“How do you even know him? Why do you care?”
He pushes off the wall, leans on the sink, his face turning all hard lines and shadows, like he doesn’t like the story he has to tell. “Back when we were at UT together, my sister was dying of cancer and the insurance wasn’t paying for all of the treatments. I can hack. I told you that, and I’m damn good at it. I started doing it for money and Chad knew. What I didn’t know was that he was in deep with some powerful rich ass**les, doing some of his own dirty work.”
“What kind of dirty work?”
“Oil guys is all I know. Your dad got involved and got nervous. Chad took over and formed his Underground of followers. I had a sister who had no one but me. I didn’t want to know more and he didn’t offer.”
My stomach roils with the memory of the stranger handing my father the envelope. I believe what Jared’s saying. It adds up and it feels right.
“Chad needed a job done,” he continues. “And it paid four times any job I’d done and I was getting paid well. He knew I’d keep my mouth shut and I trusted him to keep me out of his loop of people.” His voice tightens. “My sister had five more years because I did that job and Chad and I lost contact. Until the fire. He needed to make you both disappear, and like your brother did my sister, I became your guardian angel and back-up plan.”
“And the man who brought me the paperwork and money to disappear with?”
“No idea. I just created your identity.”
“Yes. And Meg.” His voice bites on her name.
“She says she’s Chad’s wife.”
He snorts. “Yeah well, I never heard about a wife. Granted I’ve talked to him all of three times in six years, but I also didn’t hear him asking me to protect his wife on that message. And Chad was a lot of things, but he isn’t someone to turn his back on responsibility, even if love was gone. He’s a man’s man. He’d protect those who count on him to the death.”
“Yes. Yes, he would.”
“I also don’t think Meg would be sticking her tongue down some guy’s throat when she thinks her husband is missing now either, would you?”
“What? What guy?”
He punches a button on his phone and hands it to me, the display showing a photo of her in an embrace with a man twenty-plus years older than her. And I don’t need a forward shot to know that he’s the same man who’d been cuddling up to my mother and arguing with my father. “Who is he?” I look at him. “Who is he?”
“You’ve seen him before.” It’s not a question.
“Yeah. Arguing with my father, then my brother, and sticking his tongue down my mother’s throat.”
His gaze sharpens. “Sounds like we have a lot to chat with Meg about, doesn't it?”
“Yes, we do.” But I barely get the declaration out for the splintering in my brain. I sway and Jared closes the distance between us and grabs me. “Whoa. Easy there, sweetheart. You okay?”
“God, I hate that word.” I suck in a breath, resting my head on his chest and curling my fingers around his shirt. “But yes. Okay. Give me...a minute. Or...two...” Prickling begins in my head and I both welcome it for the memory I need to embrace and curse the timing.
At the sound of Meg’s voice, my head jerks up, sending shooting pain through my skull and I blink into Jared’s worried light brown eyes. He presses his fingers to my mouth, giving me a silent warning.
I nod, my mind racing. “Yes,” I call out. “I’m fine. I’m sick again. Can you get me a Sprite or something, please?”
“Oh. Sure. Be right back.” Footsteps sound and fade.
His hands close on my shoulders, too intimate, too like the way only Liam should, but not exactly wrong without being right. “We need to move now,” he says. “Are you able to?”
“I’m fine. It’s just--”
“Blood sugar,” he supplies, reminding me of the excuse I’ve used with him in the past. “Right. Heard that before. The only reason I haven’t grabbed Meg and dragged her someplace and forced the bitch to talk was that I wanted to talk to you first. I needed you to trust me. And as much as I don’t want you with that woman any longer than you have to be, we need to get her alone where I can flex my substantial ability to be influential when I want to be. Go with her to a hotel. I’ll follow.”
“We get answers to where the hell Chad is.”
“You think she knows?”
“She seems to know a hell of a lot more than either of us.”
“Yes, she does,” I say bitterly, and the idea that Meg has played a role in hurting my brother seems to have shaken my flashback completely, leaving me with one goal on my mind. Exposing what’s in her head, not mine.
“The sooner we do this, the better,” I say, and he steps away from me, leaving me suddenly aware that his legs have been pressed way too snugly against mine.
He knows too. It’s in the air around us, wrapping us in an awareness that has me cutting my gaze and turning to the door. His hand comes down on my shoulder, and I do not feel the liquid heat Liam’s touch creates in me, but I feel warmth and strength. “If you feel threatened at all, get the hell away from her. I’ll have your back. Like Chad had mine.”
Emotion I can’t afford to feel wells in my chest and I reach for the door, unlocking it and pulling it open. I inhale and exit, leaving my new “protector” behind, and he is that. I don’t doubt it. Jared. I never did. I enter the restaurant, scanning for Meg, but I don’t see her. The front door opens and shuts and I take off running. Bursting through the doors, I have just enough time to see the rental car disappear down the drive.