“Tell me the story again,” Diego Santiago demanded, staring dispassionately at the man tied to a chair in front of him. That man, otherwise known as Ricky Hernandez, slumped against his bindings and gasped a shuddering breath against ribs that were definitely bruised and possibly broken.
“It’s like I told you, Padre,” the man pled. One of his brown eyes was swollen shut, but the other watched Diego with a sad, wary gaze, knowing that Diego held the man’s life in his hands. “The girl was locked up in the cell, just like she was s’posed to be. I was sitting in the hall watching TV. She musta come up behind me, knocked me out, and took off!”
Diego clasped his arms loosely behind his back and paced in front of Ricky’s chair as if he were considering this information. He purposely kept the corners of his lips turned up in a slight smile, as though nausea and rage weren’t burning a hole in his gut, and his entire right hand wasn’t swollen and throbbing from the punishing blows he’d already delivered. In Salazar’s crew—or was it Santiago’s crew now that Diego had been in charge for the past six months? Jesus. There was an idea that would have his Mamá turning over in her grave—appearances were everything.
He lifted his gaze and surveyed the men who had arranged themselves in a loose circle around Ricky’s chair. More than a dozen of them returned his stare, all armed to the teeth and in various stages of inebriation, from stone-sober Banyon to completely-shitfaced Marco, but not a single man moved or spoke. All of them were completely transfixed on the scene.
They weren’t happy at the sight of one of their own, a man they considered their brother, receiving his punishment. There but for the grace of God, and all that shit. But there was a grim acceptance about them. Until this morning, if anyone had aimed so much as a disrespectful word in Ricky’s direction, let alone a violent blow, these men would have thrown down without qualm. But now, Ricky had committed a crime against them, and they’d bear witness to his beating with the same stoicism.
Growing up in this neighborhood, Diego had quickly learned that justice did not involve the police, let alone a trial with a robed judge and pricey lawyers. Here, justice was immediate, brutal, and often fatal. Betrayal was the highest crime of all, and there were no loopholes or technicalities that would let you skate once you were caught.
Which is why you’re fucking lucky you haven’t been caught , he thought wryly. Then he quickly locked that thought away and focused on Ricky once more.
“I want to believe you, Ricky,” he lied. “But I’m having trouble here. The girl was in a locked cell, cuffed to a bed.” He swallowed down his revulsion as the scene flashed in his mind. “And you want me to believe that she somehow managed to uncuff herself, unlock her cell, hit you over the head, and then drag your sorry ass back into the cell and lock you up? Is the girl a fucking magician? Hmm?”
He took a step closer and tilted his head to look at Ricky, who remained silent. “No, amigo, she’s not. So, here’s what I think happened.” He smiled, and let his voice turn friendly. Just a couple of buddies, just a pleasant discussion. “I think you were fucking horny last night. How many times have I told you that your dick was gonna get you in trouble?” He shook his head in what might have passed for fond exasperation in any other circumstance. “I think you decided that you were gonna have a taste.”
Ricky swallowed. “No, I—”
“Ah-ah-ah,” Diego interrupted, shaking his head but smiling once again. “Who’s the guy who’s always bitching about how stupid it is that we transport pussy, but I don’t let you sample the goods?”
Ricky’s one good eye slid shut. “Me,” he admitted, defeated.
“Uh huh. So, last night, you unlocked the girl’s cell, and freed her from her cuffs. Then you fucked her, and in the process of that, she managed to escape. Sound about right?”
“I-I didn’t free her,” Ricky protested. Somewhere behind Diego, one of the guys snorted. Ricky was looking for that technicality, that loophole that didn’t exist. Poor bastard. “And I didn’t get to fuck her. I don’t know how she hit me. I—”
“No, estúpido pedazo de mierda, you just went inside the cell, with your fucking keys on you, whipped your cock out, and let her get the jump on you.” Diego took a step forward and reached out his left hand, grabbing Ricky’s hair and yanking the man’s head back. “ Am I missing anything?”
