chapter eleven —
Kessler managed to dodge Seth’s full-on attack, but still the weight of his body slamming into him rocked Kessler back on his heels. Showing the same agility he’d demonstrated throughout this standoff, Kessler leapt onto one of the barstools and then onto the bar. Seth followed him.
He was in the unenviable position of having to walk backwards. Seth balanced his weight on the balls of his feet, ready to go on the offensive when the right moment presented itself. Kessler still had his hand wrapped confidently around the butt of the gun. Only the look on his face had changed.
Anger and irritation had replaced the amused arrogance.
Good. Kessler had controlled his emotions thus far, but Seth didn’t think that would last. Eventually his rage would overcome his mind and drive his actions. Seth only needed to push him to that point and once there he could end this situation once and for all.
Kessler stalked toward him and asked, “Is she really coming here?”
“No,” Seth answered.
Kessler’s steps didn’t falter. Instead they quickened, and Seth responded in kind, still waiting for the right moment.
“I was listening. You didn’t give her any kind of signal. What did you do?” he demanded.
Seth didn’t speak. He wanted Kessler to wonder, wanted the question to fester in his mind and distract him. They made one full circle of the bar, and Seth swiped the bottle of Jameson.
“What did you do?” Kessler roared.
One of the exposed I-beams that supported the weight of the ceiling stood inches away on his right. As he came even with it, Seth smashed the bottom of the bottle against it. Green glass shattered and fell to the floor behind the bar, but the neck of the bottle and a few inches beneath remained intact. The weapon was no match for Kessler’s gun, but it was better than nothing.
Kessler’s gaze dropped to the broken bottle and he halted. A sneering smile crossed his face and his eyes lit with condescension. Pointing at the crude weapon, he said, “Is that all you’ve got?”
“This and a hell of a lot more,” Seth returned. Going on the offensive, he walked forward. Forced onto his heels, Kessler took a step backward, another and another until they were dancing their way around the bar again, this time in reverse. He kept his eyes on Kessler but reached out with his senses, making a mental map of everyone’s current position in the bar. Everyone but Dinara and Otto were in the same relative position.
Otto was on his knees and Dinara stood over him. How she held him in place Seth couldn’t tell, but he didn’t worry about her ability to keep Otto exactly where she wanted him.
His sole concern right now was Kessler. He had gone quiet, and that was the opposite of what Seth wanted. “She’s happy,” he started. “So much happier now that you’re out of her life.”
“You’re lying,” Kessler spit back. “She needs me.”
“She really doesn’t,” Seth told him. “She’s started dating again. Hasn’t found someone special, but it’s only a matter of time. Only a matter of time before she meets a man who treats her like a queen and deserves her love.”
Seth shook his head. “No, she’s not. She never was.”
Be patient. Just a few more steps, his inner voice told him as they neared the back of the bar. Seth wanted to make his move when they were at the farthest point away from the others. All he had to do was force himself to wait.
“My Janie knows that if she’s let another man touch her, there’s going to be hell to pay,” said Kessler.
“Why do you think she left you in the first place?”
Kessler switched directions, charging forward once more. “She didn’t leave me. You took her from me,” he said, rage writhing on his face. “But you will give her back to me if you don’t want the bartender to die.”
Kessler came at him but Seth was ready for him. Instinctively he went for Kessler’s weakest spot, gripping his shoulder where the throwing blade had shredded skin and muscle. Kessler’s cry of pained outrage echoed in Seth’s ears but he didn’t stop. He lifted his knee and drove it into Kessler’s stomach, and when the man bent forward in response, Seth went for the gun.
But he only managed to knock it out of Kessler’s hand. It went flying through the air until gravity did its job and sent it falling back to the ground. It landed behind the bar, the impact muffled by the black non-slip mats that covered the concrete floor.
Kessler straightened and swung his arm in a wide arc. His fist connected with Seth’s jaw with enough force to send Seth’s head snapping around on his neck. Exposed, Seth thrust the jagged edges of the bottle in his left hand toward Kessler.
He met the parry in the only way he could—by flinging his hand out in a stopping motion. The glass sliced his palm and blood gushed from the deep cut, but Kessler ignored the wound and turned his wrist to grasp for the bottle.
Seth held on to the neck of the bottle, but a shard of glass broke loose. Kessler caught the fabric of Seth’s shirt and pulled hard in spite of the pain that must have throbbed through his shoulder. Shoving against him, Seth broke Kessler’s hold and took one step backward, needing to regain his balance.
Kessler didn’t come at him again. Now, he was the one biding his time, waiting to see what his opponent would do next. Still, he couldn’t seem to stop himself from asking, “How did you warn her off?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Seth answered. No way would he give Kessler that piece of information. If what he had said earlier was true, then there was a chance that a lot of people he had helped to make better lives for themselves were in danger. Seth wouldn’t reveal anything about the safeguards he’d put in place to keep the very thing Kessler was trying to achieve from ever happening.
