(verb) to strengthen one's commitment to a particular strategy or course of action, typically one that is potentially risky.
I stared at Gwen’s body, her twisted foot, her awkward splay of arms, the pool of blood around her head. Now, she would always be a stranger to me. Why had she come to my suite? To befriend or confront me? Would we have gotten along, or would we have hated each other?
Dario hung up the phone. “You need to leave.”
“Why did you tell them that I—”
He held up a hand and lifted the phone to his ear. I wanted to finish the question. I needed to know why he would call the police and tell them that I was dead. It was useless. They’d discover the truth the minute they showed up here. They’d turn her over, see her face, and know that it was Gwen and that Dario was lying. Gwen wasn’t some faceless brunette. In addition to being Dario’s wife, she was one of the most powerful women in Vegas. They’d recognize her. It was a stupid lie to tell.
Dario spoke into the phone, his voice thickening with a Cajun accent I’d never heard from him before. “I got a girl coming into town. I need you to pick her up at the strip.”
I poked him in the chest, hard enough to get his attention. “Stop making decisions and talk to me.”
He hung up the phone. “You’re going to Louisiana.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys, working through them and pulling an item off the ring. “Go to the stairwell at the end of the hall and use this to get out.”
He held up the small grey button. “Go up four flights of stairs and use the same fob to get into the executive garage at the top.”
I huffed out a breath of understanding.
“Take the Phantom and go meet up with one of your bosses. Not at their house, or the casino. Meet somewhere else. Which one would kill to protect you?” He asked the question without a slice of levity, each word weighted in the careful instructions of something deathly important.
My breath shortened as if in preparation for flight. “Either.” They would. Either of them, if it was necessary to protect me, would kill someone. I believed it the day I was followed from Ian’s, and I believed it now.
“I’m going to text you a number. Call it when you get with one of them.” He passed my bag to me. “Is your gun in here?”
I nodded, glanced down at my feet. “I need my shoe. It’s…”
I pointed in the direction of the living room, and he stepped forward, his eyes focused on the Nike, not looking at Gwen. Gwen. His wife. I felt nauseous.
I stepped toward him for a hug, a kiss, some form of comfort.
He moved away, gesturing to his shirt, which was smeared with bright red blood. “You can’t get her blood on you. And you need to go now, before anyone gets here.” He stepped toward the house phone and lifted the receiver. I stayed in place. I couldn’t leave like this. He was sending me away? To Louisiana? He was telling people I was dead? Someone just tried to kill me and forensics was keeping him from kissing me?
Maybe it was more than that. I thought of the way he had fallen to the floor beside her body, calling her name over and over, begging her to wake up. He told her he loved her, told her he was sorry. He had been sorry over us. We had done this. “Dario, I’m not—”
“GO.” He pointed to the door and glowered at me, his jaw set, eyes hard. “Get the fuck out of here. Go to one of your boys and call the number. Now.”
I stepped back, searching his face desperately for love, and was devastated to find nothing. I gripped the Nike, hitched my bag higher on my shoulder, and turned, moving with one socked foot, my gait uneven, my heart breaking as I limped toward the stairwell door.
* * *
The key fob worked, the garage easy to distinguish, given the glittering lineup of vehicles. I passed his Bentley, a red Ferrari, a giant truck, and a Mercedes before reaching the Phantom. Dario hadn’t given me a key and I held my breath as I tried the door. Unlocked. Sliding into it, I saw the key sitting in a small compartment in the dash. Surprised at the lack of security, I started the car. Pulling the belt across my chest, I adjusted the seat and hunched over the steering wheel, carefully rolling out of the spot and moving toward the gate.
I made it through the parking garage without hitting anything, and I relaxed a little once I was off The Majestic’s property, the car’s tint hiding me from view. I headed north and dialed Rick’s number first, glancing at the clock. They’d both be at The House.
Rick answered the phone, and I let out a hard sigh at the sound of his voice. “It’s me. I need your help. Something’s happened.”
Lance spoke in the background, and Rick told him to wait a fucking second, then asked me what was going on. I wrapped my hands around the Phantom’s steering wheel and glanced down at the dash. Lifting my foot off the gas, I forced myself to slow down. “I need you or Lance—one of you—to meet me.” My voice warbled a bit and I clamped down on the sentence, not yet ready to continue, not if I was about to start blubbering into the phone.
“Nothing.” Talk about the biggest lie I’d ever told. I amended the words. “I mean, a lot has happened. I—” I couldn’t go into all of it. “I need some help getting out of town.”
Rick interrupted, telling me to meet him at a used car dealership over on First. He promised to be there in ten minutes and hung up without asking any more questions. I had been right. They wouldn’t hesitate to protect me.