A sob erupted from Ricky’s throat. “Padre. Boss. I swear… Her hands were still tied. I don’t know how it happened! It was an accident. I didn’t mean for her to escape. I didn’t—”
“You didn’t mean? It was an accident?” Diego spat. “Was it an accident when you stepped into that cell, cabrón? Was it an accident when you defied my very clear orders that you assholes are not to touch these girls?”
Ricky wept openly now. “I’m sorry, Padre. I’m sorry.”
Diego’s gut twisted and his jaw locked. “Not sorry enough, Ricky,” he decreed. And then he brought his right arm back and forward, crashing his fist into Ricky’s jaw. The reverberation of the punch traveled like a shockwave up Diego’s arm, and pain radiated from his knuckles to his shoulder. The chair toppled backwards, crashing to the ground. Ricky’s head hit the pavement with a dull thud, then he moaned and fell silent.
Diego stared at the motionless man for a moment, his own chest heaving, before turning to Banyon. “Get him up and into the cell. No doctor. And you give him nothing for the pain. No meds. No drugs. No booze, not even a beer. Water, if he wakes up. That’s it. I want him to feel every second of his pain. This is the price of betrayal. Entiendes?”
“Si, Padre,” Banyon agreed. He butted Nico with his shoulder, and the two men stepped forward, silently hauling Ricky’s chair back up.
“Look hard,” Diego told the others. “This is a man who placed his own desires before his allegiance to our crew. This is a man who fucked up. I want you all to remember this: when you fuck up, there will always be someone who will capitalize on your mistake…” He let his voice get deeper, silkier. “And there will always, always, be consequences.”
Marco shuddered and several other men averted their gazes. Message received. Diego turned on his heel and headed for his office at the rear of the warehouse without another word.
Christ . How had this bullshit become his life?
He shut the office door behind him and snagged the bottle of aguardiente from the low, wooden sideboard with his left hand before collapsing into his desk chair. He hadn’t allowed himself to get good and drunk since the day he’d learned that Chalo Salazar—his hated enemy, his former boss—was dead. Alcohol had seemed a fitting solution to the tangled morass of emotions that had swamped him then though, and damn if he didn’t feel the same way now.
He removed the stopper from the bottle with his teeth, spit it out and took a deep swig, throwing his booted feet up on the desk. He clenched and unclenched his right hand experimentally. Fuck, that hurt. Beneath the myriad small scars he no longer noticed, the knuckles of his callused hands were red and swollen, but he continued the motion, relishing the sensation. He was no stranger to this type of pain, and it rarely lasted as long as he needed it to.
I want him to feel every second of his pain , he’d told his men. This is the price of betrayal. And Diego was a lot of things—a criminal, a traitor, an undercover investigator, and a very, very bad man—but he wasn’t a total hypocrite. His job was to lead this group of men, to keep them as safe as possible in this dangerous profession, even when that meant doling out punishment. But he also accepted his own pain—welcomed it, even—as the price of his disloyalty.
Though fuck if he knew who he was supposed to be loyal to these days. He’d been living a double life so long, the lines between Padre the criminal and Diego Santiago the undercover investigator were blurred nearly beyond recognition.
A knock on the door had him looking up in surprise. He’d expected his men to avoid him after this afternoon’s little show, lest they call attention to themselves.
“Come in,” he instructed, letting his feet fall to the floor. By force of habit, he reached into the back of his jeans for the Ruger he always carried in his waistband, but only remembered too late that his bruised hand was in no shape to be clutching a piece.
Fortunately, when the door opened, the head that poked inside was a friendly one.
“I keep telling you, you need to carry in the front,” Tomás said in amusement, closing the door behind him and taking a chair in front of Diego’s desk without waiting for an invitation. “You lose precious seconds in a fight if you’ve gotta wrestle that thing out of the back of your pants, hermano.”
