There was a gentle touch on my forehead, but it struck me like an electric shock. I jolted awake and immediately went on the defensive. I was in pain, I didn’t know where I was, and there was a strange woman crouching over me. Grasping for the hand that was touching me, I gripped the woman’s small wrist and easily flipped her onto her back, pinning her in place with my arm against her throat. I applied the slightest pressure, threatening.
“Who are you?” I demanded harshly. “Where am I?”
She didn’t answer quickly enough to satisfy me. I felt a moment of hesitation as I saw the terror in her eyes, but I needed to make her talk. Had I been captured? Why did my shoulder feel like someone had driven a knife deep into it? I pressed my arm down harder, pushing against her windpipe. She jerked beneath me, struggling. But I hardened my resolve.
“Please,” she begged. “Don’t…”
I needed her to answer me, and I was furious at her for making me threaten her. Why wouldn’t she talk?
“Who are you?” I half-shouted, refusing to let her frightened grey eyes soften my heart.
“Cl-Claudia,” she gasped out. “Claudia Ellers.”
“Sean! What the fuck?” It was Bradley’s voice.
His hands were on my shoulders, jerking me away from the fragile woman. I couldn’t stifle a shout as agony shot through me at the jarring movement. I fell back, clutching at my injury and wincing at the impact with even the soft mattress.
“What the hell is going on, Bradley?” I ground out, forcing the pain down. I was more confused than ever. If Bradley was here, then I must be safe. But why was this strange woman on a bed beside me?
He glared at me. “You were shot, asshole. What the fuck do you think you’re doing moving around like that? You’re going to hurt yourself.”
I couldn’t help closing my eyes and groaning. “Shit,” I mumbled. “I forgot that he shot me. That motherfucker.” I shot Bradley a hard look. “I hope you gave the bastard what he deserved.”
He rolled his eyes at me. “I was a little busy saving your life. Sorry, you ungrateful douchebag.” His words were harsh, but his relief was clear in his eyes.
I studied the room around me, trying to get my bearings. “How am I home? How am I not in a hospital?” I shifted my gaze to the woman beside me. “And who the fuck is she?”
Her eyes were like daggers. “Oh, I’m nobody,” she snapped. “Just the woman who brought you back from the brink of death. You’re welcome, asshole.” She tugged at her arm, and there was a clanking sound that I recognized: she was handcuffed to my iron bedpost. She turned the full force of her fury on Bradley. “And it wasn’t enough that you kidnapped me at gunpoint and threatened my life? Now you have to go and chain me up like some animal? I should have just let him die,” she scowled, jerking her head in my direction.
Bradley’s face tightened in fury, and his hands clenched into fists. “The only reason you’re still alive is because he is. If you don’t want that scenario to change, I suggest you shut the fuck up,” he threatened the woman
I felt a jolt of horror. Bradley had done what? What the fuck had he been thinking? Didn’t he realize how far he had gone, how much worse this was than dealing drugs? He had never hurt anyone before; well, not anyone who wasn’t in our world. And he certainly had never preyed on an innocent woman.
“What did you do, Bradley?” I couldn’t believe what he had done, didn’t want to believe it. “You kidnapped her? That goes way beyond anything… You know you can’t come back from that, right?” Another horrific thought struck me. “What are we supposed to do with her now?”
Bradley gave me a level look, explaining himself as though his actions had been completely rational. “You know I couldn’t take you to the hospital. Not without getting you arrested. I didn’t have another choice. I wasn’t going to let you die. The doc here patched you up. You’ll be fine now.”
He had done this for me, to save my life. I knew I should be grateful, but I would rather be in jail than have had him take an innocent woman hostage. Not only had it been traumatic for her, but it put Bradley in jeopardy. What if she went to the police? What if she turned in my best friend, my only friend? Bradley was fiercely loyal, but this was bordering on insanity. I couldn’t bear the thought of him in jail, of having the only person that I trusted taken from me.
