Hi everyone! For today’s countdown, I wanted to post the first couple of chapters for Calavera. Release is next week and I can’t wait for you all to read this book! 😀
Despite all the art in the room, which included an assortment of inkblots hung in identical frames above a mantel on the other side of the dimly lit room and a number of Soviet-era statues rested on bookshelves, Luna Runehart’s gaze never strayed from the man seated next to her.
Something was particularly enthralling about the way he drank his tea.
Maybe it was the way his strong hands handled delicate china, or how he wrapped lips that she loved around the rim of his cup and drank, that had her undivided attention.
But whatever the reason, she looked at him as if it was the first time all over again. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t been watching him eat and drink for the last eight years or so—it wasn’t as though she didn’t know all the little nuances that made him him.
Luna knew Kit like the back of her own hand—from the way his eyes narrowed when he was close to losing his temper to the slight change in the way his hand wrapped tight around her throat that told her whether he was going to be gentle with her or whether he needed to fuck her harder.
She knew him that well.
But despite this, she couldn’t help watching him as he brought the cup to his lips again, blew across the top, and then took a sip, his face screwing up before he smoothed the expression away as he set the cup back down again.
There was too much sugar, she knew, but Kit was too much of a gentleman to complain.
His tea was replaced by his phone as he concentrated on whatever message was coming in. He read it, his brows drawing together a moment before his gravelly voice filled the room.
“Is there something on my face?” he asked, hardly looking at her. “I can feel you staring.”
Luna was tempted to smile. “Maybe cause you’re nice to look at?” she offered, dropping her gaze to follow the lines of his suit down to the hand he had curled around her thigh.
She had asked once whether he would ever dress down, lose the suit for a day—even on the many vacations they had taken—if he wasn’t in board shorts to hit the water, he was still formally dressed—but he had given her a look, one that told her his answer without having to open his mouth.
With an arch of his brow, Kit glanced down at the expensive gold watch adorning his wrist—the mate to the one she wore. “It’s a bit early for you to be feeding me compliments, isn’t it?”
“It’s never too early for that.”
Kit smiled then, a subtle tilt of his lips that did nothing but make the butterflies in the pit of her stomach flutter to life. Sometimes, it amazed her how he could inspire such a feeling despite how much time had passed—and despite how much they had been through together.
She remembered the last time they were here in this office. The tension had been palpable between them to the point that she had barely wanted to be in the same room with him, let alone have him touch her.
Things had changed.
Far more quickly than she had anticipated, but her love for him had never been in question.
Dr. Marie entered her office in a flurry with her leather notebook tucked beneath her arm, with her own mug in hand. Her silver hair was perfectly styled, but her signature cat-eye frames were missing.
As she sat across from them in the same dove gray wingback chair as their first appointment, her gaze moved to them. Unlike last time, they weren’t seated separately, but rather, close enough that it was obvious that something had changed between them.
There was no longer any distance between them, or tense silences, nor was Luna trying to avoid looking at Kit.
The most notable was the new ring that currently adorned her finger, one that had been absent for far too long.
“I’m glad to see things are on better terms for the two of you since our last visit,” Donna said with a pleasant smile as she regarded them with an expression that was both mildly curious and reserved. “I trust everything is going well?”
“Everything is fine,” Kit said, almost absently, still studying his phone.
“And Luna?” she asked, turning her attention to her. “How are you feeling?”
“If you’re asking whether I’m planning to keep the Runehart name, that all depends on whether Kit can put his phone down for the next hour.”
Almost immediately, Kit blinked, shifting his finger to the button at the top of his phone and shut it off. He made a show of tucking it away as he gifted her with another half-smile.
Donna made a note. “I’m glad to hear it. Tell me, what brings you both here today?”
“I like to remind Kit of the details—he has a shitty memory.”
He scoffed. “No, Not even a little. You just want to see if I’ve withheld anything from you in regards to the time I spent with your sister—there’s a difference.”
“With the way you acted because of my date, you really have no room to talk.”
“Are you finally admitting it was a date?”
“It wasn’t a date. This is why we’re here, you know. To clarify the details.”
“And what details would those be, Luna?” Donna asked.
“It’s a bit of a story, really,” Luna said with a shrug of his shoulder.
Kit smirked. “It always is with you.”
Luna gave a sarcastic frown as she glanced over at her husband. “I don’t think I interrupted you last time. Manners, Kitten.”
His gaze shot up to the ceiling, making her laugh. There was nothing he hated more than that nickname.
“I think it might be best if I start this one.”
“Again?” Luna asked.
“As usual, when it comes to what goes wrong in my life,” Kit said, his words making her chuckle. “It starts with Uilleam.”
“Then by all means,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Let’s begin.”
There were some places that, no matter how much time had passed, were haunted by the ghosts of years past.
The Runehart estate was one such place, and it didn’t hold fond memories for Kit Runehart, even if it was his childhood home—or rather because it was his childhood home.
Days and nights had been spent cowering in fear, wondering when the next punishment would come or when the next ‘game’ would start.
That was what his father liked to call them—his games.
Alexander Runehart wasn’t used to things not going the way he wanted, and when he was in a particular mood, he liked to challenge others around him just to figure out if they were as smart or as dumb as he thought they were.
It wasn’t as simple as a round of chess or an attempt at strategy—that was far too easy.
No, he wanted to make sure his opponents could hold their own.
And in his warped mind, his best opponents were the boys that he, also in his own mind, had loved and raised to become mirror images of himself.
Kit, as the oldest, had suffered the most under the hand of his father. There was a level of greatness that came with being the eldest. He was to be groomed to take over the family business, but even in his early fifties, Alexander hadn’t been ready to hand over the reins to his empire nor did he plan to make it easy for Kit to acquire.
No, he had to complete the tests first.
Tests that would ensure he knew just how to deal with the men and women he would one day cross because of the name he bore.
Once, Kit had wanted the job, had wanted to prove his worth to his father, but as he grew older and more scars decorated his flesh, Kit learned there was no pleasing a man like Alexander.
Perfection was unattainable, and he didn’t intend on killing himself to try to prove himself.
That was why when he was first made the offer by Zachariah, he had mulled the decision over in his head. It hadn’t been one that came easily to him nor had it been one that he immediately agreed to.
As always, his father had made the decision for him without ever uttering yes or no.
* * *
He could feel the ache in his bones—the way his skin felt too tight in certain places. It was a pain he had grown all too familiar with even as he was only fifteen years of age. But that felt like a lifetime ago—as though he had lived well beyond his years.
But Kit didn’t bemoan his fate.
He didn’t cry for the constant agony he was in.
He bore it because that was what men did, and despite what his father liked to think of him, he was nothing if not resilient.
Echoing chimes sounded throughout the castle, making Kit’s eyes dart to the door before they went back to the ceiling well above his head. It was his new favorite pastime when he was home from boarding school. It was what kept him sane.
A sad fact that a boy could only find enjoyment in darkness and silence.
He could hear the servants moving with a purpose outside his bedroom door, but he wasn’t keen on going out to check on what they were doing. If someone needed him—and he really hoped they didn’t—they would have to come and get him.
Earlier, he had made the mistake of venturing outside of his bedroom, just to have a look around since he had only been home a few days and things always changed when he was away at boarding school. He’d barely been out there more than a handful of minutes before one of his father’s men had caught sight of him and informed his father.
The punishment for walking around aimlessly? Grueling exercise that had left his body weak. His arms still shook when he raised them.
No, he wasn’t leaving anytime soon.
Closing his eyes, Kit tried to distance himself, not just from his bed but from his body as well, envisioning being anywhere but here.
He had always had dreams of traveling the world, of getting away from Wales and the hell that welcomed him when he was here. But he had no money, and without his father’s aid, he had no means of getting away.
It was all just a dream.
