The bell over the door of the café rang, and Spencer Redding strode in as if he owned the place. Like Nick, he wore a suit, only his jacket was unbuttoned, and he wasn’t wearing a tie. The top two buttons of his dress shirt were undone, revealing taut, suntanned skin and the elegant muscles of his neck. He had the kind of good looks that spoke of silver spoons and old-world money.
The girls in the back sighed again, and this time I wanted to turn toward them and yell, “Run!” If we’d had more time to get ready for Redding’s arrival, I would have paid them to leave, but of course he would be obnoxiously early to this meeting. Maybe he’d wanted to scope the place out first like we had. He must have had some ulterior motive for being here so soon because he looked annoyed to see that we’d beaten him.
Or maybe that was just his face.
Behind him was a tall white man with silver hair and broad shoulders. I’d gotten Redding here by telling him I wanted to sit down with our lawyers in a neutral place and try to deal with these charges outside of a courtroom, see if we could come to some other agreement. Nick was posing as mine. The older gentleman must have been Redding’s. He smiled good-naturedly when Nick and I rose from our seats.
“Howdy,” he said, coming right over to us. He spoke in a twangy baritone and had the kind of ‘aw, shucks’ look about him that made me think he called other men partner.
He extended his hand when he reached me. “Winston Beaufort, pleasure to meet you.”
I shook his hand. “Krista Evans.”
We let each other go, and Nick introduced himself to both Winston and Redding. I slipped my hand into my purse while the men were distracted and turned my phone back on. It had been off for several hours.
Come on, Jakob. Don’t let me down.
“Can I get you fellas anything? Coffee? A bagel?” Nick asked, turning his megawatt smile on the men.
“No,” Redding said, and sat.
Winston shot Redding a sideways look, brows furrowed slightly, as if he was confused by Redding’s rudeness. Guess he didn’t know his client that well. It made me wonder if maybe he worked for Magnolia Hills and not for Redding.
The lawyer’s confusion only lasted a second, his expression brightening again when he turned back to Nick. “I’ll take a coffee, please. Cream, two sugars.”
Nick nodded and strode toward the counter. I retook my seat, careful to keep my back to the window. Winston sat across from me and pulled the pocket square from the slit in the front of his suit jacket, using it to dab at his forehead. Beside him, Redding stared at me like I was the only person around. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. Nick just confirmed he was a rapist, and now here he sat, close enough to reach out and touch me. Close enough that I could feel his stare like a slimy caress along my skin. I nearly gagged.
“Can you believe this heat?” his lawyer asked. “It’s going to be one scorcher of a summer if we keep on like this.”
I latched onto the distraction. “Tomorrow is supposed to be even hotter.”
Winston made a face that would have made me grin if not for the fact that I could still see Redding watching me out of the corner of my eye. I was just about to tell Winston the heat would break in a few days when my phone rang inside my purse.
I feigned embarrassment. “I’m so sorry. I’ll tell whoever it is to call me back, and then I’ll silence it.”
Winston nodded, understanding writ across his features. Redding continued to stare at me, expressionless but utterly fixated, and my unease turned into full-blown fear.
I broke his gaze and glanced at my phone’s screen. It was Jakob. Thank God. I swiped right to answer and brought the phone to my ear. “Hello?”
“WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU?” he roared, loud enough for the whole café to hear him.
I yanked the phone away before he blew out my eardrum. Across from me, Winston’s brows climbed up his forehead in shock.
“Um…will you excuse me for a second?” I asked the men, rising from my seat.
I took the phone outside, face turned down to hide my features from view, and walked away from the coffee shop, leaving Redding, his lawyer, and an FBI agent together inside. I could almost hear the cameras snapping across the street.
“Jakob?” I said.
“Where the fuck are you, and why has your phone been off for three hours?” he ground out.
“I’m having coffee with a friend,” I said. Technically it wasn’t a lie. “We bumped into each other while I was out. I turned my phone off inside the drug store and must have forgotten to turn it back on. I’m sorry.” Now that was flat-out bullshit.
