Their Cartel Princess: A Dark Reverse Harem Romance Box Set, page 122
“What?” Bailey asked gruffly, snatching at the second glass in Lars’s hand.
“Nuh-uh.” Lars clucked his tongue. “Come on, ‘fess up. This is becoming routine. Something’s bugging you.”
“Jesus…” Bailey drew air and held out his hand for the glass.
“God, actually, but only when we’re in bed. Otherwise it just seems blasphemous.”
Bailey’s eyes darted up. Strangely, the embarrassment Lars had been expecting wasn’t there. Irritation yes, but for once Bailey wasn’t melting in shame at the mere mention of the shenanigans the four of them got up to.
And not always in the master bed.
“Nothing, all right?”
Lars handed him the glass. “I know I don’t look it, but I’m actually pretty good at keeping a secret.” He set down his glass and leaned on his elbows, putting his face a foot away from Bailey’s. “I promise I won’t tell.”
Bailey’s gray eyes flickered over Lars’s face. Then he looked away, his voluptuous mouth thinning. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Ouch,” Lars said, drawing away. “I never thought I was the brains of the outfit, but give me a little credit at—”
“I mean, it’s something you’ve probably never had to deal with.” Bailey’s gaze flashed back over him again, narrowing.
“Try me.” Lars straightened and stepped behind Bailey. He slid his hands onto the man’s shoulders, squeezing his pronounced trapeziums. “I’m also a really good listener.”
Bailey shifted under his grip, but didn’t move away. “I just… sometimes…”
Lars had to force himself to keep quiet. Instead, he ground his strong fingers into Bailey’s muscles, willing them to relax. He was tense as fuck.
Bailey let out a blustery sigh. “You ever get the feeling you don’t belong?”
Lars spun Bailey to face him. He rocked a little, as if the sudden shift in perspective had startled him. But immediately his eyes narrowed to slits. Bailey crossed his arms over his chest, leaning back as if to escape Lars’s pinning stare.
“You think you don’t belong here?” Lars murmured, giving his head a small shake. “Why the fuck?”
“You all seem to have this…” Bailey lifted the fingers of one hand from his arms, wriggling them. “This… I don’t know. Connection.”
“It’s called a relationship, Bailey. And you’re part of it too. Why you would think for a sec—”
“See? I said you wouldn’t under—”
“Then use smaller words,” Lars said, dragging his stool out in front of Bailey and taking a seat. He rested his foot on the stand of Bailey’s stool. He took a quick glance at his watch. “We have all night.”
Bailey stared at him for the longest time until the iron grip he had around his chest relaxed and his arms slid into his lap.
“It’s only ever been Cora,” Bailey said quietly. “And I never imagined I could have her. That we could be together.” He looked away, his fingers wreathing tight in his lap. “And then…”
Lars studied him, waiting for the words to come out. But Bailey was still trying to figure out what was going on his own head.
“You got more than you expected,” Lars finished. “Not just Cora, but me and Milo too.”
Bailey looked reluctantly back at him, but didn’t reply.
“And you don’t know how you feel about that.”
A small nod.
“Because you know for a fact that you’re not gay.”
Bailey’s mouth flinched, and he looked away.
“You know that’s not a requirement to… well, be a part of whatever the fuck this is.”
Bailey’s gaze flashed back to him. “Why wouldn’t it be? I mean we—” he cut off, mouth turning into a line.
Lars watched him for a few seconds. He leaned forward, resting his palms on Bailey’s knees. “Let me ask you something…”
Bailey watched him with wary eyes.
“You love her, right?”
A twitch of surprise made a brief crease between Bailey’s brows. “Of course—”
“And she loves you.”
He shifted a little. “I hope—”
“Don’t be such a pathetic motherfucker, of course she does.”
Bailey looked up and tightened his arms around his chest again. “Fine. Yes. She loves me.”
“Milo loves her.”
Bailey’s eyes found his again.
“And she loves Milo.”
A knowing look grew on Bailey’s face.
“I love her.” Lars touched fingertips to his chest. “She loves me.”
He gripped Bailey’s legs again. “Now, do you think any one of us cares, even for a second, about something as old-school as whether you like girls or boys? Do you think that’s something that rolls through my head, or Milo’s, or Cora’s when we’re busy fucking each other?”
Bailey dropped his gaze, and then briefly squeezed his eyes shut. “It goes through my mind. All the time.”
“Ah,” Lars said through a sigh, sitting back as his hands slid from Bailey’s legs. “Well there’s your problem.”
Bailey looked up, confusion tightening his eyes. “What?”
“Gray doesn’t exist in your world, does it? Everything must be right or wrong. Black or white. Everything has to be classified.”
“I can’t help—” Bailey began, but Lars cut him off with a laugh.
“None of that shit matters.” Lars shook his head. “For all we know, there’s only this life. Why the fuck would you want to shorten it by being so goddamn hard on yourself the whole time?”
“Because I don’t deserve this.” Bailey blinked hard as if he couldn’t believe he’d said the words out loud. “I don’t deserve her. Not after everything—”
“Jesus H. Christ, are you still going on about that?” Lars turned his head away, pinching the bridge of his nose. “That shit’s old news already. Like, people are digging it up and putting it in museums and shit, that’s how old it is. Let it go already.”