“You do know what this means, don’t you?” Kessler asked.
“Educate me,” Seth returned.
Kessler took one step toward him and then another, his gait a slow swagger that ignited fresh anger within Seth’s gut. He couldn’t dismiss him as a servant come to blindly do his master’s bidding, and yet his assumption of victory pissed Seth way the hell off.
No, his inner voice corrected. It’s not his assumption of victory that pisses you off. It’s his perception that you’re too weak to protect your own.
“My woman isn’t here, but yours is.”
He didn’t have to say her name for Seth to know he was talking about Dinara. His fingers tingled and his muscles went rigid, going into battle-ready mode.
“Or shall I say, your women are here. Jules and Dinara,” Kessler pressed, getting closer with each step. “Which one of them are you willing to sacrifice for the other? Hmm? Are you not answering me because you don’t know or because you don’t want them to know?”
“Seth, I have a green light to take him out, but I need a clean shot,” said Barrett.
Good to know, but not information he could act on yet. Not until Murdoch cracked Kessler’s phone and deactivated the wristbands on Jules’ arms. Instead of making the move Barrett was waiting for, Seth took a step toward Kessler. “You’ve made a tactical error, Kessler,” he said, tightening his grip on the neck of the bottle he still held in his hand.
The arrogant smile he’d worn for much of the night returned. The smile Seth had failed to wipe off his face. Titling his head to the side, Kessler asked, “What’s that?”
“You look at Jules and Dinara and you see points of weakness,” Seth replied. “I look at them and see two very good reasons for ending your life.”
“You’ll need more than a broken whiskey bottle to accomplish that feat.”
Seth had his bare hands, and when called into service, they had never failed to be deadly weapons. “Let’s find out,” he said to Kessler.
Seth flung himself toward Kessler and his opponent did the same. Before he could land a solid punch to Kessler’s jaw, scuffling noises behind him snared his attention from where it needed to be.
And it gave Kessler the opening he needed to strike.
Too late, Seth sighted Kessler’s hand inches from his face. He spun away from the impending contact but not soon enough. The shard of broken glass Kessler had ripped from the bottle sliced through the soft flesh of his throat. Hot blood trickled from the wound, down his neck and onto his chest, soaking his skin and shirt.
Seth struggled to find his feet beneath him, and in the next instant he lost his balance. Awkwardly, one foot landed on the lower counter behind the bar, but his momentum carried him down to the ground. On his back, he looked up and saw Kessler towering over him, the shard of glass still in his hand. But before Seth could react, Kessler hopped onto the counter and then down to the floor.
As if he was in the middle of a stroll through the park, he moved to where the gun had fallen during their first struggle. Picking it up, Seth watched him examine it before he pointed it at him.
“Looks like we’re back to square one,” said Kessler.
Seth swiped his fingers over the wound at his neck. His fingertips came away bloody, but the good news was that the glass had caused nothing more than a flesh wound. The cut hadn’t been deep enough to nick an artery.
“Seth, I’m in,” Murdoch said through the comms.
About damn time, he thought. Rising to his feet, Seth leveled his gaze on Kessler and said, “Not exactly square one.”
“I’m holding a gun pointed at your chest. You’re defenseless and bloody. The bloody part is new, I’ll give you that, but not much has changed since you walked into this bar an hour ago.”
Murdoch’s voice came to him once again, saying, “I’m unlocking the connection in four, three, two, one. Now. It’s done, Seth. The indicator lights should have changed in color.”
Seth took a step toward Kessler and said, “There is one thing that’s different.”
Careful not to tip his hand too much, Seth spoke, “There are three men outside of this bar who are waiting for the right moment to come inside and take you down.”
A knowing smile lit Kessler’s face before it blossomed into an outright grin. “Tell me. Is the renowned Joshua Cannon one of those men? He said he would come to your rescue if I did this right.”
Seth stiffened. In his ear he heard Josh ask, “Where the fuck did he get his information?”
Kessler tapped his forefinger against his lips, seemingly unconcerned by the trails of blood winding around his hand from the messy wound in his palm. “Here’s what I think,” he started. “Joshua Cannon and whoever else might be out there with him are going to stand down.”
“Why would they do that?” Seth asked.
Lifting his finger from his lips, Kessler rotated his forefinger in a circle before pointing at a spot behind Seth. “Take a look for yourself. You were right about us not being exactly at square one.”
Unease skated down his spine as his mind processed the space between now and the moment that the sound of a commotion had broken his concentration. Seth looked at Kessler. His empty eyes were in deep contrast to his laughing cheeks, and Seth’s unease heightened, triggering every internal alarm he possessed.
