Royal Reckoning by Stephanie St. Klaire
“Shit,”Eli said through gritted teeth as he watched the dark SUVs race down the tarmac and come to a screeching halt at his feet.
It was the middle of the night, and he was about to board a private jet undetected – or so he’d hoped. He should have known better. When you’re a part of a team that observes the world and keeps it safe at all costs – and apparently at all hours –escaping under the cloak of darkness is not possible because they watch each other too.
US Attorney Carter Landry stepped out of the first vehicle dressed in all black and adorned in tactical gear as if Eli was his next bust.
“What are you doing here, Landry?” Eli said before taking a final drag from a cigar he’d been nursing just before he tossed it to the ground and ran his steel-toed boot over it to extinguish it.
“Why do you smoke those if you’re going to waste most of it?” Carter asked, nodding his head to the crumbled and smoldering cigar.
“Because I like them just enough to taste but not enough to love until the end, mate.” He chuckled.
“Like your women,” Carter added.
“Something like that.” Eli chucked his bag up the steps where an attendant took it to stow away, then crossed his arms and widened his stance in some sort of dominant move. He wasn’t sure why Carter was there, but he was going to find out. “A little late for you to be out, brother. What gives? What do you need?”
“I could ask you the same thing, brother,” Carter fired back. “Something’s off. You’re not yourself, and now you’re sneaking off in the middle of the night.”
Carter looked at the jet, front to back, and let out a low and slow whistle. “Whose jet?”
“Does it matter? I have business to tend to, and this is my chosen mode of transport.”
Carter nodded. It was clear Eli wasn’t going to give it up easily, so he would lay it out for him. “I know you’re in some sort of trouble, or trouble is looming. I don’t know what, but I know you need help.”
Eli dropped his head and began a dramatic laugh. “Now, if I needed help, don’t you think I would ask?”
“No. I don’t think you would. It’s not in your nature. You like to help but don’t like to receive it.”
“Carter, why are you really here?” Eli put his hand on the railing of the steps that led into the jet and leaned in like he was attempting to show a relaxed state when he was anything but.
“Because we’re brothers. Remember? You’re the one who told me so – showed me the DNA report. Brothers have each other’s backs. I think you need help.”
“If you say brotherly intuition or anything remotely close, I’m putting my boot up your ass.”
“I’d expect nothing less.” Carter grinned. “So. What is it? What has you out here in the middle of the night and running?”
“I’m not running. I’m chasing. There’s trouble back home that I need to address before anyone gets hurt.” Eli’s answer was honest, albeit elusive. He knew he could trust Carter, but he was still learning what it was like to work with a team instead of being a lone rogue like he was accustomed to.
Eli was a fairly new member to Brother’s Keeper Security, a valuable operative no less, but a piece of him was still on his own path, and he occasionally had trouble balancing the two things. Especially when it came to Carter Landry. In a previous mission, he’d come to learn that Carter was his brother and happened to be connected to the case. Everyone with BK Security knew Carter and had served with him in various branches of the military – documented and undocumented divisions – but they didn’t know Eli. They just knew they could trust him. And he liked it that way. The less he was invested personally, the less collateral he left on the line when the enemy came calling.
He was a protect-and-serve type, but he was also a giver, not a taker. Despite the unity and friendships he’d been building with his team operatives, he still left it all at work. He watched everything around him and knew everything he needed to know to keep those around him safe, but he kept his own identity guarded. Mostly. It wasn’t just for his own safety but also for those he’d come to value as friends in a chosen-family type of world he was in. Carter especially. He was blood – true blood – and that made him a target.
“Then I’m here to help. I’ve got your back. Whatever you need,” Carter said.
“Killion told you.” It wasn’t a question. It was reality setting in. Carter was here because he did know something, and he wasn’t very good at pretending otherwise.
Carter nodded. “He told me enough. Use your team, Eli.”
“You’re not a part of the team – not officially.” Eli wasn’t sure if he said that to deter Carter or simply make a point. Either way, it came out harsher than intended. The truth be told, Carter was a part of the team. A vital part. He held a fancy title and access to a lot of power within the government, but he was a Keeper at his core. If he ever had to choose between the office he held and the Keepers, Eli knew he’d choose the team every time. It was who he was. Eli respected that about his brother. He was one of the good guys, and that was where they were alike yet very different at the same time.
“I think you know better than that, Eli. You know exactly who I am. Remember, you found me. You know you can count on me as much as the others.”
“Touché,” Eli said with a quick lift of his brow. “To be clear. If you get on that jet with me, you follow my lead from start to finish. This isn’t a Keeper’s mission. This is private, and it’s a piece of my life nobody yet knows, so I hold the reins. This is sensitive and needs to be handled a specific way – a way in which I determine.”
Carter tilted his head in agreement.
