Alpha, p.25
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       Alpha, p.25

         Part #1 of Alpha series by Jasinda Wilder
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  Carefully, fearful of letting my shaking hands spill my coffee, I set my mug down. “The truth. About what?”

  Despite his outward calm, I saw a torrent of emotion hiding in his gaze. He looked away, gazing out over the city, sipping his tea, looking casually majestic in his muscular, regal beauty. “You remember what I said to you?”

  I swallowed hard. I’d nearly forgotten. “You have a secret that concerns me. ” I sat up straight, prim and proper, a vain effort to keep myself contained. “You said—when you tell me, it would change things. ”

  He nodded, finally setting his cup down and looking at me. He rested his calf on his knee, leaning back. “And when you knew, what did I say you would likely do?”

  “Walk away. ” It was a whisper.

  Guess I won’t be telling him how I feel just yet.

  “Yes. ” His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. I’d never seen him looking so nervous before. “Before I begin, know this: You are mine. You will always be mine. And I take care of what is mine. So if you do walk away…you will have no worries. Never again, no matter what. Do you understand?”

  His gaze demanded an answer, so I nodded. “Yes. I understand. But I don’t get what you could possibly tell me that would change—”

  Page 69


  “Just listen. Don’t interrupt. ” He sat forward, elbows on his knees, hands clasped in front of him. “Do you recognize me, Kyrie? Did you, I mean, when you first saw me?”

  I frowned. “I—I thought I might have seen you before, but I’ve never been able to place you. Why?”

  “I knew your father. You and I…we met before. Briefly. Seven years ago. ”

  Realization hit me like a ton of bricks. “My freshman year of college. I was visiting Daddy at his office. ” I thought hard, remembering. “I always just walked into his office when I went to see him. Since my classes were downtown, near his office, I visited him all the time, and I’d just walk in. That time, though, his secretary tried to stop me. I heard voices in his office, angry voices. I went in anyway. Daddy was standing behind his desk, facing the window. And…you. You were there. In a suit and tie. You both looked upset. As soon as Daddy saw me, though, he…changed. Acted like nothing was wrong. And so did you. That was the only time he ever acted like he didn’t have time for me. He—he told me to come back later. ” I paused, the pit of my stomach falling. “Two—two months l-later, the police found him…in a parking garage. Shot dead. They never found out who killed him. ”

  I couldn’t breathe as Roth’s eyes, now cold as arctic ice, met mine.

  He blinked twice. “I did. ”

  My world spun, my vision narrowing to a black tunnel. “Wha—what? What do you mean? You killed him? Why…why would you say something like that, Valentine?” My eyes pricked, my heart pounded, and nausea seized my stomach.

  He blinked again, but never looked away from me. “It’s true. I’m sorry, Kyrie. It…it was self-defense. ”

  I shook my head. “No. No. That doesn’t make any sense. Self-defense? You mean, like, Daddy tried to kill you? Why? I don’t—I don’t understand what you’re talking about, Valentine. ”

  He stood up abruptly, leaned over the railing. “It was a business deal gone wrong. ” His voice was slow, his usually faint English accent now thickening to become noticeable. “I was young then. Just starting out here in New York. I’d had several successful businesses overseas, as I’ve told you. Commercial fishing, real estate, technology companies. And one business that was not…above-board. But it was the one that made me the most money, unfortunately. ”

  “Less above-board? Like…drugs?” I had to ask, if only to distract myself from what he’d just admitted to me.

  He shook his head. “Arms-dealing. I got into that by accident, really, but I was good at it. It was dangerous, but I was young and arrogant and thought I was invincible. Then a deal went sour on me, and I nearly got killed. So I sold my stock piecemeal and came to New York, determined to get another more legitimate business going. So I did. Real estate again, to establish some capital, and then I bought a tech company that was floundering. Diced that company up and sold it off, and did the same thing again. Made a fortune each time. That became my business. Buy a little company, break it up, and sell it off. A common enough practice, really. Most were going belly-up anyway, so it wasn’t like I was a takeover shark. I was ruthless, but that was business. And I tried to look out for the employees, generous severance packages and the like for those who lost their jobs. Some fought me, of course, thinking they could save their companies on their own.

