I was sitting in a stolen Jeep with no roof, parked on the side of a dirt road beneath a wavering canopy that occasionally let a spattering of rain pelt me in the face. Despite the warmth of the tropical night, I was cold and soaked to the bone in my muddy evening gown. On one side of me was Camden McQueen, on the other was Javier Bernal. One more light than dark, one more dark than light. Both men had come for me. Both men had loved me. And both of them I had seriously underestimated.
There really wasn’t much time to sit around and try to get my head on straight. But after everything that happened, I knew a panic attack was just waiting to devour me, to incapacitate me, to take me out of the game. I could feel the fear buzzing through my veins, threatening to tear me up from the inside out. The fear of losing everything – Gus, my mother, my revenge, my purpose. I feared Javier and what he might do to Camden. I feared Camden and the way he’d changed toward me. I feared myself and the things I might do to try and make sense of it all.
We had only been in the Jeep for about ten minutes, heading back to Veracruz, when I’d told Javier to park the car so I could have a moment. He reluctantly complied, finding an area beneath some massive trees that shook from the howling winds. Both men were staring at me and I could only look down at my hands as I rubbed them up and down against the mud on my dress, the coldness seeping into my palms. They both knew me, knew my attacks, and that alone had me screaming internally, wanting to run. I couldn’t even look at them. I couldn’t even accept the situation. Javier and Camden. The three of us having to work together, let alone sit in a Jeep together without them killing each other. And I was in the middle.
My mind raced back to our escape. My mother. Dear God, my mother. I really never thought I’d see her again, let alone at a drug lord’s party but there was she was, serving motherfucking champagne. She was working for Travis of all people, the man who poured acid down my leg when I was just eleven years old, the same man who my mother wanted to rob that night in Mississippi. What the hell had happened to her? After everything we had gone through as a family, after all the pain I suffered, the inquests from authorities, the move to Palm Valley to stay with Uncle Jim and her eventual abandonment of me, why was she here with him now? And where was my father?
I swallowed, my throat feeling thick and debated on asking Javier. He had known this all along, knew where they were. He’d even wanted me to kill them for some sick, divine purpose from that damaged moral code of his. This whole time he knew and he was using me.
I couldn’t even be angry at him over that, though. I should have known better, I should have expected this. I was so damn angry at myself for falling for his old tricks, for slipping into a past that would have been better left buried. I hated myself for losing my faith in Camden and putting it in Javier instead, and hated myself even more for the damage I caused. That was another reason I couldn’t look at him. Every time I looked at Camden, I saw the ways he’d changed. He was stronger, tougher and more ruthless. He was also hurt, scarred deep inside by what I’d done. He now had the kind of scars that even his skilled hands couldn’t transform.
“Are you okay?” Camden asked, his voice low. My knee was touching his knee. My other knee was touching Javier’s. I could feel them on either side of me, hear their breathing, both their bodies tense and rigid as we sat there in the darkness. This was so awkward. So fucking awkward.
And from the looks of it, with Gus and my parents in the clutches of Travis Raines, my cover being blown, the three of us having to make our way through Mexico together, awkward was the least of my problems.
I nodded, still looking at my hands, even though I wasn’t okay. None of us were.
Javier sighed loudly. Something about his tone made me look over. Somehow it was easier to look at him, maybe because I didn’t feel guilt when I did.
“What?” I asked. I pressed my fingers into my thigh to keep my nerves from misfiring.
He tilted his head toward me and though the only light came from the glow of the Jeep’s dashboard and the far-off flashes of lightning in the sky, I could see the gleam in his eyes. Unreadable, as always.
“I’m just wondering how long we’re going to sit here in a fucking tropical storm,” he said simply, a false smile spread across his face. “That’s all.”
Camden sat up straighter. “At least the rain should wash all that blood off your face.”
Javier’s eyes flicked over to him. “Are you sure you want me to help you get your fat Gus back? Because I think I’m the one doing you both a favor. Aside from saving your behinds, of course. I don’t recall either of you thanking me yet.”
I exhaled through my nose. “Just give me a few minutes. I need to figure out the plan.”
Javier let out a dry laugh, rain running off the tip of his nose, and eyed me incredulously. “The plan? You’re not in charge of the plan, angel. If you want my help, then you’re doing it my way.”