“You just bumped into your friend, huh?” Jakob said, his tone as dry as the Sahara. “All the way down in Hermannsburg?”
I stopped dead in my tracks. How the hell did he know where I was? “Hermannsburg?” I asked, struggling to keep the panic from my voice.
“According to the GPS tracker on your car.”
“You put a GPS tracker on my car?” I hissed, picking up my pace again. The feds must have microphones trained on the coffee shop, and I didn’t need them to hear any more of this conversation than they already had. “That is not okay, Jakob.”
“I didn’t put it there. Dad did.”
Fucking Liam. “But you still used it to track me.”
“Yes, after I spent two hours trying to get ahold of you and Dad finally told me what he’d done, I used it to track you. I thought the fucking Jokers or Redding grabbed you. Why didn’t you text me telling me you were okay?”
Because I had planned this. I was no better than Liam, manipulating his son, intentionally scaring the shit out of him, banking on him calling me over and over, so that when I finally turned my phone back on inside the café, his call would give me an excuse to leave it.
Guilt wracked me. I felt terrible for not only betraying his trust but for –
Hold up. He’d freaked out for two hours before his dad told him about the GPS? But he said he knew it had been off for three. What had he been doing in the hour he’d been tracking me?
My stomach sank. Sweet Jesus, no.
“Where are you, Jakob?” I asked.
“Taking the Hermannsburg exit off the highway.”
Fuck! Not even Nick could have predicted shit going this sideways.
“Turn around,” I told Jakob.
“Tell me what you’re really doing there,” he countered.
“This is not a negotiation. You can’t come here.”
My trust for Nick only went so far. He and I had history. Hell, I’d damn near saved his life once when he tried to touch something on the plane that would have fried him to a crisp. The man owed me, and I believed he wouldn’t fuck me over. But Jakob? I’d left him out of my conversation with Nick for a reason. An enforcer for The Kings and the son of a founding member of The Specters might be too juicy a worm for Nick to resist. If Jakob showed up now, I worried that Nick might find some way to drag him into this, get photos of him, blackmail him into playing ball with the feds.
“I knew it,” Jakob said. “The second Mom started acting evasive, I knew you were doing something stupid.”
“I’m not doing something stupid. I’m doing something logical and calculated, and you can’t be here. Turn the hell around.”
I was going to kill him.
I pulled the phone from my ear and took several deep breaths. How did I get him to back off right now? It was clear that he’d gotten it into his head that I either needed saving or that he needed to be in on whatever I was doing, and he had that intractable sound to his voice that told me there wasn’t anything I could do to change his mind.
But maybe there was one thing that would, one thing that would make him never want to come to my rescue again: the truth.
I put the phone back to my ear. “I am meeting with an old friend,” I said, dropping my voice so passerby wouldn’t overhear me. “I wasn’t lying about that. His name is Nick, and he works for the FBI.”
Dead silence came from the other end of the line.
“I lured Redding here with some bullshit about not going to court and letting our lawyers figure it out instead,” I said. “And yes, I know that’s probably not why he really agreed to meet me, and he likely has some ulterior motive for wanting to sit down face-to-face, but it was a risk I had to take. Nick is a known entity at the Bureau. As I speak, federal agents are taking pictures of him and Redding inside a coffee shop. We’re going to send the pictures to The Jokers and make them think that Redding has been a mole this whole time and that the feds know all about their little operation inside Magnolia.”
I took a deep breath. “It’s a smart plan, Jakob. The Jokers will freak out and pull out of Magnolia. If we’re lucky, they’ll put Redding down themselves.”
Still more silence.
“Jakob, say something.”
“Have you been a mole for the feds this whole time?” he asked, his voice deceptively neutral.
“No. Nick asked me to work for him when I moved here, and I turned him down. If you don’t believe anything else I’ve ever told you, believe that. Trust me like I trusted you in the car yesterday.”
“If you’re lying to me, Krista…”
The fucking nerve of this man.
Calm descended on me then. It was the calm of battle. The kind of calm I only achieved when someone pushed me over the edge of pissed off and dropped me into real anger.
