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       Obligation, p.3

         Part #2 of Underground Kings series by Aurora Rose Reynolds
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  “There was no reason to,” he says, looking at me like I’m crazy for even asking.

  “No reason?” I shake my head in disbelief. His audacity is absolutely ridiculous.

  “He was doing a job,” Aye chimes in.

  My head swings his way and his hands go up in front of him to warn me off.

  “I’m sorry,” Pika says as Kai helps him to stand.

  “You’re sorry? You’re sorry you allowed men to follow you into my shop, or are you sorry you watched as Thad kicked me in the ribs while I was curled up in a ball and begging him to stop? Or are you sorry that you set my bakery on fire? Please clarify which part you’re sorry about!” I yell, and my chest heaves as I attempt to take a full breath.

  “All of it,” he whispers, unsure, looking at me then Kai.

  “Thanks. I feel so much better now that I know you’re sorry,” I say, shoving through the three of them and walking down the hall towards the living room.

  I need to go clear my head. I can’t say that I have gotten over what happened, but since being here, I’ve found it easy to pretend like I’m safe. Now, seeing him makes me realize how much I have let my guard down, and that is something I never want to risk happening again.

  I rush out of the house and walk out to the water’s edge until the waves rush over my feet.

  “If he could have helped you, he would have.”

  I look over my shoulder, toward the sound of Kai’s voice, and watch him walk up to me wearing another shirt.

  “He would have, but he knew he couldn’t risk them finding out he worked for me.”

  I feel my throat clog, turn my head away, and look back out over the ocean, not wanting to acknowledge his words. “He watched.” I take a deep breath, letting the smell of the salt water clear my head. “He watched and did nothing,” I murmur, wrapping my arms around myself as my words get lost in the sound of the waves crashing against the shore.

  “I’ve known him since I was seventeen,” Kai says closer to me than I expected, surprising me by wrapping an arm around my shoulders. “If he could have stopped it, he would have.”

  I stiffen slightly before forcing my body to relax and lean into his embrace. Deep in my soul, I know he’s right, but I’m still angry. I’m angry that Pika saw me in a moment of weakness, angry I couldn’t do anything even when I had done everything to make myself stronger. Angry that I never took into consideration the amount of fear I would feel when I came face-to-face with a part of my past that had terrified me for so many years.

  “I forgot,” I whisper, shaking my head, watching as the sun turns the sky orange and red.

  “Forgot what?” he asks softly, his fingers sending tingles down my arm through the fabric of his shirt.

  “That I’m in danger. That I need to watch my back,” I say, and his arm tightens around me.

  “You’re safe here.”

  I tilt my head back and look up at him as he towers over me. His chin dips, and our eyes connect.

  “I promised you I would protect you. Trust me to do that,” he says softly as his eyes search my face.

  My eyes focus on his, and I notice for the first time that he has a dark ring of brown around the outside and an almost-copper color that shoots out from around the center.

  “Trust me to do that,” he repeats.

  I feel his warm breath against my skin. And I wish in that moment that I were someone worthy enough of someone like him.

  “I’m trying.” My eyes close. I pull away from him and then step farther out into the water.

  “I need to go meet someone,” he says regretfully after a moment.

  “Sure,” I murmur without taking my eyes off the sea.

  “I’d like it if you’d go with me.”

  I turn my head to look at him. His hands are in his pockets and his shoulders are slumped forward. The vulnerability I see on his face makes me nod in agreement immediately. The only time we have spent together is when we have met for meals or when he has needed me to talk to someone with him. I only recently found out that the room I have been staying in is his. He claimed that the bed is much better than the others in the house and refused to take the room back even after I insisted. And something about sleeping in his bed has made me feel closer to him—and safer in a strange way.

  “Where are we going?” I ask after a moment.

  “You’ll see. Dress casual.” He smiles, and a piece of hair blows onto his lip.

  I fight the urge to close the space between us and remove it with my finger, using that as an excuse to see if his lips are as soft as they look.

