“Hey, Grayson,” I say and without further preamble, I add, “I know you two need to talk. I’ll go upstairs.”

“We’ll step into my office,” Eric replies. “You stay here if you like. We won’t be long.”

They won’t be long. Eric doesn’t want to talk to Grayson anymore than he does me. I nod and the two men cross the living room and enter the office, the same office where Eric had cursed out Smith for leaving the door unguarded. I wonder who is at the door now. I wonder what it would be like to live without this kind of drama, without the Kingston imprint on our lives. I watch Eric and Grayson disappear into the room and shut themselves away. Once I’m fully alone, I pour a splash more of whiskey into my glass and down it, choking with the burn that slides along my throat.

Once I arrive at Eric’s bedroom, I pause at the doorway to stare at the massive bed, his bed. The bed he wants me to share with him again tonight. I’m so deeply entrenched in this man’s life and he in mine, that there’s no turning back. Whatever comes next, no matter how good or bad, it’s in motion. I inhale with the odd sense of foreboding that follows, rejecting it entirely. I’m here with Eric. He’s got men protecting my mother. We’re okay. We will stay okay.

Entering the room, I sit down on the chair in front of the window, staring forward without really seeing what’s beyond the glass. Eric’s voice lifts through the vent on the floor by the wall. “The bearded man gave her this,” I hear him say, and I assume that Eric’s now handing Grayson the card. “We received a similar message in Denver.”

“From who?” Grayson asks. “The bearded man? He was there, too?”

“A different man. He parked in front of her house. When I approached him, he drove away and threw a message out of his window.”

“Numbers and letters,” Grayson says. “It reads like a message to you but this message seemed to target her. Was the other one the same?”

“Same format, different letters and numbers.”

I stand up. I shouldn’t be listening. I need to just leave the room, but then Grayson says, “What do they mean?” And that question plants my feet.

“Yes,” I whisper. “What do they mean to you, Eric?”

“I haven’t figured out the first one,” Eric replies to Grayson. “But this one, the one Harper was handed at the hospital. This one is personal.”

“Explain,” Grayson presses and I hold my breath, waiting for what comes next, my stomach in knots.

“It translates to a saying we had in the SEALs. If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying. It means to win, you have to break the rules.”

Grayson’s silent for several beats and I imagine him studying Eric, before he says, “And you think that means someone knows what rules you were going to break with Kingston.”

“Don’t you?” Eric challenges. “It’s a fucking threat. They want me to do something for them, pay them off in some way, or they’ll tell Harper.”

“Then you tell Harper. That’s why I came here. You have to tell her.”

“Tell her I betrayed her? Tell her I lied to her? Hell no. That’s not happening.”

“We both know it’s not that simple. Explain it to her but tell her. Before someone else tells her.”

Not because he loves me, I think. Not because he trusts me. Because someone else might tell me. Because someone else knows. This reasoning guts me more than the secret, the lie, that is obviously between me and Eric.

“She’ll walk away,” Eric bites out, his voice low, rough, guttural, “and I can’t, I cannot, let her walk away.”

And I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe and my heart is beating so fast that I feel like I’m going to pass out. The voices go silent, or my heartbeat blasts over them, I don’t know which. I don’t even remember the moment that I exit the bedroom. I don’t remember the walk down the stairs. I’m just standing at the office door. I open it and Eric and Grayson turn to me.

“I was upstairs. I heard you talking. I wasn’t trying to, but—” I turn to Eric. “Tell me. Tell me everything. Is nothing between us real? Is this all a lie? Why can’t you afford to let me walk away, Eric? What is this really all about?”


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