Shane’s eyes narrowed. She didn’t react. She didn’t move. She didn’t say a word. This was how she always was, a statue. This was what she had been trained to be, since she was three years old. Emotions were weakness. They were there, but they were to be buried and they were never to be shown. It was the way of her culture, but it was a skill that was honed to perfection for those such as herself. She was a warrior. Emotions could be preyed upon and used to weaken the opponent, so when she heard those words, the only thing that happened was a chill that swept through the room. The wind kicked up outside and Shane waited until it quieted down before she replied, “Their reason?”
Her question was a trick. The truth was that the Elders didn’t have to give her a reason. It was their way. Michael Chen had been the previous Guardian. Once a new Guardian championed the old, the old was killed. Michael Chen hadn’t been bested. He had been released of his Guardianship and he was allowed to leave the Chen Family. He went to New York City, and it had become his home for the last five years. Shane knew the real reason, it was because he had grown too powerful. He was becoming a business mogul and he was becoming very good at it. He owned one third of the city.
No. The reason they wanted him dead was because he was a threat to the Family. He knew too much. The Elders were afraid of him, but she still asked the question. She wanted to know what response he had been coached to tell her.
Then he said, “It is the way. He has abused his freedom for too long.”
He failed the test. As she watched him, he still wouldn’t look into her eyes and this was the real reason for his fear. He wasn’t scared of her, though he should be. He was scared of her reaction. He was lying. They both knew it.
He fled from the room. A normal person wouldn’t have noticed his quick and precise gait. They would’ve been impervious to the undercurrents in the room, but Shane knew he fled for his life for he had delivered the message that would end everything.
The Elders had stepped wrong.
Michael’s freedom was Shane’s one stipulation when she took over his Guardianship. She would not fight him. She would not best him. She wanted him to live freely. They had agreed and the deal was set in stone. The Elders were the head of their Family. They decided the decisions to ensure their Family remained one of the top five Families in their country. Not only were they one of the largest, but their new Guardian was also the best.
Shane was their new Guardian. There was only one per Family, but the Elders violated the deal. It would be the beginning of the end, for them and for her, for they had just sent her to kill her brother.
She was going to kill the Elders instead.
“Mr. Chen, your visitor has arrived.” Michael’s assistant popped his head into the office with a quick, professional smile.
Michael looked up, exhaustion running through his body, and he leaned back in his chair. Pulling the collar of his shirt from his neck, he waved him inside. “Come in, Dante.” He waved a hand to the chair before him. “Have a seat.” He grinned. “Take a load off.”
“Um.” His assistant scooted inside the door, but stood just on the other side. He pressed his hands between his legs and waited there, his head cocked to the side. “Mr. Chen, your visitor?” He jerked a hand over his shoulder. “She’s waiting for you.”
“I know.” Michael pointed to the seat again. “I’m not ready to go out there so, take a load off and visit with me instead.”
“Oh.” His assistant’s eyes widened and he hurried to the chair. Slipping into it, he folded his skinny frame together, throwing one leg over the other, and his elbow rested atop his knee. His other arm dangled over his arm as his hands intertwined at the fingers. It was an awkward- looking position, but since Michael had hired Dante, that was the only way he sat. Dante never seemed to sit, throw his legs out, and relax like a normal guy, but he had learned long ago not to care. His assistant was one of the best he had. He looked young with blue streaks in his black Mohawk and he always wore a buttoned down shirt, khaki pants, and a bowtie. The colors were always bright, sometimes pink, sometimes neon blue, sometimes polka dots, but he got his job done and Michael never had to worry about any flirting happening. It was why he wanted to hire a male, even older females had started to become a problem. Also, Dante was going to be a success. At whatever he did, Michael knew he would be damn good at it. It was smart to build connections with an up-and-comer like him and Dante was one, even if Dante didn’t know it.
“So.” Dante lifted his head, a bright smile plastered over it. “How are things?”
Michael laughed and finished closing out the screens on his computer. “Dante, you’d make the worst wingman ever.”
“I didn’t ask for you to become my date. I just asked for you to come in and take a load off.”
“I was confused, sir. I’m sorry, Mr. Chen.”
“Well, to be honest, I’m sure I’m the confusing guy.” Michael waited until his computer went black and then he glanced back to his assistant. He let out a small sigh, knowing he shouldn’t be putting this off, but damn, he was. He’d figure out the why later. “I’m going to be the asshole right now. I don’t want to talk about myself, but I’d like to hear about you. Tell me about yourself, Dante. I want to hear it all.”
“Oh.” Dante’s waxed eyebrows bunched forward and he frowned. “Okay. Well.” Then he launched into a story that entailed everything Michael asked, but the more he said, the less Michael listened.
It was a stalling tactic. A very beautiful woman was in his lobby, waiting for him. He knew he’d been a douche when he told her to come to his job for their date. It was a date. He was supposed to go to her home. He was supposed to have flowers, show up in the fancy car, take her to the fancy restaurant. The whole nine yards. And she was supposed to fall in love with him, like they all did.
