Adam wasn’t worried, so I made sure I was nervous enough for the both of us. That was the biggest problem working with a man like Adam Munroe. Most of the time he was cautious. Guarded. Most of the time nothing went wrong. But on those rare occasions he thought everything was great and we would have no trouble, things always went wrong.
“Matthew,” Adam said, and I could feel him staring at me from the driver’s seat of his Lexus where we waited. “Relax.”
I never relaxed, and that was part of the reason he was still sitting there instead of six feet under. I had gotten him out of multiple scrapes over the years just by paying attention. As long as I thought we would encounter trouble, I could keep him alive. It was my job, after all. “We should have changed the meeting place,” I said, keeping my eyes on the empty parking lot.
Sighing, Adam unclicked his seatbelt. “He had to catch a last minute flight. It only made sense to meet him on his way there.”
I tapped my foot, a nervous habit I hadn’t been able to conquer over the years. My brother Ben used to tell me I was only still when I was asleep, and sometimes even then I had a hard time not moving around. He constantly told me how annoying it was; I liked to think it was a sign of superior physiology and intellect. If I was holding still, it was usually because things were either very good or very, very bad. “So he’s probably running from the feds and dumping all his stolen loot on us,” I said under my breath. It wouldn’t be the first time we’d crossed paths with criminals like that, and heaven knew it wouldn’t be the last. “Where did he say he got the statue?” I asked louder.
“His grandmother brought it over from Sudan back in the thirties.”
I laughed a little to myself. “Not Nigeria? That’s a shocker.”
“What is wrong with you today?”
Adam Munroe was my best friend, but sometimes he could be a pain in my--
“You’re acting like we’re about to be ambushed by petty thieves,” Adam continued roughly, pulling my gaze to him. He didn’t get angry often, so I’d quickly learned to pay attention when he was. “Do you really think I didn’t do my homework? This is my job, Matt.”
“And mine is to keep you safe,” I replied. He had to have seen enough movies to know how idiotic the whole idea was. “You’re sitting in an abandoned parking lot waiting to buy an ancient artifact that probably belongs in a museum.”
I narrowed my eyes as I stared at him. He wasn’t the most expressive of men, but being around the guy nearly 24/7 meant I had learned to pick up on the little things. Like the flick of his eyes to his phone telling me he was hiding something and there was likely another party involved in the deal about to go down. That complicated things, and I was not prepared for this. “Adam,” I growled. “What have you gotten yourself into?”
Rolling his eyes was a bit uncalled for. He was spending too much time with his wife. “Relax,” he said again. “The Harvard Museum of Natural History knew Lanna was going to be in the area and—”
“Harvard?” A bit of a distance from California, I would say.
Adam scowled a little. “And they’ve been trying to track down this piece for months. I offered to retrieve it.”
“Retrieve it? Adam, you’re not some archaeologist superhero. You do art, and you’re good at it. So you should stick to that.” I tensed as a sleek black Escalade pulled into the lot on the other end and crawled toward us. “Assuming you make it out of this alive,” I added as I slipped out of the car, Adam right behind me. It may have been a few years since anything actually dangerous had happened, but that didn’t make me any less nervous.
The Escalade came to a stop about twenty yards from us, and three men stepped out. “On his way to the airport,” I grumbled to myself. “If they don’t do it first, I’m going to kill you, Adam.”
He had the nerve to smile. “I’m not sure threatening your sister’s husband is a good idea,” he said.
“I don’t care. Which one is Sanford?”
“The one in the middle.”
So that left the tall two on either side for me to keep an eye on. Not for the first time I wished I was a little taller. And bulkier. But the Davenport family certainly wasn’t known for its size. Both of Sanford’s meaty bodyguards stood mostly motionless, and their dark sunglasses hid which direction they kept their gazes. Still, the one on the right kept a little closer to Sanford, while the man on the left had his hands free. Righty was there to protect Sanford; Lefty would go after us.
“Thank you for meeting me,” Sanford said as soon as the five of us met in the middle of our two cars. “I know it was inconvenient.”
“That’s one way to put it,” I said under my breath. Lefty was a little too close for comfort.