He was tall and lean, like Diego himself, and when both men wore jeans, dark t-shirts and their hair pulled back into short queues, as they did today, it was easy to see why some people thought they were blood relatives as well as brothers in arms. Given Diego’s father’s reputation with the ladies back in the day, Diego figured it was a good possibility.
Diego put the gun down in front of him, rolling his eyes as he kicked his feet back up on the desk and took another deep drink from the bottle he still held. “Better that than carrying up front and accidentally shooting off my own balls.”
Tomás raised one eyebrow. “Oh, I dunno, Padre,” he said, deliberately using the nickname Diego had first earned himself years ago, when his priest-like celibacy had become a matter of speculation and mocking among the guys. “It’s not like you’re using that shit, anyway. What’s this, your fourth year con solo tu mano for company?”
“None of your fucking business,” Diego replied. In actuality, he’d passed that mark some months back. “Worry about your own dick.”
Tomás smirked and leaned back in his seat, turning his gaze to the ceiling, but Diego kept his eyes fixed on the man’s face. No way had Tomás come back here just to shoot the shit. Not tonight.
Sure enough, before a full minute had passed, Tomás looked squarely at Diego. “You shoulda killed him.”
Diego set his teeth together but said nothing.
“Ricky disobeyed, flat out. He put us all at risk,” he said, holding up his hands as if to prevent Diego from interrupting, “and more than all that, the man broke your number one rule when he went in that girl’s cell, Padre.”
“As I recall, you didn’t like my rule in the first place,” Diego remarked, tilting the bottle to his lips without looking away. The alcohol slid down his throat, the burn not nearly as potent after the third swig.
Tomás shrugged. “Majority of these girls sold themselves into prostitution in exchange for a way across the border. They were turning tricks before they got onto the cargo ships, and they’ll sure as hell be turning tricks when we take them wherever they’re going. Do I think it’s stupid that you want us to stay hands-off while they’re here? Sure. But it don’t matter what I think.”
“You don’t get hooked on your own product,” Diego said, repeating the rationale he’d been using since the day he took over the organization. “Chalo had that rule back when we ran drugs for the cartel, because he knew that users take risks that endanger all of us. Same shit goes with these girls as Ricky just demonstrated.”
“So you said,” Tomás agreed. “But you’re not hearing me, Padre. It don’t matter what I think. And it don’t matter what Banyon or Juancho or Robby or Marco or Ricky think, neither. From your first day running this show, you told us we don’t touch the girls we transport, and you told us what would happen if we did. Now, Ricky’s gone and done it, and more than that, he let the fucking girl get the drop on him and sneak out of the damn building.”
“Which is why I beat the shit out of him.”
“You let him off easy.”
“I fucking didn’t.”
“You did! And don’t bullshit me, Padre!” Tomás folded his arms across his chest and glared. “You knew exactly what you were doing. What I want to know is why. El Padre is the meanest motherfucker on the east coast. He doesn’t tolerate mistakes, and he doesn’t leave loose ends. Why pick now as the time to go easy on Ricky? And what are you gonna do about the girl? She heard our names. She knows our faces. Now we’re all in jeopardy and El Jefe is gonna be pissed.”
Heart beating way too fast, Diego set the bottle on the table, put his boots on the floor, and leaned forward. “You questioning the way I run this organization now, Tomás? You think you could do better? You wanna deal with El Jefe yourself? Make your own rules? Huh?”
The other man’s eyes widened, and he held up his hands in protest. “No! No, man. Jesus. You took a knife for me two years back. I had your back when shit went sideways with the Locos. I’ve always supported you. Fuck . I just want to understand.”
“You don’t understand shit, Tomás. The girl is gone. Running around the damn city trying to find her is just gonna call more attention to us. Our contacts at the police will alert us if the girl makes a report. And I will handle El Jefe when he calls.” He gritted his teeth. He was not looking forward to that phone call one little bit. “Now I suggest you get out of my office before I start wondering if Ricky is the only one who needs punishment,” Diego added softly.
