Season 2, Episode 11
Decent sleep evaded Justin thanks to the repetitive hum and beeping of medical machines, not to mention the plaster. He would drift into a deeper cycle, then start to roll onto his side and pain would shoot through his arm. As he recovered from the latest of these mishaps, he became aware of a presence in the dark room. Blinking, his eyes adjusted to the lack of light and settled on the shadow beside his bed. ‘Hello?’ he murmured.
Shadow Man stepped closer, and the ambient glow of the monitoring equipment lit the harsh features on his face. ‘Looks as though you’re in quite the predicament, does it not?’
Sucking in a breath, he exhaled the man’s name as though attempting to expel venom from a snake bite, ‘Artemis.’ Every muscle in his body tensed and he briefly considered praying to a God he stopped believing in years ago.
‘I have very little use for you now that your cover is blown. Give me one reason I shouldn’t snuff out your pitiful existence right now.’ The man grabbed a pillow from a vacant bed behind him.
Justin’s veins turned to ice and the chill sent a tremor through his nerves. ‘I-I can still work in the city. It’s not like Malik’s reach extends beyond the borders of Moonlake.’
‘Perhaps. But how do I know Malik won’t squeal to the Italians?’
‘Those guys have no taste for big city politics. Everything and everyone they care about are right here.’ He’d never revealed the details about Malik’s cousin. Gotta keep some cards close to the chest, after all.
‘Fair point. I’ll arrange your transfer to my private facility in the morning. The sooner we get your shooting hand back in working order, the better. Now, get some sleep.’ Tossing the pillow aside, Artemis turned to leave, pausing in the doorway. ‘How’s that woman of yours? I heard she had a run-in with mine.’ He didn’t wait for an answer before slinking away.
Jolting upright, he reached for the hospital’s phone with his left hand, fumbling and almost dropping it in the process. Several whispered curses later, he cradled the old school tech in his lap and dialled the operator for a collect call. Good thing I memorised the number on her burner phone.
The line rang a few times before she picked up. ‘Hello?’ Her sweet voice, music to his ears, sounded hesitant.
‘Hey gorgeous, it’s me.’
‘Oh fuck, Justin! Why are you calling from the hospital? What did that creep do to you?’
A dry laugh slipped out. ‘This wasn’t him. Malik discovered I was playing both sides. I was lucky to escape with just a broken arm and a few bruises.’
‘Oh shoot, babe. Does that mean…’
‘Yeah, he knows. Just paid me a visit, in fact. Listen, I need you to make yourself scarce. I’ll be heading back to Perth tomorrow morning, which means he’ll have eyes all over the place.’
‘Hell no! There’s no way I’m leaving you to fend for yourself. Besides, I’ve missed you.’
He sighed, gripping the receiver tighter. ‘I miss you too, gorgeous, but it’s not safe. He already has tabs on you.’
‘Which means that nowhere is safe. We may as well enjoy each other’s company while we can.’
‘Okay,’ he conceded. ‘I’ll call you when I get there. Love you.’
‘I love you too, babe.’
The light of day and an empty hotel bed brought the reality of Danika’s situation into focus. Hayden’s words played on a loop in her mind: You’ll have to make me believe you want me. Somehow, she just knew this would apply to more than sex with Brennan. Anything she wants would come with a price. I need to find a way out of this marriage before it’s too late.
As she packed her bags, she considered her options. With Brennan busy working, either officially, or for her scumbag fiancé, there was only one other ally she could turn to for help. She knocked on her mother’s door.
‘Morning sweetheart,’ Estelle chimed brightly. ‘Perfect timing! Our room service breakfast just arrived. Come in.’ She ushered her into the large suite where the aroma of bacon wafted from metal serving ware on a hotel trolley. ‘Help yourself.’
She beelined for the mug of steaming espresso, taking three long sips before contemplating the greasy food. ‘Where’s your phone?’
‘In the car. I’ve also checked the room for bugs. We’re safe.’
Nodding, she swallowed a few mouthfuls of food before broaching the topic. ‘I need help formulating a plan to take Hayden down. I can’t marry him, Mother. I just can’t. The thought of him touching me again….’
Estelle let silence fill the space between them for several excruciating moments. ‘If we do this, it will mean taking Sterling down with him. Their business dealings are too entwined. While I have no qualms bringing justice to the man who destroyed my happiness, I know you love your father. Are you prepared to ruin him?’
This time Danika fell silent. She thought about the ways in which her father had manipulated her feelings, pushing her into Hayden’s arms. At the time, she had put it down to ignorance of the truth, but in light of what her mother had revealed… ‘Let’s do it.’
A sly smile tugged at Estelle’s lips. ‘If we’re going to start a war, we’ll need an army. Who can you trust and who hates Hayden Archer?’
‘Brennan will do anything for me, and he already has access to Hayden’s inner circle.’
‘Perfect. He’ll be an invaluable member of our team. Who else?’
She shrugged, unable to think of anyone else.
‘What about Grayson? He clearly cares for you.’
‘I guess. I don’t know how he’ll be able to help, but I can ask.’ Scratching her head, she wracked her brain for ideas. Then it hit her. ‘What if I can find Taylor? I’d bet my life’s savings that her freak out yesterday was because of Hayden threatening her. She might jump at a chance to reclaim her power over him.’
