I was so shocked to see him grin – and it was not just a grin, but a full-lips grin too – that I forgot what we were just fighting about. That grin undermined me, and while my heart beat much faster and my skin went taut, I felt suddenly vulnerable. Blush crept into my face and I looked away from that grin that shook my entire world.
“You may have resembled her back at the woods,” he suddenly said, making my eyes snap back to him and straight into those luminous, endless eyes. His grin was still there, taunting me, as he continued. “But that’s all about it. If she were here, in your place, in a situation which she angered me into, she would’ve sobbed in fear and begged for mercy. That you didn’t, show just how the two of you are not alike.”
Still unsure of everything, I found myself asking in a whisper, “Was it a test? To see if I would react to certain situations like Willow would have?”
I thought mentioning Willow’s name would make Gunner’s grin to drop, but it’d only made his grin widen. In a sudden movement, he was off me and up on his feet. “Grab a coat,” he ordered.
I was so surprised, I didn’t react at first. Then he looked at me, as though asking what was taking me so long, and I forced myself to stand up from my lying state. “Where are we going?” I asked, surprised and still a little shaken.
His eyes flashed to me and he smirked. It made my stomach fill with butterflies. “You’ll see,” he said mysteriously. “Now get a coat and meet me in the entrance hall.”
Five minutes later, Gunner and I, both wearing coats and other warm clothes, rushed in the rain to Gunner’s SUV. Gunner turned the engine on once we were inside and drove away from the mansion, away from Danger, Jez, Ryder and Henry.
After a short silence, I asked again, “Where are we going?”
He actually chuckled. Gunner chuckling? It made no sense. “Impatient, aren’t we?” He said calmly, like he had no worry in the world. A few droplets fell from his wet hair on his face and I couldn’t help but stare.
God, he was sexy. Stupid, naïve Rae Marie. “I just want to know,” I said defensively, blushing and hating myself for the lack of control. “I feel like I’m kidnapped or something.” I added lamely. Where was my witty sense of humor when I needed it?
Gunner glanced at me with twinkling sea-eyes. “You can rest assured I’m not stealing you away,” he said, and for a moment I thought there was a double meaning in his words, but then he turned his eyes back to the road and parked the car. I didn’t even realize we were at a quiet place in the city – probably the most quiet. There were a few coffee shops and bistros but it was still very silent. Maybe everyone wanted to stay at home and save themselves of getting wet?
“We’ll have to make a run for it,” Gunner said, “or else we’re going to catch a cold.”
“Okay,” I agreed hastily, wanting to get to wherever he was taking me for whatever reason. “Where are we aiming for?”
Gunner pointed at a bistro a few shops from where we parked and I nodded. Then he counted to three and we got out of the SUV in hurry and ran to the bistro. Fortunately, the rain wasn’t so heavy right now so we managed only to catch a few drops.
A hostess greeted us... and her eyes were on Gunner. Of course she would be aware of him – who wouldn’t? - but it still rubbed me the wrong way. Not that I could do anything about it because Gunner wasn’t mine. Probably would never be mine, as sad as it sounds.
The hostess didn’t have pretty face, but her body was sexy. She had butt and chest I could only dream of having, and long, strong legs. She was good-looking, yet Gunner, who was still a guy and checked her out for my dismay, didn’t find her very interesting. It made me sigh in relief.
The hostess gave us a place right in a warm corner, where there was only a sort-of sofa made of leather to sit on. When Gunner asked for a chair, too, the hostess seemed really regretful when she said, “I’m sorry, but we’re in full capacity. Can I make it up for you?” She looked meaningfully at him.
Gunner wasn’t an idiot. He knew what she wanted, but only looked at her levelly and said in a bit of a harsh voice, “It’s fine. You can go back to work now.”
Wow. And I thought he was a jerk only to me. The hostess flushed in humiliation and after she humphed at both of us she did just that, right after she threw two menus on our table.
Out of choices, we had to sit together on the leathered sofa. I sat right next to the wall, while Gunner sat next to me and a group of four, two boys and two girls, probably in double-date or something. When we were seated, I looked at Gunner and said, “Why didn’t you take her invitation? She seemed to want to do all kinds of favors to you, yet you declined. Why?”
Gunner arched an eyebrow at me. “I don’t take advantage of every girl that wants to jump my bones,” he told me in a bit of a harsh voice I’d already grown accustomed to. “Besides, she wasn’t my type, and I could see she wasn’t any better than garbage.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You’re an asshole, do you know that?” I couldn’t believe he equalized a woman, a human, to garbage. It was really low, even for Gunner.
Gunner smirked. “That redhead keeps telling me so,” he said, voice less harsh.
