Dark Tribute – Iris Johansen

The white lace gown Cara Delaney was wearing tonight was all wrong, John Svardak thought. But it should be fine once it was soaked with blood. He slowly crushed the program in his hand as he gazed down from his box seat at the young violinist onstage. Cara Delaney had the audience in the palm of her hand. Or perhaps that wasn’t quite the term those tone-deaf critics would use to refer to her. Since they were calling her the most brilliant violinist to come along since Yehudi Menuhin, they’d probably say that it was that magic bow that was holding those fools in the audience captive. Why couldn’t they see that she was nothing? he thought angrily. They had no idea what true artistry was about. She stood there with her long dark hair and olive skin dressed in that white lace gown that made her look like a young Juliet and let the music pour out of her to touch everyone in the audience. She was all passion and reaching out and becoming one with the entire world. It was disgusting. There should be control, the musician should stand above and superior when dispensing the perfection of their gifts as Anna had done. Cara Delaney looked as if she wasn’t aware there was anything but the music itself. She was truly unworthy of all that adulation. And he had clearly been right to mark her for destruction.

But her music was disturbing him and he had to close it out. It was too wrong. It made him feel things that he must not feel, things Anna had told him were stupid and only there because he didn’t concentrate properly. It would be a betrayal. Ignore Cara Delaney. He had come to see her because he’d had to be certain that she was all they’d said she was. He must not call attention to himself by getting up and leaving the concert, but there would be no betrayal if he spent this time planning for the destruction to come. He pulled out his notebook and flipped it open to the Delaney page. It had been a foregone conclusion that she would be the chosen one, and he’d already done the research. But the research had been based on her travel plans to return straight to New York from Charlotte.

She would have been easy enough to take on the way to the airport or after she’d arrived at her apartment in New York. But she’d made an unexpected change of plans yesterday, and now he’d have to adjust accordingly. She was taking a flight to Atlanta, and that could be a problem. She had family there, and he’d found family was always trouble. They cared too much, and twice before, he’d nearly missed the kill because of family interference. It must not happen this time. He looked down at the report he’d pulled up on Cara Delany’s background. She’d probably go to the lake cottage where she’d spent much of her time since Eve Duncan and Joe Quinn had taken over her guardianship when she was only eleven. That shouldn’t be difficult to overcome. Eve Duncan was one of the foremost forensic sculptors in the world, but she enjoyed the isolation of the lake cottage.

And so would Svardak: isolation was always helpful to his purpose. An artist like Duncan should not offer any challenge at all. Joe Quinn, her husband, might be another matter. An ex-SEAL, ex-FBI, now a detective with the ATLPD, he might have to be dealt with in a special way. Perhaps use the couple’s young son? But he mustn’t be in a hurry to make any decisions. He’d already made the preparations, and only the final moves were left to complete. It would come to him. It always came to him. Anna would tell him the best way to rid the world of Cara Delaney. Excitement was beginning to tingle through him.

This was the challenge for which he’d been waiting. This was the test to prove that those other clumsy artists he’d taken as tribute before that young woman on that stage had merely been a rehearsal. Listening to her tonight had confirmed what he’d known was true. She was everything that Anna would hate. That meant she was perfect for the kill. And obviously destined to be his final triumph. CHAPTER 1 “Cara’s coming!” Michael pressed the disconnect on his cell as he ran into the living room and plopped down on the couch beside Eve. “Her final concert is in Charlotte, North Carolina, tonight. She’ll be here in Atlanta tomorrow night, but she won’t be able to come home until day after tomorrow. She has to be at some fancy party in Buckhead for a benefit.

She says it has something to do with a fund-raiser for St. Jude Hospital.” He leaned back and stretched his legs out before him. “But she says we’ve got her for the next week … if we want her.” He smiled mischievously. “I told her we’d talk it over and get back to her. What do you say, Mom?” “I want to know what she said.” Eve ruffled his chestnut-colored hair. “Did she put you in your place, young man? You nag her constantly to get her agent to stage her violin concerts as close to Atlanta as she can manage so that she can come home. And then you give her grief when she does?” “Well, someone has to give her grief.

