Thomas’s eyebrows pulled together. “She said, ‘Your dad is going to take this hard. You’re the oldest. I’m sorry, and it’s not fair, but it’s up to you, Thomas. Don’t just take care of them. Be a good brother.’”

I rested my chin on my hands, watching the various emotions scroll across his face. I couldn’t relate, but I definitely empathized, so much so that I had to resist wrapping my arms around him.

“The last thing I said to my mother was that I’d try. What I’m about to do to Travis doesn’t feel like trying, not one fucking bit.”

“Really?” I asked, dubious. “All the work you’ve done on this case? All the strings you had to pull to get Travis recruited instead of sent to prison?”

“My dad is a retired police detective. Did you know that?” Thomas looked at me with his dark hazel eyes. He was neck-deep in his past, family baggage, guilt, and disappointment.

I wasn’t sure how much worse his story could get. Part of me was afraid he was going to admit to being abused.

Hesitant, I shook my head. “Did he…hit you?”

Thomas’s face screwed into disgust. “No. No, nothing like that.” His eyes lost focus. “Dad checked out for a few years, but he’s a good man.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“It was right after she spoke to me for the last time. I was crying in the hallway, just outside the bedroom door. I wanted to get it all out, so the boys wouldn’t see me. I heard Mom ask Dad to quit his job at the station, and she made him promise that he’d never let us follow in his footsteps. She had always been proud of him, of his job, but she knew her death would be hard on us, and she didn’t want Dad in a line of work that could make us orphans. Dad loved the job, but he promised. He knew Mom was right. Our family couldn’t take another loss.”

He rubbed his thumb on his lips. “We came too close with Trenton and Travis. Along with Abby, they almost died in that fire.”

“Does your dad know?”

“No. But if something had happened to them, he wouldn’t have survived it.”

I touched his knee. “You’re good at being a federal agent, Thomas.”

He sighed. “They won’t see it that way. I spent the rest of my childhood trying to be a grown-up. I lost a lot of sleep trying to think of something else to be. I couldn’t let my dad break his promise to her. He loved her too much. I couldn’t do that to him.”

I reached for his hand and held it in mine. His story was so much worse than I’d thought. I couldn’t imagine how much guilt he carried around with him every day, loving the job he wasn’t supposed to have.

“When I decided to apply for the Bureau, it was the hardest, most exciting thing I’d ever done. I’ve tried to tell them so many times, but I just can’t.”

“You don’t have to tell him. If you truly believe he won’t understand, then don’t. It’s your secret to keep.”

“Now, it’s going to be Travis’s secret to keep.”

“I wish”—I put my other hand on top of his—“you could see this the way I do. You’re protecting him the only way you can.”

“I potty-trained Travis. I bathed him every night. My dad loved us, but he was lost in his grief. For a while after he got his new job, he used to drink until he passed out. He’s made up for it. He apologizes all the time for taking the easy way out. But I raised Trav. I bandaged his scrapes. I got in so many fights over him and fought next to him. I can’t let him go to prison.” His voice broke.

I shook my head. “You’re not. The director agreed to recruit him. He’s home free.”

“Do you understand what I’m dealing with here? Trav will have to lie to our family and his wife, like I’ve done. But I chose this, and I know how hard it is, Liis. Travis doesn’t get a choice. Not only will Dad be disappointed, but Travis will also be undercover. Only the director and our team will know. He is going to have to lie to everyone he knows because I knew his connection to Benny could get me this promotion. I’m his fucking brother. What kind of person does that to his own brother?”

Thomas’s self-loathing was difficult to watch, especially knowing there was no reprieve.

“You didn’t do this just for a promotion. You might tell yourself that, but I don’t buy it.” I squeezed his hand. His misery was so heavy that even I could feel it. “And you didn’t force him to engage in illegal activity. You’re just trying to spare him the consequences of his actions.”

“He’s a kid,” Thomas said, his voice faltering. “He’s just getting ready to turn twenty-one, for Christ’s sake. He’s a fucking kid, and I bailed on him. I left for California and didn’t look back, and now, he’s in some serious shit.”

“Thomas, listen to me. You’ve got to get this straight in your head. If you don’t believe in the reasons for Travis’s recruitment, he sure as hell isn’t going to.”

He cupped my hands in both of his. Then, he brought my fingers to his mouth and kissed them. My entire body leaned toward him a fraction of an inch as if by a gravitational pull I couldn’t control. As I watched his lips warm my skin, I felt jealous of my own hands.

Never had I wanted to defy my own rules so ardently that my conscience was at war in my own head. Not even half of these conflicting emotions had existed the night I decided to leave Jackson. The effect Thomas had on me was wonderful and maddening and terrifying.

“I remember the guy I met my first night here, the one without the pressure of running a field office or making the tough decision to protect his brother. No matter what you tell yourself, you’re a good person, Thomas.”

He looked over at me and pulled his hand away from mine, indignant. “I’m no fucking saint. If I told you the story about Camille, you wouldn’t be looking at me like that.”

“You mentioned that she’s Trent’s girlfriend. I can guess.”

He shook his head. “It’s worse than you think.”

“I’d say helping Travis avoid a prison sentence is atonement.”

“Not even close.” He stood.

I reached for him but missed. I didn’t want him to leave. I had an entire day and nothing to unpack. Now that Thomas was in my living room, he seemed to fill up the empty space. I was afraid it would feel lonely when he left.