I ran a hand through my hair in frustration, but it only re-awoke the searing agony in my shoulder. “That hurts like a bitch,” I hissed through clenched teeth. I turned to the woman who had saved me, somewhat chagrined to ask anything of her. But the pain was becoming unbearable; it was making my head spin and my stomach turn.
“Do you have anything for the pain?” I asked.
“No,” she said flatly, a hint of cruel satisfaction in her flashing eyes. But it was gone as quickly as it had come. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice soft this time. Despite everything, she seemed to truly care about the fact that I was hurting. I was momentarily stunned by her.
“I’ll get you some pain killers from Jerry,” Bradley said.
Thank god. I knew that Jerry had access to such drugs; we just dealt in heroin, and the thought of turning to that sickened me. I hated it.
“But first…” Bradley turned his attention to the woman, his eyes colder than I could ever recall. “Is he going to be okay, doc?” He asked.
So she was a doctor. Of course she was. How else would she have known how to treat a bullet wound? I anxiously waited for her to answer, coming to the keen realization that my life had hung in the balance only hours earlier.
“Y-yes,” she said tremulously, and I hated to see how frightened she was, resented Bradley for intimidating her when she had done nothing but help me. “So long as the wound is cleaned and the bandages are changed regularly, he should be fine.”
He considered her for a moment, his head cocked to one side. “I think I can handle that,” he said finally, nodding. Then he pulled the gun from his waistband, training it on her heart. Why was he terrorizing her further?
“Please,” she choked on the word, her voice strangled. “Don’t do this. I won’t tell anyone. I swear-”
Then I realized the horrible truth: he wasn’t trying to intimidate her; he was going to kill her.
“Bradley!” I barked at him, trying to keep my tone authoritative rather than panicked. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? You’re going to add murder to kidnapping now?” Who was this ruthless man standing before me, ready to kill an innocent woman? No, not just innocent. A genuinely good-hearted person who had saved the life of a low-life criminal when she could have just let me bleed out. I had to make Bradley see reason, to remind him of who he really was. Because right now, he wasn’t acting at all like himself. “What are you thinking, man? This isn’t you.”
“I’m doing this for you, Sean,” he said, his voice detached, addressing me but never taking his eyes off her. “There’s no other way.”
He cocked the gun. I had to stop this. I couldn’t let my best friend become a killer, and, more importantly, I couldn’t watch her die.
“Stop, Bradley!” I was shouting at him now, desperate to reach him. Painfully, I struggled up to face him down, to fight him off if I needed to. But I couldn’t do more than push myself up onto my elbows before the pain stopped me. Still, I pulled on all of the power, the menace, within me to force him to stand down. “I won’t let you do this,” I said definitively, letting him know that if he tried anything, he would face my retribution.
He glared at me, anger and frustration with me warring in his brown eyes. “What other choice do we have?” He asked harshly. “Let her go? She’ll go running to the cops as soon as she leaves.” He kept the gun pointed at her heart, and I was shocked to see that his grip was steady, determined. Did he really have no qualms about killing her? Did his loyalty run so deep that he was willing to murder for my sake?
Well, I certainly wasn’t willing for that to happen, not for her to die for my sake and not for my friend to have blood on his hands.
“I won’t say anything,” she gasped out. “I swear. Please…” The terror in her eyes made me feel sick. She wasn’t even drawing breath anymore.
“Put the gun away, Bradley,” I made my voice hard and unyielding. “I’ll never forgive you if you do this.” And in that moment, I knew that I wouldn’t. I would never be able to look at him the same way again. “She saved my life. We can’t kill her.”
Bradley’s gaze flicked to me, and I was grateful that I had managed to get him to take his cold gaze from her, giving her a reprieve.
“And what are we supposed to do with her?” He demanded. “You know we can’t let her leave.”
Why had Bradley put us in such a clusterfuck? What were we going to do with her now? If she went to the police, Bradley and I would be locked up, defeating the whole purpose of kidnapping her in the first place. And what was worse: if my fellow mobsters found out that she had snitched on us, they would track her down and kill her anyway. Slowly. I couldn’t let that happen to her.
