“Moore?” I said, sure I didn’t hear right. “Elizette Moore?”
Elizette looked baffled, bakery-blew-up forgotten for the moment. “Is there a problem with my surname?”
“God, there’re lots of problem with your surname,” murmured Ryder and I elbowed him warningly. He sent me a scowl, but I ignored it and inspected Elizette more closely. Dark brown eyes. Mousy-brown, silky hair. Mocha-like skin. Average height and curvy. She looked completely normal and nothing like Echo or her sisters, except, probably the hair. Echo, Emanie and Emmalee had the same shade of mousy-brown hair. But their eyes were coppery, and they were short and way curvier. Besides, while Echo and her sisters were fine-looking, Elizette was leaning toward beautiful.
But the longer I looked at her, I knew I couldn’t fool myself. She had similarities with the Moore sisters. Something in the shape of her eyes, even the shape of her lips. She resembled them, but not quiet.
I decided I had had enough of inspection. “Do you know Echo?” I asked, “Echo Moore?”
Elizette’s dark eyes widened in surprise. “She’s my cousin,” she said, making my heart fall to the floor. “You know her?”
I exchanged astonished looks with Ryder. Henry seemed thoughtful, and I started to feel something bad crawling into my stomach.
“What’s going on?” Irie asked again.
“I wish I knew,” I barely whispered. My knees suddenly went weak, and I felt exhausted and blurry. How could this world be so small? How could someone working in my family’s bakery be one of the Moores, one of the mafia?
“Elizette,” Henry said, turning to the girl in question. “May I talk with you inside?”
Elizette didn’t seem like she wanted to follow him at all, but knew better than to go against him. She nodded mutely, reluctantly, and walked with Henry inside, escorted by Rose.
Only Irie, Ryder and I stayed outside. “I really want to know what the hell’s going on,” Irie said, looking at me with unshed tears.
“So do we,” said Ryder and looked sympathetically at Irie. “Why don’t we go inside, too? It’s freezing out here, and I can ask Julian to make us all coffees.”
Irie, just like Elizette, didn’t find the idea so brilliant but entered the mansion nonetheless. I decided to stay outside and wait for the guys to return, and so I leaned on the mansion’s outer wall and waited with folded arms.
The freezing wind made me shiver. The sickening worry made me sweat. The thoughts ran thousands miles an hour in my head. After about half an hour, I wondered where the fuck were they.
I saw someone coming up the road, and I tensed, waiting to see the three people I wanted to see the most. But it wasn’t them. It was Vaughn, the animal-loving servant, who returned from his afternoon’s trip with Flanny. The moment Flanny sniffed me she wuffed and ran over to me. She jumped on me, licking my face, and I just wrapped my hands around her neck and held. She calmed down but still breathed hard, and, with her animal instinct, she gave me the comfort I needed.
My legs gave in and I slid down the wall until I sat on the ground. Flanny made herself comfortable between my legs and let me hug her, her fur giving me the warmth November didn’t have.
Vaughn disappeared into the mansion, giving me and my dog time together. I was just glad that Flanny was here with me.
When the sun started to set, I felt tears coming to my eyes. Where were they? Why were they so late? I needed to see that they were alright. The urge to get into a car and drive to the bakery was overwhelming, and Flanny was the only thing that kept me from doing just that.
Without realizing it, I started to weep into Flanny’s gray-white fur. My body shook, worry filled every cell in my body, and I just wanted to see my friends and crush coming back in one piece.
When it was almost night, I finally heard the sweetest sound of all: a car coming up the hill. I straightened up immediately, stopped crying and stood up. Flanny barked again, but I ignored her. My eyes were glued to the black SUV who had finished parking, and then to the people that came out of it.
Not thinking twice, I ran to them. The first one I reached was Danger so I hugged him tightly first. He groaned in surprise and pain, and muttered, “Easy there, redling.”
I just squeezed him harder, and his pained groan became louder. I let him go and saw he was bleeding. “Oh God!” I shouted. “What the hell happened to you?!” It sounded like I accused him of being hurt and yeah, I kinda did.
But Danger didn’t say a thing. Instead I saw now Jez coming into my field of sight and I squeezed her tightly as well. She didn’t groan and actually seemed stunned of the display of that affectionate emotion on my behalf. But I was too worried sick to care about that. She hugged me briefly back and I moved on to the only guy in the world who made me feel irritated and good at the same time.