A dream that he longed for and craved, but one that he couldn’t nourish because it was impossible.
Drawing in a deep breath, Kit opened his eyes once more, swinging his legs over the side of the bed as he prepared to get up, but was brought up short when he heard voices, louder this time, outside his door.
His heart skipping a beat, he tried to mentally prepare himself, push the pain he was already in to the back of his mind. That way, the fresh agony he was sure he would suffer wouldn’t add to what he was feeling.
Only seconds later, the door came swinging open and in the threshold stood Alexander, barrel chest covered by a fine gray sweater, his dark hair gelled into place. It made the planes of his face stand out more, all sharp lines and contours.
But, it was to the man behind him that Kit directed his gaze—and it was the sight of him that had Kit exhaling in relief.
Zachariah Runehart didn’t often spend time at Runehart Castle—he and his brother rarely saw eye to eye on most matters. They were polar opposites in every regard—particularly with their business practices and the way they handled their children.
His uncle had had a son and a daughter, though both had died tragically on their sixteenth birthday for reasons Kit didn’t know.
No one in the family talked about it, and Kit wouldn’t be the one to ask.
Since the accident, as his father liked to call it, Zachariah had taken an interest in Kit and Uilleam, but because of Alexander’s temperament, he was only ever allowed to see Kit for any extended period of time.
He was to teach him discipline and respect, both of which Zachariah had in spades, but despite his request, Alexander didn’t particularly like the two of them spending so much time together anymore.
While he had a terrible temper, Alexander also had a jealous streak that could get particularly ugly.
Kit hurried to his feet, standing with his feet together, shoulders squared, and head held high as his father entered the room first, quickly followed by his uncle. Though he waved his hand, a silent command that meant Kit could stand down, he didn’t dare budge.
“Zachariah wanted to speak with you,” Alexander said in that brusque way of his that had Kit’s gaze darting back and forth between the pair of them. “I’ll leave you to it.”
Though he started back for the door, his gaze told Kit that he would be expecting answers on his return.
Once the door clicked shut behind him, Zachariah removed his hat, holding it against his chest as he surveyed the room with a twist of his head. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Two years,” Kit said immediately, his guard lowering only slightly.
While he didn’t have to be the perfect little soldier that his father preferred when he was around his uncle, he was never completely comfortable with letting his guard down altogether. He was too used to his father’s spontaneous appearances.
“Have you been counting?” Zachariah asked with a half-smile, one that was knowing but nonjudgmental.
“Was there something you needed from me?” Kit asked instead of answering his question, though he didn’t think it was possible for the man to want anything, not when he was hardly around as it was.
This was probably another test, one impossible to pass, though he hoped he would.
“What has Alexander told you of what I do?” Zachariah asked.
“Not surprising—he never had an eye for it, after all. He likes to call it blood work, you know. In his mind, he can always hire someone to kill a man, but it takes a special skill to manipulate events that lead to a man’s death.”
Kit had long since realized that it ran in the Runehart bloodline to speak in codes and riddles, making it nearly impossible to follow what they were saying unless you were paying close attention.
“What are you saying?”
“How would you like to leave this place?”
No other words had ever made him feel quite so warm inside, as though a fire had started burning inside of him and he was close to combusting. There was nothing in the world he wanted more than that.
But he knew that could never happen, not when his father refused to let him do anything he didn’t approve of. “What are you talking about?”
“I have an opportunity for you—one I think you will appreciate.”
Kit studied him. “What is it?”
“Has your father ever told you about the Lotus Society?”
“It’s a private organization that specializes in recruiting those who can perform certain tasks that others may not be comfortable with.”
That sounded rather ambiguous, but something about it intrigued him. “What role do you play?”
“Recruiter, mostly. Sometimes trainer, depending on what’s needed.”
“But what exactly would you be recruiting me for?” Kit asked, finding he had far more questions with every bit of information Zachariah supplied.
“The question is, are you interested.”
Kit still knew nothing about the Lotus Society or even what his uncle did there, but if there was a chance that he could leave this hell behind and be free of the people who constantly hurt him, he would much rather be in a place he didn’t know than the one he did.
“What about my school?”
“I’ll take care of that. Worry about packing your things.”
“My father isn’t just going to let me go,” Kit said. “Even for you.”
“Let me handle Alexander. I’ve always had a way of bending his will.”
Kit wasn’t so sure, but he didn’t argue as his uncle left the room and quietly shut the door behind him.
Despite his telling him to pack, Kit remained exactly where he was, waiting with bated breath for his uncle to come back … or his father. Depending on how their conversation went, there was no telling which of the two would be coming through that door.
He only hoped it wasn’t his father.
Kit didn’t know how long he stood there, staring at the solid wood, but when he heard the raised voices coming from the other side once more, his fear renewed.
A part of him was tempted to run, to hide somewhere his father wouldn’t find him, but that only ever made the punishments worse, ensuring that his father beat him within an inch of his life.
No, he remained rooted in place and waited.
If he was going to be beaten, he would take it like a man and not complain.
Or make a sound.
He’d learned this particular lesson the hard way.
The door came flying open, slamming into the wall so hard that the sound echoed throughout the room, but Kit didn’t flinch.
“What’s this I hear about you wanting to leave?” Alexander asked with wild eyes, but there wasn’t fury in his gaze. There was hurt. “Have I not done well by you?”
That was the thing about Alexander Runehart—the man thought what he subjected people to was anything but torment.
His lessons, as he liked to say.
In his own twisted mind, he was doing them a favor.
“They have to grow up at some point,” Zachariah spoke up, folding his arms across his chest. “You can’t shelter them forever.”
The way that Zachariah said this made Kit wonder if he really meant to say that, or perhaps, he was projecting his own thoughts.
“Then let’s hear it,” Alexander demanded, stepping even closer to Kit to the point of purposely invading his personal space. “If you want to leave, then you hold your head up like a man and you say it. There won’t be anyone to coddle you, boy. You walk out these doors, and you lose everything.”
Meaning his money and protection, and everything that came with being a Runehart.
Kit would gladly give up both. “I want to leave.”
The shock on his father’s face as he got his answer was almost as good as the feeling of triumph swept through Kit as he watched his father have to accept what he didn’t want.
But now that the offer was made, he wouldn’t take it back—he was a man of his word.
“Get out,” he snarled, looking at him in disgust.
Zachariah nodded, his shoulders relaxing. “Kit, pack your—”
“He takes nothing but the clothes on his back. And by the time I step foot back in this room, he’d better be gone.”
Alexander swept out in an angry flurry, eyes narrowed and disbelieving. He also didn’t seem to notice Uilleam’s presence in the doorway.
His brother was rather good at that—being invisible in plain sight. Moving silently and making sure he went unnoticed—it was a trait Kit had never seemed to master.
“We should go,” Zachariah suggested. “It’s better this way.”
He was out of the room next, but he didn’t pretend not to see Uilleam. He rested a hand on top of his strawberry-blonde hair before disappearing around the corner.
Kit barely spared the room a glance before he was leaving it as well. It didn’t hold any good memories for him. It wasn’t a place he ever wanted to see again.
“Are you going somewhere?” Uilleam asked, his voice an octave higher than he probably meant it to be.
Kit wasn’t the only one learning lessons in what it meant to be a man. “I am.”
“Then take me with you.”
Kit blinked, looking at his younger brother.
Uilleam had always been better when it came to dealing with their parents. He knew how to play the part. He knew what it took to survive.
Kit, on the other hand, was a different kind of survivor, but he had yet to learn how to play the game. He just accepted the punishment, whatever it was.
“I can’t, and you know this as well as I do.”
Uilleam didn’t show weakness—not anymore. He was very careful with the emotions he displayed and the way he responded to stimuli.
