Authors: Maya Banks
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
BY MAYA BANKS
ABOUT THE PUBLISHER
ZACKCovington simmered with impatience as he waited for the go signal from his team leader. He didn’t know exactly what was going on in the basement of the McMansion—not unlike the house he’d once dreamed of building for the girl he’d planned to spend forever with—but he knew it wasn’t good. Sometimes bad lurked in seemingly benign locations. People existed in denial that it could happen in their little corner of the world. How very wrong they were.
It was a lesson he’d learned the hard way. Coming from a small town nestled against the shores of Kentucky Lake, he’d thought—just as most of its citizens had thought—that they were impervious to bad. And Zack? He was more confident about that than most, because his father was the chief of police, and he’d grown up knowing his father’s job was to ensure the safety of the town, regardless of size.
But he’d damn sure failed when it came to Gracie. Everyone had failed her and Zack had led the pack. His father’s refusal to use county resources on someone who didn’t belong anyway had caused a rift between Zack and his father that to this day hadn’t been mended.
It never would be.
Zack sighed as he contemplated the stately homes, the expensive cars, the swimming pools behind high privacy fences, the immaculately landscaped yards. The white-collar families who resided in the gated community that boasted top-notch security would be horrified to know that evil lurked in their midst. The irony of it all was that the affluent neighborhood had recently been voted the safest and most desirable community in the greater Houston area. Hell, it had scored in the top five in the entire state of Texas and in the top twenty for the whole country. So yeah, these people were utterly convinced that they were safe.
But he knew better. Inside was a child. Just a baby. Well, not so much a baby, since she was only two years younger than his Gracie. Goddamn it. Not here. Not now. It was no time for the past to intrude. Besides, Gracie was hardly the beautiful, innocent sixteen-year-old girl he’d loved more than a decade ago. She’d be twenty-eight now.
If she was even alive.
And she wasn’t “his” Gracie anymore. She wasn’t his anything.
Maybe he hadn’t been able to save Gracie. Maybe he’d failed her. But over his dead body would he fail this young girl whose dreams were as big as the sun. Not when the two most important people in her life—or at least the two whoshouldhave been the most important—had failed her in every possible way.
Alyssa Lofton had been a very promising ballerina at an early age, a fact her mother had taken pride in when she’d participated in kindergarten recitals and received high praise and glowing accolades both locally and across the state. Later, when the demands of her training had encroached on her mother and father’s social life, Alyssa had fallen far down the list of their priorities.
Until the father had received pointed threats, aimed at Alyssa.
The Loftons had five children, with Alyssa being the middle child, between two older brothers and two younger sisters. When Howard Lofton had called in Devereaux Security Services, it had disgusted Zack that the man seemed irritated not that his daughter was being threatened, but thathewasn’t the subject of the threat. It was a blow to his ego that evidently he was not as important as his daughter.
A pompous, arrogant pig who had no business having children. His wife was no better. Zack could only dream of the life they had—a life he once thought hewouldhave—with a houseful of children. Happy. And yet the couple was more concerned with their social standing than the care of their children.
They’d hired a nanny and it was the nanny who attended all sports events and dance recitals and provided the love and support the parents should have. And now she was dead, shot when trying to protect one of the younger Lofton children after masked men had burst into the auditorium where the dance recital was being held and cut the lights, causing instant chaos as gunfire erupted.
The father? Had dropped like a fucking coward, hiding behind hiswife,while the nanny had saved his son. Zack would like to put a bullet right between the asshole’s eyes for that alone.
Howard and Felicity Lofton hadn’t even been there so they could see their daughter shine. They’d attended solely because the CEO of another oil company also had a daughter performing and Howard was in negotiations to merge the two companies because the competitor was looking to retire and Howard wanted to take over both companies and expand his “empire.” Hell, he and his wife hadn’t even sat with their children. They’d left the nanny to tend to the kids while they sat a row back talking business and their daughters performed.
The target had been Alyssa. And Alyssa had been Zack’s responsibility. Hell, she was all of DSS’s responsibility, but Zack had been the closest, and in the clusterfuck that had ensued, a hysterical woman had blocked his pathway to Alyssa, a mere foot away, getting shot in the process, and Alyssa had been abducted in a professionally executed hit.
This was no amateur operation, and Zack had to wonder why someone would go to such lengths to kidnap the child of a high-profile oil mogul when the man took absolutely no security precautions, and if any research on Howard Lofton had been done at all and ransom had been the aim, he would have been the obvious choice.
Lofton would give up a hell of a lot of money for his own life. But for his children? Even Zack knew the answer to that, and he’d only briefly made the man’s acquaintance. He’d despised Lofton on sight because he grudgingly had to part with some of his precious money to protect his daughter for “appearance’s sake.” After all, it wouldn’t do for it to get out that a father had ignored threats to his child, and above all else, Howard Lofton had an ego the size of the state he resided in.
When the silence through his earpiece continued—and he’d already waited an interminable amount of time—Zack lost what was left of his patience. Fuck it. He was going in. The Loftons might not give two fucks about their daughter, but Zack did, and he wasn’t about to sit on his hands when each passing second could mean the difference between life and death.
Stealthily, he crept toward the window of the guest room. DSS had pulled the floor plans of the housing developments—they were cookie-cutter houses, after all—and quietly inserted his knife around the edges and bottom of the window to loosen the panes. Only when he was able to slide the window upward did he whisper into the comm, “I’m in.”
He ignored the curses of Dane, heard Eliza mutter an “about time,” while Capshaw and Renfro said nothing at all.
Zack slid into the bedroom with ease and quickly drew his gun and attached silencer with one hand and reached for a flash-bang grenade with the other. He knew the layout by heart, having studied it until it was ingrained in his mind.
The house was eerily dark when he slipped from the bedroom, but in the distance, the sound of a television could be heard. His partners could cover the front. His aim was the lower level and he homed in on his target with absolute focus.
A shadow appeared in his periphery and he immediately flattened himself against the wall just as a man rounded the corner, heading directly toward Zack. A quick assessment told him this wasn’t a resident of the house. He was dressed in fatigues and a black shirt, with a shoulder harness holding a pistol and several Kevlar knives secured to his waist. What the fuck did these jokers want with a fourteen-year-old girl? Were they running some sort of human trafficking ring? And if so, why theonegirl? There had been more than two dozen girls between the ages of eight and eighteen at the recital. In the utter chaos that had ensued, they could have grabbed several others.
Zack yanked his gun up just as the other man spotted him and did the same. But Zack had the element of surprise and only the thud of a dead body falling broke the quiet.
“One down,” Zack said quietly into the comm. “And these guys are trained. Watch your sixes.”
“Goddamn it, Zack,” Beau hissed. “Wait for backup.”
“Alyssa may not have time for backup,” Zack bit back, moving toward the stairway at the end of the hall.
He paused at the top and peered downward, his ears straining for any sound to indicate movement up the stairs. What he heard froze him to the core.
Soft weeping. The sound of pain and despair. And it broke his heart.
Resisting the urge to rush recklessly the rest of the way down the stairs, he forced himself to take it step by step, making sure he made no sound as he descended when his every instinct was to charge in and take out the fuckers who’d taken andhurtan innocent child.
He paused at the bottom because there was only a small area between the bottom of the stairwell and the wall. He would have to round the corner to enter the larger area of the room. Where Alyssa was being held. Where soft weeping could still be heard.
He couldn’t lob the flash-bang grenade, because it would be devastating to Alyssa, and she could be executed in a split second once her kidnappers were aware they’d been found. As schooled as Zack believed them to be, they’d likely been exposed to them before—and trained to withstand the effects while adequately defending themselves. Or taking out the enemy.
Inhaling a quiet breath, he gripped his knife in his left hand and curled his fingers on his right hand around the stock of the pistol, just brushing the trigger. The sight that greeted him would live with him until his dying breath.