Adam shook Sanford’s hand, all calm and collected like he should be. At least during business transactions, he knew how to act the part of cool-headed man in charge. Normally Adam was more on the soft-spoken and shy side, which I had to admit was one of the reasons I loved the guy. He was perfect for my sister, even if he sometimes got himself into unnecessarily dangerous situations like this one. “I understand,” Adam said. “We’re all busy.”
“Yes,” Sanford agreed. His voice trembled, and I readied my hand to grab my gun if necessary. Lefty mirrored me. “If we could move this along…”
“You first,” I said, gaining myself a soft groan from Adam.
Righty lifted a suitcase and pulled the lid open, revealing the little stone statue Adam was so eager to purchase, though I couldn’t see why it was worth taking a risk like this. The Egyptian god-looking thing was barely a foot tall and looked about ready to fall apart, held together only by the molded foam it sat in. Sanford sniffed without looking at the suitcase, his eyes a little too watery given the cloudy morning sky and lack of wind. “There,” he said, croaking a little. “Your turn.”
Adam pulled his phone from his pocket and started typing, and I cleared my throat. Glancing at me, he took a breath then continued, typing a few extra strokes. Good. He added in the failsafe I’d set up for him, just in case. He had hated the idea at first, but at least he was willing to use it when it mattered most. “It should all be there,” he said, lifting his eyes to Sanford.
Lefty shifted, sliding his right foot back half an inch. Righty was closing the suitcase but much too tense, and Sanford nearly dropped his phone as he grabbed it to make sure Adam’s money was in his account. “That looks…” He swallowed. It can’t be that hard to say, Sanford. “Fan-fantastic.” Then he gave the subtlest of nods to his men.
I grabbed my gun at the same time Lefty gripped his, both of us pointing our weapons at the other’s boss. “Stand down!” I shouted as I stepped in front of Adam.
Sanford was already backing away, fumbling to grab the suitcase from Righty, and if I let him get to the car, we were screwed. But if I moved to get a better shot, Lefty would drop Adam within the second. Just the way he held his gun told me he was military trained, and I wasn’t about to underestimate his aim.
“Sanford!” I snarled. He was almost to the Escalade with that stupid suitcase. We were going to lose the statue! That piece of junk was the whole reason we were here, and Adam clearly thought it was important. Odds were slim anyone would be able to track it down again if I let it go. I had one chance. I stepped and pulled the trigger, knocking the suitcase from Sanford’s hand. But mine wasn’t the only shot. Lefty had already turned to run back to the car, and Adam’s cry of pain froze me to the core. “No!” I cried.
Adam fell backwards before I could catch him, landing hard on the pavement as the Escalade squealed from the parking lot. Blood soaked his chest. He was still breathing, but barely.
“Adam!” I shouted, dropping at his side. “Adam, talk to me.”
He couldn’t keep his eyes open. There was too much blood. I’d seen wounds like this before in the Army, and…
“Hospital,” I whispered as my hands shook almost too badly for me to grab my phone. It rang way too many times before the emergency operator picked up. “I need an ambulance,” I said breathlessly. “GSW. 1507 West Yarndale. Hurry! Adam.” I grabbed his hand, holding tight. “Adam, stay with me. Please. Just hang on. You can’t die on me, man. Oh God, please don’t die on me.”
Adam nodded once, and then he stopped breathing.
I’d never liked hospitals. When I was seventeen, I spent an agonizing six hours sitting in a cold waiting room wondering if my older brother was going to live, the whole time knowing he wasn’t because he’d been crushed by a pickup truck while trying to save his boss from the collision. My parents—some of the highest among the social elites of San Francisco—had been at an event and didn’t answer their phones, and my sister was too young, so I’d taken on the task of waiting. No seventeen-year-old should have to peek through a little window and watch a team of sterile surgeons try to fix something unfixable. No kid should have to be the one to tell his family his brother was dead.
My sister Lanna thought Ben died on the scene. She was only fourteen at the time, and she didn’t need to know he’d spent his last hours of life in complete agony. She took the news harder than my parents, who were too high and mighty to show grief, and for a while I worried she was never going to get over losing her protector. I knew then just as I knew now that she needed Benjamin a lot more than she needed me, and I would have given anything to trade places with my big brother.
Just like I desperately wished I could do now.
