Carter reed 2, p.2
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       Carter Reed 2, p.2

         Part #2 of Carter Reed series by Tijan
 
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  “I know.” His voice quieted. “For her, I hope you stay out, but I know you, Carter. At the first sign of trouble, you’ll be coming in. Listen to me. This is why I’m calling you. Stay. Out.”

  “I am out.”

  “I mean it, Carter. Stay out. Do it for the woman you love.”

  “That’s the plan.” But even as I said those words, I gripped my glass so tightly that the side cracked. I was out. I had bought my way out for Emma. Everything was about Emma now, but…

  “I know you loved him like a brother, but you love that woman more,” Gene said. “Just remember those words and you’ll be fine.”

  “Gene.” He was right. Emma was everything.

  “What?”

  “It was the Bartels.”

  He cursed on the other end, sighing into the phone. “We’ve had a year of peace. That’s one more year of peace than any other time. You gave that to us, Carter. Remember that and remember my words. I know you love him, but you love her more. She’s the reason for you to stay out.”

  “I know.”

  “Okay. I’ll let you get back to that woman now. Tell her hello for me.”

  I laughed into the phone. “You and I both know you give her the creeps. She always makes sure she’s not around when you come for dinner.”

  He barked out a laugh, a real one. “I know, but that’s good. Your woman has good instincts. Keep telling herself to trust her gut. She’s a strong one.”

  “I know.” And I did.

  Sitting behind my desk, I looked up to the ceiling as if I could see through the floors to where she lay. She was above me, sleeping. She was at peace. She would remain at peace. I’d promised her brother, AJ, that when we were kids, and I had kept my promise all these years.

  Gene said his good-bye and hung up, but he’d gotten one thing wrong.

  I didn’t want back in, but with Cole back, since the Bartel family had attacked him, I would have to wait and see. I was attached to the Mauricio family, even if I was in business with both families. But if they touched Emma, all bets were off.

  A week later I was at the gun range with Theresa and Amanda. Noah was there too, as he was technically our teacher, but after he and Theresa got into a spat for the third time, she banished him to an observation box above us, behind bulletproof glass. He could watch and listen, but if we didn’t hit the speaker switch from our end, we couldn’t hear him. Theresa made sure all our speaker switches were turned off.

  As Theresa gave the instructions, Amanda and I shared a grin. We’d been learning how to shoot for a couple of months now. It had been Theresa’s idea, and these sessions had started to replace our wine nights. It had also been her idea to have Noah be our instructor. Carter was the better shot, but Theresa still liked to keep her distance from him. He still made her uneasy.

  Amanda had asked her about it one night at their apartment when I’d gone to the bathroom. I stopped in the hallway when I’d overheard Theresa explain, “It’s not that I don’t like him. It’s just…he’s a killer, Amanda. He’s dangerous. I know he loves her, and I know if anyone is going to protect her, it will be him, but…” She’d sighed. “I don’t know. He’s known as the Cold Killer. It’s hard to get past that, even though I know Emma loves him so much.”

  Amanda had asked, “Are you worried for her?”

  “No.” She’d hesitated. “I mean…maybe. I’m not worried for her from him, but because of him. He’s with the mafia.”

  “She said he’s out.”

  “Yeah, well, is anyone really out?”

  Amanda had replied, “She wasn’t in trouble before because of him. Emma and I did that all on our own.”

  “I know. I really do, and I feel bad, but I’m just on edge with the guy. He’s deadly. Can’t you see it in his eyes?” Theresa got up for the kitchen. “I need a refill. You?”

  I had melted backward, back into the bathroom. When she’d crossed the hallway, the bathroom door was shut.

  Glancing over at her now, I remembered how her smiles had seemed more forced that night, her laughter a little louder, and the secretive looks she’d sent Amanda’s way. They were roommates. They were going to talk about me. That was obvious, but I’d been hurt, though I knew I shouldn’t have been.

  Theresa worried about me. I tried to keep telling myself it was as simple as that, but a slight wedge had found its way between us. Amanda and I were fine. We were still family, always would be. Really we were all still our little family, but there was a small distance between Theresa and myself now. I don’t think she ever felt it from her end, but it was there. And I knew Amanda had noticed. I often saw a question in her eyes as she watched Theresa and me together. I felt her concern and understood it, but nothing was going to change. I still loved Theresa. I would remain close with them. The unit wasn’t going to disburse. But since no one had brought it up when I wasn’t in the bathroom, we didn’t talk about it.

  And again, Theresa didn’t seem to think there was anything to talk about. She was currently most concerned about the date that had failed because of an explosion the night before, literally.

