It felt awkward coming to work, especially after everything that had transpired in recent weeks. Sirri was grateful that no one was in the office when he let himself in. It would give him much needed time to collect his wits before Niko and Sandra arrived. It was a new ritual now. It would be a part of his life as long as he stayed with this firm, which wouldn't be long. After he passed the Bar, he was out of there.
After what Sandra had disclosed about Niko, Sirri didn't know how long he could contain his true feelings. Regardless of what he did, it would not be easy. He had spent quite some time mulling over his options. He had wanted to confront Makenna right away, but it was not such a great idea. She would only believe him to be a jealous son of a bitch. Perhaps he was, but what Sandra told him was enough to make him worry. It simply didn't feel right. It was unstable. Instability was dangerous, especially in this situation. With his credibility shot to zero, Sirri had no choice but to do as much undercover work as he could, collecting solid evidence, before he could present a shred to Makenna. Otherwise, she would only think him a twit. He had yet to say anything to Niko. He had done likewise. Yet, the time was coming. He could feel it.
Niko entered the office wordlessly, as was the norm for him. Sirri watched him without comment. For a while now, he had been waiting for Niko to say something, to let him know that he and Makenna were a couple. Since he hadn't, he continued to assume that Niko was still oblivious. Frankly, Sirri was tired of it. He wanted Niko to know, to say something, so they could get everything out in the open. Today apparently wasn't the day, because Niko stopped only long enough to start the coffee before he went into his office. Frustrated, Sirri went back to unloading his briefcase.
"Amandurre, would you mind coming to my office," Niko said, suddenly appearing at his doorway briefly before returning back inside.
Without a word, Sirri made his way toward Niko's office. He sat down and listened to Niko rattling away about his newest CPS case. Sirri wasn't exactly listening. He had learned the drill by now. His mission was the same as always. Seek and destroy. The only time he reacted was when Niko said: "Too bad I now have personal conflict with Makenna." Sirri looked up at him, immediately noticing that Niko wasn't exactly making eye contact, but he knew Sirri had heard him. He apparently wanted to make everything vocal. It was fine with him. Sirri had been waiting for more than a week to approach this subject. It was well overdue.
"Oh," Niko said. His voice was small, but the effect was overly fake. He focused his dark eyes on Sirri's face. His expression was guarded. His jaws clenched. "I know I touched a nerve. On the night you graduated, Makenna told me what happened between the two of you. I can also sense that you're still carrying a torch for her. I hope our awkward situation doesn't cause undue tension. Knowing Sandra as well I do, I can certainly assume she is working it out of you in the energetic way that she has."
Sirri wanted nothing more than to fly across Niko's expensive desk to throttle him senseless. But if he did that, he would be stooping to Niko's level. Sirri would not play his game. It was what the prick wanted. Instead, he took another approach, one that killed him all the same, but in his current situation, it was the only thing he could rely on. Humility. "Be good to her," he said steadily. "She deserves that. If you hurt her, you will answer to me."
Niko smiled crookedly. "There is one thing you should know about me, Amandurre. It's very simple, rudimentary perhaps. I'm not a cheat. I don't make it a habit to fool around with any of my ex-lovers in plain view of a current one. I've never cheated on anyone, but it's happened to me once or twice. Speaking from past experience, I'm sure that smarted quite a bit. In fact, I'm sure it hurt like a bitch. Who did you answer to? She should have beaten the shit out of you. I would have. I could never make her hurt like that. What you devalued, I have placed on a throne. Do her and yourself a favor. Don't interfere." He waved a dismissive hand. "Get out of my office. You have work to do."
Do her and yourself a favor. Don't interfere. Those words dug their claws into Sirri's brain. What will you do?
For days now, Linda had been following the young man she saw with Niko's new love. She had to approach him, but not in a situation or place where Niko could see them together. Linda hadn't gone so far as to follow him to his home, but she was afraid that was the next step. After all Niko had done to her, getting busted for stalking would shatter her already precarious situation. Simply put, she was running out of options. The longer Niko was with the woman, the worse his obsession would grow. He didn't need to draw another victim into his bed of lies. Perhaps Niko would pay for his past sins. How many women had he victimized already?
On the day Niko and Sirri confronted each other, Linda was at work. Before Niko came into her life, she managed a large federal credit union near Milionis and Wade. After he destroyed her life and reputation, Linda found work in a neighboring town at a local family-oriented restaurant. She was the floor manager and worked just over forty hours a week. Her income had dwindled, but at least here, she was away from Niko.
