If i could stay, p.13

If I Could Stay, page 13

 

If I Could Stay
 


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  I’d been brought here to meet the boss.

  “No,” I cried out, backing away. “No. It’s not supposed to be you. You’re supposed to be far away from all this. What have you done?” Dismay saturated my voice.

  Though she seemed saddened by my reaction, a satisfied smile lifted her mouth. “I’ve built up my own business.”

  Cold seeped through my body. A deep-seated ache filled my chest as the realization of what my sister had done sank in. Business. The only business that would have put her in this position was the same business my father was in. “He let you go,” I said in a bitter whisper. “You got out, free and clear. No one chasing you. No one trying to drag you back to a life you despised.” My voice rose with each accusation. Renee’s impassive expression made me so angry that my eyes burned hot, drying the tears that had threatened earlier. “You got out and you came back to it?! What’s wrong with you?” I screamed. “Do you have any idea how much I’ve wanted to be you all these years? To be free of Dad? To be able to live where I chose and have a normal life? All I ever wanted was to have a crappy apartment and go to school! Do you have any idea what I would give to finish high school? Or go to college and do all the stupid stuff that regular people get to do? Or just go by my own name?” Her stoic expression fueled my anger further. “You could have done that. You could have had a regular life. And instead you choose to crawl back into this hell?”

  One side of her mouth lifted up and she glanced around the room—at the marble floor and lush furniture. “Does this really look like hell to you?”

  “Oh please,” I sneered. “How many times did we plot ways to burn down Dad’s house? How many times did you tell me that you wanted to design shoes or be a doctor or an owner of a legitimate business? I’m probably the only person in the world who knows exactly how much you hated Dad’s world.”

  “The only reason I hated Dad’s world was because of him and what he did to Mom. I hated him. I still do. But he taught me how to get ahead. He taught me how to live life on my own terms, Leila.” I winced at the sound of my own name. “I just couldn’t be under his thumb for the rest of my life. But there’s nothing wrong with taking hold of opportunities. I’m one of Dad’s competitors now. And I’m by far the youngest. People respect me. Even you can appreciate that.”

  “If you truly believe that, then you don’t know me at all.” We were going to run away to Greece. Live on the beach, shop at the local market, flirt with the boys.

  “You never wanted the respect that Dad had?” She gave me a doubtful look. “You can be honest with me. I’m sure you miss the life that you had before Dad kicked you out.”

  My brow rose as incredulity settled over me. “Kicked me out?” I gave a humorless laugh. “Is that your assumption? Or is that the story that Dad told to save face?”

  Her eye twitched and I knew my second guess had been right. I couldn’t even be surprised. Of course Dad would tell people that my leaving had been all his idea. To the media he had played the grieving father, but to his associates, he would have told the version that put him in the power position.

  “You want me to believe that with all of dad’s security”—she raised an eyebrow in challenge—“you left without his permission?”

  I heaved a breath, trying to control my anger. “It was during one of his overnight yacht parties. All of those hours spent in the pool came in handy when I jumped into the Atlantic.”

  Her eyes widened and she shook her head. “You could have killed yourself.”

  “What do you care? You never looked back! I used to be glad about that—happy that you had been able to leave it all behind. I always imagined you in Greece, living the life that we both dreamed of. Instead you became this.” I looked her up and down, my distaste curling my lip. “So don’t pretend to care about me.”

  “Why do you think you’re here, Leila?”

  “You said it yourself. You’re dad’s competition. And I’m perfectly aware that I make a great bargaining chip.” I threw my arms out to my sides, putting myself on display.

  “You think so little of me?”

  “You had me kidnapped!” Hysteria raised my voice at least an octave.

  “I had to get you out of there,” she defended, her voice finally revealing some genuine emotion.

  “And you didn’t think to have them mention where they were taking me? That it was you who’d summoned me?”

  “I didn’t think you’d give them the chance to explain, and I had to get you out of there.”