  She growled now, aiming her gun at the target. “I shouldn’t be pissed, but when that bird exploded in the oven, I’d had it. That’s his idea of being romantic. Putting a sparkler in the turkey. He lit it, then stuffed it in there to hide it from me. He was going to bring it out as some grand gesture, but he forgot the sparkler was still going. My kitchen reeks of torched bird. And you know what he said afterward? He asked if I had more wine. He thought that was so funny. I swear. More wine, my ass.”

  She thumbed off three shots, one right after the other, then looked up to the observation box. “Yeah, it wasn’t funny. Or romantic.”

  Noah stuffed his hands back into his pockets. A glower formed on his face.

  Amanda raised her gun and aimed. “How about this? Why don’t you and Noah go out tonight to one of Carter’s restaurants. Emma and I will clean the entire kitchen. We’ll get that smell out, too. You’ll never know it even happened.”

  Carter’s restaurants. Hearing those words, I tensed. Would Theresa go to one of his establishments? She had never resisted before, and she still enjoyed going to Octave, the nightclub, but I worried, knowing her true feelings. What would happen if she started to shun Carter’s businesses?

  Her eyes lit up. “That sounds like a great plan.” Twisting around, she hollered up as she reached over to turn on her speaker switch. “You game for that?”

  “Sure.” Noah sounded resigned.

  Amanda and I shared a grin at his short growl.

  Theresa didn’t seem to mind. She turned her speaker back off, but said up to him, “And you’re bringing the wine this time.”

  He nodded, unable to talk back once more.

  Then she turned to me. “Is that okay with you, Emma? Would you ask Carter what restaurant he would recommend?”

  “Yeah, but I’m sure he’ll recommend The Favre. And I’m pretty certain Carter won’t even need to call. You guys are always on the list to get a table.”

  And other benefits. No one from Carter’s inner circle ever paid, and they always left with an expensive bottle of wine to open at home.

  Looking past Theresa’s shoulder to Amanda, I laughed. She clapped her hands together silently, jumping up and down.

  Time alone for Amanda and me was rare. We used to do Friday lunches, but she’d been promoted to upper management of a bakery across town. This enabled her to leave her side job at the diner next to The Richmond, and her new position left her without as much free time. Tonight, with Theresa and Noah on their date, was a gift for us as much as it was for Theresa. I knew Amanda would have wine chilling for us while we cleaned the place, and we could talk openly and honestly. We had a special bond. I loved her as a sister. We were the only two to make it out of our run-in with the Bartel family alive. Losing Mallory—and even Ben in an odd way—would always keep us connected.

  Plus, Amanda had been pretty silent the last month
or so, and that meant something was going on. I had plans to do an interrogation, twenty questions-style, to find out what—or who, if she’d started dating someone.

  Theresa sent off another round of shots, and when her clip was done, she put it down. “I’m out.”

  “Me, too.” Amanda winked at us before emptying her clip as well.

  I still had a full clip.

  “Emma?” Theresa had started for the door.

  “Go ahead. I’ll be right out.”

  Amanda followed her, but she whispered to me as she passed by. “You and me tonight! I’m excited. I have so much to tell you.”

  So my gut had been right. I grinned at her and waited until both of them were outside of the door. It wasn’t that I wanted to shoot in secret or anything. I just wanted privacy. I wanted it to be me and the gun, just us for a moment. No bickering. No gossip. No heated undertones.

  Learning how to shoot was really more for her and Amanda. I knew how to shoot. I had two bodies to prove it, but they were done from close range, not at a distance. And learning how to be better at what I already knew was never a bad idea.

  As I held the gun, alone now, some of the old memories came back to me. But they were never very far away.

  I had killed two men.

  “Jeremy.”

  My voice had been soft when I called to him. He’d been raping my roommate, and he was going to kill her. I had no choice. When he turned around and saw the gun in my hand, I shot him. The bullet hit the center of his forehead.

  I swallowed now, remembering Mallory as she had watched me, pinned to the wall by his hands. Her eyes had been so lifeless. They were the opposite of Ben’s. He’d been pleading for his life, but minutes earlier he’d been planning to kill Amanda, then me. My stomach churned, remembering that he was going to take me to Franco. He wanted to barter, trade me in for more money, more drugs.

  He was the one who killed Mallory, but the Bartel family set all of it in motion.

  I drew in a ragged breath, cradling the gun in my hands like a precious baby. This little piece of metal had caused so much havoc in my life, and it was Carter’s weapon of choice. He’d killed plenty with it when he worked for the Mauricio family.

  Somehow, I knew this weapon would have a place in our lives again. I didn’t want it to, but I knew it would. And with that last thought, my hand closed over it, and I raised my arms, aiming with my feet apart, my shoulders rolled back. I shot, one after another, until my clip was done.

  All except one hit the bullseye. The other one, the outlier, was just outside the inner circle on the target.