Alyssa, bloodied, bruised, pale with shock, eyes glazed with pain and the sheen of tears, was manacled to the brick chimney base. It was like something out of a medieval horror movie.
But worse was seeingwhoher tormentor was.
Zack didn’t move. Didn’t so much as breathe, praying that the girl holding a knife to Alyssa’s neck wouldn’t be alerted to his presence and slice through the delicate skin.
“Why are you doing this to me, Lana?” Alyssa whispered, choking on her tears as she stared dully at her tormentor. “I thought we were friends!”
“Because with you out of the picture,I’llbe the best. Notyou,” the teenage girl hissed. “It’s always been about you. I’m sick of hearing about how great Alyssa is. How talented. How you’re destined for stardom. What does anyone say about me? Runner-up. To you. Always second place. NowI’llbe the star and no one will even remember your name.”
Jesus. Zack recognized the girl. She’d performed just before Alyssa, and obviously displayed talent, but from the moment Alyssa had taken the stage, it had been equally evident that Alyssa had clearly outshone the other girl.
The sheer hatred for Alyssa was obvious in her rival’s voice. The malicious triumph in her voice sickened Zack. A thin rivulet of blood slipped down Alyssa’s neck and she gave a small cry, more of distress and fear than of pain.
What was more horrifying was that there was no way this girl could have pulled off a plan so flawlessly. Nor would she have knowledge of such men capable of executing a professional hit. Which meant her parents not only knew what was happening in the basement of their home but had likely masterminded the entire event.
Zack had to act fast. He was very good at reading people and he didn’t doubt for a second that the jealous teenage girl would kill Alyssa if he didn’t step in now. In no way did he want to kill a teenage girl, just a child—but no, this was no child. She was a cold-blooded psychopath who thought nothing of removing someone she perceived as competition.
And then the decision was ripped from him when Alyssa glanced past her captor and betrayed his presence by widening her eyes in alarm. Thankfully, the girl lowered the knife and turned, perhaps thinking he was one of the men who’d abducted Alyssa. But when her gaze settled on him, she raised the hand holding the knife, her expression so vicious it gave him chills. Then she turned, clearly directing the knife toward Alyssa’s chest.
It all happened in a split second, and yet it was as though everything were in slow motion.
Alyssa screamed, straining sideways to avoid the wicked edge of the knife. Zack fired, his aim precise, penetrating Lana’s arm just above the wrist, causing the knife to drop. Lana’s scream mimicked Alyssa’s own and yet the obvious pain the bullet wound must have caused didn’t deter her from her determined vendetta.
She lunged at Alyssa, scratching furiously at Alyssa’s face while her other hand hung uselessly at her side.
Zack hurled himself forward, grabbing a fistful of the hell cat’s hair, and yanked her back. In his ear, two voices were demanding a status report. He ignored both, more worried about defending Alyssa from further harm if someone not on his team came down the stairs.
“I’ll kill you!” Lana screamed, turning her fury on Zack.
And just as suddenly, her anger turned to triumph as she turned a spiteful look in Alyssa’s direction.
“You’re too late anyway,” she said smugly.
Zack didn’t pause to consider what the crazy-ass girl meant. He shoved her down into a nearby chair and handcuffed her uninjured wrist to the arm. This time it was she who gave away the presence of another. Relief flared in her eyes and Zack immediately dropped and rolled toward Alyssa, placing his body between her and any possible threat.
His gun was up and he didn’t hesitate when he saw a man who was similarly attired as the one Zack had already taken down on the upper level. He didn’t have time to go for the kill shot but put a bullet in the assailant’s upper leg. Judging by the blood pumping from the wound as the man went down, it was likely Zack had hit his femoral artery. If that was the case, the man was finished and would bleed out in a matter of seconds.
Still, not one to assume anything, he took aim and put a second bullet through the downed man’s neck.
“Goddamn it, where the fuck is everyone?” Zack demanded, addressing his teammates for the first time. “Alyssa’s in the basement and two of the kidnappers are dead. Anyone care to offer some backup here?”
“Well, if you’d been a little more patient, you’d have gotten your backup,” Dane said dryly.
“If I’d waited any longer, Alyssa would be dead right now,” Zack snapped.
“We’ve cleared the main level,” Eliza broke in. “On our way now. And Zack, this is some fucked-up shit we’re dealing with.”
“You don’t even know the half of it,” Zack said grimly.
Satisfied that he’d encounter no further nasty surprises, Zack picked himself up and quickly freed Alyssa’s wrists, using the key lying on a table just a few feet away. As soon as she was free, she threw her arms around him and sobbed into his neck. He closed his eyes, cupping the back of her head as he gently stroked her hair.
“It’s all right now, sweetheart. You’re safe now.”
“No it’s not,” she said with gulping sobs. “It’llneverbe all right again.”
She clung tightly to him, her grief causing a knot to form in Zack’s throat. The world was filled with all kinds of sick, twisted fucks, but even this had the power to surprise him. That someone so young was so evil and . . . sick. He didn’t have words.
“Can you get up or do you need me to carry you?” Zack said, using a soothing, calming voice. “How badly are you hurt?”
At his question, she completely fell apart, her cries so hopeless that it enraged him that such innocence had been destroyed. But even then, he wasn’t prepared for her answer.
“She broke myknees,” Alyssa sobbed. “She made it so I’ll never dance again. Dancing was all I had and now it’sgone. She was supposed to be my friend. We were going to room together, go to the same performing arts academy. Oh God. What if I never walk again?”
Zack went utterly still with shock. As gently as he could, considering he was shaking with rage, he pulled her away, just enough that he could evaluate her legs. He hadn’t seen them before. He’d been too focused on Lana and the knife she’d held and the fear in Alyssa’s eyes.
And what he saw horrified him.
The leotards she’d worn in her recital were torn and bloodied, impossibly stretched by massive swelling caused by trauma to the kneecaps. He’d never felt so sick in his life. Not since the day . . .
He shook his head, refusing to go back to that time in his life. There was a young girl who needed him right now. He was all that had stood between her and death. And to her, such a devastating injury was tantamount to death.
He very carefully slid one arm underneath her thighs, above the backs of her knees and below her behind, and secured his other arm around her upper body, hooking it underneath her armpit.
“This will hurt, honey, but I have to get you out of here and to a hospital where it’s safe. Perhaps your injuries aren’t as severe as you fear.”
Devastation and doubt were clear in her tear-swollen eyes, but she clamped her lips shut and leaned into him, not uttering a single sound as he lifted her and carried her past Lana, who was still handcuffed to the chair.
“What about me?” Lana shrieked. “Youshotme!”
Zack turned his cold gaze on her, ensuring Alyssa’s head was tucked firmly beneath his chin, her face buried against his neck so she would no longer have to lay eyes on her torturer.
“Sue me,” he growled.
ZACKshifted position on an uncomfortable stool in a bar better described as a dive, several blocks from his apartment. It was a place he used as an escape, because no one knew him here. Despite his regularity, he kept to himself, never talking to others and definitely not using it as a place to pick up women for one-night stands. It was simply a place to blow off steam after a particularly bad assignment or the times when his past came back to haunt him despite his best efforts to move beyond it.
In this case, it was a double whammy.
Because the job from hell—literally—had brought back painful memories that he’d been able to keep at bay for a period of time he was proud of. He’d even thought he was beyond the worst. Moving on. Finally letting go and accepting. Accepting that the life he’d planned—the life he’d dreamed of—was never going to be a reality, and that it was time to focus on a new dream. A new vision. Or sacrifice forever any semblance of happiness and a satisfying, fulfilling life.
Yeah, when put like that, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out he’d been a prisoner of things he had no control of, for far, far too long. It was time to get the fuck over it and pull his head out of his ass.
