Carter reed 2, p.7
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       Carter Reed 2, p.7
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         Part #2 of Carter Reed series by Tijan

  “I trust you.” Not him, I knew he added silently.

  I patted Gene on the shoulder. “You’ll trust him, too.”

  If not—I didn’t want to think of the consequences. Cole was supposed to lead the family. The elders would remember this, eventually.

  “Can we talk about the elephant in the room?”

  It was the next evening, and Theresa had decided our wine night needed to take place at a nightclub. Noah had intervened, vetoing the club idea, so we were at a five-star restaurant instead.

  My guards had walked us to the door, and we were seated immediately in a back corner. Not only did we have privacy, our view was spectacular, looking out over an indoor waterfall. Based on the friendliness of the staff and the fact that they hadn’t batted an eye when Thomas walked in first, I suspected that Carter owned this restaurant. But I didn’t want to tell Theresa that. My answer would come at the end of the night when I saw whether we got a bill or not.

  “What elephant?” I asked, looking around. I didn’t know why it was starting to bother me, but I wanted to know where the guards were when they took their cover. I was safe—that wasn’t the concern—but their invisible presence unnerved me. But I couldn’t see any of them, so I refocused on Theresa.

  She was saying, “…you and Amanda.”

  Okay, what? “Say again.”

  “You and Amanda.” She leaned forward, her eyes sparking with interest. “Did you two have a fight? She was weird the next day after you guys cleaned the oven and had your night, and then you suddenly decide to go to New York. Come on, Emma, like I didn’t notice how tense you were in the limo, wondering if she was coming. I saw how you kept looking at the door.” She shook her head. “And you were so relieved when she wasn’t there.”

  I frowned. “I thought the elephant was you and Noah.”

  “Me and Noah?” She’d been leaning forward, but she recoiled now like she’d been smacked. “What are you talking about?”

  “He asked you to live with him.”

  She sucked in her breath. “How do you know that?” Real panic flashed in her eyes.

  “Amanda overheard. She told me about it that night.”

  Her forehead wrinkled. “Wait, is this what that’s about—the you and Amanda thing? You talked about me, and that’s why Amanda was weird? Did she say anything bad?”

  I shook my head. “Just that he’d asked you to move in and you freaked.” Like she was doing now. As I talked, her face grew redder and redder. “What’s going on? You look ready to flee.”

  “Oh my god.” Letting out a rush of breath, she bent forward and covered her face with both hands. “Oh my god.”

  This wasn’t normal. Carter told me to move in, and I jumped at the chance. The circumstances were different, but I didn’t understand the almost-paralyzing effect the offer looked to be having on her.

  “Theresa, he loves you. What’s the problem?”

  I waited. Nothing.

  When her hands finally fell away, I saw tears brimming. She sniffled and wiped at her eyes. One tear fell, which she ignored it as it trailed down her cheek. She was thinking about something else.

  “Theresa.” I reached over and grabbed her hand. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

  “I can’t lose him,” she whispered. She looked away, but I still heard the words. She moved her head back and forth before glancing to me. “I lose everybody, Emma. Everyone. I was engaged once. Did I tell you about him?”

  “What?”

  She nodded, a glazed look coming over her eyes. “He died, too. Everyone who loves me dies. Everyone in my family. Jeffrey. I can’t love Noah because he’ll die, too.”

  I felt my mouth drop open. She believed this. I saw the fear, and I scooted close, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. “No, no, no. Noah won’t die.”

  She turned into me, but kept shaking her head. “I know it’s dumb. I know it’s a superstition, but it’s how I feel. I’m afraid of being happy with him and letting myself love him, but I do.” More tears swam in her eyes. “I love him so much, but I can’t lose him. I can’t lose anyone. If he went, it would destroy me.”

  I wasn’t sure what was more shocking—her belief that if she loved someone, she would lose them or the fact that she’d had a fiancé. She’d never said a word, but seeing her tears, I could only imagine the love she must’ve had for him. She looked broken, a side to Theresa I had never witnessed. So many emotions swept through me—sorrow, pain, tears. I wiped my own away and pulled back. “Theresa, you won’t lose him.”

  “I’m terrified.”

  She was terrified of losing the man she loved. I couldn’t help but sit back and reflect on my own situation. Carter was still a part of the mafia, even though he was technically out. He wasn’t. He was still in, no matter how he and I were trying to delude ourselves. He was here. He was hiding things, or keeping things from me. He was still in. I should have been terrified—Carter had a better chance of being killed than Noah. But I wasn’t.

  What did that say about me? Was I numb to it now? Or was I really not worried?

  Theresa wiped more tears away and sat back, trying to compose herself. I sat and pondered my own love.

