"Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?"
"Yes, hi. Ahh…this lady…she’s bleeding. She might have been shot."
"Could you provide your location, sir?"
"I’m on the 101 to Pacifica."
"Thank you. Is she conscious?"
"N-no. She’s…ahh…let me check. Oh! Oh God, she’s not breathing. There’s no pulse. She’s dead. She’s dead!"
"Sir, please, calm down. I’m sending you help. Now, are you related to the woman?"
"What? No! I don’t know her. I found her…on the side of the freeway. It’s raining, and when I saw this car, with lights on, but no one inside—look, I’m only trying to help."
"I appreciate you calling us, sir. Help is on the way. Please, could you stay in your car until they arrive?"
"Wow!" Eva skated a few feet away from the ski lift chair toward the beginning of the trail but came to an abrupt halt at the first sight of Lake Tahoe’s sapphire blue water glistening against the pristine, snow filled slope that sprawled ahead of her.
"Yes, wow." Clive placed a soft kiss on her cheek.
The way he looked at her, it wasn’t the lake he complimented. Even in the icy cold of the high elevation, Eva’s face heated to Clive’s adoration. How much she loved this man. His kiss reminded her of their first kiss, in his bedroom on that New Year’s Eve, in his parents’ home in Sausalito. How much her life had changed since then. Her parents’ divorce had led her away from Clive for a long fifteen years, only for her to meet him again in the very building her father’s office, S. F. Designs, had been in all the while. Clive had told her once, had she not taken the helicopter ride with him to Santa Barbara, he would have pursued her however long it would take to make her go out with him. Such was Clive. An intense, powerful, persistent man who’d get what he desired, by will or might, and in her case, by love. Nothing could tear them apart. She wouldn’t allow it. He wouldn’t allow it.
"Ready?" Carter angled the ski poles he’d pierced into the snow, preparing for a forward push.
They gave Clive’s brother a nod and turned to their friends to confirm.
"Not yet." Allie screeched and bit into her lower lip.
Eva couldn’t tell why her best friend would take up a challenge knowing she’d fail. Like that time she’d prepared to jump off the dock into the lake, of course, her feet slipped on the edge. Of course, she fell on her behind and bounced into the water. Or like that time she’d prepared to trim her waist-length red hair, of course, the stylist sneezed just as she had been about to make that first snip. Of course, Allie cried for months about her short bob. And then that time she prepared to chug a full glass of beer…
Allie didn’t look one bit confident in the challenges she’d set herself up for then, nor did she now. Why the sudden need to impress Marc? He loved Allie years before Allie found out that he loved her. Before he could muster the courage to ask her to prom, she went with someone else. Before he could ask her to go out with him, she’d already started to date someone else. And when he did go out with her, before he could ask her to marry him, she’d already decided to refuse. But Allie did agree to marry Marc in the end. Had that been why she attempted this feat? To make up for all those times Marc had been a step ahead of her?
Marc crouched in front of Allie and tugged the strings on her snowboard boots. "How’s that?" He looked up at her, his smile filled with adoration for Allie.
"Much better." She grinned.
Not a real grin. Izzy stared at Eva and shook her head. The numerous times Izzy, Eva’s other best friend, looked at her that way after something Allie did. When Allie bounced into the water, when Allie cried about her haircut, when Allie chugged that beer.
Marc placed a quick kiss on Allie’s leg and moved on to fixing the other boot.
Izzy pushed her skis and slid to Eva. Eva cut a quick look at Allie, hoping Allie hadn’t witnessed Izzy’s disapproval. She hadn’t.
Izzy leaned in as though for only Eva to hear. "She snowboards now?" Her voice, though a conspiratorial whisper, still seemed a bit loud, and Eva cut Allie yet another glance. "I mean, after the many times she talked me out of taking snowboarding lessons, claiming I’ll cause her emotional distress."
"What?" Clive’s brows shot together.
"Shh. Come closer." Izzy waved her gloved hand.
And he did.
Eva tilted her head to Izzy, giving her a what-are-you-doing glare.
"You know I deserve to feel this way, Eva."
"You should have taken that lesson anyway."
"Well…" She shot Allie a hesitant glance. "I did."
"And, Allie’s right. But that’s not the point."
Clive leaned into their conversation, exposing a level of curiosity, that until now, Eva hadn’t known existed—apparently her tall, sexy lover liked gossip—he looked unfazed.
