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I've never been very good with the word no. I have trouble saying it. I have more trouble hearing it. And accepting it
well, I find that damn near impossible. Always have. Which is why, when the guard at the gate in front of Jake Tower's househis estaterefused to let me in, I kind of wanted to pound his teeth into his throat, then out the back of his head.
Instead, I took a deep breath and counted to ten. "Let's try this again." I laid my left arm across the open window in my car door and glanced through my windshield at the huge house beyond the closed gate. The road actually ended in front of the Tower estate in a cul-de-sac of its own, so that drivers, rebuffed by the locked gate, could turn their cars around and skulk back the way they'd come, properly intimidated by a wealth and power most could never even touch.
I don't skulk.
"Sera Brandt, to see Julia Tower," I repeated, my voice firm with the kind of self-appointed authority only colossal loss and boundless rage can produce.
"I told you, miss." The guard sounded exasperated this time. "Ms. Tower isn't seeing anyone else today. She's suffered a recent family tragedy, and"
"She'll see me. Just get on your little radio and tell her I'm here."
"You don't have an appointment, and she's not" My left arm shot out the open window and I grabbed the front of his black shirt. Before he could do more than grunt in surprise, I jerked him down and forward, smashing the front of his face into the top of my car.
Dazed, he backed away on wobbly legs when I let him go, blood dripping from his nose and down his chin, and before he could think clearly enough to go for his gun, I shoved my car door open, knocking him off his feet entirely. He landed flat on his back, his head inches from the guard booth, arms splayed out at his sides.
If his partner had been there, I'd have been in big trouble. But I'd waited until his partner left for the bathroom, or coffee, or a cigarette, or whatever the Tower estate guards spent their free time on, specifically to avoid that snag.
While the man on the ground moaned and held both hands to his bloody face, I unsnapped the holster exposed by his open jacket and pulled the gun out. I wasn't sure what kind it wasI'd never shot onebut it was big, so I set it on the desk through the window of the guard booth, to keep it out of his immediate reach.
If I'd known how to get the bullets out of it, I would have taken them.
Then I pulled his radio free from the other side of his belt and pressed the button.
And that's when I realized where I'd messed up. I'd introduced myself by the wrong name. The guard didn't give a shit who Sera Brandt was, and Julia TowerLia, to those who knew her personallycertainly wouldn't. So when I pressed the radio button and the soft hum of static was replaced with an even silence, I looked straight into the camera attached to the roof of the guard booth and gave them my real name.
"This is Sera Tower. Open the fucking gate."
For a moment, radio silence followed my announcement while the camera whirred, zooming in on my face, and I wondered if my message would even get through to Lia, who surely had better things to do than listen in on the guards' radio frequency.
According to the internet, both the official news sites and the often more reliable gossip pages, Lia Tower had taken over her brother Jake's business affairs when he'd died four months before, and I could only assume she'd taken over most of his personal affairs, too. But that was truly just a guess. Until the guard refused to let me see her, I didn't even know for sure that she still lived in his houseaccording to the obituary, Jake Tower also left behind a wife and two small children, who had surely inherited the property.
Tower?" a faceless voice asked over the radio a second later. His skepticism was clear. He'd never heard of me. I'd never wanted to be heard of, until then.
I'd never even said it out loud beforemy real last name. I'd never claimed my connection to the family I'd never met. The family my mother had hidden me from, for most of my life. But there was no other way through that gate, and I couldn't get what I'd come for without the resources locked away in the fortress of a house behind it.
"Do you have an appointment?" However, I could tell by his uncertain tone that the question felt as ridiculous to him as it sounded to me. I was a Tower, after all, if I were telling the truth. But protocol is protocol.
"I don't need one. Just tell her Sera is here. Jake Tower's love child has come home."
The first-floor study they stuck me in could well have been called a library. Hardback books lined floor-to-ceiling shelves covering three walls. The center of the room held two couches and several small tables, but I sat on the window seat built into the fourth wall, so I could see the entire room.
