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Staked: Epilogue

The others were already gathered at Pietra’s apartment when I arrived, and demanded the details of what had happened since I’d seen them last. I made it sound like I’d taken the extra time at Kieran’s place to recover, almost snapping at Oleg when he asked what else had happened. Even with his treatment after the fact, I didn’t quite regret my time with Kieran, but the snub was still too fresh to want to talk about it.

Pietra’s house had nowhere near enough spare beds for all of us, so after spending the day together talking about our plans for the future and just enjoying each other’s company, everyone else left and I spent another night in Pietra’s guest bedroom. I awoke early the next morning and left for the Star, determined not to sulk when I had so much work ahead of me.

I relished the feeling of security I had walking through the Lowers, now that I knew that most of the cartels would be lying low. I enjoyed the sounds of early morning, the businesspeople setting up shop or closing down for the day.

Soon enough I’d be one of them again, and I could hardly wait. I heard a few strange sounds as we approached the intersection near the Sapphire Star, but I didn’t pay them any mind until I turned the corner and realized where they was coming from.

Immediately, I pulled up Kieran on the commlink.

“What is this?” I asked as soon as I heard the click that meant he’d connected. “What did you do?”

“Hm?” I heard on the other end of the line. He sounded amused. “Ani, you’re going to have to be more specific.”

“What did you do with the Star?” I half-shouted at him. “Why are there––”

“Oh, good––they took the ‘rush job’ thing seriously.” He sounded unbearably smug. “I’m glad I made that part clear. They’re doing repair work, Ani. I thought that would be pretty obvious.”

“But…” I took a deep breath. “I thought you said––”

“I said I’d get rid of the contract. That means I don’t need a stake in the Star if you don’t want to give me one, but I’d still like it if you let me do this. I’d feel like I ripped you off, otherwise.”

“But you already…” I began.

“Ani, seriously, don’t worry about it. You should’ve seen the bonus I got for completing this mission.” Kieran chuckled. “And you helped. My boss can’t know about it on the record, but I think he’d be happy to hear that I’m passing some of the reimbursement on to you.

“I’d hoped to get everything repaired before you got back, but there was no way that could happen in a single day,” he continued, sounding rueful. “Besides, it’s better this way. If you want any renovations, you can let the contractors know. Just don’t ask for diamond chandeliers or anything––I trust your discretion.”

“Kieran, I can’t let you––“

“You can, and you will.” His iron-clad tone was different from how it had been in the heat of the moment two nights ago––now it was seasoned with humor, and sounded deceptively mild. “Ani, I knew there was trouble coming to your doorstep, and instead of warning you, or doing anything about it, I just decided to invite myself in along with it. This is the least I can do for you, believe me.”

“If you say so.” There was being cautious, and then there was ungratefulness. Why not quit while I was ahead? “Kieran…thank you.”

“You’re welcome, love.” And the link was dropped before I could reply. Love? It was just like him, I thought, to push just that little bit extra right up till the end.

And that was it. He’d held me to my end of the bargain, and had more than kept his own, even if there had been some unexpected twists along the way––and now that it had all been settled, he was breezing his way back out of my life. Our deal at first had implied a longer-term involvement, but that had been before everything had went wrong.

Kieran was surviving the way he always had: controlling what he could, cutting ties when things spun out, and drifting until he could orient himself again. I needed some time and reflection myself, so even while I was frustrated, I could understand.

This time, though, it was different from how it had been when we were teenagers. This time, I was comforted in the knowledge that if I wanted to find him, I knew where to start looking.

***

The renovations were fast and top-notch. It took me several sleepless nights with Pietra and the others, but repairing the Star was over before I knew it. Then it was just a matter of restocking the bar, and we were open for business.

And it was very good business, too, pretty much from the start. There had been a shortages of what we had to offer recently, caused primarily by the actions of the cartels, and rumors of odd happenings in the industry were just starting to surface. A lot of our clients wanted people they could trust to be above reproach, and luckily enough, my tenants had very good relationships with their customers. The new, welcoming look of the place didn’t hurt either. We had almost more business than we could keep up with the first nights.