Izzy rolled her eyes. "She claims I’ll just sit there, in her way, obstructing her skiing experience." She leaned farther in toward Eva and Clive. "But now that Marc snowboards, she snowboards?"
"Okay. We’re ready now." Allie gave them another one of her halfhearted grins. But then she moved and, in slow motion, Allie tilted forward and fell flat on her face.
Eva held back a chuckle, but Izzy threw her head back and laughed aloud. A few birds bolted into the sky from a nearby pine, away from them, away from Izzy.
"I’m definitely recording this." Izzy tugged at the Velcro closure on her coat pocket to pull out her phone but stopped halfway at Allie glaring at her as though ready to shatter the phone to pieces.
"Why don’t we get started and do a few runs, while"—Clive gave Allie his signature megawatt grin—"Marc turns you into a pro snowboarder?"
That got Allie to smile. A genuine smile.
Because who could resist Clive’s charm? The same charm that reeled Eva closer and closer to him every second she spent with him. The same charm that made her want to pinch herself to ensure it hadn’t all been a dream. That he had asked her to marry him. That she had agreed.
She pushed the fingers of her left hand deeper into the glove and the metal of her engagement ring rubbed against her skin.
Her longing for him, her love for him was all so real, her eyes stung from the emotions that tightened her chest, warming her, soothing her, exciting her about all that the future would hold for her and Clive.
Something in Clive’s expression confirmed similar thoughts raced his mind. He pulled her near for another kiss. She tilted her head, angling her cheek, but he reached for her lips.
"Can’t wait to do it."
At the exaggerated seriousness in his voice, laced with mischief in his expression, his innuendo unmistakable, she exhaled a light laugh. Of course, he also meant he couldn’t wait to ski with her for the very first time.
"Ready?" He grinned and pulled down his goggles. As though a punishment for her relentless gawking the sensual visual of his greenish-blue irises were replaced by an opaque iridescent lens that displayed her reflection. Her heart crumbled. She could never have enough of this guy.
She gave him a light nod, and then they started to ski down the groomed slope.
Freezing wind blasted at her as she sped. But the bright sun provided the right amount of warmth to cut through the cold. The crisp fragrance of lush pine trees tickled her nostrils, awakened her senses, and brought back sweet memories from all the times she’d been on this slope. Many times with her family, a few times with her friends. Each time her skis cut the crusty snow, excitement and joy filled her. And to think she’d share this all with the love of her life. Clive met her speed and crisscrossed the trail she’d left behind. She let her smile linger on her face, because really, she couldn’t have wished for a better day.
They reached the end of the slope, and seconds after Izzy and Carter followed. Knowing Allie and Marc would be nowhere close to them, they queued at the end of a long line to get on the chairlift that would take them back to the top of the trail.
"Too many people here today," Carter grumbled as he shuffled ahead.
"I was thinking the same. We should try the Nevada side," Clive suggested.
"Let’s." Izzy, too, shuffled ahead.
"Maybe we do a few more runs here so Allie and Marc can catch up?" As Eva said that, the chair arrived, and they got on. Clive held her gloved hand in his through the entire ride up the mountain. A thing they did now all the time, and yet, their togetherness sent waves of happiness through her. She tightened her grip and he pulled her hand into his lap.
They skied down the slope a couple more times.
The first time Eva passed Allie, she waved at her friend.
Allie attempted to wave back but fell flat on her face.
That definitely hurt.
The second time Eva passed the run, she met Marc. "Where’s Allie?"
He pointed with a gloved finger.
She shot her gaze in that direction and found Allie lying in the snow, again, face down.
And the last time Eva passed Allie, she caught her hiking down the slope. Allie stomped into the rental shop and disappeared, while they gathered near the ski lift and waited for her. Minutes later, Allie returned. Snowboard gone, she threw a pair of skis down on the snow. "Well, at least I tried." She pushed one boot into the groove and snapped on the ski. Repeated the same with the other.
"Guess I can take those snowboarding lessons now." Izzy said to Allie.
"Thought you already did. And, I was right, you totally sucked."
Per Clive’s plan, they got onto the chairlift to traverse from California to the Nevada side of the mountain.
Clive pulled down the protective bar and read the attached trail map.
