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Wish Upon a Star
By Michelle McLean, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Michelle McLean
All rights reserved.
I knew it was him the second I heard his voice. Even through the chaotic din of the crowd at Pleasure Island, his voice carried and hit me right in the heart, stopping me cold. I didn't need to turn around to confirm it, though remaining still was one of the hardest things I'd ever done in my life. He was here. Finally. Walking back into my life. Never thought it would happen, though I'd wished for it often enough.
Maybe one of these days I'd get it through my thick skull that wishes hardly ever came true. Even when they did, they usually didn't turn out the way you wanted.
Then again, here he was.
What I didn't know was why he was here or how I felt about him turning up now.
Or why I was still staring at the floor even though he'd been standing in front of me for the last several seconds.
His voice still had the power to turn me into a quivering pile of goo. I hated him for it.
I looked up, forced myself to stare right into those grass-green eyes. "Jason."
And ... cue awkward silence.
He opened his mouth a few times, like he wanted to say something, but instead he just stared. And every word of every speech I'd rehearsed in my head for when, or if, I ever saw him again evacuated my brain.
The memory of him walking out of my door four years ago broke the spell. I cleared my throat.
"What are you doing here?"
"You look good."
My heart flipped and I took a slow breath, trying to calm the traitorous organ that overreacted to a few nice words. They meant nothing. Him walking out on me three days before our wedding meant everything. He wasn't welcome here, no matter how many cartwheels my heart did. No matter in how many weak moments I'd wished for it. I had to keep reminding myself that.
"That doesn't really answer my question," I said.
"Mommy! Look what Grandma bought me!"
My daughter, Skye, ran up through the crowds of tourists milling around the megamall-type center and thrust a twirling pinwheel at me. I forced a smile, stealing a quick glance at Jason.
He was staring down at Skye and I could almost see him doing the mental math, calculating how old she was ... his eyes widening as he came to the conclusion that there was a possibility she was his.
I'd lost track of how many times I'd wished she was.
"Jason, this is my daughter, Skye. We are here to visit her father."
Jason's eyes met mine, narrowing slightly, and I tamped down the jolt of guilt that hit me. I had nothing to feel guilty over. He had left me. My actions after that fact were none of his business.
He smiled down at Skye. "I'm very pleased to meet you. My name is Jason."
"Hi," Skye said shyly, wrapping her little arm around my leg.
My mother came to stand beside us and, with my attention no longer riveted on Jason, I noticed that his father was standing behind him.
I smiled at Max with genuine pleasure. I'd always loved the old man. He'd been the father I'd never had.
Max hugged me hard enough to crack my back. "How have you been?"
"I'm doing fine," I assured him. "You?"
Max's face fell and for the first time I noticed the lines of grief etched around his eyes. "We've ... had a bit of a hard time." He glanced up at his son. "I think we'd better let the two of you talk in private for a minute."
Before I could protest that I had no intention of talking to Jason in private, Max turned to my mother and held out his arm. "Ms. McKinley, shall we take your delightful granddaughter for a ride on the carousel?"
"Yay, yay, yay!" Skye shouted, jumping up and down with excitement.
My mother winked at me and then she took Max's arm and together they led Skye off to the carousel. Leaving me alone with Jason.
Jason ran his fingers through his floppy 1990's Hugh Grant haircut. "You don't need to look so nervous, Ceri. I just want to talk to you for a second."
"What do you want?"
"Can we sit for a minute?" He nodded at a circle of benches off in a corner and I reluctantly followed him.
I sat, putting as much space between us as possible. If Jason noticed, he chose to ignore it. He pulled a folded newspaper article out of his pocket and handed it to me. "Have you seen this yet?"
I spread the paper out and a lump of dread lodged in my throat. The blaring headline was like a knife twisting in my gut.
NOTORIOUS CRIMINAL PETER CRICKETT GUNNED DOWN IN ROBBERY GONE BAD
The pain wasn't for Peter. To be honest, I didn't feel that bad for Peter. He'd kind of had it coming. But his death hurt Jason and their father. And them, I loved. No matter what lies I told myself or what had happened between Jason and me, I didn't wish this kind of pain on him.
"I'm so sorry. Really."
He nodded his thanks. "Read it."
I turned back to the article.
Peter Crickett, a former employee at Saxton Technologies and beneficiary of their cutting-edge cybernetic prosthetics, was killed in a shoot-out Saturday night when police officers responded to a call from a research scientist at the company's lab. Crickett allegedly broke into the lab of his father, Max Crickett, who called the police when he discovered the burglary in progress. Whether or not Mr. Crickett was aware of who the thief was when he made the call is not clear. Mr. Crickett and his attorney have declined to comment.
Mr. Russell Saxton, the lead scientist and owner of Saxton Technologies, released a statement saying: "We at Saxton Technologies are deeply saddened by the events of this past weekend. The technology his father helped develop took Peter from a bedbound amputee and gave him a new lease on life. We had high hopes for him, but unfortunately, he chose to misuse his second chance. It is a true tragedy.
