Black Wings & Stolen Things: Chapter 25

RIONACH

“Okay, let me get this straight. You just left?” Ophelia asks from the other side of the park bench for the third time since we sat down. “Alone?”

I wave the black leather leash in my left hand at her and gesture at the on-alert dog sitting in front of my legs. “Clearly I’m not alone.”

Lia gapes at me. “The dog does not count, Rio, and you know it.”

“Why not?” I ask, taking a sip of the coffee we’d grabbed before making our way to this park. “Emeric himself said Cerberus is highly trained.”

“Rio!” my friend scolds, an aghast look on her pretty face. “I really don’t think you’re grasping the full magnitude of the man you’re now married to. A dog, even if he’s as trained as you say, does not offer you the kind of protection you now require as his wife.” Lia’s head shakes in disbelief. “God, you’re in so much deep shit. Not only did you go against Emeric Banes’s orders and leave, but you also kidnapped his dog.”

“I didn’t kidnap Cerberus, I simply borrowed him,” I argue, patting the Doberman’s big head.

What I’m doing is foolish, I can admit that, but I’m not a complete idiot. I brought the dog as a safeguard, just in case Emeric’s seemingly paranoid rationale proves correct. It’s not like I plan on gallivanting around the city all day. I just wanted to see my friend and have a moment outside of the Emeric bubble.

Not to mention I warned him two weeks ago what would happen if he tried to keep me locked up. If anything, my escape is his fault. He wrongly underestimated me when he thought I couldn’t figure a way out of his cage.

“Do you worst, Rionach. I would love to see what you have up your sleeve.” This is what he told me with that goddamn arrogant smirk on his face. Well, buddy, I did my worst and now I’m free.

I’m aware I’m going to be walking into a shitstorm when I go back, but I felt like I was going crazy locked up in there.

When I woke up alone, again, and later heard Emeric locked away in his home gym with Nova, I said “fuck it” and decided to go through with the half-baked—and anger-fueled—plan I’d come up with yesterday when I was waiting for him to come. The perfect rectangle shape in the back pocket of Anneli’s light brown and tight pants told me exactly where she kept her key card this morning. A simple maneuver in the kitchen that involved accidentally spilling a cup of orange juice gave me the opportunity to put my self-taught pickpocketing skills to use and swipe the card from her. With it safely hidden in my bra, I went upstairs to grab my long camel-colored coat and the dog leash I’d saw hanging in the laundry room above Cerberus’s food bowls.

After that, it was just a matter of waiting for Anneli to move to another part of the house so I could walk past the kitchen and into the elevator. With my head down and Cerberus at my side, I breezed through the immaculate and fancy-as-hell lobby of the skyscraper.

A thrill settled in my tummy when I breathed in the crisp morning air and headed in the direction of the pole dancing studio Ophelia teaches at a couple of times a week. I know she teaches early morning classes on Fridays, and I sent up a little prayer to whoever might be listening that she’d still be there by the time I walked my butt ten blocks.

I all but did a happy dance when I got to Twirl & Tease Dance Studio and saw her demonstrating a complicated move to her small class.

Lia’s poor jaw nearly hit the polished wood floor of the studio when I walked in.

“You married him?” she’d screeched at me the second her last student left. “You’re Emeric Bane’s wife? What the hell happened, Rio?”

I was confused about how she had already known about the teeny-tiny changes in my life, when I’d remembered the announcement Emeric had put out. Anybody who is anybody knows about the change of my last name.

After helping her lock up the studio, we’d walked to our favorite coffee shop down the road before we made it to this park bench.

Lia sighs while running a hand through her dark hair before pushing it over her shoulder. “I just think you’re playing with fire by making Emeric mad.” An incredulous look settles on her face. “We’ve all heard the story about how he is, and after what you told me happened at your wedding… I just don’t want you to get hurt, Rio.”

As if it’s second nature, I instantly and without so much as a single thought, tell her, “Emeric isn’t going to hurt me.” At least not in a way I don’t find enjoyable.

