had a sister.

  Carter pulled me into his arms, and as I lay there, for some reason, AJ’s voice came back to me.

  “Hey there, Alley Cat.”

  I found it somewhat ironic that the first time I left Cole’s building was because Carter was unwilling to let Theresa inside. He was still protective of our space.

  Amanda had been to our building back home once. Noah had come over a few times, but Theresa still hadn’t been inside. I knew it bothered her, but it wasn’t my call. Carter had his reasons, and they were pretty obvious. He didn’t trust her. The rest of us respected his decision, even Theresa, but when I got a phone call from her the next day in New York, we were faced with the same dilemma.

  “You never texted me back!”

  I cringed, holding the phone away as Theresa yelled from the other end. “I’m sorry.”

  “Sorry? Sorry? If you were sorry, you would’ve texted me back. I have problems. I have issues that need talking about, and you’re part of the triad. I need the triad. I need the gun range or a really big night at The Octave where I’m going to get wasted. That’s what I need.”

  “What about Amanda?”

  “She’s only part of the triad. You’re the other part. I’ve decided. We’re coming to New York.”

  When I’d relayed the impending arrival to Carter, Cole offered one of the floors in his building that was open and fully furnished. Carter responded with a firm no.

  “Not here. I do not want them to mix with you.” He’d been talking to Cole as he said those words, but a deep, ominous feeling passed over me. For some reason, I felt like he was talking to me. I still couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling in my gut.

 
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