“I’m in this because of you,” I said. “You came into my bar and dragged me into your mess, and now both Gran and I are in danger. You’re the one who’s been lying this whole time. How dare you lob accusations at me right now when all I’m trying to do is keep you and your parents and everyone else you’ve dragged into this safe.”
“My father -”
“Your father taught you well,” I snapped. “You want to complain about him, but the ugly truth is that all along, you’ve been treating me like he treats you.”
“That isn’t fair,” he ground out.
“It’s not? You didn’t manipulate my emotions and prey on my fear for my grandmother that first night? You didn’t seduce me to get what you wanted the easiest way you could think of? You didn’t lie to protect me or keep me from getting in so deep that I couldn’t get out again? All while telling yourself that what you were doing was for my benefit in the long run?”
Silence again. I’d struck a nerve.
“And yet, after all of that, I chose to forgive you, Jakob. I chose to believe that you didn’t mean to act like your father. That you didn’t say anything sooner because you couldn’t figure out how to tell me everything without losing me. That you wouldn’t treat me like that again because you knew I would walk away. Because you actually give a shit about me.”
“I do,” he said.
Thank God for that.
“I give a shit about you too,” I said. “I’m sorry for turning my phone off and scaring you, I’m sorry I brought the feds in, but I’m not going to apologize for doing what I think is right. For doing the only thing I could think of that wouldn’t lead to more innocent lives getting caught up in this nightmare.”
“You’re right,” Jakob said. “I’m sorry for not trusting you.”
I stopped again and leaned against the side of a chocolate shop. Just like that, he gave in, admitting he was wrong. It was hard to stay mad at him when he was this self-aware, when he apologized so readily and seemed to really want to make things better.
“I’m pulling over now,” he added.
“You don’t need to pull over. You need to turn around.”
I opened my mouth to argue with him, but now it was his turn to cut me off.
“I’m not close enough to downtown Hermannsburg for the feds to see me. No one will know I’m here. I might be pissed at you for doing this, but I’m trusting you to get it done. I’ll never trust the feds, though, and I sure as shit don’t trust Redding. If he steps out of line, I want to be close enough to at least get a hit in before you kill him.”
I almost laughed. Jesus, I must be close to snapping.
“Call me when you’re done,” he said. “I’ll follow you back to the ranch, and we can figure everything else out there.”
Holy shit, it sounded like he might be willing to give me a chance.
“What else is there to figure out?” I asked.
“For starters, we need to come up with a plan for what to do if The Jokers talk to Redding before killing him and find out that my girlfriend was the one to lure him into meeting with the FBI.”
I skipped right over the fact that he’d called me his girlfriend and went straight to, “Oh, fuck”. In all our planning, I’d somehow overlooked that possibility. I’d been betting on The Jokers having a knee-jerk response to the pictures. That they would act out of emotion and with extreme violence because that’s what I’d come to expect from the clubs. I was treating them like they were nothing but a group of dumb criminals, just because I didn’t like them. Hadn’t Daniel taught me not to underestimate people? And yet I’d nearly made another fatal error. What the hell was I going to do if they sat down and talked to Redding instead? And actually believed him over the pictures?
“I didn’t think of that,” I said in a small voice. I prided myself on being logical, on thinking things through and looking at plans from multiple angles. This was a monumental oversight that could have gotten me killed and made things worse for the very people I was trying to protect.
“You didn’t think of it because you rushed into this and aren’t used to our world,” Jakob said. “But Krista?”
“Yeah?” I asked, his tone making me nervous.
“Nick is trained to think of shit like that. I highly doubt he overlooked the possibility. Maybe you should ask yourself why he didn’t bring it up to you before you continue to blindly trust your old fuck buddy.”
“How,” shit, shit, SHIT! “do you know he’s an old fuck buddy?”
“I told you I looked into you when you got to town.”
With that parting shot, he hung up on me.
I pulled the phone from my ear, pulse pounding. Mother of God, Jakob had known about Nick all along.
Apparently I still wasn’t done underestimating people.
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.