“Hey.” A soft voice interrupted his litany of self-castigation.
He turned gratefully, relieved to have a reprieve from his current train of thought even if he preferred not to be disturbed when he was here, a place he could usually count on being left alone because everyone kept to themselves and minded their business.
He smiled when he saw Tonya, a nurse at the hospital where Alyssa had been taken earlier in the evening. She worked in the ER, which was how Zack, as well as other members of DSS, had become acquainted with her. It certainly wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for DSS to be in and out of the ER on a regular basis, whether it was an injury to one of their team members or someone they brought in as the result of a job. Like Alyssa.
“Rough night, huh,” Tonya said quietly, her gaze flitting over Zack’s features as if his inner torment were a flashing neon sign.
Zack sighed and took another long swig of his beer, setting the now-empty bottle back on the bar and motioning to the bartender for another.
“Yeah. It sucked. You want a drink?”
Tonya slid onto the stool beside him, hauling her purse into her lap between the edge of the bar and her midsection. “I’ll have what you’re having.”
Zack lifted his hand to gain the attention of the bartender and held up two fingers.
“The girl wasn’t my patient, but the entire ER was talking about it,” Tonya said, a grimace twisting her pretty features. “If you can’t talk about it, fine, but is it true that herfrienddid that to her because Alyssa was the better dancer?”
Zack made an indistinct garbled choking sound. “Some friend, huh.”
“Jesus. So it’s true. What the fuck kind of maniac teenagers are parents raising these days?”
“I think the problem is they aren’t being raised at all,” Zack said in disgust. “Rather, the parents are being managed and manipulated by their spoiled brats who have gross senses of entitlement. Whatever happened to pouting or throwing tantrums over not getting their favorite toys, for fuck’s sake? Apparently taking out a hit on your competition is the new norm.”
Tonya snagged one of the beers the bartender set in front of them and then clinked her bottle against Zack’s before taking a long swallow.
“Sure makes you think twice about procreating.”
Zack nodded, even if a large family had been exactly what he’d always wanted. If things had gone as he’d planned . . . He closed his eyes, but not before the unfinished mental statement drifted through his mind as a fully formed thought. If things had gone as planned, he would be retired from the pros and have his second, possibly even third child by now instead of taking a bad hit as a quarterback in his second year and opting not to go back.
“Hey, you okay?” Tonya asked.
He glanced her way to see concern in her eyes. He didn’t attempt to lie, because she saw this kind of shit on a daily basis, and she wasn’t any more immune to the effects than he was.
“Yeah. Just another bad day at the office.”
She laughed and held her bottle to his again. “I’ll drink to that. But then isn’t every day a bad one when you have jobs like ours? Makes you wonder if we have rocks in our heads.”
Zack knew why he hadn’t gone back to the pros. Why he’d pursued a career in law enforcement. Some would say he was just following in his old man’s footsteps, even if that was the very last thing he’d ever do. And he also knew why he’d ended up taking a job with DSS at an important crossroads in his life when he was being recruited by a government agency.
But he liked DSS and the people he worked with. And he liked the fact that certain gifts that most people viewed with skepticism or outright derision were not only accepted but witnessed through the extraordinary powers that both Caleb’s and Beau’s wives possessed.
Because Zack had firsthand experience with the extraordinary. Gracie had possessed one such gift. The ability to read minds. There was no explanation for it. It certainly wasn’t genetic, because her parents were complete wastes of human DNA and yet somehow they’d managed to produce an extraordinary daughter, so divergent from her upbringing and surroundings that it was astonishing. It brought to mind the possibility of being switched at birth or that the entire scientific argument of nature versus nurture was a bunch of bullshit thought of by brilliant minds with nothing better to do than hypothesize about why people become the people they do.
Because Gracie defied both nature and nurture. If one looked at her gene pool, she was fucked and doomed to life as a complete loser. If one looked at the nurture aspect, she was equally fucked, because in no way had she been brought up in an environment conducive to forming a responsible, empathetic, intelligent and sweet individual. And yet Gracie was all of those things. Her reward? He had not a fucking clue, but his imagination had come up with all manner of gruesome possibilities over the years and every single one of them tortured him endlessly.
“Hey,” Tonya said, once more diverting his thoughts from the blackness into which they’d descended.
And once more he glanced her way, meeting her sweet smile, warm, sparkling eyes and inviting features.
“Want to go blow off some steam together? Your place, my place. Doesn’t really matter. And no, before you ask, I’m not proposing marriage and no, I’m not looking for a relationship. I’m happy with my life the way it is at present, but that doesn’t mean I’m blind, nor would I turn down a night of mindless sex with a gorgeous hunk of alpha male.”
Her question rattled him, even though he considered himself as steady as they come and a master at masking any sort of reaction he might be feeling. He stared blankly at her a moment, pondering why he was even hesitating.
Tonya was a beautiful, intelligent woman. More than that, she had a sense of humor, didn’t have an ego and didn’t take herself too seriously. And she was a good woman. A woman any man would be damn lucky to have, and not just on the temporary basis she was proposing.
So why the hell was he sitting here staring like he had no idea how to respond instead of already herding her toward the door?
What the hell was wrong with him?
Shame twisted in his gut, filled his chest until it was tight with it. She was offering what most guys would give their left nut for, but damn it, she deserved more than some mindless fuck from a guy not completely and utterly focused on her. And tonight he couldn’t give her that kind of guarantee. He couldn’t give her anything at all except an orgasm, and well, that was questionable too. Because neither of his “heads” were focused, and while he didn’t need his dick to get a woman off and rock her world, he just wasn’t feeling it tonight.
Tonya slid her hand down his arm and then wrapped her fingers around his wrist, squeezing gently, her smile never faltering.
“I don’t have a fragile ego, Zack. The look on your face says it all, so stop beating yourself up trying to figure out what to say to break it to me gently that you aren’t looking for a one-night stand. I get it, okay? Well, and if you ever want a rain check, it’s not like I’ll harbor a grudge over being rejected and punish you for eternity.”
Zack slid his fingers up her jawline, his features intent and serious as he cupped her cheek.
“That right there is a prime example of why you deserve better than me, even for one night.”
Her hand fluttered upward to lie across his before she gently pulled it away, squeezing his fingers when she returned his hand to the bar top.
“Whoever she was did a real number on you.”
His eyes widened in surprise at her perceptiveness when it came to the fact that his reluctance involved a prior relationship, but he also recognized that the conclusions she’d drawn were wrong. But he didn’t correct her.
“Shit happens to the best of us,” she said ruefully. “What separates the weak from the strong is what they do with the shit once it falls.”
Zack leaned forward, framing her face in his hands before kissing her forehead.
“Thank you. I needed to hear that tonight.”
As he slid from the bar stool, she frowned. “You need a ride home? How much have you had to drink?”
He smiled at the chiding tone of her voice. Yes, she was beautiful, fun, smart and witty, but she felt more like a sister than a lover. Why couldn’t he be attracted to her? Sexually. It sure as hell would uncomplicate a hell of a lot of things for him right now. But then none of his previous sexual encounters could hardly be considered a matter of attraction beyond simple lust and a brief moment of blowing off steam.
If he was attracted to Tonya, or rather felt more than the affection one felt toward a sibling or good friend, then itwouldmean a more serious relationship, because she deserved that. For that matter all the women he’d been with deserved better than he’d given them, but at least he hadn’t lied or misled them in any manner and both parties had gone in knowing the score. He wasn’tthatmuch of a bastard.
But Tonya? Despite her spiel about not wanting marriage and commitment—and he believed her because she was inherently honest and refreshingly straightforward—she was the bring-home-to-meet-the-family type woman.
“I’ve had exactly one and one-fourth beers. I’m good. Want to test my blood alcohol?” he teased.
