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He swallows hard, looking at me as if he wants to say something. He finally shoves his hands in his pockets and talks. "I had a situation with Vic's men after I pulled Sean off the beach. He was pretty banged up, and I couldn't stay with him. Long story short, I made up some bullshit and then ran after you. By the time I got back to the beach, Vic was beyond pissed. That fucker did this with his gun." He points to the stitches above his eye. "I'm surprised he didn't pull the trigger."

"Oh my God." I stare at him, horrified. "Why did he let you go?"

"I convinced him he still needs me. I may have threatened to expose him, too. I expected to die, so I said whatever sounded good. Apparently saying fuck-ass crazy crap appeals to the man. He laughed, slapped me on the back, and sent me to find you."

"Where have you been, then?"

"Hanging back, making sure Vic isn't following me. I didn't come here until I knew I'd lost them for a few days."

There are things I want to ask him, lingering questions that won't fade away. I still have no idea if I should hug him or hit him. He was supposed to kill me. Does the fact that I'm still breathing negate that whole thing? He lied so many times.

So have I.

I shake off my disgust. In many ways, we are the same. Besides, he kept me alive, and that's hard to overlook. I shove the thought aside and lock it away under my mental floorboards with the rest. I'm wholly aware there will be a huge-ass tidal wave of bad crap coming one day, and that's the thing—I know it's not today—so I stuff it away.

"So, I thought you were supposed to be sleeping. Henry filled me in about tonight."

"Yeah, I couldn't sleep." My grip on the mug tightens, and I try to focus on the warmth radiating through the porcelain walls.

He nods, but his eyes don't leave my face. There's something about the way he stands that makes me think he has a lot to say, conversations the size of mountains, words I don't want to hear. He knows things about my parents, about my mother. There's also softness there, something in the corner of his eyes, hanging like a tear that never falls. He still cares about me. After everything that happened, he's not over me.

I'm a train wreck of emotions and regret. How can he still think of me as pure-hearted and perfect? What happened to the Marty who dressed by the decade and made me smile? Was that an act for my benefit? The man is an assassin, and he's too smart to be here now, but he is.

Marty stands there, feet a shoulders width apart, hands clasped behind his back like a soldier. Why didn't I see it before? The overcompensation, the way he slouched all the time, and his dramatic movements. He spoke volumes with his hands, and each expression held a myriad of thoughts. I thought it was because he was gay and wanted people to know. I accepted the act as genuine, assuming I knew the reason.

Everyone wears a mask from the time they wake up to the time they pass out every night. Some are acceptable, others, not so much. People can't be real, because when they are, when they say what's truly lurking in their hearts, they're people like Vic and his dad. People who hide nothing about how they think or feel. That scares most people, myself included.

This might be the last time we speak. Say it, Avery. If you want to know so much, ask him.

Before I can speak, Marty inclines his head toward the wall. There's a painting of Jane Seymore, Henry VIII's third wife. "Not much is known about her, except that she seemed to be able to navigate Henry's dark past without making it explode. Her epithet calls her a phoenix, a bird reborn from its ashes."

I stare at the light brown liquid in the cup. I don't think I like where this conversation is going. I force my gaze up and let it harden. "Don't tell me you have a fascination with the murdering king, too."

"When a person's life slips away from the light, they have to find a way to make peace with it. Everything around us says one thing, but the masses are sheep. People who can think are screwed if they follow the flock. You're not a follower, Avery. I know you."

The last three words hang in the air. He knows I'm thinking about deviating from our plan. He knows how I feel about everything I've done. He suspects I've done worse than I said, but he never pries, never asks.

"I'm not going rogue tonight, so you don't need to worry about that." I begin to walk away, but he reaches out and takes my arm. I stop and gaze up at all six-plus feet of him.

He laughs jadedly. "Tell me. Let another person in on your suicide mission."

"It's not like that, and I did. Mel knows, and she helped me with it. If things don't work out, then I have a Plan B."

"Right, and what about Plan C? Don't pretend with me. I know you struggle with all the shit that's come your way, and I'm shocked you held it together this long. But Vic isn't the guy to test how far you can go. He'll ruin you."

"I don't know what you're talking about. There is no alternate plan beyond that." I go to walk away, but he jerks my arm, spilling coffee on the rug.

Marty gets in my face and leans down, lowering his voice. "I've known you longer than him." He points back in the general direction of Sean's room. "He's missing this. You're going to implode. You're creating a meticulous plan to take out all your adversaries at once. There's always carnage in the area surrounding a blast. You want to make the most of it, which means you're thinking something horrible. For me to say it's horrible, as in a nauseatingly, blood-curdling idea, then it's really bad. You know me, and I know you."