Gunner had a cut on his lower lip, but despite that looked as handsome and hot as ever. I felt renewed tears falling and before I could rethink my actions, I jumped on him with the tightest of all hugs. He didn’t seem surprised, but his muscles all tensed when I wrapped my hands barely, seeing as he was a lot taller than me, around his neck.
For a second, he didn’t do a thing. Didn’t even move. I started to think I should let him go, just as tears fell on his shirt. I don’t know if that was what did it, but suddenly his arms were around my waist and he crushed me even tighter against him, his face in my red frizzles. He took a deep breath, as though he wanted to smell me and my hair, and exhaled harshly. I tightened my hold of him, and he tightened his right back. I concealed my face in his side of the neck, my hands moving to his jet-black hair and digging in, just as a sob escaped my mouth and I started weeping once again. I didn’t even realize that his hands were under my hips now, and that somehow, I wrapped my legs around his waist. He was holding me and hugging me at the same time, and I could’ve cried of happiness right then and there if I weren’t weeping of worry and relief.
“Don’t you ever do this to me again,” I said loud enough so the others could hear too, my voice shaky. “Ever. Do you understand?”
In some twisted way, those three became a huge part of my life, enormous pieces of my heart. I cared about them just as I cared about Gran, and I didn’t say it lightly. Jez and her hidden sweet-nature. Danger and his good heart and sense of humor. And Gunner and his unfathomable emotions. I didn’t even know why I cared about him so much. I thought it was only attraction, only sexual frustration. I didn’t even know him that well. But he was, somehow, someone important to me, despite everything he did and said.
After all, it wasn’t his fault he didn’t like me the way I liked him. It was my fault, even, that I’d let myself fall for someone unapproachable. Again. But I couldn’t help it, because despite his nonchalance and arrogance and sternness, I knew he had a kind heart. I mean, he was actually letting me hold him now, didn’t he? Although he felt zero things to me, he knew how I felt about him and gave me what I needed to calm my heart.
Eventually, very reluctantly, I untangled myself from Gunner. He helped me putting myself back on the ground from my chinchilla-hold, like I was a little child, just as he really saw me. The ache in my chest was familiar already. It was still painful, but I could handle it. For now.
As always, I couldn’t read Gunner’s face at all once I was on the ground again. The only thing I did see – and only because I paid close attention to him – was a glint in his eyes. Amusement? Fondness? I couldn’t quiet figure it out.
Servants came out of the mansion and attended to the three. Gunner tried to peel off Jacob, one of the servants, telling him, almost too harshly, that he was fine. But Jacob had a will made of iron and literally dragged Gunner inside the mansion. Danger didn’t resist Vincent, his own servant, and Jez followed mutely Daisy who came to help, too.
I followed them all inside and Henry and Ryder popped out of nowhere and asked tons of questions. Gunner, who looked the least exhausted and the healthiest, said, “We’ll talk about it later.” He gave a pointed glance in my direction that made my chest ache.
They wanted to talk about what happened, just not in front of me.
Apparently, there was an entire medical division in the mansion, right in the second floor. The Prestons had their own medical staff that worked for them 24/7, and that’s where the servants took Gunner, Jez and Danger.
“You should go to the lounge,” advised Ryder before he went into the clinic. “Irie and Elizette are there.”
“What about Elizette?” I asked him quietly. “Is she part of the Moore’s mafia? She’s Echo’s cousin after all.”
Ryder shook his head. “Pop talked to her, and it seems she doesn’t know a thing about the mafia-related stuff. Besides,” he added when I opened my mouth to ask something, “her father, Jason, who’s Calvin Moore’s older brother, is not involved in all this stuff. And believe me, Pop’s got the means to know stuff like that.”
I guessed that ‘Pop’ was Henry. “I see,” I mumbled, still confused over everything that’d happened today, since Chase’s weird behavior when I mentioned the party a month ago until... this.
Ryder then went on into the clinic and I went to the lounge. Irie and Elizette sat there, silent and slightly pale, and looked up when I entered. “I don’t understand anything,” Irie said, eyes bloodshot from crying so much. I guessed my eyes didn’t look any better.
“Me neither,” piped Elizette, who looked really lost and afraid.
“I don’t expect you to,” I said, sitting down next to Irie on the couch. “I don’t understand anything either.” But I needed to, and I would not give up until they tell me everything. The bakery was part of my life, part of my family. So did Irie. I needed answers.
And if Gunner planned on pushing me away again, I was going to scream.
“Who was that guy earlier?” Irie suddenly asked, looking at me with big, gray eyes.