It made me want to grin, but I wasn’t over yet over his statement about the hostess. “You can’t say things like that,” I said, and realized I was chastising a twenty-five-year-old man in his prime. But I continued anyway. “You don’t even know her, and it’s not her fault that you’re too hot for your own good.”
It took me a few moments to realize what I’d just admitted, and then I blushed furiously. I could’ve sworn my face was redder than my hair, which said something. Gunner, the devil, seemed to find it very amusing and smirked again. “So you think I’m, as you said, ‘too hot for my own good’?”
“Oh, shut up,” I snapped, more embarrassed than I’d ever been in my life. “Y-You’re missing the point here!”
“I didn’t miss the point,” he argued, “I just chose to ignore it.”
“Argh!” I covered my face with my hands. “You’re a jerk!”
“No, I’m just honest,” he said. “Anyway, I took you here for a reason, which is not talking about my being too hot for my own good or the hostess being attracted to me.”
I glared at him, my blush fading a little. “Yeah, I figure you kidnapped me here for some mysterious reason. So let’s get this over with.” I didn’t really wanted our being here together to be over. It was actually a kind of luxurious fun to have Gunner all to myself, even not romantically and for a short while. Here, there was no Jez, Danger or Ryder to interrupt us. Here, we were just Gunner and Rae.
Before Gunner could tell me what we were here for, a waiter – thank God it wasn’t a waitress – came. He seemed completely polite when he asked us if we were ready to order, and after he eyed me briefly he didn’t seem to find anything interesting. Not surprising; I wasn’t really an attraction-machine like Gunner.
Gunner ordered himself black coffee while I settled on my usual cocoa drink. When the waiter was gone with our order, I turned to Gunner expectantly. He leaned back on the sofa’s support and glanced at me. “You seemed really worked up about being compared to Willow,” he started, eyeing me with a look I couldn’t read.
“Jez and Ryder told me everything I need to know about her,” I told him. “And what they said... she sounds like a total bitch. I don’t want to be compared to a bitch.” I folded my arms and looked away.
Gunner sighed. “What exactly did Jez and Ryder tell you?”
I glanced at him hesitantly and then planted my eyes on the wooden table. “They told me that Maddox and Willow dated officially, and that you and Danger were in love with her. She slept with the two of you behind Maddox’s back and told you all the lies about how much she loved each of you when basically she just toyed with you.”
I thought that Gunner would react as he always did when he was feeling strong emotions and didn’t want to show them; stiffen and tense his muscles for the worst. But he remained calm and collected, his eyes thoughtful. Our drink arrived after a moment moment, and we both took the warm cups. After a few minutes of silence, I started to get as impatient as he accused me of being. Luckily, he responded before I could say something idiotic.
“It’s true, but not entirely,” he said, “because Willow may’ve cheated on Mad with Danger and me, but she isn’t a total bitch.”
That statement made my eyes widen. “You just contradicted yourself,” I accused him in disbelief. “How could she both cheat and not be a total bitch? It’s an oxymoron.”
Gunner stared at me. “Willow and I started going out before she’d even met Mad and Dange,” he said. “She’d just finished a very hard relationship and wanted to move on to another. I suspected I was her rebound guy, but because I truly liked her, I agreed to do whatever was necessary to get closer to her. We’d first met in a business meeting between her family and ours when I was twenty, which meant I was very young and very stupid, and she was twenty-two. Henry sent me to the meeting to farther my education as a Preston protégée, and she was the representative of her own family group. He older sister, Arabella, is the one running their familial industry. Anyway, I didn’t care about the meeting at all when I saw her coming inside the restaurant where the meeting was taken place at. I considered her the most beautiful woman I’d ever met, and wanted her to be my girlfriend. I managed to get her to be my girlfriend, eventually, and we started dating.”
He took a sip from his coffee before he continued. “She was still heartbroken about her last relationship, and I tried to woo her with my charms. After a month or so of dating, she met Mad and Dange and decided to try other options – not knowing we were all related in one way or another – because we still weren’t official. She dated each of us, trying to find who’d fit her the best. She seemed to like Mad the most, and when he asked her to come over to meet his family, she agreed. Both of them didn’t know she’d been dating Dange and me too.”
I was shocked about this story, but kept silent until he finished. “Meaningless to say, hell broke lose when Danger and I saw who Mad’s perfect, mysterious girlfriend was. All the three of us threw a fit right there and then at dinner, while Willow just stood there, horrified about what she’s done. But frankly, how could she know all of us were related? It’s not like we looked like siblings or anything, and Danger and I are adopted and all. It was a serious case of misfortune on her side.” He sighed. “Eventually, she broke it off with the three of us and the business connection with her family worked only through her sister. She didn’t want to see us ever again, and we all despised her for what she’d done.”
