“She always managed to lure him in again. But finally, he’d had enough and decided to break with her for good. Two days later, she died from an overdose. The police report says it was an accidental suicide—a cry for attention—but Gavin hasn’t been the same for the last decade. I don’t get it. He isn’t pining for her.” Slade shook his head. “Maybe he feels responsible, but he didn’t shove a bunch of pills down her throat.”
Sometimes it didn’t take having an actual hand in something to make a man feel guilty. Dex knew that. He felt guilty about his own damn birth. His mother had been sweet, but not too smart. She’d had to work two jobs to try to support him after her lover had shoved a ten thousand dollar check her way and told her to get an abortion. When he was a kid, he’d often thought she would have been better off if she had. If she’d followed Stuart James’s instructions, she wouldn’t have been working late in a bar. She wouldn’t have been in a car that broke down. She wouldn’t have been hit by a passing drunk driver.
Dex shook it off. His mother had loved him and done her best to provide. She wouldn’t want him to feel guilty for anything. Maybe that’s why Dex could let go of the guilt and Gavin couldn’t. If Nikki could see Gavin’s torment, she’d be eating it up.
“We have to talk to him, convince him to let this go,” Dex insisted. He was going to make this right with his brother and give Hannah the complete happiness she wanted and deserved.
Slade smiled and put a brotherly hand on his shoulder. “I can’t tell you how much that means to me, man. Yeah, let’s find him and have a chat. Then we’ll all take our girl out and show her the mountains.”
Hannah would look beautiful lying back on a field of green grass. It had only been a few hours since he and Slade had cleaned her up and begun preparing her ass. His dick got hard at the memory of Slade sliding that pink plug deep inside her. Her eyes had widened, and a breathy moan had oozed from her throat. He’d almost come in his jeans right then and there. If he and Slade hadn’t made the agreement to let her recover during the morning, he would have pulled her close and seen just how tight her pussy would be when her ass was filled.
He glanced down at his watch. Four p.m. He smiled. They had really only agreed to leave her alone for the morning.
“You’re thinking what I’m thinking.” Slade grinned. When it came to Hannah, they were always thinking the same thing.
They rounded the corner that would take them to the bedroom they shared with Hannah when they saw him.
Gavin stood in the doorway, his eyes haggard, staring at them. Dex had never seen his brother look so disheveled and distraught. Something had gone terribly wrong. How much had he heard? Had their discussion about Nikki put him in this state?
“Gavin, what the fuck?” Slade grabbed the empty bottle of vodka in his brother’s hand.
“What is wrong with you? Did you drink all of this today?”
“Yep. I came looking for another, but I didn’t want to interrupt your brotherly chat.” Slade stopped, cursed at the haunted look in their big brother’s eyes. “Tell us what happened.”
Gavin’s lips quirked up, but he radiated pure self-loathing. “Everything. Some of it was so long ago. But no matter how deep you bury it, that shit always comes back to haunt you.”
“If talking about Nikki is upsetting you this much, I’ll back off,” Dex vowed. Gavin needed to heal, but he wasn’t willing to hurt his brother to force the issue.
Shaking his head, Gavin stepped carefully across the room. His defeated mien contrasted sharply with the sunny kitchen table. “It doesn’t matter. The entire ugly story will be out in the papers by tomorrow.”
Slade slid Dex a long, worried look as he sat down beside Gavin. “The whole story about Nikki?”
Gavin nodded, eyes squeezed tightly shut, torment clearly wracking him.
“Did you kill her?” Dex asked calmly. “Have they dug up evidence? Is there time to make it go away?”
Gavin turned to him with a solemn frown. “Would you really cover it up?”
“In a heartbeat,” Dex replied. “I would be pissed that you hadn’t come to me in the first place. If you have a body to hide, you call your brothers.”
“I sometimes wonder if you consider me a brother at all. I haven’t been close to you. I accused you of behaving impulsively.”
Dex managed a smile. “In the past, I have behaved impulsively. You had to bail me out of jail more than once in college.”
Slade grinned. “At least you’re not fighting in bars anymore.”
“I got a text from Hannah’s stalker.” Gavin’s words turned the conversation on end and stopped Dex’s heart for a painful second.
“What? When?” He couldn’t get the words out fast enough.
“About eight this morning.”
Before they’d confronted Preston.
Slade glanced his way, then back to Gavin. “From what number? Let me see.” Gavin shook his head. “Nothing you can do. I just forwarded the whole text conversation to the Lenox brothers. They’re working on it, but this guy isn’t stupid. The number will be from an untraceable, prepaid cell. The gist of his little message was that he knew my secret, and he’s going to tell the world unless we release Hannah.”
“How does he even know we have Hannah?” Slade asked. “Unless it’s Preston, then he knows from Lyle because the pipsqueak saw you carry Hannah out of the office yesterday.”
“True. Slade fired Preston, Gavin. The guy is a prick who treated Hannah like shit.” Gavin shrugged. “The firing of our CIO is the least of my worries. This shit that’s going to come out will tear us apart.”
“We need to find out now if Preston made it on that plane back to Anchorage or if he’s still hovering around here,” Dex told Slade as he made a mental note to call the Lenox brothers ASAP to track down Preston’s current whereabouts.
Gavin’s shoulders slumped. “You really think Preston would stalk her? He’s been in her face a lot. Why the sudden subterfuge?”
Who knew why a psycho did anything, Dex thought darkly.
“Until we know who the stalker is for sure, let’s focus on keeping Hannah close and protected,” Gavin suggested. “The rest of it is over and done. The fucking past is going to come out, and I’ve made suitable arrangements to deal with the fallout.”
