We got off the phone when it was clear that no one was trailing me. Jakob drove the bugged van, no doubt so his father could track us both, and I kept picturing Liam bent over a phone screen, watching our little GPS dots bounce around Hermannsburg like an old school arcade game.
Once Jakob gave the all-clear, I jumped on the highway. He fell in behind me as soon as I merged, and from that point on, he stuck to my tailpipe like glue. What did he think I was going to do? Push my shitty car to the limit, which was about 70 mph on a good day, and try to lose him? Unlikely. Plus, his parents still had Gran.
Every now and then, I glanced in my rearview only to be met with Jakob’s stony expression. He’d been curt, bordering on short-tempered before we got off the phone, and now that his Fuck You face was back full force, I realized how much I hadn’t seen it in the past few days.
Maybe I wasn’t the only one who could use a break. Jakob might have sounded willing to give me a chance earlier, but he should take some time to really think about it too. My betrayal was monumental. Unforgivable to a lot of people. I knew how wrong it was to bring the feds here, and yet I’d done it. Sure, I’d made the call because I wanted to keep everyone safe, but my intentions didn’t matter. Liam’s intentions had been good too, and look at where that had landed everyone.
I worried my lip as I drove, wondering what might come of what I’d done. Nick knew who I was sleeping with, and I had a feeling I hadn’t seen the last of my old pal. It was one thing to know I worked in one of the club’s establishments, another thing entirely for him to learn how deep I really was in Kings’ business.
I glanced in the rearview again. Jakob had his phone pressed to his ear, hopefully filling his father in so I wouldn’t have to. I’d had enough excitement for the day, and I had no desire to relive each humiliating moment as I explained how I’d underestimated everyone and misjudged every situation.
Seeing Jakob on the phone reminded me that I needed to make a few calls of my own. The first one was to Charley’s wife, Lisa. She was in charge of scheduling shifts at the bar, and I needed to ask for the night off. I braced myself for a frustrating conversation. Usually, she was as much of a hardass as her husband, but her tone was soft when she answered the phone.
“Hey, honey,” she said. “How you holding up?”
“I’m good, thanks. You?”
“Can’t complain. How’s your gran doing?”
I frowned at the road ahead of me, wondering who’d told her about Gran, before remembering how bad The Kings gossiped. We had several of them with us at the nursing home the other day. At this point, rumor of what happened must have spread to the entire club, inflating with each retelling, so that Jakob had come to my rescue like a white knight, and I became his damsel in distress. The tale she heard probably had him single-handedly defeating The Jokers in a firestorm of a shootout before throwing me over his shoulder and riding off into the sunset like the conquering hero they all thought he was.
“My Gran’s okay. Thanks for asking,” I said. “Listen, I’m calling because I need to take tonight off. I know it’s last minute, and I’m sor-”
“Already done,” she said.
I blinked. “Oh, okay.”
“Jakob called this morning and said you might need a few days. I took you off the schedule until Friday. Will that work, or do you need more time?”
Wow, she was being really nice about this. What the hell did Jakob tell her? Or was she being so agreeable just because it was Jakob who’d asked? Either way, I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“That works,” I said. “Thank you, Lisa. I appreciate this.”
“No problem, honey.”
We said goodbye and got off the phone. Having until Friday off was good. It would give me time to see what I could salvage from my apartment, find a new place to live, and get Gran settled back into Magnolia. In the interim, I could take her up north to her sister Iliza’s little homestead outside of Austin. They hadn’t visited for a while, and the last time I spoke to Iliza, she told me we were always welcome to stay.
I called her, and sure enough, she was thrilled to have us.
The tension in my shoulders eased after I hung up. Iliza and her husband Fred’s farm was a little slice of heaven in the Texas countryside, and I couldn’t think of a better place for me to step back, relax, and figure my shit out. I couldn’t stay with the Larsons another night. First off, I’d end up sleeping with Jakob again, and my thoughts were muddled enough without adding a shot of sex-drunk hormones to the mix. Secondly, Liam would probably kick me out anyway. If not for what I had already done, then definitely for the conversation I planned to have with him.
I spent the rest of the drive practicing what to say. I wanted to make as much of an impact as I could without the conversation going off the rails. As tempting as it was to indulge in an imaginary scream-fight that ended with me scissor kicking Liam in the throat, I knew how unhelpful that was. How unhealthy. Plus, he was as tall as his son, and I doubted I could jump high enough to hit him in the neck. At least not without a running start, and he’d see that coming from a mile away.
