I looked at him like I didn’t hear him. “Excuse me?” I asked, incredulous.
“Chase Montgomery,” Gunner said levelly, as though his request – no, order was legitimate. “Stay away from him.”
“Why?” I demanded. “Besides, how do you even know him?” I didn’t know they’d met before today.
“It doesn’t matter right now,” Gunner’s hands clenched the wheel and I swore his knuckles turned white. “I need you to promise me you will not hang out with this boy anymore.”
I was never as shocked before. I folded my arms and looked at him with fury. “No,” I said strongly, confidently, disbelievingly. “I will see whomever I want and no one, not even you Gunner, will order me to do something else. And if you really want me to stop seeing him, then give me a concrete reason why.”
He glanced at me, and his eyes were cold, almost as distant as they were most of the time around me. But I could detect some other emotion twirling in them, only I couldn’t tell which it was. Damn him. “He is bad news,” he said in a voice so low it sent shivers through my body. “I know him longer than you think, and he’s not the person you think he is.”
It annoyed me more than ever that he tried to dictate my life. Again. So instead I decided to push another emotion to the front. “What about Miss Summers?” I asked more bitterly than I intended to. “She was flirting with you and you flirted right back. You even called her Emmeline like you’re both best buddies!” Okay, my voice showed my anger and, well, jealousy. Shit.
“I don’t see how it relates to you staying away from Montgomery,” Gunner’s eyes were dangerous, warning, when he glanced at me again.
“It is!” I exclaimed. “If you want me to stay away from Chase, then with the same rationalism you used to make this stupid decision, stay away from Miss Summers!”
He actually glared at me now, and I was sure he speeded up on the road. “I’m not doing it to be a bastard, Rae,” he said, his voice very low, very deep. “I’m doing it for your – and my – sake. You need to keep your distance from Montgomery. It’s not a question or request, it’s simply a fact that you will follow.”
Fury streamed in my veins. “I will not!” I snapped. “Not until you give me the reason for that stupidly hasty decision!”
“It is not hasty, and it is none of your business why I make those decisions,” his voice became a little growly and I couldn’t help the goosebumps that covered my skin now. “I am older and part of the Preston Enterprises empire. I have every right to keep threats away from my household. Montgomery is a threat, therefore he should be eliminated – theoretically. So stay away from him.”
I was about to blow up with how furious I was that he ordered me around like I was some desperate puppy. And maybe I was, considering how desperate I was to get him, to make him mine. But it didn’t matter now, because I saw something in his sea-eyes that made me pause. He obviously was angry with how I reacted to his idiotic order, but something else showed there... I wasn’t genius at reading signs, especially not in Gunner, but right then, for the fleeting moment his eyes shone with this emotion, I realized something. Something slightly astounding.
“You hate it,” I found myself whispering. “You hate being part of the Preston Household. You hate being violent all the time, which doesn’t make sense since you killed Mr. Moore without blinking... but you hate all of this. All the involvement with the mafia, with everything dangerous.”
Silence stretched in the car. Gunner froze, his muscles tensed, and his eyes became flat and cold and unreadable again, but not before I could see the astonishment there that I actually realized such a big thing about him. Something he probably hid from the others. Something he didn’t expect someone like me to get with just a fleeting look. But I did, and now I was sure he contemplated how the hell he should deal with this complication.
Meanwhile, I was just as astounded that I was right. More than right, even. I was spot-on. Checkpoint. Bingo. Whatever. It made me feel smug, yet wary. I didn’t know what Gunner would do now that I was onto him, and honestly? I was kinda scared.
All of a sudden, he turned the wheel to the left expect to the right, to the road that would lead us to the mansion, and returned back to the city. I tensed at once when he still didn’t say anything and his expression turned determined; did he want to get rid of me now that I found out something hidden about him? Was I going to die under the fury of a man with mental bruises? Oh God, I shouldn’t have said anything and just let it go. But of course I didn’t because my mouth was too big for its own good.
When he parked the car next to a small, old-fashioned building, I was starting to get confused. Where did he take me?