  “That’s a crap excuse,” I bit out. “They could have told me at any point during the plane ride, or even in the van.”

  She took a deep breath then stepped closer to me. “You’re right. It is. I just…there wasn’t a right way to do it.” At least she looked contrite. “But, Leila. I would never use you as leverage. I can’t believe you would think that of me.” She reached out, putting a hand on my arm.

  I yanked away. “Look around you!” Her face pinched, hurt by my words. Let her hurt. I’d been hurting for as long as I could remember. “I despise everything that you stand for.”

  “We could make a good life, Leila. We can work together and show Dad just how wrong he was to try to control us.”

  “And be forced to have guards surrounding me at all times for my protection? To ruin the lives of those you manipulate? To get to choose who I screw over with every business decision?” I spat in derision. “No, Renee.”

  She drew herself up, reclaiming her boss demeanor. “So, you won’t even consider it?”

  “Consider what? Staying here so I can play criminal mastermind with my sister?” I scoffed. “Did you honestly think I would?”

  “I thought you would at least think about it for more than a few seconds. We deserve a chance to be a family again.” Her face transformed into the teenager I’d known so many years ago. The girl who’d grown up too fast, but never really grew up at all.

  “I love you, Renee,” I said, and I meant it. She was part of me. She had held me together for years. “I always will. But this isn’t the kind of family I want.”

  She stepped back and sank down to perch on the edge of her desk, her hands gripping the edge. I could almost feel her brain whirring under her perfectly done hair. Then she looked up. “Okay.”

  “Okay?” Just like that?

  “I was never going to force you into anything.”

  I jabbed my finger toward the window. “I just spent hours with my hands and mouth duct taped!”

  “I’m so sorry it had to be that way, but if you knew it was me and then you somehow got away…I couldn’t risk it. All I want is for you to be safe.”

  “Could have fooled me with the thugs and the blindfold and—”

  “I’ve been tracking you since you left home.”

  I blanched. “How?”

  “Milo.”

  Milo? “What about him?”

  “I’m the one that sent him to dad.”

  I blinked, trying to reorder what I thought I knew. “What?”

  “He was one of my better finds.” She grinned like a proud mentor. “At the time, I thought the only thing holding you back was a lack of resources. It wasn’t until later that I realized the strangle hold Dad had on you.” Her brow furrowed in consternation. “Of course, I only asked Milo to give you one ID, but having multiple worked out. It allowed me to keep tabs on you.”

  “You’ve known where I was this whole time?”

  She nodded. “Most of the time, yes.”

  My mind was reeling. “So why now? Why grab me now?”

  She tilted her head, studying me. “Why did you leave Baton Rouge?”

  “Silas showed up.”

  She nodded. “Dad found out about the IDs—about Milo’s part in giving them to you.”

  My hands went cold. I swallowed. “Is Milo okay?”

  “He’s fine. We got him out, but he had to give up three of your aliases. Emily, Maggie, and Silvi.”

  I’d been Emily in Seattle
and Maggie in Baton Rouge. I closed my eyes as the pieces settled into place. “That’s how Silas found me.”

  Another nod. “Milo wasn’t able to tell us until a day later, which is why we didn’t get to you first. But once we knew, I pulled up the tracker we had put on your car.” Her brow furrowed in concern. “I was really worried when my guys found your car empty. I wigged out a little,” she admitted with a self-deprecating smile. “I had no idea what had happened to you, especially when they told me you didn’t have your go-bag with you.”

  “I couldn’t get the trunk open,” I said stupidly. “You torched my car?”

  “I didn’t want Dad to be able to use it. Or Russo.”

  “Russo?”

  “He and Dad have doubled down on their feud.”

  “That bodes well for all of us.”

  “Everyone is jumpy. No one feels safe when Russo has an itchy trigger finger. So when we found your car, we emptied it, wiped it down and burned it for good measure.”

  Overkill much? Then I straightened, my body on full alert. “Wait. Do you have my go-bag?”

