I staggered forward with April’s help. Her face was an emotionless mask. Everyone I met seemed to have hardened themselves against the loss we had just faced. I hadn’t even begun to fathom what Hank was going through. He had been played with, toyed by Brianna who was also being toyed with, all this while. I had no doubt that he was going to blame himself in one way or another and there was very little we could do for him right now – except catch the psycho who did all this.
Which was where I was headed – to Xena. April was walking one step ahead of me, her eyes alert and everywhere. I tried to conjure something to say to her but there was nothing I could say. If I got stuck with April, what was I going to do when I met Reece? Sienna? Hank? I was at a loss. I had to be the strong one here, let everyone reel back from the loss and allow them the space, but everywhere I saw, everyone was working twice as hard, with dark expressions plastered all over. I passed Noori and her team in the hallway, they were going over some information about the poison from what I could hear. She passed by me and they all stopped to give me a bow but I just shook my head. Nobody needed to do this, ever.
I still had to ask her about me, but I knew that that could wait. We had far larger problems and I was not going to come in the middle and direct all the attention towards me.
We entered the elevator and April was still tense. I guess being a bodyguard did that to people – never let them relax. I was greeted by both Nate and Xena who were going over some files. Everyone was doing something or the other to help. April introduced herself.
“We’re going over Deta’s travels in the last five three years.” Xena informed me, as I walked to the large dining table in the center of the room. There was a laptop open in front of Nate and another huge pile of files next to Nate.
“Some of the paperwork hasn’t been digitized yet.” Nate informed me and I nodded. Nate looked exhausted, and so did Xena. It was late anyway, I had finished swimming around dinner time and it had been nearly two hours after which all this had unfolded.
“I’m surprised you’re awake.” I told her, gesturing to the angry red mark on her shoulder. Despite the situation, both of them blushed and things like this gave me hope. “Actually, it’s generally an Alpha’s marking that is more exhaustive, which is why you slept for so long.” Nate informed me and I nodded, absorbing that information.
“You both still look plenty tired though.” I spoke and Nate nodded. “This situation…it has taken a toll on everyone.” He and April moved to the drawing room to look at some more documents.
“So, Nate told you everything? You know what’s going on and you’re just...okay with it all?” I asked Xena and she nodded after a quiet moment. I knew that Nate was evaluating her every word, making sure that she felt safe with him and none of the earlier hysterics made a return.
“Yeah, he did. Werewolves Flo! Fucking werewolves! It still seems impossible…” Xena told me and I could tell that she was doing her best to remain calm. “To be honest, you’re handling it a lot better than I did.” I told her and she rolled her eyes.
“But, I believe it. You can’t mimic that kind of attraction. And the wolf oh my God! I nearly fainted when he turned!” I could see that she was about to launch into one of her monologues and there were more urgent things at the moment that needed to be addressed.
“Speaking of which, Xen, I think I know who it is.” I told her, but then hesitated. She was about to get really offended.
“Hear me out, okay?” I told her, continuing. I pulled up another chair sitting opposite them and she narrowed her eyes. April stood right where she was. “What is it? What are you thinking?” Her tone had already grown a little defensive. I sighed. I didn’t know how to get this through to her without ruffling some feathers.
“I think it’s Julian.” I breathed out. I waited for an outburst.
“Who’s Julian?” Nate asked at the same time as Xena said, “No.”
She didn’t move her eyes away from mine, not even to answer Nate’s question. It was like a staring competition only with every second I held her gaze, I could read every thought going on in her mind. She was analyzing everything from a year ago. Denial, shock, absurdity, more denial…doubt.
“No.” She reiterated, just as firmly but I knew she wasn’t a hundred percent sure. Nate looked from Xena to me for answers, but none of us said anything. “Listen to me, it all makes sense then- “
Xena’s chair made a scraping sound as she stood up suddenly. “He is my brother!” She yelled, only half angry but I knew that it was going to be hard to do this.
“You have a brother? He didn’t turn up in any of the background research!” Nate said, looking between the two of us with confusion. Xena’s eyes widened thrice their size and I mentally slapped my head with my hand.