I stopped reading and rubbed my eyes. The only reason Russell thought Peter's death was a tragedy was because of how much time and money he had invested in him. Russell didn't care about Peter as a person. He didn't care about anyone — except for himself. It was one of the reasons I'd divorced him. Well, that and his mad-scientist-criminal-mastermind tendencies and total moral and ethical ineptitude. Though on the divorce papers I'd just summed it up as irreconcilable differences and had left it at that.
Sweet heaven, Jason must be in hell. He had loved his brother more than anything — including, me. They were barely a year apart, had grown up as close as brothers could be. They'd been inseparable. Mostly. Except for that one night. When Jason decided to bail on the night of debauchery Peter had planned for Jason's bachelor's party and had hung out with me instead.
Peter and his friends had teased Jason for being so whipped that he would rather be with the old ball-and-chain instead of ogling every stripper in Vegas and they had gone out anyway. By the end of the night, Peter had ended up in the hospital without the use of most of his limbs, and several internal organs had been damaged beyond repair.
And Jason and I ... well, we were broken, too.
At least for Peter, there had been hope. Despite federal regulations forbidding the testing of cyborg prosthetics on human subjects, Max and Russell had convinced Peter to volunteer; not that it had taken much convincing. And voila ... Peter had become the world's only living cyborg, more machine than man, but still ... a living, breathing, functioning member of society.
And now ... he was gone. It must have been a lucky hit. Most of his cyborg parts were bullet proof and his reflexes were off the charts. What a waste of a life.
"I'm very sorry for your loss, Jason. I really am. But I'm not sure I understand why you came all the way down here to show me this."
Jason looked down at the paper, his face creased in pain. "I didn't know you'd be here. I came to talk to your husband."
"Ex-husband," I said quickly, not sure why I felt the need to make that clear.
Jason looked up, his eyes wide. And hopeful. "You're divorced?"
"For how long."
I squirmed. My short marriage was not something I was proud of, and not something I made a habit of talking about. "A few years. It didn't last long."
He seemed unable to form a coherent thought, his forehead creasing in a frown. "Why didn't you tell me?"
I sighed. "You broke off our engagement three days before our wedding. And then I went and married someone else. I figured we were done talking to one another. And then I had Skye and she became my life."
"Ceri," Jason said, his voice a deep whisper that used to drive me insane. That still did. My name on his lips did things to me that ought to be illegal.
I tore my gaze from his and shifted farther away until the arm of the bench pressed into my thigh. The sooner he said his piece, the sooner I could get him back out of my life. Because wishes or no, seeing him hurt too damned much.
"Why are you here?" I asked, beginning to feel claustrophobic in the packed building.
I hated coming here, and had only come today because Russell had insisted on talking about his visitation arrangements. For the first several years of Skye's life, he'd barely acknowledged her existence, coming to see her once every few months. Now it seemed he wanted to up the frequency of his visits. The request had made the ball of anxiety in my gut grow to near painful proportions.
The press of the crowd stifled me. It was early yet. The sun had barely gone down. But this was Las Vegas, and Pleasure Island, Russell's main base, was one of the hottest locations on the Strip. It was always packed. Pleasure Island wasn't just a strip club, as the name might suggest, though there was a very classy one (as strip clubs went) in the basement level of the building, along with the casino. It had a little something for everyone, including a giant moat that made Pleasure Island a true island, kids' games, and a five star restaurant.
Jason's gaze roved over me, seeking, questioning. I turned my face away and after a moment, he answered. "Dad and I were hoping to talk to Russell. Now that you're here ... maybe you can help."
"You're kidding, right?" I stood but he grasped my arm. I stared at his offending appendage until he removed it.
"Look, I know it's a lot to ask, but you might be able help. My father's out of his mind. This thing with my brother is just ... "
I sighed and sat back down. Yeah. I got it.
"I'm sorry about Peter, for your father's sake. But ... "
"I know," he said, his face drawn. "I know it's for the best but ... " He sighed, raking his hand through his hair, over and over. "He was my brother."
I clenched my hands against the urge to brush his hair from his face. He had the most beautiful hair I'd ever seen. Deep, dark red. Like a drop of ruby blood.
I stood again, my hands fisted at my sides.
"I feel horrible about your family's troubles, I really do. But I don't know what you expect me to do about it."
"You don't understand. My father knew it was Peter when he called the cops. He knew and called them anyway."
I sucked in a breath. Didn't see that one coming. "He purposely turned him in?"
"Peter was ransacking Dad's lab, looking for some research Dad had been working on."
"Peter didn't just get cyborg limbs and organs from Saxton Tech. Dad had been working on some sort of microchip that was supposed to help repair function to damaged brains. It was still experimental, but Russell implanted it in Peter's brain."
"He did what?"
"It was supposed to help his body function. His brain wasn't sending the correct signals to the rest of his body. The chip was supposed to regulate everything."