Katherine Jenkins had to be my inspiration for this. Her unshakable calm during my interview in the police station was something to aspire to. If I could manage to keep my cool and say all the things that Liam needed to hear, I might be able to stop a civil war and keep a relationship from imploding. It was too late for my parents and me, but I saw firsthand how much Liam loved Jakob, and I thought he might still have time to fix what he had broken between them.
By the time I parked in the Larsons’ driveway, I felt, well, not calm but centered, focused on what I had to do. Jakob pulled up beside me and was out of the van before I even got my seatbelt unbuckled. From the way he stalked toward my car, I knew he was still pissed. Instead of getting out, I met his hard gaze and slowly reclined my seat, disappearing from his view.
I just caught sight of the exasperation spreading over his features before I ended up flat-out in the seat, with nowhere else to go.
“Get out of the car, Krista,” he said, his voice muffled from the other side of my window.
“No. You have your scary face on,” I yelled back at him.
He pressed his forehead to the glass and stared down at me. “This isn’t my scary face. This is my worried face.”
“You promise you’re not about to violently murder me?” I asked.
He shot me a look that said he was tempted. “No. Now stop acting like a child and get out of the car.”
I stuck my tongue out at him.
He closed his eyes and looked like he was praying for patience.
I knew I was being childish, but it was the only way I could think of to break the tension. The only way that wouldn’t end up with us naked, at least.
“Krista,” Jakob said, breath misting my window.
I gathered my courage and hit the unlock button. Jakob yanked my door open the second he heard the click, and then I was out of the car and into the heat, the metal of the rear passenger door hot on my back as Jakob pushed me into it. I opened my mouth to tell him to wait a second, but he shut me up with a brain-melting kiss. His fingers dug into my scalp, big hands holding me in place. With a kick at my good foot, he had my legs spread enough that he could shove himself into the gap, closing the distance between us. There was passion here, sure, but I also felt something else in his embrace. It was like he had to be in my space to reassure himself that I was still here. That I was safe.
His tongue stroked against mine, and I moaned into him, losing myself for minutes on end. He pulled back just enough to nip at the edge of my mouth before pinching my lip between his teeth. And then he was diving back in, tongue plying mine, fingers pressing as he angled my head back for a better angle.
Wait, what was I doing? I needed space. Space, Krista! Remember?! But my goddamn hands had a mind of their own, and instead of pushing him away, I twisted his t-shirt in them and hauled him closer.
“Don’t ever fucking do that to me again,” he spoke against my lips.
“I won’t,” I said.
“I mean it. If this is going to work, you need to be as open with me as you want me to be with you.”
He pulled back enough to look at me. “Now your face is scary.”
“Is it?” I asked. I didn’t feel like I was making Fuck You face at him. I felt like I was about to cry.
He nodded. “Say it.”
“Whatever it is that makes me feel like you’re about to walk away.”
He thought I was about to walk away, and that’s why my face had scared him. Oh, Jakob. Just when I got up the courage to do what was best for both of us, he had to go and be sweet again.
“I am going to walk away,” I told him.
His eyes hardened, that intractable look spreading over his features.
I rushed on before he could say anything. “At least for a few days. I need a break, a chance to think, and I can’t seem to do that when I’m around you.”
“Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know?” he asked. “Your gut is good. Your gut doesn’t want to leave. Trust it.”
My laugh was bitter. “I can’t trust myself right now. I’ve been wrong about everything the last few days, so obviously, my gut isn’t as good as you keep saying it is.”
“It is, though. You’ve just been operating with limited information and making decisions based on the shitty intel we’ve given you. It’s not your fault for getting it wrong half the time.”
I shook my head. “It’s not just that. It’s not just us. I’ve been in a constant state of hyper-awareness this whole time, feeling like I was a heartbeat away from danger, and I need to give my body a break from the stress.”
He pulled back a little more, smirking down at me. “Do you?”
“What? Yes, of course I do.”
His smirk sharpened. “I’ve been watching you throughout all of this. Tell yourself whatever you want, but you’re the one who wanted in. You’re the one who asked to help, to be part of getting revenge on The Jokers.” He leaned in again, lips brushing my ear, voice dangerously low. “And you loved every fucking second of it. So don’t act like this isn’t the most alive you’ve felt since you stopped flying.”