Truthfully, Kit hadn’t expected him to react to the news of him leaving the castle at all, but now that he had … he could see the fear in his eyes, the worry, but he didn’t know whether it was for himself or Kit.
“You’ll be fine,” Kit promised, resting a hand on his shoulder as Zachariah had always done to him.
Uilleam had never been one for affection, rather detested it actually. Once, he had loved being under Kit, following him around wherever he went, but after this last time he’d gone, once Kit came home, Uilleam hadn’t been the same.
Uilleam gazed at him, unblinking, and with a single shake of his head, he started down the hallway without ever looking back.
* * *
Kit, to this day, still didn’t know what that look had meant, but he did know that Uilleam had suffered because of his absence. In some regard, he had been selfish to leave his brother there, but he hadn’t thought that with him gone, Alexander would then offer his undivided attention to Uilleam, especially with their mother there to play interference.
But despite what he didn’t know, Kit doubted he would ever get answers—not when their parents were dead, and Uilleam refused to ever think about his years there, let alone talk about them.
Once, the Runehart estate had been in ruins—an abandoned castle that once belonged to a forgotten king—until his father restored it to its former glory, spending well over a fortune to ensure that it reflected what it had once been.
As a child, Kit hadn’t understood the significance of repairing a musty old place that he would have much rather never seen again a day in his life, but as he aged and grew to appreciate fine architecture and the luxuries that money could buy him, he finally understood what his father was doing.
It was their legacy, Alexander had said with a sharp shake of his head, as though Kit had argued the point with him—but he could have very well been bantering with one of the people who lived inside the man’s head.
Kit could count on one hand the number of days he found pleasant in that house, and by the time he was fifteen and off to the Lotus Society for training, he hadn’t bothered to count anymore.
None were worth remembering.
Before he’d gone, Kit hadn’t known what the Lotus Society was or what it meant to be a part of it. He had only known it offered a freedom he was happy to accept if it meant he could escape and never come back.
To this day, he had never returned—until now, when he’d had no other choice.
Tucked behind iron gates and a stone exterior, his brother was tucked away within the castle’s walls, unaware Kit was driving up the cobblestone toward the fountain that had frozen over during the cold, winter night. Under the cover of gray skies, the estate looked more formidable and less welcoming.
Leaving his phone behind—he didn’t need the distraction—Kit retrieved his coat first before starting inside, mindful of the blurred shapes on the rooftops. It wasn’t a surprise Uilleam had brought extra security with him, especially after the attempts on his life, but what surprised him was how very few there were.
Despite Kit’s disdain for this place, he had held onto a number of the keepsakes that had once graced it—including the various portraits of notable Runeharts that hung along the walls of his château.
He didn’t know why he favored them, why they had mattered to him at all really, but since he and his brother were two of the last Runeharts living, he liked to remember his family if he could.
On a whim, he’d had one made of himself when he was twenty-five and one for Uilleam as well—though his brother had made it a point to remove it from his home during one of his bouts of anger toward him.
As Kit entered, he expected the same rigorous upkeep Alexander had been infamous for, but instead, he found a shell of the castle’s former glory.
He couldn’t see any furniture, no artwork and gold flaked decorations hanging from the walls. No tapestries and expensive vases that held the day’s fresh flowers. No, he found crumbling walls, dust covered shelves, and cracked flooring.
Kit wasn’t even sure the place was safe to walk in, let alone live in.
Deciding it was best not to linger, he didn’t bother to pause to look into his old room, wondering if it would look the same, nor did he care to examine the portrait of his father that still hung in the great room with what suspiciously looked like bullet holes through it before he was finding his way into the office on the main floor.
The only place Uilleam could possibly be.
As he had expected, his brother sat inside, transfixed by the fire before him as the flames danced and lit up his otherwise dark gaze. For once, he looked to be in a somber mood—lost in his thoughts. But he wasn’t so far gone that he didn’t notice Kit’s entry.
Uilleam had always been a rather open book, willing to share and uncaring of the emotion he displayed. When his brother’s eyes cut to him, Kit saw nothing but malice and contempt. “I told them to shoot you on sight. Yet here you are.”
Kit shrugged, just a casual lift of his shoulder as he claimed the seat opposite him. “Stronger men than you have tried to kill me. If I wasn’t able to evade your pathetic excuses for security, I would be a dead man.”
Having spent the last decade accumulating enemies over the course of his life within, and outside, of the Lotus Society, plenty attempts had been made on his life.
“In a mood still?” Uilleam asked with a bored lift of his brow. “Let’s reconvene in the morning—I don’t think I’m in the mood for your dramatics tonight.”
“Thoughts of Karina keeping you awake at night?” Kit asked, recognizing his distant, almost haunted look.
He imagined he’d looked the same when Luna left him. It had almost felt like he had a hole in his chest that couldn’t be filled.
And if he were honest, very few could put that look on his brother’s face—there weren’t many people he cared for in this world.
Kit knew what it felt like to love and lose someone, but unlike his brother, he still had the chance to fix his mistakes.
I want you to fix it, Luna had said with tears in her eyes—the only thing he had ever needed from her—permission.
Permission to touch her.
Permission to kill for her.
Permission to love her—though, he had never needed her permission for that.
“If there was ever a time when I wanted you to stop talking, it would be now. Besides, where is your army?” Uilleam asked, making a show of looking around. “The last time we spoke, you promised a war. Can’t have a war if it’s just you, can we?”
“I’ve only just learned my grievances with you were unfounded.”
Now, Uilleam looked a mix between curious and amused. “Are you actually admitting you were wrong about something? Now, I’m curious why you’re here.”
“You didn’t tell Luna about my involvement with her being given to Lawrence Kendall.”
Uilleam’s face screwed up in annoyance. “Is that what your grievance was? How on earth could you make it through counseling—your methods of communication are severely lacking.”
Luna had said something similar.
It was something he had heard all his life.
The muscle in Kit’s jaw clenched as he shook his head. “Let’s not act as if you don’t make a living disrupting people’s lives.”
“But only on my terms. Luna would have found out the truth about her family in time—I had already accounted for that—but your actions caused things to get beyond my control.”
Of course, his brother wouldn’t find fault in his actions. Knowing him, he had probably already allotted time for Luna to grieve once she learned the truth.
Then again, Uilleam rarely found fault in his own actions, preferring to cast the blame on anyone other than himself.
But he wasn’t there to argue that point with him—he knew it was something that would never change.
Luna knowing wasn’t going to change the past but finding out how could change the present.
“There would be no reason for me to tell her, considering I was trying to cover it up,” Kit said, making sure to stress what he was saying and trying to penetrate the drunken fog Uilleam seemed to be under.
But the alcohol had muddled his brother’s brain making him slow on the uptake. Rubbing his brow, Uilleam squeezed his eyes shut. “What are you getting at?”
“If you didn’t tell her, as I’d originally believed, and I didn’t either—then who told her?”
The hand he’d been using to rub circles above his eyebrow froze, and finally, it seemed as though Uilleam was catching on.
Over the course of their session with Dr. Marie, Kit didn’t expect to be surprised by anything Luna would share—he wasn’t clueless as to why she left him. Even if he didn’t like it, he could still understand why she’d done it.
But he had been surprised when she mentioned Belladonna—a name he wasn’t familiar with, and that alone was more shocking than anything.
Kit knew more people than he didn’t.
He could even name the owner of shell companies covered in enough obscurity it would take years before a name would be found.
He knew nothing.
If there was one thing Kit was sure of, he knew how much Uilleam valued his privacy and anonymity above all else. And despite his predilection for boasting, what happened with Luna was not a thing to be prideful about.
He wouldn’t have shared something so private with a virtual stranger, especially with Kit’s involvement.
Would he have gone to Luna himself? Yes.
Would he have set up an elaborate scheme to ensure that Luna knew what had happened to her? Absolutely.