” Michael gave her a sly glance as he nestled his head on her shoulder. “Just teasing. Teasing is fun, right?” “If you say so. It depends on whom you ask.” But she knew that Michael was all joy and humor and very special in every way. She had known that from the moment he was born ten years ago and was even more aware of it now. “But Cara hasn’t been around much for the last year. She might have forgotten what a brat you can be.” “She thinks I’m perfect,” he said solemnly. “Most of the time.

” His amber-colored eyes were suddenly twinkling. “You’re the only one who thinks I’m a brat.” “Because lately you’ve started trying to manipulate me.” She looked him in the eye. “Haven’t you, Michael?” He hesitated. “Manipulate?” he repeated. “A big word for a very devious act,” she said. She’d been bracing herself for the past few days, and she might as well get the confrontation over. No matter that his actions were motivated purely by affection, it was her job as his mother to monitor and guide those actions. “And stop pretending you have no idea what it means.

You probably have a bigger vocabulary than I do these days. Answer me.” “I wasn’t pretending. That would be a lie. I never lie to you. I just had to think what to say.” “The truth. You’ve been trying to manipulate me?” He didn’t speak for a moment. “Yes. How did you know?” “Oh, you’ve been very clever.

Sometimes even subtle. Asking for help with your homework. You never need help with your homework. Persuading your dad and me to go on walks every evening. Bringing in Cara’s CDs for me to listen to with you after supper.” She paused. “Anything and everything to keep me from working on that reconstruction. Why, Michael?” He was silent. Then he sighed and gave up. “You’ve been working too hard this month.

You just got over the flu.” His gaze went to the skull of the young boy on the dais of her worktable across the room. “It won’t hurt you to take your time doing that reconstruction. Dennis wouldn’t mind. He’s probably a good guy.” He wasn’t joking. From the first time he’d become aware of those skulls that appeared on her worktable when he was a toddler, he’d always treated them with gentleness and respect. He’d even given a few of them names just as Eve always did in order to better connect with them as human beings, not just as victims. “That’s my decision, Michael. You’re my son, not my guardian.

” She smiled. “And you’re only ten years old. Put a few more years under your belt before you decide you’re in charge of this family.” “Years don’t really matter,” he said absently. “You just have to make up your mind what’s important and do it. Of course, people seem to object to letting you do what’s right until you reach a certain age. But most of the time you don’t, Mom.” “But what you think is right isn’t always that,” she said gently. “There’s such a thing as free will.” “Yes.

” He was frowning. “But you were working too hard. I didn’t want you sick again. You’re never sick. It scared me.” “Did it?” She pulled him closer. Of course it had scared him. That bout of flu had come out of nowhere and attacked her like a nuclear bomb. She had come very close to pneumonia. It had taken her almost a month to get over it, and she’d been aware how upset he’d been.

The bond between them was even closer than between most mothers and sons. Sometimes it seemed as if they could read each other’s thoughts. “Then talk to me about it. Don’t try to manipulate me.” “It seemed the easiest way.” He was still frowning. “I’ve been finding it works with other people.” And Michael was so clever, so innovative, that it would be simple for him to manipulate and manage the people around him. His understanding was far beyond his actual age, and she sometimes felt as if she were dealing with a college student. But she had noticed that as he grew older, that particular skill was constantly growing.

If he didn’t have such a good heart, it could be a very dangerous talent. “I’m sure it does work, and only you can decide if it’s the right thing to do. I can only tell you it’s wrong when you use it with family and people you love. It might make them not trust you.” “Then I won’t do it,” he said immediately. “Not if you say I shouldn’t.” He paused. “Does that mean I have to call Cara back and tell her not to come?” “What?” She frowned. “Why should you?” “I wanted her to come home. I knew that you’d spend most of the week with her and not work.

” He added simply, “So I fixed it.” “Fixed it?” Her eyes widened. “You didn’t tell her I’d been ill? I deliberately kept that from her so she wouldn’t worry. And I told you not to say a word when you talked to her.” “And I didn’t tell her.” He was genuinely upset. “I wouldn’t do that if you didn’t want me to.” “Then exactly how did you ‘fix it’?” “I told her that Jock was going to be here this weekend.” His luminous smile lit his face. “I knew that would bring her.