He seemed thoughtful for a moment, and then looked at me. “Jez and Ryder don’t know the whole story,” he said, “only Danger, Mad and I do, and now you do, too. You shouldn’t say anything about it, though. As you’ve already realized, this subject is a taboo among us.”
It took me a few moments to process everything and to speak. “I can see why,” I said, my voice dry of shock. That was a story of a very unlucky girl with very unlucky guys. Now I understood why Gunner didn’t consider her a total bitch, but still... I wouldn’t have forgiven her had I been in their places, and Gunner seemed like he’d already moved on.
“How come you don’t feel any rage toward her?” I asked, incredulous. “I mean, I know it happened a few years ago but still, even if she didn’t know you were all related, dating with a few guys at the same time is still unforgivable.”
“You’re looking at it through narrow eyes, literally,” he said, grinning a little. “You need to see the whole picture. There’re women – and men, too – who date many people at once to try and find their fated one. It’s common. It happens. Most of the time, though, the people you date aren’t related in anyway. It was a very had case of misfortune for Willow. Besides, I’m not innocent. Five years ago, I was mentally immature and made my own mistakes. It’s not entirely Willow’s fault.”
I still didn’t get it. “I can’t see how’s any of this is your fault. You were a victim. I don’t buy the whole dating-a-few-people-at-the-same-time shit.”
“That’s because you’re young,” he noted, and it made my chest ache.
“I’m younger than you only by seven years,” I pointed out, concealing my painful heart. “Don’t treat me like a toddler.”
“I don’t treat you like one,” he said evenly. “I’m just saying you still have a few years to grow up. I see now how five years can make one maturer. You’ll see and understand everything more clearly when you grow up a little more.”
I hated being treated like I was incapable or immature. That’s why, out of fury, I couldn’t control the words that came out of my mouth. “If I’m such a baby then how exactly do I resemble Willow?” I asked bitterly.
He looked lowly at me, knowing what I tried to indicate. “I didn’t say you were a baby, Rae,” he said in a slightly-scolding voice. “Stop exaggerating.”
“Fine,” I spat, unsatisfied with his answer. “Then what about me and Willow?”
“You have moments, when you’re not acting like a child, that you seem just like her,” he said, voice still even. “That day at the picnic, when you were all smiling and laughing and acting carefree... you looked just like her when she was truly happy. We’d never seen you smiling before; you always scowl or dead-serious. So that smile from the heart gave Mad, Dange and I a stop.” He talked as though it was completely technical, but I could see some emotion flicking in his eyes.
That emotion made me stop acting like a brat. “I... when I smiled?” I asked, taken off-guard with his announcement.
“Yes, Rae,” he said, grinning briefly. “When you smiled. Not grinned, but truly smiled.”
“R-Really...” I mumbled, flushing and looking away from him. “T-That’s odd.”
“Maybe,” he said, “and we’re planning on finding out why you look like her.”
My eyes flashed to him again. “You said it’s only when I smiled.”
“You still look like her on other occasions,” he said with a hint of a smirk on his handsome face. “Like when you first met Mad. Do you remember? You told him ‘I know you won’t hurt me’ and it was just like what Willow told him when he threatened her that he was part of something big and dangerous. That’s why Mad became so obsessed that you’d learn martial arts and everything. He wanted you protected because he still has a soft spot for Willow in his heart, like each of us, and he didn’t want you to be vulnerable.”
“It sounds like an awful case of charity,” I said, scowling. “Because I look like his past-lover I get to earn private martial-arts and knives-throwing lessons? That’s just stupid, Gunner.”
“You can look at it that way, Rae,” he said patiently, “or you can think of it as a privilege. As something good. We both know you like feeling more capable of taking care of yourself.”
“I - “ I started denying that statement when it struck me he was right. I did like feeling less vulnerable that way. Sure, I could shoot a gun perfectly, but in a one-on-one hand-combat? If it weren’t for those training sessions, I would’ve been beaten to death if I’d ever tried that in the real world. And it wasn’t the most startling of realizations: the fact that Gunner understood it about me before even I did... it was a little unnerving. How could he read me like that? “You’re right.” I said reluctantly, and looked at him with new eyes.
Gunner smirked a little, like he knew what I was thinking – and from what he’d just said, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. The thought made me feel vulnerable in front of him... yet it was a nice feeling to know that someone understood me better than I’d understood myself. Unnerving, but... nice.
