conviction (the cassano series book 4)

 

Conviction

 

Scarlet Wolfe

Copyright © 2015 Scarlet Wolfe Books

All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.

Contents

 

Notes

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

End Notes

Acknowledgements

Notes

 

Conviction
is the fourth novel in
The Cassano Series
.
Concealment, Consumed
and
Coercion
must be read prior.
Conviction
is told from the points of view of Zev, Victoria, Tara, Adrian and Sadie.

 

It is for a mature audience due to harsh language, physical abuse, and descriptive sexual scenes, including aspects of BDSM.

 

Cover Photography by Ron Reagan Photography

Cover Design by Kim Black at TOJ Publishing Services

Cover Model Ivan Gabriel

Dedication

 

To Samantha Wiley. Thank you for your friendship and skill, and for routinely squashing my self-doubt. You’re invaluable and a special friend.

Chapter One

Zev

 

“You came!” Aggie shouts with a squeal. Her hug that practically knocks the wind out of me leaves me laughing. She’s thirty-five, and I don’t think she has changed perfumes since she started wearing it as a teen. It’s a fruity scent that reminds me of Tara.

I hold her tightly, comforted by the familiarity I’ve missed, and I have no one to blame but myself.

“Yeah, you got me here.” She steps back, viewing me from head to toe as she squeezes my bicep. It’s awkward, so I glance over my shoulder and see Adrian and Victoria retrieving bags from the rental car.

“Handsome as ever, and you’ve been working out.”

“Alright, alright, enough about me. How have you been?”

Aggie’s smile dims a bit. “I’m not bad. Busy as ever with Mom.”

I don’t know what compels me, but I grab her and hug her again. “I’m sorry you have to handle it alone.”

“Geez, all my brothers are getting soft in their old age. Did you get my birthday card?”

I guess she doesn’t want to spoil the good moment by talking about serious shit, and that is fine with me.

“Yeah, I got your card. Thank you, but remember, you’ll always be older.”

“OK, maybe you haven’t changed.” My sis pinches my cheek as Adrian and Victoria approach us.

“Aggie, this is my girlfriend, Victoria. Victoria, my evil twin, Agatha.”

Aggie swats his arm. “Don’t let him fool you. I’m not nearly as manipulative as he is.”

Victoria’s brow lifts as she looks to Adrian.

“Hmm … and you call me manipulative. I’m hearing from a reliable source that you’re no better.”

“We’re going to get along great.” Aggie’s arms wrap around Victoria, catching her off guard, but she hugs my sister back. “OK, let’s get inside. Oh, Mom is doing well mentally, so you should have a good visit.

“She does tire easily and is suffering from some serious headaches. I can barely get her to take any pain medication, so she might need to nap often.”

My stomach tightens. I’m nervous as hell to see my mother. It’s been a while, and she’s going to remind me. I pray she’s as mentally well as Aggie let on.

Victoria

 

Aggie is stunning. She has a similar nose as her brothers, minus the bump at the bridge. Unlike Adrian’s dark hair, hers is auburn. Her eyes are a unique hazel color like Zev’s, yet somehow she favors Adrian so much. I think it’s the shape of her eyes and mouth.

I need to stop staring, but it fascinates me that he has a twin. I haven’t asked him why Theo had to be the one to tell me about it, but we’re going to discuss that on this trip.

We enter the living room, which is spacious but a little dated. I take it all in, along with a deep breath. I’m in dangerous situations often, but my stomach is in a knot coiled tighter than any I can recall.

I’ve never met the mother of a man I’ve dated, and Adrian isn’t just any man. I believe with all my heart that we were made for one another, so it’s imperative I make a good first impression with the females of his family.

Adrian sets down our suitcases and takes my hand into his. “Hey, you OK?” The sweat from my hand is noticeable in his grasp. My free hand immediately goes across my stomach.

“I’m nervous.”

“Don’t be nervous. Aggie and my mother love you already, but I do enjoy seeing you vulnerable,” he murmurs with a smirk on his handsome face.