But he would never allow someone else to do his dirty work for him.
Even as he saw the wheels turning in Uilleam’s head, Kit said, “I have a question for you.”
“Then ask,” he responded rather impatiently.
“Who told you that Karina was dead?”
It was rare that Uilleam was ever struck mute. He had an answer for everything, even when there couldn’t possibly be one.
But just her name had that effect on him.
The woman he’d loved and lost.
That, too, was something Kit had never understood before Luna.
Several years ago, before Luna had ever come into the picture and before Kit had left the Lotus Society, Uilleam had fallen in love.
Truthfully, Kit had never thought him capable of the emotion, not in the freely offered sense. He might have favored Kit, treated him better than he did most even, but Kit had always thought it was out of some sort of familial obligation.
But Karina Ashworth—no, Uilleam had completely and irrevocably loved her.
As beautiful as she had been young, she was taken rather viciously from this world, and neither of them had any idea why.
Kit had only met her on a few occasions, and from what he could make of the reporter, he could understand, though not completely, why his brother had been so taken with the woman.
She had a kind smile, delicate features, and a sharp intellect that surprised him.
It didn’t matter though what Kit saw or didn’t in Karina, though, because Uilleam had thought the world of her—still did, despite her death.
Kit remembered his brother’s grief far too well—it had been the first time in years that he had seen him look so broken for so long, and if her name was even uttered in his presence, he was prone to violent outbursts that never ended well for anyone around him.
But Kit couldn’t concern himself with that, not if he was right in his assumption.
“No.” The word was as much a warning as it was a statement. Uilleam no longer had the slight drowsiness to his words—they were sharp and direct. “There was a body.”
“A journalist, wasn’t she?” Kit kept on, mindful that his brother’s temper was rising. “You once told me of the investigation that had spurred your interest in her. Death by the poison belladonna, wasn’t it?”
Kit didn’t remember all the details—it had been a long time ago after all—but he had remembered that tiny detail like a fleeting thought in the back of his head the first time Luna said the woman’s name.
That, coupled with his knowledge of just who Uilleam would have confided in during that time had brought his mind around to the one woman who had seemed to disappear without any answers.
It seemed, he had found one.
Plus, she had been an investigative journalist that sought the truth—to vindicate the victims, as she’d once said.
Kit couldn’t think of a better candidate than Luna.
“Luna told me she’d taken a job around the time you were shot, says the client’s name was Belladonna,” Kit supplied. “She was too furious with me to question it at the time, but she didn’t understand the significance. I took it upon myself to spend the last three nights looking into her, and yet I’ve found nothing—she doesn’t exist. So tell me, brother, how can someone who doesn’t exist manage to fool you enough to accept a contract?”
Uilleam’s gaze was distant as he disappeared into his own head for a moment. “I wasn’t behind the contracts at that time—Zachariah was.”
And because of a deal gone wrong that ultimately resulted in the man’s death, there was no way they could learn the truth as to why Zachariah had taken the contract.
What role had their uncle played in this?
“But it doesn’t matter,” Uilleam said with a sharp shake of his head. “I saw the body.”
Such vehement denial yet Kit could see the hint of disbelief Uilleam was trying very hard to conceal. “Then you’re not the only one playing a game, brother.”
Uilleam was quiet a moment, staring at him as though trying to gauge whether he was serious. He didn’t want to believe what Kit was implying, that was obvious, though Kit hadn’t expected otherwise.
“What are you suggesting?” Uilleam asked, sitting up a little straighter, his thumb tapping away against the side of the chair he sat in. “You believe Karina confided in this Belladonna woman?”
“No,” Kit said carefully. “I believe Karina and Belladonna are one and the same.”
Now, Uilleam was starting to understand exactly what Kit was trying to tell him, but he didn’t look pleased with the allegation.
“Have you heard a word I’ve been saying? I saw the body.”
“Then it’s simple. Give me whatever file you have at the Den on her, and I’ll look into it myself.”
“You know my files are confidential.”
“They’ve never been that way for me.”
“They’ve always been that way for you.”
“Are you afraid of the truth?” Kit asked.
“There is no truth,” Uilleam shot back. “Is this repayment for Luna leaving you? As you’ve said, that had nothing to do with me.”
Kit was starting to believe it wasn’t that Uilleam didn’t believe what he was saying—he didn’t want it to be true. “What would it hurt?”
Uilleam exploded out of his chair, running his fingers through his short hair as he paced in front of the fire. “Let’s say you’re right—though I highly believe the opposite—what do you expect to do once you find her? Confront her about faking her death? Hurt her for revealing a truth you were trying to bury? What?”
The way he spoke, with a slightly mocking air, told Kit that Uilleam didn’t truly believe that Karina was alive. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have asked that at all. Because if he truly believed she was, Uilleam would stop at nothing short of violence should anyone, including Kit, mean that woman harm.
“That isn’t the question, is it? The question is what else did you tell Karina about me? If, for the sake of argument, Karina really is dead, then that can only mean that she confided in someone else, and that someone isn’t just targeting me, they also have a vendetta against you.”
His suspicion didn’t stop at Belladonna—if that was what Karina was going by now—having only told Luna the truth about her abduction. It could have also meant she was the one behind Uilleam’s shooting.
The Jackal’s strings were being held fast by someone, and the arrows were quickly pointing in her direction.
Kit no longer believed it was just Elias.
“You have to consider the Jackal—”
“The assassin who can’t be found,” Uilleam said frowning. “Shouldn’t you be on the up and up when it comes to them?”
Kit arched a brow. “I should know about your enemy’s leashed dog? He’s more myth than anything. Had you not bore evidence of his existence, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
“Don’t be daft, brother. We both know that should he have control over the Jackal, he would have used him again.”
Uilleam laughed, but it sounded pained. “What are you saying? Karina—or your Belladonna—sent her attack dog after me.”
“I don’t know anything until I can look into it.”
He was silent a moment before he finally gave a reluctant nod. “I’ll get you the file, but I can assure you that nothing will come of it. She was … I guess it doesn’t really matter what she was, does it?” Uilleam dropped back into his seat. “Tell me, how was your counseling session with Luna? Informative, I hope.”
Of course, his brother knew about that—he wouldn’t have his title if he didn’t keep up with everyone else’s lives. “It was.”
“Getting back on the right track, then?”
“Why are you asking?”
Uilleam’s frown grew more pronounced. “You’re not the only one who cares about her, you know.”
Kit wouldn’t rise to that bait. “Why do you ask?”
“Because plans have changed, brother.”
“Elias requested a meeting with me.”
That was news to Kit.
For all he knew, Elias had made it a point to avoid Uilleam, if only to keep his word that so long as Kit played along, he would leave his family unharmed.
“He wanted to call a truce,” Uilleam said, a hint of the infamous Kingmaker bleeding into his words. “It seems Carmen has acquired a bit of protection for the time being—one that circumvents both you and I. He’s asked that Luna remains clear of her so as not to ruin the scam they have going.”
Luna’s mother, Carmen Rivera, was a woman Kit would gladly kill in a heartbeat if given the opportunity. Not only for what she had done to Luna—using her as a pawn for Uilleam to manipulate—but for what she had done to scores of other girls like her.
Despite the human activist title and her constant donations to various charities around the world, Carmen was a renowned madam, gladly trading in flesh and offering ‘her girls’ to whoever could afford to pay her prices.
She made the Kendall family look like saints.
Kit wouldn’t blink at putting a bullet in her head, not when the woman deserved it.
“Interesting,” Kit said as he regarded his brother. “I wasn’t aware you had a meeting with Elias.”
“Keep up, brother.”
Elias had specifically forbidden Kit from ever mentioning their initial meeting with Uilleam, but not with Luna—it was for that reason he had finally told her during the session. Not just because it was time for her to know the truth behind his actions, but so that he could control her reaction to it as well.