"This is where we want to go." He pointed the location with his finger. "One thing, though, see how this forks into two? You want to go this way." He swiped his finger along the trail he’d intended them to stay on. "And not down here, which is through the trees and off the trail. It’s beautiful, but they rarely groom this piece. It’s a steep drop at the beginning, and if you aren’t careful you’ll tumble right down. So, let’s avoid that and go this way, to the left. Okay?"
"Where are Trevor and Tina? Weren’t they supposed to join us?"
"Yeah, let me call him." Clive pulled one hand out of the glove and brought his phone out from his jacket pocket. He dialed his friend Trevor.
"Hey man, where are you? … Okay. We’re heading to Nevada. … Okay. See you there. … What? Oh yeah, tell Tom to join us there."
Eva stepped out of the ski lift and slid a few meters down the slope to an overlook. Clive had it right; there were fewer people on this slope. Other than them, a couple of teenagers, and a family of four, the starting point of the trail was deserted. Eva glanced at the lift. A few empty chairs rolled by, then one carrying a man dressed in all black approached.
The man began to ski off the lift on to the mountain when Carter asked, "Let’s go?"
Eva swiveled around to face the slope. "Let’s."
"Stay to the left." Clive reminded.
Just as they began to descend, a feminine voice caught Eva’s attention. "Excuse me."
Eva jerked to a halt and looked over her shoulder.
The woman had called out to Clive. "Please, could you take a picture for us?"
"Sure." Clive took a pocket-size camera from the woman and cut Eva a quick glance. "Go ahead. I’ll catch you."
Eva gave him a nod but continued to gaze at the family of four gathering for the group photo. She’d posed like that many times with her family, with her mother, her brother, and her father—in that exact spot where this family stood.
Clive shot her one more look, and right away brought down the camera as though the family wasn’t waiting for him to take their picture, his expression readable.
Before he could ask what was wrong, she nodded again, drew in a deep breath to stabilize her thoughts as she faced the trail, and began skiing down the slope, following her friends.
Eva and her father were avid skiers. Her mother skied only to please her father, and her brother skied only for the hot chocolate. Because it wasn’t just any hot chocolate; when her mother wasn’t looking, her father would pull out a tiny flask and pour a shot of alcohol into Joey’s mug. She smiled as that visual passed her mind. Those were happy days. And these days were too, with Clive and her friends. They should take a group photo from that overlook when they went back up for their next run.
She had passed the section of the trail that forked in two directions and absentmindedly drifted toward the wrong run. The only way to recover would be a sharp turn to the left. She maneuvered her skis to do just that, when from the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a shadow of someone, or something. Bears did roam these slopes. She flinched and before she could recover from her shock, that someone or something shoved. Hard. Aggressive. She lost her balance. She fell. Off the cliff, down the trail Clive had warned her to stay away from. She dove sideways a few meters off the sharp drop, till she hit the powdery snow, and tumbled farther along the steep slope. One of her skis dislodged and stayed behind while the other remained stuck to her boot and twisted her knee. An excruciating pain darted through her leg each time she rolled and skidded down the trail. She cringed in agony each time her knee met the ground and deepened the twist in an awkward angle.
Though it seemed like she’d been falling for eternity, it also happened so fast, when she came to a stop, everything around her turned dark. She panted. She gasped. And when she tasted snow, it occurred to her that she lay face down. Like Allie. A light laugh escaped her.
But humor disappeared when she pressed her gloved palm flat on the snow and pushed the ground to turn over. A difficult maneuver, given all energy had been sucked out of her from the fall. The rollover corrected the position of the one ski that remained stuck to her boot. She lay still. Blinked at the sky, tinted pink through her goggles. She drew in a deep breath. And held it there. Pain emerging from the pit of her stomach radiated and consumed every inch of her body. Her kneecap throbbed. She rubbed the area to soothe, but it did nothing.
What just happened? Who the hell was that? A bear? Shoving her like that? Maybe not. Clive? No. Can’t be. He’d always been gentle with her. He would never nudge her for fun, let alone shove her down the slope he’d insisted she avoid. Maybe he lost his balance and bumped into her? Or it must have been Allie. She lost control, again, thanks to her idiot snowboarding obsession. No. Allie had switched to skis. So, not Clive. Not Allie. Someone else. Someone else… Her insides did a quick tumble at that thought. She shot up to a seated position. Unintentional? Deliberate? But who?