“I’ll get Ma,” Aggie says with a knowing smile. We take a seat on the sofa, and I look around the room again, trying to send my mind elsewhere.

“Mom will barely let Agatha make changes to the house, or I would’ve updated it. She’s too paranoid about everything.”

I glance to Adrian, and I believe he’s nervous now.

“I know you would do anything for your family. Don’t think you have to explain yourself on this trip, OK?”

“I love you, and I’m glad you’re here with me,” he whispers before his warm lips touch my temple.

“Damn, Adrian, she’s stunning,” his mother says. Her entrance is followed by Agatha, who’s wearing a grin. Shit, open your mouth, Victoria, and let words come out of it.

“Um, thank you. I’m Victoria,” I say, reaching out to shake her hand. I’m swiftly in her embrace, and the flowery scent from her hair fills my nostrils. It’s thick like Agatha’s but grey.

“I’m Denise, and you’re already family, dear. I can’t get over how my boys have changed since meeting you and your sister.”

“Yes, Sadie. She’s extra special.” The knot in my stomach coils even tighter as I think of my sis and the fact she’s angry with me.

“Xavier, it’s your turn to find a sweet woman,” Denise adds.

“Uh, Zev, do you want to help me make drinks?” Agatha asks. “Will iced tea work for everyone?”

“Sure,” Adrian and I reply simultaneously.

“Listen to them, Aggie. They’re in sync like they’ve been together for years.” Their mother’s grin is broad as she looks to her daughter.

It warms my heart to know I’m a part of something that brings Denise happiness before her death, and I will be there for her children once she’s gone. It’s a promise I will make to her while I’m here.

Chapter Two

Tara

 

Noah pulls on my hand as we stroll down the hall to one of the BDSM suites. “Relax, the room is right here.” We reach the door, and he grazes my cheek with the back of his hand.

I close my eyes as images flash through my mind. I envision Zev’s dimples as he smiles at me and his dark with desire eyes the moments he has longed for me. The times we’ve laughed and talked for hours warm me, the happiness stilling my nerves.

Then, I picture him in handcuffs. He will hate me after this, but I will always love him. He will be my forever “what if” as he keeps his freedom.

“Open your eyes. Have you been to one of these rooms before?”

“Yes,” I whisper, my gaze now tilted up at his tall frame.

“Good. It means you’re into kink. Let’s play, Tara.”

Opening the door to the suite, Noah steps aside for me to enter. My lounge uniform has spaghetti straps and a sheer, black mesh fabric that stretches from under my breasts down to my hipbones.

It’s attached to a short, ruffled skirt. Along with my thigh highs, there is little to the outfit, so I feel a chill and would give anything to be shielded inside Zev’s embrace.

“Would you like a drink?”

Lord yes. Please, numb me before I have to experience this nightmare.

“Wine please.” He approaches the minibar in the colossal room and makes us drinks.

I’m unsure what to do, so I drop my tote bag to the floor and take a seat on the black leather sofa. It matches all of the walls except for the two opposite of each other that are a sensual red.

There is a massive window with open curtains overlooking the Strip. We’re too high up for anyone to see in, so I imagine they’re staying open. This is only a large sitting room. I’m fully aware there are other rooms we will be visiting.

My eyes tilt up, and Noah’s are piercing me as he hands me my wine. “You need to loosen up. You look terrified.”

“I’m sorry. I’m a bit anxious. You know, wired from working.” Holding up my glass, I find a smile. “This should relax me.”

Taking the spot next to me, he sits closer than I’d prefer. His arm rests on the back of the sofa, and fingers begin playing with my hair.

He’s in jeans and a burgundy button up shirt. His short, blonde hair is neatly styled, and he smells strongly of cologne. He’s wearing too much, and I wonder if I will ever get the scent of it out of my nose.

“You’re the most attractive woman in the lounge. Do you like working there?”

“Um, I have a business degree I’m hoping to put to use soon.”

Leaning in, his nose grazes along my cheek to my ear. His tongue begins to trace it, and I come to the conclusion that we’re finished talking.