“Fuck that,” Camden spat out.
I finally had to look at him. His eyes were raging beneath his glasses that reflected the dull glow from the car and he was gripping the door handle like he was about to break it in two. Oh god, I didn’t need this. But then again, it was partly my fault. Maybe I did need this.
“Camden,” I said, trying to placate him with my eyes, “please, let’s just…let’s just stay calm and think.”
“I am calm,” Javier answered as Camden opened his mouth. “I need to go find my sister, Violetta. That’s my goal first and foremost. Then I’ll help you get to Travis and Gus.”
“And my mother?” I filled in, daring him to be honest.
He gave me a short nod, though he was looking off onto the dark road. “Yes…and your mother.”
Now was the time to ask him. Better now than never.
I took in a deep breath. “Where’s my father? I didn’t see him at the party.”
He raised a brow and looked over my head at Camden. Why, I had no fucking idea. I turned to look at Camden but he was staring back at Javier like he didn’t even know who he was.
“Javier,” I repeated. “Where is my father?”
He frowned at Camden and looked back at me. His face went stony. “The man you call your father is dead.”
Every limb on me froze. My lungs sucked in warm air and raindrops.
“Dead?” I asked, feeling like I was choking.
My father was dead?
Javier’s eyes softened momentarily but only for a minute. “I didn’t know until I got here.”
I let it soak in over my bones. My father was dead.
The good parent.
The weak one.
With my mother working for Travis, I truly was an orphan now.
“Oh god,” I said, finally finding enough air. I leaned forward, trying to ward off another panic attack, and Camden’s warm hand met the small of my back, just enough to let me know he was there. His touch somehow strengthened me. “Oh god.”
“I’m sorry,” Javier said.
It took a few moments before I realized what he said.
I immediately whipped my head toward him. “No you’re not,” I seethed. “You wanted me to kill them. You sick fucking bastard, you wanted me to kill my own parents. You brought me here for that. You are not fucking sorry!”
Javier stared at me impassively, his features forever reptilian, smooth and calculating. No emotion. No anything. How could I have even thought there was something warm inside him?
“You’re right,” he said, turning his attention back to the empty road. “I’m not sorry. I’m glad he’s dead. He deserves it for what he did to you. But I am sorry you feel this way, right now.”
“Like I wouldn’t have felt worse if I killed them?”
He shrugged. “Obviously now I know how that would have played out. Apparently you don’t hold the same grudges that I do.”
I felt like elbowing him in the nose again, seeing it break over and over. But Javier was one of those men who could take the pain and make it work for him. He had too much of an advantage over us at the moment and he liked it when I hated him as much as he liked it when I loved him.
“How did he die?” I asked, grinding my teeth.
“I don’t know,” he said. “All I know is that he is one less person to hurt you.”
“You are so fucked up,” Camden muttered, his hand tightening on my back.
Javier merely grinned at that, his teeth white in the darkness, taking no offense at all. “Whatever I am, you need me more than I need you. And because of that, you’ll do as I say.”
“Sounds like a deal with devil,” I told him.
“My, my, angel, how quickly you’ve changed your tune now that this tattooed ape is back in your life.” He eyed Camden. “You know, just because you’re here now, doesn’t mean you’ve won anything.”
“I only came to get Ellie back,” he said, his voice quiet but full of animosity. I knew that Camden was keeping himself on a very tight leash. I also knew that when he didn’t, well, I didn’t have to look long at Javier’s bruised and bloodied face to know what happens.
“Oh, of course,” Javier said with deliberation. “But is she really back?”
“Javier, shut the fuck up,” I said. “If you’ve got a plan then tell us what the plan is, because the longer we sit here arguing, the further Gus gets away from us.”
He slowly looked back to me. “That has been my point all along. Are you able to think now? Is your little attack over? Because I know what worked last time you—”
“Get on with it,” I cut in. Neither Camden nor I needed him to finish his sentence. The last time I had a panic attack around Javier, we ended up having sex in an orange grove. I was vulnerable, driven by lust, desperate for closure and lured back into my own past. I had a million excuses for why I fucked him but what bothered me the most was that at the heart of them all, I did it because I wanted to. I needed to. Now, looking at him, knowing how much he had and hadn’t changed, I hated myself for being so weak, hated my body for betraying me so easily.