She doesn’t get a chance to see him very much when she’s on tour.” Eve stared at him in shock. “Yes, that would bring her.” But she hadn’t realized that Michael would know that. The relationship between Cara and Jock Gavin had been ongoing since Cara had been only a little older than Michael’s age and Jock had saved her life. It had been one of those strange, rare attachments that perhaps comes along once in a lifetime. The child who had been friendless and on the run most of her life. The young man who had fought his way from the depths of guilt and despair and was probably still fighting. Through the years, they had been best friends, almost brother and sister, and yet lately Eve had become aware something … deeper had emerged. “But he’s not going to be here.

He’s still in Scotland. I haven’t heard anything from him. I can’t believe you would lie!” He shook his head. “He’ll be in Atlanta. He promised to bring me that family kilt that MacDuff said I could use for the show-and-tell exhibit next week. And he said that he’d bring along all the family historical stuff with it so that I could have a complete presentation. But he said that it was priceless to the MacDuff family so he’d have to be here to keep his eye on it.” He beamed at her. “But it’s nice of him, isn’t it?” “More than nice. Extraordinary.

And why didn’t I hear about this show-and-tell?” He looked at the Dennis reconstruction. “You were busy.” “Are you trying to give me a guilt trip?” she asked sternly. He smiled innocently. “Maybe. Is it working?” “It is not.” She pushed him away from her. “And since when have you gotten so chummy with Jock Gavin? He’s not been around much in the past few years.” “I like him. Lord MacDuff might be the one everyone makes a big fuss over, but Jock is cool.

” “Yes, he is.” Jock was Lord MacDuff’s best friend and not only ran MacDuff’s Run but also handled all of MacDuff’s investments, which Jock had built into a large fortune. He was totally brilliant and had a history more dark and complicated than she wanted to explain to Michael at the moment. “But how did you get to know him well enough to decide that he was cool enough for you to approach about borrowing a MacDuff family heirloom?” “Well, Cara liked him. I knew I’d probably like him, too. So I started phoning him whenever I felt like talking about Cara or to ask him questions about Scotland or that loch you said we liked when I was a little kid.” “You did like it.” She had spent months in Scotland when she was pregnant with Michael and later had taken him to Loch Gaelkar when she and Joe had been married. The loch was a magical place of mist and legends, and it had not surprised her that he’d felt at home there. But then she had never seen a place where Michael wasn’t at home.

He seemed to have an affinity for everything that had to do with nature and life itself. “You could have asked me about it.” “I wanted to ask Jock. It was kind of neat having him explain everything in that Scottish accent.” His smile widened. “He laughs when I try to imitate him. And I think he knows lots of other things that he didn’t tell me. Maybe he will someday.” He added gravely, “I didn’t bother him, Mom. I think he liked to talk about Cara.

” She didn’t doubt it. She’d been aware Jock had been keeping his distance from Cara during these last years when she’d been completing her studies and starting to launch her career, but she didn’t believe he would ever allow himself to totally lose touch. And it was possible Jock had also been caught up in the spell Michael managed to weave over everyone with whom he came in contact. “But you didn’t tell me you were talking to him. Why?” “I would have told you if you’d asked me.” “You’re quibbling.” He nodded. “Sometimes secrets are fun.” He made a face. “But this is one of those times you think I was using a friend to get what I wanted?” “Isn’t that what you think?” He thought about it.

“I guess I do. It didn’t seem like that when I was doing it. All I thought about was you.” She tried to stifle the melting tenderness she was feeling. “And I appreciate that you were concerned. But you have to think about other people as well.” She made a face. “I’m only grateful you didn’t decide to bring Jane into your machinations, too. I’m surprised you didn’t figure a way to have her cancel her art show in London and come winging home.” Michael smiled and just shook his head.