I jerked my hand through my hair again, this time with my uninjured arm. “Fuck,” I barked out, frustrated and angry. There were no good options here. “I don’t know,” I said finally. “Keep her here for now. Then we can figure out what to do.”
Bradley stared at the woman for a long moment, his mouth set in a grim line. I held my breath as I watched him silently deliberating, willing him to make the right choice here.
The right choice? I thought to myself derisively. Holding her hostage was the right choice? What the fuck had Bradley gotten us into?
Finally, he lowered the gun, tucking it back into his waistband. The tightness in my chest loosened as relief washed over me. I knew that my best friend wasn’t capable of murder. He couldn’t possibly be.
But my attention immediately turned to the woman. She was clutching at her chest. It was heaving, but she wasn’t drawing in any air into her lungs. She was trembling, her eyes clouding over as her mind shut down, unable to cope with what was happening to her. The sight of it made my stomach turn.
Unable to bear it, I reached out for her and grasped her shoulder firmly, trying to ground her. The movement jarred my injury, sending agony shooting through my chest and down my arm. But I forced it back, unwilling to let it keep me from helping her.
“Hey, doc,” I said gently, calling her back to reality. But she didn’t respond. I needed to reach her, to erase the terror that was etched in every line of her face. What had she said her name was? “Claudia. Take a deep breath,” I ordered, demanding that she respond to me.
She obeyed, drawing a ragged breath, forcing the air through the tightness in her throat. A few more deep breaths, and her chest began to rise and fall in a semblance of a normal rhythm. She blinked several times, and I watched as her unseeing eyes came back into focus. As I looked down into them, I was struck by their multifaceted beauty: stormy grey with streaks of darkest blue. I smiled down at her gently, silently communicating that she didn’t need to fear me.
“That’s better,” I said softly. For the briefest moment, it seemed that she truly wasn’t afraid. In fact, she looked almost stunned as she stared up at me, as though surprised as she came to the realization.
Bradley cleared his throat pointedly, breaking through our strangely intimate moment.
Intimate? The woman was traumatized, and I thought that there was some possible way that she wasn’t afraid of me? I was just fooling myself, seeing what I wanted to see. She had just been getting over a panic attack; the calm I had seen in her eyes was just her gathering herself back together.
I pulled away from her, suddenly feeling guilty for invading her personal space, for touching her when physical contact with me was probably the last thing she wanted. What trapped woman would want to be touched by a strange man who was holding her captive? I schooled my face to blankness as I drew away from her, but something akin to regret stirred in my gut at the loss of the heat of her skin against mine.
Her expression hardened as she again became aware of her situation. I was amazed at how quickly she bounced back, the ire in her eyes replacing her fear.
“There’s just one problem with this plan,” Bradley said to me, resentment in his tone. “People are going to be missing her. If they find out she was kidnapped, then they’ll come looking for her. They might trace it back to us.”
Shit. The reality of this situation just got worse and worse.
I thought for a moment, hating myself for having to formulate a plan for trapping her with us. “Then we call her family and her work to give some excuse,” I said finally. “I’m not letting you kill her.” I shot Bradley a look that dared him to try to harm her again.
But he ignored me, instead turning his attention back to her. “Well, that all depends on how cooperative she is.” I tensed, ready to tell him to stop being such a bastard, but to my surprise she propped herself up on one elbow and glared up at him defiantly, ready to defend herself.
He glared back, but she didn’t flinch. “Where’s your cell phone?” He demanded harshly.
She hesitated, her jaw tightening as she resisted telling him. But despite the strength in her bearing, she must have realized that she couldn’t refuse him. “In my purse,” she admitted after a moment. “It’s still in my car.”