  “Your dad was one of those. He had a successful business supplying auto parts to the Big Three. He had his fingers in other pies, too, of course, things around the city, opportunities here and there. Quite a long reach he had, despite the small outward appearance of his company. All I saw was another opportunity. There were three startups I was going after, and my plan was to merge them all under my umbrella. I’d have made a bundle. Your father was the key to it all. His business was the linchpin to the whole deal. He had the best network of contacts and the strongest line into the Big Three. Without him, the other two companies would just fall apart. I needed him to keep them together. He was a damn savvy businessman, your father. ” Roth paused, his grip on the railing twisting in agitation. “He saw me coming from a mile away and was scrambling to hold me off. He’d built his company from the ground up, and he wasn’t about to lose it, not to a hungry young punk like me. Those were his words, you know. That was what he was yelling at me just before you came in that day. ‘I’ve worked too damn hard for this to lose it to a hungry young punk like you, Roth. ’” He pitched his voice low, and sounded eerily like my dad, down to the slight rasp from his years of smoking before I was born.

  Roth continued. “It was just business. Besides, I was planning on leaving him in charge of a much bigger enterprise. Increased pay, better perks, a bigger office. He didn’t want that. He wanted what was his, what he’d worked to build. I respected that, really I did, but I wasn’t about to let it stop me. And I wasn’t above using a few strong-arm tactics to get my way. I’d come from Europe, remember, where bribes and coercion were commonplace, especially in the Eastern Bloc countries where I did the bulk of my arms dealing. ”

  He paused again, turning to grab his mug and take sip of what now had to be cold tea. I wanted to stop him, to tell him I didn’t want to hear any more. I didn’t believe him. It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be. The man I loved had murdered my father? No way.

  He set his mug down and leaned back against the railing, arms crossed over his powerful chest. “I did some digging. Found out some things about your father that he didn’t want getting out. ” I didn’t want to hear any more, but I was powerless to stop the flood of words from him. “He was a good man, Kyrie. A good father. But he was a ruthless businessman. And he had his hand in some unsavory things. A prostitution ring. High-end escorts in the casinos, that sort of thing. ”

  I shook my head, ignoring the what-ifs rebounding in my head. “What? No, Roth. You’re mistaken. My father sold auto parts. He didn’t have anything to do with…prostitution. ”

  Roth sighed, not looking away from me, letting me see the sorrowful sincerity in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Kyrie. I’d spare you these revelations if I could. I have proof, if you really demand it. The same proof I used to force your father into selling. He loved you, I know he did. He even loved his wife, in a strange sort of way. He was the kind of man who could compartmentalize the various aspects of his life. No one knew he ran the escort ring. No one. Not even his closest friends and board members. Certainly not his family. ”

  Page 70


  I stood up, walked away, anger boiling inside me, confusion blasting me, uncertainty rocking me. “He just ran them, though, right? I mean…. he loved us. Mom and Cal and I. He was…faithful, right?” Why was that even important?
He was dead. Because of Roth. Because of my Valentine Roth.

  Roth was silent for a moment. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could tell you what you want to hear. But it’s just not true. Like I said, he was a good father. He took care of you. I saw that. His biggest concern when I approached him about the merger was that you were taken care of, that none of it affected you. But was he maritally faithful? No. He—well, that’s not material. There were other ties to the underground. Whispers of drug running, connections to South American cartels.

  “Nothing was ever verified, but it was enough to give me leverage over him. Some photos of him with his escorts, some ledgers I’d gotten hold of, people willing to rat him out for money. He got desperate. Did some of his own digging. Discovered some things about me, my old arms-dealing connections. Nothing substantial enough to really harm me, but enough to make the point that he was willing to play hardball. So I leaked some of the information regarding his prostitution ring to the right sources…the ring got busted, and he just barely avoided direct incrimination. It was enough, though. Authorities were nosing around him, making him nervous. The thing was, he knew I had the wherewithal to make it go away. It was a small ring, lucrative for him, but small on the national scale. A few well-placed bribes, and the pressure would go away. Just sell, I told him. Sign the merger. ”

  I faced away from him, arms crossed over my chest, tears pricking my eyes. I pushed them down, held them back, but just barely. “You’re lying! You’re making this up. It…it sounds like some stupid thriller novel. My father sold auto parts. ”

  Roth moved up behind me. “Why would I make this up, Kyrie? Why would I tell you this if it wasn’t true?”