Something settles in my soul when I realize I truly believe what I’ve just said. Even if he’s going to be big mad when I get home, I know in my core I’m safe with Emeric. How many people can say that?

“I still don’t know…” She shakes her head. “You know the guy who shot him on New Year’s?”

It doesn’t surprise me that Ophelia knows about that. I’m sure everyone that witnessed it ran off and told their friends. Gossip spreads faster than wildfire in our communities.

“Of course I do. I was standing right there when the gun went off.”

Lia’s nose wrinkles. “Apparently Emeric sent a fruit bouquet stuffed full of the gunman’s fingers back home to his boss and family.”

I don’t know what the appropriate reaction should be to hearing something like this, but I’m going to assume by the horrified expression on Ophelia’s face that busting out laughing isn’t it.

“Rio!”

“What?” I ask, choking back another fit of laughter. “All these dumb fucking men keep going after Emeric, thinking they will somehow get the better of him, and then everyone is surprised when he chops off their body parts.” Looking at you, Dad and Tiernan. “What did they expect? They fucked around and they found out the hard way. Emeric has been on top for over a decade for a reason. I just don’t understand why people are still desperate enough to try.”

Lia’s dark brown eyes widen as she stares at me like she doesn’t know me.

I don’t like that look. It’s the same look my dad and grandfather gave me the other day at the pub. My first instinct is to shove my painstakingly crafted mask on, but I don’t want to do that anymore because I don’t have to. Being married to Emeric means I don’t have to hide who I am. Not anymore.

What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Her narrow but strong shoulders rise. “I’m just shocked to hear you defending him like that after he’s⁠—”

“All he’s done is protect the empire he’s fought hard to build. People are fully aware of the kind of man they’re going up against and they continue to challenge him. It’s not Emeric’s fault people never seem to learn.”

My dad’s antics that night at the pub is proof of it.

“I was going to say after he’s forced you to marry him.”

Despite my anger at him for dragging his feet on getting me a bodyguard so I can freely come and go as I please, my time so far as Emeric’s wife hasn’t been awful. From the outside looking in, that might make me sound like I’m cuckoo bananas crazy, but for me the past two weeks have given me the gift of just… being. I get to exist. I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not, and I don’t have to walk around his home on eggshells like I did at my childhood home.

I was to be seen and never heard. Until him.

My soul is now free.

Lifting my chin, I tell my closest friend the God’s honest truth. “I don’t hate him, Lia. Emeric is violent and erratic, but he doesn’t scare me. Not like he scares everyone else. What does scare me is the fact that if I let myself, I think I could one day love him.” And then where do I go from there?

Ophelia wraps her slightly callused fingers around my wrist since my iced coffee is still in my hand. “Trust me when I tell you I understand—maybe better than anyone—what you’re feeling right now. Banes men have a way of crawling under your skin and then into your heart, and no matter how hard you try to move on, they’re just stuck in there.”

It’s my turn to stare at her like I don’t know her.

“You have a past with a Banes?” I feel my stomach flip violently when I remember the way she knew her way around Tartarus so well. “You and Emeric…”

Her face falls and her hand grips me tighter. “Oh, God no! No, not him.” She looks away and releases another long sigh. “I never told you because it was never relevant and it was so far in my past, but I have a little bit of history with the Banes family. When we lived in Seattle, I was neighbors with Astor Banes and his son Callan. You remember Bash, my older brother? He was best friends with Callan in middle and part of high school, so I spent my fair share of time around him.”

I gape at my friend. “This definitely feels like something that should have come up before now.”

She lifts a shoulder. “Like I said, it was ancient history and when we moved here, we lost all contact.” Lia gives me a small smile. “Come on, don’t fault me too hard for this. It’s not like you’ve told me about every friend you had in your awkward teen years.”

I give my stunningly beautiful friend a dubious look.