A familiar frigid chill washes over me. I close my eyes and take a steady breath to keep from trembling. I must remember why I’m here.

It’s meaningless sex like it was with the few other men I slept with from the lounges. I need to hold onto that thought and get this over with. The sooner I do it, the sooner we’re finished.

Sitting up straighter, I take a long drink of my liquid courage. As I place my glass on the table next to me, he begins trailing kisses down my neck. I clutch his knee to feign interest, and his growl is jolting against my ear. The sound is disturbing, a clue of what’s to come.

My head is turned toward him with his rough fingers, and he plunges his tongue into my mouth. It’s an invasion like none I’ve ever felt before, igniting my guilty conscious.

Zev … what would he think?

I’m pushed over onto the sofa next, and his solid mass weighs on my small body. Shit, he’s going to be rough.

I stare up at the ceiling and fight to breathe. It feels as if I’m sinking in the frigid lake I first fell into once I handed myself over to Noah in the lounge.

I fall farther and farther…

Deeper into disgrace.

The brown, murky water wraps me like a cocoon as I disappear to the bottom, keeping me from feeling what his hands and mouth are doing to my skin.

His wet lips are in a frenzy, laving over my neck and chest. My breathing slows as I envision the freezing water numbing me.

I succumb to the helplessness.

The hopelessness.

The nothingness.

Forcefully, he yanks down the spaghetti straps of my uniform until he can get to my breasts. His lips are on one swiftly, sucking hard. I’m relieved he’s hurrying, quickly trying to get to what he desires. I don’t want him to give me an ounce of pleasure, and I want it over with.

Abruptly, he sits up on his knees. “Get up.”

“What?”

“Don’t question me tonight. Call me sir and stand up. I want to watch you undress. Then, we’re going to one of the other rooms.”

Pulling my legs out from between his, I shift and climb off the sofa. He sits comfortably and rests his arm on the back of the cushion again. His eyes prowl over my body as I first unhook the garter straps from my thigh highs.

I peel off my one piece uniform, my body quivering with every inch of skin I reveal. I’m now wearing only silver strappy high heels and my sheer, black thigh highs. The urge to cross my arms and cover my bare chest is a battle I’m forced to lose.

Regret stretches an arm into the water. It tries to grasp my hand to rescue me. It could save me if I let it. I could feel and breathe again, fleeing right out that door. I could never look back. Zev’s not waiting for me, and I don’t owe him anything.

But I love him.

“Turn.” Doing as Noah commands, I pivot away from him. I’m exposed and vulnerable … disgusted. “Your ass is incredible. Maybe spankings should be added to the agenda.”

I sense him stalking toward me. A cold hand skirts down my arm as his heated breath warms my shoulder. I want to stay frigid. Numb.

“Zev told you I could show you a good time. I wouldn’t want to disappoint,” he says in a low voice. His hands grip my shoulders firmly, stilling my trembling body. “Do I make you nervous, Tara?”

“A little.” I close my eyes and swallow. Without another word, he takes my hand and leads me out of the room into another open space down the hallway.

The floor is a smoky marble, black swirly amongst it. The walls are red, and there’s a St. Andrew’s Cross mounted to one of them. It’s wooden and in the shape of an “X.” Two metal, black sconces decorate each side of it with fake candles that are flickering.

“Go stand in front of the cross, facing me.”

“Yes, sir.” I start across the room, and my legs are wobbly. I wish I could say it’s from too much wine. One more glass would’ve been beneficial.

Noah secures my wrists and ankles into black leather straps with silver buckles. His breathing is controlled, his chest close to mine as he hooks my right wrist.

As his hand pinches over the restraint, he shoots me with a look of lust and determination. I’m scared of this man and what lurks inside his twisted mind.

He strolls to a dresser that’s black with two glass doors. Some items fill the inside shelves. There is a vase and a bowl, and I wonder what the hell they’re doing there. I imagine chewing Zev’s ass about the purpose of them.

