Beta, p.11
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       Beta, p.11

         Part #2 of Alpha series by Jasinda Wilder
 
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We sat together, side by side, listening to the muezzin’s call echo across the city. After a few minutes, the song faded, and we were left with the soft lap of waves chucking against the sides of boats. I could feel Valentine ruminate, feel him thinking, trying to formulate a thought.

  “It isn’t over,” he said, his voice smooth and his words crisp and formal once again. “She will come for me. And now, for you. And Harris. She will come, and she will enlist the help of her father. ”

  “What do we do?”

  He let out a long breath. “I should hide you somewhere. The farthest corner of the earth. Indonesia. Russia. Tierra del Fuego, perhaps. Put you up in a tiny flat. Make sure not even I know your precise location. Post a guard and pay them enough to ensure their unwavering loyalty. ”

  I pivoted on my butt to face him, pressing my knees into his thigh. “No, Roth. That’s not happening. I will not be separated from you again. ”

  “I need to keep you safe. I can’t let her get hold of you. I cannot. I will not. ” He growled the last part, enunciating the syllables with increasing venom.

  “Then don’t. But I’m not going to let you out of my sight. I crossed the world to find you, Roth. I risked death. ” I took his hands in mine. “I was shot at. Chased in a car. I watched men die. I—I probably killed at least one person myself. Just to be by your side. ”

  He withdrew his hands from mine. “I know. ” His voice shook, thin and pained. “I know, Kyrie. And I—I hate myself for—”

  “And I’d do it all again. In a heartbeat. I know it isn’t over. I know we’re in danger. I know who we’re facing. ”

  “No. You don’t. ” He stood, paced toward the very point of the bow, gripping the railing. The towel rode low on his hips, exposing the muscular arc of his hipbones. “You really don’t. What you saw? Those men? They were…just her household staff. Not even that. A skeleton guard. Her father runs a—it isn’t merely a cartel or anything so simple. It’s more than that. He has an empire, Kyrie. Access to literally everything. A small army, and that’s no exaggeration. He can wield tanks. Rocket launchers. And we’ve got…Harris. ”

  “And you and me. ”

  He nodded. “True. But I’m still weak from being sick. I can still feel the drug in my blood. And, that aside…I’m not okay. ” He glanced at me over his shoulder. “And you?”

  “I’m no one. I’m just your girlfriend, and there’s nothing I can really do, is there?” I hung my head and stared at the deck between my feet. “That’s your point, right?”

  “Kyrie—” He was clearly confused by the turn of the conversation, by my sudden and vitriolic self-loathing.

  “It’s true, and you know it. ” I stood then, pulled the blanket tighter around me, moved to the starboard railing, and leaned over it. “It’s true, and I know it. I learned a few things rescuing you, Roth. ”

  “Kyrie, that’s not—”

  I kept going. “I realized how useless I am. I have a degree I’ll never use, and never planned to. Social work? What the hell was I thinking? I’m not an entrepreneur like you. I don’t have a specific skill set, or—or anything. I’m your girlfriend. That’s all I am. I know you love me. I don’t doubt that. And I’m not even doubting why you do. What’s that stupid saying about gift horses?”

  “Never look a gift horse in the mouth. ”

  “Yeah. That. Whatever the fuck that’s supposed to mean. I’m not doing it, is my point. You love me. Why, I’m not sure. I don’t care. I’m just glad you do, because I love you, and I don’t know what I’d do without you. You—you saved me first, Roth. I was going to starve, or go homeless, if you hadn’t—done what you did. And now I’m here. I have you. I have the memory of the last few months we spent together. Seeing the world with you? God, Valentine, those months were the best of my life. But when you went missing, I realized…I was forced to ask myself, what do I do? And I couldn’t come up with an answer. ”

  Roth didn’t answer right away. I lost myself in the movement of the water a few feet below, trying to see through the dark ever-moving ripples. I felt him beside me, but I couldn’t make myself turn to face him. He didn’t touch me. He just leaned over the railing beside me. That should’ve been a warning flag to me, but I was so lost in my own crisis that it wasn’t.

