I shivered at the unforgiving tone.
“I run this fucking city. I don’t care how much money Landon’s got, no one threatens me and gets away with it. You’ll do this or I’ll fucking kill him. He wouldn’t be the first to cross me, and I doubt he’d be the last. I protect what’s mine at all costs, and right now he’s in my fucking way.”
I recoiled at the venom in his voice. I was too stunned, too scared to speak. I chanced a look at Connor who stood apathetic and emotionless a few feet behind Daniel. My chances of getting out of this situation on my terms were quickly dwindling. I fought the tremble that coursed through me. I was trapped.
Cautiously I tilted my head up to Daniel, trying to read him. He stared back with a smug glitter in his eyes.
“You wouldn’t,” I challenged, my jaw resolute.
He lifted his hand and I flinched back. I opened my eyes when he brushed his knuckles over the stinging flesh of my cheek, a surprising act of tenderness after what he’d just done and said.
“I certainly would, Erica. Don’t doubt it.” His voice was low, deliberately slow, his breath spiked with alcohol. “You’re smart so it won’t take long for you to learn how things work in this family. If you care for him, you’ll stay away from him. We don’t need any more accidents. Do you understand?”
Fear sliced through me, his words chilling my blood. When he put it like that, nothing had ever been more clear. I swallowed before answering, trying to keep my voice steady.
“Let me out here.”
Connor slowed to a stop a few blocks from the office. I reached for the handle. Daniel caught my wrist, preventing me from exiting the vehicle, which was all I’d wanted to do for the past twenty minutes. I’d loosely considered jumping out of it while we were driving, but thought better of it.
“I know you’re going to think I did this for the campaign, but I did this for you. For us. I made a sacrifice, and now you need to make one.”
I stared blankly out the window. After all of that, he wanted my blessing, my forgiveness? That he did was almost laughable.
“Look at me.”
I closed my eyes a second before facing him.
“He’s too close to all of this, and I can’t take any more chances. Try to understand what’s at risk before you decide to hate me.”
I caught a glimmer of regret in his eyes. Maybe he was sobering up, but the part of me that might have softened at his words before had been silenced. Only days ago, I’d longed to know him better. Now I’d gotten a glimpse of who he really was—a dark and violent man under the suits and the clout. I’d seen too much, and there was no going back now.
“Can I go now?” I wasn’t sure how much longer I could survive in his proximity. I longed for the muggy summer air outside the car, to be free of him and his goddamn henchman. His threats and his warped brand of paternal love were suffocating me. The urge to scream simmered below the surface. If I didn’t get out of the car soon, I was going to boil over.
Finally he released me. I left the vehicle as gracefully as I could when I wanted to scramble out and run as hard as my legs would take me. Instead, I kept a steady normal pace back to the office, never looking back.
When I arrived, James was there. His gaze was glued to his computer screen. He stood and came closer when he saw me.
“Jesus, are you okay?”
I hadn’t been crying, but my face felt hot and swollen. I looked to the floor, self-conscious and all too aware of the heated skin where Daniel had slugged me. I hoped it didn't look as bad as it felt—physically, anyway. Nothing could look as terrible as I felt on the inside.
“I’m fine,” I insisted. I considered staying, working through whatever he’d put together, but I couldn’t think straight. Not a chance. “We’ll need to pick this up on Monday. Thanks for coming in though.”
He was silent for a moment. He touched my chin, lifting my eyes to his. His were surprisingly intense. I’d never been this close to him in good light to really see them, but they were a deep fathomless blue with specks of gray. He brushed the heated flesh gently with the back of his hand, his expression unreadable.
“Who did this to you?”
I stepped back, suddenly panicked by the contact. “Nobody. It’s nothing. I’m fine.”
I retreated to my office. My hands were trembling so hard I could barely grasp my things as I shoved them into my shoulder bag. James appeared the second I finished.
“See you Monday,” I said quickly as I passed by him, leaving before he could say anything more.
I walked for blocks until my feet wouldn’t take me any farther. I settled on a bench in a park nestled in the middle of the city. The streets were quiet. The clouds had begun to clear and the sun was thinking about coming out again. Unfortunately, that did little for my spirits.
Daniel’s threat played on repeat in my mind. If we were gambling with anything but someone’s life, I might have considered calling his bluff. But he’d killed Mark. He’d even gone so far as to make it look like a suicide, and the cops, even if they weren’t being paid off, would probably buy it. Daniel wouldn’t have done it any other way. Case closed, someone’s life snuffed out. Not that Mark’s life was the most honorable, but who was Daniel to decide? He’d killed his own stepson.
What was keeping him from doing the same thing to Blake? He was right. Blake could buy and sell Daniel. But Daniel had power and an impressive network of connections built over generations. I didn’t doubt his ability to make someone disappear if he decided it needed to happen. The only thing I doubted was whether he could do it knowing how much Blake meant to me. That depended heavily on how much I meant to Daniel. On one hand, he’d all but told me I was his pride and joy. On the other hand, he’d backhanded me into a car and seemed to take smug pleasure in exerting that kind of control over me. I wouldn’t call that love.
But I had to do something and find a way out of this mess that kept Blake and me together. If I could buy us some time, I could get closer to Daniel and make him understand that Blake wasn’t a threat, wasn’t his enemy. If I could do that, Blake and I could have a future. Somehow I needed to convince Blake to give me that time, though, and that wasn’t a conversation I could imagine right now. We fought and bickered and meddled, but we wanted to be together. We were closer than we’d ever been. Now I needed to put distance between us. If I didn’t… I couldn’t even think about what could happen if I didn’t.