There are a few drawers below the glass doors. Noah slides the top one open and retrieves two red scarves. Opening the next drawer, he pulls out a flogger.

I fear his capabilities as he holds something he can strike me with. My heart thunders, and the pounding reaches my ears. He ambles back, slaying me with another stare before he ties the blindfold around my head.

“Uh, sir, shouldn’t we discuss my safe words and limits.”

“There is one limit, Tara. Mine. I’ll decide when I’ve reached it.”

In any other situation I would be demanding to leave, but I recall the end goal and think of Zev. I have no choice and must play by Noah’s rules.

After he’s finished with the blindfold, I can’t see him, but I feel his burning breath. “Open your filthy mouth.”

His tone is harsh, and I’m beginning to think he’s taking on an alternate persona. I do as he says, and the silky scarf shoves between my lips.

The leather strips of the flogger drag around my nipple. It stiffens from the sensation, and I inwardly scold myself for the physiological reaction my body is having.

It glides along my other nipple, and his silence is unnerving. Maybe it’s a good thing. I will exile my mind once again to the murky bottom of the lake, leaving my body for him to use.

The flogger trails down my taut stomach and slips between my legs.

“Why aren’t you reacting to this? I thought you enjoyed this shit? Maybe I need to be rougher.”

Fuck. Play the part, Tara.

The bundle of leather snaps my stomach, and I jerk, unable to escape. My skin stings, but I can tolerate it. I whimper into the scarf, faking the emotion behind it.

“There we go. You like it hard. I can give that to you.” The strips hit my stomach again, stronger this time. He then swirls them around each of my breasts. The next sensation is the flogger striking my left thigh.

It hurts, and I let out a yelp against the scarf. He groans, and it’s a desperate sound. It’s as if I’ve given him the exact response he wants, yet it’s not nearly enough for what he needs.

The flogger cracks against my right thigh, and I attempt to cry out louder, the pain much worse than before. He’s chasing the exhilaration, the flogger his channel for power.

I’ve never analyzed why, but since I’ve been an adult, I’ve been into kinky sex. Maybe it’s because of my adventurous spirit.

I enjoy it, but Noah has already broken the rules by not setting limits, and I fear that the man who I thought was a control freak has no control whatsoever in this environment.

The leather snaps across my stomach again. The pain brings me back to the present, and I stifle my cry because this time it wouldn’t be only a cry of pain.

It would be a cry of helplessness, fear and the feeling of abandonment. It would continue as a sob, soaking the fabric gagging me and releasing the sorrow and shame–revealing the truth to Noah.

My hair is suddenly gripped, and my head is tilted over. He’s constricting his hold, creating a prickling across my scalp.

His tongue starts from the dip at the base of my neck and stalks up my throat; a boa constrictor slithering it’s way to my pounding pulse, ready to strangle off the circulation, so it can fulfill its need to devour me.

I swallow against his tongue as if it’s the last time I will be able to take a breath. Shit, the tears come.

I’m starting to hyperventilate.

Suffocate.

The drowning feeling is taking over. I’m flailing in the water, wanting to escape and breath. Wanting my dignity back.

He’s. Too. Close.

God, I need him to get away from me.

My entire being begins to shake, and tears flow across my eyes. The built in round lights of the ceiling stun me as the blindfold is jerked off my head and thrown to the floor.

He grabs more of my long strands, and my eyes widen. It causes tears to drip to my cheeks, terror building in the pit of my stomach. Bile is pushed upward, but I swallow it back down.

“You don’t want this.” His fingers shove into me, and I let out a muffled sound from the intrusion. “You’re not even fucking wet.” The gag is removed from my mouth. “Talk to me.”

“I–I do want this.”

“I don’t fucking believe you.” He drops the other scarf and unhooks one of my wrists. Is he going to let me go? Once my hands are free, he moves to my ankles. Gripping me by the arm, he pulls me to a table in the center of the room.

It has thick metal legs but a wooden top, much like a butcher’s block. There are black leather restraints along the sides of it about a foot apart. Oh, no. Is he going to strap me down to it?