Linda made her hourly sweep. She stopped in her tracks when she recognized the young man she had been following. What stupid, blind, dumb luck. Today was her chance. It would likely be the only chance she would have before resorting to petty crime.
The area Attorney's Association was having their monthly lunch meeting at Louanne's today. Unnerved by his prior discussion with Niko, Sirri hadn't wanted to attend. Sandra had told him it was a great way to network with other attorneys. She had practically dragged his ass out of the office, but he resisted, finally convincing her that he really didn't feel like socializing. He knew he needed to have the connections to secure his future, but another day would be had for that. Not only that, but Niko would be there. If he was there, Makenna probably would be as well. It was best for him to leave town, to find another place to hide for a while. With both Niko and Sandra hobnobbing with their lunch crowd of judges, other attorneys, and rich townsfolk, he could afford an extra long lunch. He had discovered this place purely by accident. It was quieter and less crowded than Louanne's. Makenna was miles away, out of his line of sight. He didn't notice the pretty brunette eyeing him curiously, cautiously. If he had seen her, he would have mused that she looked like Makenna.
Figuring it was the server asking if he wanted a refill, Sirri shook his head. "I'm fine."
"No. Please. I would like to speak to you."
At that, Sirri looked up. The face before him was a bit weathered, but she was striking, like Makenna. "Do I know you?"
She shook her head. "No. But I know Niko."
He immediately forgot about lunch and pushed away from the table. "Please sit down," he offered. When she was seated, he said, "I'm Sirri."
Nervously, she nodded. "I'm Linda."
He noticed she was dressed in a uniform emblazoned with the name of this restaurant on her lapel. What were the odds of finding someone who knew Niko in the same place as he? "You know Niko," he prodded gently.
She nodded again. "Yes, I do. Very well. We were once engaged to be married. I know what I've done is wrong, but I followed you after I saw you talking to Niko's new girlfriend."
Sirri couldn't believe it. He had been so preoccupied that he hadn't noticed anyone following him. "Her name is Makenna. We were once…together."
"I thought as much," she commented quietly. "If you still have feelings for her, it would be best to get her away from Niko as soon as is humanly possible."
Sirri absorbed her words slowly. They seemed to pierce his heart with a dozen volts of electricity. He could feel it beating frantically in his chest. He could not have a heart attack until he managed to keep Niko away from Makenna. There were so many questions he wanted to ask, but the only thing he could manage was a simple, basic question. "Is she in danger?"
She folded her hands before her to avoid tapping her fingers on the table. She was overcome with jitters. She was terrified that Niko would somehow find out that she had spoken to him. "I think so," she said with a nod.
Sirri released a long, deep sigh. He was horrified to realize that it had come out shakily. He realized that he had never been so scared in his life. All it took was three words spoken by this timid woman to send him over the edge. "What happened to you?"
Before she spoke, Linda discreetly turned her head to look about the room. When she was certain there was no sign of Niko anywhere, she focused her eyes on his handsome, worried face. "I fell in love with someone else. When Niko found out, he ruined us. My lover was run out of town by rumors he had sexually assaulted a student. I was accused of stealing from my employer. You must understand that Niko has connections with very powerful people all over town. If there is any chance that she will leave him, he will destroy her."
Gazing at her intensely, he shook his head. "I don't think their relationship is that serious." His words were more to comfort himself. He didn't doubt the situation was urgent, but he also wanted to soften the blow. Maybe it wasn't as bad as he feared. Maybe he was a jealous bastard. "I don't think he has that kind of power…"
Suddenly, she took both of his hands in hers. Squeezing them tightly, she whispered urgently, "You do not know." When she realized she was touching him, she backed away as if shocked by her behavior. She afforded another glance around the room before focusing her eyes on him again. "He has more power than either you or I will ever understand. It doesn't matter how serious they are. To Niko, she is his. She is only his. She is meant to be with him, no one else. Is there a remote chance that she could leave him for you?"
He swallowed hard. Was there? He had seen the look in her eyes the last time they were together. Was there? Was there? He shook his head. "I don't know. I don't think so."
"If there is, he will hurt you. If he even suspects that you might interfere, he will hurt you. If she comes back to you, he will hurt her. Talk to her. Get her away from him before his obsession takes him over. He will ruin anyone in his way, anyone who has slighted her. If you still love her, you must protect her. You must protect yourself."