My mouth goes dry. I stand there staring into his face and feel ice dripping into my stomach. I can't think about tonight. It'll make me sick, but somehow Marty managed to lock on something everyone else missed. It's not a death wish, not exactly. It's more pragmatic than that. The only way I can make sure every single person involved dies is to die with them. I can't find another way around it.

I remember to breathe and place my hand on his forearm, making him drop my elbow. "What do you want from me?"

Marty steps back, making an exasperated sound as he drags his hands down his face. "I'm not having this conversation with you again. We've had it twenty times already." He steps toward me, closing the space between us. "I can't let you do this. If that means fucking up their plans, so be it. I'll take you from them, here and now, and never let you go."

The desperation in his voice makes me believe him. I stop pretending it's not true. He thinks too much like me. He knows me too well to deny it. I need him as an ally, not an adversary. I pull him down the hall by his arm to a spot I'm sure no one else can hear or see us. There are no windows, no rooms, and the hallway dead ends under a big painting of King Henry VIII as a young man.

Marty lifts his brows, waiting for me to speak. He's beyond irritated, and I think he might make good on kidnapping me. I have to talk him down, and the only way to do that is to include him in my plans. But he cares about me. That part is going to make him unbalanced. If Sean were going to do what I'm planning, I'd threaten kidnapping, too. A brick to the brain is safer than my plan.

"Marty, I know you think I'm an idiot, but—"

"No, I don't. I think you're on a mission to annihilate anyone who fucked with you, myself included. I could get behind that, accepting whatever is coming to me, but not at this cost. You're not factoring everything into the equation."

"Yes, I am."

"No, you're not. The question isn't what are you capable of? It's what can you live with if you survive? Say by some freak chance you make it out alive—"

"I won't."

"You don't know that. Anything could happen when you put Black and Vic in a room together. For all you know, it could turn into a three-way or the two of them could feed you to the bear."

That makes me pause. I straighten, blinking too many times. "Vic has a bear?"

"It's white with freaky pink eyes. He likes hearing people scream, Avery. That fucker could do anything, and I mean anything. He has no mercy, and his soul is long gone. I think he was born evil. He likes to tell the story of how he killed his mother, and the things he did with her—with her body and her blood—" his f

ace twists with disgust. "He liked her, Avery. Vic hates you."

There's only one way to leave this hallway that doesn't end with a kidnapping. "Then help me, and I swear to God if you tell anyone about this, I'll make you wish you hadn't."

His eyes are wide and warm, like melted chocolates. "You never need to threaten me. I'll give you anything you ask for, do anything you want. Just say you want my help." He watches me with such intensity that my skin prickles and a shiver works its way up my throat.

I've never had someone pledge allegiance to me before, not like this, not when I wasn't in love with him. Marty knows it, and he's still here. Guilt tries to overtake me, but I take a mental shovel to its head before I feel it. My shed has stuff in it.

Swallowing hard, I say, "I want your help, Marty."


I feel like I made a deal with the devil, and it doesn't sit right with me. I'm missing something, and I can't put my finger on it, but if I don't get the last puzzle piece before tonight, I'm screwed.

I tell Marty my plan and watch his lower eyelid twitch as I explain what I'm willing to do to finish this. He clears his throat and tries not to strangle me. He licks his lips, unclenches his hands, and takes a deep breath. "What makes you think he'll be okay with that?"

"It was okay last time he tried to kill me, so I'm guessing that he's still thinking about it."

Marty's mouth is in a straight line, and his lean arms tuck tightly into the crooks of his arms. I speak so softly, he's forced to lean in close to hear me. I couldn't admit this to Sean. Hell, I can barely admit it to me. Dark ideas hide out in my brain, and they're twisted enough to make Marty uneasy.

That's what I mean, about what I was thinking earlier. I'm Vic's sister, and my father was equally deplorable, albeit a little less crazy than his son. It's a slippery slope, and I'm already on it, sliding down on my backside, ready to hit bottom.

Marty lifts a hand to his jaw. It keeps the fist shape, and he holds it under his jaw, staring into space as he thinks. "It's better than I expected, but there are a few things you can do to tighten it up. I'll make sure Sean stays away, but you're on your own if this goes to Hell. If it doesn't, living with that is going to be—"

"If it goes that far off track, I won't have to live with it."


"Marty, I made up my mind. It's not a matter of what I can do. You said it yourself. The heart of the matter is what can I live with. This plan is so far outside of who I am and who I want to be that it sickens me. If I can't think about it now, how am I supposed to deal with it later?" My arms fold over my chest, and I grind my jaw. I tip back my head and stare at the ceiling, cocking my head to the side. My expression shifts as my eyes discover something I hadn't yet noticed.

Marty follows my gaze. "Wow."

"Tell me about it." My upper lip curls into a WTF expression.