  “I suppose you should know. Before we left New York together, I made some…provisions. Should anything happen to me, you will be provided for. By which I mean, every single dime of my liquid assets will belong to you. The structure of my company will be shifted to streamline things, which just means selling off and combining subsidiaries, all proceeds from which will go to you as well. ”

  Page 30

 

  “But, Valentine, I’m—”

  “The only person I care about. I’ve arranged to have Harris provided for as well, but as much as I care about and trust him, he’s still just a friend and employee. You—you’re…I don’t know. Family, I suppose. The woman I love. I haven’t spoken to my father since the day he cut me off and cast me out. Nor will I ever. I have no siblings, no other family, no dependents, no one. Just you. ” He gripped the railing and twisted his hands around it, as if he wanted to strangle it.

  “I have no plans to let anything happen to me. I plan to live. I plan to do everything in my power to keep you and myself alive, no matter what it takes. My only point in telling you about the provisions I’ve made is to reassure you. You’ll never face homelessness or hunger again. Never. As it is, should you decide to…should you decide you wish to leave me—if we were to break up, I mean, you will be equally well provided for. Enough so that you’ll never have to work a day in your life, even if you were to indulge as wildly as you could imagine. ”

  “Roth—” I had to stop and breathe. “Let me get this straight. If I were to dump you, tell you I wanted to go back to Detroit and—I don’t even know what I’d do, but just hypothetically—”

  “If you were to want that, I’d let you go. I’d fight for you—I’d fight until it was clear you really wanted to go. But if you did, I’d call Robert. He would then set up a private series of accounts in your name, giving you unlimited access to one point six billion dollars. ” He tapped the railing with his index finger. “That account is already set up, actually, with something like half that amount in it. It’s in your name alone. I can’t access it, and once it reaches that number, Robert’s access as executor will be canceled, leaving you as the sole controlling party. ”

  My mind reeled. “Roth, I don’t—I don’t understand. ”

  He shrugged. “I don’t want you to feel dependent on me. After all this trouble is sorted, I’ll give you the codes and cards you need to access the money. That way, you can do what you want. You can figure out what you want. Do you want to be an artist? You can sit around all day and try. I’ll hire the best artists in the world to teach you. Want to cook? Eliza can teach you. Want to be a philanthropist? Go back to school and get a different degree? Pursue a trade? I’ll make it happen. Anything you want. But you won’t need to ever ask me for a dime. If you stop loving me, that will still remain true. ”

  “Why?”

  He went stiff, taut, and tense. “You know. ” The two words were barely whispered, a low murmur nearly lost in the lap of the water and the sound of the breeze.

  “Daddy. ”

  He nodded. “Exactly. ” He let out a breath, staring out at the expanse of ocean. “It was an accident. I told you the truth, Kyrie. I swear to you, what I said to you was the truth. I never meant for that to happen—for your father to die. But he did, and it was my fault. When he died, I was responsible for the direction your life took. I alone am responsible. ”

  “I don’t want your money, Roth. ”

  “Too bad. You’ve got it. You don’t need to touch it, if you like. You can pretend it’s not there. But it is there, and it’s yours whether you want it or not. ”

  I rubbed at my face. “How much did you say?”

&nb
sp; “One point six-seven billion U. S. dollars. ” He waved a hand. “A rather fussily specific number, I suppose, but Robert did some kind of elaborate equation. The number is formulated to allow you to live a life of…excess, really…and never have to even think about what you’re spending. Cars, houses, staff, taxes, trips anywhere for as long as you want. Unless you decided you wanted to own…god, I don’t even know, dozens of fifty-million-dollar houses or something, you couldn’t ever spend all that. That’s how he came up with the number, he said. Assuming a specific amount of money spent per day, every day, for one hundred years. ”

  I tried to summon words, and couldn’t. “Roth. That’s crazy. I don’t think I can even fathom how much money that is. ”

  He shook his head. “You can’t. You really can’t, Kyrie. You could spend a million dollars every single day for an entire year, and still burn through…barely a third of that. ”

  “I can’t even wrap my head around a million dollars, Roth, much less a billion. ”

  “That’s the point. ”

  We lapsed into silence after that, both of us lost in our own thoughts.