We exited the car in the stretched silence from when we were inside it, and walked side by side with at least a feet of distance. We arrived the entrance of the structure and I saw a host. Were we at some bistro of coffee shop? It didn’t look like that from the outside.
Gunner murmured something to the host and the other guy nodded in understanding. He moved aside so Gunner and I could enter and then I was inside some high-class restaurant. But Gunner didn’t linger there and moved toward a staircase behind an active bar, and I walked right after him, going up. In the second floor there were a few private compartments and when I glanced into one, where the door was open, I saw some couple making out. I flushed and averted my eyes immediately. Did he take me to some make-out spot? Did he plan to rape me and then kill me? Not that I would’ve cared having sex with him, because really, I was crushing on him.
I was being paranoid. He wouldn’t rape me. Kill me, maybe. But rape? He didn’t even feel a slight attraction to me and even if he did, I would be all too willing to let him get his wicked ways with me. But he thought of me as no more than a little girl, a child, maybe even a baby-sister or something like that.
The thoughts stirred unwanted feeling inside of me. My heart clenched and my chest ached in response. Heaviness settled in my stomach and my throat was choked. Never had I ever felt anything like that before. Maybe I was falling even harder for Gunner. Maybe I was just going nuts.
Whatever it was, I just wished it would stop.
Gunner stopped in front of an empty compartment and the two of us entered in perfect silence. The compartment didn’t have windows and the dim light made it look all too romantic. There was a small table in the midst of it with a bottle of a very expensive Champagne and the sofas were all made from high-quality fabrics and were very comfortable to sit on.
Gunner and I sat on the each side of the compartment, as far away as the small room allowed us. The table was planted between us, as in reference to all the barriers that were put between us throughout our time of knowing each other.
I didn’t say a thing. I just stared at the Champagne and wondered what Gunner would say, now that he brought me to this isolated compartment. My body was all tensed, every fiber of my being aware that I’d gone too far in his eyes, that I was about to get a very strong mental-bitch-slap. After all, that was his way; pushing away those who started getting too close for his comfort.
I braced myself for the hit. I knew I couldn’t take it, but at least I had enough time getting ready for it. I knew I was going to cry when the hit would land, and I knew I would be depressed for at least a week afterwards. But there was nothing else I could do instead of just waiting for the judgement to arrive. And it would, the moment Gunner stopped contemplating my shattering. In fact, even after this moment when he almost showed kindness toward me, he was probably going to make me suffer for finding out what I’d just fou -
“I was adopted into the Preston Household by Henry when I was ten.”
Shocked, I snapped my eyes toward him and found them locking with his. He looked at me with serious expression, his body all tensed, like he was all-business... yet not exactly.
What did he just say? Oh, I remembered. But why would he tell me this? Where was the slap-down I was sure I was about to get? What the hell was happening?
Still stunned and astonished, I just stared at him. He searched my eyes for a moment – maybe to see if I was focused? - and probably found what he needed because he continued in that low, deep, rasp voice of his. “Before, I’d lived with my mother, the famous Gwendolyn Murray. My father, Isaac, was a Marine and died in an attack that occurred while I was four, so my mother raised me up all alone. But she was murdered, as everyone knows, by a crazy, obsessed stalker of hers.”
Now to my shock entered another mental-slap of realization. That was why Gunner had looked familiar when I’d first seen him. I couldn’t put my finger on it, because he didn’t resemble Gwendolyn Murray exactly, but he had a look to him that made me feel that recognition.
My grandmother was a fan of Gwen Murray’s movies. Gwen was her favorite young actress of all times, and Gran wasn’t the only one who felt like that; Hollywood believed she was the next biggest star ever to rise. She’d even won an Oscar for the best actress.
Gran made me watch movies of her since I was very little. I loved her movies, and still saw them from time to time when I wanted. And to think that Gunner was her son... I didn’t know she was even married! But that was probably because she’d died when I was three and didn’t show any other interest in her other than her being in great movies.
But I could’ve never made the connection between the two. Sure, Gunner had some of Gwen Murray’s features, but it was all very faint. Gwen Murray was all blonde with lightning-blue eyes that were nothing like Gunner’s sea-green ones. He probably took his looks from his Marine father.