She rolled her eyes. “Okay. You get a pass. I just don’t want you in my ER when I’m off duty. So be careful.”
“I will. And Tonya, thanks. I mean that.”
“Anything for a friend.”
“I’m going to take off and get some rest. Been a shitty day. Ready for it to be over and start over again tomorrow. And hope to hell it’s not a repeat of today.”
She saluted him with her beer bottle as he gave her another hug and then headed for the door.
The cooler air was welcome after the suffocating interior of the bar, and it also served as a wake-up call from the maudlin direction his thoughts had taken over the last hour.
He slid behind the wheel of his truck and paused before cranking the engine. He hadn’t lied. Today had been epic on the shit scale. Rivaled by very few other events in his life. And maybe that’s why it had hit him so hard.
Losing Gracie. Not knowing how or why. That was the most difficult thing to swallow. And hestillhadn’t gotten over it.
His old man had been furious with him because Zack had seriously considered not even entering the draft his senior year of college after a stellar four years as starting quarterback for the University of Tennessee. But his head and heart hadn’t been in it. How could it be? If the one person he wanted most to share his dream with was gone—disappeared without a goddamn trace, leaving him to think the absolute worst—then what was the point?
His father had railed at him that he was throwing his life away over white trailer park trash who wasn’t worth his time. He’d never liked Gracie.Dislikedwas too mild a term. Hedespisedher. The one and only time he’d brought Gracie to his home to meet his father, the bastard had humiliated her by calling her white trash and making it all too evident that she had no place in Zack’s life, his priorities and that she wasn’t good enough and would never amount to anything.
He’d never taken her back there. And it had forever caused a rift between him and his father. One that hadn’t been repaired to this day.
After her disappearance, he’d gone to his father. Asked for his help. It was his father’s goddamn job as chief of police to protect the citizens of his town. His father had laughed. The asshole had actually laughed and celebrated the fact that she was out of the picture. He hadn’t lifted a goddamn finger to investigate her disappearance.
And then when Zack had hesitated to enter the draft because he feared above all else that she would return and he wouldn’t be there, that it would appear he’d simply given up on her, abandoned her, his father had lost his shit.
Only his friends talking him down and assuring him that if Gracie did return they’d sit on her and let him know gave him the impetus to pursue his dream of playing in the pros, something he’d never imagined doing without Gracie at his side.
They were going to be married. Have a big family. He’d play in the pros ten years, bank enough money so his family would be financially secure and then retire so he could devote all his time to his wife and children.
The first two seasons, he’d led a previously struggling, bottom-rung team to the playoffs. He’d been heralded as saving the franchise and putting it back on the map. Making it relevant. And then a bad hit sustained while he was making the game-winning touchdown pass had resulted in a torn rotator cuff, which had taken him out of pro football after only two seasons.
It didn’t signal the end of his career but he was at a crossroads. He had two options. Undergo extensive rehab in the off-season, work his ass off and come back. Or take the guaranteed signing money from his contract and simply walk away.
He’d chosen the latter.
He could have rehabbed. He could have gone back and likely played for many more years. But instead, he’d joined law enforcement, because Gracie was still uppermost in his mind, and he couldn’t give up the idea that one day he’d find her. Or at least find out what happened to her.
His father was enraged. Apoplectic. Told him that if he’d had his goddamn head in the game in the first place, instead of being so hung up on worthless white trash, he’d have never taken that hit in the first place. And that he was ruining his entire future for awoman. His father was a misogynist pig who couldn’t imagine sacrificing anything for a female. Especially a career that would make him millions.
As a child Zack resented his mother for bailing on him and his dad, but as he’d grown older, he understood. How could any woman live with a man like his father? His only source of blame or anger was that she’d left him with a man who was clearly a self-centered, egotistical asshole.
So he chose a career that gave him access—opportunities—and channels that enabled him to be more proactive in his search for Gracie. And after that last confrontation with his father, he had never gone back home. There was simply nothing for him there, and every time a body would be found, he’d die a thousand deaths wondering if it could be Gracie. It was simply too painful to go back to a place that was so integral, such an important part of his life, his past. Where he and Gracie met, fell in love and shared their hopes and dreams for the future.
He hadn’t lost his virginity until he reached the pros because it never felt right in college, though there was certainly no lack of opportunities. And the memory of that night was still a source of humiliation for him because it had made him sick to his soul. So sick that he’d stumbled out of bed and went into the bathroom and heaved the contents of his stomach into the toilet. Because that part of him was supposed to be for Gracie. They’d waited. It had been important for him to wait until they married. With her being four years younger, he never wanted to feel as though he’d taken advantage of her in any way. He wanted their wedding night to be special. Hell, he couldn’t even remember the name of the girl he’d lost his virginity to. What kind of ass did that make him?
Thank God she thought he’d just had too much to drink, since they’d met at a team party after a successful playoff win.
He pounded his hand against the steering wheel, anger rising, self-loathing overwhelming him. He’d dissed a perfectly good woman tonight because of his own personal hang-ups and his inability to move on and get the fuck over it.
Twelve years. Twelve goddamn years. Enough already!
This was bullshit.
Either Gracie was dead, or she’d simply chosen to disappear. Neither was a possibility he could do a damn thing about and it was time to stop existing like a fucking zombie and get on with his sorry-ass life.
This shit had to end right now. Itwasending right now. Because he refused to spend another goddamn day thinking about what could have been when any sane person would have gotten it through their thick-ass head that what could have been wasn’t ever going to happen and no amount of regret or wishing would make a damn bit of difference.
He cranked the engine and curled both hands tightly around the steering wheel, resolve surrounding him like a steel case.
Quit being such a miserable fuck.
And starting tomorrow, that’s precisely what he was going to do. Tonight was about saying goodbye to old dreams and what would never be. Tomorrow?
It was going to be about embracing a future without all the fucking baggage he’d been carrying around for more than a decade.
ANNA-GRACElifted her arms toward the wall, frowning in concentration as she tilted and turned the painting to allow the light to strike it just so.
“If only you’d ever look at me that way,” a male teased.
Instantly losing the frown—and concentration—she turned, a ready smile on her lips as she registered Wade Sterling’s presence.
“I had no idea you preferred women who scowled at you,” she said lightly.
It was a familiar repartee, one that had taken considerable effort to establish between her and the wealthy, handsome gallery owner. Most, if not all women, would consider her a fool for not returning Wade’s overtures, which had grown subtler, not bolder, with time.
He snorted. “You may scowl when the light is not quite right, but then, when it is, you gaze at your painting as one would a lover.”
She hated the faint heat that stole over her cheeks. And the fact that she instantly averted her gaze, looking away, anywhere but at him. He was no threat to her. Logically, she knew that. But logic never won over fear because fear wasn’t rational. It defied all the rules of logic.
He sighed but didn’t comment on her rejection. But then he’d grown quite used to them in their acquaintance. At first they’d been purposeful and adamant. Even forceful. Over time, however, she’d tried to relax, to soften the often unconscious rejection, but it was simply too ingrained in her to halt them all together. And her regret grew with each one rendered, unintentional or not.
“Here, let me,” he said, seemingly unruffled by the awkwardness of the moment.
He took the painting, affixed it to where she’d found the best lighting and then stood back, studying the effect.
“It’s good,” he said simply. “But you know that. You wouldn’t agree to display it otherwise and neither would I, despite our friendship. This show is going to launch you, Anna-Grace. About the last piece . . .”
He purposely trailed off, looking inquisitively at her, and she fidgeted self-consciously under his scrutiny.
“It’s done,” she hedged.
Or at least it would be once she let it go. Figuratively speaking. Thank God, Wade understood it—and her. That the painting in question wasn’t merely an object of commercial art meant to showcase her talent. For that matter, it wasn’t even for sale. It was too deeply personal to ever part with, and was the method of communicating her vow toherself. Not to others. She’d questioned even showing it at all, what purpose it truly served. But, it was, in many ways, symbolic of . . .
