One minute before I lost her…
A hotel room. That’s where I was leaving Cora.
A fucking hotel room with shitty commercial carpet that made my skin crawl. Sure, it was a nice place with full-time security, and I’d made sure we were on the top floor, but the idea of leaving her in a goddamn hotel room had turned my blood to sludge.
It was the only way. I needed her out of that apartment building for a night—and then forever.
I stared at the side of her face, her lips parted in slumber, and committed each and every curve to memory. Her smooth skin, her long lashes, even that tiny mole below her lip.
All of it was mine.
She was mine.
And in order to save her, I had to let her go.
I could give her the money. I had enough. But as long as the Guerrero brothers were still sharing the Earth’s oxygen, she’d never be free.
They would find her, manipulate her, punish her, and I had not one doubt they would ultimately kill her.
And while I was out exacting revenge for a woman I’d loved but hadn’t been able to save, the cycle would repeat itself.
We all had choices in life.
I could have stayed.
I could have kept Cora.
I could have taken her and River away, put them up in a fancy house with private security, but they’d always be looking over their shoulders.
That wasn’t freedom. That was moving them from one prison to another.
And it would have solved nothing.
Thomas Lyons, the very man who had ordered my wife’s death, was a part of Cora’s world. From what I could tell, she was helping his wife, Catalina, and his daughter, Isabel, hide from him. One day, he’d find out and come after Cora too.
My worlds had officially bled together, and Thomas, the city’s beloved district attorney with the perfect record, was the source of the wound.
So, at the end of the day, I had no choice at all.
The only thing I could do was keep the blood off her hands.
Even if that meant stabbing myself in the heart and disappearing from her life altogether.
She’d be okay.
She’d recover, move on, make a life of her own.
I wouldn’t. Not ever. But I’d at least be able to rest at night, knowing she was safely sleeping under the stars.
One in. One out.
I closed my eyes, pressed a kiss to her forehead, and then filled my lungs with all things Cora Guerrero.
Her kind heart.
Her selfless nature.
The way she loved.
The way she gave.
The way she’d brought me back to life.
“Truth,” I whispered against her temple. “I love you.”
She didn’t budge as I crawled out of bed.
She didn’t budge as I waged war with my body in order to force my legs to carry me away from her.
And she didn’t budge when the flames of hell finally devoured me as I stepped into the hall and silently pulled the door shut.
“You ready?” Drew asked.
I’d texted him the minute her breathing had evened out. Though I’d probably kept him waiting longer than I should have.
I ground my teeth to cover the emotion. “Swear to me you will take care of her.”
His fierce, brown eyes locked on my blues. “Swear to me you will kill those motherfuckers and then come back alive.”
I extended a hand in his direction. “Done.”
He grinned, clapping his hand with mine. “Then you have my word.”
We started toward the elevator on the same foot, my entire body screaming as I left her there. I had known that it was wrong the minute I’d decided to do it. But my back was against the wall.
“I don’t feel right about letting her think I was stealing the money,” I told him.
His hand snaked out, catching my bicep, stopping me mid-step. “You have to do that. Do you hear me? You are not another man she needs to spend thirteen years pining after. You get her money, put it in your toolbox, and make it look like Dante and Marcos just happened to show up as you were taking off with it.”
“She won’t believe that, Drew. She’s gonna see straight through this.”
He stepped in front of me, his eyebrows furrowed, and stabbed a finger in my chest. “Then make her believe it. I’ll help on my end, planting that seed as best I can if she doesn’t jump to the conclusion on her own, but I’m not about to spend the next six months consoling a woman who thinks her poor, sweet boyfriend was torched while trying to protect her honor. She will not recover from that, Penn. She will spend the rest of her life blaming herself for getting an innocent man killed and you know it.” He poked at my chest, punctuating every sentence. “Be the bad guy. Take the fall. Let her get pissed. Break her fucking heart. And help her let you go.”
The problem was I didn’t want her to let me go. But I couldn’t take her with me. For a myriad of reasons, I needed to put as much distance as I could between Cora Guerrero and Thomas Lyons. The biggest being that, if and when my true identity was linked to Penn Walker, she would be either his next target or a suspect in his murder. So far, I—Shane Pennington—was free and clear. Those hundreds of thousands of dollars I’d spent buying a new identity had paid off. For her sake, I needed to keep it that way. But I couldn’t leave until I was positive she was as far removed from this entire clusterfuck as I could get her.
Or, as it turned out, as far away as Drew could get her.
I clipped him with my shoulder as I marched past him to the elevator and then jabbed the button.
Drew wasn’t done with his lecture yet. “I swear to God, if you try to stray from the plan, I will find you and kill you myself. You are not the good guy anymore. She is going to be a wreck when you die either way, but hating you will be easier. She knows how to deal with shit situations, Penn.”
“But that’s just it. That’s all she’s ever been given. Shit, shit, and more shit. And, now, I’m adding to that shit.”
Suddenly, he was in my face. “I’m not going to be there to save your ass if this goes south. You get the money, put it in your toolbox, and then you leave it on the seat of the truck. The cops shouldn’t search it since it’s in my name, but if they do, I’ll produce the bank records where Shane Pennington gave his best friend who just got out of jail a loan. Cora won’t have to know about that. And if she finds out, I’ll lie and say my money burned up in the fire. We have thought out every possible angle to put her at the least amount of risk. Do not go off script now. This is not one of those times you can play loose. You gotta stop obsessing over the shit you can’t change and focus on actually surviving this bullshit. Taking down not one, but two Guerreros is not going to be easy.”
My bones ached like they were being snapped in two. “I promise you it’ll be easier than leaving her.”
“Probably. But I’d prefer to hear you crying about a woman any day of the week over putting you in the ground. So I’ll repeat: Focus. There is plenty of time to cry into your cornflakes later.”
I shot him a scowl, but the levity did start to ease the pressure in my chest. “Right.”
“Now. Are you sure I can’t go with you? I’ve been jonesing to throw a match at Dante’s feet for quite a while.”
The elevator dinged. “No. You stay with her. If something really happens to me…you—”
He gave my shoulder a squeeze. “I got it. One million, one hundred, a fuck-ton of other numbers, and ninety-nine cents.”
Holding his gaze, I swallowed hard, a mountain of unspoken words dividing us. Drew had been my best friend for seventeen years. He’d become my family when I’d married his sister. And when we’d lost her, he’d become my partner in a quest for vengeance.
And, right then, there was a very solid chance that I wasn’t leaving just Cora that night.
“Don’t you dare. You get your ass out of here. Do your thing. We’ll have a beer and catch up in a few months when this is all said and done, yeah?”
“Yeah,” I whispered.
“Now, go. Get out of here before you get all emotional and your dick falls off. You just recently got it back. I’d hate to see you lose it again.”
I barked a laugh. Goddamn it. He was a good man.
With one last tip of my chin, I walked into the elevator and stared at the floor as the doors slid shut.
On the way down to the first floor, a lot of things happened:
My mind cleared.
My resolve clicked back into place.
And that all-too-familiar numbness washed back over me.
Penn Walker climbed onto the elevator that night, but when the doors opened at the bottom, Shane Pennington walked out focused, determined, and fueled by more pain than ever before.
The problem was, only a few hours later, I realized they were both irrevocably in love with Cora Guerrero.