I went still beneath him. God-fucking-damn it. Now that was a hard truth I didn’t want to hear. As stressed out as I’d been, as scared, as worried about Gran and myself and the entire town of Kearny, I’d felt like…like my old self. Like the Krista who had hung half out of an open bay door, a thousand feet off the ground, laughing into the rushing wind as we flew above the battlefield.
But did I want to be her? Was I so jaded that I was willing to give up what little light I’d clung to? Descend with Jakob into the darkness and revel in the seedy underbelly of society? I didn’t know. He was too close. I was too close, to him, to all of it, and this revelation only reinforced the fact that I needed to back off.
“If you two are done fornicating in my driveway, get your asses inside!” Liam called from behind us.
I glanced around Jakob to see him standing by the front door, arms crossed over his wide chest, his face a thundercloud.
I looked up at his son. “Please tell me you filled him in on the way here.”
Jakob nodded and took a step back, ignoring his looming father, eyes locked on me. “This isn’t over between us.”
“I’m not saying it’s over. I’m saying I need a couple of days.”
His jaw flexed. Without another word, he turned on his heel and strode inside.
I got my stuff out of the car and followed after him a few minutes later. Liam blocked the doorway. Jakob was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’d he go?” I asked.
Liam met my eyes with the same unflinching focus as his son. “Probably down in the basement kicking the shit out of punching bag.”
“Good. You and I need to talk.”
He held out his hand. From the look on his face, he was as mad at me as I was at him. “Give me the thumb drive first.”
I fished it out of my handbag and passed it over.
He turned into the house and headed toward his back office. I followed him, pausing to check in on Gran and Jennifer playing cards in the living room.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
Jennifer snorted. “She’s kicking my ass.”
I met Gran’s eyes over her head and grinned. “I told you she was a shark.”
Gran smiled back. “You want to join us?”
I shook my head. “Iliza invited us to stay with her and Fred for a few days.”
Gran’s expression lit up. “Really?”
I nodded. “Want to pack your things? I want to head out soon, so we get there in time for dinner.”
“As soon as we finish this hand,” Gran said.
Jennifer let out a pained groan and laid her next card. From the hungry gleam in Gran’s eyes, she was about to finish her off.
Liam was at his desk when I walked into his office. He sat behind a computer screen with a pair of glasses perched on his nose. The sight did the trick of reminding me that he was human after all, aging and fallible as the rest of us. Gran and Jennifer were just in the other room, Jakob downstairs only a yell away. I had nothing to fear from Liam. The only way he could hurt me was with words, and I knew from experience that people only hurt you if you let them. The good thing was that I didn’t care enough about his opinion to be bothered by what he thought of me, and as I focused on that thought, I readied myself to go to war with him.
“There,” he said, closing his laptop. He set his glasses aside and turned to me. “I sent the pictures to Mike. He’ll get them to The Jokers. They should be out of Magnolia in a few hours.”
“Good. Thank you,” I said. No harm in being polite.
“What you did,” Liam started.
I cut him off. “Nope.”
He frowned. “Excuse me?”
“Nope,” I repeated. “You don’t get to sit there and pass judgment on me for what I did. Not after all the shit you put me and Jakob and my gran and your wife and God knows how many other people through.”
“Now you listen to me,” he said, brow creasing in anger.
“No,” I told him, voice even but firm. And then I said, just as calmly, “You’re going to lose your son.”
He blinked. I’d caught him off guard. Good.
“I don’t speak to my parents,” I said. “They’re terrible human beings, and I’m much better off without them in my life. Jakob is about a heartbeat away from feeling the same about you. I should know. I recognize the warning signs.”
“My relationship with my son is none of your business,” Liam ground out.
I shrugged, beyond caring anymore. Not even his angry tone could get a rise out of me. I’d been through too much, and I was going to say what I needed to say and then get the hell out of here.
“It might not be any of my business, but I’m making it my business because no one else will say this to you, and you need to hear it. Your relationship with your son is fifty shades of fucked up. Jakob didn’t bring me here to meet the family. He didn’t want to show his girlfriend off and see if his father approved because he doesn’t give a shit about whether or not you do. He brought me here because he knew you were manipulating him, and he wanted to manipulate you right back by playing into your hand. He didn’t come here to spend time with you; he came here to spy on you. Let that sink in. And while you’re at it, I think you should know that he told me the only reason he has anything to do with you at all is because he wants to see the next manipulation coming.”
