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What else hadn’t he seen that was right in front of him?
“What is he talking about Jules?”
She raised her gaze to his, and the defiance she had demonstrated in the face of Otto’s arrogance transformed into stark apology. Jules lifted her wrists and held them out as though she was waiting to be handcuffed. The canned lights in the ceiling shone down on the black wristbands she wore. It would have been easy to mistake them for those wearable pieces of technology that were all the rage these days. A second look revealed what they really were.
“In case you were wondering, there is no trigger to press—or as may be, not press,” Kessler said. “If I don’t terminate the connection between those wristbands and my phone within the next fifty-nine minutes, one of your oldest friends meets her maker.”
Jules shook her head, but Seth couldn’t process the meaning of her gesture. His brain was stuck in a loop, the same thought playing over and over.
“She was the first one, wasn’t she?” Kessler asked. “That’s what he said. That she was the first one that you took from her family and how poetic it would be to trade her life for my Janie.”
Seth crossed the bar and knelt down beside Jules, heedless of the blood surrounding her. Danielle slid out of Jules’ protective embrace and gave them some space.
His hands closed around her wrists and he examined the black wristbands. Tiny round lights circled the circumference of the bands and glowed red, about half an inch apart. While he could see where the two sides connected, he couldn’t find a release mechanism.
From behind him, Kessler said, “The only way to open those cuffs is by pressing this button on my phone.”
He didn’t turn and look at Kessler. Seth locked his eyes with Jules’ and gently squeezed her wrists, whether to reassure her or himself he couldn’t be sure. “I’ll find a way to get these off.”
Jules nodded and said, “I know you will. I just need you to know that I’m going to be okay. No matter what happens, no matter what you have to do, don’t let him find her, Seth.”
He shook his head, instantly denying what she had left unspoken. “I’m not going to sacrifice you for her, or vice versa.”
“I know. I trust you,” she replied, her voice unwavering.
“Amazing,” said Kessler, and Seth heard a sound that could only be Kessler’s feet hitting the floor. “Even in the face of certain death, you still put your unswerving trust in him. Tell me, exactly how did the two of you meet?”
His voice changed and Seth knew he was walking toward them, but still he focused on Jules. He had said the code word earlier, but given the fact that no chatter had come through his earpiece, Seth couldn’t be sure that Allie had heard him. The entire time he’d been here, he hadn’t heard a single ping, ring, or jingle, and he wondered if Kessler had a device jamming cell phone signals. If he did, there was a good possibility that the signal emitted from his earpiece would also be disrupted, and that meant there was no guarantee that help was on the way.
Jules turned her hands and now she was the one grasping his wrists. “Do you remember?” she asked, and the smile on her face was soft with remembrance and embarrassment.
“I remember,” Seth replied, using the same gentle voice she’d been the first to show him he possessed.
“Did I ever tell you that you were the first one I worked up enough courage to approach?”
She hadn’t had to tell him. The way her fingers had shaken, the way her voice had trembled, the way she had looked everywhere but directly into his eyes were enough clues for Seth to know that the seventeen-year-old girl trying to proposition him was a novice. “Why did you choose me?” he asked, voicing a question that had run through his mind more than once in the first few days of their acquaintance.
“Because it wouldn’t have destroyed me if you’d taken me up on my offer,” she answered. “I thought that with you, I could get through it. When you turned me down flat and offered to buy me a hot meal instead, I was terrified because I knew I’d have to try again with someone else.”
Seth had always been grateful to fate, or destiny, or whatever higher power had made her choose him that day. The idea of her approaching someone else, of what could have happened to her, sent him to one of the many dark places in his mind he did his best to avoid.
“You saved me,” Jules said. “You have to save her, too.”
He shook his head. “Neither of you needed a savior,” he told her. Not for one minute did Seth subscribe to any sort of savior or hero complex. He left that to his friends. “You only needed someone to show you the smallest bit of human kindness.”
Jules leaned forward and murmured, “You really believe that, and that’s how I know that you’re going to defeat him. You have no idea how special you are, never have, and maybe you have to be made the way you are in order to do what you do. His problem, and whoever this mentor of his is—they don’t know who you are. I do. Be who you are, Seth, who you’ve always been.”
He had always been careful to keep the side of him she was talking about well hidden from her. Since he’d left the life that he’d been living when he’d met her on the streets of Nagasaki and made Arlington his permanent home, there had been countless opportunities for Jules to glean the details of his current job and wheedle hints from him about his past. In truth, he’d revealed far more to her than he should have.
But then, Jules was a friend, and Seth had learned that having friends meant having someone who gave a damn about you. Who cared enough to listen when you needed to talk and coax you into talking even when you didn’t want to.
“He says that your mother is still alive and has spent the last decade searching for you,” Kessler said. “She wants to find you and reunite with you, just like I want to reunite with my Janie.”
Jules’ hands closed tighter around his wrists, and her tone was sharp and hard when she spoke, “Then he lies.”
“Does he?” Kessler asked. He squatted down next to them, the tips of his black combat style boots inches from the blood he had spilled. “What did your hero tell you? That he tried to find her but she didn’t want to be found? That she’s dead? Did he take you to her grave as proof? How do you know for sure that he’s not the one who’s lying?”
Seth gripped Jules’ hands in his. It had been years since they had mentioned Jules’ mother, even in passing. Jules’ mother had abandoned her on the streets of Nagasaki after her father had been killed in a training accident on one of the installations at Okinawa. She had been living on the streets alone for a year when she’d approached him, hungry and destitute and out of options. The anger and resentment Jules had felt toward her mother had stayed with her for a long time, eating away at her existence even as she built a life for herself in the States after Seth had managed to get her back into the country. Seth and Jules both had things they didn’t want to talk about, and they each respected the other’s boundaries.
Jules’ mother was one of the ghosts in her past, and they both knew how that particular spirit had been exorcised.
“I know,” Jules said.
But Kessler didn’t respond to the warning tone in her voice, either because he didn’t hear it or he didn’t care to heed it. “You trust him blindly when you should question everything he says and does. Your mother has been looking for you. She wants—”
“My mother wants nothing,” Jules said, her voice cold and harsh. “She’s dead, and I know that she’s dead because I’m the one that killed her.”
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