  “Did you hear me?” he asks.

  My eyes focus on his. I feel my cheeks get pink when I notice the small smile on his handsome face.

  “Sorry. No,” I admit.

  “I asked if you could be ready in the next hour.”

  “Oh, yeah… Sure,” I say, hoping I don’t sound as anxious as I feel.

  He watches me for a moment before nodding once, turning away, and walking back towards the house. I watch him go, wondering what exactly I’m feeling. Since the moment I met Kai, I have felt some kind of strange pull towards him. But as much as he entices me, he scares me.

  The only men I have been with have been lanky and soft-spoken, men I knew I could get away from if I needed to. I hate to say it, but I was very promiscuous for a while. It was like something in me had flipped and I realized the power I had. I realized I had the ability to say yes or no when it came to sex, and I wanted to prove to myself I could be intimate with someone—and maybe not completely enjoy the act—but it would be my choice.

  I’m not proud of the way I acted or the way I used men. But like most things in life, it’s something I learned from, and it helped me grow and become a better person.

  Kai is like none of the men I’ve been with. He’s large and intimidating. Though he is soft with me, I have seen him speak to some of the people who work for him, so I know that his gentleness is not always his way. I also cannot imagine him letting me be in charge the way I’m used to.

  I haven’t been intimate with a man since my last relationship, and that was a few years ago. After Fredrick broke up with me, I was left confused. He was the person I’d planned to spend the rest of my life with. We’d met when I bought my bakery, and he’d helped me get my loan.

  He was so funny; he had the ability to make me laugh at nothing. He was not much taller than I am and cute in that nerdy-guy kind of way. He was soft-spoken and gentle, and he said all the right things. After six months of dating, he asked me to marry him. I, of course, said yes. Our wedding was set for the fall, and we were planning on having a baby right away, hopefully with conception occurring during the honeymoon. Everything was perfect. I was getting the one thing I had craved since moving away from home: a family of my own, people who loved me, and somewhere I belonged.

  Then, like everything in my life, it came crashing down around me.

  Fredrick had been away for a week at a conference, and when he arrived back in Seattle, he asked me to meet him for dinner. I got dressed up, packed an overnight bag, and met him at one of my favorite seafood restaurants.

  The moment I saw him, I knew something was off. He didn’t greet me with his normal hug and kiss. He took my hand and helped me sit down across from him. Without a word from him, I knew we were over. I remember sitting there, looking at him sitting across from me, wondering, Why? That’s when he told me that he believed our lives were going in two different directions and he wasn’t ready to settle down.

  I told him that I would wait for him, that we didn’t need to get married, that we could put off the wedding until he was ready, and that was when it seemed like I was begging to be with him. That was the moment I realized he didn’t love me the way I loved him, so I lifted my chin, scooted the chair away from the table, and walked out of the restaurant, never looking back.

  I loved him, but there was no way I would ever feel like I was begging someone to be with me again. I wouldn’t
ever let someone have that much power over me.

  I come out of my thoughts when the sound of seagulls fills my ears. I lift my face towards the sun, letting the rays warm my skin for a moment before turning and heading to the house to get ready.

  “Let’s go.” I look at Kai, who is leaning against the side of a black convertible, dressed more casually than I have ever seen him.

  Even when he comes to breakfast in the morning, he is normally wearing a suit, so seeing him in a pair of khaki shorts and a white, linen shirt with the top two buttons undone and the sleeves rolled up—showing off a tattoo I never noticed before that wraps around his forearm—has stunned me.

  I start down the steps, my eyes meeting his, and my step falters slightly when his eyes sweep me from top to toe before locking on mine.

  “You look nice,” I say, immediately feeling like a fool when he gives me a slight smile and opens the door to the car without telling me something relatively the same.