But now that Elias had done most of the work for him, he had no reason to keep it to himself any longer. “Then perhaps it’s time I told you my side.”
Kit didn’t give him a chance to respond before he was telling him about his first meeting with Elias, and the one that followed. He told him of the man’s threats, the security he had, and how, at the time, Kit had been out of options and hadn’t seen a way out.
He watched as Uilleam’s face changed with each truth he told until, finally, his expression settled into one that was very familiar to him.
Uilleam studied him a moment before saying, “You wouldn’t be telling me this if you didn’t have a reason.”
Kit nodded. “There’s a reason for everything I do.”
“I’ve already signed a contract with her—I’m nothing if not a man of my word,” Uilleam said with an absent shrug of his shoulder.
“And I don’t need you to breach it.”
“You obviously have something else in mind.”
“I do, but I’ll need your assistance.”
That key had been missing the entire time, one he had refused to acknowledge.
They were capable of great things individually, but if they worked together, they were unstoppable.
Uilleam sat forward with a smile—the first genuine one he had offered all night. “Are you offering me a job, brother? It’s been a while since I was tempted.”
“As I’ve done many others,” Kit said.
“What do I get in return?”
Money held no value to either of them, not when they had enough to last them multiple lifetimes. “Vengeance.”
“Go on then,” Uilleam said, sitting back in his chair as though he sat on a throne. “Tell us your plan.”
No longer was it brother to brother, Kit to Uilleam.
Sitting next to that fire, as he spoke of an idea that had been brewing inside him for the last eighteen months, it was Nix talking to the Kingmaker.
Present day …
Las Vegas, Nevada
If the weather was a reflection of her mood, the city was going to drown.
Luna Santiago wasn’t quite sure why she was so sullen as she sat alone on her bed, staring out the tall windows of her bedroom as the rain fell in sheets, nearly obscuring the view outside. A sharp crack of thunder had her blinking, tearing her gaze away as she tried to remind herself that she didn’t need to be upset.
She needed to focus.
All around her, multiple folders were left open, revealing scores of documents inside, including surveillance images, along with enough banking information that if she were so inclined, she could have them cleaned out in hours. But it wasn’t their money she was after.
She wanted to ruin them.
Them—her mother, her sister. The family she had grown up with.
It wasn’t often that one targeted their own family, especially in the singular way in which she wanted to ensure they went down, but not everyone had a family like hers, especially one that had been willing to offer her up as collateral if that meant achieving power and status.
Carmen Rivera was the same woman who had bandaged her scraped knees, made her soup when she was sick, and provided for her as only a mother could.
Ariana had acted as most older sisters did, but she was still there when Luna needed her, and hung out when she could find the time.
But after knowing what they had done, it was harder to think of those good times when she could now only remember the way her mother would lose her temper if things didn’t go exactly as she wanted, or how her sister had boldly proclaimed that she didn’t want a sister because she hated Luna.
It is far easier to remember the bad, she thought.
Ever since she had returned from New York—first to learn about the new assignment that Uilleam had assigned her to, then sticking around to help Celt, another mercenary in the Den, with a small problem, and finally to attend a marriage counseling session with her husband—she had been knee-deep in studying the files, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before Uilleam was sending her off to California to do his bidding.
It was the price she had to pay when she agreed to become a mercenary under his control.
Back then, the decision had been an easy one—one that she hadn’t needed to consider because she had only thought about the revenge she would get against Lawrence Kendall, her former captor and tormentor. It was easy to sign her name on the document that promised she would be giving up five years of her life for a man she really didn’t know, but one that had helped her all the same.
Eighteen months ago, that decision had come back to bite her on the ass.
Learning the truth about what had happened to her, and how she had ended up with the Kendall family in the first place had turned her world on its axis, and she hadn’t handled it well—not that anyone would have been able to had it happened to them.
Now, she wasn’t quite sure what to do.
It had all seemed rather simple when she had her anger to hold onto and she could push Kit away and pretend that he didn’t matter. But now, she wasn’t quite so angry.
Turning her attention back to the files in front of her, she tried to pay attention to what she was reading, but she had gone over these files dozens of times, and there was nothing within them she didn’t already know.
But a door closing had Luna jerking her head up, eyes going to her closed bedroom door a moment before she was pulling the Glock she kept from under her pillow, her thumb on the hammer.
Careful not to rustle the papers, she slid off her bed, staying on her toes as she started across the room and laid a hand on the door handle, easing it down before gradually opening the door.
Whoever had thought to break into her condo would have a rude awakening once she—Luna came to a stop in the open doorway as she got a good look at who had entered her place and made themselves at home on her sofa.
“Is this going to be a thing now?” she asked as she lowered her weapon. “When one of you leaves, the other takes his place?”
Uilleam Runehart was her handler and the man who signed her checks, but beyond his role as the Kingmaker, he was also her brother-in-law. Not many knew of the connection between them—it wasn’t as though she was going around broadcasting this fact to anyone—but then again, not many knew she was married either since she had stopped wearing her ring.
When Uilleam didn’t respond, Luna sighed, walking further into the room and circled the chair he sat in to finally face him.
What she saw in his face brought her up short.
He looked … haunted.
“Uilleam? What’s wrong?”
He was studying the chessboard in front of him, one he had to have brought himself since she was pretty sure she didn’t own one.
“Have you ever played chess, Luna?” he asked, his voice low, and his gaze still on the board in front of him.
“Once or twice with Kit,” she said, sinking into the seat opposite him.
“Would you like to play a game? It’s been ages since I’ve played.”
Not quite sure where this was going or why his mood seemed so somber, Luna sat forward a little. “Sure, Uilleam.”
It was rare that he asked for what he wanted, opposed to demanded, but his change in demeanor wasn’t something she was happy about—she was concerned.
They sat in silence as he maneuvered the glass pieces around the board—his movements methodical as his gaze was focused on what he was doing, giving her the opportunity to study him.
His tie was loosened, his jacket missing, and the front of his vest left undone.
Even haggard, Uilleam still looked more put together than most, but this was Uilleam, and anything out of the ordinary was concerning.
As he sat back with a sigh, he gestured to the board with a broad sweep of his hand. “Ladies first.”
Luna wasn’t thinking about trying to win or even what she was doing, so she just picked up a pawn and moved it forward two places.
“Has my brother ever told you about Karina Ashworth?” he asked a moment before he moved his own piece.
Luna froze. She knew the name, though she didn’t know much about the woman it was attached to. She knew Karina had been close to Uilleam, even knew that she was the only woman he had ever loved, but outside of that, nothing.
“A little—not very much,” she said, hoping her knowing anything wouldn’t be a problem. Kit had always said that Uilleam was sensitive when it came to talking about her.
“Outside of a select few, she was one of the only people—maybe even the only person—that I told about you,” Uilleam said.
“Right after it happened, when I sent a team down to take you, I told her of my plans—or at least about the contract I had agreed to. She never let me finish explaining the rest of it considering how furious she was with me.”
Luna didn’t respond but did take his pawn with her knight. Briefly glancing up to check his reaction, she noticed he didn’t seem particularly bothered by the move she made—almost as though he’d predicted it.
“It wasn’t our first fight, but it was memorable.”
“What was she like?” Luna asked, genuinely curious.
Not many, outside of Kit, were willing to challenge Uilleam on the decisions he made and the lives he disrupted, but Karina seemed to have been one of them.
She’d wondered, once upon a blue moon, what kind of woman would grab Uilleam’s attention long enough to keep it.
His smile was wistful as his gaze swept over the board. “Smart and resourceful. Kind but cunning. We easily matched wits and I don’t believe there has, or ever will be, a better companion for me.”
Luna was less interested in the game and more interested in what Uilleam was saying. “What happened to her?”