“Which one?” I wondered if she talked about Henry and wanted to ask me who the hell he was. That was something I couldn’t tell her, no matter what. I didn’t need to enter deeper into this shit.
“The one with the shoulder-length brown hair,” she said, and I realized she actually meant Ryder.
“That’s Ryder,” I told her.
“He’s cute,” Elizette said, thoughtful. “In a bad-boy kind of way.”
I stifled a snort. “That’s what I thought at first too,” I said, “until he started acting like a lost puppy.”
“He’s got golden eyes,” Irie said, flushing slightly. “I’ve never seen such gold eyes before.”
“Yeah,” Elizette agreed. “And he’s got a tall and lean body that’s begging for a touch.” She sighed.
It was odd for me to hear them talking about Ryder like he was actually sexually-attracting. Maybe it was just that I didn’t find him that attractive – probably because he wasn’t my type, and because I actually knew him, as far as I could know anyone here. I could understand if they would’ve said that Danger is sexy, because he really was, in his dangerous (no pun intended?) and criminalistic way. But Gunner, in my eyes, aced everyone else. He’d probably ruined any other guy for me with his over-hotness.
“It’s funny, actually,” Irie said with a small, sad smile. “Talking about guys when the situation is so wistful.”
“I agree,” I muttered. “But I don’t think we can gain anything by mourning for something we still don’t really understand.”
“Yeah,” agreed Elizette, and then looked at me. “Why Mr. Preston investigated me like I’m a criminal? And how do you know all these guys?”
“Are you?” I joked lamely and when she didn’t say a thing, I sighed, and knew I had to lie. “He investigate anyone who enters this mansion.” Actually, he did the investigation behind the guests’ back, and didn’t directly inquire them. But I didn’t think Elizette needed to know that. “And I know them because... they’re friends of Gran.” Another lie to the list.
“This entire thing is fucked-up,” Irie said with obvious exhaustion and pulled her knees to her chest. “My parents are probably worried sick about me.”
Just then, I was reminded both Elizette and Irie had families waiting for them at all. Parents. Maybe siblings. When I came to the mansion, there was no one to really explain the things to. Only Gran, and that was it. They couldn’t make Irie and Elizette stay here... right?
I hoped for their sake that they couldn’t.
“Mine, too,” Elizette said and closed her eyes tightly. “And Daniel. Oh God, he’s going to scold me...”
After that, silence fell on us. We all didn’t know what to say, and frankly I just wanted to space out. But the silence was shattered after a while when into the lounge entered Ryder and Gunner.
I watched Elizette’s and Irie’s faces when their eyes landed on Gunner. Irie looked at him with appreciation, like she looked at a god’s statue or some other piece of art. But that was all about it; she definitely found him hot and drop-dead gorgeous, but she didn’t seem like she wanted to undress herself right then and there and beg him to take here. Which was a real relief.
Elizette, though... she looked at Gunner like she’d never seen any other man before. And she probably hadn’t seen, seeing as she was probably sixteen. Her face filled with obvious attraction to him, and an unhidden lust. Oh yeah. Elizette got smacked by Gunner’s looks just as I had.
Only her attraction to him seemed a lot more immature than mine. Or maybe I was just wishfully thinking?
Gunner, always aware, read Elizette like an open book and chose to sit as far as he could from her – which meant right next to me. I didn’t know if I was happy about it or super-mad he was toying with me again, being so closed yet untouchable.
Yeah, I knew I needed to get a grip. But what could I do? Besides, Operation Chase was still in development so it’s not like my crush on Gunner had ended.
Oh God. I wanted to hug him tightly again, just like I’d done about an hour ago.
“Can someone tell us now what’s happening?” Irie asked, the only one who didn’t seem affected from Gunner’s presence... although I could see her checking Ryder out openly. So Ryder was her type. That was kinda odd, but I guess everyone had her own boy-type. Besides, Ryder seemed to check her out too, which was a good sign. At least Irie’s attention was given right back to there – but that was probably because Ryder was a flirt and liked everything pretty.
Not that I was upset he found Irie interesting. In fact, I was glad about it, because it meant his “feelings” toward Taryn were probably not real at all. Which meant Jez and I wouldn’t have to see her here again.
“You girls,” Ryder said, pointing at Irie and Elizette. “Were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Therefore, you may go home safely and soundly and we won’t bother you anymore. I’m sorry,” he added, “but because of that, I can’t tell you anything. I should drive you both home.”