I shook the thoughts off and decided to move to another important thing. “What happened in the bakery today, Gunner?” I asked, looking at him with the need for answers. “And please don’t say it’s not something I need to know, because it’s my family’s bakery. It’s my life here. And I deserve to know everything about both.”
He didn’t say anything for a few moments, just sipping his coffee. Then, after what appeared to be a thinking session, he said in an odd voice, “The mafia put a small grenade that was supposed to go off when it detects a Preston nearby. It’s an extremely advanced technological means, you see.”
I thought about it for a moment. “So the mafia knows you kind-of took me under your wing and took the chance to reach you through me,” I said, shivering a little. “And the grenade detected Jez, who was a Preston longer than me, if I can be called a Preston at all, and then ordered me to take Elizette and Irie away so she and her reinforcement – aka you and Danger – would take care of it.”
“Yes,” Gunner nodded. “And when we arrived, Danger took the grenade away from the bakery and succeeded into taking it away from the bakery, but not too far it was about to blow and he threw it. He was still close to it, though, and took a hit, as you saw. Your grandmother’s bakery is fine and fortunately your grandmother wasn’t there at the time, but a few stores ahead of it are not.”
I breathed in relief, and then another thought occurred to me. “But Elizette is a Moore,” I said, confused. “Why would they risk her safety with this grenade?”
“Henry said Elizette and her father Jason are uninvolved with the mafia, unlike Jason’s brother Calvin and Elizette’s cousin, Echo,” Gunner explained. “Maybe it was just a coincidence she was working right where they planted the advanced grenade.”
“I understand that Elizette and her father aren’t part of any of it,” I said, “but it still seems pretty odd to me. Shouldn’t they check who worked at the bakery first? I can see, in a twisted way, why would they not care about Irie, seeing as she’s not very important, but Elizette is part of their companion’s family. It just makes not sense.”
“You’re right that the work that was done here is sloppy,” he said, “but I’m not surprised. The mafia rarely checks things like that. Human’s life is nothing for them. Only power and prosperity are important to them, and if it means to kill their colleagues’ family members, so be it.”
“It’s awful,” I shivered again. “How can Echo and Mr. Moore...”
“Greediness is the key word here, Rae,” Gunner said softly. He probably didn’t want to make it any harder for me, with the whole Echo situation. “Don’t be naïve. Clavin was too greedy for his own good. He was told he would get a huge sum of money if he killed our brother, and you see how well it went for him.”
“How did you even learn he was the culprit for killing your brother?” I asked him.
“It wasn’t very hard,” Gunner said, his voice turning bitter. “He did a sloppy job. We found our brother’s body at the edge of the woods next to the south hill. We could detect who was the killer from the signs Calvin left on his body.”
It sounded horrible, and a thought made me pale. “Did... did your brother’s body had signs that... that Echo was involved?”
Gunner didn’t answer this, just looked at me with what I thought could be called pity. It was all the answer I needed. My hands clenched into fists, and I felt tears coming to my eyes. I decided then to ask another question, something else I’d just realized now. “I saw you twice before the day of the murder,” he didn’t ask which murder; both of us knew, but he looked slightly surprised about the admission. “The first time I saw you was when I walked Flanny in the promenade and you were stopping at the seashore for some sportive exercises. The next time I saw you was a month later, at Taryn Torres’s party. I was just about to go back to my car when I saw you striding inside. It was only brief, and you didn’t even see me there, looking at you, but I saw you entering there. You were out of place, that was for sure, because you were older than anyone else there.” I took a deep breath and looked straight into his eyes, which were slightly wide with surprise. “Did you search for Echo then?”
He took his time replying me, but I already knew I was onto something even before he did answer. “I didn’t even realize you saw me before,” he admitted what I saw in his eyes. “And about Echo...” He looked at me with a bit of concern.
I stiffened. “I can take it, Gunner,” I told him, my voice a little hard. “Tell me. I need to hear you say this.” I need to know I can let go of my affection toward Echo.
As I’d already realized today, he understood my need without me actually voicing it. “I was there for searching for her,” he said, his voice monotonous. “I was there because I was raging and I wanted to kill her.”
And although I’d already figured it out because he said so, I felt my heart sinking and tears filling my eyes, as the last thread, that last hopeful thread that connected me emotionally to Echo and the Moores, snapped.
Silently, Gunner wrapped his strong arms around me and pulled me tightly against him. “It’s okay,” he muttered quietly. “You can let it all out now.”
Pressed against his muscular chest, with his warmth caressing me, I did just that. I cried, and he held me, not saying anything, and just gave me the comfort I needed as I wept, clenching my hands in his shirt, and letting everything out, if just for a short while.