Well, there were many words applicable to the painting and its symbolism. Moving on—she nearly laughed, though there was nothing remotely amusing about the situation. Moving on indicated getting past something . . . difficult. The end of a relationship, perhaps. The death of a loved one. Personal recovery. Reaching a point where one decided to take a stand and refuse to allow oneself to dwell—and exist—solely in the past. Well, at least that last one was applicable to her situation.
For her, the title said it all.
“Destroyed” was more apropos, but too dramatic for a painting that was almost whimsical when viewed through unknowing eyes. An image that would invoke nostalgia for the sheer innocence that seemingly radiated from the light and shadows captured on the canvas.
It had taken her many attempts before she’d settled on the look she wanted to achieve. And in fact, the title had been indicative, and settled upon, after herfirstrendition of the place that had played such an important role in her formative years.
It had been dark, haunting to look at. One couldn’t help but feel sadness when viewing the barren landscape and the sense of loneliness that was prevalent in the painting. For that matter, she wouldn’t have been able to look upon something that brought back such heartbreak and despair.
She readily admitted that it was the more accurate version, the one that most represented her pain and grief. It was just simply too personal to share with strangers, those who didn’t—who couldn’t—understand. How could they? But the original depiction represented the person she’d been for far too long now and it was time to portray herself differently to the world. Even if the world, for her, was still a narrow, shielded familiar path she never ventured from. No one else knew of her demons. She shared them with no one, and she preferred to keep it that way. Only in Wade had she confided, and it had taken a long, winding road to open up to even one person. She had no desire to broaden her circle of confidants.
And so, instead of simply portraying a gnarled, sprawling tree, weathered by time, its limbs thin at the ends as if no longer offering protection beneath its awning and an empty landscape with the lake beyond looking gray and stormy as though it were angered by the betrayal the title represented, she’d painted herself—alone—a survivor. Standing beyond the once-protective shelter of the limbs and intricate roots of the huge oak, only her back presented as she stared over the lake.
It was a sunny day, not even one wispy cloud to mar the canvas, and the blue of the water sparkled like tiny diamonds that had been scattered by a playful child. And the tree, while showing its age, looked more of a timeless guardian, spreading its arms outward, ever watchful and mindful of those in its protective embrace.
Escape. Freedom. Once it had been those very things to her. And now things had come full circle because the finished painting represented her freedom from her destructive past.
Now she only had to hang it. The final step in her metamorphosis from hopelessness and helplessness to strength and optimism.
“Have you changed your mind about displaying it?” Wade asked.
There was a note of hope in his voice, almost as if he knew that putting it out there was . . . acknowledgment. Baring all the things she’d hidden for the last twelve years. And he was afraid she wasn’t yet ready. He was worried she’d revert to the woman she’d been when they’d first met. God only knew why he’d persevered. Why he’d shaken off the countless aloof and cold rebuffs from her and dug persistently through the layers of numbness, fear and paralysis to the heart of her. Then settled for the only things shecouldgive him. Friendship. And finally, inexplicably, hertrust.
No, he didn’t think she was ready at all.
He was wrong.
Shewasready. It was something she should have done so much sooner. She’d spent so much time numb, refusing to allow herself to feel . . . anything. Because emptiness was preferable to the overwhelming pain and grief she’d long ago resigned herself to, as though she had no choice but to suffer such a barren existence.
No, she didn’t feel desire for Wade. Not the kind of the lover he’d referenced. But shedidneed him. His friendship and unwavering support. She needed those things more than she was comfortable admitting, but she was also done lying to herself and living in constant denial that she was okay, that everything was fine, and she was all right. Normal.
Because she wasn’t. And she’d likely never be. But she’d finally accepted that and opted to make the best of what shedidhave and stop dwelling on all she’d lost.
She looked at him again, this time not masking any of the vulnerability she knew he could read in her eyes. There was a time when she would have died rather than allow anyone to see her so weak and . . . fragile.
His face softened and his eyes warmed with the friendship she’d come to define their relationship by. The very thing she needed most but had never embraced. Until now. And in the lines of his face, a face that could in fact be quite hard, unyielding and even dangerous, she sawhisacceptance of the only thing she could ever offer him.
She knew he’d accepted it long ago, but perhaps had never trulyseenuntil now. Or wanted to see. Because she feared his giving up and her losing the one steadfast thing she now had apart from her art.
Her shoulders sagged imperceptibly, and she realized she’d been holding her breath, harboring the fear she’d vowed to no longer live with, because she’d been afraid of his rejection and of being alone. Again. As she’d been for so very long.
He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, easing the painting down with his free hand until its edge rested gently against the wall. He gathered her close, offering her the warmth and strength of his hug, something she’d come to cherish rather than dread for the physical contact she’d always avoided at all cost.
“You’re ready,” he said, as if having read her thoughts and answering his own question in the process. “I’m proud of you, Anna-Grace.”
“Don’t you dare make me cry,” she warned, already feeling the betraying sting of tears.
He gave her another affectionate squeeze and then relinquished his hold on her.
“So where do we place the guest of honor?” he asked, his gaze sweeping the gallery and the other paintings of hers that were artfully displayed to their full advantage. “I think center stage, don’t you? This means something, Anna-Grace.Youmean something. And it—like you—needs to be celebrated.”
Okay, so hewasgoing to make her cry. She wiped the corner of her eye with the back of her hand in disgust and glared accusingly at him. He merely smiled back, and she marveled at the feeling of closeness—a connection—to another person. So what if she wasn’t ready for a romantic relationship? Maybe she never would be. A woman didn’t need a man to be whole, and she was more than happy to prove it.
But a friend? Everyone needed a friend. And she realized, not for the first time, that part of the reason her grief, her piercing and gut-wrenching sense of betrayal over what Zack had done, was so sharp, unrelenting and . . . life changing . . . was that he hadn’t just been the man she had loved, had adored beyond reason, had planned to spend the rest of her life with, and have his children. The man who had shared her hopes and dreams and every secret she’d never dared expose to another living person.
He’d been her best—and only—friend. The one she turned to for comfort. Love. Acceptance. The very best part of her very being, her heart, her soul. He’d been her confidant. The one person she trusted never to let her down, as so many had in her young life.
And yet those past betrayals paled in comparison to Zack’s.
She shook her head, furious with herself for going back. Again. And she set her lips firmly, sending Wade a determined look he couldn’t possibly misunderstand.
Zack had been her entire world, and he’d turned it completely upside down, discarding her like the trash she’d been called by the people of their town. By his own father, for that matter. How could she have thought he would be different from anyone else in a place where she simply didn’t exist or matter?
But now her world was whatshemade it. And she had no liking for the world she’d previously lived in, one of her making. Only she could change it. Create it. Make it better—perfecteven. And it was high time she got on with doing just that.
Impulsively, she slipped her fingers through Wade’s and squeezed his hand, startling him. She could understand why. She never initiated any sort of intimacy, even in the capacity of friendship. She had a carefully constructed protective barrier that surrounded her and she allowed no one to breach it, nor did she ever venture beyond it out of self-preservation.
But as she’d already acknowledged, everyone needed a friend. And losing one friend didn’t preclude the existence of another, as stupid as it was for the time it had taken her to have that particular epiphany.
Wade was safe. She was safewithhim. And she wanted him to know she . . . trusted . . . him. She inhaled sharply at merely allowing the wordtrustto drift through her thoughts.
Because after Zack, and until Wade, she’d trusted no one. It was a lesson learned the hard way, and one that had been repeatedly taught, but it had taken the most devastating lesson of all to finally make her realize that giving her trust was akin to taking a knife and thrusting it through her own heart.
