Authors: Jessica Gadziala
"No. That's actually why I came. Just forget it. The case is over."
It wasn't over, not really. I mean I was going to take a step back and make sure I kept myself out of actual danger, but I wasn't done trying to find some answers. I would never be done, not until I found them. But I wasn't involving other people who could get hurt. Of course, common sense said I should probably let Sawyer get involved. He'd quickly dispatched of the guy who had attacked his brother and me. And while he was a dick, he definitely was intimidating. But, well, I didn't want to have to be in a room with him ever again if it was possible.
"Ever hear that phrase about trying to bullshit a bullshit artist?" Sawyer asked, sipping the full fat, sugar-filled coffee I bought myself as a treat. "You aren't over this case and I ain't letting you wade into the Third Street gang on your own."
"Third Street gang?" I asked, feigning innocence.
"Cory is one of their enforcers."
"Cory?" I asked, not able to help the laugh that escaped me. What kind of thug enforcer guy was named Cory? That was the name of a five year old boy, not some muscled, mean-spirited bully.
"Yeah, babe. Cory. And you can take that innocent act and shove it. You know damn well that what you're wrapped up with involves the Third Street gang. And don't think it's escaped my notice that you sent my brother on a job without giving him the information he needed to keep himself safe. That shit won't play. So real soon, you and me, we're having a sit down and you're spilling."
"Sawyer, enough," Barrett said, moving the bed to sit up straighter.
"Show up at my house or my work, I will call the cops. Stay the hell away from me if you value your freedom," I snapped, turning back to Barrett. "I'm sorry I got you beat up. I will have a check sent to you for your services. I hope you feel better soon." I turned and stormed out of the room, my heart slamming so hard in my chest I felt like I was choking on it.
It really was a lousy freaking week.
And it was only about to get worse.
"You're seriously not going to talk to me about it?" I asked, crossing my arms over my chest at my father's massive dining table, having just finished the last course and waiting for the coffee to be served. Coffee meant another fifteen minutes of tense conversation before I could finally hightail it the hell out of there and curl back into bed like I had been wanting to do since the moment I woke up that morning.
"There's nothing to talk about, Elsie. The matter is closed."
My father was intimidating in all ways. He was tall and kept up his body, despite most men his age deciding to 'let themselves go'. Those weren't words he even understood. He wore expensive suits from waking until sleep, only ever changing to get into gym clothes. His hair was cut expertly and was an attractive salt and pepper color that gave him the silver fox, not old man, look.
"How can the matter be closed, Dad? We can't just act like..."
"That is exactly what we will do. Is this all you have going on in your life? Get a hobby, Elsie. Work more hours. Get yourself a husband already. Stop harping on non-issues."
Anger for me was an extremely uncomfortable sensation of bugs under my skin, like I wanted to claw them out, like if I didn't, I would go insane. Very few people were capable of bringing out that feeling. My father, unfortunately, was one of those people.
"It's not a
I shrieked as my dad's butler brought out the coffee on a cart and poured us each a cup.
"No need for the hysterics, Elsie," he said in a calm voice that made me want to reach across the table and slap him. That was his MO. He got all firm and demanding, got his opponent riled beyond reason, then accused them of being irrational. It worked every God damn time.
"You know what... fuck this," I said, standing so fast that my chair turned back and knocked into the coffee cart, splashing the liquid everywhere.
"Sit down," he said, his voice low and clipped.
I felt my body jolt, wanting me to do what it was told, what I was trained to do my entire life. But, for once, I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction.
"No. When you decide to find that shriveled little heart of yours and inflate it back to an acceptable human-size, then we can talk. Until then, you can take these Sunday dinners and shove them up your ass,
" I yelled, moving toward the door.
"Just like her," his voice followed me and I felt myself freeze.
I knew what he was doing. He was trying to rile me. He knew exactly how to push my buttons. But if I went back at him, if I lost my cool again, in his eyes, he would win. I was done losing to him. I curled my hands into tight fists at my sides and turned. It took an effort to make my voice calm, almost hollow.
