This time, both her watchdogs laughed.
Austin shook his head. "They're not at all what I expected."
"Me, neither." Alyssa bit into a piece of pizza. "I thought they'd be white and slimy, but they look so normal."
"Yeah," Austin agreed. "And they have this whole culture that's different, but it still seems so.. human."
"They are human. They feel pain and fear and.. love." Shanna wondered what Roman was feeling right now.
"Well, don't let your dad hear that," Alyssa warned her. "He thinks they're a bunch of vicious psychopaths."
"Where is my dad?" Shanna asked.
"Watching Petrovsky's house, as usual," Austin replied. "He hates the Russians with a passion, especially since they targeted you at that restaurant."
Shanna blinked. "Excuse me?"
"Way to go, Austin," Alyssa muttered.
"I thought she knew." Austin turned to Shanna. "Didn't the FBI tell you?"
"Tell me what?" Shanna's heart rate quickened. "Are you saying my friend's murder wasn't an accident?"
Austin frowned. "It was payback. Your dad sent some of the top mafia guys in Russia to jail. Your family was flown out of Russia in secret. No one knows where they are. When the remaining mafia guys wanted revenge, you were the only family member they could find."
Shanna shook off a wave of dizziness. "They were trying to kill me? Karen died because of me?"
"It's not your fault," Alyssa insisted. "You only became a target because you're Sean Whelan's daughter."
"Given the circumstances," Austin continued, "working on our team will be the best life for you. You'll be under the radar, untraceable, and well trained in self-defense."
Shanna collapsed onto her back and stared at the ceiling. All this time, she'd thought that night at the restaurant was a terrible fluke. They'd been at the wrong place at the wrong time. But all along, she'd been the target. She was supposed to die, not Karen.
"Are you okay?" Alyssa asked.
"I feel terrible about Karen dying instead of me."
"Well." Austin popped open a can of soda. "If it helps, the mafia would have killed you both if they'd seen you. They wouldn't have left any witnesses."
Somehow, that didn't really help. Shanna closed her eyes.
Shanna ? Where are you ?
She gasped and sat up. Austin and Alyssa stared at her. "I, uh, need to go." She hurried to the restroom. My God, was Roman trying to contact her? Could their connection be strong enough to work long distance? She turned on the water faucets to mask her voice. "Roman, can you hear me?"
Yes. I'm here. His voice grew louder in her head as if he were tightening the connection. Where are you?
"I'm in a hotel with some of my father's team members."
Are you a prisoner? Or is that where you want to be?
"I'm fine for now. Don't worry about me. How are you? Are you going to war tonight?"
The dispute will be finished tonight. Why - why did you call your father? I thought you were going to stay with me.
"I didn't call him. He was outside, watching Petrovsky's house, and saw me go in. He thought I was in danger, so he came in to rescue me."
You intend to stay with him ?
"I'd rather be with you, but if staying here helps me to protect you - "
I don't need your protection!
His angry voice reverberated in her head for a few seconds. "Roman, I will always love you. I would never betray you."
The connection crackled with tension.
"Roman? Are you there?"
A new emotion sifted into the connection. Despair. He was hurting. Shanna pressed his silver crucifix against her heart.
If I survive this night, will you come back to me?
If he survived the night? "Roman, what are you saying? Are you going to war?"
Will you come back to me?
"Yes! Yes, I will. But Roman, don't do anything dangerous. Please." Her grip on the crucifix tightened.
There was no response.
"Roman! Don't go!" She jumped when there was a banging on the bathroom door.
"Shanna!" Austin shouted. "Are you okay in there?"
"I'm fine," she yelled. She concentrated on sending a mental message. Roman. Roman, can you hear me?
No response. The connection was gone. And so was Roman.
It couldn't be a matter of pride. Angus had to be wrong. Roman knew Jean-Luc was a better swordsman. Angus was a better soldier. So how could it be pride that was hurtling him down this chosen path? He didn't know. All he knew for certain was he would do anything to save his people and Shanna. He'd changed many of the Highlanders himself. He'd even transformed Jean-Luc and Angus. He'd condemned all their souls to an eternity in hell should they perish. He couldn't allow that to happen, even if it meant his own death and eternal damnation.
It was shortly after eleven when Roman climbed the stone steps and opened the heavy wooden door of a church. His steps echoed in the empty foyer. Flames flickered in row upon row of red glass votives. Statues of saints and the Holy Mother stared down at him, questioning his presence in a house of God. He wondered about it, too. What did he think to gain here?
He crossed himself, then reached for the holy water. He paused, his hand hovering over the font. The water swirled, then began to boil. Steam drifted upward, heating his skin.
He snatched his hand away. He needed it in good shape for the swordfight. As the water ceased to boil, his heart sank into despair. Surely he had received the answer to his question. His soul was doomed.
The door banged shut behind him. Roman whipped around, then relaxed when he saw who had entered.
Connor, Gregori, and Laszlo gave him sheepish looks.
"I thought I made myself clear. I was not to be followed."
Connor shrugged. "We knew we could follow ye here. Ye wouldna be fighting a duel in a kirk, now would ye?"
"Besides," Gregori added. "We were coming here, anyway. We wanted to pray for you."
"Yes." Laszlo crossed himself. "We've come to pray."
Roman snorted. "Pray all you like, for all the good it will do." He strode down the aisle to the confessional booths. He entered a booth and took a seat.
A small door slid open. On the other side of the screen, Roman could barely make out the shape of the priest in the dark. He seemed old and hunched over.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." Roman turned away and mumbled the first half of the next sentence. "It's been five hundred and fourteen years since my last confession."
"What was that?" an old voice rasped. The priest cleared his throat. "Fourteen years?"
"It's been a long time. I have broken my vows before God. I've committed many sins. And tonight, I may cease to exist."
"Are you ill, my son?"
"No. Tonight, I will risk my life to save my people." Roman rested his head on the wooden wall. "But I'm not sure good can triumph over evil, or that I am even good. God has abandoned me, so surely I am also evil."
"Why do you believe God has abandoned you?"
"Once, long ago, I believed I could save a village, but I succumbed to the sin of pride and fell into darkness. I have been there ever since."
The priest cleared his throat once again and shifted in his chair. Roman figured his story sounded too strange. He'd wasted his time coming here. What had he hoped to find?
"Let me see if I understand," the priest said. "The first time you tried to save people, you were certain of victory?"
"Yes. In my pride, I knew I could not fail."
"Then, in your mind, you were risking nothing. Are you certain of victory tonight?"
Roman stared into the darkness of the booth. "No, I am not."
"Then why are you risking your life?"
Tears filled his eyes. "I cannot bear for them to risk their own. I.. love them."
The priest took a deep breath. "Then you have your answer. You do this not out of pride, but out of love. And since love comes from the Father, He has not abandoned you."
Roman scoffed. "You do not understand the magnitude of my sins."
"Perhaps you do not understand the magnitude of God's forgiveness."
A tear rolled down Roman's face. "I wish I could believe you, Father. But I have done such evil. I fear it is too late for me."
The priest leaned close to the screen. "My son, for the truly repentant, it is never too late. I will pray for you tonight."