A myriad of expressions crossed his face until he settled on one that was a mix of anguish and fury. “She was taken from me.”
He leveled a look on her that told her she already knew the answer to this.
Uilleam nodded once. “It took me ages to even learn the man’s name. I’d been chasing a ghost for years, but when he’d had me shot, he made his first mistake. It was much easier to track him then. It was only a matter of time before he made another mistake that I could exploit.”
That mistake had been working with an Irish mobster who just so happened to be on Red’s bad side.
Sometimes, Luna wondered whether Uilleam’s skill as the Kingmaker was through sheer luck or whether he was just that good at predicting another’s move.
“And the painting you sent Celt after?”
“That was only because I was bored and wanted to elicit a reaction out of him. The mistress’ involvement was a welcome distraction.”
Luna had a sudden thought. “What makes you think Elias took her from you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Well … if you hadn’t known his name, or even how to find the man, how do you know it was even because of him that Karina died?”
It took her a moment to realize that over the course of the conversation, he had never said that Karina died or even that she was killed. Rather, he said she was taken from him.
For some reason, that made her sad for him.
“No, he didn’t immediately come out and claim responsibility, if that’s what you’re asking. For months, I knew … nothing. I couldn’t find anything, no matter who I sent. But Elias was eager to share his success once I was spiraling down into a black hole—the man who felled the Kingmaker. Even if temporary, it was enough for him to start an empire.”
Luna had a hard time imagining that Uilleam was anything less than the resilient man he was. The thought of him wasting away because of heartache … it just didn’t seem feasible.
“But you obviously got better,” Luna said quietly, plucking a knight of his from the board with a little more relish than necessary. He was making this too easy.
But again, whereas she thought he would have looked displeased at her move, he didn’t look bothered at all.
“I didn’t get better,” he said as his gaze scanned the board. “I got angry.”
In her eagerness to capture one of his pieces, she hadn’t paid attention to the greater picture—the strategy he was setting up. Once, she had never understood how someone could be good at chess.
One couldn’t possibly know each and every move to make, especially when playing against another person. There was too much room for chance, for error.
Uilleam made it look effortless as he moved his rook down the board. “Checkmate.”
She was baffled. “I obviously forgot how good you are at this.”
“Don’t be hard on yourself,” Uilleam said, standing and going over to the bar. “You’re not the only one who’s made this mistake.”
And the arrogance was back …
Uilleam picked up a frosted bottle of vodka, pouring a healthy amount into one of the crystal tumblers. Once he was seated again, it looked like whatever momentary satisfaction he got out of winning the game had faded.
For a moment, as he held that glass aloft in his hand, Uilleam looked … lost. “She was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me.”
Luna didn’t think she had ever heard any relationship described quite like that. “Why do you say that?”
He downed the last of his vodka. “Karina showed me what it meant to truly love someone without question … but she also showed me that love makes you weak.”
With those parting words, Uilleam climbed to his feet and crossed to her side. “I’m helping myself to your spare bedroom.” And once he placed an affectionate kiss on her forehead, he added, “Thank you for listening.”
He didn’t wait for a response as he disappeared behind the bedroom door, leaving her sitting there watching after him.
Luna didn’t have the slightest idea what to think.
* * *
The next morning, everything was back to normal.
When Luna ventured outside of her bedroom, Uilleam was already awake and dressed—unlike the night before, his navy suit was pressed, and the thin red tie he wore was held in place by a silver clip.
The vulnerability in his gaze was gone, as well as the fatigue that had seemed to weigh on his shoulders. He was the Kingmaker once more.
“I have another gift for you,” he said, with a gesture of his hand to the vacant seat across from him at the table where a domed tray waited.
“How long have you been awake?” she asked as she ventured closer hesitantly, not quite sure what had caused the change in his mood. Knowing him, it probably wasn’t anything good.
“A few hours.”
It was only nine in the morning … “Another surprise?” she asked as she took the seat opposite him. “I’m starting to feel special.”
“Oh, you’re very special,” he said as he retrieved a sleek black box from his breast pocket and slid it over to her. “More than you’ll ever know.”
There was no inflection to his words, no trace that he didn’t mean what he said. Sometimes, she forgot how sweet he could be.
“What is this?” she asked, running her fingers over the velvet case, almost a little afraid of what might be inside. “The last time I accepted a gift from a Runehart …” She didn’t have to finish that statement.
“Consider it a late wedding present.”
Luna pondered over it a moment longer before finally picking it up and flipping the top open to find a key fob inside, the pitchfork logo inscribed on the front of it gleaming silver and bright.
“A Maserati, Uilleam?” This was what he wanted to give her? “When did you even buy this?”
Removing his own tray covering, he scanned over the offerings. “This morning.”
Picking up the linen napkin off the table, he tucked it into the collar of his shirt before picking up his knife and fork and cutting into French toast.
“What kind of strings come attached to this … gift?”
Uilleam might have been prone to doing things in the heat of the moment, but there was always a benefit to himself with whatever favor or gift he extended.
“This one is freely given, I promise. Besides, you’re going to need a car where we’re going and better this one to blend in with the crowd.”
“Everyone drives expensive sports cars where we’re going?” she asked.
Uilleam smirked as he wiped his mouth. “Have you never been to Los Angeles?”
No, actually she hadn’t.
For the first thirteen years of her life, she had never stepped foot outside of San Jose, then the next three were spent as a captive, and after learning her mother and sister had reinvented themselves in Los Angeles, she had made sure never to visit.
She didn’t want to tempt herself.
Reading her expression, he said, “Then you’re in for an experience. Now, if you’d get dressed, we can be on our way.”
Luna didn’t waste time arguing, knowing that Uilleam wouldn’t reveal any part of his plan before he was ready. She used to think it was the thrill of knowing more than others, but she had learned there was a method to what he did—almost like he needed to control people’s reactions as well.
Showering rather quickly, she twisted wet hair up into a messy bun to dry. She pulled a rather large suitcase from the closet, packing only what she would need—more weapons than clothes. The latter she could always get while she was there, but finding high-quality weaponry on short notice was more work than she needed.
Despite it being only ten in the morning, men and women alike were swaying drunkenly through the lobby, heading upstairs to beds they were probably dying to get in, or off to the restaurant for something greasy.
Either way, Uilleam didn’t seem as conscious of showing his face as he usually did.
“I don’t understand how you can possibly enjoy this godforsaken heat,” Uilleam complained as they stepped outside, adjusting his already straightened tie.
“Most don’t wear three-piece suits out here unless it’s at night,” Luna said with a slight smile. And as a girl in glorified pasties and a thong walked by, she added, “Or nothing at all.”
Uilleam handed over a slip of paper to the valet, waiting until it was called up before turning his attention back to Luna. “At least you won’t have to worry about it anymore since you’ll be going home very soon.”
Luna’s brows shot up. “Sorry?”
“Marriage counseling went well, no? I’m sure you and my brother will find your way back to each other soon enough—perhaps after a little murder?”
“When did you start advocating for Kit?”
Some days, it was just a mild annoyance between the pair of them, but with each year that passed, it seemed that distaste had grown to a mild hatred.
“I’ve always been a supporter of your relationship. I’d hoped to spark a romance when I paired you two together.”
Luna rolled her eyes—she didn’t believe that for a second. “Do you just make up shit in your own head to fit your agenda?”
“It works well for me, no? But in this case, it’s true. I’ll admit that I had some negative intentions. I did hope to hurt him through you, after all.”
Only Uilleam would willingly admit to trying to manipulate people and not have a problem with it.
They were interrupted by the valet arriving in a pearly white Maserati. Luna had never considered herself much of a car buff—she had a better eye for motorcycles—but she had to admit that this one was a work of art.
“White for the innocent,” Uilleam murmured beside her.
