On the eve of my eighteenth birthday, I was stabbed. I had known it was coming, but there could be no other path, and I’d had to accept it. Such was my life.
So I couldn't say I was surprised when the man with the gun appeared in my bedroom.
“Don’t make a sound,” he warned, his voice low, emotionless.
I held up my hands slowly, showing him I meant no harm.
He flicked the barrel of the pistol once, indicating I move toward the dresser. I stepped sideways, never taking my eyes off him. I’d not foreseen this, and I couldn’t help but be annoyed. A little heads-up would have been nice.
I tried to remember what lay on top of my dresser. A decorative bowl, a notepad, a paperback novel my sister had given me during my recovery. Nothing that would help me now.
“Turn around,” the man whispered. I swallowed hard against the lump in my throat. The gun had a silencer. He would be one of Morgan’s men. If I made one wrong move, he’d wound me. Shoot me in the thigh or the shoulder; prevent me from trying to escape.
“I understand you think you have to do this,” I started in as quiet of a tone as I could manage.
He took three swift steps toward me, the barrel of the pistol moving down to aim at my leg.
“No,” I whispered, cringing back as my hands remained palms out.
His eyes narrowed on me and I nodded, slowly turning toward the wall. There has to be a way, I thought. Some way to convince him Morgan’s directions were wrong, that they no longer mattered.
The barrel pressed into my shoulder blade, and the metal seemed unnaturally cold, hard, and round.
“Wrists,” he breathed, and I closed my eyes as I slid my hands behind my back. An instant later, they were zip-tied, the plastic strap cutting painfully into my arms. “Move,” he said, the barrel pressing harder into my shoulder to turn me before he pushed me forward.
The window. He was taking me to the window. Did he have more men outside? Had he killed the Division’s guards?
My eyes flicked to the bedside table, my cell phone lying out of reach. What did I have in my pockets? A note from Emily. She and Aern would be gone for a few hours…
There was nothing I could do.
Suddenly, a red pinpoint light reflected off the glass of the window. It was coming from the small white box above my door. The alarm system. I faltered, almost falling to my knees in relief. They knew he was here. Something had tripped the alarm. Just one more minute, two at the most, and they would find me. They had to find me.
“Go,” he said, shoving the pistol against my back.
I reached forward, fumbling purposefully with the lock, and when metal bit harder into my skin, I slid the window open. The wind took my breath away, and I had to steady myself before carefully raising a foot over the sill. I’d worn flats. Slip-on shoes that would not help me run, that would not be good for climbing. Luckily, I had jeans on. They might protect me some from scuffs if I stumbled. But not if he throws me out of the window. Panic surged at the thought and I tried to force it back. He wouldn’t do that. He’d need me alive. Morgan would have told him to bring me alive.
Decorative railings covered the wall six feet below me, trellises shrouded in ivy and blooms. He couldn’t expect me to jump. Not from the second story. I turned to look at him, one leg over the ledge, one dangling above carpet.
He was snapping a carabiner to his vest. My stomach dropped. Those weren’t holster straps crossing his chest; they were a harness. He was going to grab me and rappel the two stories down. We would be there in seconds. My eyes jumped to his. It was only a few yards to the trees. He had planned carefully. He would make it.
He had found a way to take me.
The sound of the door crashing open was like an explosion in the silence of my room, and my heart quit for the long instant it took Brendan to rush through. His gaze barely brushed mine before settling wholly on his target, the man at my back.
The man spun and Brendan slammed into him, throwing them both hard against the wall beside me. I scrambled to climb back in, but the man’s arm jerked free, swinging the barrel of the gun too close to my perch. I ducked, grasping the ledge with my tied hands, leaning forward onto my leg to keep from falling out the other side. I pressed my right foot to the siding to lever myself as the men struggled beside me, and my shoe slipped, falling noiselessly to the ground below. I couldn’t look, but I could imagine it landing, imagine it cleaner than a landing of my own.
I pushed against the inside wall, finally anchored well enough to find purchase, and the muffled crunch of breaking bone caused me to turn in time to see the man crash down onto the window and me. There was nowhere to go, not enough time to move, and my breath caught as I prepared to fall to my death. But Brendan’s hands were suddenly on my arm and leg, too tight as he fought to pull me up past the prone form between us. My eyes found his, silently pleading he not let go, but I could see the strain the fight had caused.
And then I felt his hand, slick with blood, begin to slide slowly off my arm.
I opened my mouth to scream, but he moved quick, leaning forward and grabbing a handful of shirt to jerk me headlong through the window. My legs dragged over the man on the floor—one bare-footed, both trembling with shock—and Brendan pulled me to him, wrapping his arms around me before realizing I was tied.
Chest heaving, he fumbled anxiously in the pockets of his slacks, grimacing as his gaze fell to the body by the window. My attacker. I heard the muted sound of boots hitting floor down the hallway, and realized Brendan was behind me, using the man’s Bowie knife to cut my hands free. He tossed the weapon aside and rubbed my wrists. I wanted to turn to him, fall into his embrace, and cry … but I didn't.
I closed my eyes tight against the vision, the man fate had chosen for me. Because that man wasn't here.
“Brianna,” my sister gasped from beside me. I opened my eyes to find the room full of men; Division soldiers and the man who had stabbed me.
“I’m fine,” I promised Emily, but my shaking voice betrayed me. She pulled me to her, squeezing tight as she stared over my back. When she drew away, her gaze met Aern's.
“It’s fine,” I said again, hating the look that passed between them. “You couldn't have known. No one could have known.”
Emily’s gaze returned to mine, and I implored her to side with me, to not let him take the blame for one more thing that had gone wrong. She sighed.
“I suppose not,” she murmured, knowing that Aern would understand the implication. I was the prophet, after all.
He stepped forward, regret obvious in his features, but he didn't say he was sorry. Not after I’d threatened him for it the weeks before. “It is our job to know,” Aern said. “And we should have seen this coming.”
Brendan was suddenly beside us, the skin of his cheek and neck red and bruising. “I’ll stand watch over Brianna.”
I swallowed hard, unable to look at any of them.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Aern said. “She’ll need a fulltime guard. You have too many responsibilities.”
Brendan stared at him, but he didn't have much room to argue. He was still running the men of the Division, still managing a dozen houses and multiple businesses. Things would fall back together, all under Aern’s command, but only after this threat was handled.
I glanced down at my hands, puffy and raw, and saw the blood smeared on my torn shirt. “It’s my fault. I should have seen this.” My eyes met Aern's. “I didn't make Morgan remove the sway from everyone. He only did it to the men that were there.”
Aern winced at the reminder of that night, the night he had stabbed me, and I wanted to grab him and shake him. He’d done everything he could to subvert Morgan’s order, and though he couldn't have stopped the action, he had managed to not hit anything important. “It’s not your fault,” I said again. “None of it was your fault.”
He reached up to squeeze my arm. “It won’t happen again, Brianna. I swear to you, you will be safe.”
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