“Why did you come back?” she asks me before brushing her cheek against my chest and planting a small kiss in the dip just beneath my throat.

I confess a truth she could use against me. Even knowing that, still I admit, “I don’t want you to be alone either.”

Jase

The snow’s falling. It’s only a light dusting, but it decided to come right this moment, right as my brother leads his love across the cemetery.

One grave has been there for half her life. The one next to it has freshly upturned dirt. The snow covers each of the graves equally as Aria silently mourns, her body shaking slightly against Carter’s chest.

I spoke to her father only days before he met his death. A death he knew was coming. A death that always comes for men like us.

The powerful man asked me to find a way. Swallowing his pride when he thought his daughter was going to die because of him.

Talvery wasn’t ready to lose his daughter. She swears he was going to kill her.

That’s the irony in it all.

He was a bad man. And that’s the crux of the problem. She expected him to do bad things, even if she loved him in his last days, although I don’t believe she did love him anymore.

She swears he was going to shoot her, but there was only one gun cocked and it wasn’t her father’s. She heard it, she speaks of it, but she doesn’t realize what really happened and I don’t have the heart to tell her.

The man who pulled the trigger confessed to me. He said in the old man’s last breaths, he laid down his gun and said goodbye to his daughter. But she didn’t see, clinging to a man she loved and not to the man who gave up fighting to ensure she would be loved one more day.

That’s what this life brings. A twisted love of betrayal. A reality that is unjust and riddled with deceit.

Aria lays a single rose across her mother’s grave, but not her father’s, even though when he called me, he said he would give up everything right then and there, if I promised we’d keep her safe.

There was no negotiation we could offer.

Her father had to die. And Aria was never in harm’s way. The man had nothing to barter with, not when he knew we’d take it all. I never told Carter. And I never will. The perception that her father was a ruthless crime lord past his date of redemption is what makes it okay. It makes it righteous that she only lays a rose down for her mother, a woman who betrayed everyone to benefit herself.

Watching Carter hold her hand, kiss her hair and comfort her, only reminds me of what could have been. If the gun cocked had been Talvery’s and my brother was in that grave instead.

Bright lights reflect a section of falling snow. Headlights from a cop car pulling in across the parking lot I’m sitting in.

Gripping the steering wheel tighter, I take into account everyone here. It’s only me, still in the driver’s seat waiting for Carter to bring Aria back and the sole cop parking his vehicle across from mine.

Before Carter has a chance to look behind him, taking attention away from Aria, I message him. I’ve got it. Stay with her.

A second passes, and another before Carter looks down at the message, back at me, and then to the cop, who opens his door in that moment.

Officer Walsh.

The sound of his door closing echoes in the vacant air. It’s hollow and reflects its own surroundings.

As I open my car door, welcoming the cold air, breathing it in and letting it bite across my skin, I nod at Carter, who nods in return, holding Aria closer, but not making a move to leave.

The snow crunches beneath my shoes, soft and gentle as it falls. It vanishes beneath my footprints as I make my way around to the front of my car, leaning against it and waiting for him.

As I take in the officer, a crooked smile forms on my face. We’re wearing the same coat. A dark gray wool blend. “Nice coat, Officer Walsh,” I greet him and offer a hand. He’s hesitant to accept, but he does.

Meeting him toe to toe, eye to eye, his grip is strong.

“So you’ve heard of me?” he asks. I lick my lower lip, looking over my shoulder to check on Carter one more time before I answer him, “I heard someone was asking about me, someone who fit your description.”

“Funny,” he answers with a hint of humor in his voice, although his pale blue eyes are only assessing. “I heard the same about you.”

“That I was asking about you?” I ask with feigned shock as I bring my thumb up to point back at me. “I only asked who was asking about me and my club.”

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