Lanna was, understandably, a mess. A blue-scrubbed doctor had come out an hour ago and told us Adam was out of surgery and things were looking good, but I’d never seen her pace like this. She’d crossed the length of the waiting room about a thousand times and wouldn’t even look at me, not that I blamed her. Her husband was clinging to life because I couldn’t do my job. I would hate me too.
“Why won’t they let us see him?” she asked after her latest rotation around the room.
I kept my gaze on the floor. I couldn’t bear to see the pain in her eyes or the tightness of her lips as she fought back tears. “He’s in recovery, Lanna,” I said, my voice hoarse. “Give him time.” Time he wouldn’t need if I hadn’t failed. I should have taken Lefty out first, then tried to secure the artifact. Only an idiot would leave a gun in play.
“I just want to see him,” she continued. “Can’t they at least tell me…” She stopped, and I looked up as a young nurse came our way.
The girl smiled, putting her hand on Lanna’s shoulder. “Your husband is awake, Mrs. Munroe. He’s asking for you.”
Lanna exhaled with relief, a good deal of tension slipping from her shoulders as she rushed off to follow the nurse. Only because she paused in the hallway and waved me after her did I follow. I doubted either my sister or Adam would want me there in that room, but they were both too kind to say so. I’d just make an appearance, express my sincerest apology, and get out of their way like I should have done years ago.
Adam looked terrible, grey and sickly and attached to a plastic tube keeping him alive. But at least he was alive. No thanks to me. Lanna pulled a chair as close to the bed as she could and gripped his hand as if her own life depended on it, and he gazed at her in a way that made me sick inside. I’d almost separated them from each other. Forever. Adam and Lanna Munroe were a fairytale couple, and I’d almost destroyed them.
“Where’s Benny?” Adam whispered.
Lanna brushed away a tear from her cheek. “He’s with my mom. She said she can keep him as long as we need so I can stay here with you.”
My nephew had hardly spent an hour away from Lanna or Adam since he was born, and I could only imagine the uproar the toddler was making for my poor mom who hadn’t even taken care of her own kids. Before Lanna married Adam, not even in my wildest dreams could I see dear Mom changing a diaper or dealing with a tantrum. She left that to whichever nanny we had at the time. Things had certainly changed in recent years, but that didn’t make her any more equipped to handle Benny for more than a few hours. I’d have to relieve her soon.
I blinked, realizing Adam was looking at me. Not yet. I hadn’t figured out my apology.
I blinked again, not entirely sure I heard his whisper right. “What?”
His lips twitched in what I thought was an attempted smile. But why? “You saved my life.”
Ha. Of course I didn’t. I was the reason he was hurt in the first place, but I knew better than to argue something like this. So I gave him a smile back and left the room.
I had to get out of the hospital.
I drove across the city without fully paying attention to where I went. All I could think about was Adam’s blood on my hands as I kept him alive with CPR while I waited for the ambulance and how close I’d come to making my baby sister a widow and how I knew better than to care more about a little statue than my own family. I had put in that failsafe so Adam would have to add a second authorization before the funds fully transferred, which made it easier for me to do my job. At least it should have. His money was safe, but he was not. And it was my fault.
I pulled into the cemetery, not surprised by my subconscious destination. I couldn’t even count the number of times I’d been there, often enough over the years that I should have had my own parking spot by now. Most of my darkest days had happened at this cemetery, but that had never stopped me from coming back again and again.
I really shouldn’t have come. I had my mother to rescue and a three-year-old to entertain and an investigation into Sanford to deal with. But right now, I needed to chat with my brother.
Ben’s grave wasn’t with the other Davenports, but I’d chosen this location for a reason. Even at seventeen, I knew I would be spending a lot of time here, so while my parents pretended life was normal, leaving all the funeral planning to me, I picked a gravesite with a sturdy tree at its feet so I could sit against the trunk and talk for hours, something I’d done many times since. By the time my parents realized what I had done, it was too late, and it was probably one of the main factors in them disinheriting me. I didn’t deserve to be a Davenport, they’d told me, and I was fine with that. I didn’t want to be like them anyway.
I still wasn’t sure I deserved to be a Davenport. It wasn’t like I had lived up to the name.
I sat in my usual spot, glad that the early afternoon sun had dried the dew, and I took a deep breath as my eyes locked on the granite headstone in front of me.
