I stepped outside, into a bloody nightmare, my eyes going unerringly to the crumpled figure of Stephan. I didn’t make a sound, but my face was wet with tears.
He has to be okay, I told myself. I could survive a lot of things, but I knew that losing Stephan wasn’t one of them.
I was so intent on this thought that I didn’t even look at the monster amidst the carnage for long moments. I had made my way closer to Stephan before I raised my eyes to those pale blue ones that looked so much like my own.
It was like staring into the eyes of a rabid animal, his malevolence written in every tense line of his face. It was hard to imagine that he had ever been a sane person, looking at him now. But had he ever been sane? I couldn’t have said. Perhaps sanity had never been the question. He wasn’t even a human to me, but a monstrous demon that destroyed and terrified. And the only one who had ever been able to act as protection between him and me now lay crumpled at my feet, red circles on his chest. He had finally done it. The monster had broken me.
My instinct was to freeze, and so I watched without moving as he approached, some awful expression that was shaped like a smile overtaking his face.
I didn’t have that violent thing inside of me like my father did. I didn’t have an urge to hurt anyone, not for any reason. It wasn’t even an urge that I understood. Or at least I hadn’t—not until Stephan lay crumpled at my feet.
My eyes moved from that horrible face and to the tiny pistol at my father’s side. I watched it like a lifeline, letting him see what I was looking at—what I’d fixated on.
He laughed, a dry cackle, and the madness of the laugh made me note, in an absentminded kind of way, that he was on something. Some kind of drug was racing through him, making him crazier, making him stronger, anesthetized to both pain and fear. The man had been a beast without some drug jacking up his system, so it was hardly a reassuring realization.
“I warned you, sotnos. I warned you that if you went to the police, no one could keep you safe from me, but you didn’t believe me. And now your friend is dead. Was it worth it?”
I whimpered, a wholly involuntary sound. He can’t be dead, I told myself. I had to believe it, or I would just crumple into a heap on the ground myself, and never get back up.
My eyes were still glued to that little pistol in his hand.
He laughed again, waving it at me. “You can’t take your eyes off this. You think this will help you? You don’t have the nerve, just like your mother. You couldn’t hurt a fly. Worthless, mewling women.”
He held it right in front of my face, smiling grimly, his bloodshot, crazy eyes glued to mine, their maniacal gleam piercing me. “Take it, if you dare. See what happens, sotnos.”
I never looked away from his eyes. I couldn’t remember a time when I hadn’t hated him, but I felt it now like a fresh wound. I could kill him without remorse, I realized. He had done that to me, finally broken that part of me. I would not regret if he were dead, even if it was at my hand. I would be putting down a wild beast on a killing rampage. The only regret could be what he’d managed to do before he was stopped.
I wasn’t my mother, though I could wish that I had only taken after her. As much as I wanted to run from the notion, I had enough of my father in me at least for this. It wasn’t even a question, not even a split second of indecision, not with Stephan lying motionless at my feet. I had erred grievously, I saw clearly, in keeping his secret, in living in fear. Far better if he had killed me back then for turning him in than to let him wreak all of this destruction now. That was my regret, and I felt it keenly as I looked at him, surrounded by his victims.
If only I had looked beyond my own fear of what he had done, and thought about all that he was still capable of doing.
Yes, holding my silence for all those years was my regret, but it was my only regret. This thing I was about to do I would not regret, not for a moment.
I had no words for him. Nothing would do my hatred justice, and he wouldn’t hear them besides. He had never valued me, and you didn’t hear someone you didn’t value. My words couldn’t touch him. So I didn’t bother to tell him how I felt. I showed him.
He handed that gun to me with no hesitation, no fear, and I took it, turning it into him with the same motion. I shoved it hard into his chest, aiming for his heart. I squeezed the trigger, barely even feeling the gun’s recoil in my hand as it fired into him.
Foolishly, I thought that would be the end of it.
The monster laughed, wrenching the gun out of my hand. I’d shot him in his chest, a chest already red with his own blood, and he only laughed. I got this sudden crazy notion that he really wasn’t human. How was he still standing?
He opened his mouth, and blood sprayed my face as he spoke. “My turn, sotnos.”
He gripped my hair, pulling my head back, holding it immobile. I began to struggle, but it was no good.
He put the gun inside of my mouth with no effort at all, pushing my own hand over the handle, that maniac’s smile still fixed on his face.
I jerked my face from side to side, caught between his hand in my hair and the gun in my mouth. I was still shaking my head desperately when two simultaneous gunshots sounded. The world went black.
My chest was on fire. Every breath was agony but I managed to open my eyes just a crack when I heard her voice. Of course she had come for me.
No, no, no, I thought in despair, as I saw her father approach her.
It took me an excruciatingly long time to turn my head to the side. Blake lay unmoving, less than four feet away.
