Playing With Fire

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He Can Have His Reputation

Lucas

The crushing weight on my chest has been a constant companion for the last hour and a half.

After tracking down the coach and the members of the team, we learned Dale had never made it to workouts. Someone had to have intercepted him just outside the complex.

After dropping Belle off at her friend’s home, there was nothing Holli and I could do but wait to hear more from the police.

And that’s what we’ve been doing. For four hours.

The nauseous feeling comes and goes in waves of misery. I’d had to call my mother and tell her I’d failed to keep her son safe and hearing her choked sobs after she realized he really was missing, only made things worse.

Holli doesn’t say anything. She just rests her head on my shoulder as we sit in my living room, waiting for my mom’s flight to get in.

I’ve never felt so helpless in my entire life. Not even when I’d watched our mom struggle after losing Dad.

I don’t know what I’ll do if… No. Don’t think like that.

“Lucas?” Suddenly exhausted, I turn to look at Holli. She clears her throat. “It’s almost time to leave for the airport.”

Already? “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.”

Holli tightens her grip on my arm when I try to stand up from the sofa. “Lucas, if anyone’s stubborn enough to make it back home, it’s Dale.”

I swallow the part of me that wants to tell her I don’t want to talk about it, but I know how I must look to her, right now. I feel like I’m going to crawl out of my fucking skin just sitting here doing nothing while my brother is on his way to God knows where.

The police said to contact them if we receive a ransom call, but there’s been nothing for the last four hours. Not even a text.

“Yeah.”

“Come on. Let’s go get your mom,” she says, tugging my hand.

Holli takes my keys off the kitchen table and I let her drive since I’m in no mood to pay attention to anything.

When we arrive at the pickup lane, my mother waits with a single overnight bag and red rimmed, gunmetal eyes.

I exit the vehicle and take her in my arms as another sob escapes her. “My baby. God, my baby. How could this happen?”

“I don’t know, Mom. I’m so sorry.” I hold her as she cries.

Holli hangs back, standing by the car but I wave her over and she places a hand on my back.

My mom looks up, blinking her tears away when she sees we’re not alone. Her forced smile makes my heart constrict.

“Hello, dear. You must be Holli. I’m so sorry we couldn’t meet under better circumstances.”

“Me as well,” Holli says, offering her a sad smile.

Aside from my mom’s sniffling, the ride back to my condo is quiet. There’s no update from the police just yet and with every hour that passes, the dread increases.

Questions assault me, one after another as I try to make sense of who would do something like this. Back at the high school, Holli had informed the cops that her ex-husband was a potential threat but without much evidence and no lead on Winston Drake’s whereabouts, it’s just speculation.

That’s why we’ve been waiting for the ransom call.

I can’t help but notice how much older my mother looks when she’s not smiling and I hate that it’s all my fault. I’d thought I could help Dale by moving him out here with me, but without a real parent to watch over him, had I really made the best choice? Or just the one I thought was best because I wanted to control the situation.

No. He was out of control. You made the only choice you could.

And he has gotten better here. I see it. See how happy he is, how much better his grades have gotten. Dale’s managed to turn his life around in a matter of weeks, not months. It was me who’d been skeptical. I’d let his past color my perception of the present and he’d deserved better from me.

For me to believe in him the way Holli does. The way my mom always did.

“Mrs. Sutton, would you like some tea?” Holli asks, tearing me from my thoughts.

“Yes, dear. That would be lovely.”

Holli turns on my coffee maker and grabs two mugs from the cabinet. She holds one up to me, but I shake my head. I need something a lot stronger than tea, but I want to be fully sentient if there’s an update on Dale.

I’m about to push myself up to call my coaches and let them know about the situation when there’s a loud shattering sound.

“Holli?” My mom says as I take in the broken mug on my floor.

Her cell phone pressed to her ear, she holds a shaky finger to her lips. “H-hello?”

I hold my breath as I come up beside her.

“Y-yes.”

Fuck. Could this be it?

The few agonizing seconds that pass go on forever. I want to grab the phone from her and demand to know where the fuck Dale is, but I know it could only make things worse.

“I understand.” Holli takes the phone away from her ear, but rather than hang up she puts it on speaker.

“Can everyone hear me, Holiday?”

The unfamiliar voice is gravelly. Deep, but the desperation in the tone is thick. One sentence and he sounds as unhinged as I feel.

“Yes, Winston. Everyone can hear.”

“Good. Hello, Lucas. I have to say I’m disappointed. You’ve been so busy fucking my girl, you left your little brother to fend for himself. You know teenagers are wild these days. If you don’t keep a tight leash on them, they’ll end up in trouble.”

Holli stares me down, shaking her head. She doesn’t want me to respond. It goes against all my instincts, but there’s no one in this room that knows this man better than Holli. And while I hate that she even has to speak to this fucker again, I need her to. Fuck.

“What do you want Winston?” Holli says dispassionately. Her eyes are hard as steel. She’s emotionless.

Here’s how this is going to work. One call to the police, any indication that you have contacted the authorities and you’ll be searching every lake in the damn state to find which one the younger Mr. Sutton, is at the bottom of.”

My molars grind together so hard I’m surprised they don’t crack.

“We understand,” she clips.

“Wonderful. Now as you may have heard, thanks to you, dear wife of mine, I’ve been disgraced. My name, my reputation… You destroyed me with your bullshit. You owe me, Holiday.

“So this is how it’s going to go down. You’re going to write a sworn statement to the Northeast Community Police Station that I have never in my life physically or sexually assaulted you including, but not limited to-- hitting, striking, punching, marital rape… you get the idea. At four in the morning, you will seal the statement in an envelope that you sign your name on, place it in a manilla envelope, then drop it off at the address that I have just texted to you. Alone. Dale Sutton will be released when I receive confirmation.”

When he receives confirmation. He won’t be there.

My skin feels too tight for my body, but Holli looks calm, almost serene. I’m losing it and she’s unshakable.

“That’s it?” she asks the question as though she could care less about the answer, as if she’s confirming a mission or something.

“All I want is my life back. And to forget I ever met you, you miserable bitch.”

My hands clench, but Holli’s on my shoulder calms me slightly. Like before, no hesitation. No emotion, she answers him. “Done.”

“Don’t be late.”

She hangs up the call and exhales. “Thank God.”

“What?”

She blushes, shaking her head. “I mean, we know where he is. Let me do this. I can get him back.”

I can’t believe she would make this sacrifice. She’d finally gotten the courage to press charges and now she’s willingly giving up any right to go after him, all to save Dale. My conflicting emotions must be all over my face because she opens her mouth to speak again. “Winston’s an angry person, a master manipulator. You have to know how to deal with that kind of narcissist and I do, Lucas. I survived for four years because I learned to be two steps ahead of his temper at all times. If that’s what he wants, fine... It’s not worth your brother’s life.”

“I don’t like the idea of you going alone,” I tell her.

“We don’t have a choice. Besides…” She lowers her voice. “FBI agents are on their way to that address he sent. I think I’ll be okay.”

I blink. “Excuse me?”

Holli holds up her phone. “The police bugged it in case I got a ransom call, for this very purpose.” Her determined eyes flash with something akin to ruthlessness.

“He can have his reputation. He’s going down this time.”

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