He held my gaze and I knew in the dim he could make out the raw anger in my eyes. He was thinking, wondering how much more he could toy with me. He now had the ability to get a rise out of both Camden and I anytime he wanted. He was a man with too much ammo, but perhaps he’d always been that way. He stockpiled it like a squirrel preparing for winter.
He shifted the Jeep with a lurch, causing me to fall into Camden, and pulled the vehicle back onto the dirt road, the rain whipping us as it continued to fall in heavy drops. We sped in the direction of Veracruz, where the city lights were casting a dull orange glow on the bottoms of the storm clouds.
“The first step is to get rid of this car,” Javier said, his mouth setting in a grim line. “They’ll be looking for it.”
“There’s always Jose,” Camden said.
I looked at him incredulously. “You have Jose?”
He gave me a small smile. “The car’s a bit battered but yeah I have Jose. It brought me and Gus down here. All your stuff is still in the trunk.”
Thank god, because all my other stuff was in the hotel room that I wouldn’t be returning to. The only thing I had on me was what fit into my clutch purse: Eleanor Willis’s passport (which was pretty much useless now since Travis knew it was a façade), some makeup, a few pesos and that was it.
“Right,” Javier scoffed. “I’m sure the car isn’t want by a few people either.”
“You mean other than you?” I asked.
He grunted. “The past is the past. We’re better off getting something more inconspicuous, don’t you agree?”
“We’re getting my stuff out of the car, at least,” I told Javier. “You can add that to your plan.”
He made another disagreeable sound but didn’t argue. “Fine. Get your stuff. Get a new car. Head to Mexico City to check on Violetta.”
I frowned at the mention of his sister. “Check on?”
He nodded. “I’ll tell her to get out of town, go to Marguerite or Alana’s in Jalisco.”
“And she’ll listen to you?”
He bit his lip for a second. “She knows what happened to Beatriz. She’ll listen.”
“Who is Beatriz?” Camden asked.
Javier shot him a look as he brought the Jeep onto the main highway. “None of your fucking business.”
“It’s one of his sisters,” I quickly told Camden. “Travis murdered her.”
“Of course he did,” Camden said with a sigh, leaning back into the seat. I finally had the strength to watch him for a few moments. The wind was ruffling up his dark hair, his glasses reflecting the lights of the few cars on the highway that were braving the storm. His jaw was strong, lips full but held together tightly. I knew he was tormented but I didn’t know by whom. Was it Javier?
Or was it me?
He took his glasses off and wiped the rain off of them with the sleeve of his tuxedo he had gotten for Travis’s party. It took effort, his brilliant blue eyes wincing with pain. His shoulder was still messed up from being shot.
“Do you have any more of your pain killers?” I asked him.
He closed his eyes and nodded while he slipped his glasses back on. “Now’s not the time. I’ll deal.”
“Well you certainly dealt with Javier’s face,” I said. It slipped out before I had a chance to take it back. I wasn’t about to start provoking the monster but it was easier said than done.
And provoked him I did.
Javier’s grip on the wheel tightened and he slammed on the brakes so we went skidding across the highway. I screamed, the tires squealing beneath us, as we came to a shuddering stop on the shoulder and he flipped it into park.
“Jesus!” Camden yelled. “Are you trying to kill us?”
Javier immediately whipped out his gun so it was in front of my face and pointed it at Camden.
“No. Now I’m trying to kill you,” Javier sneered, staring down the barrel of the gun.
“Then fucking do it,” Camden said, his eyes blazing, meeting the challenge.
“You shouldn’t tempt me,” Javier countered.
My eyes darted between the two of them and the gun. It wavered slightly, betraying Javier’s smooth exterior. He was damn angry, angry enough to do something stupid. He didn’t need Camden egging him on.
I raised my hands slowly, careful not to touch the gun that was inches away. I spoke carefully, trying to keep my voice from shaking. “Please, please, Javier, Camden, let’s just…let’s just calm down.”
“Shut up,” Javier said, his eyes flitting to me and back to Camden. “This is all your fault.”
“How is this my fault?” I exclaimed and then realized it was. I needed to keep my mouth shut. We all did. I looked between the two of them and said, “Okay, I’m sorry. It is my fault. Obviously we’re not getting anywhere if we can’t get along.”