Tomás staggered to his feet angrily. “I don’t get you, man. I thought we were friends. I thought you respected me.”
Diego’s smile sharpened as he delivered the killing blow. “You said it yourself, Tomás. It don’t matter what you think.” Then he averted his eyes so he didn’t have to see the other man throw open the door and slam it shut behind him.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Diego dropped his elbows to his knees and ran his fingers through his hair, making the strands fall around his face though his right hand ached in protest. His beating of Ricky had been thorough and brutal, but he’d known there would be some, like Tomás, who’d expect him to do even more, to make an example of Ricky’s deliberate defiance, lest others start to question his authority. In this arena, death would be considered a fair consequence for such a blatant insubordination.
But then, his men didn’t realize it was Diego, himself who had let the girl free, and Diego, himself who had been working for the authorities for almost as long as he’d been a part of this organization. Yeah, he’d punished Ricky—and given that the asshole had been attempting to rape the captive girl this morning before Diego stepped in, Diego had even found some pleasure in the beating. But how could he kill Ricky for his betrayal when Diego had been the one to break the ultimate rule?
Fuck, he thought again, reaching for the bottle and the sweet oblivion it would bring. How the hell did I let things get this far?
Not all of it had been his choice, not in the beginning. He hadn’t planned to join Chalo’s gang, any more than he’d asked to watch his younger brother get murdered in front of him. Both of those things had been a twist of fate, a shitty hand that life had dealt him. So when he’d stumbled into Inked all those years ago, drunk and grieving, begging the first tattoo artist he’d met to inscribe Armando’s name on his chest above his heart, it had seemed like a balancing of the scales when the tattoo artist had asked him his story and offered him a way out, a way to make amends.
But if his first meeting with Alexander “Slay” Slater had been fate, everything after that had been Diego’s own fucking decision, and he had nobody to blame but himself. He had decided to turn traitor and inform on Chalo’s crew to Slay’s band of operatives and, through them, to the FBI. He had been the one who’d dreamt up some fairy tale where that evil asshole, Salazar, would be behind bars, Diego’s family would be safe, and Diego could stroll off into the sunset to live his life far away from Boston.
As though anything in Diego’s life could ever be that easy.
He’d never envisioned the months he’d planned to stay undercover stretching into years and years. He’d never dreamt that when Salazar finally died, Diego would have to assume Salazar’s position in order to gain intel on the next guy up the criminal food chain, El Jefe. He’d never considered that “Salazar’s crew” would become his own men—men who’d saved his ass, men he felt responsible for in a fucked up way. He hadn’t conceived of the choices he’d have to make and the actions he’d have to take to keep his cover intact. And God knew, he’d never imagined that he’d have to sacrifice any possible future with the only woman he’d ever wanted to call his own.
He’d pulled out his phone before he’d even processed what he was doing, and unlocked it, flipping to the password-protected directory where he kept the most precious information he’d obtained in all the time he’d spent undercover… and then he scrolled through picture after picture of Nora Damon.
The first shot was one he’d taken years ago, back when she was just a teenager, long before he’d ever entertained a thought of her as anything but a funny kid. She’d been stomping around her mom’s living room like a pint-sized blonde Hulk, ready to smash Diego, Salazar, and the rest of the crew, including Roger Collier, the asshole dating her mom, who’d invited them all over to party in the first place. Diego had only been maybe twenty-five then, brash and stupid, a newly minted member of Slay’s crew, full of anger at the world and Chalo Salazar in particular, but even then there had been something about Nora’s spirit that had amused the hell out of him and roused protective instincts he hadn’t known he possessed.
The images he didn’t have saved on his phone were the ones that truly burned in his mind—Diego helping Slay rescue Nora when Roger had abducted her, and making sure Roger was dealt with permanently after the fact.
Next came the family pictures he’d received in texts over the years from Slay and his friend Matteo Angelico—family shots from Thanksgivings and Christmases, weddings and baptisms. Events he’d been invited to, as Slay and Matt had seemed to unofficially adopt Diego into their little family a while back, but which Diego could never attend.