“Michael?” she said warily. “Jane visited us just three months ago. It was too soon. I would have had to tell her you’d been sick. I couldn’t do that, so it had to be Cara.” But he had thought about it, Eve realized. “I’m surprised that stopped you. Why not bring the entire family?” “I promised you,” he repeated. “But I would have made sure that it didn’t hurt Jane. She would still have been able to make her art show.

A few days wouldn’t have made a difference.” “No, it wouldn’t.” And she knew he would never do anything to harm Jane. He considered Jane MacGuire and Cara Delaney as his sisters and he adored them both. He didn’t understand the difference between blood relations and family members invited by love, and he never would. As for Jane and Cara, they had been his willing slaves since the night he was born. “But it should be her choice. So we’re back at square one, aren’t we?” “Yeah, I guess we are.” He met her eyes. “Do I have to call Cara back?” She sighed.

“No, that would make everything worse.” The relationship between Cara and Jock was delicately balanced enough without bringing Michael’s convoluted maneuverings into the mix. Besides, it had been too long since Cara had been home. Eve had missed her. “Just promise me that this kind of thing won’t happen again.” He was silent. “Michael.” “I promise I’ll try not to make it happen.” His expression was troubled. “Unless I get scared about you or Dad again.

Then I’d have to do anything I need to do. You can see that, can’t you?” “No, I can’t see—” She stopped. She’d been going to be the good mother and tell him rules were rules and there should be no exceptions. But she wouldn’t lie to him. If she was frightened for any of the family, she wouldn’t hesitate to do anything she needed to do to protect them. “I can understand that you’d have a problem. But we discussed persuasion and being honest. Will you promise to tell me first before you do anything else?” “Sure.” He smiled brilliantly. “Does that mean I can persuade you not to work tonight?” She shook her head ruefully.

“No, that doesn’t mean you’ll get your way every time. That’s not how it works.” His smile faded. “Then what good is it if I still have to worry about you? How does it work, Mom?” “We compromise. I might be persuaded to knock off at ten. Take what you can get, kid.” “Right!” He jumped to his feet and tossed a salute to the reconstruction on the dais. “You heard her, Dennis. Ten.” He headed at top speed for the front door.

Had she just been persuaded or manipulated she wondered suddenly. Worry about it later. “Where are you going?” “I’ve got to go down to the driveway and help Dad give the Jeep a tune-up. He said I needed to learn how to do it. It’s going to be fun!” He slammed the porch door behind him, and she heard him running down the porch steps, and calling, “Cara’s coming home, Dad. Maybe we’d better tune the Toyota, too.” “Suits me.” Of course, it did, Eve thought with amusement as she followed him to the front porch. Working on the cars was a favorite pastime for both of them. Joe because it allowed him to work with his hands instead of his mind, Michael because he had a thirst for knowledge that was positively unquenchable.

But perhaps the main attraction was that they could be together and bond. She stood looking down at the driveway, where Joe and Michael were already bending under the hood of the Jeep. So different and yet so much alike. Joe in his jeans and the chambray work shirt he always wore when he worked outside on the property. Tall, muscular, lithe, but with the same brown-red hair and tea-colored eyes as his son. Michael with a child’s gangliness yet brimming with vitality and the sheer joy of living in his khakis, tennis shoes, and Falcons sweatshirt. He was laughing up at Joe and saying something Eve couldn’t hear. She wished she had a photo of this moment to preserve it forever. Michael’s eager expression was glowing with all the love and respect that he felt for his father. Joe was gazing down at him with a half smile that was both understanding and tender.

Another guy moment, she thought. For an instant, she felt a little wistful about that bond between them that she would never be able to share. Joe and Michael were constantly together. Whether it was Joe teaching Michael every skill under the sun, playing different sports, barbecuing, or fixing that darn Jeep. The envy was immediately gone. What was she thinking? She and Joe had their own special places in Michael’s life, and she was grateful for every minute that he gave to him. As even her son had learned, she was something of a workaholic, and Joe’s job as a police detective was equally demanding. Hopefully by sharing the responsibilities, they had managed to give Michael everything he needed. “Want to come down and help?” Joe called up to her. She shook her head.

