Together we took in a deep breath as the car sped on. The tattoo on my leg was feeling tight, but somehow, the one on my arm was itching more.
Thirty minutes later we were in Palm Valley. My nerves were returning, misfiring. When we passed the road where my uncle’s house still was, I nearly choked on my tears. I thought they’d all disappeared but I didn’t think I’d ever stop feeling this way. The pain ran far too deep. It was in the ground, seeping up into me wherever I stood.
“Pull over,” I told Camden when we were about two minutes away from Sins & Needles. He did and stopped in front of a For Lease office building.
“You’re not going to make me promise you something,” he said. “Because that’s what they say in the movies, the person who never comes back.”
I reached over and grabbed his head with my hands, kissing him thoroughly. When we broke apart, my skin was tingling, my lungs breathless.
“That,” he managed to say, sneaking in another kiss, his eyes exploring mine, “is pretty much the same as a promise. The kiss goodbye.” He could barely get out the last words. My heart heaved.
“No,” I told him, tracing my fingers along his jaw, “it’s not a goodbye kiss. It’s just a kiss. I love you, Camden McQueen.”
My lip began to tremble, eyes stinging with fire. He looked stunned. I felt stunned. I couldn’t help how I felt. I couldn’t help the way I was telling him. That I was telling him before it was all too late. It was time for me to make amends, and I’d do so loving him, come what may.
He kissed me so hard I thought I might break. Somewhere in there a sob escaped his lips, or maybe it escaped mine. It didn’t matter—we were only one, we’d always been, always been the same. Our lips were wet, the salt of tears hitting our tongue. It wasn’t a goodbye kiss, it was the opposite. It was the start of something that would last forever.
Even if we weren’t together. Because we wouldn’t be together. I knew what I had to do, to give him his life back. And to right the wrongs in mine.
I pulled away, letting the last tear roll down my cheek. I nodded at the road in front of us, the brightly colored shops and groomed palm trees that lined Main Street like a beacon, all pointing us in the right direction. The only direction.
He studied me for a minute, as if memorizing every line on my face. I let him. And I did the same. His quirky full lips, expressive brows, those eyes that knew me, the real me, for everything that I was and everything that I had been. Everything I would be. Even through his reading glasses, he looked like the most handsome man I’d ever seen. I wished he’d gotten a chance to tattoo the back of my leg. I wish he’d made his mark everywhere. I wished everyone could see how much he’d imprinted himself on my heart.
We drove up to the shop and parked in front in visitor’s parking. It looked the same as it always did. His rock garden looked tidy, proof that it was the perfect garden for lazy people and fugitives. There was no one around. No other cars. Even the street seemed quiet for three in the afternoon.
He turned off the engine and handed me the keys.
“You might have to give this back now,” he said, attempting a joke. His hand closed over mine and we knew it wasn’t a joke at all.
I gave him the only smile I could muster. “Here we go.”
We stepped out of the car. As we did so, a black Denali SUV roared up beside us and idled on the side of the street. At the same time, the door to Sins & Needles opened and Javier stepped out. He was wearing a tight fitting white t-shirt that showed off his athletic build and grey jeans. He was going for the ‘don’t be afraid of me’ look which was pretty redundant when you were wearing shitkicker boots.
He raised his arms wide, like he was welcoming us to his home, a smile on his face that seemed to split his face in two.
“You made it,” he exclaimed and ran down the steps two at a time. He clapped his hands together as he walked over to Camden, rubbing them like he was about to eat him for dessert.
My eyes darted between the two men, Camden who was over six feet and looked ready to bash his head in, Javier who was 5’10” and as agile as a reptile on a really warm day. I’d been in love with one of them once, and the other now. I couldn’t believe the men in my life, and how, deep down, all three of us were kind of the same.
I met Camden in high school, a place that taught me kill or be killed better than my parents ever could. I met Javier after. He helped me perfect the skill.
“You must be Camden McQueen,” Javier said, grinning cordially. That was the thing about him. He was so charming, open and friendly, that you’d never see the strike coming. But Camden did. He’d played with enough snakes in his day. He wasn’t fooled for a second.
“Where’s my son?” he asked. I almost heard his teeth grinding.
Javier cocked his head. “Oh, you’re worried about them? Well they’re right up there.”
He jerked his head at the shop.
Camden looked but shook his head. “I’m not an idiot. I’m not going up there until I know they’re safe, until I can see them. You let them go.”