“What kind of arrangements? How bad is this story?” Slade grabbed Gavin’s shoulders. “Is our stock going to take a hit? I don’t understand.”
“I’ll explain. I’d rather you hear this from me than the press. And the stock won’t take a hit.
I’ve made sure of it. I’ll be stepping down as CEO Monday morning. I’ve split the stock our father left me between you and Dex. My lawyer is finalizing the details now.”
“What?” Slade exploded, standing and staring in disbelief.
Dex had always wanted a piece of the company his absentee father had built, but only because he’d wanted to be on an equal footing with his brothers. He sure as hell hadn’t wanted it this way. “Call him back and tell him to unfinalize it.”
“I won’t,” Gavin said, his voice taking on a grave finality. “This is what’s best for the company and what’s best for the two of you and Hannah. You’ll think so, too, in a minute.”
“I doubt that.” Slade crossed his arms over his chest. “You’re the heart of Black Oak Oil.
You make it run.”
Gavin barely managed a shrug, as if lifting his shoulders was too much effort.
“Tell us. Just spit out what’s going to hit the press so we can deal with it.” Whatever he was about to confess had been a festering wound poisoning his oldest brother for years.
Dropping his elbows to his knees, Gavin hunched over and stared at the floor. “I did kill Nikki, but worse, I killed my own child.”
Dex slumped into his chair, the truth hitting him. Compassion welled up. He might not have been raised with Gavin, but Dex knew him. Guilt about Dex’s rough childhood had brought Gavin to his unknown brother’s door in the first place. Thinking that he’d been even a tiny bit responsible for his own child’s death would crush him.
Gavin locked stares with Slade, then Dex. Clearly, he was braced, waiting for condemnation, rejection. Hatred.
Dex reached out and put a hand on his. He said the words he’d never said before—to either of them. “I love you, brother. We’ll get through this.”
* * * *
Gavin pulled his hand back. Of all the things Dex could have had said, this shocked him most. He turned to Slade and saw the same look of concern and compassion on his face. No anger. No horror or exclusion. They simply waited for him to tell the story.
“Did you hear what I said?” he asked incredulously.
Slade nodded. “Yes. I heard. I’m going to tell you the same thing Dex said. I love you, and I’m here for you. Just get it all out so we can deal.”
Their faces were grim, but they hadn’t walked out on him. They’d shown solidarity, offered support. Fuck. His brothers had told him that they loved him.
Dex sent him a solemn stare. “I take it Nikki was pregnant when she decided to down a bunch of pills. How is that your fault, Gavin?”
“Let me enlighten you.” He hated the nasty edge to his words.
Gavin had known this would be hard, but their seeming acceptance made it harder. What if they heard the details and decided that he was a murdering prick after all? He scrubbed his raw eyes with the heels of his hands. Then they would finally understand. None of that changed the fact he owed them the truth before the press splashed it all over the front page.
“Nikki and I had a volatile relationship, as you know. It was interesting at first. A nice diversion from all the other shit in my life. We had some hot sex. She loved to fuck, and I enjoyed obliging her. For a while, it was worth all the drama. Then she got demanding. I found myself in this constant state of making up and breaking up with her. I have to admit, the more we fought, the hotter the sex became. It was damn good. And when the former Black Oak board was trying to eat me alive, I needed the release.” He shrugged. “I got addicted to the sex and the anger. They made me forget work for a while. Our parents were dead. We didn’t have a lot of other family. You two were in college, far away…so Nikki became a fixture in my life. I never planned to marry her. I knew she was bad for me.”
“But she was there and we weren’t.” Guilt ravaged Slade’s face. He shook his head, his shoulders slumped.
“Hey, you two had to go to school,” Gavin rebuked. The last thing he needed was Slade or Dex feeling responsible. “This fiasco was all my doing. I was an adult.”
“You were twenty-two, Gavin,” Dex growled. “Most twenty-two-year-olds are drinking beer and trying to figure out where to get a job. They aren’t dealing with multi-billion-dollar companies and hostile takeovers. They aren’t trying to keep everything together.”
“Stop trying to justify this, Dex. Being young doesn’t absolve me of anything.” The liquor was wearing off. He needed more to get through this, but he felt sure his brothers would object at the moment. After he told them the rest, though, they might decide they didn’t give a damn after all and let him drink himself to death.
“You’re not fucking perfect. Don’t expect yourself to be,” Slade insisted.
“Perfect?” Gavin scoffed even as his stomach threatened to revolt. This was the part he’d dreaded. “Hell, I wasn’t even close. When I decided to break this perverse cycle Nikki and I were in, I told her we were done for good. I made the break clean. I got a new phone. I told the security at the office and the condo to keep her out. She still managed to get my number. And she’d call, leave these long messages begging me to come back because she needed me. Then she told me she was pregnant.”
“Had she ever told you that before?” Slade asked.
“She’d had a couple of scares, even though she claimed she was on the Pill. And I always used condoms with her.”
But with Hannah he hadn’t. He hadn’t even thought of protecting her. He’d just lost himself and flooded her with every ounce of his seed. God, his brothers were going to hate him—and they had every right to.
Gavin sighed. “Nikki had tried to get me to marry her twice before by claiming that she was pregnant.”
“So when she announced it this time, you didn’t believe her for good reason.” Slade sat back in his chair.
“I also didn’t believe her when she said she was going to kill herself because I’d heard that before, too.” Gavin’s stomach turned again. “She called. I was at a party. I didn’t even bother to step outside to talk to her. She asked if I even cared about our baby. I told her there wasn’t a baby. She said she’d taken some pills. She’d threatened suicide before and hadn’t followed through, so I didn’t alert anyone. I didn’t lift a damn finger.” Dex’s face softened. “This isn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known she was serious.”
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