A glance at my cell phone told me I'd been there for nearly forty minutes8:00 p.m. had come and gone, without even the offer of a drink. No wonder my butt was going numb. But they'd stationed a guard outside the door and told me to stay put, and now that I'd already gotten Lia's attention, creating another scene didn't seem very likely to work in my favor.
Making me wait was a strategic move on Lia's part. It had to be. To show me how unimportant I was. The internet was virtually void of information about the Towers' personal lives, and my mother hadn't been much more forthcoming, but I remembered every single thing she had told me over the years.
They are master manipulators.
Everything they do has a purposesometimes several purposeswhether you can see that or not.
Don't think that being one of them makes you safe. They won't hesitate to spill their own blood from your veins, if you become a threat.
With that in mind, I suddenly wondered if I was being watched. Studied. Or had I moved beyond simple caution and into paranoia? Either way, I couldn't resist a couple of casual glances at the ceiling to look for cameras. But if they were there, they were hidden. Like I'd been for years.
On the first day of kindergarten I'd discovered that the dad I'd grown up with wasn't actually my father, genetically speaking. My dadhe was Daddy, back thenwas still waving goodbye to me through the classroom window when this little girl with curly pigtails asked me how come my dad was dark and I was light.
I'd never really thought about that before. I'd always assumed that I matched my mom for the same reason my little sister matched our dad. Just because. The same reason the ocean matched the sky, but the grass matched the trees. But before I could explain about how we each matched a different parent, a little boy with a smear of chocolate across one cheek poked his head into our conversation with an unsolicited bit of vicious commentary.
"That's 'cause he's not her real dad. She's pro'ly adopted."
I punched him in the nose, and then his cheek was smeared with chocolate and blood.
That was the very first punch I threw. It was followed, in rapid succession, by my first trip to the principal's office, my first expulsion and my first visit with a child psychologist.
In retrospect, I can see that I overreacted. Pigtails and Bloody Nose were just naturally curious. They probably didn't mean to throw my entire life into chaos and make me question my own existence at the tender age of five.
It took nearly an hour for the principal, guidance counselor, and my parents to calm me down enough to buckle me into my seat in the car. It then took another hour for my parents to explain that I wasn't adopted. I was simply conceived out of wedlock, fathered by a man my mother knew before she ever met my dad.
That's a lot for a kindergartner to absorb, but my parents seemed confident that I could handle it. My dad reassured me that he loved me more than I could possibly imagine, and that he would always be my dad. And that was that.
But my temper failed to improve.
When I was about fifteen, I overheard Mom tell Dad that I might have gotten my temper from my father, but my sharp tongue had come from Aunt Lia. Eight years later, as I stood waiting impatiently for an audience with her, nerves and anger buzzing just beneath the surface of my skin, that was still virtually all I knew about the aunt I'd never met.
That, and that Aunt Lia was perfectly willing to let her own niece stew in isolation. Obviously this wasn't the hugs-and-kisses kind of family. But it was the only kind I had left.
My dad had been a mechanic and an amateur musician who smiled with his eyes, even when his mouth took a firm stand. My biological father had been the head of one of the largest, most dangerous Skilled crime families in the country who, according to my mom, probably smiled as he ordered people hunted down and executed.
I hadn't come into the Tower house with blinders on.
Finally out of patience and buzzing with nerves, I crossed the room and pulled the study door open.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but you'll have to wait inside," the guard posted in the foyer said.
"Or what?" I propped my hands on my hips. "You'll shoot me?"
His hesitation and confusion told me two things. First, he was accustomed to intimidating people with his size and his gun. Second, he wasn't actually prepared to shoot me in broad daylight, in the middle of his boss's formal entrywayan admirable trait in a human being, but quite possibly a liability in a syndicate muscleman.