“Background WHAT?” She asked, turning her furious eyes on him and he shrank back as if he was attacked. I knew this was all going to be a rollercoaster ride downhill from here.
“I-I- “he began to stutter and I cut in.
“Listen, Xena. Think about it. He only showed up after all those years and you barely even remembered what he looked like.” I told her, trying to divert her attention away from her soon-to-be-dead mate. It worked and she looked my way, I was more used to her anger and glaring than he was anyway.
“What are you saying, Flo? That he’s not my real brother? That Julian manipulated me into thinking that he was?!” Her words were laced with horror as she spoke and I knew she was not going to accept the fact anytime soon, but I had never been more convinced that I was right.
“Will someone please tell me who is this guy and why we don’t know about him?!” Nate asked, finally getting up and trying to plead with both of us. I groaned into my hands while Xena spun around and walked away from the two of us in frustration.
“Xen!” I called after her, getting up from my own chair and making my way around the table to reach her. April’s eyes moved with my form almost instantly. She was pacing back and forth, avoiding my eyes as she fought whatever mental battle she was having. “Xen!” I tried again and she stopped pacing to face me, her annoyance very evident.
“If you’re wrong, then what? You’ll subject him to the rest of them and I know that they’re not exactly civil.” She made an obvious gesture at Nate, no doubt still burned out over the fact that he had run her background history. “I know that but think about it. If I’m right- “
“Then it’s a very very cruel thing to do.” She completed my sentence and I nodded. I knew this was hard for her, but I didn’t know what made me think that it was him, just a gut feeling.
“Will someone please tell me what is going on here?” Nate asked, walking over to the two of us anxiously. Xena sighed, still mad at him but nodded at me to continue.
“Julian is Xena’s brother. Well, more like half-brother. Xena’s parent’s split up and her dad got custody. Her mother remarried and had a son.”
“More like she cheated on my dad and had a son, he didn’t find out about it till after I was born.” Xena spoke the words with venom and I could understand her anger. Her mother’s betrayal had left her dad in shambles. Xena had a happy childhood despite this and she never really needed anyone apart from her father.
“Okay, so what happened?”
“Well, a year ago when Xena and I met for the first time, we accidentally bumped into him.” I told Nate and he nodded, absorbing all of this information. I remembered the day like it was yesterday. I was new to the city and it was raining heavily. I had just managed to get into this local bar to get out of the rain, after a meeting with one of the script editors. I didn’t know anyone, and I had bumped into her. She took one look at me and we clicked. I was still trying to get over Reece and I refused to talk to any men in the bar who tried to hit on me. Xena had her own issues, her ex-boyfriend for one – Will. She’d just broken up with him and reported him to the police for giving her the nasty scar on her thigh. We both bonded over things like this.
And then out of nowhere this man appeared – Julian. She didn’t recognize him at first, rejecting him as another man trying to get into her pants that night but he hung around for a while anyway, trying to get a word in edgewise. Eventually he came clear about who he was – her stepbrother. At first Xena wanted nothing to do with him. We met often after that, becoming fast friends as time passed and eventually, Julian weaned his way into her good graces as well. They bonded slowly, but carefully. He was playful and fun. Their mother had apparently moved on to her third marriage and Xena didn’t know because she had severed ties with her mother long ago.
“Okay, so did he know where you guys were staying?” April asked, joining the conversation for the first time and Xena gave a reluctant nod. “He did – He knew we were coming here, but not what hotel.” I told her but Xena shook her head.
“Actually, I told him what hotel. The first day you were here. We spoke, remember? I dropped the salad bowl because he scared me?” She told me and I recalled.
“Oh-yeah! That’s right.”
“So, this guy knew you guys were staying here? That along with knowledge that the King was travelling suddenly to the same place and Brianna came down here in two days as well. That can’t be a coincidence.” April stated, being careful to avoid Xena’s eyes.
I put my hand on her shoulder and gave her a light squeeze. “Think, Xen, has he tried to call you in all the time that you have been here?”
“Well, no…But he could just think that we’re on vacation. I told him we would be busy...” But even she didn’t have the same conviction in her voice anymore. “Does he generally check up on you?” Nate asked, his eyes narrowing protectively on his mate and she paused.