  Was something wrong with me? Or had I gotten comfortable with the constant fear? I glanced around again and this time, I found where Thomas stood. I caught sight of him behind a post across from us. I didn’t know why I hadn’t seen him before. Maybe he allowed it this time, like he knew something was wrong. I didn’t know, but I looked around again. There was Michael. Peter. Thomas 2, as I called him. My guards. They gave me a sense of security, but I realized that security was an illusion. They were protecting me for a reason, protecting me from a real threat.

  I should have been terrified too, but I wasn’t.

  An unsettled sensation rested on my shoulders.

  I swallowed over a knot in my throat. I shouldn’t feel secure. That wasn’t the truth of my life and sitting here, hearing Theresa’s very real fear, chipped away at my reality. I couldn’t stop it.

  Carter’s face flashed to my mind. He was scared. I’d seen it that night when he came to tell me about all this.

  “I need to tell you what happened today, because it could affect us… Things are going to happen now.”

  My hand reached for Theresa’s again. Swallowing my memories and the terror I should have been feeling, I said, “If you love Noah, don’t waste time.”

  I had asked Carter later, “What happens now?”

  I wouldn’t let Theresa go. “You don’t know how long you might have.”

  His eyes had been in so much pain as he said, “War.”

  “Live with him and love him,” I told her, leaving off the as long as you can. I kept that from leaving my tongue.

  Her eyes clung to mine. This wasn’t a normal exchange for us. Theresa was my superior at work and a friend, a sister at times. She was professional, spunky, and liked to have fun. But she didn’t enjoy facing the world head-on. She liked to stick her head in the sand.

  I understood it now. Living life that way, denying the truths and harsh realities, could make you feel secure and sheltered. She looked at life as black or white, wrong or right. This was why she didn’t like Carter. He was in the gray area. She couldn’t proclaim him as bad and stand in judgment, putting her head back in the sand, because I loved him and Noah considered him like a brother. Noah was Carter’s “right” brother—in the world he wanted to go to, not from the world he wanted to leave.

  Cole was the “wrong” brother, the other one. His mere existence was pulling Carter back to the wrong way of life.

  “Emma?”

  “Mmm?” Focusing on her pulled me from my thoughts. My unsettled sensation was still there, and even as I concentrated on my friend, my wine night with her, I couldn’t shake the edgy feeling.

  “You okay?”

  “Yeah.” I forced a grin. “Why?”

  “Because I’m losing circulation in my hand.” She lifted it, and I saw my death
grip on her.

  I immediately let go. “I’m so sorry. I was just…” Realizing my own truths. “My mind wandered.”

  “You think I should get over it?” Her smile slipped a tiny bit. “Live with the fear of losing him, as long as I can love him while I have him?”

  I nodded. “I do.”

  “Okay.” She reached for her wine and downed the rest of it. “Can I get drunk first, though?”

  “Yes, please.” I laughed and scanned the restaurant for a server. Both of our glasses were empty. A waiter appeared and filled them back up, and continued to do this as we stayed there for another two hours.

  I didn’t know if it was the wine or the bonding I had experienced with Theresa, but I let go of all her wariness about Carter. It had become a wedge between us, whether she realized it or not, but now I felt the old kinship we’d had when we first began working together. I’d missed this time with her. Theresa was once again my sister, which made me think about my real sister.

  Her name was Andrea. And she was waiting to meet me, whenever I made that decision. Live with him and love him as long as you can. I had shared this sentiment with Theresa; maybe I needed to follow my own advice.

  After no bill came to us, confirming my suspicions, we left the restaurant. I wanted to tell Carter as soon as I saw him. I wanted to say thank you, again, for every time he took care of us at his businesses, but also talk to him about my sister. In a way, it was because of him that she found me.

  Riding home in the limousine, I couldn’t stop thinking about Andrea. She looked like me in the pictures. She would have memories of our mother and maybe an explanation of what had separated AJ and myself from her. The more I thought about her and considered our first meeting, the more excited I grew.

  When we got to Noah’s place, I called Carter. I wanted him to come home. I wanted to feel him hold me, and I wanted to share everything I had figured out that night, too.

  He didn’t answer my call. And after I texted him, he didn’t reply. There was no response an hour later, so I went to bed without him. I didn’t sleep well. I was waiting for him. I wanted to wake up and talk to him, but he didn’t come home that night.

  Late that night, Cole’s initiation was final. He was now the head of the Mauricio family. My job was done. I had trained with him twice a day, every day, over these last few weeks. I didn’t know if he was ready, but it was done. Glancing down at my phone, I saw that Emma had called and texted, but I didn’t call her back. I couldn’t, not yet.

  “Sir.”

  I looked up. The door was open, and I got out of the car, heading toward the private plane waiting for me. Once inside, I sat down, and as I clipped my seatbelt into place, I glanced at the man beside me.

