“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I’m really so sorry that you’ve had to do this for me. Can you forgive me?”

Sophia holds her arms in, close to her sides, not wrapping them around me. She’s still leaning on me, though, still needing me in some small way. “Maybe.” She gasps the word in between breaths. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

I should ask her again if she’s sure she wants to do this, but I don’t because I’m a bastard and I need her. I feel like shit. Hollowed-out, evil shit. But still, a brief spark of hope flickers inside me, too. She didn’t say no. She said maybe, and maybe will have to be good enough for me right now.

It shouldn’t matter. I’ve done some incredibly shitty things in the past to get what I want, and I haven’t batted an eyelid. But this, with her…it’s different. She’s not from the awful, damned world that I call home. She was on her way to being something better than I’ll ever be, before my family and my shit messed everything up for her. So now here she is, neck deep in this crap, danger surrounding her at every turn. It’s within my power to send her back to safety, but I’m choosing not to. So yeah, it feels like I really need her forgiveness. And I’m sure as hell going to make sure I earn it.

SOPHIA

I couldn’t bring myself to phone Matt. The hesitation wasn’t the same as my reluctance to call my father. I’d just been afraid of falling to pieces as soon as I heard Dad’s voice, knowing that still I wasn’t going to see him for a while. But with Matt…

I just didn’t want to hear his voice, period.

I know Rebel plays a big part in that. As much as I don’t want him to, he’s somehow worked his way into my head. And, if I’m being honest, into my heart, too. He’s secretive and closed off from the world, but he’s also in pain. I see it all the time, in the moments when he doesn’t think I’m looking. His arrogance fades, leaving him staring off into space with a deep sadness shadowed in his eyes. I have no idea why, but I want to know. I feel the desperate need to find out.

Rebel takes me back to Ebony Briar, the mansion even statelier on approach during daylight hours. He drives the Hummer around the back to a vast garage where he stows the truck, and then he takes my hand, guiding me behind the low-lying building, out toward the trees at the very edge of the property.

I’m grateful. I feel exhausted, and facing Louis Aubertin again before it’s absolutely necessary is something that I can do without. I guess Rebel feels the same way. After walking another ten minutes once we’ve crossed the boundaries of the Aubertin property into the next, Rebel leads me to a twisted live oak, monstrous in size and jacketed in Kudzu. We both sit down. He takes off his suit jacket and rolls up his shirtsleeves, exposing the brightly colored ink on his skin.

“You shouldn’t hide who you are from him, y’know,” I say. “You should show up to this event tonight in jeans and a T-shirt and fuck whatever he thinks.”

Rebel lies back in the grass, his hands underneath his head. “Don’t think I don’t want to,” he says. “But if he’s mad at me, he’ll punish everyone around him as well as me for it. Leah’ll lose her job. And having her here is very, very convenient for me.”

“Is she…have you—?”

He laughs softly, shaking his head. “She spies on Louis for me. Passes along information. The old man’s about as dirty as they come. On the receiving end of so many bribes it’s a wonder how he keeps everything straight in his head. Information like that can be really valuable. Who wants what bill to go through. Who’s involved in insider trading. Who’s addicted to drugs. Who’s cheating on their wives. My father has a stream of information coming in at all times, and Leah gathers it all for me.”

"And you use that information to get what you want.”

“When I can.”

“And when you can’t?”

Rebel casts a steely look in my direction. “Then I use other means.”

I lie back into the long grass, lacing my hands over my chest. “Is this who you thought you’d end up being when you graduated from MIT?”

“No. I thought I was going to be a solider forever. But things don’t always work out the way you intend them to, do they?”

“Obviously not.”

Neither of us says anything else. The wind blows through the tree branches overhead, rustling leaves and grass and teasing strands of my hair up into the air. I fall asleep. When I wake up, Rebel’s sitting with his back against the tree, watching me.

“Getting involved with me is the worst thing you can possibly do,” he says.

The words are gripping me by the throat—I don’t want to get involved with you. I’m not going to—but the intensity of his expression prevents me from lying. Even to myself. “I get the feeling it might somehow be too late now,” I say, my voice quiet. “Don’t…don’t you feel that, too?”

He looks away, clenching his hands tightly into fists. “Yeah. Well. I was kind of hoping you were smarter than me.”

“From your math problems and the diploma hanging on your father’s wall, I don’t think I know anyone smarter than you, Jamie.”

I don’t know why I call him that. His forehead creases into lines of…worry? “You can’t call me that outside of this place, Soph. You need to remember that. It’s important.”