  I shook my head, hair swinging across my back. “I don’t— I don’t know. You’re crazy. This is all some game. ”

  His hands rested on my shoulders, and, for the first time since we’d met, I tensed, flinched, and pulled away from him. He sighed, but allowed me my space. “It’s all true, Kyrie. I’m sorry. I wouldn’t make up something like this. I couldn’t. ”

  I spun around, full-on angry now. “So you killed him? Because he wouldn’t sell?”

  Roth shook his head. “No. It wasn’t like that. It wasn’t. That wouldn’t have helped me, for one thing. I needed him to run things in Detroit. Killing him wouldn’t have served a purpose. And, more importantly, I’m not like that. ”

  “You were an arms dealer!” I said. “A criminal. Why the f**k should I believe anything you say? How do I know you’re not a killer? How do I know you haven’t killed dozens of people?”

  Roth groaned. “No, Kyrie. That was just business. It was a business. I sold crates of guns to men who wanted them. That’s all. It was boring, most of the time. Show up, exchange a truck full of crates for a suitcase full of cash. Go home and get drunk. Simple. I wasn’t…some sort of dangerous criminal, Kyrie. I wasn’t then, and I’m not now. It was a stupid business to get into, I realize that now, but I was alone in the world then, just trying to get by, and…one lucrative opportunity led to another, and then I was in it and making money hand over fist. I didn’t go around shooting people like some sort of James Bond villain. ”

  “Then what happened with my father?” I had to know. I didn’t want to, but I had to.

  He turned away. “Like I said, he was getting desperate. The pressure was mounting. I’d put him there on purpose, just to get him to sell, and then I’d make sure it all went away. For another man, it would have been threats of pictures of him with a mistress sent to his wife and the board, or whatever it took to motivate the sale. I had no interest in ruining lives, I was just…singularly focused. But your father took it personally. Instead of selling, he cornered me in a parking garage. He was drunk, or on drugs or something. He wasn’t himself. He had a gun, and he was ranting. Shouting at me, threatening me. I tried to calm him down. I told him we’d work something out. I promised him I’d make the suspicion go away. But…he wasn’t listening. ” His voice lowered to a whisper. I had to strain to hear him. “He put the gun to my head. Said he was going to kill me. I watched…his finger, on the trigger. He was shaking. He really was going to kill me. I remember realizing that. I tried to keep him talking. He lowered the gun a bit, just enough for me to jump him. We struggled. I was just trying to get the gun out of his hand. I wasn’t going to shoot him, just…disarm him. I’d been shot once, and I didn’t want to repeat the experience. But he was…crazed. Then the gun went off. I thought he was just shocked at first, like, ‘shit, the gun went off. ’ But then he went still, and I felt…something wet. On my chest. ”

  He clenched his fists, leaned over, and rested his forehead on the railing. Finally, he straightened, sucking in a steadying breath. “Fuck. I’ve never spoken of this to anyone. ” His eyes met mine. Blue as a winter sky, earnest, a little fearful, even. Yet his voice emerged as strong and controlled as ever.

  “I pushed him off me, and he was bleeding. God. There was blood f**king everywhere. I don’t even know how it happened. We were fighting for the gun, and then it just went off. The bullet, by some freak accident, hit him right in the heart. He was dead within seconds. ” Roth dragged in a breath and let it out, pacing away from me, hands fisting in his hair. “I should’ve said something to someone. I mean, it was an accident. But then there would’ve been an investigation, and while my business was totally legal and legitimate, I did have things in my past I didn’t want getting out. The nature of my coercion of your father wouldn’t have looked good, either. So…I suppose I panicked a bit. I left him there, went back upstairs. The garage was in the basement of a building in which I was renting a penthouse. So I just went upstairs, changed, and then got rid of the clothes. There was no record of my stay in that penthouse, as I knew the owner and was merely subletting it for cash. No cameras, no records, and my friend wouldn’t talk. So I packed up and vanished. I made sure the suspicion surrounding your father went away, and by the time his body was found, it looked like a mugging gone wrong. ”

  Page 71


  “That’s what they said. The police. A mugging gone wrong. Things didn’t fit, though. It was a secured garage, but there wasn’t any evidence to the contrary, so they closed it after a while. No weapon, no witnesses, no motive anyone could find. ” I looked at Roth. The image of him swam and blurred as tears welled up. “I don’t know what to think. What to believe. How to feel. ”