Instead, he shoves me over it, my breasts smashing against it hard. His hand jams into my hair and fists it tightly. His claws sink in, and he’s now the lion, not the snake.

He’s going to finish me here.

Harm my body.

Crush my spirit.

But he can’t steal my heart and soul. Xavier Cassano already accomplished that.

I hear him unbuttoning his jeans. “I’m wearing a damn condom. You’re not coming after me later for stupid child support.”

Oh, how kind of him.

The wrapper tears, and the fear sets in once again.

“Please, it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ll cooperate.”

“Yes it does. You’re only doing this for him.” Picking up my head, he slams it down onto the wooden surface, and I cry out as my body shakes violently.

“Noah, please don’t hurt me.”

“Hold fucking still, bitch.”

He drives into me, propelling me forward. The edge of the table rakes down my stomach. I imagine him sinking his teeth into my throat, the blood draining from me, taking my will with him. Shannon’s words ring in my head like a beating on a drum.

“You’re so damn happy of a person, too. I don’t want to see the men in here break your spirit.”

I decide it is best to keep my mouth shut and take it. I consented to a night with him, well aware that this could be the end result. I had intended to play the part better, but I can’t fake it. After the warnings I received about Noah, I’m terrified of him.

Although Zev ended things with me, I feel like I’m betraying him. He will hate me.

You’re Disgusting.

Vile.

A whore.

These are the words that will leave his mouth, and I will take his hatred and own my shame to keep him free. I only pray one day he will trust a woman and see himself for what he is–more important than the pain he feels.

Noah grunts as he pounds into me. He presses his strong fingertips into my head, and tears spring to my eyes. I blink away the blurriness.

One of my arms is pinned between me and the table, scraping against the edge of the wood. He rakes along my flesh, and the pain should be ripping through me from how dry I am, but my body has become numb as I separate it from my mind.

My tears stop, and I move with his motion.

It’s only my body. It’s only my body.

Noah stills and hits my ass hard two times as he grunts and comes. After several seconds, he pulls out of me, and with his hold on my body removed, relief overcomes me. My compressed lungs expand, taking in a much needed breath.

Is it over?

Slinging me around, he pushes me back against the table.

“It amazes me that you believed you would earn Zev’s respect by doing this. Did you honestly think when he told you to spend the night with me that he cared an ounce for you? He obviously thinks you’re a whore–a slut at his disposal.”

His body presses over mine, his breath close enough to melt the last of my will. I scrunch my eyes closed and attempt to sob, but my lungs are once again restricted.

“Remember, Tara, that no matter what you try to become, you will always be a trashy server and a gold-digger. Zev’s heart might be what you pretend you’re after, but we both know it’s his money.”

“That’s not true. I love him,” I bark. Spit flies out with my words, hitting his face. He closes his eyes and purses his lips before his hand flies up, backhanding me across my right cheek. My head flings the other direction.

Gripping my hair firmly, he steadies my face back at his. I’m petrified as all of the warning words I heard from Adrian, Zev and Victoria scream through my mind like a fire alarm. My lips quiver, and my body convulses.

“You bitch!” The next thing I see is his fist coming toward me. I close my eyelids about the time it connects with my right eye socket.

Releasing my hair, my torso is thrown back, and my head hits the table. My body arches farther, and I feel like my back has been split into two.

Clinching my shoulders, his fingers press into them, dissolving the last of the life in me. He lifts me up close to his searing, choppy breaths.

“You’re going to miss work until your face is healed, and if you breathe a word about this to anyone, I will fucking kill you myself. Do you understand?”

“Yes, yes!” I say through a wail.

Shoving me back again, his angered expression changes to an evil smile. “Slut, get dressed and get the hell out of my suite.”

Running to the living room, I rummage through my tote bag. I strip off my thigh highs and throw on my shirt and shorts. Ripping off my heels, I shove them and my uniform into the bag, my tears spilling to it, soaking it.

I slip on my flip-flops and run out the door. It slams shut, and I fall back against it. I have to get myself together, or someone will definitely find out what happened to me.