When the first few pictures had rolled in, Diego had found himself scouring each one for Nora’s shining blonde hair and big brown eyes, smiling at the sight of her smile. Later, he’d hoard the details the others would drop about her. “Nora’s a firecracker,” Matteo might grumble. And “She’s going to be a social worker at Centered, the women’s health clinic my sister Elena runs. Saving the world one kid at a time,” Slay might brag. Diego would file that information away, each a piece of the fascinating puzzle that was Nora. He wasn’t sure at what point his fascination with her had become something other than amusement and affection for the girl she’d been, and had turned into something that burned hot and deep for the woman she’d become. It hardly mattered anyway.
He flipped to his last picture of Nora, one taken just over a year ago at her college graduation. This was a shot hehad taken, standing off to the side as she’d received her diploma, his presence undetected and, at least by Nora, unwanted. He smirked as his eyes traced the image of her face. Though she was one of the few people on earth who knew the truth about the reasons for his continued involvement with Salazar’s organization, she’d never quite believed that he was the white-knight Slay painted him to be.
Nora was wise that way.
His hands were proverbially dirty now. Bloody. And although the pictures sometimes reminded him of a future he could never have, he couldn’t bring himself to delete them. Somehow, remembering that she was alive and safe gave him a reason to keep going. Despite her anger and her mistrust, she’d been his to protect from the first moment he’d laid eyes on her.
That was why, when he’d unexpectedly come back to the warehouse last night and spotted the girl in the cell—a girl with the same golden hair and petite frame as Nora –screaming in terror as Ricky groped her, Diego hadn’t stopped to consider the risks or the consequences. He’d grabbed his Ruger from his waistband and cracked the butt into Ricky’s skull like it was the easiest thing in the world. And then he’d grabbed Ricky’s keys and freed the girl, gathering her into his arms and stepping over the unconscious man as he’d personally escorted her from the building.
“Hush, honey,” he’d murmured to her as she’d sobbed silently. “You’ll be safe now. I’ll make sure of it.” And he’d delivered her to the one place, the one person, he trusted to protect her: Nora Damon. He’d called Slay and notified him of the situation, then dropped the girl off at Centered before dawn.
He locked his phone and threw it on the desk, watching as it slid into the half-full liquor bottle with a hard thunk.
His life was a chaos of deception and divided loyalties, of brotherhood and dishonor and broken trust, of sin upon sin upon sin that was somehow supposed to be magically absolved from his soul when they finally found El Jefe and brought his organization to its knees. But what about the girls who passed through this warehouse every week? Did they understand, as he and his men transported them from one hellish existence to another, that he couldn’t free every one of them, because he was here for a greater purpose, to bring down an even larger criminal, and he couldn’t blow his cover?
Should he have killed Ricky today? Would that have been the “right” thing to do? Ricky was no saint, after all, and his death might have earned him added respect and trust from El Jefe, which would further Slay’s investigation. Killing Ricky would have stabilized his crew, as Tomás had indicated, and cemented Diego’s position as their leader. But at what fucking cost?
Right didn’t seem black and white anymore; justice was a riptide that swept up the innocent along with the guilty, and Diego didn’t have much of his soul left to bargain with.
His hand reached for the bottle on the desk, but at the last second he changed his mind, grabbed his keys and pushed himself to his feet instead. He didn’t need alcohol or anything to dull the pain. He needed a moment of clarity, a second of peace. He needed to see Nora’s smile, to know that at least one thing in this fucking world was still pure and true.
And just this once, he was going to let himself have what he needed.
* * *
Diego was losing his mind. He’d figured that out halfway here, but he’d come anyway, his need to see Nora overwhelming every rational objection. He had to laugh at himself because, of the many things he had done—and that list was long and incriminating—he’d never imagined he’d stoop to actual stalking. Yet here he was, sitting on a wooden bench in the park across the street from Centered, shivering in the chilly October twilight, his long-range binoculars in hand, watching as the people on the other side of the brightly-lit picture windows laughed and chatted their way through some kind of coffee hour and playgroup.