But it didn’t matter now. What mattered was that he gave me this information freely, without expecting anything in return, and opened himself bare in order to do that. He didn’t look vulnerable or something, but there was some emotion in his stern eyes that made me feel sympathetic for him.
He looked at me for a few moments before he continued. “My mother was a friend of Henry’s wife at the time, Yasmin, and when Henry and Yasmin came to the funeral, Yasmin didn’t want to leave me alone, because besides my mother I had no other relatives. So the Prestons took me in. They’d already had Mad, but he accepted me like a younger brother. I was the first to be adopted by the Prestons.”
He seemed very serious, very collected, but his eyes were ablaze. I didn’t say anything, just listened, shocked, as he told his life-story to the likes of me. “They trained me to be strong, a soldier even,” he continued in his low voice. “They wanted to give me the protection of knowing martial-arts and how to use a gun or even swords. I took it all, wanting to satisfy the rage I felt toward my mother’s killer. He wasn’t caught by the police, no matter how hard they looked for him, but I knew I was going to find him no matter what. So I trained as hard as I could, and two years after my adoption, when Danger joined the household, Mad, Dange and I went to find my mother’s killer and took the revenge I – and my deceased mother – deserved. With our connections in the underworld we found the bastard and I had the pleasure to slay him with my own sword, the old-fashion way. I was twelve. He was the first guy I’ve ever killed. His name was John Ayers.”
He tried to conceal his pain. He really did. But even if his face was free of emotions, his were swirling with them. And the pain there was obvious. “I don’t know how many I’ve killed ever since, but no matter what, those people I killed were the ones who deserved it the most. People who threatened Henry’s life, or one of my step-siblings’ lives. I killed and killed, and every time I pulled the trigger, some part of me... died. It all reminded me of how my mother’s chest had been full of blood from the knife John Ayers put there. Even when I killed Calvin Moore, I was still reminded of how my sweet mother was slain by a crazy stalker.” He paused for a second, and then exhaled a heavy breath. “I hate killing because it reminds me of my mother. I hate killing because even if it’s for revenge, it’s still wrong. I hate doing what I do, but I have no choice. When Henry took me in, he chose this life for me, and I chose to accept them, even embrace them. I bare all those things for my own sake. There is no going back. Once a killer, always a killer. In the future, I’ll keep on killing. There’s nothing left for me in the ordinary, killing-free world. And I hate it every day anew, hate that I was led by rage to enter this life. But as I said, mourning about it solves nothing, so I keep on living.”
He steeled himself, and I saw him looking at me with the first hint of any vulnerability. He could conceal his pain no more, and I saw what it took for him to tell me this. I saw the ache, the agony, and yet he still told me, made me understand, for a reason beyond my ability to understand.
For the first time, Gunner Murray opened up to me, told me his deepest weakness, his hatred, his greatest emotion. My heart clenched in sympathy, aching for him, mourning for what he had to go through when he was so young. Tears filled my eyes in his stead, because Gunner would never cry. So I cried for him.
I gave in to my instincts and went to his side of compartment. I sat next to him and, just like the times he held me, I wrapped my arms around his neck and held strong. He tensed immediately and I just tightened my embrace, crying quietly for him.
Slowly, hesitantly, the tension left his body and he softened to my touch. He then put his arms around my waist, and hugged me back even tighter than I did him. He buried his face in the place that connected my neck and shoulder and inhaled, as if wanting to scent my skin. I just held him, and even petted his silky, soft, tousled jet-black hair. He sighed, and for a moment I thought that maybe, after all, he would cry. But he didn’t, and just held me.
I knew that maybe I shouldn’t say anything, but I felt the need to let him know. “There is still a way back, Gunner,” I told him quietly, chokingly. “Everything’s not black and white.”
“In this world, Rae,” he murmured, “it is.”
“I disagree,” I clenched him even tighter. “You may be now ‘in the dark side’, but it’s not a forever-kind-of thing. You can redeem yourself. You can start a new way if you just choose to do it. I refuse to believe you have no turning back.”