Her chin trembled slightly, but Wade, ever observant, saw it and reached his hand to cup her chin, holding it between his thumb and fingers.
“Don’t ever think it, Anna-Grace,” he said softly, reminding her once again that he wasn’t harmless, despite her observations to the contrary.
He was a dangerous, tightly controlled man whose vision of the world differed from most others’. The artist in her saw in bright colors—colors that had been dimmed for a long time until finally she’d set them free. But Wade’s world was steeped in gray and shadows. Much like the initial rendering of herDreams Lostpainting.
She shivered at the intensity in his gaze and swallowed nervously, because she wondered if she’d finally lost her mind. Befriending a man like him? Trusting him when she’d sworn never to trust anyone—especiallya man—again? A man, who like her, seemed to have no friends, not to mention had the same trust issues she herself suffered. It could well be the second-biggest mistake of her life.
Or? Perhaps . . . just maybe . . . it was her firstsmartmove in twelve years and in Wade she’d found not a lover, husband material or romantic interest, but a kindred spirit who was offering her what she needed the most.
Simple friendship and the opportunity to reimmerse herself in the real world, where trust and friendship weren’t bad four-letter words and were a normal part of everyday life—for most people.
But she could change all thatnow. He was offering, unconditionally. All she had to do was what she’dalreadyresolved to do. Accept. Make peace. Move on.
Free herself from her self-imposed prison of isolation and loneliness, and embrace the future that awaited her with hope and optimism, two emotions she’d once taken for granted but which were now completely alien to her.
She was in control of her own destiny and she could make it damn well whatever she wanted it to be.
Hatred. Grief. Betrayal. Hurt. Despair. Sorrow. Regret?
Those things no longer had any place in her life and she refused to live her life that way a single moment longer.
This showing was her moment to shine. She was stepping into the sun after avoiding its rays and any semblance of warmth for the first time since she was but a young girl with all the enthusiasm and naïveté that only belong to the innocent.
She was living her dream.Finally. And she was poised to share that dream—her talent—with others. People who might reject her. But she was no stranger to rejection, and having been through the worst, she could honestly say that nothing could ever hurt her more than she’d already been hurt.
The only direction for her to go was up. There was no other option when you’ve hit rock bottom. She knew it. Wade knew it. And God only knew why he stuck with her. Why he reevaluated his wants and needs once she’d made it clear that she wouldn’t—couldn’t—return his romantic interest. And why he then compromised and accepted only what shecouldgive him.
It was on the tip of her tongue toaskhim why. But when she looked his way once more, he wore the same determined, piercing gaze, one that had always made her uneasy, because she knew what it was like to have the gift of reading others’ minds—their innermost thoughts. And Wade had an uncanny knack for always knowing precisely what was going on in hers.
ZACKpulled into the parking lot of an upscale art gallery on Westheimer Road, on the opposite side of the interstate from the Galleria, an area known for its chic boutiques that catered to the fashion-conscious and wealthier crowd, or at least those who wanted to maintain the façade of wealth.
He wasn’t impressed with the outer trappings of wealth. He could be considered wealthy in his own right. He had a million. Ten of them to be exact, managed and invested by his financial advisor, Wes Coyle, who worked in the Woodlands, a suburb north of Houston that had quickly become a haven for the privileged.
With the guaranteed signing money from his contract when he’d been drafted in the first round of the pros, and then walking away after an injury in his second straight playoff year instead of getting rehab and continuing to quarterback, he’d been guaranteed financial security, even though he lived frugally, choosing to stash the money instead of running through it in just a few years.
His truck was used when he bought it a few years ago and he still drove it. He lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment and preferred jeans and T-shirts to designer clothing. TheGQlook didn’t suit him and he felt fraudulent even contemplating the lifestyle of someone considered wealthy.
So his money was secured, gaining interest in moderate-risk investments instead of sitting in a bank drawing a measly .01 percent interest rate, and he lived on the salary he drew from DSS. It was more than enough for his modest needs. It wasn’t like he had anyone to share it with anyway. No one to lavish gifts and surprises on. A matter he intended to rectify soon.
After his come-to-Jesus meeting with himself two days earlier, he felt at peace for the first time in more years than he could count. He had a sense of purpose. Direction. One that didn’t have a lost cause at the heart of it all.
Gracie was gone. Lost to him. She wasn’t coming back. He’d never have his dream. So it was time to get the fuck over it and deal. Find a new dream and live it.
He wasn’t surprised to see Dane already there, parked two vehicles away. Dane was punctual to a fault. Well, not even punctual. His idea of being on time was to show up well in advance of the appointed time. Zack was pretty much the same. He liked to size up the situation. Get the lay of the land and a feel for what they were signing on for. He suspected Dane’s reasons were similar.
Dane got out of his SUV along with Isaac and Capshaw and started toward Zack just as Beau pulled in beside Zack. Eliza was with him and Zack turned to open the passenger door for her. She smiled and gave him a saucy thank-you as she slid out of the seat.
Eliza was an exceptionally beautiful woman. Not that she had the distinctive look of a woman that most men found stunning. Nor did she have the carefully cultivated look of a woman who went to great lengths to enhance her looks. Not that he had an issue with women who did. He was all for whatever made them happy and confident—he had a healthy respect for all women, in all their shapes, sizes and looks, natural or not. After all, it was what was beneath it all that mattered—at least to him.
Eliza just had a fresh, natural beauty that people responded to. She was absolutely genuine and she shot from the hip. No bullshit about her. But what capped it for Zack was the warmth in her eyes, how easy with a smile she was and the fact that she could kick ass with the best of them and was a crack tech wiz to boot. Even if Quinn, the youngest Devereaux brother, was in denial when he swore his computer skills were superior to hers. Zack’s money was on Eliza in a tech war throw-down. She could probably hack into the CIA. Hell, for all he knew, she already had, because the woman did have an uncanny knack for producing information that raised eyebrows with her coworkers.
Her diminutive stature made her look harmless, but Zack had seen her in action too many times to ever make that error in judgment. He pitied the fool who underestimated her, because there was no doubt in Zack’s mind she was capable of taking down a man twice her size and weight. Hard. And hand him his balls in the process.
Brent and Eric got out of the back just as Dane and the others caught up to them. Brent had come off injured reserve a few months earlier after being involved in a crash involving him, Beau and Ari, who was now Beau’s wife. It amused Zack to see Brent riding since he was usually the one driving. He was a former race car driver and was usually behind the wheel personally or professionally. Judging by the disgruntled look on his face, he wasn’t happy about his backseat status.
“Shall we?” Dane asked dryly. “Or are we just going to congregate in the parking lot and sip champagne?”
The irony was that Zack could see Dane doing just that. He had that wealthy, cultivated look that fit well with the environment they were about to venture into. Dane wore khaki slacks, a polo shirt and expensive sunglasses. Zack wasn’t entirely sure what Dane’s story was. Zack hadn’t worked long enough with the other man to draw an accurate picture of him, and Dane kept a tight lid on his personal life. Not that Zack faulted him for that. DSS did their jobs, didn’t tend to be too up close and personal, though Beau was the closest thing Zack had to a friend outside their partnership. But at the end of the day, they all had each other’s backs. No questions. And wasn’t that the most important thing?
But the man had money and there was no way his job at DSS gave him the kind of wealth he obviously possessed. Even at double Zack’s salary, as generous as it was, Dane’s lifestyle, though quiet, exceeded what DSS paid him. And though Zack admitted to a passing curiosity about Dane’s history, he didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it, nor did he ever attempt to pry, because he sure as hell didn’t want anyone prying into his personal life. He offered his coworkers the same respect he himself demanded.
“Nice chunk of real estate,” Dane observed as they headed toward the glass double doors.
Isaac whistled in appreciation. “Too rich for my blood. Wonder what the hell an art gallery owner wants with us normal folks and why he’s pulling out all the stops for security?”
