My cell phone rings and I quickly answer it to hear Chen’s voice. “Turn on the TV behind the bar.” The line goes dead.

I grab Gia and motion Coco forward, grabbing the remote the bartender has left on the counter. Switching channels, I find an image of Sheridan being walked out of his offices in cuffs. The caption reads: “Oil mogul and associates arrested on suspicion of selling U.S. secrets to China.”

I turn to Gia and my hands come down on her arms. “It’s really over.” I pull her to me and kiss her fast and hard, needing that connection with her, before I take her hand and lead her toward the door. Stopping at the door, I take one last look at my past. It’s gone, but it will never be forgotten. And as I face forward, leading us into the night, it’s with the hope that Gia, the woman who has made me whole again, is my future.

GIA AND I talk to Liam and Amy on the way to the airport, relief and some uncertainty in all of us. It’s midnight by the time we arrive in Dallas and make our way to a hotel for the night, planning to go to the property I own the next day when we can stock the kitchen and make it home for a few months. Still being cautious, I check us in with fake IDs, not ready to call this over until we have a few months behind us and a long-term plan to deal with the cylinder in place.

Once in the room, we order room service and Gia strips to her T-shirt and panties while I go down to my boxers. We’ve just finished eating when the news reports that Rollin has been captured after an anonymous tip regarding his location was received, along with proof to connect him to his father’s illegal activities.

“Oh, thank God,” Gia sighs. “I thought they were going to kill him, and I really didn’t want blood on our hands.” Her brow furrows. “But no word on Jared. You’re sure the Chinese took him?”

“Yes,” I say grimly. “They took him, but unfortunately he wasn’t a part of the deal we made with the Chinese. He’s a smart manipulator, and I wouldn’t put it past him to negotiate his life for his services.”

“How bad is that for us?”

“We can’t know, and I don’t like loose ends. Even Meg’s disappearance bothers me, though I’m of the opinion she outlived her use and Rollin got rid of her.”

“Rollin’s proven he places no value on human life.”

“Greed is dangerous, and it changes people. Case in point: Jared.”

“No,” Gia says, her hand sliding to my leg. “Jared just showed his true character, the same way you did when you made the choice to protect the cylinder rather than take the money and run. I hope this lets you see that you aren’t the monster you believe yourself to be.”

“I believed he was the good one out of the two of us. Some part of me wants to believe there is more to Jared’s story, like there was to mine.”

“Maybe—”

“No.” I shake my head. “I saw the look in his eyes. He’s not the man I thought he was, and we need to protect the cylinder once and for all. I think I have a solution.” I show her the hotel notepad I’ve been doodling on.

She glances at it and gives me a curious look. “Circles inside circles? You were drawing those on the plane, too.”

“A perfect circle,” I explain, “unbroken by being protected by many layers.”

She shakes her head. “I don’t understand.”

“The loose ends make the urgency to protect the cylinder greater. My idea is to create a circle of people all over the world, a diverse group from all walks of life. Each has one piece of the puzzle, and passes that piece down through generations.”

“How would we pick the people?”

“Good question. Obviously, we need to think through criteria and a vetting process. And we need to do it sooner than later. We bought time with what happened today, but the circle will take time to develop, and we need to be aggressive about making it happen.”

“Agreed, but in the meantime, I was thinking on the plane—you are the only one who knows where the cylinder is.”

“If anything happens to me, I made sure Liam knows what to say to Amy. She’ll find it.”

“Which is better than no clue at all, but anything that’s linked to Amy is dangerous for her. And Amy and Liam are always together. What if something happens to him? What if we place the clue in a sealed envelope, and pay an attorney to mail it to certain people in a certain order if we’re out of touch for more than a certain amount of time? So maybe Liam, then Amy, and if neither of them are alive, Tellar?”

I give her a slow nod. “That’s a good plan. Yes. It needs some logistical thought, but it works. We’ll pick some random attorney in Kansas or some crazy location no one will think we’d even consider, and set it up.”

“Good. That makes me feel more secure until we set up the Circle of Trust.” She gives me a tentative look. “Chad. I want to know where the cylinder is. It’s my father’s work. I just . . . I want to know.”

“What you don’t know, you can’t tell.”

“Don’t do that to me. Please. I’m begging you. If anyone suspects the cylinder exists, they’ll come after me anyway. And if they make me talk, you’ve given me a clue that leads to Amy. Amy is safer if I know. Nothing should lead back to anyone but you and me. No one else can be allowed to get hurt by this. We’re a team now, Chad. You and me. We battle this. We take the risks.”

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