A few weeks passed, and I got no more texts from those people after that one time on New Year’s Eve. Still, I became paranoid; I started watching the people around me wherever I went, at the Workeen office, when I was out on some movie and dinner dates with Diego, or when I met with my brothers for our regular Saturday drinking night.
I’d hidden my anxiety from everyone, though. I acted like I usually did, tried to show on a happy, content facade, and when the days passed, turning into weeks, and no more messages came up, I let myself relax a little. I didn’t think the threat had gone away, whatever threat that even was, but since they didn’t try to contact me again, I thought that maybe, just maybe, they’d simply wanted to give me a scare.
It was irrational and illogical of me, and I knew that, but the alternative was to fear for everyone’s life, for Diego to leave me again, and so I opted for this, at least for now.
Soon, I would realize it was a mistake.
It was finally time for the Workeen party, the event that was meant to celebrate Workeen signing with Facebook, landing the company one hell of a contract. It was the event Nola organized, and I knew I would see her, and Orlando, too, since he was invited to that party along with his father, and so I prepared myself mentally for the entire thing. I was so occupied with it all, that I forgot about that message, forgot about the threat, and just let myself be sucked back into the normal world.
I was wearing a dress I’d gone shopping with Gen and Adelia to find. It was a light green evening gown that was so airy and beautiful, I felt like Tinkerbell wearing it. When Diego saw me in that dress, he almost made us late to his own party as he fucked me in the bathroom of his house.
But now we were in the big hall full of people, and I was drinking champagne as Diego was talking with some executive from Facebook. I lingered at his side, content to be seen as the silent companion of Diego, since I felt like I didn’t belong anyway, and was kind of overwhelmed by the whole thing.
My eyes roamed over the hall until I caught sight of Nola, wearing her working clothes, laughing at something Orlando, wearing a loose suit, said. I looked away. I didn’t want to draw their attention to me.
Nola and I hadn’t spoken after I told her I quit. She didn’t try to get in touch, and neither did I. It was sad to know that our friendship was officially over, but after what she’d said, and how she’d reacted… It reminded me of Hestia, my friend from uni, who hadn’t really listened to me, who’d just thrown accusations and later just stopped talking to me altogether.
I’d thought I was done with this kind of behavior back in uni, but it seemed dramas were everywhere, no matter your age.
Then there was Orlando, whose number I’d blocked to make sure he wouldn’t be able to reach me. I doubted he cared, though; he probably thought of me as the woman who’d humiliated him in public, and had moved on to someone else who would actually give him the time of the day. As long as he didn’t turn all creep-o on whoever that was, I could only wish him good luck with his future endeavors.
Unfortunately, the moment the Facebook executive excused himself, leaving Diego and I momentarily alone, he told me, “I have to greet Larsen.”
I grimaced. “If Orlando talks to me, I’m going to punch him.”
“No need,” Diego gave me a serious look. “I will beat the shit out of him if he even breathes your way.”
And with that promise, we walked toward Larsen, who was talking to both Nola and Orlando, the woman at his side a different one from the woman he’d been with at his birthday party. She seemed like a younger, prettier version of that woman, which was a little nauseating if I thought about it too long, which I tried not to.
When Nola and Orlando caught sight of Diego, they smiled politely as if on cue, but when they saw me, it was almost comical how the smiles dropped from their faces simultaneously. Larsen, however, was oblivious to the sudden tension in the air, and gave Diego a huge, toothy smile and a grand shake of hands. “Mr. Rios, my boy!” he said jovially. “So good to see you! And who’s this young lady - oh, but wait a minute, I know you! You’re Miss Harper!”
I smiled a little weakly as he shook my hand. “It’s nice to see you again, Mr. Walker.”
“Ahh, call me Larsen,” he said, and turned to Diego with a secretive smile. “She’s a pretty one. Stole her from my son, I see! Sneaky, very sneaky… And you have met Orlando and Nola, of course!”
“I’ve organized this event, Mr. Walker,” Nola said dutifully with a fixed smile as she shook Diego’s hand. “I hope everything is to your taste, Mr. Rios?”
Diego didn’t smile, and his gaze was a little chilly when it landed on Nola’s face, as if he didn’t like her on my behalf, which was a little more than touching. “Everything is fine.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” she said with an even bigger smile, as if she felt the coolness, and tried to extinguish it with her warmth.
Orlando said nothing neither to Diego nor me, and simply seemed bored as he sipped his own wine.
As Larsen chattered happily, and Diego listened, I heard the faint sound of vibration coming from my purse. I took my phone out, and then froze when I read the message I received from an anonymous number.