"But Dad thinks Russell modified it to do more than that. Peter's personality changed drastically after his surgery. He became a totally different person above and beyond the artificial limbs and everything else. At first we thought it was just post-traumatic stress or something. All that damage ... that would change a person. But still ... I mean Peter might have pulled a few crazy stunts in his life, and yeah, he broke a few laws, but he wasn't cruel. He wasn't someone who would do Russell's bidding without question or hesitation. Didn't you notice how different he was?"
I shook my head. "Peter had just started working for Russell when we divorced and I never had anything to do with Russell's business. I only saw Peter a few times after the accident and we never spoke. And once our divorce was final, I rarely saw Russell. Only when he came to see Skye."
Jason's face fell but I continued on, "So your dad thinks that the chip Russell implanted made Peter do whatever Russell wanted?"
"Did you ever ask Peter about it? I mean ... "
I didn't know much about what Peter did for Russell, but as Russell's lead henchman, he most likely did all of Russell's dirty work. And that meant the last three years of his life had probably revolved around crime. It felt rude to point that out though. Luckily, Jason knew what I meant.
"I tried. But I don't know if he could tell if it was happening or not. And honestly, it was hard to tell if he'd just gotten good at his job or if he was truly being manipulated. At first we just assumed ... but it was different. He wasn't just following orders. It was like he wasn't there at all."
Jason shrugged and frowned. "Anyway, when a report came in involving Dad's lab, they assumed it was false. I mean, no matter how Peter had changed, why would he ... "
"Why would he threaten his own father?"
Jason's jaw clenched, his face hardening, though his eyes were creased in pained confusion. He nodded.
I sank back down. "I don't understand how I can help."
Jason straightened with a determined look that shook me more than anything I'd heard so far. I knew that look. Whatever he was about to say was going to be bad.
"Russell has Peter's body."
"We want to bury him, have a proper funeral. But Russell won't give him back. Insists that Peter belongs to him. That since Peter was more machine than man, and since Russell owned the machine bits ... We tried to get in to see him, but he wouldn't talk to us. His lawyer sent a letter threatening action if we persisted in trying to contact Russell. He apparently has some document that Peter signed giving Russell ownership of his body in the event of his death."
"Oh, sweet heaven," I whispered, dread leaching through me. I was very much afraid I knew where this was going.
"We came to try and see him one last time. His secretary said he was out of town, but we know he's here. He's seeing you. Maybe we could go in with you."
Yep. That's what I thought. I swallowed and took a deep breath. "Jason ... "
"If it wasn't for Dad I wouldn't ask at all. But you're our last chance."
"If Russell's legally entitled to Peter's body ... "
"We just want you to talk to him."
"Jason, I'm his ex-wife. Emphasis on the ex. I came here to fight with him over visitation rights, not to ask favors of him."
"Well, since you're fighting with him anyway ..." Jason gave me a lopsided grin that made long-dormant parts of my body perk up and say hello there.
I gritted my teeth to keep from snapping at him. I was Russell's ex for a reason. I had as little to do with the man as possible and had no desire to put myself in his debt by asking him for favors. Ever. The only reason I'd come today was to keep things civil and out of the courts. As much as I hated Russell, I knew I'd never be able to keep him from seeing Skye. Playing nice was my best option. I really didn't see how I could help Jason.
"Even if I can, what then? Are you just going to take Peter's body and walk out the front door?"
"If we have to."
"Jason," I said, already shaking my head.
"Look, we just want to talk to him. If he wants the cyborg parts back, he can have them. We just want Peter. Surely even Russell can understand that."
I repressed a sigh, my shoulders slumping. Sure, he might understand it. That didn't mean he'd go for it. Russell was an ass of the first degree. And he was the worst sort of criminal because he played by the rules. Oh, he twisted them until they were almost unrecognizable. But he always stopped just short of breaking the law.
And I was sure in his mind he was within his rights to keep Peter's body. He'd even covered his butt legally. After all, he did own just about everything that had made Peter tick.
But ... if all they wanted was his body, maybe Russell would agree. After all, what possible use could Russell have for a dead body?
I stood and took a deep breath. "Look, Russell never listened to me when we were married. Divorcing him certainly hasn't improved my influence over him. But I'll try."
Jason stepped toward me with his arms out but I stepped back. "Give me a few minutes. I need to see if my mom can keep Skye for a little longer."
"Don't thank me yet."CHAPTER 2
My mother agreed to take Skye home, so I gave them a quick kiss goodbye and then escorted Jason and Max through the ground floor to a huge bank of elevators. I went to the one marked private and pulled a key card out of my bag. The card slid through with a cheery beep that left a green light glowing on the lock. We were in. Joy.
I pressed a button on the unmarked panel and swiped the key card again. The doors closed and the elevator descended.
"Where are we going?" Jason asked.
"Down. The first basement level is the club and casino. Russell's private office is belowground on the second basement level. He's usually there this time of day, unless he's changed his habits."
Excerpted from Wish Upon a Star by Michelle McLean, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2013 Michelle McLean. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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