Nothing stays a secret forever.
I stood there, covered in blood, facing four men who I was hopelessly bound to, who now knew I’d been lying to them, and who might just kill me for it.
Carlos’ body still rested on the floor behind me, and I’d have put a bullet into Rune—mostly because he was the biggest target—if I hadn’t run out of ammunition.
Which was part of the reason I couldn’t blame them for the seething anger they stared at me with.
“Kelsey?” Dane asked, as if he might have misheard the entire conversation. His gaze didn’t stray from my eyes. Was he trying to see the girl he’d known there? Trying to see if he could catch a glimpse and recognize me?
Good luck, buddy. That girl died ten years ago.
I nodded, dropping my arm since the gun was heavy and useless at the moment.
“I’m pretty sure you can work that out for yourself.” I risked glancing across the four men, not meeting their eyes but searching for a reaction from each. Mostly, they wore shock, as though they had to replay everything that had happened between us to come to terms with the idea that I wasn’t who they’d thought I was, that they’d already known me.
Colton took a step toward me, and I took a big jump backward.
He froze, his expression hardening as though he didn’t care for the reaction. Too bad. Only an idiot would trust them, especially now. They had every reason to kill me, even if they hadn’t before.
Still, he didn’t argue, didn’t try to reassure me. Instead, he glanced around the room, sliding into a familiar ‘all business’ mode. After a second, he nodded. “We’ve got work to do. Five bodies downstairs, one up here. There’s too much blood and not enough time to clean it properly. Let it look like the hit it was—just make sure no one knows who did it. Let’s get rid of any evidence.”
“There isn’t any,” I snapped.
Colton gave me a chilling look, one that reminded me of why I’d backed away earlier. The man was terrifying when he was calm like that. “How about the bloody handprint on the banister? That left a good set of fingerprints. Or perhaps the video footage?”
“There isn’t any footage. I made sure the power was off before I got in front of any cameras.”
“For this house, sure. You failed to notice that the camera at the neighbor’s house watches their RV and also gets a look at the front door of this place. Also, did you bother to find out if he has any universal power supplies hooked up to his camera feeds? This was sloppy, Kelsey, no matter what you want to say.”
The criticism sucked, but it wasn’t nearly as painful as the way he said my name. That took the breath from my lungs, threatened to connect me back to the girl I’d been, to the life that had been stolen away.
“I can help,” I said, rather than trying to argue with him. The reality was that it had been sloppy. It had been impulsive and foolish, and I still had too much alcohol in my system to pretend I was on the best footing.
“Not a chance.” Colton looked over at Bray, who still hadn’t said a word. “Get her back home with Dane. Rune and I will clean up this mess.”
A moment of hope hit me, the idea of getting a moment alone, of figuring out a way to put everything back right again, before I’d managed to royally fuck up the entire plan.
It fled, however, when Colton landed his heavy gaze back on me. “And when we get back? We’re going to have one hell of a talk, Nem.”
I had a feeling I wasn’t going to enjoy the sort of talk he meant…
* * * *
There were moments when life liked to really kick a man in the balls. I’d experienced plenty of those, when everything lined up perfectly to fuck me over.
And this was sure as hell one of them.
I sat in the backseat of the car beside Nem—beside Kelsey—and couldn’t get my brain to catch up. Me, who never shut the fuck up, couldn’t figure out a single thing to say.
Now that I knew, I wondered how I’d ever missed it. How couldn’t I have seen it before?
The same nose, even the same smirk when she didn’t want to laugh but couldn’t help it, the same damned eyes.
Sure, she’d grown up. The last time I’d seen her, that morning before it all went down, she’d been seventeen, that age when kids thought they were adults and were only too quick to want to prove it. She’d started to fill out a bit, to lose some of that gangly stage girls went through when they got taller but lacked the curves that came with adulthood.
A flash of Nem naked hit me, a memory of just how much I enjoyed those curves coming over me.
How could it be her, though?
A memory from ten years ago, from a night I never wanted to remember, came back to me, aided by the way the streetlights flashed inside the SUV as we passed them…
I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t do a damn thing beyond putting one foot in front of the other. Getting news when I could do something, that was one thing. Adrenaline hit a person, put them into fight or flight so they could solve the problem.
If I’d gotten the news when I’d been in town, I’d have been at the house within ten minutes, running into the damned flames myself, uncaring that they still roared. I would have happily burned alive in that house if it meant saving Caroline or Kelsey.
Instead, it had taken three hours to get back, and by the time we did?
It was all over.
The fire was out, the house nothing but charred remains, blackened supports and soot.
Caroline was dead. Kyler had called and told us the news. The drive back, not wanting to tell Kenz, had been torture on a level I hadn’t known existed. Kyler would tell her—it wasn’t our place to do so.
After dropping her off, we’d come to the house. Why? Maybe some stupid vigil, some sentimental desire to stand watch over what we lost.
