one.

“He’s Taylor’s father.”

For a lingering moment, those words hung in the air, garnering no response.

Hot tears pooled in Renata’s eyes as she swallowed the urge to let them fall. It wasn’t a good time for tears. She wished Quentin would do something. Yell, scream, curse her out… anything had to be better than the look of cold disgust twisted into his handsome face.

He was perfectly still. So still, in fact, that Renata wondered for a second if he was even breathing, but then he finally exhaled, and what she read as disgust warped into a look of such profound displeasure that it took her breath away.

“You slept with Damien Wolfe?”

There was no emotion in his voice, no inflection to give even the tiniest of clues to what he was feeling — other than the disappointment. That was abundantly clear.

His question — and it wasn’t even a question, the way he delivered it, with none of his usual good-naturedness in his eyes, and his mouth set in a harsh line after — he wasn’t really asking. He was simply saying it out loud for the opportunity to have his suspicions confirmed.

She didn’t know how to answer that question.

If he wanted to phrase it that way… yes. But it wasn’t fair to characterize Taylor’s conception as if it were some act of shared love, or even passion. Just the thought of it made an old — but very familiar — sense of shame heat her cheeks, and she dropped her gaze to her hands.

“He’s her father,” she repeated, offering nothing new.

“So you had a personal connection with Wolfe all this time? You’ve… what, been feedin’ him information about us?”

Her gaze shot up, and she shook her head. “No.  Never. Not… not intentionally. It’s always been hypotheticals, veiled questions. I’ve never knowingly told anyone outside of this team a single thing about this team. First rule of fight club, right?”

Quentin’s expression remained impassive, and Renata’s attempt at injecting a bit of humor slid right off him, shattering on the floor, along with her resolve to not shed any tears.

“Why should I believe that?” he asked, in what was nearly a growl, despite his outwardly cool disposition. “From where I’m standin’, it looks like you sought me out for help, knowin’ the connection to Wolfe and Naomi.”

Again, Renata frantically shook her head. “No. I had no idea of your link to Wolfe until I joined this team, months after he took Taylor. I sought you out because I needed someone I could I trust, and I thought… Quentin, we’re friends.”

Were friends. Yeah, you could trust me, but it looks like my trust was misplaced. I’m supposed to believe this is a coincidence?”

She lifted her hands, attempting to touch him — the only thing she could think of to assuage his fears. He backed away, shaking his head, and Renata swallowed hard. She wanted to not take it personally, to accept that he had a right to feel angry — even betrayed, but…the fact remained that the repulsion on his face made a stony sense of rejection settle in her stomach.

“It is a coincidence. I swear to you that I didn’t know my friend,” — maybe if she kept saying it, kept emphasizing that she wasn’t a stranger, something would click for him — “CrawDaddy, and you, Quentin LaForte, were the same person. We made a promise to each other, that we would never do that — look each other up—, unless we decided together. I didn’t break that, not really.”

Quentin scoffed. “Not really?”

“Yes. When I was invited onto the team, and you and I met that day… you felt really familiar to me, like we already knew each other. And then, as I found out more about you — that you were from Louisiana, you being a hacker, that you love crawdads… Quentin, it wasn’t exactly a stretch to figure out.”

With his arms crossed, and face pulled into a stern scowl, Quentin seemed far removed from the charming, flirty man Renata had encountered on her first visit to Five Star Fitness to join his and Naomi’s team. Golden brown skin and a perpetual five o’clock shadow, the chiseled face of a model, body of an athlete, and mind of a tech genius… she’d thought Quentin was a dream.

This, on the other hand, was a nightmare. She watched his expression for any hint of a crack in his armor, any sign that he didn’t want to stick her somewhere in a dungeon to rot.

She found none.

“So if you didn’t know of the link between me and Wolfe… why wouldn’t you tell me who had Taylor. These last few months, it was “they” this, “they” that. You knew he was the one who had her. Why the secrecy?”

Renata sighed as she lifted her eyes to his. “Because I knew you would do more than I was asking you to. Just like… before. Remember?”

Licking his lips, Quentin ran a hand over his face before letting out a sigh of his own.  When his eyes returned to hers, they weren’t quite as harsh and accusing as before. Subtly, he nodded.

There.

There was the softening — however slight — she was hoping for. She closed her eyes briefly, then continued.

“I had already asked too much of you. I was just optimistic that you would be able to tell me how to do what they were asking, so I could get Taylor back, without involving you more than I absolutely had to.”