Two black skis skidded to a harsh halt ahead of her.
She tilted her head back, and her gaze met with the man dressed in all black she’d spotted earlier on the chairlift.
Deliberate. "What the hell is wrong with you?" she screamed.
"Me?" He chuckled. "Nothin’. You on the other hand, missy, are gonna get yourself killed if you don’t listen very carefully to what I’m ’bout to say next."
The accent… That accent. Her gut tightened. The informant. The nerve of this guy. Wasn’t it enough that he’d threatened her father until his death, and once Eva took over S. F. Designs, sent her threatening letters? He’d watched her when she went for a run in the park. He’d met her outside the coffee shop, posed as a reporter. One night, when she’d had girlfriends over, he came to her home, dropped off a note blackmailing her to break all ties with Clive.
She’d expected him to meet her, especially after Clive had announced Stanford Enterprises’ continued partnership with S. F. Designs, effectively challenging the informant’s latest threat. But, that he would make a move with all her friends and Clive around, seemed reckless even for this guy.
Feminine laughter echoed through the rustling trees. Startled but grateful, she turned her head sideways and glanced behind her. On the steep slope that would forever appear in her nightmares, she found no one. The voices must have come from above the ridge, the trail she was supposed to be on.
"Help!" she shouted the loudest she’d ever shouted. The word scorched her throat as it left her. "Hel—"
Something clicked, and her insides collapsed. Because that sound could mean only one thing.
She should scream. She couldn’t. She should breathe. She couldn’t. Her mouth dried out. Every inch of her body tightened. She sat frozen, not from the biting cold of the crusty ice she sat on, nor from the winter wind that gusted past her, but from the unexpected fear that had consumed her when she stared at the muzzle of the handgun pointed at her.
The warmth from the sun vanished. A sharp chill sprinted along her spine, and she trembled in her fleece insulated clothing.
"Clive will come looking for me," she mumbled her only hope as loud as she could, barely over a whisper.
He chuckled again. "I’ll be long gone before he’ll find you here. Besides, he’s too busy playin’ a photographer. The one time he should be protectin’ his fiancée."
She hated his guts. But what could she do?
"And where’s that bodyguard? Tom? Big man. Guess he’s afraid to ski. Which means it’s just you and me for now."
Though a balaclava, dark goggles, and a helmet masked his face, the laughter hidden in his tone gave away his arrogance. She riled. She wouldn’t let him belittle Clive, or Tom for that matter. She wouldn’t let him threaten her and get away. Not this time.
Because he feared too. He feared getting caught. Like that time when he’d met her by the coffee shop. Alarmed by Clive’s call, he’d run away from her. When she’d chased after him in Central Park, again, he’d run away from her. When he’d come to her home to leave that threat letter, hearing Clive’s voice on the intercom, he’d run away once more.
Her gaze drifted back to the handgun. He wouldn’t shoot her. He said she’d get killed if she didn’t listen. "What do you want?" she spoke through gritted teeth as her fight for survival strengthened.
The informant had it right. Clive would not get to her as fast as she hoped. Unless he’d seen her be pushed, in which case he should have already been here. Otherwise, he’d find her missing only after meeting with the rest of their friends. The soonest way to get to her would either be via the chairlift, and skiing down the steep cliff, or hitch a snowmobile ride with a ski patrol. Whichever method, he’d be with her in about seven to ten minutes. Too long. She had to fight this guy by herself.
With the slightest pressure of her thumbs she pressed the top of the ski poles she held in her hands and unhooked them from her gloves. She gripped the handles tight, readying for the opportune moment when she’d lunge up and swing them at him.
"Leave the company," he said. "You have…eh…one week."
Had he just made up the threat? Her newfound strength won over her otherwise rational, practical, sane mind. "Not gonna happen." Her heart jumped as the words left her lips. What am I doing?
He took a quick step forward, making the gun point that much closer to her. "Don’t push me, Eva."
Yes, don’t push him, you moron. "One week is too soon."
"Okay, how about one month?"
"And who’s to take over after me?"
"You’ll get one of them letters."
She tried hard not to seem bothered by the humor in his tone. "Why can’t you tell me that now?"
He didn’t answer.
"Why do you want me to leave the company?"
"Is someone paying you to do this? I’ll pay you double if you tell me who that is."
He took another quick step toward her and just as fast she jerked backward. She tightened her grip on her ski poles. Should she swing at him now?