“I assume you brought your go bag if you knew I was here. Grab it, and let’s go. I’m already running behind now.” Eli stepped around to the steps and began to ascend when he heard one of the SUV’s doors open. He assumed it was Carter grabbing his bag until he heard more doors and the sound of heavy boots hitting the ground. He didn’t need to turn around to know what was happening.
With his back to them, he chided, “Son of a bitch. All of you?”
“You need a team,” Killion said. “I’ve infiltrated your communications and have already begun to do a detailed rundown of everything I could find. I have video to share in a briefing and intel pouring in as we speak. I designed a program to start piecing together what we have and what’s still coming in while it looks for…”
The group was silent and shared the same look as all stares were pinned on Killion O’Reilly. He was the heart of every mission, the brain too. He was a literal genius with a mind that never stopped and lacked a filter. Social cues were his nemesis. He didn’t always read the room well, but he always meant well.
“Right. You guys don’t need the nerd speak. Got it,” he said, well aware of what those stares represented. The team wanted details and not his enthusiasm over how he obtained said details. “Basically, I’ve collected a lot of shit that might help. And though this is your mission, Eli, and you have full control, I’d like to get everyone up to speed for you. There’s a lot to share.”
Eli was looking over his shoulder, still midway up the stairs to the jet. “When I turned around and saw all of you getting out of the rigs, the first thing that came to mind was a clown car. I wondered how many would be jumping out. I see it’s the usual clowns, minus a few. Killion, you get the briefing. I’m anxious to hear what you’ve found. The rest of you…grab your bloody bags.”
Eli continued up the steps and disappeared inside after tossing up his hands in defeat. The lone rogue was no longer alone, and deep down, he was grateful. He took his chosen seat and heard the combined sound of SUVs departing and heavy steps climbing the stairs and entering his domain. This wouldn’t be their typical mission – it wasn’t his either.
He was returning home to settle unresolved business and defuse an enemy while there. It was a rescue mission, too. One that would reveal far more about his true identity than anything else could. If he didn’t already trust the men boarding his plane, then he’d have to dig deep and find a way to trust them because what he was about to show them was as dangerous as it was enlightening. Lives were already on the line, and he was about to invite his associates to risk theirs in order to save one.
“Holy smokes.” The Southern twang could only belong to one person. Wit Meyer. “This here flying machine belong to you, or you got yourself some fancy friends, man?”
Eli rolled his eyes. Wit had that effect on people. “It’s called an airplane, and who it belongs to doesn’t matter.”
“Hoo Wee,” Wit howled as he plopped down in a seat across from Eli and began to stroke the arm of the chair. “This here leather smells real and feels soft as butter. This is made from them fancy cows.”
“Dear God.” Eli ran a hand down his face. “If you say so.”
“I know cows. Therefore, I know leather. This…is fancy,” Wit assured, looking around. “Grab a seat, gang, and settle in. Something tells me we’re in for the long haul across waters deeper than your last relationship to parts more unknown than your last lay. Buckle up, I have a feeling this is going to be a bumpy few days, y’all.”
Eli looked at Carter. “You had to bring the man child? I can only take so many y’alls and yeehaws before I get a little trigger itchy and start shooting.”
Carter laughed. “CT and Gannon are working a case in Portland with that detective who CT is either already sleeping with or trying to. I brought Wit and Israel in their place. They’re good guys and good at what they do.”
“Bloody hell, mate. And Mercy is off vacationing with his lady and brother, the president, while Dillon is off…doing the president, I assume.” Eli tossed up his hands.
“Jesus. That’s my sister, man,” Coy chimed in, tossing a threatening look at Eli. “Have some respect.”
“Oh, for the love of…” Eli’s accent was thick as it trailed off. “I’m sorry, alright? But we all knew where that was going and where it already went. I’m just pointing out the obvious, for fuck’s sake. And now, in case this isn’t obvious, I’m regretting this whole ordeal.”
Coy shrugged and waved him off as he tucked his bag under his seat and leaned back, closing his eyes. “Respect. That’s all I’m asking. She’s like a sister to all of you. Remember that.”
Eli did remember that. They were all quickly becoming family to him, and he’d fight to the end for each of them – even Wit – as they were volunteering to do for him. He was on edge, and he was really reacting to that. They were all volunteering for a blind mission, no questions asked, ready to fight for whatever he was leading them into. The night might have started as a one-man mission, but it quickly became a team effort, and he was fucking glad. A sense of relief arrived with those SUVs because he had support and wasn’t in this alone like he originally thought.
The cost…revealing much more than he cared to about himself. The thought was uncomfortable. But the thought of going this alone was more so. At the end of the day, when they closed this unofficial case, there was no telling where Eli would stand with each of these men. They would look at him differently. Talk to him differently. Treat him differently. But it was a risk he’d have to take because what was on the line was much greater than his true identity.
The elusive Eli Clayton was about to be exposed in many ways and wear the largest target he’d adorned to date.