Sirri wanted to say more, to explore her urgent pleas, but before he could open his mouth, she pushed away from the table. She disappeared into a small room behind the cash register just feet away from where he sat. It seemed all too melodramatic, but oh so real. Where would he go from here? What would he do?
Makenna entered her apartment tiredly, throwing her bag onto a chair sitting near the door. It had been a very long week for her. When she was on call, it was always a long week. There were three or four days in a row that she had gone out on child maltreatment calls, not getting home before three in the morning. Of course, she still had to go into the office early regardless how late she was out. Yesterday had been her last night for another six weeks. She had gratefully turned over the pager to the next unlucky stiff for the week this morning when she walked into the office. It was someone else's turn. Hallelujah.
She dropped her exhausted body down onto the couch, allowing herself a long uninterrupted moment of rest. Her busy week had been complicated with visits from Niko. Since the night he had innocently kissed her, she had seen him practically every day. Although she did sometimes enjoy his company, she felt he was coming on too strongly. They had gone out to dinner, to the movies, and had hung out at her place a couple of times, but she honestly didn't consider what they were doing as dating. However, she wasn't an idiot. Of course what they were doing was dating, but Niko wouldn't take no for an answer. She felt horrible. She was using him. She knew this. She was expecting him to come over tonight, but she didn't know if she was in the mood to see him, to see anyone. Maybe she could tell him to cool it, to give her some space to decide what she needed to do with her life before the next confusing, scary new phase began.
Later, Makenna came out of the shower donning her favorite oversized sleep shirt. She took a towel to her wet hair, scrubbing it vigorously. As she combed the tangles out of the wet strands, she glanced at her reflection in the full length mirror. In the last few weeks, she had done this a lot, scrutinizing her image, picking it apart. It was just another reminder that she had yet to tell Sirri all he needed to know. Screw it. She threw the wet towel down onto the floor, tossed her comb out beside it, and then moved away from the mirror. She was hungry enough to eat a horse. That's what she intended to do as soon as she could get into the kitchen.
Her short journey was interrupted by a discreet knock on the door. A glance at the wall clock told her that Niko was over two hours early. Sighing, she didn't bother glancing out the peephole as custom dictated. Instead, she unlocked the door and swung it open. Her guest wasn't Niko. It was Sirri. Without thinking, she crossed her arms before her abdomen and clasped her hands together. What was he doing here? She hadn't heard from him since the night he graduated. He was still dressed in slacks and a nice dress shirt. He had apparently come straight here from work.
Sirri couldn't take his eyes off hers. He hadn't seen her in several days. It only made him miss her more, appreciate her more. Fresh out of the shower, her damp hair and oversized shirt gave her the appearance of a young girl. Even today, she was vulnerable, tender. If any ground had been gained, he was sure to lose it after he spoke to her. This visit was unavoidable, necessary. He hoped she would understand that.
"Is it okay if I come in," he asked tentatively.
It had been quite some time since she had allowed him inside her apartment, but she couldn't turn him away. Perhaps it was time for her confession. Makenna stepped back to allow him inside. Once he moved past her, she closed the door. She crossed her arms before her again as she turned toward him. She noticed that he was glancing around the room as if he hadn't been in it in years instead of the course of a few weeks. It was painful watching him act like a mere guest, a stranger making a visit for the first time. For God's sake, they had made love in every room of this apartment, but he was afraid to sit down without her inviting him to do so.
He turned to face her. Curiously, he observed that she held her arms tightly over her abdomen. Strange. "I don't want to intrude, but I…"
He stopped speaking as the words escaped him. Makenna noticed the shift immediately. "You're not intruding on anything, Sirri," she began. She moved toward the couch, lowering herself upon it, folding her body in a way where she could almost pull the edge of her shirt over her knees. "Please sit down."
Sirri again noticed the odd behavior, the awkward way she sat down. Was she that uncomfortable with his presence? Her couch wasn't very big, barely roomy enough for two people. How they ever managed to make love to each other on this thing, he would never know. When he sat beside her, his leg was almost touching her knee. She was so close, so mind numbingly close that he was tempted to take her hand.
"What are you doing here?"
At her question, he turned his body slightly to make eye contact with her. It was difficult with the position of her body. "I don't know how to say this to you, Makenna, not without sounding like an insane ass."