"I know you like to think you control everything. I know that's your thing. But you don't control me anymore. And you never will again. What could you possibly do now, Dad? Ground me? Take my trust away. Have at it. I don't need anything from you. I hope you enjoy your big, empty house. And I pray to God nothing truly awful happened because there is no coming back from that. That guilt will follow you to your grave and into hell afterward."
With that, I grabbed my purse and jacket and exited with an exaggerated calm I most definitely did not feel.
Again as I rounded my car, I felt the tears stinging my eyes.
I was not a particularly overly-emotional person. But everything was screwed up. Nothing was going to plan. I'd had a week from hell that culminated in an argument with my father that was a lifetime overdue. My entire world felt like it was holding on by a thread and I had no one to turn to.
I couldn't go to Rome for two reasons. One, he would be absolutely infuriated and devastated that I had kept it from him for so long. And two, because I felt weird leaning on him now that I realized he had different intentions than I did.
And, well, there was no one else in my life that I was close enough with to involve.
Never, not once in my life, had I ever felt truly alone like I did as I drove back home, swatting at my cheeks, cursing the tears and everything that had taken place to make them appear.
I went in through the garage that brought me into my kitchen, yanking off the scarf that felt like it had been strangling me the entire day. I flicked on the light and went straight for the coffee machine, despite the fact that all I wanted to do was curl up in bed and sleep away the traces of my hangover and all the emotions I didn't want to face.
"Barrett and Sawyer Anderson, babygirl?" Paine's smooth voice asked from my side, making me screech and fly back several feet, the stainless steel coffee carafe raised like I planned to strike with it. I guess the couple of close encounters I'd had over the past week was altering my fight or flight response.
"Jesus Christ, Paine," I gasped, slamming the carafe down as I spotted him leaning against the counter. "How the hell did you get in here?"
"When you punch in your code, Elsie, make sure no one is watching."
"How about you don't be a creepy stalker who looks over my shoulder, how about that? What is it about our society that teaches 'don't be a victim' rather than 'don't be a criminal'?"
"Not here to debate society with you. I'm here to figure out why you are involved with the Anderson brothers."
I lifted my chin, grabbing the carafe and going back to making the coffee just to have an excuse to not look at him. He was looking way too good in dark jeans and a black sweater. "The night we met, you advised me to get out of what I was in. I'm not stupid. I got out. I got someone else involved for me."
"Barrett Anderson? Seriously, babe?"
"In his defense, I didn't exactly tell him what I was wrapped up in. He went in blind. It was my fault he got put in the hospital."
"No, Elsie. Don't take that shit on. He should have gotten answers out of you before he took the case. Sawyer was right in thinking he didn't belong in the field. It's not your fault he got cocky. It's not your fault you got choked either. So stop thinking that way."
I stood facing the coffee machine, listening to it drip as I took a couple deep breaths. I wasn't in any kind of shape to deal with him right then. Not after the day I had, with my emotions raw and all over the place. I just needed to be alone.
"Babygirl," Paine's voice said in my ear as his body cozied up behind me, his arm snaking around my lower belly and holding me against him.
"Please don't. I can't do this right now," I said, not caring how desperate my voice sounded.
"Talk to me," he urged, leaning down and resting his chin on my shoulder. I felt my head start to shake and his arm tightened around me. And damn if being in a man's arms, held back against his strong chest, didn't feel like exactly what I needed right that minute. "You need to get that shit out. It's eating you up. I'll listen."
"And get angry. And judge. And lecture me."
"No anger or judgment or lectures," he said, using his hand at my hip to turn me so I was against his chest, and wrapping me up tight. "Just an ear."
And, well, that just melted what was left of my puny defenses.
"My sister is missing," I said aloud for the first time ever.