“Just enjoying watching the two of you slave. I have to get back to work. It seems I have a curfew.” “Curfew?” “Ask your son.” She turned and moved toward the front door. “Be sure you don’t get too involved with that Jeep and skip supper.” “How about you?” Joe asked. “I’ll grab a sandwich now.” She cast one more glance down at the two of them. The setting sun was casting a golden aura around them.

Their chestnut hair looked almost auburn in this light. They were strong and healthy and beautiful … and they belonged to her. Lord, she was lucky. “Curfew?” Joe murmured as he glanced down at Michael. “What have you been up to?” “She said I should use persuasion instead of…” He took a wrench and tightened a nut. “So I did. I wanted her to rest, but all she’d give me was ten o’clock.” “That’s not bad.” Joe leaned on the fender, gazing thoughtfully down at him. “Persuasion instead of what?” He chuckled and held up his hand.

“Never mind. You got busted, didn’t you?” He looked up at Joe. “Did I?” “Michael.” “I only wanted her to rest more. I didn’t like it when she got sick.” “Neither did I.” “I was scared.” “So was I.” He shrugged. “And I also wanted her to rest more after the doctor released her.

But I’ve learned that’s a difficult thing to accomplish with your mom. And it’s something you’ll have to learn for yourself. So I let you go for it. You were doing very well, but you must have gotten a little overconfident.” He nodded gloomily. “She called me manipulative.” He chuckled. “And you are. I’ve noticed it myself in the last year or so. I like to think it’s in the nicest possible way, but Eve would be wary of it.

What tipped your hand?” “Cara.” “What on earth have you been— No, don’t tell me. Eve will go into it later.” “You’re laughing. Mom didn’t think it was funny.” “Because she’s in charge of your immortal soul and is very conscientious about it. Not my responsibility. I believe your soul is doing just fine. There’s nothing wrong with you trying to take care of your mom. I would have done the same if I hadn’t thought you were doing pretty well on your own.

” His smile faded. “Now, if I hear that you behaved in a way that I don’t approve of, it will be a different matter. You realize that, don’t you?” “Yes, sir.” Michael’s lips were twitching. “But I thought you wouldn’t mind as long as it was Mom.” Michael knew very well that Eve was the exception to every rule, Joe thought ruefully. She was the center of their universe. If she had not been that to Michael since the moment of his birth, he would have learned it from watching him. “I do mind because she does. She gave you an alternative for what she considers unacceptable.

She says be persuasive? Then do it. No shenanigans.” He loosened the distributor bolt. “Now hand me that timing light and I’ll show you how to hook it up to the number one cylinder…” “Stop laughing, Joe.” Eve scowled as she looked down at Joe’s grinning face. “Or so help me, I’ll push you out of this bed.” “It’s funny. You have to admit it.” He pulled her down into the curve of his shoulder. “I had no idea Michael was graduating to CIA status.

That plan to make you rest involved a very complicated set of characters and scenarios that relied on what our son has learned about all of us.” “And you’re proud of him? Don’t you dare let him know.” “I’ll try to restrain myself. But what can I say? I’m a police detective, and I have to admire Michael’s technique. It was really very intricate. And involving Jock was a stroke of genius.” He murmured. “He must have been studying the Cara and Jock dynamic for a while.” “Dynamic? You’re talking as if he’s one of those forensic psychologists down at your precinct.” “Am I? Ridiculous, of course.

It’s just interesting.” “He’s a kid,” she said flatly. “And he probably has no idea about any so-called dynamic. I prefer that he doesn’t. I want him to stay a kid for little longer. He’s already shown signs of being too—” “Manipulative?” “He told you? Most kids don’t even know how to spell it, but I think he wrote the book. No way. I want him to forget it. As it is, I’ll have to call Cara and warn her that she’ll have to be on guard if he decides he has a good reason to do anything like this again. Though I did give him a lecture, and I want him to believe I have your support.