"Another long talk," she offered tentatively. "Good. We need it. There's something you should know."
He batted her comment aside. "No. You don't understand. This isn't another long discussion. This is more like an urgent warning. I have been given information about Niko, information that he isn't the stable person he makes himself out to be."
She gazed him incredulously, as if he told her that he had seen Elvis pumping gas at their local convenience store. "What are you saying, Sirri?"
He sighed heavily before shaking his head. "There is no other way to go about this," he said as if speaking to himself instead of her. "I think that if you stay with Niko, he is going to hurt you…mentally, physically. From what I understand, he has the power to ruin your life."
Makenna gawped at him before studying him carefully. Was he drunk? Had he been using drugs? "Where is this coming from?"
He could see that she didn't believe him. He had expected as much, but she would damn well listen to him. "Makenna, I know this sounds crazy, but I spoke to someone who knows Niko intimately. I know I have hurt you beyond all sanity, but what I tell you is the truth. I cannot allow you to be harmed. You must listen to me."
"Information passed along to you from an ex-lover of his?" She shook her head. A bitter smile framed her lips. "From your source, from you, this is slightly less than reliable. You hurt me before, but this is much, much worse. Get out."
She made moves to stand, but he took hold of her forearm, preventing her from leaving him. "I know how it sounds," he said softly. "I know you see me as a liar, a stupid, jealous son of a bitch who fucked another woman days after proposing marriage. There are many things you should not trust, you should not believe, but this isn't one of them. If this wasn't serious, I wouldn't be here. I know what I've done, but I'm not telling you this to interfere. I promise you that."
"There is no way for me to escape you," she whispered. "There is no way for me to go on. How can I, Sirri? You won't let me go."
"No," he said quietly. "I can't let you go, but I won't stop you from living your life, from having other lovers. What I will fight to stop is allowing another man to hurt you, to ruin your life. I will never be less than determined to keep you away from Niko or any other bastard set to hurt you like I hurt you."
"It's not your job, Sirri," she said shakily. "It's not your responsibility to watch over me as if I was a weak teenager experiencing her first serious breakup. You're not my big brother. I don't need to be protected. You're wasting your time, energy, and determination. I don't need it. I don't want it. Take it home to Sandra."
He slowly released her forearm. For a long time, he gazed at her, reading her. She was holding back her tears, but he could see it. He could see that she needed him, wanted him, but he realized that Niko had already begun his work on her mind. "Oh my God, Makenna," he said gently. "It has already begun. Whether you believe me or not, there's nothing between Sandra and I. Whatever you have been told is not the truth. I don't know what else to say to you. You make your own decisions, you live your own life, but I swear to you, I will not allow him to hurt you."
Makenna bore her eyes into his. "How am I supposed to feel? What am I supposed to think? How can I…believe you?"
He reached out to take her forearm again, but this time, he did so gently. "I can only answer one of those questions. You can believe me because I love you. I know you believe I love you. Your eyes tell me that much. You won't say it, but I know you love me, too."
Her voice calling his name was so very close to a plea to understand. He could take it no longer. Before he was even consciously aware of what he was doing, he drew her close against him, covering her mouth with his. The taste of her. The feel of her soft lips against his. Words could not describe it. Words couldn't come close. He felt her responding to his kiss, and for a moment, he was certain that everything was going to be okay, that everything would go back to normal. His hand moved from her forearm and slid downward. She took his hand and broke the kiss.
"There's something you need to know," she whispered.
"What is it?"
She opened her mouth to confess, to finally let him know, but before one word could escape, the phone rang. After two rings, her answering machine kicked on. Niko's voice wafted from the small speaker: "How would you like Chinese tonight?"
Sirri moved away from her. He figured the 'something' he needed to know was that she was expecting Niko. "I'm sorry," he said dejectedly. "I have to go."
Makenna sat back in defeat as she watched him leave. He didn't know. He would never know.
Niko had made the call to Makenna from his cell phone. What Makenna didn't know was that he sat in his car only a few feet away from her apartment building. He had been prompted to call after his sharp eyes identified Amandurre's car parked in her visitor's slot. He reasoned that it could have been an amazing coincidence. After all, why would Makenna have Amandurre over after what he had done? The chance was zero to none. Or so he thought. His suspicions were confirmed the moment he saw the bastard sliding behind the wheel of his shitty car. We can't have that, now can we?