Against me, I could feel him stiffen and his hold loosened slightly so he could push me back and look down at me. "Your sister is
I felt myself nod tightly. "Not officially seeing as there is no report of it."
"Because my father is convinced she's not missing. She... was being off for a long time before she disappeared. She was secretive and distant. She and I used to be best friends, then suddenly, she was like a stranger. And then she was gone. But she cashed out her trust fund first. Everything else, though, was left. Her house, her car, all her jewelry and clothes and, God, even her freaking parrot..."
"Her parrot," he repeated when I trailed off.
"He's fine. Living large in a bird sanctuary in Florida thanks to a nice donation from my father. But she left him. In his cage. For God knew how long. There was no food or water left when I finally went over to check on her when she hadn't returned my calls for three days. She never would have just... left him to starve to death in her empty house. No way."
"So why haven't you filed a report if you're convinced she's missing?"
"The detective I talked to agreed with my father. He said to give it a few weeks to see if she just got a wild hair and took off to Boca with a new guy or something."
"Was she a big dater?"
I felt the side of my lips turn up. "I tried that angle. She wasn't exactly a relationship girl. She had men in and out of her life, but no one serious. I couldn't see her just taking off with a guy. Not by choice anyway."
He nodded, pressing a quick kiss to my forehead in an offhand way that made my belly flip flop with the casual intimacy of it all. "Why are you working the Third Street angle?"
My hands went up, squeezing his sides and pushing until he let me go. I moved out into the living room, clicking the hidden latch inside the fireplace that unlocked the picture beside it and pulled it open to reveal the safe.
"Ain't looking," he said as I turned to check, his words of caution definitely making me more cautious about my codes.
I punched in the code and pulled the safe open, reaching inside and pulling out the small jewel-encrusted jewelry box that belonged to my sister, and holding it out toward Paine.
His brows drew together as he took it, pulling off the top. His breath hissed out of his mouth as he grabbed one of the small baggies and pulled it out. There were at least a dozen of them inside, clear zip-lock drug bags with a large blue three printed on the front and a fluffy brownish powder inside it. "She was using heroin," he surmised, putting the baggie back, but not handing it back to me.
"Seems the most likely explanation. Why else would she have drugs hidden in her bedroom? It also explains her weird behavior for the weeks before she went missing. I've never really known anyone on drugs; I didn't know what to look for, so I didn't see it."
"It happens," he shrugged. "Can't beat yourself up about it. So you thought... what? She cashed in her trust to buy more drugs?"
"Babygirl, H is cheap. I don't know, and don't need to know, what was in her trust, but no way did she need to cash it all out to fund her drug habit."
"Maybe she got herself... involved with one of the guys in the gang. Maybe he got her trust, conned her into giving him the money? I mean... why all of a sudden can a measly street gang afford a huge warehouse like the one on Kennedy?"
"Got a point," he said. When I reached for the jewelry box, he shook his head and pulled it back. "I have to get rid of this, Elsie. You can't keep drugs in your house. Or evidence like the baggies even if you flushed the H."
Well, that was true enough. I felt uncomfortable having it in my house, even locked up in the safe. "Okay."
"Are you worried your sister is dead?" he asked bluntly, making me start.
I reached up and ran a hand through my hair. "I don't know. Maybe. I guess I'm kind of hoping she's just holed up with some gang banger, too in love or too high, or both, to care about her old life."
"It's possible," he said in a guarded voice.
"But not likely," I said, interpreting his tone.
"Not likely. So you want answers."
Paine looked away for a long minute, staring out my front window before he turned back. "I can get you answers."
"How?" I asked, thinking he was going to start bashing heads together until he got them.
"Babygirl, I used to run the Third Street gang," he admitted in an empty voice. And damn if it was the absolute last thing I had expected him to say. I would have been more accepting of him telling me he was an alien from Mars who spent his free time training poodles to dance while he dressed in women's clothing.
"I'm sorry... what?"
"That gang... I ran it for years. And the man who is in charge now? He's my brother."