His silence, his demeanor, not to mention that gun, shook her. Her nervousness took over, her palms grew sweaty inside her gloves. "Why are you following me? Did you follow my father too? Did you kill him?"
"I didn’t kill your father," he snarled.
"Then who did?"
He didn’t answer.
"I can get both of us out of this. Just tell me who it is."
"Don’t. Push. Me."
The way he steadied his gun this time, he’d do it, he’d pull the trigger.
All words left her. She stared in disbelief. She wanted to be with Clive more than she’d ever wanted to be with him. Had she known that last kiss would be their last kiss… Her chest grew heavy with rising anguish. No. This is not how her life should end. No! Not here. Not today. Not like this. She wouldn’t let it. She tightened her grip on her ski poles.
"One month. You can make all of this go away, just like that."
She stared at him, unmoving, ensuring he didn’t sense what she was about to do.
He kept the gun pointed at her for a moment more and then moved his finger off the trigger.
Just as he did that, she sprang up, and in one hurried motion held both her poles together and swung them at him as hard as she could. As quick as she was, he lurched to one side and dodged her blow. She struck the gun instead and it slipped from his gloved fingers. The gun landed nearer to her than to him and sank into the powdery snow. She leaped for it and picked it up, but before she got to aim it at him, he’d already turned around and skied fast away.
Her chest hurt at how heavily she panted, but she continued to clutch the gun in her shaking hands, pointing it in the direction he’d gone. Not like he would hike back up the slope, but it did take an eerie screech from a large bird somewhere among the trees to alert her that he wouldn’t return, and to think about what she should do next.
She set the gun next to her, on the ice, zipped open her jacket and pulled out her phone from the inside pocket.
Should she call Clive? Her finger hovered on speed dial. But he’d still be skiing down the slope unaware that she tried to reach him.
She dialed the next best person to handle the situation. "Tom." Still winded, she spoke slightly over a whisper, "Where are you?"
"Parking. What’s wro—"
"Man. All black clothing. Black skis and helmet." She paused, only to draw in a much-needed breath. "Should be getting off the slope any minute now. He’s the informant."
"I’ll track him down."
Good, but… "He knows you."
"I see." Tom sounded grim. "Does he know Mike?"
The informant had spoken of her bodyguard, but in singular. Maybe he hadn’t yet spotted the undercover security guy Clive had set up for her. "I don’t think so. He named only you."
"Okay. We’ll send Mike after him." He paused. "Eva, please tell me he didn’t hurt you."
Rare for Tom to call her Eva. But he did on occasions when he worried for her the most. "I’m fine. He separated me from the rest of the group and, as always, he got lucky."
"Never again. I’ll make sure of that." The fury in Tom’s voice gave her the courage to move on from the incident, at least until she reconnected with Clive and her friends.
As Eva ended her call with Tom, her phone flashed with an incoming call from Clive.
"Where are you?"
And just like that, all the strength she’d gathered drained. Her emotions welled from hearing Clive’s voice, from the worry in his tone, of his fear of losing her, of how much he loved her over everything and everyone else.
Her vision blurred from the tears that filled and stung her eyes. She shut them tight. Heavy warm drops trickled down her face and settled on the inside rim of her ski goggles. She tugged at the frame, stretched the elastic, and rested them over her helmet. The cold wind that brushed past her brought a sense of relief that, though only for this moment, her obstacle had abated. Her gaze fell to the gun next to her. She picked it up with a shaky hand.
"Eva, what happened?"
Dread in Clive’s voice begged her to say something, anything, but where should she begin? How much should she say? And over the phone? Because even the slightest hint of her strained mental condition would shatter Clive further. He’d blame himself for it all.
She’d recount every detail of the incident to him, but in person, in a few minutes when she saw him again. She swallowed her sadness and brought control to her scattering thoughts.
"Took the wrong run. Heading down now. See you by the lift."
She tapped the End Call button before Clive could probe. He knew she hadn’t told him everything. She’d terrified him. But that her phone didn’t buzz meant he’d wait for when she would be ready to talk. Typical Clive. Doing it her way, even when it hurt him the most. Even in high stress he treated her with such patience and love. But her calm should give him hope that she was not in as much a terrible situation as he may have imagined.
Eva hiked up the steep mountain and collected her ski. She slid her shoes between the bindings. Ignoring the throbbing knee, she started down the slope.