“Everyday. If we didn’t meet, we would chat every alternate day.” She whispered, her eyes wide with disbelief as she began to consider this as a possibility. I had just taken away the only family she had besides her father. She moved back to the table and slumped down on a chair, her face desolate. Nate immediately sat next to her, mumbling sweet nothings into her ear.
“Do you remember his last name? We could do a background check and see if anything comes up.” April whispered and I nodded at her. “Carlson. His name is Julian Carlson.” I told her. She gave me a stiff nod before her eyes did the blank mindlink thing.
“They’ll need someone to verify if it is what he looks like.” April told me and I nodded, “already?”
She moved towards the open laptop on the table and I leaned into the screen. Xena and Nate moved closer as well. April opened her email and clicked on the attachment in it. We all peered at the screen. Xena let out a curse word.
“It’s not him.” I told them and Nate immediately nodded. He got up from his chair to find Reece.
“So who is the guy posing as your brother?” Nate asked and I thought about it for a second. Looking around for my phone, I switched it on. “I have a picture of him here somewhere…” I muttered, scrolling through my gallery as we spoke. I could feel Nate’s looming presence as he waited impatiently. It struck me how we hardly took pictures with him in it, most were unclear or only half. Until I came across one where he wasn’t aware that he was being photographed.
“Here! This is Julian.” I said, giving him the phone.
He took one look at the screen and swore.
“I know who this guy is.” He told us and we stood shocked.
“I have to get to Reece immediately.” He said, turning to look at April. She nodded, and he moved to the elevator in a haste.
“Oh no you don’t! Tell us who he is!” Xena demanded, and he didn’t meet her eyes. “I will tell you everything in an hour, but I need to find Reece right now!” He said.
“He pretended to be my brother! The least I deserve are answers!” She tried once again, but he was already in the elevator by now. He looked like he had seen a ghost. April moved forward and caught Xena before she entered the steel box.
“Don’t be mad.” Nate’s voice carried through the air as the doors shut behind him. He’d stepped out - realizing that if he left his mate in the dark about this she was not going to forgive him. I just stood frozen throughout this mini-revelation. Who was this guy that was making Nate look so terrified?
“Let go!” Xena yelled at April and she released her immediately. I finally broke free from my trance and walked ahead of them to press the elevator button. “We will not be kept in the dark about this.” I told April, my words warning her to stand back.
“Don’t be mad my ass! You ran a background check on me!” Xena was mad.
“I’m sick of you guys always, always keeping us in the dark.” I swore, pacing in front of the elevator. Xena was levelling herself with April, who looked really calm. I knew that I was probably just as strong as her at this point with the marking, but in no way did I have the skills that she did and I wasn’t going to get out of here unless she willed it.
But April and Nate didn’t make a move to stop us as the elevator came back down and split open for us. We were about to step in when Reece, Sienna, Dani, Cole and Grey stepped in instead. Reece was looking murderous. I took an involuntary step back as we let them into the space but he immediately walked towards me and I was engulfed in a warm hug. It didn’t go unnoticed that Hank wasn’t here yet. I returned his tight hug with my own and everyone else stood there and waited.
“I was so, so close to losing you.” Reece said, his words strained. Without skipping a beat, I answered, “but you didn’t. I’m right here.” I told him, unable to understand what it was that really happened.
“Don’t ever leave my sight again.” I held my tongue about some smartass reply and nodded. He didn’t need a lecture on personal space right now.
“Reece, what is going on?”
I could see Nate still trying to talk to Xena, who was simply shaking her head at him. She’d forgive him eventually, but it was a cheap thing to do, in my opinion.
“Xen, I only did it to know if there were any threats in your life! Not to verify if you were legit!” He told her but she was having none of it.
April bowed to Reece the second he left me and turned around. I rolled my eyes, this was not the time for courtesy. Nate had stopped reasoning with Xena for now, they would sort it out eventually.
“Reece?” Xena asked him instead.
“Who is the man who is pretending to be my brother?” she continued. His lips hardened into a firm line.
“You want to sit down for this.” He said, gesturing towards the dining table.