Beau shrugged. “It’s a job. Pays the same as any other. Gets the same treatment as any other.”
No arguing that point.
JOIEDEVIVRE, the name of the gallery, was positioned over the door, not readily noticeable from the busy street or to people driving by. It was obvious to Zack that either the owner had shitty marketing or that the art in his galleries sold by word of mouth and he didn’tneedto have a flashy display to draw customers inside. He was betting on the latter.
As soon as they walked through the doors they were greeted by an impeccably dressed woman. Her heels tapped on the polished marble floors, several strands of her upswept hair bouncing against her neck as she smiled in greeting.
The gallery was noticeably empty of patrons and Zack hadn’t seen a “closed” sign. The doors were open, but perhaps that was because DSS had an appointment and was expected. In fact, the gallery looked as though it was being prepared for the showing, presumably the reason for the request for security. Maybe a big-name artist was going to be exhibiting here. Zack was woefully out of touch with the art world. What little he knew had come from Gracie and listening to her dreams of one day becoming an accomplished artist.
Despite his resolve to put her and the past behind him, he couldn’t help but think that this could be her. Living her dream. Happy. Painting. Him supporting her in her endeavors.
Damn it but he had to stop this shit. Move forward. The irony of taking a job providing security for an art exhibition mere days after his vow to put his past firmly behind him wasn’t lost on him. Fate was a fickle bitch and right now she was having one fuck of a laugh at his expense. Or at the very least testing his commitment to the promise he’d made to himself.
After Beau introduced his group to the woman, her eyes lit up in recognition.
“Of course. Mr. Sterling told me you’d be arriving at noon. Unfortunately he’s on the phone with an important client, so it will be just a few moments before he’s free. Would you care for coffee? Wine?”
If she’d offered champagne, none of the DSS members would have been able to keep a straight face after Dane’s sarcastic remark in the parking lot. Even so, Eliza smirked, but then she was the most irreverent of the bunch.
The employee’s smile was natural, not practiced like a lot of salespeople’s were. Her comportment was impeccable, and she fit into the image of an exclusive, high-end art gallery with her designer clothing, heels and makeup that made it appear as though she wore none. Her ears were adorned with simple diamond studs that might not appear expensive but were at least two carats apiece and undoubtedly cost a hefty chunk of change.
When no one took her up on her offer, she politely excused herself and said she’d notify Sterling that they had arrived. Then she briskly walked away, her heels once again tapping a sharp staccato on the Italian marble floor.
“Size her up enough?”
Beau’s dry question shook Zack from his observations. The other DSS operatives liked to give him shit for having a keen eye for detail. He sat back and studied people, and let others do the talking. More often than not he found out far more by merely watching and listening than he would by simply talking to the person. When people thought no one was looking they tended to relax, to lower their guard, and in those moments they’d become careless or simply betray their character.
Zack could be depended on to recall the minutest details his coworkers often missed. Body language. Subtle nuances that gave people away. Fidgeting, nervousness. He didn’t miss much.
In this case, though, Beau thought Zack was viewing her with male interest, not sizing her up in a businesslike fashion. But Beau was wrong. Not that the woman wasn’t beautiful, but this was a job. Not a pickup bar.
Zack shrugged. “She’s got money. Not sure how much a gig like this pays, but I’m betting she’s got another source, whether it’s a husband, boyfriend or money she made herself. Could be a bored heiress, but she seems quite intelligent. I’d bet my next paycheck her knowledge in this field is solid. I would also bet that she has an advanced degree.”
Eliza quirked an eyebrow upward. “You got all this by looking at her for five seconds? I would hate to see howI’vefared in your analyses, since we’ve spent a hell of a lot more than a few seconds together.”
Zack grinned. “You’re the shit and you know it. You don’t need me to give you pretty compliments.”
Eliza rolled her eyes. “Well, duh! I know I don’tneedthem, but they are nice to hear from time to time. Women like compliments and I’m no exception. Hanging around all the testosterone at the office hasn’t made me grow a penis and forget all about my girl parts.”
Beau and Dane cracked up, their shoulders shaking. Zack shook his head ruefully. Yeah, he adored Eliza. She had a sharp wit and tongue to match. She was intelligent, compassionate, loyal and was damn good company when Zack’s melancholy kicked in more than usual.
Though he’d never shared any of his past with Eliza, or with anyone else at DSS for that matter, he knew Eliza saw more than she let on. As a result, she gave him shit on a regular basis, prodding him and basically refusing to allow him to feel sorry for himself. She had an uncanny ability to peg his moods when they were at their worst, and as a result she never let him withdraw from the others when he would have otherwise retreated into isolation for days at a time. Hell, she even routinely showed up at his apartment to watch a football game with him. Or she’d make him buy her dinner, have a few beers and shoot the shit. It was Eliza’s equivalent of an ass kicking with a side of get the fuck over it.
It occurred to him that maybe heshouldhave confided in her. Her skills were impeccable and she could very well have been of help in his search for Gracie and his attempt to find out what happened to her. But he was beyond that now and he wouldn’t indulge in regret for what he’d sworn he was putting behind him. Not to mention she’d have likely thought he’d lost his goddamn mind for hanging on to a ghost for twelve years.
Zack shoved his hands in his pockets and glanced around the gallery impatiently. He hated waiting, and even more, he hated that they’d been summoned here when clients usually came to them, not the other way around. Why it was important for the meet-and-greet to happen on the client’s turf he wasn’t sure, but he suspected it was a power play. A dick-sizing exercise so DSS would know how “important” this guy was—or thought he was.
Whatever. He didn’t call the shots. Caleb and Beau did, though Caleb had pulled back considerably since marrying Ramie, and Beau and Quinn had taken more of a lead in the day-to-day running of DSS, even if it had been Caleb’s brainchild.
DSS had been formed in the wake of the horrific abduction, torture and rape of Tori Devereaux, the baby sister and only sister of Caleb, Beau and Quinn. Caleb was determined that no one in his family ever be threatened again, and if they were able to help others in the process, even better. The company had suffered a few setbacks in its infancy. But it had only made Beau all the more determined to learn from those mistakes, hire better—the best money could buy—and expand. As a result, DSS was thriving, with more requests than they could logistically take on. They carefully vetted their prospective clients, particularly since some came under the guise of wanting access to Ramie and her extraordinary powers. And Caleb was insanely protective—and rightfully so—of his wife because the price she paid in using her powers was utterly terrifying.
A few moments later, a tall, well-dressed man walked from the back of the gallery, his stride confident and purposeful, his gaze direct and indecipherable. He wasn’t at all what Zack would have expected, though he wasn’t sure exactly what he had expected. Whatever it was, Wade Sterling didn’t fit any preconceived notion Zack might have summoned.
He wore wealth while not appearing to wear it. There were no gaudy trappings or overdone dress. He wore expensive but simple slacks, and a silk button-up shirt. No tie. His watch was several G’s but again didn’t scream expensive. And the shoes likely cost one of Zack’s entire paychecks.
But he had a hard look to him. Dangerous even. Again, not the look of the stereotypical art gallery owner or at least Zack’s idea of one. Something about him hit a nerve with Zack, who bristled, immediately on guard.
A quick glance at his teammates told him their reactions were mixed. Dane was unruffled and as unreadable as ever. No one ever really knew what he was thinking. Beau looked pensive while Isaac, Capshaw and Brent just studied the owner intently.
Eliza seemed to have a similar reaction as Zack’s. In fact her eyes narrowed and her lips thinned, almost as if she was calling bullshit on the whole thing. But she was smart as a whip and he trusted her instincts. Her reaction validated his own.
Sterling’s expression, neither a smile nor a frown, was as bland and unreadable as Dane’s as he approached.
