My lips part, but no sound leaves my tongue. My voice is gone, along with my sense of reality. My feet are frozen to the ground as I stare at the two people in the study who I presumed were dead.
How can they be here right in front of me?
I saw them get shot with my own eyes. The blood was pouring out of them.
It wasn’t a nightmare. I was wide-awake, and I still am.
But here they are in the flesh standing right in front of me in different clothing as if they went to heaven and came back again.
My legs are wobbly, and I can barely stand, but I still force myself to move. Are these two really Deion and Ashanti, or is my brain playing tricks on me?
I approach them with hesitation, my fingers trembling as I reach for Deion’s outstretched hand.
“It’s okay, Charlotte. I’m alive,” he says with that calm, familiar voice of his.
He wraps me in his arms, and I succumb to his warmth. Ashanti grabs me too, and we stand there, embracing each other for what feels like hours. I inhale Deion’s scent over and over again, telling myself this is real. They still exist and aren’t burned or buried deep in the ground.
When my heart has calmed, I lean away and look into his eyes. I shake my head as more tears form in my eyes. “I don’t understand,” I mutter. “I saw you … I was there … and the gun.”
I throw one glance at Easton leaning against the doorway with his arms folded. He knew all along what it would do to me. How I would break into a million pieces.
I place a hand on Ashanti’s shoulder and wipe away the tears off my face. “Are you okay, sweets?”
She nods, and I look at both of them and give them another hug to make sure. “How?” I murmur, glancing back and forth between Deion and Easton.
Deion sucks in a breath and attempts to start a sentence but quickly stops and sighs. “I think Easton would be better at explaining this than me.”
Frowning, I turn around to face the one man I thought would be my undoing. The devil who sealed his own fate when he decided to sacrifice my friends to my father … who made me believe his lies.
“You …” I can’t even form the words in my mouth except for one thing. “Why?”
He pushes himself off the doorframe and stands there like a statue. “I had to. It was the only way your father would stop.” He makes a face. “But it was my fault.”
“What was? You’re not making any sense,” I say, approaching him gently.
“My hatred for him was so deep, I wanted him to be punished. You know that,” he says, his eyes darkening as he points them at the floor. “The debt would only be repaid if you would always be mine. Always.”
“And … Deion and Ashanti were a threat,” I murmur.
“Exactly,” he says. “When your father texted me his cryptic plans, I knew they were in trouble, so I had to act quickly.”
“So that’s where you went,” I say. “But then …” Bile rises into my throat as the thought crosses my mind. “Those two with the burlap over their heads…”
“Those were your father’s henchmen tasked with bringing Deion and Ashanti.” Easton licks his lips and eyes Deion for a second. He’s choosing his words carefully so as not to scare Ashanti. “We were lucky they were the same height so they could wear their clothes.”
“But one of them looked like a kid,” I say, frowning. I don’t understand how I didn’t see it.
“She’s tall for her age.” Deion pets Ashanti’s hair.
I spin on my heels. “So you knew Easton was going to do this?”
“His help, Nick, told me about Easton’s plan,” Deion says.
I put my hands against my hips and narrow my eyes at Easton. “Yet Nick refused to tell me anything.”
“Your father would’ve never believed it to be true unless he saw your real reaction,” Easton explains.
“You made me suffer on purpose so my father would believe you?”
“So he would leave them alone,” Easton says. “And for that, I apologize.” He goes to his knees and lowers his head. “As I said, I won’t ask you to forgive me.”
“I thought they were gone because of you …” I can’t believe everything I’m hearing. It’s too much to take, and my eyes grow watery. “I thought I lost everything.”
“I promised you I’d protect them,” Easton says, nodding. “I keep my word. Always.”
I rub my lips together, but nothing I do can stop these tears from rolling down my cheeks.
I was wrong, so, so wrong about him.
He’s not a devil. He’s an angel with clipped wings.
I run into his arms and hug him tight even though he’s still on the floor on his knees. I don’t care what anyone says. I know how my heart aches for him, and that’s all that matters. And I want him—body, mind, and soul.
“Why are you hugging me?” he murmurs.
“Because I want to and need to,” I answer.
I place a finger over his lips. “Now it’s your turn to be quiet.”
He snorts and shakes his head before wrapping his hands around me too. And we sit there on the floor, melding into each other while time fades away.
Deion clears his throat. “I think we’ll wait outside while you two … sort this thing out.”
They walk past us while I’m stuck in Easton’s arms as though literal concrete keeps us glued together. I don’t mind. I want to take in his love like oxygen. To know that what he did was with good reason and a purpose beyond his own ego.
He did it not only for me but for them too.
“You saved them,” I whisper.
“It was the only thing I could do,” he replies.
I grab his face and make him look at me. “No, you made a choice. The right one. For once.”
He smiles. “I did it for you.” He takes a strand of my hair and curls it around his finger. “Because I hate nothing more than seeing your tears, especially when they’re caused by me.”
With his thumb, he picks up one of the tears rolling down my cheeks and swipes it away. “And I did it anyway.”
I swallow away the lump in my throat and smash my lips on his.
He isn’t a demon or a devil in disguise. He’s a saint who knew his actions would end my love for him, yet he did it to save them and keep me from drowning in misery.
He gave me his soul and let me crush it with my bare hands. He knew I probably wouldn’t forgive him for his choice.
But how can I not? Knowing they’re alive and that he did this for me because they mean so much to me? That’s true love. And this is my true love’s first kiss.
“Thank you,” I whisper against his lips.
“Why would you ever thank me for this?” he murmurs.
“They live because of you. My father would’ve killed them if it meant saving his own ass,” I say. “You saved them even when you knew I’d hate you for it.”
He closes his eyes as if the word hate physically hurts him. But I don’t hate him; even if I should, I couldn’t. Not when he went through all this just to protect my friends … to protect my heart from shattering.
“It was a choice between one evil or the other,” Easton says.
I look him in the eyes as a smile spreads on my face. “And you chose the right one.” Now more than ever do I know for sure. “I love you.”
“What?” he mutters, his brows furrowing. “What did you just say?”
“I love you too,” I repeat.
“Do you mean that, or are you only saying that to make me feel better?” he asks.
“No. Why would I say it if I didn’t mean it?” I raise a brow. “Have I ever lied to you?”
He smirks. “Don’t manipulate me into believing you’re some kind of angel, princess, because you’re not.”
“Oh, there’s that asshole again. I was wondering what he’d done to my husband,” I joke.
Easton grabs me and pulls me down with him, and I squeal as he places my head over his lap, and growls, “C’mere.”
And he kisses me on my mouth so hard and so good I forget everything that happened. I forget what I was doing and anything else that doesn’t matter right now.
Because all I want is for him to be this man who I admire.
This is a man I could love and hold dear.
Until death do us part.