  I’d spent a lot of time deliberately not thinking about Roth’s revelation regarding my father. I couldn’t. There was no point to it. I loved him, and if I thought about what had happened between him and my father, I’d go crazy. I couldn’t think about what Roth had told me about my father, either, about how he hadn’t been totally legitimate in his business dealings. But it didn’t matter. Not anymore. Not now. Daddy was dead. He’d been dead for a long time. I’d healed as much as I ever would. Knowing Roth was the one who’d pulled the trigger—accidentally—didn’t change the reality of Daddy’s death, didn’t change what I’d gone through afterward.

  So I intentionally remained in denial. I couldn’t change the facts, and I didn’t know what to do with the truth. So I pushed it all away, refused to think about it, and just enjoyed being with Roth. Healthy? Maybe not. But what else was I supposed to do?

  And now, with all that had happened since I woke up alone in France, it mattered even less. What mattered was that I had Roth back. He was alive. We were together.

  I pivoted, turning to face him. I sidled closer so I could peer way, way up into his face. He was shuttered, his face blank of expression, save for a slight pinch between his eyebrows. “Valentine?” I put my hand on his chest, reassured myself with the steady drum of his pulse under my palm. “Earlier you said you weren’t okay. ”

  He didn’t turn to embrace me, didn’t wrap his arms around me, didn’t look down at me. “I’m not. ”

  “Talk to me. ”

  He shook his head. “I can’t. I don’t know how. ”

  “Please, Valentine. Talk to me. Tell me what happened. ”

  He pushed away from the railing, holding on to the metal so he was bent over, a posture of tortured conflict, pushing and pulling at once, as if he was unable to even understand within himself what he wanted to do. Straightening abruptly, he paced away from me, hands scrubbing through his hair.

  Page 31

 

  “I can’t, Kyrie. I can’t. ”

  I followed him. “Why?”

  He didn’t answer, just turned and strode past me, clutching the towel around his waist. “I can’t, I just—I just can’t. Okay? I can’t. ”

  I let him go. I stayed on the deck alone for several minutes, gathering myself. Should I pursue it? Keep after him until he told me? Or was I supposed to let it go?

  I had an inkling as to what had happened to him. A sinking feeling in my stomach. A knot of fear. The handcuffs around his wrists and ankles. The fact that he had been handcuffed naked to a bed, unable to escape. The fact that she’d given him an illegal, experimental drug to force his libido into overdrive….

  The facts added up to a horror I wasn’t sure I knew how to handle.

  But I had to find out. I had to know what she’d done to him. The anger I felt within me was bubbling to the surface, becoming ever more potent and frightening in its intensity. Pushing the rage away, I descended to the staterooms, found Roth in the shower. His huge, powerful frame was too big for the tiny space, and he was slumped to the floor; hunched over, head between his knees. The water was running cold, and his skin was reddened from being scrubbed.

  I shut off the spray, unfolded a towel. “Valentine. I’m here. It’s okay. Come on out. ”

  His blond hair was wet and plastered to his skull, his arms wrapped around his knees, hands fisted in front of him. “I need a moment, Kyrie. ”

  I crouched beside him. Touched his shoulder and felt my heart crack when he flinched away from me. “Roth, please. It’s me. Okay? Just come out of the shower at least. ”

  He unfolded himself slowly, gingerly, shakily. I wrapped the towel around him, gently rubbing his skin dry, shoulders, arms, chest, waist, legs…. I hesitated, and then dried off his backside and then his front, realizing in a general sort of way what he’d be feeling if he’d been subjected to what I feared he had. I finished drying his hair, and then wrapped a clean, dry towel around his waist. He stood still through it all, not reacting even slightly. I wanted to cry at his limp lethargy.

  We’d showered together dozens of times, and we always dried each other off. He loved watching me rub his body with the towel, all over, and I always did it the way I just had, and usually by the time I got to his hair, he’d be aroused, even if we’d just had sex. The fact that he wasn’t even looking at me…my stomach revolted, my chest tightened, my heart ached.

  Harris always seemed to know exactly what needed to be done and he’d left a pile of new clothes on the bed, boxers, jeans, a T-shirt, a zip-up hoodie, thick socks, and sturdy hiking boots. I helped Valentine dress, feeling sicker and sicker with each passing moment. When he had the jeans and T-shirt on, he slumped to the bed, sitting on the edge and staring at the floor between his bare feet.

  “What do you want, Kyrie?” His voice was low, distant.

  I sat beside him. “Tell me what happened. Tell me—tell me what happened, Valentine. Everything. ”

  “Why?”