“Hey, Ben,” I said. I sounded as awful as I had at the hospital, my voice hoarse and weak. It had been a long day and would only get longer as soon as I got back to reality. “Something bad happened today. I nearly got Adam killed, and…” I swallowed. “You should have seen Lanna’s face when she got to the hospital. I’ve never seen her so scared in my life. It was worse than…” Worse than when Luke died. It had been almost six years since my best friend died protecting my sister, and I still couldn’t bring myself to say his name out loud. Lanna had been in love with him, but she had had Adam to help her through her grief. I had no one but Ben.
Plucking a blade of grass, I sighed and shook my head as I tore the grass into little pieces. “I know you’d tell me it wasn’t my fault,” I continued, “but you weren’t there. I knew, Ben. I knew if I turned my focus to Sanford, the other guy would go after Adam. I made the wrong choice, and it almost got him killed.”
Ben wouldn’t have been so stupid. My older brother was always quiet, but he was the smartest man I knew and would have done everything he could to keep Adam safe. His selflessness was admirable to a fault. It was, after all, what got him killed. He would have known how to comfort Lanna too, but I just sat there and let her pace because no joke could make those hours of waiting easier. My limited skill set was useless at the hospital, and my sister suffered because of it.
“Don’t look at me like that,” I told the headstone. “I’m not going to fall off the wagon. Adam’s alive, at least.” Besides, if I turned to drinking like I had after Ben died, that wouldn’t help anyone. Those ten years had been the darkest of my life and still haunted me. My little sister had nearly been so emotionally manipulated by my mother that she couldn’t even function like a normal adult, and that wouldn’t have happened if I had just been the brother she needed me to be instead of drowning my sorrows in a bottle and shutting out the world. No amount of misery, no matter how heavy it weighed on me, would lead me down that avenue again.
“I really messed up, Ben,” I said, dropping my head against the tree behind me. “What if…what if the ambulance hadn’t gotten there in time? I would have lost my best friend and probably my sister all at once. And Mom would have killed me, considering how perfect she thinks Adam Munroe is.”
My phone buzzed in my pocket, and I knew who was calling before I even saw the name. “Speak of the devil. Hey, Mom.”
“Matthew!” she said loudly, though I could hardly hear her over the high-pitched screaming in the background. “How’s Adam?” Little Benny was certainly making her life fun at the moment.
“Alive,” I replied.
“Well that’s a relief. Ben, please, can you not—Matthew, I need—Benny, don’t touch that! Gramma is trying to—Matthew, please.”
I sighed, pushing myself to my feet. “I’m on my way,” I told her. Brother chat was over for the day. Pocketing my phone, I said my goodbyes to Ben’s grave then followed the familiar path back to my car, my eyes on my feet and my hands in my pockets. It was barely three o’clock, but I was already exhausted. Adding a tantruming toddler to the mix was going to be the perfect storm for a migraine, but it was the least I could do for Lanna, considering I was the reason she was at the hospital in the first place. I just had to push through the tiredness and--
Something solid and oddly fragrant suddenly smashed into me, complete with tiny sharp pains in my arms and a shouted curse I’d never heard in a cemetery before. Stumbling back a step, I found myself face to face with a young woman who held the remains of what had been a bouquet of roses and was now a few broken twigs and half a dozen thorns pricks in my skin.
“Watch where you’re going, idiot,” she said loudly, her green-eyed glare as icy as her words. The freckles on her nose and the green converse shoes she wore made her look pretty young, but I had no doubt she had a mean bite to go with that bark of hers.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, plucking a few tiny spikes from my arm. The day just kept getting better. “I have a lot on my mind.”
I tried to scoot past her, but she stepped in my way and brandished her twigs. “These are useless now,” she said. She had a couple of leaves in her dark hair, but I decided not to point them out. I was pretty sure that wouldn’t exactly help the situation.
“Sorry,” I said again. What more did she expect me to say? “I have to get somewhere. I’m sorry.” First my sister and her husband, and now I was disappointing complete strangers. Now all I needed was for my nephew to forget I was his favorite uncle—never mind I was his only uncle—and scream at me too.
Leaving the still fuming woman behind with her mess of thorns and petals, I hurried the rest of the way from the cemetery and slipped into my car, allowing myself one deep breath before setting out for the rest of a very long day. After my mistake this morning, I had a lot of damage to undo.