Javier rolled his eyes in an exaggerated motion. He stuck a thumb at him like ‘who’s this guy?’ while looking at me, exasperated. “Angel, you never told me he was such a stickler for details.”
“Do what he says, Javier,” I said, sounding a lot more confident than I felt.
He sighed, long and hard. “Fine.” He turned around and waved at the house. “Hey, let them out. Someone misses them.”
Raul appeared at the screen door and opened it. A petite woman with lovely curves and long dark hair came out. Sophia. The woman in Camden’s painting. Her face was bruised, but other than that, she looked okay. She was holding onto a chubby but incredibly cute little boy, quite a bit older from the art on Camden’s leg.
“Camden,” she cried out. I would be lying if I didn’t feel a pang in my heart at the sound of her calling his name.
He took off to them, running up the stairs. He scooped up the boy first, the boy who had maybe forgotten who his daddy was but still looked pleased to see him nonetheless. Seeing Ben in his arms also made my heart ache.
Javier was watching me and noticed this. He stepped closer and reached out, brushing my hair behind my ears, a disarming tenderness in his eyes. It took everything I had to keep from screaming, to keep from running.
But I was done running. This was the music I had to face.
It sounded a lot like Dire Straits.
“I have you now,” he whispered. “Now and forever.”
I raised my chin and looked at him. “You’re giving him the money.”
His lips snaked into a smile. “Of course.”
He turned around and looked at them on the porch. Camden was talking to Ben, who was now crying, trying to calm the boy down.
“Raul,” Javier yelled. “Give the family their money.”
Raul came back out of the shop holding a small suitcase full of bills that he held open. Sophia, as ruined as she looked, as far away from Camden as she was standing, looked impressed. That was the fifty thousand dollars. That was the price on my head.
Camden whirled around, holding Ben to his side. “What is this?” he yelled.
Javier grinned. “It’s the money. For Ellie Watt.”
He brushed past me, toward the Denali. “Come on now, we have places to be.”
I stood there in the rock garden, knowing what I had to do, but unsure how I was going to force myself to do it.
Camden was staring at me from the porch, open-mouthed. “This is payment for you?”
“I’m sorry,” I told him, burying the hurt inside. “You deserve it. You and your family. To start over.”
He handed Ben to Sophie and started running down the stairs. The doors to the SUV flung open and two large men in suits stepped out. They went straight for Camden and held him back before he had a chance to get even close to me.
“What are you doing?” he cried out, trying to fight them and failing. He writhed and squirmed but he wasn’t going anywhere. “You don’t have to do this, Ellie!”
I smiled at him, everything vital breaking inside. “I do have to, Camden. I can’t run anymore. I’m through with screwing people over, even those who did the same to me. I need to start over too. I can’t let my past control me anymore.”
His face was pinched in agony as he tried to get loose. “You’re making a mistake. You said it doesn’t have to be this way. That you wouldn’t let him take you.”
I swallowed back the tears. “Yeah. Well, I lied.”
Then I turned away from him and walked toward the Denali, the black shiny beast against the pale desert floor. It was a high contrast world and I lived a high contrast life. I gave Jose a final look, knowing Javier would never take it back. It was never about the car. It was never about the money. It was about me. And now he had me.
I looked over my shoulder at Camden just as I was about to get in the back seat. He’d stopped fighting. But his eyes hadn’t. They were hitting me, punching me, slicing me to stay. For me to fight back. But I couldn’t. Not this time.
My eyes went over his shoulder, over the two thugs that were holding onto him, and to Sophia and Ben. She was clutching the briefcase with one arm, Ben in the other. She looked beautiful through her bruises but that wasn’t enough to make me trust her. I hoped she knew that if she broke Camden’s heart again, it would be my turn to kill somebody.
I took in a deep breath and stepped inside the vehicle. Javier was in the backseat with me and there was only a large, bald driver in the front. I closed the door, keeping my eyes inside the car. Javier grinned at me, so joyful, it was almost like old times.
“You’re here,” he said, almost breathless. He buckled in his seatbelt and hit the driver on the shoulder. “Go.”
The Denali roared off, Sins & Needles disappearing in its wake.
“You better get comfortable,” Javier said, patting the leather between us. “We have a long journey in front of us.”
“Where are we going?” I whispered.
“Why, to the past,” he said with a smile.
I sat back in the seat, watching Palm Valley fly past me. The town disappeared in a cloud of dust.