“That’s easy for you—”
Lars grabbed a hold of Bailey’s hand, forcing his arms out of their defensive lock over his chest. He squeezed it until Bailey’s fingers tightened around his. “You’re a good man, Bailey. If you don’t know that, then there’s something wrong with you. But if you think for a second we don’t think so?” Lars shook his head. “Then I don’t know what to tell you.” He ripped his hand away, throwing it to the side in a wild gesture. “Fuck it, send her flowers if it’ll make you feel better. But get your head out of your ass. Who the hell knows how long this is going to last? You really want to be moping around here when you could be up there—” a stabbed a finger in the general direction of the master bedroom “—telling her you love her?”
Bailey had been leaning back the longer Lars’s tirade continued. He took a visible breath and smoothed his hands down his sweat pants. “Of course not.”
“Then man up and do something.” Lars dragged his stool back to the kitchen island. “Nothing more pathetic than a man who doesn’t have the balls to prove his love.”
Lars grabbed the rest of his sandwich as he headed out the kitchen. He made to take a bite and then paused and glanced back at Bailey. Back turned, Bailey’s had his head down like a bulky, grown-up version of Eeyore.
“But not flowers,” Lars replied. “She’s not one for flowers.”
* * *
“There you are,” Lars said as he ducked into Swan Manor’s stables. Cora stood out as a stark silhouette against the backdrop of the gloomy sky streaming gray light into the stable’s wide doors.
Cora jerked a little as if he’d given her a fright and gave him a quick peek over her shoulder. “Here I am,” she said warily.
“Say…” Lars mused as he stepped closer to the stall where she stood. “You’re not getting ready for a little riding, are you?”
Cora paused in the act of tightening a strap running under the horse’s belly. “What if I am?”
“It wasn’t a conversation,” came Cora’s quiet reply. “And we’re not calling her Summer.”
“Well, whatever it was, you agreed—”
“Agreed?” Cora snapped, spinning to him. “I never agreed to anything! I already asked the doctor, and he said it’s fine for me to ride during my first trimester. Now, unless you’ve suddenly gone and gotten yourself a Ph fucking D, I suggest you keep your medical opinions to yourself.”
He stared at her with eyes that had grown wider the louder her voice had risen. “You done?” he asked, leaning his hand against the horse’s flank. “’Cos I’ll wait until you’re done, princess.” He waved a hand. “What, that’s it?”
Cora’s breathed hard, her eyes golden slits above a trembling line of a mouth. “Then come with me. But I have to get out of the house.”
“You are out of the house,” Lars said, gesturing to the surrounding stable.
“You know what I mean.” Cora gave the buckle an unnecessary tug, but the horse either knew her moods by now, or had a thick enough skin that it didn’t mind the tug. She put her foot in the stirrup and was halfway up to the saddle before Lars gripped her around the waist and swung her to the ground again.
“Nice horsey,” he murmured, undoing the buckle while Cora tried to bat his hands away. “Who’s a good…” he took a quick peek under the horse, “boy then? Yes, you are a good boy. Hold still now.”
“Leave it!” But Cora couldn’t tug his fingers away, hard as she tried.
Lars slid the saddle off and rested it on the wooden wall that divided this stall from its neighbor. “Look, Cora, I’m doing you a favor. You know how big a shit storm you’re churning up here? You should be thanking me.”
“Thanking—?” She let out an enraged, mangled scream. “I’m going crazy. You won’t let me leave—”
“We,” Lars cut in quietly as he smoothed a hand over the horse’s back.
“You won’t let me ride—”
“You won’t let me do anything!” The last was an outright scream.
Lars’s eyebrows hiked to his brow as he turned to face Cora. She stood, hands in tiny, shaking fists at her side, her face red as she glared at him.
“Would you like to stamp your foot a little?” he asked dryly.
Her mouth squirmed.
He smiled as he watched her trying to figure out what she could say to let him quit on her. But they wouldn’t — not him, not Milo, not Bailey. Cora had a life inside her… there was no way they’d let her endanger their baby girl.
If that meant she’d throw a tantrum every second day… well, there were three of them so they could take turns talking her down.
Plus, these days, it seemed the only sex they had was angry make-up sex. If it all.
The best kind, in his opinion, even if Milo didn’t allow it to get anything close to rough anymore.
His phone vibrated in his pocket. Lars took it out, and unlocked it with a swipe. Since only he and Bailey had phones these days, they made sure there were no pin codes or fingerprint sensors enabled in case any of them had to make an emergency call. There were always two of them with Cora at the manor, and the mansion had its own number if either of them needed to reach the other.
A new direct message had come through on his Twitter account.
“Is that what you want?” Cora asked sourly. “For me to just flop around the house like some eighteenth-century debutante? Going around having fainting spells, and—”
He lifted a hand, frowning as he read the short message. She cut off with an unhappy sound, crossing her arms roughly over her chest and sticking her hip to the side. She was barely showing, but with her increasing appetite, she’d put on a little padding around her hips.