Liam rose to his feet and braced his knuckles on the desk. “How dare you try to tell me about my own son like I don’t know the first thing about him. Who the fuck do you think you are?” he asked, voice nothing but a growl. His eyes raked over me dismissively. “You just met him. This time next month, he’ll be fucking someone else.”
I bit back the sharp response that rose to my tongue, forcing myself to stay calm. “Maybe,” I said. “But I’ve been around Jakob enough to see both sides of him. I see the public face he wears, but I’ve also seen him relax around the people he trusts. He laughs. He cracks jokes. Sometimes he even stops scowling.” I braced my knuckles on the other side of Liam’s desk and leaned in, refusing to be intimidated. “Tell me, when’s the last time your son smiled at you, Liam?”
He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. I doubted anyone but family had spoken to him like this in recent memory, and he didn’t know how to deal. Jennifer was right; the power had gone to his head. People did what he said without question, and when someone swerved right when he told them to swerve left, he couldn’t just roll with the punch and adapt. The sadistic side of me howled in glee to see that my hits were landing. That I was getting through to him. But more than that, it was happy to see I was hurting him like he had hurt me.
“It’s not too late,” I said. “But it will be soon. You have to let this thing with Daniel go.”
At Daniel’s name, Liam’s expression turned ugly.
“Trust me, I get it,” I told him. Lord, did I get it. “I’ve spoken to Daniel less than five times, and each and every one of them he’s said something or done something that made me want to punch him in the mouth hole. I’ve seen the way he treats your son, and I don’t like it. I imagine you’ve seen enough by now to warrant hating the smarmy bastard. But he’s not your problem; he’s your son’s and The Kings’. Let them handle it. No one will thank you for meddling, but especially not Jakob. Have you ever stopped to think that every time you get involved, you make him look weak?”
I pressed on. “Like he can’t handle his problems without Daddy’s help.”
“That’s not what I’m doing,” Liam said, but from his tone, I could tell that he no longer bought his own bullshit.
“That’s exactly what you’re doing,” I countered. “And if you continue down this path, if you keep pushing Jakob into a role he doesn’t want, you will lose him.”
Liam stared at me like he was trying to set me on fire with his eyes. “Anything else?” he growled.
I’d said everything I needed to say, but now that I’d managed to get through it all without snapping, there was still one thing left that I wanted to say.
“Yeah, fuck you for ordering your goons to trash my apartment.”
He reared back like I’d hit him.
I kept going. “Fuck you for endangering innocent people like my grandmother. And fuck you for not even having the decency to apologize for any of it.”
He straightened to his impressive height, hands flexing at his sides like they wanted to curl into fists. “Get the hell out of my house.”
“Already three steps ahead of you, asshole,” I said, turning on my heel. I paused by the door. “Oh, and before I leave, I’m going to need you to write me a check for ten thousand dollars.”
He took a step back, incredulous. “You what?”
“You ordered someone to break into my apartment, trash everything I own, scare the shit out of me, and make me feel unsafe going back there. So now you get to pay first, last, and security on my next place, pay to replace all the shit you broke, and pay a little bit extra to help with some of the emotional trauma you caused me.”
He snorted. “Emotional trauma?”
“Yup. Emotional trauma,” I said, meeting his hard gaze. “Have that check ready by the time I leave.”
Feeling like a gladiator who’d just survived ten rounds in the pit, I turned on my triumphant little heel and marched out of there.
Straight into Jennifer.
She stood just outside the door, and from the look on her face, she heard every last shitty thing I said to her husband. I nearly cowered. I’d just faced down an enraged Viking giant without flinching, but the thought of her disapproval sapped my bravery. Because unlike Liam, I cared what she thought. I wanted her to like me, but now she probably hated me for what I just did. I mean, sure, she was pissed at Liam, but the man was still her husband. I wanted to punch Daniel for being mean to Jakob. She was probably about to flay me alive for what I just put the man she loved through.
She pressed a finger to her lips, indicating silence, and jerked her head to the left in a command to follow her down the hall. I dragged my feet after her, feeling like a woman walking toward the executioner’s block.