  I know this isn’t a date, but I took extra care in getting ready. I have no idea where we are going, but I wanted to make sure I looked nice. I chose a dress I had gotten from one of the few shops in town. The strapless, cotton dress covered in bright, tropical flowers looks nice against the creamy color of my skin, and the sandals I chose are black and wrapped around my big toes then up and around my ankles. I thought I looked attractive, but as Kai gets behind the driver’s seat, I’m beginning to have doubts about my choice.

  “It’s about an hour drive,” he mutters as the car roars to life.

  I nod then realize he can’t see me, so I clear my throat and murmur a quiet, “Okay,” as we pull away from the house. “Is Pika okay?” I ask, wanting to fill the silence. I turn my head to look at Kai.

  His eyes come to me for a moment before he focuses on the road again. “He’s fine. He has a bump, but he’s had worse.”

  “Oh,” I mutter as my eyes drop to my lap, and I begin to turn my ring around on my finger, watching as the light bounces of the diamonds. “Why did you have him working with Thad?” I ask when he doesn’t say anything else.

  “Your father was a very good friend to my dad.” He lets out a breath, and his hand wrings the steering wheel. “Before your father passed away, he told mine his plan for keeping you safe.” He pulls his sunglasses over his eyes, turns his head, and looks at me before turning towards the road. “Your father asked mine to help keep an eye on you. He knew that, even with everyone believing you had also been killed, there would still be some who would be looking for you.”

  “What do you mean they believed I was killed?” I whisper.

  “Your parents’ remains and the remains of a child were found after they put out a fire in your parents’ home,” he says, and I turn my head to look out the window as a loan tear slides down my cheek.

  I have small memories of my real parents. Every time I pull a batch of snickerdoodles out of the oven and the smell of vanilla, cinnamon, and sugar hits my nose, I think of my mom. I can remember her baking them often when I was little and the way she would yell at my dad when he came into the kitchen to steal them off the counter when they were fresh out of the oven. I can remember laughing when he would quiet my mom with soft words and a few kisses before leaving and going back to his office.

  I remember the way my dad was so large and everyone seemed so afraid of him, but to me, he was so gentle. He always smelled like mint, and if I were around, he would pull me up against his chest and kiss my hair no matter what he was doing.

  I know that my mom and I were his whole world. Even if I can’t remember much from my childhood, the memories of my parents always bring me comfort. So even though I have known for years that they are gone, hearing that their bodies were found has the already-shattered pieces of my heart crumbling a little bit more.

  “Who was the child?” I wonder out loud as I watch a group of seagulls fly off in the distance.

  “I would guess they got a body from a morgue,” he says easily, and my stomach turns as I wonder what kind of people would do something like that.

  “My dad was a bad guy, right?” I ask as some puzzle pieces begin to fit together.

  The car slows down suddenly and veers off to the side of the road. My head turns and I look over at Kai, who now has his sunglasses up on top of his head and his eyes on me.

  “Your father was a good man. He was a man of honor and a man who loved his only child enough to make sure she’d have a future. He may not have been a man who lived on the right side of the law, but he was not a bad man,” he says firmly, making me feel instantly relieved.

  “Why is this happening now, then?” I don’t realize I ask that question aloud until Kai’s eyes soften, his hand comes up to my face, and his thumb runs over my cheek, sliding away another tear.

  “There is so much you don’t know, Myla.”

  “Like what?” I whisper.

  “When the time is right, I will tell you.”

  A part of me wants to demand him to tell me what he knows, but there is another part of me that wants to ignore everything happening around me and leave all of this behind.

  “How difficult is it to get a new identity?” I mutter, surprised when I hear a chuckle come from Kai. “I’m serious,” I complain, turning my head to catch a smile that makes my heart constrict from how beautiful it is on Kai’s face. I swallow hard and look back out the window, trying to ignore the feeling I have from knowing I made him smile.

  After a moment, the car fills with music, and my body relaxes into my seat as The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” fills the air. When I peek at Kai out of the corner of my eye, I wonder if he’s hearing the song like I am in that moment and if he knows that the lyrics of this song say so much more than I ever could.