Preoccupied from her dreary thoughts she remained unmindful of the difficulty of the terrain she maneuvered. She relived the encounter in her mind. Her insides rattled. Her heart bled. The reality of what had happened began to set in. She’d come face to face with death. The informant, his arrogant tone, the gun, the threat to her company, the one-month deadline, the entire horrific experience played like a movie in front of her eyes.
She descended down the path that connected her to the initial trail Clive had wanted her to take. Her awareness returned when she made a final turn toward the lift, and her gaze fell on Clive and her friends, gathered for her.
Clive pulled his phone away from his ear and slid it into his pants pocket, his hardened expression easy to read. He’d spoken to Tom. He knows.
She abandoned her skis, the poles, her helmet, and ran into his arms. He squeezed her tight against his chest. His heart pounded against her ear. Deprived of his familiar warmth since the moment she’d left him on top of the mountain, she breathed relieved and wilted into his protective embrace.
"I’m so sorry, Eva," he exhaled her name in a whisper filled with too much unwarranted regret.
She moved in closer and pressed deeper against his chest.
He nuzzled his face into her hair. "I shouldn’t have asked you to go without me. I should have let you wait. I-I’m so, so sorry."
He inserted a small shiny microchip into his cell phone and dialed his employer’s number. "It’s done. I want my money now."
His employer’s familiar rough grunt no longer affected him.
"It’s done when I say it’s done."
Usual for his employer to sound grouchy. Usual for him to wish he’d never taken this job. But he no longer wanted to play this game. "It. Is. Done." He mimicked his employers tone. That should get his message across.
But it didn’t. Because silence.
"You said we were only threatenin’ her. Which I’ve done plenty. What else do you need me for?"
He cupped his hand over his jaw and covered one side of his mouth. "I kept my part of the deal. Now pay me, dammit," he whispered as loud as he could. In reality, he wanted to shout. And, though he sat away from the rest of the passengers, on the last seat of the skier commuter bus riding to the parking lot where he’d left his car, he couldn’t risk any of them overhearing him. Given how well his plan to intimidate Eva had gone, he would be stupid to draw attention now. Maybe he should have waited until he’d gotten into his car to make this phone call. But he’d endured far too much from his employer. He needed to get paid…he needed to put an end to this job.
"I’ll pay you."
His employers switch to a casual tone caught him off guard. There had to be a catch. "When?"
"When she leaves the company."
"No. You pay—"
"Tell me exactly how it went."
From the start, he’d hated every second of every conversation he had with his employer. It only seemed fair to plan revenge. That day, when they’d finally meet, that day, when he’d finally get paid, that day would be a terrible day for one of them. He smiled, imagining the last moments of his employer’s life—moments the ingrate would spend begging him for forgiveness.
He narrated what had occurred between him and Eva. "Who is to take over after her?"
"That’s none of your business."
"I told her she’d get another one of those notes. Am I delivering that?"
"Like I said, it’s none of your business."
"Good. I’m done workin’ for you anyway. All I want now is to get paid."
"And all I want now is for you to continue telling me exactly how it went."
He gritted his teeth at that bristling tone. Without thinking, he slipped and mentioned leaving the gun behind. Anticipating his employer’s reaction, he winced even as the words left his mouth.
"You colossal idiot. How difficult would it have been to snatch it right back from her? Is it registered to you?"
He let that slide. Because, sure, he could explain every detail of his encounter with Eva, but more than anything else, he wanted to get paid. And something told him his employer had never intended to compensate him. "I want my money."
"Are you being followed?"
He knew it. She was never going to pay. She? Why did he think his employer was a woman? And being followed? "No!"
"Are you sure?"
He spun around and peeked outside the back window. "I don’ think so."
"Son of a—" his employer shouted.
"What are you so worked up for? So what if someone’s followin’ me? I didn’t do anything they can prove. Was just Eva and me. Nobody saw us."
His employer exhaled sharply.
He pulled the phone away from his ear.
"Do you have a place to stay, other than your damn boat?" his employer asked.
Not his damn boat. It belonged to his grandpa. Actually, it belonged to whomever his grandpa stole it from. A secret his grandpa shared only with him. It had become his hiding place all those times he’d run away from home. His mother’s home, his childhood home, he hated that home. So, no, he didn’t have a place to stay other than that damn boat.
