A Gentleman in the Street

By: Alisha Rai

It took a few seconds for realization to dawn. He straightened, and suddenly the kitchen felt even tinier. “Are you asking if I took something from a dying woman?”

“No, of course not.” Please, Jacob would never steal. The man didn’t know how to deviate from the straight-and-narrow path. He was physically incapable of sin.

What a miserable existence.

“I was there in the capacity of friendship,” he said coldly. “She was lonely at the end. Not to manipulate her into…what, handing over her jewels?”

Lonely because her own daughter didn’t visit her. No, she refused to feel guilty about that. Her presence would have only made Mei more miserable. “I’m not implying there was a single element of coercion.” She raised her hands. “Look. I didn’t come here to fight or ogle your ass—”

Jacob’s head snapped back. “Ogle my…”

“Oh, shut up,” she retorted, out of patience. “You know very well it’s a first-class ass. What do you do, do squats all day? Never mind, don’t answer.”

“Trust me,” he said grimly, “I wasn’t planning to.”

“I came because the item looks like nothing more than a wood box. Well crafted, about a foot square. A design on the sides. No one would steal it, and it’s probably the only gift she could give you that you would take because it doesn’t look expensive.”

“You think she gave me a box?”

Akira sighed. Her feet hurt. Her head ached. She was sleep deprived and tired, and his wide, steady shoulders were right there.

It took every ounce of energy for her to continue speaking. She was unable to think anymore, perilously close to dropping her shields. “It was my grandmother’s. There is no price I wouldn’t pay to get it back.” There. She’d handed him every single ounce of bargaining power.

Jacob had stilled, and he watched her far too carefully for her peace of mind. His tone was quiet when he spoke. “Mei didn’t give me anything.”

“What about your siblings?”

“I would know. They would tell me. We’re close.”

Akira flinched from the last two words, though she knew he didn’t intend it as a dig about her lack of closeness with her own family.

She had developed a sense to recognize when people were lying to her, a skill that served her well when negotiating with men who assumed she was an empty-headed doll. Truth. It rang in every syllable of those sentences.

Defeat tasted like ashes in her mouth.

The rage she had managed to control for too many years rose inside of her. Her damned mother. Holding Hana’s box over her head like a carrot since her grandmother had died unexpectedly. Behave, and I’ll give you the box. Behave, and I’ll give you your legacy.

You should have behaved.

Well, she hadn’t. And the hope she’d had, that finally, finally she could recover it, was dashed, because there was no place left to look.

It was gone.

If she opened her mouth, she would cry or wail, and Akira Mori did not break down. Not ever.

She inclined her head and carefully placed her half-full coffee mug on the counter. She managed to make it to the exit, barely registering Jacob’s presence behind her until a heavy palm shut the door she had opened a crack. “Akira. Are you okay?”

He was so big and warm behind her. All she had to do was lean back, and she could absorb his heat into her. She craved it.

That’s why you can’t have it. It was dangerous to lust after someone so fruitlessly. Hadn’t she learned all about wanting the unattainable with her family? Constant rejection took its toll. It chipped away at your soul, made you doubt yourself. It hurt. “Yes, I’m fine.”

He had to lean down to catch her breathy answer. His beard scraped her temple. “You don’t look well. I don’t know if you should drive.”

She suppressed a shudder. Brother Jacob. So good. So honorable to everyone, even a woman he found repugnant.

She could snap her fingers and have anything she wanted in the world. But she couldn’t have her legacy. She couldn’t have her mother, eager to forgive her and love her. And she couldn’t have him.

Funny how they were the things she wanted the most.

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