He fucking loved it, but he’d learned not to tell her that. Him and the other guys just had to appreciate it in silence, lest they have a repeat of her spectacular breakdown a few days ago when they’d begun making a fuss of how the pregnancy had transformed her into — what had he called her? Aphrodite?
That hadn’t ended well.
The message read:
The person who’d sent him the message had a default avatar, no personalized pic or anything. He frowned and clicked on the link. A new account if he wasn’t mistaken. He used his Twitter account to find porn videos and tweet about shit he was binge watching. But, admittedly, he hadn’t been on the thing in over a month.
A video streamed on Lars’s phone. It was dark, the picture quality full of pixels as if taken by a cheap cellphone camera.
The pixels resolved into a figure seated on a bare wooden chair, silhouetted by a faint, lackluster light.
He was naked but for a pair of grimy, torn boxers. There was a sack on his head. Sweat shimmered as he shifted on the chair, tugging on the ropes binding his arms and legs to the wooden chair.
“… the fuck?” Lars murmured, sliding to a stand.
“What?” Cora snapped. Then her voice dipped. “Lars, what’s wrong?”
But he had no words. He watched, enthralled, as whoever was holding the camera moved closer to the bound-up man. He had several tattoos - not as many as Bailey, who it seemed had spent every paycheck in his twenties getting a new one—but enough to cover most of his chest.
A chest that rose and fell as he panted.
Something brushed his arm. Lars glanced to the side. Cora stood next to him, staring at the cellphone screen. She reached out, steadying Lars’s phone before tipping it onto its side.
Lars’s eyes darted back.
There was the staticky noise of fabric against the phone before a lushly accented voice spoke.
“It’s a hot and humid forty-five here in Mallhaven. Looks like we’re in for a touch of bad weather this afternoon.”
“Who is that?” Cora asked.
“Dunno,” Lars mumbled.
“Yeah, no fucking shit,” Lars replied.
“Now, we don’t normally treat guests this way,” the Irish man continued. “Prisoners…however...”
Lars’s heart began pounding in his chest. For some reason — for some fucked up reason — he thought he recognized the guy in the chair. Impossible, of course — he’d have been able to identify those tattoos.
And he couldn’t.
This was the first time he’d seen them.
A hand appeared in the video. It reached out and ripped the sack away.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Lars muttered. “It’s Kane.” So that’s why he’d recognized the guy.
A hand gripped Kane’s chin, straightening his face and forcing him to look into the phone’s camera. “Say hello to your boss,” the Irish man crooned.
“Fuck you,” Kane spat. His lip had been split, and his face was as grimy as the rest of him. He shifted in the chair, but it was obvious his restraints didn’t allow for much movement.
“What this gentleman is trying to say, is that he’d love a visit from La Sombra. She is there, isn’t she, Lars Eklund?”
Lars’s skin turned to ice. “Fuck,” he mumbled through numb lips. “Fuck!”
Cora touched the back of his hand. “Shh,” she murmured, barely audible.
The Irish man gave Kane a fond pat on the side of his cheek. “You have twenty-four hours to get back to me.”
Kane grimaced at the man holding the camera. A fist snapped Kane’s head to the side.
Blood and saliva dripped from his mouth as Kane’s head rolled forward, chin on his chest.
A hand appeared again, ruffling Kane’s long, dark hair.
“Hurry now…” the Irish man said with a laugh in his voice. “I doubt he’s gonna last much longer.”
The telephone on the garage’s wall rang shrilly, but Finn hardly noticed it. It was never for him, anyway. Usually, it was a catering company or cleaning service calling to confirm schedules or grocery drops. The phone rang in almost every room of the manor — something he still had to see if he could get it to stop doing. Trudging through a fifteen-room manor to hunt down Cora was annoying — finding her only to discover she’d already picked up the phone would break him one of these days.
He spent most of his days in the garage, fixing up the battered Harley Davidson he’d been planning on selling before he’d met Cora. He’d brought it here after Cora had made it clear she wanted him to stay.
That she wanted all of them to stay.
They had a baby on the way; there was nowhere else he’d be. He’d considered giving away the Harley, but he was glad he hadn’t. It gave him something to do on those long, winter afternoons when Swan Manor seemed to bristle with an anticipation that had no root or cause.
The phone stopped ringing and started up a few seconds later. Well, he’d been planning on giving up early on the bike today. Cora’d woken up with her first bout of morning sickness, and he wanted to make sure she’d finally gotten something to eat; something she wouldn’t bring up a second later again.
Wiping hands black with grease on a rag, Finn headed into the manor via one of the servant’s entrances that connected the garage with the back of the staff quarters.
That he lived in a place that had staff quarters was something he was still trying to get used to. Never mind the fact that Cora had hired staff too. Obviously, he didn’t expect her to keep up the place, not in her condition, but it felt weird to have dinner served by a stranger, and to keep catching sight of uniformed people walking the halls, headed on their mysterious tasks.
As he crossed the entry hall, heading upstairs to shower off the sweat and grease that had accumulated on his shirtless arms and chest, Lars burst through the manor’s front door and almost collided with him.