As much as Caroline’s death hurt, it was nothing compared to Kelsey. She’d been too young, too sweet for this to have happened. It was as if some hollowed-out piece of me remained, something she’d taken with her, had burned away beside her.
I remembered when she’d tried to kiss me just weeks before, her young want, the foolish romantic notions, and how I’d set her aside. It wasn’t that I hadn’t wanted her…
Fuck, I had.
I’d just cared too damn much to let it happen. She didn’t know what she wanted, was too young to have a clue, and I wasn’t about to let her keep going with that stupid fascination.
Kelsey had a real life ahead of her, a chance at a family, at a home, at all the things she deserved. She’d get none of that if she pursued the idiotic idea of some romance with me, with my brothers.
She’d get none of that now…
Yet, staring at the ash, the rubble, it wasn’t just the loss of her that dug at me. It was the loss of the stupid fantasy I held on to as well.
An idea I kept locked away except for the brief moments it broke free, usually at night just before I fell asleep, when I thought…what if? What if she grew up a bit more, figured out her life more, then…
It didn’t matter anymore, did it?
She was gone. Gone because someone had targeted her to get back at Kyler, gone because someone had been a coward and killed an unarmed child.
I followed Bray around the house, to the backyard. I didn’t need to ask him what he was looking for.
Bray was quiet, but he held hope the rest of us had lost a long time before. “She knew where the safe room was.”
“The safe room is ashes,” I reminded him. It had been created to hide a person, not to protect them from flames.
Even if she’d made it there, she’d have been trapped inside while she burned. That was a worse thought than her taking a bullet or two.
Still, I let him hold on to the idea. It would get torn free soon enough.
In the backyard, the blackened grass hid signs of anything. I was caught by the patio swing there, the cushions burned, the metal like a skeleton left over. I remembered how Kelsey would sit there in the mornings, watching the sky as the sun rose. I woke early, so I’d usually been the one out there with her.
We didn’t talk much, one of the few times I could just be silent, where I could rest. She’d been too fucking good for me, for any of us, for the whole damned world we lived in. She’d given me a sense of calm I’d never found in any other place.
I pulled my gaze from it, trying to bury my reactions, trying to take the pain that shot through me and shove it down beneath everything else before it consumed me.
On the back wall, where the safe room had been, was…nothing. The fire had eaten it away, leaving no evidence there had been a hidden space there at all.
Bray dropped to his knees, placing his hand on the foundation there, in the ash that was the only thing left. He hung his head forward, his eyes closed.
I got that feeling, the pain, but I didn’t let it take over.
Instead, I turned to find Colton coming around the corner, Rune on his heels, their matching expressions hard.
“Anything?” I asked, even though I knew the answer. What was I hoping for? For him to explain how it hadn’t really happened? That it was all a big mistake?
Colton shook his head, a quick jerk that screamed anger. “It was Cantor Lorris.”
“Kyler gave me the name. The body they found out front, just outside of the fire, is Cantor’s second. Seemed to take a slug when they were coming in—guess the security tried to do something.”
I struggled to understand it, to believe it. I’d done some horrible shit in my life, all in the name of duty or power or loyalty, but I’d never slaughtered innocents.
Spouses and kids were off-limits—always.
Of course, expecting others to live by my rules would do nothing but cause heartache. The reality was that other people in our world weren’t as principled as we were, and this was more proof of it.
“Why kill them and not Kyler?” I asked.
“Kyler got a text message from Caroline this morning, after we left, saying Kelsey wasn’t feeling well and asking him to come home.”
A frown touched my features. “Caroline wouldn’t ever do that…” Caroline was tough and independent. She wouldn’t call for help over something as trivial as Kelsey not feeling well, and she sure as hell wouldn’t have called Kyler home.
“Exactly. Near as I can figure, they broke in around nine in the morning and must have taken Caroline’s cell and sent the text message. They were probably hoping Kyler would speed home and they’d get him too—take out the whole family in one swoop. Hell, I bet they thought Kenz was there, too.”
“And when Kyler no doubt answered that he was busy, they decided to cut their losses,” I added.
“Looks like being a selfish fucker saved Kyler’s ass again.” Rune didn’t look at anyone else, his voice a mess of fury, as if he were just looking for a target for all that aggression.
“So what now?” I asked though we all knew the answer. It had been our job to take care of Caroline and Kelsey, to protect them, and we’d failed. We hadn’t seen this coming, hadn’t been able to stop it, and now two of the only people in the whole fucking world who mattered to us were gone.
Colton answered, a darkness in his voice that reminded me of how dangerous the man was. The rest of us, we could kill—would kill—if we needed to. Colton specialized in it, enjoyed it, relished the part of him that took life with such skill. “We didn’t save them, but we’ll fucking make sure the people who did this suffer for it.”
And that was a plan that I could get behind…