  “It’s in my room.”

  “Can I have it back?” I asked tentatively. She’d told me it was my choice, but would she really just give it back and let me walk?

  “Of course. But you can’t use the Silvi ID you had in there. That’s one that Milo had to burn,” she reminded me.

  I waved that aside. “That’s fine. I just need the key.” With the four IDs I’d already used, plus the Silvi ID which was now burned, that left two usable IDs in my locker.

  Renee nodded, smiling sadly at me. “What’s next then?” she asked. “I can have my people take you anywhere you want to go. You can take my private plane to Greece if you’d like.”

  Yesterday I would have taken that opportunity without hesitation. Renee and I had always fantasized about Greece, but now the idea left a bitter taste in my mouth. I didn’t want a mansion or a ride in a private jet. “I just need a ride to Kansas City.”

  ***

  I followed Renee up an ornate curved staircase that I assumed would lead to her room. She’d declared that she wouldn’t let me leave until I put on some “real clothes.”

  There were big windows that looked out on a manicured lawn. It looked like there might have been a vineyard in the distance.

  “Where are we?” I asked.

  “Texas.”

  Hmm. I had lived in Houston for nine months before moving to Louisiana. I had been Claire Maquire then. “Where in Texas?”

  “It’s better if you don’t know that.”

  Whatever. “I never pictured you as a country girl.”

  She gave a light, airy laugh. It sounded fake. “This isn’t my only residence, sweetie.”

  The condescension in her voice got under my skin. I glared at the bold, exposed zipper that went all the way down the back of her dress. As we traversed a wide hall, I did some mental calculations. Multiple residences as posh as this one, multiple employees, a private jet, all acquired in less than seven years since she left home. I couldn’t make the math work.

  She pushed open a pair of French doors, sweeping into her luxury suite with all the grace of a duchess or an heiress, or just a really rich person who had nothing better to do.

  I didn’t bother gawking at the froof around me. “How much did you steal?”

  She stiffened—just a little—then turned on her high-fashion heels to face me. For a few moments, the mask stayed in place. She continued to play the boss, the woman determined to prove herself. Then she let out an indelicate huff and brushed past me to close the doors on our conversation. I didn’t wait for her to defend herself, but launched in. “I knew it. You couldn’t have built this by yourself. You were always smart, always savvy, but all this in seven years? There’s no way unless you started out with a hefty sum.”

  She rolled her eyes and stepped out of her shoes, relaxing her posture. “Don’t tell me you’re indignant on Dad’s behalf.” She stepped past me and walked into a massive closet.

  I followed behind, ignoring the disparity of my own wardrobe compared with the elegance surrounding me. “I’m indignant on your behalf. I thought we were going to be better than this.”

  “Dad needs someone to take him down a few pegs. His business has grown so big that it’s out of his control. He didn’t notice the relationships I built with his employees. He didn’t notice when money started going missing. He didn’t realize that I heard and understood everything he taught me.” She gestured in a broad circle, like she was encompassing the vastness of her own brilliance. “Dad’s the one that armed me. He doesn’t have the right to complain just because I use what he gave me against him.” She started perusing her clothing.

  “So you’re a thief and a poacher? You stole his money to start your own enterprise and then poached his contacts and staff?”

  “When I needed to, yes. But I also built a name for myself.” She held up a dress that was simpler than the one she wore, but still way too uppity.

  “I’m not wearing that. Don’t you have any jeans?” Surely she had normal clothes hiding somewhere in this cave. “And what do you mean, you built a name?”

  “I’m willing to take on Julien Marchant.”

  “So is Russo.”

  “But I do it with class.” She looked back at me over her shoulder and struck a model-worthy pose. “People consider me a worthy opponent.” She pulled some jeans off a shelf and inspected them. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who want to work with me simply for the chance to work against Dad.” She tossed the jeans to me and I caught them without thought.