‘Be at the address I’ll send you in exactly one hour. Come alone and don’t tell anyone, or your little brother and Jack’s little sis will be in trouble. Bring a thousand in cash.’
There was no point thinking it through. “Excuse me, gotta go to the lady’s room,” I murmured, giving Diego a fleeting smile so he wouldn’t think anything was amiss, and made sure to disappear in the crowd.
I walked as fast as I could without raising suspicion, my heart beating loudly in my chest, the sound gone from my ears, and everything seeming blurry and faint, like I was stuck in a weird dream. Once I was out of the events hall, I went to the closest ATM and drew exactly a thousand dollars with shaking fingers, then called an Uber to take me to the address they sent me, fear eating through my thoughts.
When the Uber came, I got into the car, and felt like everything I’d built with Diego, everything my brothers and I had gone through, my entire life - it was all slipping away. It was my turn to protect Diego and his loved ones, along with mine. It was up to me to make sure nothing happened to them all. If they asked for money, I could only guess that this was the sole reason they’d come after me.
But then why wouldn’t they go to Diego? He was practically a millionaire right now. He had the money to buy them off if they needed cash. Why me?
I couldn’t think about it. I couldn’t deal with it. The only thing I knew was that they’d never meant for Diego to get out of their business so easily. Yes, that Nano guy, the Boston ringleader, had ambushed him and almost killed him as a means to get back at him for not joining them, but maybe they never wanted to let him go. Maybe they were only buying time, but for what?
The address was a remote warehouse at the city outskirts. The area seemed abandoned, and the Uber asked me if I was sure this was the right place, but I couldn’t speak, so I simply got out of the car and strode toward the warehouse, my entire body shaking, fear gnawing at the pit of my stomach, sweat drenching my evening gown.
The doors of the warehouse opened and revealed two guards, wearing the same kind of clothes as those guards from six years ago. Wordlessly, they let me in, and closed the doors behind me.
The warehouse was empty of any storage, and it was dimly lit by lanterns hung over the walls. In the middle of the room stood a man, and when he looked at me with a pair of blue eyes, I knew exactly who he was, and when he spoke, the Southern accent rolled off his tongue freely. “Welcome to my humble abode, Paige.”
The boss smiled, and I simply paled. Acting on instinct, I got out the cash I stashed in my purse and held them up to him. “Take it,” I said, my voice tight and uneven.
He motioned toward one of the guards, and they took it from me, handing the cash to him. He didn’t even bother checking that I got it all and simply put it in the pockets of his jacket. “I don’t believe we’ve ever been properly introduced,” he said, walking toward me with an eerie expression that made me want to step back. “My name is Donnelly. It’s a pleasure to meet you again.”
When I said nothing in response, he grinned and stopped only a few inches away. “You must be wondering why I called you all the way here.”
I couldn’t speak. I just stood there, staring at him, trying not to break under his penetrating gaze. He grinned, as though he found my funny. “Well, you can say I want to get even. See, Jack kinda messed up that last time, and I need to get back at him somehow. I’m not Nano, though,” he scoffed. “Beating him up is the brute’s way to go about things, and I’m no brute.”
Somehow, my voice unlocked and I blurted, “You use other people instead.”
“Good girl,” he said, and raised his arm. I flinched, trembling, but then his hand landed on my hair, curling his finger around a strand, making me feel cold to my bones. “Yes, using other people is a better way to teach him a lesson. I’ve had my guys here watch him for a while, with Nano’s permission, of course,” he cocked his head, “and I knew I could simply end it by putting a bullet in his fragile little sister’s head, but it would be too easy, and way too quick to my liking.”
Dread rose inside me, along with bile. I had a hunch I knew where this was going, and it scared the shit out of me.
“But then he started seeing you again,” Donnelly said, grinning widely now, as if he found his favorite, special-edition chocolate bar in a candy shop. “Peter’s big sister, the one who’d come to her little brother’s rescue. I didn’t even consider using you. Jack has never been the type of guy to stick around a woman, after all, and so intensely, too.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
“But now he’s in love,” the man smirked as he took another step toward me. “And you, pretty little Paige, became my perfect payback.”
I was shaking so hard by now. Whatever he was planning for me might probably end with me being… With me…
“I appreciate the money,” he said, chuckling now, “it’s the best deposit I could’ve asked for. Soon, though, I’ll have so much more than that.”
And before I could duck, before I could evade it, a syringe appeared in his hand as if out of thin air, and he stuck it in my arm, emptying it inside me before I could even so much as scream, and then I collapsed, as darkness spread through my eyes.