Even thinking that, Michael cringed. It would’ve been egotistical of him if it wasn’t the truth. The truth was that he could make them fall in love with him. He was nice. He was wealthy. He was handsome. He was the knight in shining armor. But he was a dead man walking and he knew it. With every sale he made, every building he owned, it was taking him to a spot where his old Family would notice him. They had allowed his freedom, but the unspoken realization was that he was supposed to stay in the shadows. He was supposed to get by and he was, under any circumstances, never supposed to be powerful in his own right.
All that went out the window with his first sale. Michael had felt on top of the world and even though the Chen Family was in the back of his mind, always nagging there, he continued to climb. He couldn’t help it. If they sent the new Guardian to kill him, so be it, but he would go out on top. That was his way.
So this new date—it would already end in disaster, whether the woman realized it or not. He couldn’t be her knight in shining armor. Starting the date off as an asshole was a good way to set the tone for their disastrous end. He only hoped for a good night, which he usually got. He was one damn good-looking guy. He wasn’t an idiot. He still had that going for him, at least, but when they wanted a second date or a third, and they got the same reception, they usually went away. That was fine with him. Better to leave him now, then to be left by him later on.
Dante was trying to get his attention. “What?”
“Your phone has been ringing for the last thirty seconds.”
“Oh.” Michael blinked, coming back to reality, and he snatched up his phone on the next ring. “Hello?”
“The Chen Elders have issued your death warrant.”
The voice was distorted. A device was on their end, changing the octaves of the voice, but it didn’t matter. A shiver went down his spine. He asked, his voice gruff, “When?”
His hand gripped the phone tighter, pressing it against his ear harder. “When? I need to know.”
They hesitated on the other end, but said, “Soon. The Guardian’s been told tonight.”
He had a week, if even. A new wave of chills rolled down his back, but he ignored them. The new Guardian had been told. That meant they were coming. The Guardian always carried out the orders handed to them by the Elders and he knew this order could only come from the Elders. He was going to die. It was a matter of time. His jaw clenched. So it was coming? So what. He grew determined. It would come on his terms. He would set the traps. He would make the Guardian kill him how he wanted to go, but even as he thought that and rose from his chair, he knew it was a foolish thought.
The Guardian was the best. He would out-think Michael, like he had when Michael was let go from his position and told that he was allowed to live as an outsider anywhere in the world. Some people would think they were being cast out, but Michael knew better. He’d just won the Guardian lottery. No Guardian walked away and he had. He knew it had been too good to be true. The time when that ‘too good to be true’ had just ended. He was delivered his walking papers.
For the first time in a long time, true terror struck him deep to the core.
“Where are you going?” His assistant had been sharing the detailed list of how his aspirations in life were going to make him one of the top real estate agents in the city. He was on number five.
Michael grinned at him, grabbing his suit coat. “Dante, you’re going to kill it, wherever and whatever you do in life. I don’t need to hear your strategy of making it happen. You will. And you’ll have my support. I promise that.”
Dante’s eyes got big. “Really?”
As he circled his desk, Dante stood from his chair. He pressed his hands down the front of his pants. “You’re going on your date now, sir?”
“I am.” Michael went to the door and threw back another rakish grin. “Lock up and head home early.”
“It’s seven at night.”
“Then lock up and take the day off tomorrow.”
Dante’s eyebrows shot up. “Sir?”
“I mean it.” Just because he got his death certificate signed and handed to him didn’t mean he had to share his doom and gloom with everyone else. “Take the day off tomorrow. Go and have fun. See a movie, go to dinner. It’s on me.”
“Thank you, sir.” Dante’s eyebrows were furrowed together and his jaw clenched, but he looked close to tears. “That’s very generous of you.”
Michael gave him another grin, but it wasn’t. He was going to die. Treating his best assistant for a dinner or movie date wasn’t that generous. It was just being a thoughtful human being. “I’ll see you in two days. Have a good night, Dante.”
“You too, Sir. Have a good night too.”
“Oh.” Michael winked at him, blinding him with a rakish grin. “You know it. I have a beautiful woman waiting for me. How could I not have a good night?” Then, before his assistant could say anything more about his carefree like, Michael slipped from the room. This was the other truth for Michael. He never cared about the women. He couldn’t. He enjoyed their presence. He enjoyed being in bed with them, but anything more than that never touched him. And this night, this phone call, insured why he lived his life how he did.
He was going to die. One way or another, but he was going to live it to the fullest before he did. And on that note, he turned the last corner and saw the gorgeous creature he had met earlier in the week at a charity event. She rose from the chair, smiling, raking her eyes up and down him. There it was. He saw the lust in her eyes and he knew, even as he extended an arm to her, that they would order in instead of going to a restaurant.