Rooting through my bag again I find my compact and open it. I look at my pitiful face in the mirror, red and on fire. After wiping the tears, I put on some sunglasses and head to the elevator.

Shit
, Sampson, the older elevator guy, is going to be manning it since I’m on a special floor reserved only for the lounge members.

It opens and he smiles, but his smile quickly fades as I step on. I shift, somewhat turning my back to him.

“Sampson, please don’t ask. My life depends on it.”

“Yes, ma’am.” A few seconds pass, and I’m whimpering. “Ms. Tara, I’m sorry.”

“Thank you.”

He knows me from the countless times I’ve ridden in this elevator with him to the secret world of the lounges. I don’t know why they’re so secretive. Maybe that has something to do with Noah and Zev’s relationship, too.

All I know is I’m walking away from this world. I’m getting as far from it and Noah Sanders as I possibly can. I never thought I would say it, but I believe it’s time to leave this city of sin. The devil obviously resides here with his grey eyes, a cloud to mask the darkness within.

Chapter Three

Tara

 

My eyes stare straight ahead as I stride to the parking garage. Inside my vehicle, I yank off my sunglasses and burst into tears. Piercing sobs echo in the small space. Was Zev worth this pain and shame?

We make sacrifices for the ones we love.

I had no idea the sacrifice would be so monumental.

Once I’ve pulled into a parking space at my condo, I turn off the engine and realize I have no recollection of driving.

I’m barely able to walk from the pain that has settled in my back. I head straight to the shower and strip down. Underneath the near scalding water, I lather my body in as many places as I can reach.

There are marks on my chest, stomach and arms, and I feel a lump forming on my temple from it being slammed against the table.

I struggle to figure out how to stand so that the water doesn’t sting the parts of me showing the evidence of Noah’s brutality.

Washing off his scent, I finish my shower and put on a thick, comfy robe. It’s yellow, and the memory of Zev laughing over the cheerful color of my room brings forth more tears.

I make an ice pack for my face and find my heating pad. Situating it against my back, I rest on the sofa.

I’m exhausted.

Humiliated.

Hollow.

And somehow so in love with a man that I don’t regret what I have done.

I had planned to leave a note on Zev’s desk, but I couldn’t go to Caged with my face beat up, so I have no choice but to send him a text.

Not telling him at all would be my first choice, but I fear Noah might say something to him about handing me over, and if Zev doesn’t respond correctly, all this will be for nothing.

Noah claimed that Zev is visiting his mother. Zev told me it’s been a long time since he has seen her, so it’s wonderful he went. I can’t disrupt that by texting him tonight.

I will give it a day, and then I will tell him what I’ve done. For now, I want sleep, but I fear the nightmares from this hellish experience will own my dreams.

Zev

 

Last night I had a great visit with my family. Dinner with Mom, Aggie, Adrian and Victoria was surreal. Ma laughed and didn’t argue, and there were no paranoid outbursts about the government or aliens.

She took right to Victoria. So did Aggie. They would love how happy Tara is, too, and I can’t stop envisioning her being here.

Actually, I miss her like fucking crazy. I don’t want to miss her, I don’t want to need her, and I wish I didn’t yearn to hold her, but I do.

Rubbing my hands down my face, I climb out of bed. After throwing on some athletic shorts and a t-shirt, I stroll downstairs.

Adrian and Victoria look like they’re having a serious discussion on the sofa, so I bypass them and head to the kitchen. Aggie is pouring a cup of coffee as I take a seat on a stool.

“Do you have enough for me?”

“Of course.” She doesn’t look my way, and she’s not smiling.

“What’s wrong?”

After a few long seconds, she takes a glimpse at me.

“Mom is not doing well this morning. So much so that I’ve called the doctor. Since she’s paranoid of the hospitals, and I don’t want her to have a setback mentally, he’s going to make a house call. She’ll probably be in bed all day.”

Setting her mug on the counter, her shoulders slump.

“Zev, I’m sorry. I was hoping you would get more quality time with her. She’s been doing so much better.”