“But I told you I would do whatever was necessary — and you accepted that. I started pokin’ around got tagged. King Pharmaceuticals has government contracts, and they don’t play. I had to answer to SSA Black about that.”

Renata nodded. “I’m sorry for that. I really never should have asked, but… I didn’t know what else to do… who else to turn to.  He wants me to hack this huge, powerful company, and I… I just went to the one person I thought could maybe tell me a way out of it, while allowing me to remain anonymous. Quentin, if I’d told you this was about Wolfe, you would’ve done something crazy, like emptying his bank accounts or something, and then what? Where would that leave me and Taylor?”

“I wouldn’t have done anything without a plan.”

“A plan that would entail talking to people. Involving people.

Quentin threw his hands up. “People who are already involved. Me, Naomi, SSA Black, Inez… we would have helped you.

“I didn’t know that,” Renata said, shaking her head.

“Yes, you did.  Once you got asked onto this team, to help with the Lucas job, you knew. You even had your own people, Marcus and Kendall, who probably would have been more than willing. Renata… you had to know this would get found out. Your only saving grace was that me and Naomi didn’t know your daughter. We looked at those pictures from the party, wrote her off as one of Taylor’s friends, or a cousin from her mother’s side or something.  What if Marcus had reviewed those pictures with us? What then, huh? What the hell were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that if I kept my mouth shut I would see my daughter again. I was thinking that her father is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me… but she’s the best. And I don’t know what I’ll do if I never get to hug her again. The job with Lucas is over, and as far as I know, Wolfe has no idea I was involved, no idea that I know you or Naomi. I thought I would go back to what I was doing before — working for the FBI, and waiting on Damien to say he’s ready to move forward with this … scheme of his, so I can just be done.”

Quentin gave a dry chuckle, then looked at Renata with a derisive smile. “You really that naïve?” he asked, tipping his head to the side. “To think he’s gonna be done with you, once you do this for him? Let me guess — he told you so.”

“As a matter of fact, he did,” Renata confirmed as heat rushed to her cheeks. “But no… I’m not that naïve. I’m just… trying to be optimistic. I’ve run from him before. Changed my name, changed Taylor’s name, and we hid. But, he found us. Every. Single. Time. And every time, he made me wonder why I’d even tried.” She paused for a moment to compose herself as her voice grew choked and hot, fresh tears rushed to her eyes. “So… again, no. Not naïve. Choosing to believe that this time he’ll just leave me alone.”

connectedtothedevil“Yeah, well… you chose to be connected to the devil— this is what you get.”

Renata swallowed the urge to vomit.

“So what’s next?” she asked, tossing her shoulders back with a confidence she didn’t feel as she pretended not to have heard his jab. “Where do we go from here?”

“I still have questions.”

“Well ask them!” she snapped, then averted her gaze as Quentin’s expression once again deepened into a scowl. It wasn’t that she meant to be indignant, especially considering her clear disadvantage, but she was starting to grow annoyed.

Really, she’d done nothing wrong. Her daughter was being held by Damien Wolfe, and she was being denied her parental rights. Both of their lives were at risk if she didn’t cooperate with whatever Damien said. What kind of mother would she be if she didn’t do everything she could to protect her?

“Did you give him any information about our team?”

Renata’s head snapped to attention. “What? Again, Wolfe doesn’t have knowledge that I share any relationship with you or Naomi. So no… not intentionally.”

“Not intentionally. So… there may have been some unintentional cover blowing?”

“No, not like that.” Renata blew out a breath. “Um… a few days before the kidnapping attempt on Naomi… I got a call. They do it often, presenting me with a scenario to get out of, but I never know when, or who. All I do, is solve the problem.  They needed to know how to disable the security, break in with no trace, all of that. When I heard about what happened to Naomi, I looked at the floor plans they gave me, and then I looked up Naomi’s building and compared. It was her apartment.”

For a long moment, Quentin just stared, and then he let out another cough of dry laughter. Shaking his head, he turned away, then lifted his hand to his temples.

“What now?” Renata asked, taking a few steps closer.

Quentin looked up, then shifted so that he was facing her again as his expression hardened. Before he even opened his mouth to speak, the anger in his eyes told her exactly what he was about to say — and it frightened her.

“We’re going on a little trip.”

— & —

He wouldn’t say anything.

No matter how hard Renata stared at the side of Quentin’s head, willing him to acknowledge that he at least remembered she was there, he wouldn’t even glance her way. He hadn’t said anything since they left her apartment. He’d placed a brief, hushed phone call, then demanded that she put on shoes to accompany the plain cotton tee and sweats she’d been wearing when she opened the door.