Kessler raised his brows and dipped his head toward that same spot he’d pointed to a moment ago. “Go on. Don’t be shy.”
Seth turned on his heels and his gaze swept the bar, but it took only an instant for his eyes to find Dinara. Some part of him always knew her exact position when they were in the same room. Some part of him would always look for her first, irrevocably drawn to her like a satellite in perpetual orbit.
The last glimpse he’d gotten of her, she’d been standing over Otto. But now their positions were reversed.
Now Dinara was the one on her knees, and Otto had forced the barrel of a loaded gun into her mouth.
chapter twelve —
It didn’t matter that he had missed the fact that Otto had a gun.
It didn’t matter that Kessler’s maniacal laughter filled the heavy silence.
It didn’t matter that first Josh and then Vaughan tried to get through to him on the comms.
All that mattered was Otto’s finger on the trigger and the fact that Dinara wouldn’t look him.
Seth’s world narrowed to that one image. He forgot about Kessler, he forgot about Jules, he forgot about everyone else but Dinara and the peril she was in because she had thought she was answering a text from him. Because she thought he’d reached out to her for help and had come without question.
Everything stopped. The beating of his heart, the in and out of his breath, the racing thoughts of his mind. It was like he was locked inside a photograph, frozen in place, unable to return to the moment just before the image had been snapped and incapable of moving forward.
“Say the word, Seth.”
Barrett’s voice cut through the silence and shattered some of the ice encasing him. It was enough to restart his mind, but the choice in front of him was worse than the inability to make himself move and the indecision paralyzing him.
It would be easy to justify. Seth could tell himself that Otto’s blood wouldn’t be on his hands. He could call him a loose cannon and convince himself that he was stopping him before he could hurt anyone else.
He could tell himself he’d done it for Dinara. That he had chosen her life even if it meant taking someone else’s.
Because if he knew nothing else to be true, Seth understood that one thing in his life was absolute—he would always choose Dinara. No one and nothing else would ever take precedence over her safety, her happiness, her well-being.
He had nothing to bargain with, nothing to bring to the table to convince Otto it was in his best interest to walk away from Dinara and leave her unharmed. All Seth had was the choice that demanded to be made.
Kill or be killed. Because watching Dinara’s life slip away would kill him.
He is not innocent, the voice in mind spoke. Don’t be confused about who and what he is. Maybe he hasn’t taken a life yet, but you’ve seen enough young men just like him to know that that’s the road he’s on.
The word rushed out of him, and it couldn’t be called back.
“What did you say?”
Kessler had crossed some of the distance between them, but Seth couldn’t spare a second’s thought for him right now. Willing his body to do as he commanded, his feet carried him slowly but inexorably closer to Dinara and the man that threatened her life. He didn’t know what he was going to say, but he opened his mouth anyway.
“Let her go.”
Otto’s gaze snapped up to his, petulant anger pulsing in his demeanor. “Why should I? Do you know what she did to me?”
“I have no doubt she gave you exactly what you deserved,” Seth returned. “But whatever she did to you, it will pale in comparison to what I’ll do to you if you don’t let her go.”
He threw Seth the same sneering look he’d received from Kessler more times than he wanted to count. It occurred to him to wonder just how long the two had known each other and the nature of what appeared to be a relationship between mentor and protege. Neither question, though, was more important than getting this man away from Dinara. He had lost his focus before but he wouldn’t make the same mistake now. Not now when nothing mattered more.
“Kessler says he has a file on me,” Seth went on. “Have you read it?”
Otto flicked his eyes toward Kessler. “No. He says that I have to earn it. Perhaps killing your bitch will get me a look inside.”
“Killing Dinara will get you nothing but eternal rest,” Seth returned. “Is that what you want? To be dead at twenty-one?”
“You couldn’t defeat Kessler and you sure as hell won’t take a shot at me as long as I have Dinara on her knees,” Otto shot back. He looked down at Dinara’s head and lifted one hand to stroke his fingers through her dark brown hair. “She is beautiful. You must love having her on her knees, her mouth wide open while you—“
His control snapped and Seth’s primal instincts took over. Without conscious thought, he chose his target and generated as much blunt force as he could in the narrow space between them. Seth’s elbow drove into the vulnerable spot just beneath Otto’s chin, his Adam’s apple taking the brunt of the direct, vicious blow.
Seth didn’t wait to see the results of his assault. After striking the blow, he drove his fingers into the hollows between Otto’s wrist bones. When Otto’s nerveless fingers relaxed around the gun Seth closed his hand around it and drove his shoulder into the boy’s chest, pushing away the weight of his body. He could hear Otto gasping for air, and he heard his body collapse onto the concrete floor, but the sounds existed only in the background. His sole focus was Dinara.