To anyone else, those words might have been offensive. Uilleam knew all too well what she had been forced to do before he’d found her at the Kendall estate.
But, white white also signified purity, but in the context Uilleam was using, he meant she hadn’t deserved what happened to her.
She was innocent.
“Sometimes, you’re not so bad.”
“I aspire to grace when I’m in the mood.” Uilleam waved for her to go around to the other side. “You’re driving.”
“Seriously?” she asked as he took her bag and placed it in the trunk. “I would think a control freak like you would be adamant about being behind the wheel.”
“I much prefer being driven—it allows me the chance to think.”
Luna smirked as she slid into the driver’s seat, inhaling the new car smell mixed with leather. “Or rather because you’re high maintenance.”
“If you’re ready …” he said, looking a bit aggrieved.
Taking off, Luna turned right on the Sunset Strip, heading out of the city proper. “What airstrip are we going to?”
“I thought we would drive,” Uilleam said as he got comfortable, pulling his phone from his pocket. “We can take this time to catch up on all relevant information before we arrive. As I’ve said, plans have changed.”
“Changed how, exactly?”
When she had flown to New York weeks ago for her assignment, he had made it crystal clear that she was going to California whether she liked it or not, and that she would be protecting her mother when she was there.
She felt about it then as she did now—she didn’t want to do it.
In the years she’d spent with the Den, Luna had tried very hard to distance herself from her past. Not just because of what happened with Lawrence Kendall—her former jailer and tormentor—but also because of who she had once been.
That innocent girl had no place in a life like this and had she been anything like she was before, Luna didn’t think she would be able to stomach what she did.
And having to swallow her pride and accept a job that she didn’t want … it took more out of her than she realized.
In her case though, the choice had been less of a choice and more of a demand—the one and only time Uilleam had brought up the debt she owed him.
While most had come to the Den by their own volition, Luna had been bought by Uilleam then sent to Kit for training.
Her having fallen in love with his brother and ultimately marrying him had never been part of the plan.
“What do you know about a man named Elias?”
Not much at all.
There was only the brief question about him from Red and Celt and what little Kit had told her about him during their counseling session.
Like his threatening everyone Kit loved in a bid to get him to do what he wanted.
And the other thing …
“He was the one who hired the Jackal,” Luna said quietly, glancing over in his direction.
Some names just held a lot of meaning and this Elias … his conjured hate in more than just one person.
The Jackal … his inspired fear.
Uilleam nodded once. “He did. He’s also responsible for quite a few of the atrocities in my life—not to mention my business. His attempt to ruin me has cost me money, and that displeases me.”
“But he has a lot of leverage,” Luna said, shifting gears as the car picked up in speed. She was definitely going to love this car. “And that’s just what he has on Kit. I can only imagine what he might have on you.”
“I imagine it to be extensive, but there’s a lesson he hasn’t seemed to grasp from previous enemies of mine.”
Uilleam’s smile grew. “He won’t win.”
It was hard not to believe something Uilleam said.
He spoke with such a finality that it made it impossible to question him.
“But how can you do anything if he has people watching us at every turn?”
“Missions, like the one he took on, take time and patience—both of which our good friend, Elias, doesn’t seem to possess. After a year of my brother’s willful obedience, he downgraded his surveillance to you and Kit. Not to mention, his attention has been pulled in several directions.”
Because of him, Luna knew.
First, Red’s assignment had been to just learn the man’s name. Then Celt successfully stopped the sale of a painting that had once belonged to the Runehart family.
Both had torn apart deals Elias had intended to make.
Was that the same tactic Uilleam intended to use her for?
“Okay, so what do you need me to do?”
“Do what you do best, Calavera,” Uilleam said, using the name he rarely did. “Be the spider.”
“You want me to find information? What’s left to find that you don’t already have?”
“To topple an empire,” Uilleam said, “you don’t start with the queen—you start with her pawns.”
“Which of Carmen’s pawns are you trying to take out first?”
“We’ll start with Caesar then Ariana is next.”
Luna was sure she should have felt something more than grudging acceptance at the idea that she would be working with the Kingmaker to destroy her own family, but she couldn’t muster any sadness.
“How exactly do you expect us to accomplish this?”
“Caesar’s destruction has already been put into motion. Our friendly sniper is taking care of that.”
“Red?” Luna asked, surprise coloring her words.
She hadn’t talked to Red since she left New York, though she had heard his twins were born on Christmas. She couldn’t imagine what the Kingmaker had promised him to get him away from his newborns so soon.
“And once he’s out of the picture, we can move on to Ariana, but it will be much easier to show you how she’ll face her ruin rather than tell you.”
While she was dying to know what he intended, it was only a matter of time before she found out the truth.
They rode the rest of the way in silence, and as desert turned to lush palm trees, Luna tried to contain her wandering eyes as she tried to take in everything she was seeing.
She definitely saw what Uilleam had meant when it came to the cars in Los Angeles—though there were still a number of ‘regular’ cars as well.
“Turn off here,” Uilleam instructed as he signaled for her to get off the interstate.
Before long, she was pulling into the driveway of a house so close to the beach that she could smell the salt in the air. It reminded her of Skorpion’s beachside condo that she had only ever seen in pictures.
Unlike her condo in Vegas, with its sharp lines and dark palette, this bungalow was more open and airy with its light colors and subtle design—though a tap of her knuckles against the windows told her the glass was reinforced.
But as she walked around the living room, looking everything over, it felt almost … familiar, though she knew she had never been here before.
Putting it out of her mind, Luna headed for the master bedroom on the ground floor, and once she was inside, she realized all too quickly why it seemed so familiar.
From the crisp white sheets and duvet to the French doors that led out to a pool of gleaming water.
There were subtle variances, sure, but this room, and the house even, had been modeled after the bungalow in Bora Bora.
Kit and his gifts.
She had no doubt this was his doing. He liked his surprises, liked making her smile, and probably knowing that she was coming here, he had told Uilleam to gift this to her without saying a word.
“What are the two of you up to?” she asked as Uilleam ventured in after her, failing to keep the knowing look off his face.
“I haven’t the slightest idea what you mean.”
“Of course not.”
“You would need somewhere to stay while you conduct business—this is far better than a hotel, no?”
Though Luna didn’t mind hotels, she didn’t often like staying in them for long periods of time. Housekeeping had a tendency to want to clean when she wasn’t in the room, and that never boded well if she left her equipment lying around.
“While I’d love to stay, we both need to ready for tonight. I’ve left a dress for you in the closet. Make sure you look adequate for a night at the opera.”
Luna didn’t have time to question him before he was back out the door.
* * *
Despite their years together, Kit had never taken her to the opera—not that she was complaining, she had never thought it sounded interesting—but she knew that when going to the theater, one was expected to look their best.
Uilleam wore a tuxedo, complete with a bowtie with his strawberry-blond hair styled—he looked every bit his moniker.
While Luna had gotten dressed for the evening, she hadn’t known what to expect, as was the case with her handler most of the time, but when she’d pulled the red satin dress from the black bag in the closet, she had to admit he had impeccable taste.
“Your job doesn’t officially begin until the end of this night,” Uilleam explained after he passed the attendant a pair of tickets before sweeping her through the private entrance and into the warmly lit interior of the building. “Let’s just consider this a token of my appreciation.”
Through a set of double doors at the end of the hall and up a private elevator that opened to the East wing of the theater, Luna wasn’t the least bit surprised that the balcony they entered was empty, but she was surprised at how open they were to the rest of the room.
Uilleam valued his anonymity, and she didn’t think he would ever put himself out there like this … especially after what happened with the Jackal.
“Thanks …” she offered, though she wasn’t quite sure what she was thanking him for just yet. “Did you actually pay for these tickets?”
“They were offered as an act of good faith from a potential client,” Uilleam explained as he guided her to her seat then ventured back to the small bar area where he poured two flutes of champagne. “But this isn’t the token, I assure you. I hate the opera.”