She could understand why he’d confiscated her cell phone, but handcuffing her just seemed like overkill. Did he really think she was going to open the door and pitch herself into traffic if he didn’t?

Maybe not such a bad idea, she thought, and then quickly thought better. With her luck, she would injure herself just enough to be really annoying, but not get her out of her current predicament. So… handcuffed she remained.

Not that she couldn’t have easily gotten out of the cuffs. Quentin must not have researched too far, if he thought she was just some geek, too lazy to lift a finger if it wasn’t to click a mouse or tap a key.  Marcus and Kendall would have both known better. They would have known that with her proficiency in hand to hand combat, she could easily give a grown man a serious problem — even if he was armed, which Renata had no doubt Quentin was.

But, a physical fight didn’t seem the right way to send an “I’m innocent” message, so she got into the car without much fuss, although she desperately wondered where they were going. She kept her head low, hoping not to be seen, but knowing that there was a very real chance Wolfe had people watching her.  If he did, she was already screwed— they’d probably seen Quentin coming in.

Renata blew out a puff of air as she searched her mind for a better way to explain… all of this. She was telling him the truth — maybe not the whole truth, but still the truth — and he still didn’t seem to believe her. His reluctance to look at or speak to her, the fact that he hadn’t called her cher in his sexy Creole twang… it was unnerving.  Again, it crossed Renata’s mind that if he blew up, yelled, screamed… some type of emotion would be better than the nothing she was currently getting from him.

“Quentin, I hope you understand I nev—”

The ear-splitting sound of shattering glass interrupted Renata mid-sentence, making her throat constrict with fear. She screamed at the angry zip of a bullet as it flew past her and hit the windshield, showering them in another layer of tempered glass.

Faintly, she heard Quentin yelling for her to get down, but she couldn’t move.

Somebody is trying to kill me, she thought, just before Quentin reached over, with his eyes still on the road as he punched the car into full speed, and grabbed a handful of her braids. He yanked hard, pulling her head toward her knees with a command to “stay down” as he maneuvered the car into a sharp turn. She glanced up, at her seat, and the little hole through her head rest, where she’d been not even ten seconds before, made her stomach lurch.

Squeezing her eyes shut, Renata said a quick prayer, then took a deep breath.

Think about Taylor, Ren. She needs her mother.

She quickly manipulated her hands out of the loosely applied handcuffs, then looked to Quentin, who was hunched low over the steering wheel as he tried to navigate them away from danger. His eyes were focused ahead, occasionally darting behind and beside them, and then they rested for a moment on Renata.

“Are you okay?” he asked, slowing the car for just a moment as they pulled out of the side street and back onto the highway.

Renata braced herself against the dashboard as he shot up to a higher speed. “Yeah.”

He eyed her again. “Good.”

She caught the cell phone he tossed her a second later, then followed his directions to get Inez on the line, and put it on speaker.

“¿Qué coño quieres? Es tarde!” Inez’s usually melodic voice sounded muffled, as if her head was stuffed into her pillow. Between that, and her harsh “it’s late, what the fuck do you want” greeting, Renata quickly surmised that they’d woken her up.

“Inez, it’s Agent Parker,” Renata called out as Quentin’s eyes narrowed at something in the rearview mirror.

Ren!? Calling me from Q’s phone this late? Que le coger?”

Heat rushed to Renata’s cheeks as she glanced at Quentin. “What?! No, Inez, we kinda have a situa—”

Once again, the crack of gunfire took away her ability to speak, and the phone toppled to the floor as Quentin pressed the gas harder. She heard the sharp click of a button being depressed, and the glove compartment opened in front of her, revealing a mini arsenal of weapons.

“Take your pick,” Quentin said, his voice not edged with nearly as much anxiety as Renata felt. “Since you’ve gotten yourself out of the cuffs, we need the cover. Now.

With shaking hands, Renata reached for the gun that looked most familiar — the same Glock 23 she was issued upon graduation from the FBI academy. A quick check told her it was already loaded, so she switched the safety off and with a deep breath, unbuckled her seatbelt.

From the floor of the car, Inez’s voice rang out through the phone’s speaker. “Hello?! What is happening?!”

“We’ve got a situation, Nez. We’re on the highway headed to your house, being pursued by a black Escalade. Doesn’t appear to be armored, but in just a second, Renata is gonna find out.”