“Sis, I saw that last night. She’s dying. I understand she’s going to have bad days.”

Her brow furrows, and I worry my choice in words has hurt her. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“I know she’s dying. It’s fine. I’m curious about you. You’re different. It’s as if all my brothers are changing for the better. I know the others are in relationships. Is there something you want to tell me?”

“Nope, nothing here. You know I’m not the relationship type of guy.”

“Yeah, and neither were Adrian and Simon, yet they’ve fallen in love. At least tell me her name.”

“Aggie, don’t.”

She’s making her signature pouty face that makes me give her anything she wants. “Tara. Her name is Tara, and she’s too amazing to be with a man like me.”

After silently pouring my cup of coffee, she slides it across the counter and looks me in the eyes.

“You’re amazing, too. Let her in to see that side of you.”

“You’ve always had faith in me,” I mutter.

“Zev, this entire family has your back. Why would Adrian give you the responsibility he has if he didn’t think you were remarkable? Ma loves you so much and so did Dad.

“We need others to lean on at times. I’m sure there are plenty of ways you could make Tara happy in return. You have more to offer than you realize.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve missed your mothering. We’re in trouble when you move to Vegas. You will want to put a stop to all of our misbehaving.”

“It sounds like some special women are doing the job for me. Think about what I said.”

Did I make Tara happy? She made it seem like I did.

“OK, and I guess I should have a private talk with Ma. Wish me luck.” I pick up my mug and tip it toward her before I leave the kitchen.

 

 

Adrian

 

“I’m worried about you this morning,” I say to Victoria. She’s curled up against me on the sofa, drinking a cup of coffee.

“I told you; I’m concerned for your mother.”

“No, there is something else bothering you. You’ve been different since we arrived last night. Do you not want to be here?”

Victoria sits straight up and shifts to face me.

“Of course, I want to be here. I’m upset about Sadie. Seeing you with Agatha reminded me of what my relationships are like with my sisters, and I’m beginning to wonder how much of it is my fault. Maybe I should’ve told Sadie about the possibilities of Simon going to prison.”

I hold a finger straight over her lips.

“Shit, I should’ve told you; Agatha doesn’t know about that.”

“None of it?”

“She’s aware of the lounges but not the FBI. She has enough to worry about with Mom, so I’m hoping it works out and she never has to know.”

“Like Sadie, Agatha would be pissed that you kept it from her,” Victoria whispers.

“Yeah, probably.”

“I’ve been curious. Why did I have to hear from Theo that Aggie is your twin?”

“Shame.” My gaze drops to the floor. “Twins have a special bond, and I figured you knew that. I believed you would think less of me for cutting my twin sister out of my life for so many years.”

“You must’ve thought it was the right thing to do at the time, and that’s all in the past. Our love for each other is healing us. It’s not one-sided, Adrian. You’ve helped me change for the better, too, and that’s why I owe my sisters an apology.

“I’ve kept them at arm’s length, and all they’ve ever wanted was to be close to me. You’ve taught me to trust again, and for that, I love you with all my heart.”

My lips press to her temple. “You’re amazing. I guess I owe Agatha the truth, too. Thank you for helping me realize it.”

Zev

 

Strolling into my mother’s room, I find her watching CNN. It’s probably not the best channel for her to be engaged in.

“Ma, do you mind if I turn this off so we can talk?”

Her smile is weak, much like she feels, but it reaches her hazel eyes. “I would love to chat.”

I grab the remote from her nightstand and shut off the television. Her pale green curtains are pulled back, and through sheer white ones the sun beams onto her hair.

The light shows a hint of the auburn it once possessed, and I wonder when my mother got old. What was I doing all that time?

“How are you feeling this morning?”

“Not good, dear. My clock is ticking.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Your sister is misleading everyone because she wants to be fooled.” Her eyes narrow on me as she grabs my hand and squeezes. “I seriously don’t have much time left, Xavier. I’m happy you came home.”

Releasing a loud, lengthy breath, I remove extra pillows from a wooden chair and carry it over next to her. I take a seat and grip her hand this time.