  I’d have to get better.

  “Emma.” There was a knock on the door, and Amanda waved from the other side. She yelled through it, her voice muffled. “Are you coming?”

  I nodded. Putting my gear away, I stepped into the hallway. Amanda held my bag, and I put my gun inside the holding container with the ammunition beside it. Then I locked it and put it back into my bag. “Ready.”

  She looked up and down the hallway. We were alone. “They’ve been fighting a lot, but he’s trying. I think Theresa’s actually scared because he’s trying.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “He asked her to move in.”

  We had started for the front door, but I stopped. “What?” I hadn’t known they were officially a couple. “They’re so on and off all the time.”

  Amanda grinned, ducking her head. “I know, but I overheard it. They’re more ‘on’ than they let anyone know. He asked her—gave her a key and everything.”

  “She said no?”

  She shook her head. “Theresa didn’t say a word. She went on a cleaning frenzy last weekend, after it happened.”

  “And the turkey exploding—”

  “She’s not really worked up about the bird. It wasn’t that big of a mess either. I think she’s scared of what else he had planned with that romantic dinner.”

  “Wow.” Theresa moving in with Noah. “That’s great.”

  “She cries in the bathroom. I can hear her.”

  “Really?”

  Amanda nodded. “Every morning. She lost her family. I think she’s scared of losing him.”

  I nodded slowly, and we started for the front door again. “Yeah, that makes sense.” Amanda and I shared a look. We had lost people, too. Mallory. Mallory’s baby.

  “So tonight…”

  “Yeah.” I pushed open the door, and we stepped through. I could see the driver behind the wheel, and the car was running, so I assumed Noah and Theresa were inside waiting for us.

  Amanda walked beside me. “I have to tell you something.”

  “Okay.”

  Her head bobbed up and down. Some strands of her light blond hair fell free from her ponytail. She tucked them behind her ear in a distracted manner. Biting down on her lip, Amanda looked agitated.

  “Is everything okay?” I asked.

  “Yeah.” She nodded again, but it was more to herself, like she was reassuring herself of something. “It is. It will be. I’m excited for tonight. I’m glad you’re coming over.”

  “Me, too.” I grinned at her and reached over to squeeze her hand. She squeezed right back.

  The door opened, and Theresa asked from inside, “Where did you gu—”

  Then another shout drowned her out. “Miss Nathans!”

  My head snapped up to see the same man from outside Joe’s. He waved his arm in the air and hurried across the road.

  Suddenly three things happened at once:

  One of my guards materialized out of nowhere and stopped the man. He literally blocked him, towering over the guy.

  Another of the guards appeared behind me and cupped my elbow in his hand. As he directed me to a different car, he said to Amanda, “Please, get inside. Emma will be coming with us.”

  Then I was hurried into another vehicle, and we sped off—even before Theresa and Noah’s car. I turned around to find Thomas inside, along with the driver. I hadn’t even known they were around. Only Michael had accompanied us to the range, and I thought they trusted my security to be adequate with him and Noah, but I’d been wrong.

  Before we turned the corner, I saw a second car speed toward the guy who’d yelled, and more of Carter’s guards got out. I relaxed, knowing my guard wasn’t alone, but then I focused on the guy. This was the second time and second place he’d appeared. This was no coincidence. He was there for me, and apparently, I was Miss Nathans.

  Before I could get a good look at him, we turned, so I turned to Thomas. “Who is that man?”

  He didn’t answer at first, but then said, “We’ll find out.”

  “Where’s Carter?” He’d been gone this morning, but he’d been disappearing every night and for longer hours than normal. I hadn’t been questioning it, but that time was done. I needed to know what was going on.

  “He’s in New York again.”

  “Will he be there all night?”

  He hesitated again. “I believe so. He’s supposed to be calling you about it.”

  Fine. I’d have my night with Amanda, and then tomorrow I’d hunt Carter down whether he wanted it or not. “I am going to Amanda’s tonight,” I said, to make sure there was no confusion. “I don’t care who that guy is. I’m going.”

  He nodded. “Of course, Emma.”

  I grinned. “You’re just saying my name so I don’t make your night hell and demand to go to Carter, aren’t you?”

  “Maybe.” A flicker of a grin appeared, then vanished, and Thomas went back to being his stoic, statue-like self.

  I relaxed back against my seat. Little did he know, I was going to be that nightmare tomorrow. He could have peace for one night.

  “Who was that guy?”

  That was Amanda’s first question when I walked through the door after going home to change. Instead of answering, I took my coat off and put my purse on the counter.

  Glancing around, I asked, “Is Theresa already gone?”

  Amanda’s head
was deep inside the oven as she answered. “Yeah.
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