  “This was your idea, but you didn’t need to come with me,” I told him. “I assure you that I’ll be back as soon as everything is set.” Gene had been the one to advise me to return home, make it safe and ready for the coming war.

  Gene didn’t smile. He only nodded and ran a hand over the scar on his face. He did that when he was uneasy. He didn’t know he did it, and I wasn’t going to give away one of the only tells I had on him.

  “I’m the one talking you into leaving your woman’s side,” he said with a grunt. “It’s common courtesy. I’ll go back with you, help as much as I can. Besides, if shit goes down, I want to be at your side.”

  Gene had been a mentor and in an odd way, he was like my own bodyguard. I knew he hadn’t approved when Emma first came back into my life. I hadn’t cared then, and I didn’t now. I would do as I pleased. She was most important, and Gene knew this was how I felt. That’s why he’d been around so much before we concluded the deal with the Bartel family.

  I was glad to have him back at my side. He felt like home. Grinning, I shook my head. Gene was not like home. He was large, cold, mean, and distant. Emma was home, but still, I looked over at him. He cared. That’s why he was here, and why I allowed him to be here.

  “You mean if shit’s going to go down, you want to be around the person who will probably keep you alive?” I murmured.

  “Don’t be a fucker.” He faced forward, his jaw clenching.

  I chuckled, turning in my seat as well, as the engines were starting up.

  Then he added, “Maybe.”

  “Don’t worry. I’ll keep you safe.”

  “Shut it.”

  I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t. Gene was with me because he was concerned for me. Neither of us were dumb. If the Bartel family war was going to commence, I would make a good example. I’d brokered the truce, and I could end it. If they killed me, the war was officially on.

  My gut had been telling me the Bartels knew about Cole. They knew he was being prepped to take over, and they’d just been waiting. If the war was going to happen, it would be soon. Either that, or we’d wait for what Cole decided the family would do, whether he would launch his own attack.

  “They killed his two friends, but he killed four of theirs.” Gene looked back to me.

  He’d been having the same thoughts. I nodded. “One of them was Stephen Bartel.”

  “The last battle was because of Dunvan, but this is closer to the core of each family.”

  “A Bartel and a Mauricio,” I said. Ours had walked away. “We have to wait and see now.”

  “I don’t like it. I don’t like any of it.”

  Neither did I. “We follow Cole now.”

  He grunted again and shot back, “I follow Cole now. You’re out, remember?”

  I nodded. “You know what I mean.”

  “You scare me, Carter.”

  Those words threw me. I wasn’t prepared for them, and I didn’t respond. I waited. I wasn’t surprised at what he said, just at the timing of this statement. I had been teasing him moments earlier.

  “A year ago you had your hand at my throat because I disagreed with you,” he added.

  That was about Emma. I narrowed my eyes. “That was different. It wasn’t family business.”

  “Everything you do is about family business.” His eyes were hard. “Whether you realize that or not. You’re not out, Carter. You’re not even trying to talk like it anymore. Just now you said, ‘We follow Cole.’ You’re still in. You were never out.”

  My jaw clenched. “Get to the point.”

  “You’re a man in between. You’re in one world, but you’re trying to live in another. Living like that will make you sloppy, and that makes you dangerous to anyone around you. If you’re out, you’re out. If you’re not, you’re not. Choose.” He gestured to me, his hand moving in a sharp, savage motion. “You would’ve killed me last year because of her, but you’re the one who’s going to get her killed. Make a definite choice. If we’re going to war, you need to start preparing for it.”

  “I am,” I growled.

  “You’re not. I made a few calls. Your woman was drinking wine at one of your restaurants.”

  My blood ran cold. I saw where he was going.

  “She was laughing with her friend. If they weren’t drunk, they were tipsy. They drank three of our bottles. And now, where are we going?”

  My eyes narrowed. “Stop, Gene.”

  He didn’t. “I know about this sister of hers that’s appeared. I can make phone calls, too, and I know that’s where you’re going right now. You’re going to check out this person yourself. You want to make sure she’s the real deal before letting your woman anywhere near her. You’re running an errand for your lady when you should be stopping all of it.”

  He was right. My blood turned from cold to boiling. He was right, and I hated that he was the one to call me on it. I should’ve made these decisions long ago, when I first heard about Cole’s attack. I hadn’t. I’d wanted Emma to keep living in freedom, as much as she could, but he was right.

  “Send her away. She’ll be safe. Stop this fool’s errand right now. You want her to be safe, but she’s not because you’ve grown lazy.”

  Goddamn, he was right. “Stop.” I cl
osed my eyes. The need to protect her was right there, lying just under the surface. It was right next to the Cold Killer. I was best at assassinating my enemies. He’d been kept in check, shoved down, but as Gene kept talking, I felt him crawling back up inside me.

  Gene was right. Emma had to go away. As we flew from New York,
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