“I’m glad I came home, too. I’ve missed you.”

“You were deep in thought at dinner last night. What’s her name?”

I shake my head in disbelief, but I don’t know why I’m surprised. “It’s pretty obvious you and Aggie spend all of your time together. She asked the same question.”

“So?”

“Tara, Ma, but we’re not together. I screwed that up.”

“Does she love you?”

“She claims to.”

“Then it can be fixed,” she says with a shrug of her shoulders. “A mother knows these things.”

“Who wants to be fooled now?” I smirk, but she remains serious. Her eyes blink slowly with eyelids heavy from sickness.

“Words might fool the brain, but they can’t fool the heart. Typically, a man holds onto his heart the longest, and I know you’ve held onto yours, Xavier.

“If she believes she has your whole heart like you have hers, she’ll treat it like gold.”

“I thought I was the philosopher in this family.”

She leans over toward me, her eyes fixing on mine.

“You’ve only guarded your heart because of me. I know this, and I’m sorry.”

My head falls over from shame. She’s the mother I remember from when I was a young boy. From what I’ve been told, it was a time when she wasn’t too paranoid to take her medications.

Her medications that are making her mind well.

Medications are for illnesses.

I’m a jackass.

“I’m sorry, too, Ma. I’m sorry I’ve been gone for so long.”

Her fingers glide through my hair as she attempts to sooth me–to rid me of my guilt. It isn’t working. My phone vibrates in my pocket, but I ignore it.

“Watch a show with me,” she says. The television comes on, so I lift my head. “The doctors claim laughter is the best medicine. Let’s find something crude and funny to watch.”

Just like that Ma has changed the mood in the room. The mournful fog lifts, and I smile as I shift my chair to face the TV.

 

***

After visiting with my mother, I step out onto the porch to check my phone. I pull it out and see the text message that I had missed was from Tara. I feel the accelerated beats of my heart.

She’s reaching out to me.

Tara:
I did something. Please believe I only did it because I love you. It’s extremely important that when Noah brings it up, you go along with it, or what I did will have been for nothing.

What the fuck?

Me:
What the hell did you do?

No reply … seconds pass.

More seconds pass with no reply. I can see she has read my message and is not typing back.

Me:
Answer me, dammit!

Tara:
Just do what I said, and leave me alone.

“Son of a bitch!” I squeeze my iPhone hard in my hand, my brain trying to imagine what she could’ve done. I don’t know, but I have to get home to find out. Whatever it is sounds serious.

Storming back inside the house, I hunt for Adrian. He’s in the kitchen, sitting at the eat-in table with Aggie and Victoria. They’re drinking iced tea and talking, looking happy when I’m about to die with curiosity and desperation.

“Adrian, can I speak to you for a minute?”

“Sure.” He follows me to the living room, and I spin around to face him.

“I have to get the fuck back to Vegas tonight.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know for sure, but it has to do with Noah and … look, I have to get back there right away.”

He scratches his head. “Alright. What do you need me to do?”

“Get me on a commercial flight or a private jet while I head to the airport.”

“A private jet? Is that really necessary?”

“Yes, it is.”

“I think I know who else this has to do with, and I won’t say anything to Victoria. Take the rental car, and we’ll get a taxi to the airport.”

I pat the side of his arm. “Thanks, bro.” After running upstairs, I throw my shit into my suitcase. I hate leaving my mother and Aggie this soon, but I make up an excuse about work and quickly tell everyone goodbye.

As I drive to the airport, my mind races. Every scenario darts across its pathway, and it hits me all at once.

My chest sinks in, and I have to cover my heart with a fist, willing my lungs to inhale another breath. No way. Did Noah tell Tara the ultimatum he gave me? He wouldn’t do that. He has too much on the line.

I have to be wrong.

Maybe she had dinner with him again. An innocent meal. Then, she dodged his advances but knew he would mention it to me.

The need to know the meaning of her message and the urgency to protect her makes it so I can’t get to her fast enough.