“Alright, I’m going to get it. But if you try anything while I’m gone…” Bradley left the threat open-ended, and I saw a flicker of fear in her eyes that she couldn’t seem to suppress. Although it made my gut twist, I didn’t tell him off for intimidating her; I knew that it was necessary for us to cover our tracks. No matter what it took. She might be internally cursing me for my complicity in this plan, but she didn’t realize that I was doing this to protect her. And something in me couldn’t bring myself to explain that, to admit what I was.
Bradley left the room, locking the door behind him, and I couldn’t help but look over at her. She was resolutely staring up at the ceiling, ignoring me. I studied her carefully, fully taking her in for the first time. I had already been captivated by her gorgeous eyes, but now I realized just how beautiful our hostage was. Her alabaster skin contrasted strikingly with her dark hair, and she had a small dimple in her cheek. I wished I could see it become more defined as she smiled, but that certainly wasn’t about to happen. She was slender, but her body was still soft and feminine. I had to resist the urge to let my eyes rove up and down her appreciatively. So my gaze quickly flicked back up to her eyes, and I was jarred to see that they were shining, over-bright. She was clearly fighting back tears. I was again struck by her incredible strength in the face of what was happening to her. I couldn’t bear the sight of her distress; I wanted to distract her from it. But what was I going to say to her?
So I settled for the only way that I knew how to talk to women. I pulled on my cocky, care-free mask and tried to make light of the situation.
“So,” I said, breaking the tense silence. “This is awkward.”
But that had been a mistake. She turned her glare on me, spearing me with a baleful look.
“I think you’re confusing the word ‘awkward’ with the term ‘completely fucked up,’” she snapped, her tone venomous. “‘Awkward’ is when you accidentally text the wrong person. ‘Awkward’ is when you trip over nothing and fall on your face. ‘Completely fucked up’ is when you kidnap a woman, threaten her with a gun, chain her to a bed, and tell her that life as she knows it is over. Can you see the difference there?”
I instantly felt like shit. Okay, so I had fucked that up royally. Had I really thought that joking about what we were putting her through was a good idea? For the first time in my life, I had no idea how to act around a woman.
“Okay, doc,” I said after a moment, forcing my tone to stay light. “You’re not up for chitchat. I get it.”
The lines of her face tightened in fury. She opened her mouth as though to snap at me again, but she stopped abruptly. Bradley was coming back, and for all of her spirit, he clearly frightened her more than I did. The thought made me perversely pleased. Which of course was completely fucked up.
Bradley came in, fishing her cell phone out of her purse. “Alright,” he said to her. “You only have one missed call: Work.” He raised an eyebrow at her, considering. “So, it seems I don’t have to be too concerned about anyone missing you. I’m assuming that you don’t have a husband or a boyfriend? No one who would panic when you didn’t come home?”
She blushed, embarrassment and something akin to shame in her eyes. How was it that the gorgeous woman was unattached? Again, I felt that strange sense of satisfaction stir within me at the revelation. And again: completely fucked up. What was wrong with me?
She pursed her lips, holding Bradley in a furious stare for long moments. But finally she nodded, confirming his assumption.
He glanced down at her phone again. “Well, it seems there’s no one to contact but your work.” His gaze turned inward, considering. “What excuse should we give? Illness? No, you could get over that quickly.” He shot a hard look at me. Did he really resent me for not letting him kill her? “And since I don’t know how long you’ll be with us, that won’t be feasible,” he continued, still addressing her. He snapped his fingers as an idea came to him. “Your mother died. You have to go home and will be off work indefinitely.”
Her glare intensified, the color draining from her cheeks as anger and a hint of pain drove away all traces of embarrassment. “You’re about fourteen years too late for that,” She hissed. “My parents died when I was thirteen.”
Something in my chest twisted. I recognized that pain, recognized her attempt to conceal it, deny it. I had been doing the same for two years now, since my mother had died. And my father… I grimaced. He might be alive, but that was far from a blessing. I couldn’t imagine what my life would have been like if she had died when I was young, leaving me at his mercy. I wasn’t sure if I would have survived that. As it was, I had barely made through. But not unscathed.