“There are some things that have a point of no return.” He insisted.
“No,” I shook my head. “You’re wrong. You can return from whatever you do.”
“Rae,” he said, sounding exasperated. “You’re still naïve. You don’t know anything about darkness in life. You’ve always been in the light.”
I froze, and I knew he felt it because he tensed, too. “You don’t know that,” I said, my voice a little shaky from all the emotional whirlwind of the what’d just happened.
He squeezed me hard and then pulled back his head so he could look me in the eye. His face was now dead-serious, his eyes blazing. “Tell me.” He said and yes, it was an order. But I could follow this one, because he had just done the unbelievable and told me his life-story. It was only fair I would tell him mine, too, and frankly it was no hardship for me to do so. In some twisted way, I trusted him more than anyone else.
Only unlike him, I couldn’t look at him when I said the next things. I planted my eyes on the sofa and took a deep, shaky breath. “My parents died in a car accident when I was only a few months old. I’ve never known them, never thought about what it could’ve been living my life with them, because I have Gran, and she fills the places of both mother and father.” I risked a peek at him and saw him looking at me with over-concentration, probably to try and forget what he’d just told me and focus solely on my story. I looked away again.
“Isobel and Echo have been my friends since we were very little, at least until everything that happened with Mr. Moore and all that. We were an inseparable trio, and stood against everyone. At least, we thought we could stand against everyone. But at the beginning of last year, Taryn Torres arrived, and everything changed. She was as mean as she is now, and really smart and cunning. She paved her way to popularity easily, seeing as she’s a real beauty and everyone wanted to be her or wanted to do her. For some reason, the moment she laid her eyes on me, I became her target. She despised me for a reason unknown to me, which made no sense, because I didn’t threat her in any way. I had only Isy and Echo and no guy really paid any special attention to me. Moreover, the guy I liked back then was the school’s hottest guy, before Chase Montgomery took the title, and I had no chance with him, just like any other lovestruck girl. But it mattered nothing to Taryn. She wanted to destroy me. And she succeeded. She read a love letter I poured my heart into for said hot boy in front of the whole school – and in front of Jimmy, the hot boy. Jimmy rejected me with a snicker, mocking me before everyone, and I became the school’s joke. Even Isobel and Echo couldn’t help me. So I had to steel myself, and after a few months of being bullied by Taryn, I became immune to her. It made her mad at first, but then she started to target my friends as a way to get to me. I felt helpless, wanting to save my friends and keep my ass out of her business at the same time, which was impossible. And eventually, she won.”
I took another deep breath and looked at Gunner’s blazing eyes. “I don’t have skeletons in the closet like you,” I said quietly, “and my life wasn’t all that bad. But what Taryn did to me, that mortification, the shame... it was dark enough, hurting enough. And her continual reminding of it throughout last year wasn’t easy to bare too.”
Something in Gunner’s hard expression softened and suddenly one of his hands unwrapped itself from around my waist and cupped my cheek, warm and big and manly and Gunnerly. He traced me cheek with his thumb and a shiver went through me, making me flush a little with the attraction I felt for him, the electricity burning from his simple touch. “Don’t compare your life story to mine, Rae,” he said softly, gently even. “Each’s life shaped him or her in a specific way. My life was one shade of dark. Yours has another. Your memories of pain are not less than my own, only yours were made in another way than mine. Don’t ever compare yourself and your life to someone else’s.”
Tears filled my eyes again and I mentally scolded myself for being such a crybaby lately. “Gunner...” I said, not knowing what else to say.
He leaned in and for a split second I hopefully though he would make some move on me, but then he pressed his lips against my forehead with such tenderness that it took me by surprise and I sat there, stunned, locked in his embrace and warm lips. Electricity poured into me in waves, and his tenderness made me feel all kinds of warm and mushy inside.
But then he leaned back and took his hands off me and stood up. “We need to go back,” he said, face inscrutable again, but his eyes... his eyes were gentle. Fond. Kind. And I just nodded mutely, still shocked from everything that’d happened in the last hour, and walked after him to the cold air of late November.