Javier’s grip tightened on the gun. “This isn’t a matter of getting along, angel.” He licked his lips and nodded at Camden. “Tell me, Camden, how did you manage to escape from your ex-wife and the mighty Vincent Madano?”
Camden frowned at him, his jaw tensing. “How do you know about that?”
Javier grinned. “I read it in the newspaper like everyone else.”
“I have to say, I’m impressed,” Javier went on. “Vincent Madano is not a man you can just mess up and walk away.”
“How well do you really know them?” I asked Javier, remembering that Camden had said something about it all being a set-up, that Sophia and her brothers, and possibly Javier were all in on it. The exchange, the kidnapping – it was all for show. All to get me away from Camden and maybe to put Camden in danger.
It must have been driving Javier crazy to have Camden here with us. Camden could not be caught that easily.
“I know them well enough,” Javier said. He loosed his grip on the gun, shook the rain off of it and put it back in his waistband. I exhaled in relief. “But I suppose that’s neither here nor there at this point.”
I was sure that Camden wouldn’t let it go that easily. Just how deeply was Javier tied to his ex-wife and her brothers and why? But Camden only gave Javier a final glare before turning his attention back to the darkened farmland we had stopped beside.
“Let’s just get Gus back,” he said and pressed his lips together as if to prevent himself from saying something else.
Javier watched him for a few moments before putting the Jeep back into drive and returning us to the highway.
We sat in unbearable silence as we made our way into Veracruz, yet it was safer than saying anything. I felt like we were a word away from incinerating each other. Camden only spoke up to give directions to where he had ditched Jose.
Unfortunately it was a bit too close to Travis’s compound for comfort. We pulled down a quiet residential street only a few blocks away, the leafy trees blowing wildly in the wind, the rain having thankfully dropped off. The sound of helicopters buzzed in the distance.
Javier eyed the sky and I asked, “Are those his or news choppers?”
He nodded subtly. “They’re his. The news wouldn’t dare cover this.”
“Turn right down here,” Camden told him and we came down another street, this one more narrow, with the trees blocking out the streetlights that were few and far between. This was still a well-to-do area, though the houses were smaller and spaced further apart, all behind tall gates and walls. I did note that it was a dead-end road, which meant there was only one way out if something were to happen to us. We couldn’t be too careful, not with the choppers circling in the distance, their spotlights occasionally lighting up the sky.
“There she is,” Camden said, pointing to the end of the street where jungle seemed to have taken over and there were no streetlights. I could barely make out the shape of the car in the darkness.
“She?” Javier asked, eyebrow cocked. “Its name is Jose.”
Camden shrugged. “Guess she’s a cross-dresser.”
Javier sighed, shaking his head in disgust, and pulled the Jeep up to it. “Let’s make this fast.”
We hopped out and it was only now that we were closer that I saw what Camden meant by “battered.”
“Holy shit, Camden!” I cried out at the sight of the poor vehicle.
“What the hell did you do to my car?” Javier yelled, his hands thrown up in the air.
The GTO had the paint scraped off all along one side, the windows on the driver’s side were all shot out, the driver’s side mirror was missing, the front was totally crunched up with only the right headlight intact.
“Your car?” I asked Javier once I managed to look away from poor Jose. “What happened to the past being the past?”
“Now’s not the time to argue semantics,” Camden interrupted us. “She’s broken but she’s a survivor.” He fished the keys out of his suit jacket and tossed them at me. “Just like you.”
I caught them and he held my eyes for a moment before walking past me back to the Jeep.
Javier scoffed, though I didn’t know if it was for the state of the car or Camden’s comment, and made his way to the trunk. He bumped it with his fist. “Come on, let’s get her open.”
I was about to hurry over to him when Camden suddenly said, “Fuck.”
I spun around and looked at him. He was frozen in the act of taking off his jacket, his good arm free, his head cocked upward, eyes searching the sky. The sound of the choppers had gotten louder and over the tips of the waving trees I could see the spotlight in the sky, the blades whirring.
“Yeah, no kidding fuck,” I said. I turned to Javier and quickly ran over to him, trying to get my keys into the trunk of the car. I kept fumbling, missing the lock just as the wind blew my hair back and we were lit up by the spotlight, the helicopter coming closer. We were in their sights, no doubt about that. We had been spotted.
