Brad came home at 1:00 a.m. His cousin and Martha were in the den, Stevie watching TV and Martha dozing in a recliner. Brad leaned on the door frame, his hands in his pockets, and asked Stevie the question with his eyes.
“She’s upstairs. Asleep, in the guest room.” At his words Martha stirred, then opened her eyes, seeing Brad and nodding hello.
“The guest room.” Brad’s tone was quiet, questioning.
Martha swung the recliner closed and stood, stiff-legged, and came over to Brad. “There was a slip of the tongue, Brad. She knows who you are.”
Brad’s eyes showed his anger, but he patted Martha’s shoulder and kissed her head. “Thanks for keeping an eye on her. You go on to bed.”
Her shoulders slumped, she walked over to Stevie, kissing his cheek and squeezing him hard. “See you soon, Stevie. Don’t be such a stranger.” Then she left, and Brad followed her to the back door, waiting at the window until he saw her enter her apartment. He locked the door, then swung by the fridge on his way back to the den.
He rubbed his brow, stress evident on his face, and met Stevie’s eyes across the room. Walking forward, he set two cold beers down on the table, pushing one to Stevie. “Figured you might want one.”
Stevie grinned, and used his shirt to open it, taking a big sip. “Didn’t want to take one earlier. Thought you might want me sober.”
“You thought right.” Brad sank into a big leather chair, putting his shoes on the table and opening his own bottle, tossing the cap toward the corner trash can. It missed and Brad wearily closed his eyes, resting his head against the worn leather.
“So, what’s the verdict?” Stevie asked.
Brad opened his eyes in response, lifting his head and his bottle. He took a sip and then played with the liquid on his tongue, staring forward, thinking. Stevie let him think, knowing that he would get an answer eventually.
“I am in a bit of a predicament.” Brad spoke slowly, deliberately, his deep voice filling the quiet room.
“If you need help, you know you have my loyalty.”
“This is not your fight.”
“It’s not yours, either.” Stevie leaned forward, dropping his voice to almost a whisper. “She’s pu**y, Brad. I know you hate collateral damage, but you need to let this one go. They will make it quick. She won’t suffer. And then all of this, the Broward mess, the family rift, the takeover complications, will disappear. And you can go back to your clean life and continuing pretending that you’re not numero due of the Magiano dynasty.” His eyes searched Brad’s and Stevie shook his head in disgust at what he found there. “Don’t give me that look. You know this world. I don’t know that girl, and I have no loyalty to her. My loyalty is to you, and I love you like a brother. You standing up on this—for her—it’s going to rip apart every bit of this life you’ve worked so hard for. She’s a f**k. Maybe a hot one, but one who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. These girls come and go—you know that.”
Brad spoke, steel in his words. “Because you’re one of the few friends I have, I’m not going to break your f**king face for that statement. I’m also not going to dignify it with a response. Except for this. She’s not just pu**y. I don’t know what she is yet, but she means something to me. You’re right. I know this world, and I know the risks involved. And I’ll tell you the same thing I told my father. If they come for her, they will have to go through me. And I have no problem dying in that fight.” His eyes cold, resolute, he drained the rest of his beer and stood, walking toward the kitchen. On his way out, Stevie spoke.
“Martha was right.” His voice was bitter, quiet, and Brad dropped the bottle into a trash can and turned to face him.
“Right about what?”
“You love her.” He spat out the words as if they were dirty.
“No.” He shook his head quickly, looking away.
“Christ, Brad, you’ve known the girl, what, a month or two?” Stevie stood up, walked over to Brad, looking into his face, which was growing darker. “You, with the heart of steel and the unending supply of ass. You’re supposed to be the smart one!”
Brad’s right fist connected with Stevie’s chin in a strong uppercut, his left hand grabbing the gun out of his holster. In one smooth motion, he flipped the gun around and cocked it, pointing it at Stevie’s head. The wounded man recoiled, and he glared at Brad, not bothering to wipe the blood pouring from his split upper lip. They faced each other, two experienced men in the game of war, one unarmed and knowing his weakness.
Stevie laughed, cold and hard. “You need every friend you got right now.”
“I don’t need any more bullshit right now. And you’re bleeding all over my f**king carpet.”
Stevie walked slowly around him, eyeing the gun, leaving the study and heading for the front door. “When you’re over this shit, I’m gonna want that gun back.” Then he left, slamming the door behind him.
Brad locked the doors and reset the alarm. Then he turned off the lights and walked upstairs.
* * *
HE CHECKED THE master bedroom first, hoping that she had moved there and was waiting for him in bed. But his bed was empty, the room silent. He turned to leave and then stopped, seeing something. Pieces of wood and ripped canvas scattered the floor and bed. He stepped forward, trying to distinguish the items in the dimly lit room. Then, realizing what they were, he swallowed a smile and headed to the other bedroom.
He opened the guest-room door quietly, stepping over a tray of untouched food and walking silently into the dark room. Julia was sleeping, her breathing quiet and regular. She lay at an awkward position, her arms splayed, head tilted up by too many pillows.
He watched her sleep, his mind thinking over Stevie’s accusation. Was it possible? Or was this his knight in shining armor instinct? He had felt things for her, had told her as much this morning. But it was way too soon for love.
He felt out of sorts, a sensation that he was not used to and was uncomfortable with. He was used to being in control, to manipulating circumstances so that everything flowed to his liking. Staring at her, frustrated, he let the thought move around in his mind. Love. The thought floated, flipped, then settled. Maybe they were right. And in the realization, he saw light at the end of the tunnel.
I woke from the weight of his body, pressing on the bed as he pulled back the covers and climbed in. I felt cold air, then hard warmth pressing against my back, his arms wrapping my body and pulling me close to him. He moved one of the pillows underneath my head, and my neck relaxed into a more comfortable position.