‘Good thinking,’ Estelle agreed. ‘Another obvious choice comes to mind.’
‘Who?’ A warm sense of hope began building in her chest, buzzing like a swarm of bees.
‘Who has the biggest grudge against Hayden, aside from yourself of course?’ Estelle rose and retrieved a carton of orange juice from the fridge.
She huffed. ‘No way. I’m not involving Malik in any of this.’
‘Why not?’ After pouring them both a glass of juice, Estelle continued, ‘He has means and motive. I know you two don’t see eye-to-eye these days, but surely you can put your differences aside for the greater good?’
‘Actually, we’ve resolved our issues, well mostly.’ She bit her lip and felt her cheeks heating.
Estelle’s eyes widened. ‘I thought you were seeing Brennan?’
‘I am, but… I love Malik,’ she confessed in a whisper, shocking herself more than her mother who nodded.
‘About time you acknowledged the truth of the matter. I don’t think you ever stopped loving the boy, even when you hated him.’
Her jaw dropped. ‘How….’
Her mother chuckled, tapping the side of her nose. ‘I guess you could call it a mother’s intuition. So why not include him?’
‘Because Hayden threatened his life. If he ever catches us together….’
Sighing, Estelle picked up her glass and drained the juice from it. ‘An all-too familiar tale, I’m afraid. I’m sure we can make do with the others. We’ll also need a base of operations, and I know just the place.’
Following her mother through the dimly lit space, Danika sneezed, fanning dust motes away from her face. She glanced around at the junk lining the shelves, wondering how anyone could call the tacky ornaments antiques.
An old lady with dark olive skin emerged from the back room, hobbling on her walking stick. Spotting Danika, she froze, her gaze turning to ice as she pointed a gnarled finger. ‘What’s she doin’ here? Sterling’s daughter is not welcome in my haven.’
Reaching the woman, Estelle pacified the accusing hand and wrapped her in a warm embrace. ‘Relax, Ma. Danni’s my daughter too, and she’s agreed to bring ruin upon Stirling.’
Danika’s brows rocketed from her face. ‘Ma?’
Estelle summoned her closer. ‘Danni, sweetheart. Meet your real grandmother, Nonna Silvestri, mother of your biological father and the only man I ever loved.’
‘What the hell?’ She collapsed onto a piece of old furniture, thankful when it held her weight despite creaking under pressure. ‘Biological father?’
‘I’m sorry for springing this on you, but I needed to be sure I had you on side before revealing the family secret. Sterling would kill us both if he knew, just like he killed your dad.’
The room began to spin as the words sank in. So much of her life had been a lie. The man she thought of as her father was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Does that make me the Red Riding Hood in this story? The bell above the shop door jingled and she glanced up to see Brennan leading Taylor inside, the former grinned at her, the latter casting cagey eyes around the room.
‘It’s okay, Tay. Hayden can’t get you here,’ Estelle assured her. ‘This is a safe space.’
The door tinkled again, and two familiar voices carried on a conversation as they entered, halting when they met Danika’s shocked eyes. Grayson simpered at her while Malik shot a death stare at Brennan.
‘What the fuck’s he doing here?’ She chorused along with Malik.
Grayson stepped forward. ‘I invited Malik because he deserves to know what’s going on.’
‘And what exactly is that?’ Malik gritted out between clenched teeth, eyes not straying from Brennan.
Brennan raised his hands in surrender. ‘Relax, bro. We all want the same thing here.’
Eyes narrowing on the slither of space between Danika and Brennan, Malik sneered. ‘I didn’t think we were here to discuss Danni.’
With cheeks on fire, she vaulted to the other end of the vintage couch, putting necessary space between her and Brennan.
‘Although,’ Malik continued, ‘I’m not sure how Taylor fits in this puzzle. I never pegged her for a lady’s lady.’
‘I’ll leave ya to it,’ Nonna Silvestri exclaimed, muttering something about a handful as she tottered into the back room.
Peering out the front door, Grayson flicked the latch and lowered the blind, painting the room with more shadows. ‘I assume Brennan is here because, like us, he wants to bring Hayden to justice.’
Malik’s nostrils flared. ‘I might have believed that before seeing Hayden yanking on Pinocchio’s strings. Has me wondering if there’s anything else he tugs on.’
‘Grow the fuck up, Malik,’ Brennan spat. ‘I’m no one’s puppet. I was deep undercover. We need someone on the inside and it’s not like that was ever gonna be you.’
‘When you boys are quite done comparing dick sizes,’ Estelle began from her seat behind the counter, earning a laugh from Danika and Taylor, ‘We need to formulate a plan.’ Having captured everyone’s attention, she continued, ‘We have a week until the engagement party, which means there’s not a lot of time to prepare, but I think we can manage. Danni, you’ll need to get a copy of the guest list so that we can perform reconnaissance. We’ll divvy up the guests among us. Then we’ll use the party to mingle and gather more intel on everyone. We need to know who’s in Hayden’s pocket and why. Brennan, can you get us some surveillance gear?’
‘Not a problem.’
‘I’ll get us some concealable firearms through my, uh, connections,’ Estelle volunteered.
Malik coughed and spluttered. ‘What connections might they be?’
‘Never you mind, boy. Now, does anyone have any bright ideas for taking these bastards down?’
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