“Hurry up!” Javier yelled at me before ripping the keys out of my hands.
Camden hit the side of the Jeep with his fist. “There’s no time!” he yelled. “We have to go!”
“No!” I yelled back as Javier got the trunk open. “Not without my stuff!”
Suddenly the ground in front Camden started exploding with bullets as a steady stream of them came off the approaching chopper. We all cried out, dirt flying everywhere.
Javier quickly slammed the trunk shut. “Then we’re taking Jose. Get the fuck in!”
He went for the driver’s seat as Camden came running over, taking my hand and pulling me to the passenger side. He shoved me into the backseat, telling me to lie down, and barely got in the car himself before Javier was gunning the engine and driving the car backward. I could feel the wheels spinning for grip beneath my head and tried to sit up just as the sound of more bullets filled the air. I was tossed back down as Javier put the pedal to the floor and turned the wheel, the sheer power of the rear wheels grinding until we did a 180 until we were facing the right way. The chopper was now directly above us and I could feel the wind its blades created flowing through the smashed windows, the spotlight blinding me.
“Hang on,” Javier said, “this is going to get ugly before it gets better.”
He pressed down on the gas again and the car roared loudly before it lurched forward and we were all pinned back to our seats from the force. This is exactly why I loved this car. I just hoped he was stronger than he looked at the moment.
We raced down the street, the chopper in hot pursuit, the whir of blades and bullets gaining on us. I leaned forward between the seats, reaching for the glove compartment, waving my hand at it when I couldn’t reach. “My gun, give me my gun!”
Camden gave me an odd look but opened the compartment and handed me the gun that was thankfully still in there. It wasn’t my colt .45—that was in the trunk still—but it would do.
“What are you doing?” Camden yelled as I quickly checked the clip and slammed it back in.
“She’s being a good girl,” Javier said, just as the trunk was bombarded with bullets, sounding like metal fireworks being set off. “Fuck!” he yelled and swerved, trying to lose them, as I attempted to lean out of his window. I wedged myself up against the back of his seat and faced behind us. The wind whipped my hair around, the spotlight blinding me, but I managed to keep the gun aimed upward at the helicopter. I had no idea if this would work like it did in the movies but I figured it was better than just sitting in the backseat and doing nothing.
Only problem was, Javier kept swerving and throwing me off balance and the chopper kept moving out of my sights. You’d think that would mean that their bullets weren’t any closer to hitting us but that wasn’t quite the case. One hit the trunk again, a dangerously close call, just as Javier brought the car spinning around the corner and on to another road.
“Where do I shoot?” I screamed above the noise. “The fuel tank?”
“Shoot the fucking person who’s shooting at us!”
“Right,” I muttered. All I could see against the light was the outline of the chopper, not anyone inside. Still, there was a faint red glow whenever the gun went off so I just aimed there, firing off a few rounds and hoping they went somewhere.
Suddenly the windshield in the back of the car was hit and I screamed as it exploded into a million shards of glass. Obviously I hadn’t hit the gunman yet.
“Keep shooting!” Javier yelled as he brought the car around onto another street. We were leaving the hidden, residential hills of the wealthy and into the more open and busier suburbs of Veracruz. It was well lit and now there was traffic we had to contend with.
The chopper ducked down lower and sped up as we slowed to navigate around the cars on the road. The sound of horns, irate yells from drivers, and screeching tires filled the air. I took aim once more and fired again and again, hoping it would hit at least the windshield. But the helicopter came closer, the wind from the rotors shaking my arm like jelly, its landing skids almost coming down on top of us until Javier swerved the car to left and the chopper had to rise quickly to get above a tall semi-truck in its path. I took the time to grab my arm with my other hand, trying to steady myself, to ignore the cramp in my lower back, the pressure of the door frame against my shoulder.
Come on, Ellie, I told myself as the helicopter came back again, much faster now and much lower, as if it didn’t give a fuck anymore.
“Drive faster!” I yelled but wasn’t sure Javier could hear me over the noise. I took in a deep breath, trying to see past the hair flying in front of my face and started firing.
I fired and fire but it just came closer and closer.
And then there was a dull click.
There were no more bullets left in my gun.
And my other clip was in the glove compartment.
We were fucking screwed.
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