Balancing our budget had been my first order of business, and it hadn’t been easy. We’d needed to rely on credit for just a little while. I hadn’t had any savings to speak of before all this had happened, and there was no way I was going to impose on Kieran for incidental expenses when he was already covering all of the renovation.

Fortunately, some of Dad’s old contacts had reached out to me early in the renovation process. A lot of them had been underground––some of them had even been working with Kieran’s associates––and with some of the pressure off them, at least for the moment, they’d offered me lines of credit it was actually safe to rely on. Within a month of the Star’s reopening, I was well on my way to paying them back.

The Star was back in business, sturdier and shinier than ever before, and my family was back where it belonged. The financial difficulties I’d struggled under since inheriting her were finally starting to ease.

But I couldn’t find it in myself to be completely at peace with what had happened. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing.

My family was wonderful about it, as usual. Oleg and Shaymarie would sympathize endlessly if I went to either of them separately, or tease me mercilessly if I said anything about it when they were together; Cambrie would listen and look long-suffering whenever I hinted that I wanted her advice; and Dalla asked about Kieran enough without my prompting that I tried to avoid talking about him in her hearing.

As for Pietra, she would listen to my darker fears––my difficulties getting some of the memories to leave me alone, or my fears about the lingering effects of Blue or Kieran’s injury.

I loved my family, and they were there for me. They supported me however they could, and they were patient about it. They understood people, and probably knew what I was going to end up doing before I’d done it, but they were kind enough to let me come to my conclusions on my own.

It took about a month and a half, in-between the renovation and the recovery and the planning, for me to really get around to sitting down with myself and being honest––about everything that had happened, what I thought about it now that it was over, and about what I wanted to do now.

In a lot of ways, the most surprising part was how little had changed. But there were a few things that I found that surprised me.

The biggest of those things had me trying to figure out a way to get back to the Uppers. It wasn’t easy, without asking for outside help, but I managed––mainly by making it into a business trip.

Kieran had opened my eyes to some interesting new products, after all, and we were doing well for ourselves, so I could afford it.

Everyone had insisted on increasing the percentage of the profits they gave to the Star, and since things were going so well I wanted to give them extra-special somethings for their trouble.

I found some new toys for the others to try out––some the ones that Kieran had tried on me, and others that I’d picked up because they looked fun or intriguing.

I wasn’t sure all of them would make it back, though, especially the ones I wasn’t familiar with yet.

If I had the chance––well, it was better to be sure.

And they would make fine stakes, if I had the opportunity to bring them to the table.

Getting to the last destination on my list took longer than I’d hoped; it was just edging into evening when I arrived where I’d intended to go, after cursing my sense of direction a couple of times, as well as the dense foliage and the parks in the Uppers. I was used to navigating buildings and networks of pipes rather than foliage, but I got there in the end.

I found the door I wanted, knocked, and argued briefly with the doorman. He looked a bit rough to be a doorman, honestly, but he was perfectly polite, even if I caught him grinning at me out of the corner of my eye a couple of times. He led me into a sitting room and let me wait, trying not to let my anticipation get out of hand.

Kieran took his sweet time showing up, and I was squirming––a little from anticipation, mostly from nerves––when he finally appeared.

He stared from the doorway for a moment then moved to take a seat across from me, all in silence. I waited for him to speak first.

“I didn’t think you’d come back,” he admitted finally.

“Well, I did.” I reached into my purse and pulled out a pack of cards, holding it out to him. “Want to play?”

“Oh, Ani…” he looked me over with smoldering eyes. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“You say that like you think you’re not going to lose,” I said, smirking. “I’ve been practicing.”

He took the deck, just brushing the tips of my fingers. “Keep this up too long, and I might start to get the impression you’re playing for keeps,” he warned.

“What, aren’t you?” I grinned at him. “A few practice hands, and then we get down to stakes?”

“Sure,” he said easily. His eyes traveled up and down my body like it was already his prize.

And…well.

If he played his cards right, I just might be.

The End


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