"Fine. Shoot me," I called over my shoulder as I marched past him on the marble tile, headed for an office whose blurry occupants I could see through the frosted-glass door. I was halfway there, irritated guard on my heels, when something small and mechanical raced across the tile in front of me, and I stopped inches short of tripping over it.
I bent to pick up the remote control car just as two small children stumbled to a stop in front of me.
"Sorry." The little girl pushed tangled brown hair from her face and stared up at me through huge, bright blue eyes. "Ms. George says Kevin drives like a maniac."
"She also says you suck your thumb like a baby." The boyKevin, evidentlysnatched the toy car from my hand. I started to tell him exactly how rude he was being, but then I saw his face and the words froze on my lips. It was like staring at a younger version of me, with shorter hair. He had my pale skin and ruddy cheeks, and those greenish eyes no one else in my family had. And based on the utter disdain for adults that shone in his eyes, our similarities went far beyond the physical. I'd never met an authority figure I hadn't challenged.
If my mother hadn't had the patience of a saint, life would have been very difficult for us both.
"Where is Ms. George?" The voicefeminine, but completely lacking in warmthwas accompanied by the click of heels on the marble floor. I looked up to find Julia Tower, the aunt I knew only from my mother's description and photos found online, crossing the foyer toward us, looking not at me, but at the children.
The little girl clasped her hands at her back and stared up at herouraunt. "She fell asleep during Charlotte's Web."
"She lost interest when I told her the spider dies," Kevin added. "I shoulda told her they'd butcher the pig."
Julia exhaled slowly, as if clinging to her patience, then frowned at the guard coming to a stop behind us. "Take them back upstairs and wake up that worthless nanny."
"Should I tell Mrs. Tower"
"No." Julia's features scrunched up with the word as though she found the thought revolting. "There's no reason to bother Lynn."
As the guard herded the children back upstairs, my aunt finally looked at me for the first time. The weight of her gaze made me want to squirm, but I knew better. Show the wolf a weakness, and it'll rip out your throat. Stare it down, and it might back off.
But Julia Tower didn't back off. She didn't rip my throat out, either, but I couldn't dismiss the certainty that she was holding that option in reserve.
"You're Sera?" She studied my face as intently as I studied hers. In person, her eyes were bluer than they'd appeared online, but the real-life version lacked the warm, approachable quality she'd evidently worn like a costume at various social and political gatherings.
In person, her eyes were more of an ice-blue, as if I were looking into the soul of a glacier, rather than that of a warm-blooded human being.
When she'd finished her silent assessment of me, she gestured stiffly toward the office I'd been headed for in the first place. Two large men dressed in black followed us inside, and I wondered what it said about her that she employed not one but two personal guards to protect her in her own home.
Just how many people currently wanted my aunt dead?
"I asked you to wait in the study," Lia said as one of the men at her back closed the office door and lowered blinds to cover the frosted glass, effectively isolating us from the rest of the house. I blinked at him, and my pulse tripped a little faster. Were they closing the blinds for a private conversation, or so they could shoot me without witnesses?
Did that kind of thing really happen?
"Yeah. I'm not very patient."
Julia's brows rose. "Well, you certainly sound like my brother." From the liquor cart to the right of her huge dark wood desk, she poured an inch of amber liquid into a glass, then sipped from it while she examined me from across the room. Without offering me any.
Finally Lia set her glass on the desk blotter, but before she could speak the office door opened behind me and another man in black stuck his head into the room. "Sorry to interrupt, Ms. Tower," he said without even a glance at me. "But they're ready. Just waiting on your authorization."
"Do it," Lia said. "And let me know the moment it's done." The man nodded once, then backed into the hall and pulled the door shut.
I wondered what order she'd just given, and whose life it would ruin. Just because the Tower syndicate knew nothing about me didn't mean I knew nothing about it. I hadn't been able to find many day-to-day specifics online, but the overtones of greed, violence and corruption came through loud and clear, even in vague articles citing anonymous sources, who may or may not have disappeared shortly after they were interviewed.