Instinctively, I reached out for her, drawn to her in a way that I was unfamiliar with. But she rounded on me, glaring. I had been right before: she didn’t want me to touch her. So I clenched my hand to a fist, forcing it to remain at my side as I smoothed my features into blankness.
Bradley didn’t seem to notice what had just passed between us, and I was grateful for that. I never allowed anyone to see that vulnerable side of myself, not even my best friend.
He was focused on her, eyeing her skeptically. “How?” He demanded. My fist clenched tighter as I willed myself not to lash out at him. Couldn’t he see that she was in pain? Couldn’t he see how much thinking about their deaths hurt her, despite her best efforts to conceal it? Or was it possible that he just didn’t care?
“Car crash,” she said tersely.
Bradley studied her for a moment, merciless. “Fine, then,” he finally continued. “Your foster mother died. I assume you were in the system?”
Her eyes flashed again, anguish burning through her ire. She just nodded jerkily, as though she couldn’t bring herself to voice it aloud. What had this woman been through? And now we were adding a fresh layer of trauma to her life? I knew that Bradley had done this with my best interests at heart, but I was starting to hate him a little for it.
“Okay,” Bradley said, his voice brusque and business-like. “I’m your foster-brother, and I’m calling to let them know that my mother has died. You’re coming to comfort me in this difficult time.”
Her mouth twisted down in distaste, her eyes darkening like storm clouds.
“What’s his name?” Bradley pressed her ruthlessly. “Your foster brother. You had one right? What’s his name?”
I bit my tongue to stop myself from snapping at him to back off. We had to do this. It was the only way.
“Marcus,” she hissed through gritted teeth, forcing the name out like a curse. “Marcus Ames.”
I felt a surge of anger towards the faceless man who had obviously hurt her, causing her such pain when she was young and vulnerable that she had grown into this hard-hearted woman. It had made her strong, but I knew what a burden it was to have to constantly keep walls around your heart, containing the agony in order to keep your soul from splitting into a thousand pieces.
“Don’t make a sound,” Bradley warned her as he started dialing her work number.
“Hi, this is Marcus Ames, Dr. Ellers’ brother,” he said into the receiver. There was a pause, and he scowled down at her. “I’m her foster brother,” he explained. “She hasn’t mentioned me?” Bradley glowered, and his hand twitched towards the gun. I tensed again, ready to fight him if he went for it. I pinned him with a menacing stare. Sensing my silent threat, he glanced in my direction. He held my gaze for a heartbeat, then frowned and lowered his hand.
“Well, she asked me to call,” he plowed on. “My mother has died, and Claudia has come home to help make funeral arrangements. She wanted me to let you know that she won’t be able to come in, and she’s not sure when she might be ready to return to work. She’s pretty torn up about it.”
Another pause. Bradley’s frown deepened.
“Alright,” he said, his voice tight. “I’ll put her on.”
He held the phone to her face so that she could speak into it. This time he resolutely ignored me and placed his hand on the gun. “Back me up, bitch,” he hissed.
Bitch. Why was he being such an ass? It was one thing to intimidate her in order to protect ourselves, but he was going too far. She glanced up at Bradley, and the shadow of fear passed over her eyes again.
“Ava,” she said into the receiver, her voice ragged. I knew that it was rough from her growing terror, but it would work to our advantage; she really did sound upset. “I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner,” she continued. “I just found out that Darla… That my foster mom died.” She seemed to trip over the name, again betraying the pain that she had suffered at the hands of her foster family.
“Thanks.” Her face went impossibly paler as she forced herself to thank the woman for buying her story, for sealing her fate.
Bradley ended the call. His eyes were burning as he stared her down.
“Why didn’t you tell me that they didn’t know about your foster family?” He demanded.
“You didn’t ask,” she replied levelly, refusing to show any fear.
He let out a low growl, his muscles tensing as he took a threatening step towards her.