My phone chirped and I risked a glance off the road. It was a text from Dario.
--Call 255-432-1673 when you are safe and on the way to the airport. Do what he says.
He? Who was he, and what would he have me do?
I spotted the car dealership and pulled into the back, parking next to a new Lexus. There, hidden in the shadows, I put my phone in my lap, knotted my hands together, and waited.
* * *
“This is a giant pile of shit.” Lance tossed over the words while driving, his H1 rattling along the interstate and taking us out of Vegas. I slumped in the passenger seat and said nothing. Rick, who had taken the backseat, grunted in agreement, his head down, eyes on the navigation of his phone.
It hadn’t taken long to catch them up on things. Granted, I hadn’t told them everything. I had left out Gwen and Dario’s history and the reason for their marriage, but they already knew of her father. Hell, they were the ones who had warned me about him to begin with, which was why they were so angry. I wasn’t sure who they were more pissed at, Dario or me.
I should have listened to them then. I could have gotten out before my heart took ahold of my head and dragged me into this mess. If I had, Gwen would still be alive and I wouldn’t be rattling down the highway at one in the morning, heading for a tiny airstrip in the middle of the desert, following the directions of some wahoo named Laurent.
Laurent had been the one who answered the number Dario had texted me. Laurent. The name sounded like some sort of knight, but the drawl had matched the one Dario had produced … Cajun.
“I’m telling you, this guy is going to take you into some backwoods cabin and make soup from your hair.”
Rick snorted. “Or surround you with pet pigs and make you their queen.”
“You’re not helping,” I growled at them both but couldn’t help the tiny smile that forced its way out. The man had sounded uncivilized, especially with the accent. But if Dario trusted him, I would too.
Though Dario—the man who had yelled at me to get the fuck out—hadn’t been anything like the man I’d fallen in love with. He’d been a cold, pissed off, blood-covered, stranger.
Then again, he’d just lost his wife. He’d lost his best friend. He’d dropped to his knees and crawled across the floor toward her. I’d been jealous, watching him. How fucked up was that? I’d watched him break into pieces, and I’d been jealous. I’d thought about us, and what this meant to our relationship. I didn’t think about her, or the fact that a woman had just died. I only thought of myself. I flicked my eyes to the road and wondered, if I opened the door and flung myself out, if it would kill me. Not that I had the guts to do it.
“I don’t get why he told the police you were dead.” Rain started to crackle against the windshield and Lance turned on the Hummer’s wipers.
Rick tapped his shoulder. “Turn left at the next road. He told them so whoever ordered the hit would get word it was successful.”
“Ordered the hit? This isn’t a fucking movie, Rick.”
“You got better terminology? That’s what it was.”
“Unless Hawk killed her himself. Though you’d think he’d recognized his own daughter.”
I mumbled at them to both shut up and curled my knees to my chest. Rick was probably right. Which meant that Dario suspected someone in the police department was working for Hawk, or whoever else was the mastermind behind all of this. I remembered our oceanfront dinner, the way he’d lowered his voice when he told me about Gwen’s father. Hawk has zero accountability for his actions and half the police force is in his pocket.
Lance made the turn. “Not to be a buzzkill, but has anyone considered the possibility that Dario hired someone to kill Bell? Or that he killed Gwen, then showed up again a little bit later, after B arrived, and acted surprised?”
Lance’s words were poison, the sort that tasted bland, then soured into a horrible aftertaste. I wanted to claw at my throat and spit out his words. Instead, I focused on taking a deep breath. Then another.
It was a stupid idea.
Wasn’t it? I mean, Dario didn’t want to kill me, but he did have access. He’d begged me to come to the suite. And from behind, he could tell the differences between us—there was no way he’d mistake Gwen for me. Unless he wanted to kill her. Kill her, put on a show for me, and we could be together and live happily ever after.
Only, I had seen him.
His grief had been real and painful. His reaction, the playful smirk he gave me when he walked in, the one that twisted into horror when he saw her—no one was that good of an actor. NO ONE. I had to believe it. I had to believe it, or I couldn’t get on this plane.
“No.” I swallowed, the word too faint, and tried again. “NO. There’s no way.”
They exchanged looks, and I saw the doubt between them.
I grabbed Lance’s arm, forcing him to look away from the road and at me. “NO. I trust him. I’m not an idiot. He’s innocent.”
If I was wrong, if this whole thing had been a lie and he’d played me and was planning on killing me… then I was stupid enough to deserve death. I’d die in some Louisiana swamp and know that I’d brought it on myself. But then, why involve Lance and Rick?
I wasn’t wrong. I was in a horrible mess with a man I couldn’t seem to connect with, but I loved him. And he, somewhere among that cold indifference, loved me.
I had to believe that.