“Don’t lie to me. You never had an awkward phase in your life.” Ophelia is the perfect combination of her French-born father and her Filipino mother. I’ve met her mom, Salome, a couple of times and not only is she an amazing nonprofit director, but she’s also gorgeous. Her brother, Bash, was also blessed with good looks. When I met him, he was wearing his Marine Corps uniform and as they say, there’s just something about a man in a uniform.

“I had braces in middle school.”

“Shut up. We all had braces in middle school.” I wave her off just as a thought occurs to me. “But, hey! Wait a minute! I know for a fact Callan is here in New York now.”

Last week, Emeric mentioned his nephew does accounting for the family business now when he got home late from a meeting he had with him. “Have you seen him yet?”

The tips of Lia’s high cheekbones turn bright red.

“Aha! It would appear it is not as far in the past as you say it is. Now spill.”

I know Emeric’s going to be mad, but it’ll be worth it. I needed this time away, and more than anything, I needed to talk to someone outside of his household. I needed my friend.


IT WASN’T long after we’d finished our coffees that Ophelia had to leave to meet a friend of hers who attends Julliard. Apparently, the poor girl’s father has been ill for a while and it’s looking like she’s going to have to return home so she can be closer to him.

With the treatment I’ve received from my own father, I can’t imagine packing everything up and moving across the country so I could be with him. After the way he talked about me and called me a “broken-in whore”, I don’t think I’d care how sick he was, I wouldn’t be lifting so much as a finger. I don’t want to help him and having him play an active role in my life is now out of the question, but Emeric was right when he said I wasn’t ready to watch my father die. In my heart, I know that if he keeps pushing Emeric, that’s how he’s going to end up. I also know there is nothing I can do to stop him from going further down the path he’s created. Dad’s digging his own grave and he’s too stubborn to see that the dirt is already up to his neck.

Cerberus’s attention locks on a fluffy white dog that’s yipping at him from across the quiet street. The leather leash goes taut in my hands when the black dog connected to it lunges.

Nein!” I don’t know how to say leave it in German, but simply telling him no seems to have done the trick since he’s now back to walking calmly. “Good dog.”’

When I left the park Ophelia and I had been sitting in, I chose to take the longer route home. The weather has finally decided to act like it’s spring and not winter, and I’m enjoying the blue sky peeking through the clouds and the absence of the bitter chill in the fresh air. Well, as fresh as city air can get. This way will only add about fifteen minutes to my walk, so it’s not as if I’m deviating too far from my original plan of heading straight home after visiting with Lia. The sidewalks aren’t as busy with morning commuters heading to work or classes. It’s quieter. It gives me some time to come up with what I’m going to tell Emeric when I see him.

If reason and rationality don’t work in my favor, I can always pull out the big guns. Distract him with sex. “I was a very bad girl. Please don’t punish me too hard.” With a couple bats of my eyelashes and a little pout on my lip, I’m sure I can have him forgiving me in no time. And depending on what my punishment could be, I might find I thoroughly enjoy it. If that’s the case, then it’s a win-win for both of us.

Completely lost in thought over the possible punishments lying ahead me, I don’t hear the dark van skidding around the street corner until it comes to a violent and crashing stop at the curb next to me. The windows are so deeply tinted I can’t see who’s inside or how many there are. Cerberus’s hackles rise and a deep growl I’ve never heard from him rips through his throat as the van’s back door rapidly slides open. Three men wearing balaclavas surge from the vehicle and barrel toward me. They’re dressed in head-to-toe black with no distinguishing markers that can tell me who they work for, but there are two very strong possibilities for who could have sent them. Or one if Dad’s men and Igor’s crew are continuing with their alliance and working together.

Cerberus lunges at the same time I drop his leash. I don’t see which of the men he grabbed but I do hear the scream of pain when I turn. The only thing I can think as I try to sprint away from the masked men is that Emeric was right about it not being safe. I was arrogant. And I was dumb to believe leaving without him was a good idea. No, let me reword that. I always knew that it was stupid to leave protection, but I simply wanted to do it anyway.

Your recklessness really did it this time, Rio.