"Why?" he asked.
"They are following you, you idiot."
He swiveled around in his seat once again and peeped through the rear window. A few cars trailed the bus, but none of the drivers resembled Eva’s bodyguard, or her fiancé. Imagining either of them following him made an anxious fear dart down his spine. Maybe he shouldn’t have mocked them to Eva? He scanned once more, slower this time, and examined the passengers inside the approaching cars. "I’m s-sure, I’m not being followed."
"Hello? Are you there?"
"If you go to your boat before Eva leaves the company—you hear me? Before she leaves, if you go to your boat, I will not pay you. Ever."
"Where am I supposed to go then?" Not to Mama’s house for sure. Besides, he never could stay there for more than a couple of hours.
Memories from his horrid childhood colored his mind dark. His father’s drinking, his mother’s shouting, their fighting, the blood that pooled under his father as he laid dead, his mother’s regretless expression after she shot a bullet right through his father’s chest.
His heartbeat rose to a painful pace. He pressed his palm flat against his chest to suppress the agony that welled from his reminiscence.
No. He couldn’t stay at his mother’s. Maybe a motel. But short on money, he’d waited for this gig to fill his pockets. "Pay me half now, and the remainder later."
"Listen, I need the money, okay?" His jaw hurt from how tight he clenched.
"You’ll figure something out."
"No. I won’t. You better pay me, bitch."
"What?" his employer barked. "What did you call me?"
"Asshole. Whatever. I don’ know who you are, an’ I don’ really care. Give me my money, and I’m gone. I’m not waitin’ a whole damn month."
And silence. Again.
He’d worked hard on this job. Eva had it right. He had followed her father. He didn’t dislike the man. He seemed like a nice guy. And Eva too, he liked Eva. He liked her friends. He liked her life. His encounter today with Eva began to settle in. His heart shattered from the guilt of what he’d done. He would never do it again. He’d never threaten Eva again. He’d never follow her again. He hated that all this time she blamed him for her father’s death. Good he’d cleared that up.
He’d better end his suffering once and for all. "I’m—" He cleared his throat, as though that could subside the rising guilt that had prepared to choke him dead. He exhaled in defeat. "I’ll stay at my mama’s house."
"Good. And I’ll signal you when I have the money."
"Before the end of the month?"
"You’ll know when you see it." That usually irritable voice sounded eerily calm. He much preferred his employer angry.
"Guess I’ll finally be meetin’ you." How he waited for that moment.
"Don’t call me again."
"What? Why not? You’d better pay me, you hear?" Silence. "Hey? You there?"
He tried to redial the number, but the call didn’t go through. "What the—" he muttered, and tried, and retried to reach his employer.
"Fuck. Fuck!" He hit his phone against the back of the seat ahead of him.
A few passengers turned and looked his way. Among them all, his gaze settled on the man seated nearest to him, and he gave him his best deathly stare. But the guy did not flinch. He stared him down with matched vigor.
If only he still had that gun.
"Asshole," he mouthed from his balaclava-covered face without making a sound.
The guy turned back around.
Good. He smiled at his little victory.
He pulled out the microchip from his phone and snapped it in two. His anger lightened from the swift crack of the thin plastic, as though he’d snapped his employer’s neck. Wrinkly neck? Not like that would matter. She’d better pay me. She? Could be a he.
He rehearsed in his mind his plan for when he’d meet his employer. Would his employer plead for mercy? To spare his life—his life, her life? It killed him that he hadn’t found his employer’s identity yet.
If only he knew who it was. Heat flushed through his body.
If only he knew, because he’d then have leverage to blackmail back. His muscles tightened to the point of pain.
If only he knew. He pulled his hands into fists and punched the back of the seat ahead of him. A light crack appeared where his fist had made contact.
That guy turned to look at him again, and this time he stood from his seat.
The fury he carried in this moment for his employer encouraged him to brawl with this guy. He pulled out his gloves, stretched his fingers back and forth, readying for a knockout punch.
But the bus came to a halt, and just like that, the guy stomped away in his ski boots and exited the bus.
He stared after the guy. His chest heaved. He took off his helmet and peeled back his balaclava. Chilled air crept from the open door and rushed to his face. The sweat that had begun to trickle from his hairline began to cool.
He dragged in a deep breath.
He would have killed the guy.
What’s wrong with me?
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