” “You always have my support.” His lips brushed her temple. “And you know that Michael would never do anything to really upset you. He’s just getting older, and he’s feeling his way toward independence.” “Independence? He’s only ten.” “And the idea scares you.” “Yes,” she whispered as she put her cheek in the hollow of his shoulder. “I want to hold on to these days and not let go. You know what we’ve been given in Michael. I’m afraid of doing something wrong, Joe.” “I’m not,” he said gently. “I think all we have to do is love him, guide him where we can, and trust him. You felt like that from the time he was conceived. Why have you changed?” “He wanted to take care of me. I’m supposed to take care of him.” “It appears he’s not going to allow that to happen. It’s that pesky independence thing again. Perhaps you can work out a compromise.” She made a face. “I didn’t do too well with the last one I made with him. I think I might have given him exactly what he wanted.” “But you learned from it. And he has lessons to learn, too.” “How magnanimous of you to admit that,” she said dryly. “You’re darned right he does. CIA, indeed.” Joe chuckled. “Now you’re getting back to normal. I’m surprised Michael managed to shake you up like this.” “It’s your fault, too.” “I beg your pardon?” “I was standing out on the porch and looking down at you and Michael, and I thought how lucky I was.” “Without doubt.” “I’m not joking. But nothing lasts forever. Michael is going to grow up and leave me. You’re in danger every day, Joe. So I have to keep Michael young and under my wing as long as I can.” She pulled his head down and kissed him. “And I have to keep you with me, I have to protect you from every danger.” She kissed him again. “I have to heal all your wounds. If you’re lost, I’ll have to seek until I find you.” This time the kiss was lingering. “It’s a great responsibility.” “But you’re up to it?” “Oh, yes.” She smiled lovingly as she pulled off her nightshirt and crawled on top of him. “The question is, are you up to it?” MARQUIS HOTEL “Good heavens, Eve, why would Michael go to all that trouble just to get me to come home?” Cara chuckled as she kicked off her shoes and curled up on the couch with her cell and a Coke she’d grabbed from the minifridge the minute she’d walked into the hotel room. “It sounds almost Machiavellian. You’ve got to be kidding. Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand?” Her laughter faded. “Look, I talk on the phone with Michael a few times a week, and I don’t remember him even mentioning Jock more than once or twice in the last year or so. When he told me that Jock was going to be in town to help him with that historical show-and-tell exhibit, I thought that maybe you might have arranged it.” “Not likely,” Eve said. “Major imposition. You should have known I’d never have encouraged Michael to ask anyone to just hop across an ocean to help him with a school project.” She paused. “You probably did know, but you were so excited about seeing Jock again that you just accepted it.” Eve knew her too well, Cara thought. Only she had not just accepted everything Michael had told her, she had leaped at the opportunity. “Maybe not that much of an imposition. Jock might not have been in Scotland. You know he travels all over the world.” “Including New York when he visits his investors,” Eve said quietly. “Where you have an apartment that you use for a base when you’re on tour. You should have been able to get together there and not have to rely on seeing him here.” Cara’s hand tightened on the phone. Had she hurt Eve? It was the last thing she would ever want to do. “You’re acting as if Jock was my sole purpose for visiting you. You’re my family, Eve. I’ve been so busy with this darned touring that I haven’t been able to take the time to come home very often but it’s not because I—” “Hush,” Eve interrupted. “Joe and I know all that. Do you think that we don’t realize how important these concert dates are when you’re just starting your career? We’re glad to see you whenever you can spare the time. You’ve worked very hard during these last years, and now everyone is going to see how really wonderful you are.” She paused. “But I also know that you’re very responsible, and you wouldn’t have rearranged your schedule for anything but an emergency. So why is Jock an emergency, Cara? What’s wrong?” “Nothing.” She tried to keep the unsteadiness from her voice. “He’s fine. He’s always fine. He’s perfect. Not that I’d know. I haven’t seen him in over eighteen months. And then it was only for thirty minutes after a concert in New York. Then he made an excuse, and he was gone.” She cleared her throat. “He’s avoiding me. Not that he’s not done it before. I think you probably realized that’s it’s been going on for years. You know so much