I silently thank my past self for choosing to wear my white leather tennis shoes over the pair of heeled boots I’d originally pulled out. The soles of my shoes pound into the pavement as the sound of two additional—much heavier and faster—pairs of footsteps gain on me.

My mouth opens with the intention of screaming for help. At the same time, a strong arm grabs me and encircles my waist. My body is lifted from the ground as a leather-gloved hand slams down on my face and muffles the shrill scream currently trying to slice through my throat.

Oh God, Oh God, Oh God.

I kick, thrash, and fight the man with all my strength but when his teammate appears at his side and they hold me between them in vise-like grips, there’s nothing I can do. The three hands on my body keep me still and the hand over my mouth keeps me silent.

Fear like I’ve never experienced cascades through my bloodstream like a noxious cloud and when it ceases my lungs, it chokes me. In the face of genuine fear, I’m not humming with the addictive adrenaline I’ve come to love and crave, instead I feel like I’m suffocating.

I know what’s happened has occurred in the span of thirty seconds, but it already feels like it’s been minutes. My bleary eyes search my surroundings, hoping that someone will walk by and see what’s happening here. The only other figure I can find is the man standing by the open van door with a blooded hand cradled to his chest. It’s Cerberus’s handwork, but my beloved dog is nowhere to be seen.

This has a newfound wave of strength pulsing through me. As hard as I can, I sink my blunt teeth into the meaty part of the hand covering my mouth. My attacker hollers and drops me, which causes his companion to fumble and lose his grip on me. I stumble to my feet and waste no time bringing my knee into the closest one’s junk. It just so happens to be the one I didn’t already bite, so now I’ve got both of them whimpering in pain. Good.

I’ve turned only a quarter of the way to face the one who isn’t currently nursing his ball sack with, when the telltale sound of a gun cocking echoes in my eardrums. The cold, hard metal of the barrel pushes into the base of my skull. This time, I freeze and don’t fight.

“We were warned you might be a feisty one.” The man with the gun chuckles darkly behind me.

I swallow hard and set my jaw as I force my mask of indifference to fall into place. Allowing these men to see that I’m scared isn’t an option. I would rather lick a subway bench seat than give them that satisfaction. There’s a very strong likelihood they’re employed by the psychopath Bogdan Koslov and if they’re anything like the Russian, they’ll probably get off on my tears and screams.

No, I have to keep it together for as long as it will take Emeric to find me because I know in my gut he will come for me. He’s said on numerous occasions he protects what is his—and I am Emeric’s.

A hand grabs my shoulder and forces me to spin around to face the open door of the black van. My heart soars when I spot Cerberus already sitting in the back in a wire crate with a muzzle strapped to his face. He’s pissed and growling, but he isn’t hurt, which is all I care about. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I got him hurt by bringing him along on my little adventure this morning.

So fucking stupid, Rio. You’re. So. Fucking. Stupid.

The men behind me take advantage of me having my back to them and they yank my arms backward. Cold metal handcuffs encircle my wrists. The clicking sound of them locking has me fighting a flinch.

“You can either climb in yourself, or I will have my men throw you in,” the one with the gun tells me. The free hand hanging at his side drips blood onto the sidewalk every few seconds. My dog got him good.

Not bothering or willing to dignify him with an answer, I glare at him and step into the large vehicle. I’ve no sooner taken a seat next to the large cage when someone forces a black bag over my head. On our wedding night, Emeric bound my hands and blindfolded me too, but right now, the vulnerability I experienced that night pales in comparison to this.

“Sit tight,” someone says, sounding irksomely pleased with himself. “It’ll take us a little more than an hour to reach our destination.”

An hour? My parents’ estate is nearly an hour away from the city. Is that where they’re taking me? It would be really unwise to take me there because that is one of the first places Emeric is going to look, but then again, we’re talking about my brother and father. Their planning skills as of late have been less than stellar.

I could have just stayed in bed this morning and slept in, or I could have snuggled up under a blanket and watched a movie. Instead, I just had to prove Emeric wrong and defy him.

What was I thinking?

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