“Bradley!” I said his name sharply, trying to get him to snap out of his new dark persona. I forced myself to sit up, my muscles coiled as I prepared to defend her. “Leave it,” I ordered. Bradley’s glare rounded on me, and I held it, refusing to back down.
But the longer I held my threatening stance, the more aware I became of the punishing pain in my shoulder. There was a rushing sound in my ears, and it was growing louder with every beat of my heart. My head was spinning, but I resolutely refused to back down, to leave her vulnerable.
“Shit,” Bradley muttered, all menace suddenly leaving him. Concern filled his eyes, melting away the furious glare that had twisted his features into something horrible and unfamiliar to me. This was who he was; this was my friend.
Now that he was no longer threatening her, I allowed myself to let go. The pain engulfed me as my shoulder was jarred against the bed. I closed my eyes, trying to force it away. But it was cruel and unrelenting, and my awareness of the world around me was wavering in the wake of its onslaught.
“What’s wrong?” I heard Bradley’s voice. That harsh edge colored his tone once again, but I could hear a thread of panic there as well. “I thought you said he would be fine.”
“Well, he would be if he didn’t have to keep straining himself because of your hot head,” she snapped back at him. There was the soft clanking sound of the handcuffs against the bedpost, and she let out a soft curse. “Can’t you take these off? I kind of need my hands to do this.”
There was a pause.
I forced my eyes open, willing the world to solidify around me. “For fuck’s sake, Bradley,” I ground out through gritted teeth. “What could she possibly do to hurt me?”
Bradley’s expression softened as he regarded me, taking in my weakened state, and he unlocked the handcuffs. She rubbed her wrist, and I could see a light, purplish bruise marring her delicate skin. Guilt washed over me again, accompanied by more anger at Bradley for hurting her. Those were my handcuffs. And they certainly weren’t meant to be used like that.
She moved toward me carefully, her hands gentle as she began to unwrap the gauze from around my chest. Now that she was so close to me, I could smell her delicious, feminine scent: cotton and roses. It infused the air around me, captivating me. I knew that I was staring, but I couldn’t help but watch her intently as she worked. She didn’t meet my eye; she was completely engrossed in her task, and a little crease appeared between her brows when she revealed the angry red hole in my chest. Was she really concerned for me? After everything we had done to her?
She’s a doctor, I reminded myself harshly. Of course it was ingrained in her to help people who were hurting. It had nothing to do with me personally.
Bradley was looking on anxiously. “You look like shit, buddy,” he told me.
Despite the pain, I couldn’t help smiling at him, putting on a good face to erase the lines of worry around his eyes. “I’ve had a rough day,” I retorted, struggling to keep my tone light. “What’s your excuse?” I tried to laugh, but that was a mistake. I gritted my teeth to hold back my cry; I didn’t want to voice my pain. Bradley was already so on edge, and I didn’t want to upset him further. Especially considering how unstable he was right now.
But the room was flickering in and out of existence around me. I was being pulled under, swirling down into darkness.
“Give him more of your blood, doc,” I heard Bradley order.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said flatly. “I’m fresh out of spare blood today.”
Bradley snarled at her. “Give it to him. He needs it.”
She gave me her blood? I thought incredulously. Surely that went far beyond what her duties as a doctor demanded. Why would she go to such lengths to save a stranger? A criminal who didn’t deserve saving?
“No. I’d rather live long enough to finish treating him, thanks,” her voice floated down to me. “If you want to kill me, shooting me would be much faster, you know.”
I tried to struggle through the darkness, but it pressed against me, weighing me down. I couldn’t let Bradley force her to do that. Not for me. Not after everything she had already done.
“Look,” she said gently. “If I give him my blood, I’ll die. And then there will be no one here to help him. Just trust me.”
There was a long silence, but Bradley must have backed off because I could feel the needle tugging at my skin again as she returned to her work. With the knowledge that she was safe, I succumbed to the blackness, giving in to the merciful release from my pain brought on by unconsciousness.
Thoughts? Stay updated on Goodreads!