  I was too distracted by the thought of Renee working against Dad. Because…why? “Is this really what you want to be doing, Renee?”

  “You mean putting you into clothes that you deserve? Absolutely.”

  “No, I mean this.” The jeans flapped as I threw my hands up in a frustrated gesture to indicate everything around her. The house, the staff, the business. “Is this the life you want? The job you want?”

  “Of course,” she answered without pause.

  “What about Greece?”

  “I’ve been to Greece several times. You should go with me next time.”

  I let out a sad sigh. “You know that’s not what I meant.”

  She walked over to me with several shirts draped over her arm. “I grew up, Leila. Did you really expect me to live out the dream you and I came up with when you were twelve years old?”

  Her words sliced through me and I resented how much they hurt. “We weren’t dreaming about being princesses or mermaids. Wanting a normal life isn’t some childhood fantasy.”

  Her face clouded over. “It is for us.” She walked past me, leaving a small pile of clothes in my arms.

  I turned and called after her. “Why are you so hell-bent on destroying Dad? Shouldn’t it be Russo?”

  She kept walking. “I don’t care about Russo. He’s not the one who hurt me.”

  Not the one who hurt her? “He killed mom,” I said, incredulous.

  She spun to face me, her eyes fierce. “Stop being so naive, Leila. Russo didn’t kill mom.” Her carefully constructed veneer was starting to crack. “Dad did. And he deserves to pay for it!”

  “How can you blame Dad, when Russo is the one who—”

  “I’m not saying I blame him, Leila. I’m saying he did it. He’s the one who killed mom. He couldn’t stand that she was going to leave him for good, so he hired someone, or sent one of his cronies, and had her killed.”

  Her words shocked me into silence, because she truly believed them. I stared as she breathed heavily, fighting for composure and losing the battle.

  Finally, I had to speak up. “He would never do that,” I said with quiet conviction.

  “You’re defending him?” she practically shrieked.

  “Yes. No. I mean—I’m not defending him. I’m not defending all the things he did, or the person he became. But for this, yes, I’m defending him. He
would never have hurt mom on purpose.”

  “You don’t know him at all if you think he has any scruples—”

  “But I did know him, Renee!” I jammed a finger into my chest, where the many facets of truth resided in a jumbled mess. “I was there with him after she died. I cried with him. I saw how devastated he was.”

  “Oh, yes. He was such a good father.”

  “He was a terrible father,” I shouted, anger creeping into my voice. “That’s why I’ve been running from him for four years. He was a terrible father, and he’s a terrible person, but he cared about mom. He even cared about us in his own twisted way.”

  Her eyes hardened. “He cared about you, Leila. He never cared about me.”

  “Are we really arguing about who our sociopathic, criminal father loved more?”

  “You’re the one who brought it up.” She lifted her hands in surrender. “You can claim he loved mom all you want, but don’t try to convince me that he cared about me. I walked away, and he did nothing to get me back.”

  “And I envy you for it.” It was true that my father had cared for my mother, for me, and yes, for Renee. But the loss of my mother had made him tighten his fist until I couldn’t breathe.

  “I don’t want to be petty,” she said, her tone softening. “I know it was easier for me. I know I’m lucky not to have him dogging my steps, but I guess there will always be a part of me that still wants—” she sighed in defeat. “—to feel wanted.”

  “I wanted you.” My voice broke and my eyes burned. “I wanted you and missed you every day, every hour after you left. Because guess what, Renee? You didn’t just leave Dad!” The little girl inside of me who had been crying out for her dead mother and her lost sister for years had finally broken free, crying the tears I’d been holding inside for so long.

  “I know that. And I hate myself for it.” Her quiet admission made my tears flow faster. “I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought I had to take care of myself first. I was young and desperate. I was grieving for my mother and I hated my father so much that I didn’t realize how much it would hurt to be away from you. I didn’t know how much I would hurt both of us by walking away, but I was too blind to see it. I—”

 
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