  Chapter 3

  Looking in a Mirror


  My shoulder is nudged. I lift my head just in time to see a group of laughing kids run in front of the car.

  “Where are we?”

  “A luau.”

  I turn and look at Kai, who is watching out the front window of the car. When his head turns and his eyes meet mine, he smiles, and then his hand lifts and his finger runs down my cheek.

  “You need to learn not to sleep on your hand. Every time you wake up, your ring is imprinted in your cheek,” he mutters.

  My hand goes to my face, my fingers running over the skin. I swear I can still feel the tingle from his touch.

  “It’s a big ring,” I point out and glimpse at him when he doesn’t say anything. His eyes are on the ring on my hand, and regret is bright as day in his eyes.

  I pull my eyes from him, tug the visor down, and look at myself in the mirror, wanting to ignore the feelings seeing that look on his face caused. I thought at first that the ring was just something he had picked up in Vegas, but then I noticed an inscription on the inside of the band that reads, In this lifetime and the next, with the initials B and N.

  After I saw the engraving, I knew that the ring that now sits on my finger had once meant a lot to someone, and even if I had hated it at first, there was something beautiful about it now. I also understood why Kai hates that I have the ring. Before me, the ring was a representation of love, and now, it’s the symbol of a lie.

  “Are you ready?”

  Without looking at him, I nod and unbuckle my seat belt, and once I’m out of the car, I look around. Kids are playing in the sand, building sand castles, or chasing each other near the water’s edge. There are teenagers in small groups scattered along the sand, some sunbathing, others talking in groups, while the adults stand around chatting and laughing. I run my hands down my dress, feeling a little overdressed since a lot of the women are only in their swimsuits while the men are dressed similar to Kai.

  “Ready?” Kai asks again when he reaches my side.

  “Yep,” I tell him with more certainty in my voice than I actually feel, shocked when he takes my hand. “What are you doing?” I ask, trying to pull my hand free from his grasp

  “Holding your hand,” he replies, entwining our fingers.

  “We’re in public,” I hiss.

  His head dips, his sunglass-covered eyes meet mine, and his energy changes, beginning to beat against me. “What does that have to do with anything?”

  I look at him like he’s crazy and then around at the people on the beach. “All of these people can see us.”

  His frown grows deeper. Then he drops my hand, lifts his sunglasses to the top of his head once more, and turns his body so he’s standing right in front of me.

  “You’re my wife.”

  “Pretend wife,” I remind him quietly.

  His eyes flash with something I haven’t seen before and his jaw goes hard, making my breath catch.

  His face dips and he whispers against my ear, “None of these people know that it’s pretend.”

  It wouldn’t be so bad if the effect he has on me was also pretend, but when he’s touching me in any way, it’s difficult to keep things separate.

  I let out the breath I was holding and pull back so I can look into his eyes. “You’re right,” I acknowledge, hoping he will let me go.

  He searches my face, and without another word or giving me any other option but to walk with him, he takes my hand, intertwines our fingers, and leads me towards a giant fire that is set up in the middle of the beach. As we approach the bonfire, I notice the men lifting their chins to Kai. He does the same in return. I also notice that the women we pass all devour him with their eyes before shooting daggers at me.

  I’m so caught up in watching the people we pass that I don’t notice that Kai has stopped until my hand is tugged. I turn my head to see what’s holding him up.

  “Kai!” a beautiful woman wearing a gold bikini yells, running up to us, looking like she just stepped out of an episode of Baywatch. Her hair is dark brown and down around her shoulders. Her body looks like she spends her days counting calories and working out. Even from just looking at her, I feel insecure.

  As she nears us, a smile lights Kai’s face up, and he drops my hand just in time to catch her as she throws herself into his arms. Jealously like I have never felt before ignites in my stomach as I watch them embrace. She is the first to release him, but even then, his arm stays around her. I have never been one for violence, but the urge to rip his arm off and beat him with it causes me to fist my hands at my sides.

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