I felt a huge wave of relief as I realized that there was a gun near her side. I knew I couldn’t make a sound as I dragged myself to it. It was a race, and I couldn’t let the pain so much as slow me.
Another shot fired before I’d made it halfway, and I had to keep from crying out in distress, or from looking to see what had happened. There was no time to look. I needed to get that gun and fire.
I grabbed the gun with a trembling hand as soon as I got within reach. I rolled onto my back, the agony of the movement making my vision go fuzzy for precious moments.
I sighted on her father’s head and fired.
No, I thought in agony when I saw that I was just a split second too late. Watching her fall at the same time as her father was a sight I’d never forget. No. Please, no.
I blacked out.
JAMES - MINUTES EARLIER
Normally I thoroughly enjoyed a good negotiation. Even knowing the likely results, I’d been known to draw them out. Not today, though. I felt a strange tension eating away at me. I enjoyed giving Tristan shit, as I always did, but it was a little lackluster today.
“These had better be some extra fancy card tricks,” I told him as the lawyers were making yet another revision to the contract. It was pure cussed orneriness that drove me to say it to him. The man was a genius at his craft. In just a few short years, he had made his name in the world of big time Vegas magic shows. He had brought a stunning and gritty new flare to an industry that had desperately needed a makeover, and that was just with his sleight of hand alone. The best part was, I knew that he hadn’t even begun to show us all of his tricks. He was constantly coming up with something new to show us. And as expected, the man knew just how much he was worth, and we would be paying him accordingly.
Tristan grinned, flashing white teeth at me. He checked his watch with a raised brow, very obviously flashing my own Rolex at me. I looked down at my bare wrist and cursed. He was an entire table’s length away from me.
“How did you do that from over there?” I asked him.
He pointed at the lawyers that were currently haggling with his agent. “I believe it’s your contract that stipulates that I’m not allowed to talk about things like that. Trade secrets and all. Your lawyers would probably have to make a revision if I told you. Do you really have that kind of time?” He tapped my watch for emphasis.
I laughed. It was hard not to. He was an obnoxious son of a bitch, but an endlessly entertaining one. “We’ll have to revise it anyway, if you’re planning to give yourself a fifty thousand dollar watch as a bonus.”
He reached his hand across the table, the watch appearing in his palm in a blur. I reached to take it from him, and he had it on my wrist with the same blurring speed. I shook my head at him. Crafty bastard.
“Congratulations on the engagement. The news is everywhere. How did you get her to agree? I would have sworn Bianca had more sense.”
I glared at him, but it was half-hearted at best. Just the mention of my upcoming nuptials only made me want to grin like a fool. “I begged her so pathetically that she finally just took pity on me,” I told him.
“That was nice of her. She could do way better. No offense.”
I just laughed, because he said no offense while so blatantly trying to offend. “None taken. Eventually she just found that she’d rather be able to keep track of the man who was stalking her so relentlessly. I promised her that she could put a bell on me.”
Tristan shook his head. “Poor girl. She never had a chance. You probably courted her with your hostile takeover approach.”
I rolled my eyes. “I don’t even do hostile takeovers. Stick to magic tricks, Tristan. Your knowledge of the business world is embarrassing.” I had found him to be uncannily proficient on the business end of his work, but this was just how we were. It was nice to be able to take shots at someone who was as insensitive as I was when it came to being insulted.
Tristan grinned. “Sure thing, Boss. Are you inviting me to dinner? If I’m gonna sign this paper for you, I expect you to at least cook me dinner. And I want to see your fiancée again.”
“Why the hell not? Sure, come to dinner, if you can restrain yourself from stealing the silverware.” I pulled out my phone. “Let me call Bianca. We’ll invite the guys.”
Bianca answered promptly. “Hey,” she said, a smile in her voice. “How’s work going?” That smile in her voice made me smile, and that voice made me hard between one breath and the next. Just one word from her, uttered in that steady timbre of hers, affected me more than any other woman had in my life. Images of all of the ways that I’d had her, all of the ways that I planned to fuck her mindless, flashed through my mind, distracting me like nothing else could. God, I wanted her. Just the thought of her was more erotic to me than actual sex had ever been with other women. I’d felt it from the start with her, and I was only falling deeper with time.
“It could be going better, but at least it’s almost done,” I told her, having to concentrate to do so. I made myself stop thinking about being inside of her for one innocent phone conversation, but it was a struggle. My cock twitched restlessly, and I was thankful that it was hidden under the conference table just then. “My lawyers and Tristan’s agent are making some revisions, but that shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes or so, and then we’ll be done, thank God. Tristan is trying to bankrupt the casino for some two-bit magic tricks.” I looked at Tristan, smiling as I said it.
He flipped me off.