about us, Eve.” “And I’ve tried to stay out of your business,” Eve said gently. “You and Jock have always had a very special relationship.” She paused. “Do you know, the first time I saw the two of you together I had the feeling that somehow, some way, you were meant to complete each other. Over the years it was like watching Romeo and Juliet or some kind of fairy tale. It was as if you’ve been running toward each other all your lives. Weird, huh?” “Yes.” Cara was stunned. “You never said anything.” “And I wouldn’t have said anything now except that you’ve been so unhappy lately. I didn’t want to interfere. But it’s not interfering to tell you that you’re not alone, and I’ll be here if you need me.” “I’ve always known that, Eve.” “Good. But it bears repeating. Okay, that’s all; I’ve said what I wanted to say. I know you’ll have to work it out for yourselves.” “And Jock’s way of working it out would be to eliminate it entirely,” Cara said jerkily. “Well, it’s not going to happen. I told him four years ago that he wasn’t going to get rid of me. But because of my music and his damn stubbornness, I’ve barely been able to see him. That has to stop.” She whispered, “I miss him, Eve.” “And I’m certain he misses you, too. But he wants to give you your freedom. He thinks that being his friend isn’t healthy for you.” “Bullshit,” she said bluntly. “It’s my being his lover that he won’t accept. We’ve been best friends since I was twelve years old and he saved my life. That was fine, that was great, I didn’t think I needed anything else. He was wonderful and he had that shining inside … But then I grew up, and I found out that wasn’t enough. I wanted more. And he wants more, dammit. I know it. He just won’t reach out and take it.” She drew a shaky breath. “Listen to me. I’d better hang up. You didn’t want to hear me ranting like this. I’m sorry. I guess I’ve been holding it back too long. Floodgates have a way of breaking. But, as you said, you guessed most of it.” “I had my suspicions.” Eve hesitated. “And one of them was that Jock had a more complex reason than the possibility that he would interfere with your life and career if he didn’t step away from you.” She paused. “Thomas Reilly?” “Of course, Reilly had everything to do with it. He nearly destroyed Jock with his damn brainwashing,” Cara said bitterly. “He was only fifteen when that terrorist bastard got hold of him and did his experiments to try to make him into a master assassin.” “Not tried,” Eve said. “Be honest, Cara. He did it. Jock eventually ended up in an asylum on suicide watch. He’s lived with that guilt for years. He thinks that person he was back then will never really go away. Is it any wonder he believes that supreme ugliness in his background should never contaminate your life?” “It wasn’t his fault,” Cara said fiercely. “None of it. Contaminate? No one could say that my background is spotless. My parents were involved with a Mexican cartel and my mother tried to kill me just because she didn’t find it convenient for me to remain alive. My grandfather is still the head of one of the most powerful crime families in Moscow. You know that. You and Joe took me away from all that horror.” She moistened her lips. “And then Jock came along and saved my life. And then he made me believe that my soul was mine alone and had nothing to do with who my parents were or where I came from. Do you know what that meant to me?” “It meant that he gave you a great gift. But he only told the truth, Cara.” “No, more than that. When I realized that my mother had killed my sister Jenny and was trying to kill me, I had nightmares about being like her. I was afraid, I was confused, and he understood. No one had ever understood how I felt until Jock. I didn’t have to pretend, I just always knew he would understand. As long as we were together, nothing else mattered.” She drew a long, shaky breath, and added brusquely, “And all that horrible business about Reilly and that brainwashing really has nothing to do with who we are now. I’ll make him realize that.” “I hope you do,” Eve said. “Jock can be very tough. I hope he gives you the chance.” “If he doesn’t give it, I’ll take it.” Then Cara moved to lighten the conversation. It was her fault the tone had become entirely too heavy and emotional. She hadn’t wanted to burden Eve. But the words had just tumbled out, a sign of how nervous and upset she was today. “But we’ve gotten completely off the subject of Michael. I’ll have to believe you if you tell me he’s remarkable enough to stage something as complicated as this. After all, it’s Michael. We all know how unusual he is.” “Believe it. Hopefully, I’ve nipped it in the bud. I just wanted to call you and let you know the capability is there and flourishing.”

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