At the sound of her name, Renata’s eyes went wide, and she looked at Quentin. He gritted his teeth as he bore down on the gas, whipping them from side to side so they wouldn’t be such easy targets. For a moment, he caught her eye and nodded. Knowing what that meant, Renata pushed out a breath as alarm seized her chest, squeezing tight.

“Stay alive for ten minutes,” Inez exclaimed, sounding excited. “Dios mío, I have not been in a gun battle in forever. I’m on my way!”

Renata carefully turned around in her seat as Quentin gave Inez a few more indicators of where they were, bracing her back against the dashboard. The back windshield was shattered, so it was easy to see the larger SUV as it bore down on them.

With Taylor in mind, Renata calmed herself, blocking out everything except one goal: kill the driver.  She lifted the gun and pointed it at the pursuing vehicle, aiming precisely before she pulled the trigger.

She watched in shocked disappointment as the windshield of the other vehicle shattered, but did not break.

Shit.

Renata ducked low as another round of bullets hit their car.  It was very late, and traffic was low, but there were still innocent people out. They needed to end this situation before any bystanders got hurt.

She aimed again, holding steady even as the car swayed, waiting until she saw the gunman ease his hand outside the vehicle, weapon pointed. She drew the trigger again, and smirked in satisfaction as a spray of red burst into the air, and their attacker’s gun dropped to the asphalt.

She relaxed — but only a little — giving Quentin an affirmative nod when he asked if she’d gotten him. The other vehicle was still approaching —fast — so there was no room to lose focus. Especially when there was another gunman sticking his head out of the car. Before she could think about it too hard, she’d already aimed and shot again, putting a bullet through his forehead before he could point the menacing automatic weapon in his hands.

“Good aim,” Quentin said, gifting her a brief, but grateful smile as he swerved to avoid a slow-moving Mercedes. Renata started to smile back, comforted by his slight softening toward her, but that relief quickly shifted to fear. She lifted the Glock again, aiming it in Quentin’s direction.

Quentin’s face dropped into a glower as he looked down the barrel of the gun. “What the fuck, Renata, why are you—”

“Don’t move,” Renata commanded, cutting him off as she pulled the trigger.

Around her, the air exploded with the deafening crack of a gunshot. The bullet shattered his window and kept moving, striking the gun-wielding driver of the Mercedes in the neck, which sent the car swerving as it suddenly decelerated.

“Hell yes!” she exclaimed, as the Mercedes swung into the front of the Escalade, incapacitating both vehicles. She turned her gaze back to Quentin with a huge smile.

Oh my God.

Horror gripped her heart like a vice when she saw the blood splattered across Quentin’s face. She dropped the gun to reach for him, to see where he was shot, but… she couldn’t feel her fingers… couldn’t make herself move. Dizziness swept over her, and she briefly closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she realized he was talking to her, saying something, but… her eyes were just so heavy. So, so heavy. So she closed them again.

She could hear sirens. They were in the distance, but she could hear them, and she knew that wasn’t good. She had to warn — had to tell Quentin, sirens wasn’t good. Sirens meant police, and police meant questions, and questions meant answers, and answers meant… she couldn’t remember where she was going with that. She was going somewhere with that, if only she could remember. But sirens weren’t good. They were bad.

When Renata wrenched her eyes open again, she was being pulled from the car, and the voices around her were frantic. Faintly, she registered that she was in Quentin’s arms. He was talking to someone, and even though his tone was measured and calm, it still held a slight edge of anxiety as he carefully lowered her onto something… maybe a bed.

She groaned as he pulled away, and an unfamiliar face came into view. The woman was pretty, but she had a needle in one hand.

Get away from me.

Her thoughts drifted to Taylor, wondering if she were safe, and if she knew an attempt had been made on her mother’s life. If she knew her father had made an attempt on her mother’s life.

It was the only thing that made sense.  Other than Wolfe, Renata didn’t have the kind of enemies that sent armored vehicles to kill you in the middle of the night.

Only Wolfe.

Her eyes shot open again, bulging wide as pain burst suddenly through her shoulder and head. A vicious wave of nausea swept over her, and somebody, she wasn’t sure who, held up a bucket as she pitched her head over the bed to relieve herself of her stomach contents.

Ren, lay back, please.”

She wanted to follow that instruction, but her body wouldn’t cooperate. Another round of sickness struck her stomach as she began to shake uncontrollably. A few moments later, as the voices around her grew frantic again, her consciousness slipped away, and she descended into obscurity.

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