“Try to move the men on Carlisle. I can save myself.” My response gets his attention, and he shoots me a halfhearted smile, but one from a friend to a friend. One that warms the chill that runs through me.
“You’re not doing a very good job of that, Ria.” He uses the same nickname my mother had for me and it breaks the wall of strength I’ve been holding on to.
“It’s been so long since someone’s called me that,” I tell him with a smile that matches his.
“I’ll always love you,” he tells me and he grips my hand harder. He whispers, “Always, Ria,” before kissing my wrist. A move that makes Eli shift his stance once again.
His smile dies before mine does. “I will never forgive myself if something happens to you,” he says, and his voice is choked. “I can’t do anything now, but I promise I’ll make this right, even if you hate me for it.”
“I wish you would just listen to me,” I tell him as the door opens behind me. The rusty hinges make it known without turning my head to see.
“I’ll make it right,” Nikolai says hurriedly as two men walk around the table on either side of me and take him away. I have to grip the edge of my seat to keep from reaching for him. My heart splinters, not knowing when I’ll see him again and feeling as if I’ve failed miserably.
“Don’t be stupid, Nikolai,” I call after him.
He peeks over his shoulder at me with a smile that I recognize and one that brings tears to prick the back of my eyes. “I’ll try not to, Ria.”
“You’ll let him go?” I ask Eli quickly and with a desperation that’s obvious.
He doesn’t hesitate to answer, “So long as he doesn’t do anything stupid.”
I can only nod a response, not trusting myself to speak, knowing full well Nikolai would do foolish things to save me.
The door closes, and Eli tells me we’re waiting for a moment, but I hardly hear him as I think about everything that was revealed in the last thirty minutes.
I never thought much of who I wanted to be as I got older. I only knew what I was running from.
I didn’t want to marry someone my father approved of, like Mika. I never wanted that, and I thought if I stayed quiet and listened, my father wouldn’t marry me off as some of the whispers I’d heard hinted at that possibility.
I didn’t want to be the reason the man I fell in love with died. That’s the exact reason Nikolai and I ended what we had. When my father started watching me closely, when he asked me if anyone had touched me because he’d kill them if they had, I denied it.
And when he cornered Nikolai and asked him, Nikolai told my father what he wanted to hear, that we were nothing but friends, but he would honor my father’s request to leave me alone.
I knew I didn’t want to be alone; I didn’t want to run away. And so, I sat there in my room, quietly hiding from everything I knew I didn’t want, but I never thought of what I wanted. I never chased what I knew deep down could be mine.
Nothing will stop me from chasing it now.
“Whiskey?” Daniel asks me as I watch Aria’s throat tighten as she stares at the table. She did well, but still, watching it was fucking agony.
“Give her a minute,” I speak into the microphone to Eli as I nod at Daniel. The amber liquid swirls in the bottle and reflects the pale moonlight filtering into my office.
Sitting back in my chair, I refuse to acknowledge how on edge my body feels. I’m on the edge of breaking down once again. My throat is dry and tight, my fingers and toes numb.
“She loves him,” I admit the truth that splinters my chest in a whisper as I stare at the screen. It was clear to see in the way she spoke to him and held him and comforted him. But more than that, it’s obvious he loves her as well.
That’s something I can’t allow.
“I don’t want to hear you talk about the woman you love, not in that context. Not about her loving someone else.” Daniel’s response leaves no room for negotiation and I turn to him as he hands the tumbler to me.
Bringing the glass to my lips, I know what he’s referring to and maybe it makes me coldhearted, but the pain that lies in between his words brings me comfort. The whiskey burns my chest as I tilt back the glass and take it all at once.
“Another?” I ask him, holding out the glass for him to refill even though his is still very much full. Three fingers’ worth of whiskey is still evident in his glass.