He did make a mental note to tell Slay that they needed to make this place more secure—maybe make sure that there was a man guarding the place after dark, or some shit—because if he could sit here and watch the ladies through the window, someone with a darker intent could as well.
He saw Elena, Slay’s sister, with her toddler daughter strapped to her back in one of those sling things, making her way around the large room, her black hair bouncing each time she stopped to share a smile or a quiet word with the younger children as they played. He watched as Slay’s wife, Allie, who was heavily pregnant, wrapped a comforting arm around an older lady and nodded at whatever the woman was saying. And he saw pretty, dark-haired Grace, who’d recently married Slay’s friend Donnie, sitting at a child-sized table drawing something with crayons, encouraging the teenager opposite her to draw as well. This was the sight that arrested him and made his heart squeeze painfully, because the teenaged girl sitting at the table—a girl who couldn’t have been more than fourteen and looked even younger, was the very same girl he’d delivered here last night.
She already looked light years better than she had the last time he’d seen her. She was clean and warmly dressed, with her light hair pulled back neatly from her face. But Diego noticed that although Grace kept up a steady stream of chatter and seemed to pause as if expecting the girl to speak, the girl never looked up from the table in front of her, and she never spoke a word. Not a big surprise. The girl’s face was pinched and drawn into the perpetually anxious look of someone who’s seen too much too young, and Diego felt the contrary urges to enfold the kid in a hug, and to destroy the monsters who’d landed her in his warehouse in the first place.
Grace stood and smiled a goodbye, quickly resting a hand on the girl’s shoulder as she took her leave. She pretended not to notice the way the girl flinched at her touch.
Fuck . Diego squeezed his eyes shut. He knew logically that he wasn’t the one who’d put that fear in the girl’s heart, but he couldn’t help the guilt that churned in his belly. How many girls had been harmed on his watch? How many had he failed to save?
Shoulda stuck to the bottle tonight, Santiago. There’s no peace for you here. But when he opened his eyes, prepared to leave, Nora appeared.
That blonde hair, those curves, that serene smile. Diego soaked it all in like he’d been thirsty for years.
Unlike Grace, Nora didn’t make any attempt at physical contact or small talk with the child at first. In fact, it didn’t seem as if they spoke at all. Nora simply took the seat Grace had vacated, and began sketching on a sheet of paper. The little one gave Nora a wary glance, but when Nora made no comment, she looked back down, and some of the tension in her small shoulders seemed to loosen.
Diego smiled. Firecracker though she could be, Nora seemed to understand that sometimes a silent, supportive presence could be more meaningful than any number of words. Another puzzle piece about this woman that he filed away.
Inside the pocket of his jeans, his phone vibrated. S Calling. Even though he knew better, he couldn’t help that his heart leapt every time Slay’s name appeared, that some small part of him always hoped this would be the call that said they had enough evidence to take down El Jefe.
With a sigh, Diego glanced once more at Nora and the girl, then stood and walked a distance away, pulling up the hood of his sweatshirt against the cold breeze.
“Evenin’, bro,” Diego answered, using their established code. An English greeting meant it was safe to speak freely, Spanish meant Diego wasn’t alone.
“Diego, man, how’s it going?” Slay’s voice was quiet and calm. No news, then. It was ridiculous to feel disappointed about that when he should have been used to it by now.
“Livin’ the life, brother. You know how it is. Haven’t heard from you in a bit,” Diego said, leaning his back against the trunk of a wide oak tree whose discarded leaves littered the ground around him. “How’s the fam? What are you up to?”
“Family’s good! Great, even. Charlie got first prize at his science fair. Twins haven’t burned the house down yet, although Lex keeps trying to bench-press the dog and Mase keeps coloring himself with Sharpies so he can look like his Daddy.” Slay chuckled. “The usual.”