  “I don’t imagine you do. ” Roth took a hesitant step toward me. “I’m so sorry, Kyrie. It was an accident. I never meant for it to happen. After that time we met, briefly, in your father’s office…I couldn’t stop thinking about you. You were so beautiful. You took my breath away, even then. I kept trying to figure out a way to meet you, but nothing ever came up. I couldn’t just approach you out of nowhere, not with the deal I had going with your father. And…when it came to women, you were far from what I was used to. I was used to taking women I wanted for the night and being done. Women were always plentiful in my life, and I never had to worry about impressing them or getting their numbers or any of the usual games a girl in your position was used to. I took what I wanted, and that was that. But I knew, I knew you weren’t that type of girl. I couldn’t just cart you off to my bed and discard you when I was done. And then the accident with your father happened. He only had a very small life insurance policy at the time of his death, not nearly enough to make a difference to you and your mother and brother. A few hundred thousand dollars payout, if that. I don’t remember exactly how much. ”

  I shook my head again. “No, see, he had a huge policy. Over a million dollars. ”

  Roth scrubbed at his cheek. “No, babe. I upped the policy after his death. From the inside. Made sure there was enough to help out, but not so much that it would raise eyebrows. ”

  I stumbled backward, tears shocked away. “You—you increased the payout? Why?”

  “To see you were cared for. I took a little peek, after the funeral. Just checked on you. Your
mother was…unwell. Your brother was just a kid. Bloody hell, Kyrie, you were just a kid, barely nineteen years old, but you were the only one capable of taking care of things. So I upped the payout amount. Paid down some of his debts. He hadn’t left you guys in a good place financially. Tens of thousands in credit card debt. A massive mortgage. Three car payments. The policy would’ve been mostly gone by the time all that was liquidated. So I smoothed things over. ”

  My memory of that time was hazy, but I tried to remember. I had been a sheltered kid. I’d grown up in a nice suburb, everything given to me. Not wealthy, but comfortable. I’d never paid a bill in my life. And after Dad was killed, Mom went cuckoo, so everything fell on my shoulders. I hadn’t even known where to start. Mom was no help, hiding in her room and drinking, smashing furniture, hurting herself. Losing her f**king mind. Bills kept coming, and I didn’t know what to do, how to pay them. So I took Mom’s cards and checkbook and started paying them. Forged her signature. Once, when she was in the throes of some paranoid delusion, I got her to tell me her PIN numbers for the cards and for the bank so I could see how much money we had. There was very little, I remember realizing. At first glance, a fifteen-thousand-dollar account balance seemed like a lot, but then I started adding up the car payments and the house payment and everything else, and I realized it wouldn’t go far. And then I remembered getting something in the mail about the insurance policy. I’d hunted through Dad’s office until I found the number for his lawyer, Albert Emerson. Albert was the one who helped me sort through things. He was a kindly old man, and he taught me a lot about taking care of myself financially. He advised me to put Mom in a home. He helped me sell the house and move into an apartment with Cal, helped me get legal guardianship of Cal so I could take care of him.

  But now, thinking through what Roth was telling me, I realized things did add up. The house had sold in a matter of days, yet I remembered the house across the street, which was bigger and newer than ours, going unsold for months. Bills had suddenly stopped coming, and I never questioned it, too stressed to figure it out, just grateful. He’d “smoothed things out. ” And I’d never realized it. The cars. Jesus. He’d paid off the cars, and I hadn’t put it together. I’d had car payments, three of them: Mom’s, Dad’s, and mine. I remembered the bills coming in and realizing how fast things added up. But then the funeral happened, and I’d had to put Mom in the home, had to get guardianship of Cal so I could sign him in and out of school, take him to the doctor—shit, I’d had to learn how to do everything. All the things that came with adulthood came crashing down on me at once. And then, once I’d gotten that stuff sort of figured out, I’d had to sell the house. And by the time that was done and Cal and I had moved into a two-bedroom apartment, the bills for the cars had just vanished. I’d gotten Albert’s help in selling all the cars except mine, a two-door Honda Civic, the same one I was still driving. I’d needed the money I’d gotten from Mom’s and Dad’s, a Lincoln MKZ and a Mercedes, respectively. I’d wanted to keep Dad’s, obviously, since it was a really nice car, but Albert had convinced me of the impracticality of that. So I’d sold the expensive cars and kept the practical one, and never questioned what had happened to the outstanding debts on them.

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