She stopped when we reached the kitchen. I winced, waiting for her slap to land. Lord knew I’d earned one. Instead, she pulled me into a hug.
“Thank you,” she said.
Belatedly, I hugged her back. “Um…you’re welcome?”
She let me go and stepped back. “He needed to hear that. I think he might have even listened to you.”
“You sure I didn’t just make everything worse?”
She shook her head. “Only the fear of losing Jakob could snap him out of this, and I think your comment about Jakob never smiling around him drove that point home.”
“You’re not mad at me?”
She gave me a sad smile. “I can’t like the way you spoke to him, but the hard fact is that someone needed to say it.”
I nodded, feeling like I dodged a bullet. “Where’s Gran?”
“Packing. Will she be okay at her sister’s?”
“Yeah. She’ll probably be better there. No offense.”
“None taken,” Jennifer said. “I’m sure all the memories she has of her sister and brother-in-law will help ground her. It was the same with my mam. She always did better when we had family visiting from the old country.”
“Thank you so much for taking care of Gran the last few days,” I said. “I was so worried about so much, but knowing she was here with you helped me more than I can say.”
Jennifer grinned. “You’re a sweet girl, underneath that tough shell. Just like my Jakob. Make sure to say goodbye to him before you leave.”
“And give him a chance, will you?”
I smiled back at her. “I’ll think about it.”
Jennifer laughed. “Go ahead and take all the time you think you need.” From the way she said it, it sounded like she thought I was silly for taking any time at all. She moved past me back down the hall toward Liam’s office. Pausing, she threw over her shoulder, “And don’t worry. I’ll make sure Liam signs your check before you go.”
“I heard that!” he shouted.
Jennifer’s face hardened as she turned back around. “You’re about to hear a lot worse!”
I fled from the sound of their raised voices, down into the basement. The stairs dropped me in the middle of a wide-open space. To one side was a living room with big, comfy couches, a huge flat-screen TV, a pool table, foosball, and even a small bar in the corner. The other side was taken up by a home gym.
Jakob had changed into shorts. The tattoos covering his upper body were slicked in sweat and gleamed in the overhead lighting as he beat the ever-loving shit out of a punching bag. He hadn’t noticed me yet, so I paused for a few minutes and watched him. The muscles of his arms and back flexed as he landed a punch, an uppercut, and then a cross. He stepped back, opening space between him and his imaginary opponent, then spun on his planted foot and aimed a roundhouse kick at the punching bag that hit hard enough to take someone’s head off.
I swallowed back a wave of lust. I must be edging closer toward darkness all on my own because standing here watching him didn’t make me fear him. It made me long to see how much damage this amount of training and power could do to another human.
Of course that’s when he caught sight of me and turned around, and I knew, I knew from the way he sucked in a harsh breath that I was wearing my Fuck Me In Public face.
I shook my head and tried to clear my thoughts. Why had I come down here again? Oh, right. “Gran and I are about to take off.”
Jakob stayed where he was, chest heaving, sweat streaming down his big body. Thank God. I didn’t trust myself if he came any closer.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To my great aunt and uncle’s place up near Austin.”
“Will you text me the address?”
“Can’t you just follow the GPS tracker on my car?”
He met my gaze. “Not unless there’s another emergency. I’d rather you give me the information on your own.”
I sighed. He didn’t make this any easier by being so goddamn decent. “I’ll text it to you.”
He nodded. “And you’ll call if anything feels off or you run into trouble?”
“They live in a quaint little town in the middle of nowhere. I doubt there’ll be trouble.”
He raised his brows. “With your track record, anything is possible.”
I shook my head. “You just can’t help but push my buttons.”
He lowered his head and looked at me beneath his eyelashes, heat sparking in his eyes. “I like pushing your buttons, remember?”
Oh, I remembered. He liked it because of how I reacted. If I stayed down here much longer, he might even get the reaction out of me he wanted. It was a struggle to keep my eyes on his and not ogle him like the horny teenager he turned me into.
“You have two weeks,” he said.
My confusion helped clear some of the fog from my thoughts. “Two weeks?”
He nodded in response and then went back to beating up the punching bag. I frowned at him. Guess he was done talking. I had two weeks until what? The way he said it sounded like he was threatening me.
I probably should have been afraid.
God help me, I was excited to find out what he would do when my two weeks were up.
Copyright © 2021 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.