  “I have to know. ”

  He didn’t answer for a long, long time. I sat in silence, waiting, not touching him. Eventually, he heaved in a deep breath, let it out, and began. “I know for a fact I locked the doors before we went to bed that night. I set the alarm. I remember doing it. You fell asleep, after we…after. I put you in bed, but I wasn’t tired yet. I stayed up for a while, answering some emails from Robert. When I finally felt tired enough to sleep, I shut everything down. Put our phones on the chargers, locked up, turned on the alarm. I remember…I woke up for a split second. I felt a pinch in my neck. I managed to open my eyes long enough to see a man I didn’t recognize standing over me, a syringe in his hand. Then I felt this coldness rushing through me. I fought it, Kyrie. I fought it so hard, but I couldn’t do a damned thing. I went under. Everything went black. And when I woke up, I was cuffed to the bed where you found me. ” He swallowed hard, held his head in his hands, palms at his temples, fingers curled into his hair. “As soon as I opened my eyes and looked around, I knew where I was. I knew who had me. ”

  “Gina. ”

  “Yes. Gina Karahalios. I’m assuming Harris filled you in on what he knew?” He glanced at me, and I nodded. “Well, I’m guessing by now you understand me well enough to know I’m not precisely forthcoming with information about my past. I only told Harris enough to allow him to keep tabs on the situation. Enough time had passed that I had grown complacent, I suppose. I should have known better. ”

  “How long?”

  “How long what?”

  “How much time had passed?”

  He tilted his head, resting his elbows on his knees. “Ten years. Almost to the day, actually. It’s what, late September now? I made my move to get away from Vitaly’s operation on August twenty-eighth. I remember the date exactly. It was a Tuesday. I had everything planned out. Money s
aved in a dozen banks around the world. A boat ready. I was going to sail to Istanbul, and go overland from there to France, and then take a train to London, fly from there to New York. They’d never find me. No one would ever find me. Only…I didn’t count on Gina. She knew somehow. Not the details, but she’d sniffed out the fact that I was planning on leaving. And she wasn’t about to let that happen. She was possessive of me. Insanely so, actually. I knew that, but I thought if I slipped away, she’d eventually get over me. ” He paused, breathing slowly and deeply, staring at the wall as if seeing the events of ten years ago. “I knew how crazy she was. I’d seen it. It was part of why I was leaving. We were at a club one night, Gina and I. I’d just closed a big deal. Sold a dozen crates of AKs worth maybe half a mil to this small-time Israeli coke dealer for over two million. We were celebrating. Gina went to the bathroom, and I stayed behind at the bar, drinking. This girl came up to get some drinks, saw me, and started chatting me up. Innocent enough. Wasn’t even really flirting. I made sure to seem uninterested, but not rudely so. I said maybe half a dozen words to her. Barely looked at her. We talked about the damn weather, for god’s sake.

  “Well, Gina returned and saw us talking, assuming the worst, I suppose. I don’t know. She came up, took her seat beside me, and the girl left. I thought that was it. Didn’t think about it again. I fell asleep late. Or early, I guess. Gina was always an early riser, no matter what time we went to bed. So I woke up midmorning, and she was gone. No big deal, right? I made some coffee, had a bagel and lox. Went to take a shower, and—Jesus, I can still see it. The girl from the club. Her hands were tied to the shower head, and she’d been…tortured. Fuck, it was horrible. She’d had her throat cut eventually, but not before Gina had done a lot of other…things, to her. It was fucking horrible, Kyrie. Just for talking to me. And no one could do a damn thing about it. I went to find Gina and confront her, and she acted like she didn’t know what I was talking about. By the time I got back to our room, the body was gone, no sign that she’d ever even been there. There was no police report, no missing persons report, no obituary. Nothing. For all intents and purposes, the girl had just vanished. People knew, though. ”

  Page 32

 

  I wanted to cry for him, but I didn’t dare. “God, Valentine. That’s so…awful. ”

  “I couldn’t prove anything to anyone. No one had seen her taken—no one would even say a word about her. And Gina played innocent. But later that night, she made a point of telling me that I was hers. She had this little smile on her face the whole time we were—” He cut off, waving a hand.

  “Valentine, it’s okay. We’re together now. I love you. That’s all that matters. ”

 
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