Diego couldn’t help but smile. When he’d first met Slay, the man had been a total hardass—a soldier, a dominant, a warrior. But his voice carried a thread of deep contentment these days. He was still the most lethal man Diego knew, but now he seemed to be grounded in something Diego couldn’t quite fathom.
“Gonna pick up Allie in a few,” Slay continued. “Got a babysitter coming, then we’re heading to The Club for a bit. She hasn’t been in over a month, and she’s been dying to go.”
The Club, the BDSM club founded by Elena’s husband Blake, was pretty much a staple in the Boston kink scene. Slay had started working security there long after he’d gotten his own security team off the ground, but he’d loved it so much he’d become a part-time Dungeon Master, and was now part-owner. He remembered that Slay had met his wife Allie when she’d been bartending there.
“Dude, Allie’s so pregnant she’s ready to pop and you’re taking her to a club?” Diego teased, only realizing after the fact that Slay might wonder how he’d seen Allie recently enough to know this. Fortunately, Slay seemed to roll with it.
“Brother, we don’t go to The Club to drink and dance, ya get me?” Slay replied, making Diego snort. “Though it’s been a long time since you’ve been around, so maybe your memory is failing.”
Diego swallowed hard. Oh, his memories of The Club were clear as day, and he replayed them often, though it had been a long time since he’d been there and even longer since he’d allowed himself to take part in even the most platonic demonstrations. He loved dominance, craved the control, but the casual interactions had never satisfied that need. In another reality, one where El Jefe and the cartels didn’t exist, he knew he’d have found himself one woman and done everything in his power to possess her totally.
“I was calling to invite you to a party, actually,” Slay continued when Diego didn’t speak. “A fundraiser for Centered. It’s gonna be out in a field somewhere, with face painting and beanbag tosses and a dunk tank and shit. Allie says it’ll be a good way for the donors to interact with the actual women and children their money helps. I’m personally going because Tony’s catering.”
“A dunk tank? Oh, please tell me Alice convinced you to take a turn!” Diego imagined Slay, soaking wet and sputtering, as some tiny eight-year-old’s throw hit its mark. He laughed out loud.
“Whatever, dipshit. It’s for fucking charity,” Slay said as Diego laughed louder. “Who could say no?”
Diego wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Oh, God, I can’t wait to see the pictures, man.”
Slay was quiet for a minute. “Rather you saw it in person for once.”
“I can’t,” Diego said flatly, crossing his arms over his chest to keep warm. “Same reason I can’t go to any of the stuff you invite me to. It’s not safe. And you know I can’t just—”
“Nah. Shut it,” Slay interrupted. “You let me handle the safety. You think I’d invite you to be around my family if I thought for one second it wouldn’t be safe? Fuck that. And I also told you, we could come up with an iron-clad reason why you need to disappear for a day or two. Nobody in your organization would be the wiser. So what’s the real reason?”
Diego rolled his shoulders so his head rubbed against the rough bark of the tree as he tried to find a handy excuse, but nothing came to mind.
Goddamn it . It wasn’t as simple as Slay tried to make it seem. It wasn’t. He had been around Slay’s family a couple of times over the years when it was unavoidable, but he didn’t fit with them. He didn’t know how to talk politely anymore, or how to let his guard down.
And being around them made him want things he couldn’t afford to want.
“I’m worried about you, Santiago,” Slay said into the silence, and his voice was as heavy as Diego had ever heard it. “This assignment… It was never supposed to go down like this. You were never supposed to be in this long. And I know you won’t admit it, but it’s gotta be fucking with your mind.”
Once again, Diego struggled to respond. Nah, man. I’m chill. I just do despicable shit all day, and then build friendships with criminals over beers at night. No worries.
“Been talking to Matteo, and I think it’s time to pull you out,” Slay continued. “And it’s not just about you. This week we got a new FBI contact named Darby, some pissant who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow, but seems bound and determined to…”
What the fuck? “Pull me?” The words came out louder than he’d intended.