Irie, Elizette and I were stunned, and I found myself getting angry. “What does it mean?” Elizette asked, eyes wide. “I mean, that’s it? We go home and just ‘forget’? How can we do that?”
“I’m sorry, Elizette,” Ryder said, more serious than I’d ever seen him. “But those are orders from above.”
“So we can just go home?” Irie insisted. “Just like that?”
Ryder’s golden eyes locked with Irie’s gray ones, and suddenly all of us could feel a thick tension in the air. Sexual tension. Oh, lucky Irie. She actually had chemistry with Ryder, in addition to their attraction to each other. If only Gunner was attracted to me, we would have that chemistry.
But he’s not, an ugly voice whispered in my mind. He thinks of you as a child to babysit. As a nuisance, a burden. You’re way out of his league. You know that, so stop being a stupid, naïve lovesick girl and grow up already.
I flinched at my own thoughts.
“Yes,” Ryder said eventually. “Let’s go.”
Elizette was still trying to argue, but Irie grabbed her arm and shook her head, telling her without words that it was moot. Furious and tired, Elizette reluctantly left with Irie and Ryder, which left Gunner and me alone in the lounge. The last time we were alone here, it ended with me breaking down.
Gunner said nothing even long after the other three were gone, and I started to get restless. I glanced at him, saw him staring at me with those focused eyes that made me feel all kinds of mushy inside, and gulped. Without a thought, I blurted, “I told myself to move on. You told me to move on. I’m doing just that.”
His eyes widened just a little, but it was enough for me to realize he was surprised. It was very, very rare to catch Gunner off-guard. I would’ve felt smug if I weren’t so furious about what Ryder had said earlier and about the whole let’s-not-tell-Rae-anything stuff that Gunner had going on.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Gunner said after a while of stunned suspense. His voice though didn’t sound very glad. If I didn’t know better – and I did, unfortunately – I would’ve thought he was unhappy about hearing that I was moving on. But he was a jerk SOB and I knew he didn’t really care about me crushing on him or not.
“It’s unfair, you know,” I said, can’t hold the fury inside anymore. “I also was in the wrong place at the wrong time, just like Irie and Elizette. Why couldn’t you let me go too? Why did you have to make me stay here?”
Gunner looked levelly at me. “You know the reason, Rae,” he said, “they didn’t see a murder. You did. Besides, it doesn’t seem like you think of this place as a jail anymore.”
“You’re missing the point!” I said irately, refusing to admit he had a point. “I could’ve been spared, too!”
“No, you couldn’t,” he argued, “you saw something you shouldn’t have. They saw nothing. Besides, we can’t keep a Moore here, whether she’s in the mafia or not. We don’t seek war, and we already have one going on and we certainly don’t need to escalate it with imprisoning her. And about the Grace girl, she’s innocent enough to be let go.”
The explanation was rational, logical. But I refused to give in at the moment. So instead, I threw a bomb. “Maybe you stuck me here just because I resemble Willow so much!”
Deadly silence. Gunner’s greenish-blues looked at me like a deep ocean, unfathomable as always, but concentrated and dangerous. His whole body hardened, and his face froze. An alarm went off inside my head, and I felt a sudden fear. His eyes suddenly blazed a little, and I knew I’d made a major mistake.
I’d managed to anger him. Getting any emotional reaction from Gunner was very hard and very rare, just like with surprising him. So to anger him... I’d suddenly got cold feet. My heart thumped so hard I could hear it in my ears; my eyes went wide and terrified; cold sweat was pouring off my forehead and in all this horror I felt, I still managed in my own twisted way of feeling, to be attracted to him.
God, I was a mess. And now, as Gunner leaned closer, making me lean back in fear and press my back to the couch as he stooped over me, his biceps like bars next to my head and his long, muscular body like a cage around my body, he looked straight into my eyes, his own penetrating mine like I had no protections against him. His face was angry, not nonchalant like alway, and I realized with a jolt that he was trying to intimidate and threaten me.
That was when I got angry. Screw fear. Screw everything. Who did he think he was that he could intimidate me like that? I was no coward. I considered myself brave, actually. And Gunner Murray would not make me submit to his fearsome gorgeousness and scariness. I refused to give in.
My face turned determined and rebellious and I was pretty sure my eyes blazed in anger just like his. We were both staring hard at each other, trying to bore one’s eyes into the other’s. It was a staring contest of who would give up first, and I refused to lose. It simply wasn’t on the agenda.
And then, just like that, like nothing was going on, like we both weren’t so angry at each other, he grinned.