Carefully but quickly he slid the barrel out of her mouth and then dropped down to one knee. With one hand cupping her head, he connected his gaze with hers. “Dinara.”
She stared back at him, and the weight of her gaze was heavy on his soul.
“Why did you bring me here?” she asked in a voice edged with cold ice and hard iron.
“I didn’t,” he answered.
“You texted me,” she accused. “I know that it came from your phone because I have your number programmed in my contacts. It was you.”
Seth shook his head and denied, “No. It wasn’t me. I would never have brought you into this.” He leaned his head closer to hers but didn’t break eye contact with her. “What did the text say?”
Her eyes widened with disbelief before filling with anger. “Don’t play games with me, Seth. I—“
“I didn’t text you,” he repeated, consciously having to work to keep his own voice from rising. “Tell me what it said.”
Dinara raised her hands and pushed her hands against his chest. Seth understood her meaning with perfect clarity. Though what he wanted was to hold her close, he dropped his arms to his sides. As expected, she drew an imaginary line between them. It had been there since they’d met, and Seth had respected it every time she retreated behind it. He hated the space between them as much as he feared that it would always be there, existing like a wall she used to keep him out.
“It said, ‘I need to see you. Can you meet me at the Compass Bar in 15?’” Dinara recited. She glanced in the direction of her phone, still in the same place on the floor where she’d dropped it earlier. Returning her eyes to his, she shook her head and said, “You really didn’t send it, did you?”
Her laugh was short and self-deprecating. “No, of course you didn’t. I should have known something was up. You would never send me a text saying you needed me.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but the sound of clapping assaulted his ears and forced him back into the moment. Everything that his mind had blocked out as it focused on eliminating Otto’s threat to Dinara rushed back with brutal intensity.
“My mentor really does know you so well,” Kessler said.
He squatted down beside them and looked down at his watch. “While I appreciate all the drama that’s unfolded, it’s time for us to leave.”
“Leave?” Seth asked, surprised by this turn of events. Otto still gasped and coughed, trying to catch his breath and failing.
“Yes, we’re leaving,” Kessler returned, his features hardening and the smile disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. “I don’t yet have what I came for, and the bartender will be exploding soon. We’ll take Dinara with us. She’ll be my insurance that you won’t deceive me again.”
“You think I’m going to take you to Janie,” Seth realized.
“You will take me to her,” Kessler corrected. “You’ve already lost one friend tonight. Do you want to lose your girlfriend, too?”
Otto’s gun was still in Seth’s hand, and now he pointed it at Kessler. “You’ve forgotten what I said.”
“Oh, are you talking about the men surrounding the bar? I’m not really concerned with them.”
Seth studied Kessler and believed he meant every word. The question was why. Why was he not at all worried about the fact that he was outnumbered and the playing field within the bar had been leveled?
“I can see the question bouncing around in your head so I’ll give you the answer you’re looking for,” Kessler said. “That file my mentor gave me? It has pictures of all your known associates, including Joshua, Vaughan, Jensen, Murdoch, Wes, and Walker, the latter of which is relatively new to the group. But the best thing about that file? There’s also photos of Tobin Winters, Gisele Riley, and Tessa Gallo. Now, I don’t know who’s outside, but I’m thinking that when they find out that the women they love have sniper rifles trained on them at this very minute, they’ll be a lot less inclined to make a move to help you.”
“He’s lying, Seth,” Josh said through the comms. “Tobin and Gisele are at the loft, safe as houses.”
“And Tessa is here at the office with Walker,” Wes added.
Seth thought they had all missed the point Kessler was making. Not only did he know way too much about Seth, but he knew more than he should about the people who made up his inner circle. And what Kessler knew, his mentor knew, as did anyone else with whom the mystery man had shared Seth’s dossier. Once again, Seth wondered about the reason for Barrett’s presence. Was it possible that whoever this man was, the extent of his knowledge went far beyond Seth and spread not just to Josh’s people but into darker places that the government didn’t want exposed?
Seth stood and Kessler mirrored his movement. With guns pointed at each other, Seth spoke, “It appears we’re at a stalemate, because Dinara goes nowhere with you, and I won’t take you to Janie.”
“In three minutes you’ll change your mind,” Kessler promised. “It will be a localized explosion. The maker of the wristbands promised that as long as a person stays outside of a five foot radius, all they’ll feel is a small vibration beneath their feet from the detonation.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Seth told him.
Kessler inclined his head to the side and his eyes narrowed. Seth had come to recognize the move as one of contemplation, as though he were surveying the pieces on a chess board and searching for a trap.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Seth said, “There’s not going to be a boom, Kessler. You lose.”
Read Chapters 13 & 14 on Tuesday, 9/26 at 4PM CT