“Yeah. End the investigation and get you out,” Slay elaborated, but Diego had already understood what he meant, he just couldn’t believe he was hearing it.
“No fucking way.”
“Dammit, be reasonable, man,” Slay began.
“You were the one, Slay,” Diego told him in a furious whisper. “You were the one who told me, all those years ago, that this was the way I would atone for the shit I did, this was the way I’d make things right for Armando. And now you wanna pull me before I can do that?”
“Jesus, no! Is that what you thought? You were a kid then, Diego. You needed an enemy to face down, a battle to fight, so I gave you one. You didn’t wanna hear me talk about how you had nothing to do with Armando’s death, and how you weren’t responsible for the things Chalo forced you to do when he threatened your family. I never believed for a single minute that you had anything to atone for. You wanted vengeance, and I wanted to help you get it, but not like this. Not if it means losing yourself.”
Oh, fuck. Diego felt moisture behind his eyes, and he blew out a harsh breath. “Yeah. Well. I’m in it now, Slay. I’ve got a job to do, and I’m gonna see it through.”
Slay sighed. “Yeah. Figured you’d say that. But I’m not letting this shit play out for too much longer, you hear me? You made your choices, I respect them, but I’m not gonna let you kill yourself in some fucked up attempt to do the right thing. I love you, brother.” Slay paused, and Diego heard him inhale sharply before he continued. “But I’m pretty sure you don’t even know what the right thing is anymore.”
Diego shook his head and sighed. The man was fucking psychic when it came to reading people and situations. Diego didn’t know why it even surprised him at this point. “I hear you,” he replied.
Slay was silent so long that Diego wondered if he’d hung up, and when he spoke again, he did so slowly, like he was pulling the words from someplace deep.
“I don’t… I don’t talk about some of what I had to do, back when I was in the service, and even after that. I worked at Black Box—before I worked with Blake, I mean—and they did some pretty twisted shit there, you know?”
“I remember.” Black Box was a BDSM club that had been partly owned by Chalo Salazar and Salazar’s cousin, an arrogant asshole who’d called himself Marauder. Consent and legality had been nebulous concepts at Black Box.
“I thought my presence there was a good thing, like I was preventing the worst of the crimes from happening, and I thought maybe I could help someone. But… the scales never seemed to balance. For a long time after that, I felt lost.”
“Yeah,” Diego whispered. The cold wind whipped the leaves around his ankles and had turned his fingers to ice, but he gripped the phone tighter.
“That was my mess to deal with, right? I mean, my choice, my consequences. So I locked my shit up tight and hid in plain sight. Took on dangerous jobs like that would even the score, then ran away from a good woman who tried to love me because I was worried about what I’d bring down on her.”
“Alice?” he asked, stunned.
“Alice,” Slay confirmed. “Good thing I pulled my head out of my ass or I would have lost her. Don’t let that happen to you.”
“Me? The guy they call Padre?” Diego scoffed, deliberately training his gaze away from Centered. “I’m not in love with anyone, man. I’m clear.”
“Huh. Nobody special?”
Goddamn the psychic asshole. “Nobody,” Diego lied.
“You’re sure about that?”
“Uh, yeah. Pretty sure, Slay,” Diego said. “And I think I’d know.”
“All right, bud. If you say so. But, hey, next time you wanna spend an hour sitting in front of Centered watching nobody special, maybe wear a heavier jacket. October nights in Boston are no joke.”
Across the park, Diego watched a tall, broad figure step out of the deep shadows formed by another stand of trees. In the yellow glow of the streetlight, he saw the figure throw him a mocking salute. “Remember, I’m always watching, Santiago. Later.”
Diego snorted. He watched Slay jog across the street and up the steps to Centered, then slid his own phone back in his pocket. He began his solitary journey back across town, but somehow felt less alone than when he’d arrived.