Uilleam was strange, and she had long since stopped trying to figure him out.
“Tell me,” he said as he claimed his seat, passing her one of the glasses. “How well can you see the balcony across from us?”
Without hesitation, her gaze turned in the direction he indicated, her eyes narrowing as she tried to make sense of who she was seeing. After a moment, her gaze adjusted to the dim light, and she stiffened as she saw who was seated there.
“Ariana, and … I can’t really see the other person.”
He was distinctly male, however, but his face was shrouded in shadows.
Uilleam passed her a pair of glasses, ones that seemed rather ordinary at first glance, but once she had them on, she realized they made it far easier to see in the darkness.
Now, she could better see Ariana and the man she was seated next to.
Luna didn’t think she would ever enjoy the sight of them together, of knowing what she did about her sister with the added knowledge that her husband was now protecting her.
Unbidden, she thought about their session with Dr. Marie, and the way he had so casually spoken about why he had needed to do this, but even as she knew there was no reason she should still be angry with him … it was hard letting that go.
Despite herself, jealousy reared its ugly head.
Ariana had always been the pretty one, the one everyone wanted to spoil because it was so easy for her to wrap people around her finger. She couldn’t help it had always been that way, but Luna didn’t like the idea of her trying to wrap Kit around her finger.
And she knew that was exactly what she was trying to do judging from that coy little smile on her face as she focused her undivided attention on him.
“So part of his job is taking her to the opera?”
An amused smile curled Uilleam’s mouth as he regarded her. “Feeling a bit territorial?”
“Just answer the question. You obviously know something I don’t.”
“Patience, Luna. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves when the night has just started.”
People were still filling in all around the theater, taking their seats as the murmurs grew in volume—at least, until the lights started to dim.
It was during the hush that she noticed the doors behind Kit and Ariana swinging open. Carmen entered first, then Caesar, and finally, another man who was only vaguely familiar because of the file she had on the rest of them.
Luna could just see the blurred edges of the black and gray tattoos that covered nearly every inch of the exposed skin on his hands and throat.
Agustín Contreras—The Saint. Rumors as to how he had acquired the name varied, with some speaking of his killing an enemy in the ruins of an old church, or another where he had murdered a man with a crucifix, but of all of them, they said the man said a prayer for each and every man that he put in the ground.
He also happened to be Ariana’s fiancé.
The first time Luna had seen him during her research into her family, he hadn’t seemed to be like anything she expected her sister to want in a man. The one boyfriend she could remember Ariana having had been blond, blue-eyed, and wore plaid shorts.
Agustín was definitely not that.
But then again, she didn’t really know her sister anymore. They might not have always gotten along—Ariana never enjoyed having her younger sister tag along for the things she wanted to do—but Luna had never thought her sister would have gladly gone along with her kidnapping and murder plot.
But she hadn’t expected it of her own mother either.
Ariana startled as the other guests of her booth entered, removing the wandering hand she had drifting over Kit’s shoulder. If Luna could see her doing it, she didn’t doubt that Agustín hadn’t missed it, but if he cared that his fiancée was obviously interested in another man, he didn’t seem to care.
As he took the seat opposite her, offering a nod of acknowledgment to Kit, he focused his bored gaze on the stage below. He didn’t look like he wanted to be there any more than Luna did.
“A whole family affair,” Luna mumbled as she looked over at Uilleam.
“It seems so. Tell me, how much do you know about the Contreras Cartel?” Uilleam asked, taking a sip of his champagne.
“They’re looking to expand,” Luna answered, reciting information she had memorized. “His father died seven months ago, right? Now, he’s the head of the cartel, and he wants to do more business stateside.”
“Good to see you’re paying attention.”
Luna rolled her eyes, refusing to even acknowledge that. “I know he wants the connections Carmen and Caesar have, but I can’t figure out why he would willingly get into a relationship with Ariana.”
“As you said—connections. You’re correct in thinking that he wants Caesar’s connections, but you’re missing that Carmen wants a number of his. She was willing to sacrifice one daughter—don’t think she’s above using the other for her own gain as well.”
She couldn’t decide who was more disgusting for that trade—her mother for offering it, or Agustín for accepting it.
“And so long as Ariana has Agustín’s ear, Carmen can have an inside man. Not a bad plan, really, but she didn’t account for the fact that her daughter spreads her legs for anyone, and a man, even one as desperate as Agustín, would get annoyed with that fact.”
Not sure what to say to that, Luna remained silent, more focused on the booth across from them rather than the show that was starting as a man in a powdered white wig came out from behind the curtains, a spotlight beaming down on him.
“You won’t be going to work for your mother,” Uilleam went on, his voice lower. “And if everything goes according to plan, the two of you won’t ever cross paths until the end where you can gloat after a job well done.”
“Then why are we here?” she asked, glancing at him.
“We’re here to watch a man die.” Even in the darkness, she could see the white of his teeth. “By the time you get home this evening, a new file will be waiting for you—Winter as well, since I’m sure you’ll be needing her assistance.”
“A new file?” she asked. “On who?”
She didn’t think anyone was left connected to Carmen or Ariana who she hadn’t investigated thoroughly.
“In due time, Luna.” Uilleam reached over to squeeze her hand, forcing her attention back to him. But he wasn’t looking at her. “My brother has always been a planner, you know. He’s quite talented that way. While I’m loathed to admit it, that talent coupled with his abilities as a master assassin … well, that makes him a bit of a formidable opponent, no?”
Luna nodded. She might not have known what he was getting at, but she knew his words were true.
“Now, I like to think that it’s not just in the planning. Variables change, and sometimes, you can’t account for human error. I have a vision, you understand, one that changes with each new opponent I face. In the end, I make sure that what I want comes to fruition no matter what.”
“Because of Karina?” Luna dared to ask.
She didn’t think she would ever forget the name now that he had shared it and the stories that went along with it. The anguish she had heard in his voice when he spoke of her … It felt like this ghost of a woman was the only thing capable of making Uilleam feel.
Uilleam’s gaze dropped to the glass in his hand then back at her for an uncomfortable moment. “Yes.”
She was surprised he had admitted as much. “Okay.”
“Now, imagine that a single individual manages to piss off these two people. If we’re this powerful as individuals, can you imagine what we’re capable of when we work together?”
Luna didn’t answer, though she knew the answer.
It didn’t spell good things for Elias.
As the singing grew in pitch, Uilleam sat up a little straighter, sliding on a pair of glasses of his own. “Ah, the crescendo. It’s time for the game to begin.”
Luna’s gaze shot over to the other balcony, and to her surprise, she found Kit looking in their direction—at her.
There was a curious expression on his face, one that made her wish she could read his thoughts, but it blanked over once he realized she was looking at him.
But not before a corner of his mouth turned up.
And with it came the sharp crack of a gunshot, the abrupt silencing of the signing on stage as screams reverberated around the room as people fled in terror.
Ariana’s startled wail dragged Luna’s attention back to the balcony and away from where she thought the shot had come from. By now, Red had probably gotten his rifle broken down, and he was already gone.
Caesar was collapsed back in his seat, a bullet hole in his forehead as a rivulet of blood rolled down his face.
Armed men had stormed into the booth, guns drawn, but they couldn’t do anything—he was already dead.
Carmen was on her feet, disbelief coloring her face as blood stained the front of her dress and the side of her face. Her eyes might have been wide, but she didn’t look surprised. Of course, she didn’t, she had known this was coming.
She’d arranged it.
As her security escorted her and Ariana from the box, Agustín not too far behind—and he didn’t look bothered in the slightest by Caesar’s death—Kit remained for a few moments longer.
Just long enough that he offered her a wink before he too was gone.
Yeah, the game was definitely on.
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