“I apologize for keeping you waiting,” he said in a calm voice that despite his statement didn’t reflect genuine apology. “I was unavoidably detained by an important business matter. I hope you weren’t too inconvenienced and that Cheryl, my personal assistant, took good care of you.”
Dane was the lead on assignments even though the Devereauxs were actually the owners and “in charge.” Dane was the face of DSS. He handled the media and statements and headed the negotiations. Caleb and Beau both deferred to him as the front man. Everyone answered to Dane. Well, except Zack, who answered solely to Beau. It was an unspoken agreement that Dane seemed to take in stride.
So it was Dane who addressed Sterling.
He was also a get-to-the-point kind of guy and not keen on wasting time on bullshit and pleasantries, something Zack appreciated and also had in common with Dane.
“What can DSS do for you, Mr. Sterling? I understand you want a full security detail for an upcoming exhibit in a week’s time. That doesn’t give us much time to prepare so we need to know exactly what you expect from us and what our duties will be. You want the best and that’s what you’re going to get. But you can’t expect the best if we don’t have all information and any potential liabilities exposed and assessed.”
Sterling sized up Dane quickly, fleeting respect flickering in his eyes. Zack suspected this man didn’t offer his respect often, nor did Zack suspect he needed to. He was a man who commanded it.
“I imagine this will be a routine matter for a firm of your reputation,” Sterling said, revealing that he’d at least done his homework. “Noexpectedthreats. I merely want a presence, a subtle presence, to ensure that all goes smoothly. This is an important event for this gallery and the artist. It will be a debut showing and I’ve put a lot of money into publicity and marketing. There will be much curiosity, as I’ve been very vague about the identity of the artist.”
Eliza’s eyebrow arched, but she remained silent, studying Sterling intently.
“I expect a certain dress code, which I assume won’t be a problem,” Sterling began.
Zack could almost hear the mental collective groans going up from everyone except Dane, who was no stranger to looking the part of a wealthy art patron.
Sterling had opened his mouth to continue when the sharp tap of heels alerted them to Cheryl’s presence as she hurried up to them, carrying a large, unwrapped canvas, excitement clear on her face.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt, Mr. Sterling, but I knew you’d want to see this right away. The last piece was just couriered over. Shall I place it where we discussed?”
Everyone’s gaze swept curiously to the source of her obvious enthusiasm.
When Zack looked, all the breath left his body, crushing his chest as his world tilted on its axis.
Voices sounded around him. Sterling was speaking with his assistant. But Zack was utterly numb. He stared at a scene so perfectly rendered, a scene that took him back to another time and place. A place he’d once shared with Gracie.
Exactly as it had existed when he and Gracie had spent so much time under the awning of those tree branches, nestled in the roots, Gracie wrapped securely in his arms, Zack a barrier between her and the rest of the world.
And the woman in the painting?
Even with her back turned, he’d know her anywhere.
This wasn’t a current depiction of that spot. Too much time had elapsed for it to remain unchanged. The parts along the lake owned by a paper company had been sold off years ago, and now, where it had mostly been untouched forest, it would be developed, trees gone, the landscape irrevocably changed by housing subdivisions.
His vision blurred, eyes stung, and the two initials acting as the artist’s signature wobbled into view. A simpleA.G.
Anna-Grace. His Gracie. Dear God, she was alive?
But if she was alive. Well. Painting, even. Then why the hell had she disappeared and why had she never made an effort to contact him?
The painting meant something to the artist. It was evident in every brushstroke. Emotion jumped off the canvas and grabbed the person viewing it by the throat. He was besieged by nostalgia, knowledge of a time when everything was new, innocent, the world a vast opportunity in the making, life not to be survived but to be lived to the fullest, with every day savored.
But if he drew the conclusion that the painting—the place depicted—held value to the artist, then wouldn’t it follow thathemeant something to her? Because someone who cared about another person in that fashion didn’t simply vanish, never to be heard from again, unless some great tragedy had occurred. And if he did in fact hold any memory or feeling to her, then why the fuck wouldn’t she have made a minimal effort to alleviate the nightmares he’d been victim to for more than a decade?
Then his gaze fell on the title of the painting and his heart began to pound even harder.
It was certainly a depiction of that. Forhim. But what would have causedherto give it such a title?
There was an inherent sadness to the drawing, as if the memory indeed was painful, a depiction of lost hope, and as the painting was titled, lostdreams.
Even the silhouette of the girl facing the lake seemed lonely and barren somehow.
Unwanted tears burned the edges of his eyes and he was besieged by a sense of sorrow. The painting didn’t suggest that she had willingly parted ways with him and instead suggested regret . . . grief over the past.
His name registered sharply and he shook himself to awareness to see the entire group staring at him, an array of expressions on their faces.
Sterling and his assistant stood to the side, also staring at Zack. Sterling wore a slight frown, his eyes intently studying Zack’s reaction.
“What artist is the exhibit for?” Zack asked casually.
But there was no disguising the betraying tremor and hoarseness to his voice, despite his best effort to contain his reaction.
“The artist isn’t what matters,” Sterling said neutrally. “The security in no way involves the artist. It involves the art.”
Eliza’s head snapped up, her eyes flashing fire. “Wait a minute. You want to hire a security firm for the exhibit, but you don’t give a fuck about the actual artist?”
Zack saw red, his thoughts so jumbled and chaotic he couldn’t even give voice to the thousand what-the-fucks going through his mind.
“The artist prefers anonymity,” Sterling said in a biting tone. “It’s not even decided as to whether the artist will attend. The exhibit isn’t about the artist, but rather the art.”
Eliza snorted. “And this helps us do our job how?”
“Who is she?” Zack asked quietly.
Sterling immediately stiffened, his entire stance becoming both wary and menacing.
“I don’t recall specifying the artist’s gender.”
At the same time Cheryl quickly turned the painting around, obscuring it from view with her body.
“The initialsA.G. Do they stand for ‘Anna-Grace’?” Zack asked hoarsely, no longer even attempting to disguise the demand in his voice.
“I specifically said the artist in question prefers anonymity,” Sterling said, his jaw tight.
Frustration simmered in Zack. He was perilously close to losing his shit right here and now. And it was not going to be a pretty sight. For twelve fuckingyears—more than a third of hislife—he’d worried and agonized over Gracie’s fate and now this fuckhead was playing goddamn mind games when Zack was on the cusp of the impossible?
Ohhellno. That untouchable “I’m wealthy and powerful” act might work on others, but not on Zack. He worked for extremely wealthy but down-to-earth people. He himself was wealthy and he didn’t act like an arrogant douche bag, smug and confident that his words and actions were law. Or above the law.
“Just answer the question,” Zack said through a tightly clenched jaw. “The initials.A.G.Do they stand for ‘Anna-Grace’?” His tone was frigid, suggesting without actually stating that he wouldn’t ask again.
At that Sterling’s expression became absolutely glacial. Frost formed in his gaze. His eyes hardened, his jaw ticking as he continued to size Zack up. For whatever reason, as soon as Zack had said her name, Sterling had gotten pissed, where before he’d just been a smug, arrogant asshole. Anger vibrated from him in waves. His eyes became shuttered, masking any hint or clue as to what he was thinking. Zack wanted to put his fist right through the bastard’s jaw.
The sudden tension between the two men was palpable. Eliza threw Dane an uneasy glance and took another step closer to Zack’s side, almost as if she knew the shit was about to hit the fan.
“We’re done here,” Sterling said in a rigid tone. “I no longer require your services. I’m more than happy to pay a consult fee if you leave your billing information with my assistant on your way out.”
His response enraged Zack and Eliza quickly stepped between the two men, turning her back to Sterling and placing her hand on Zack’s chest.
“Let’s go, Zack,” she said in a low voice. “This asshole’s taken up enough of our time.” She tossed a pissed-off look over her shoulder at Sterling and said in a tone as icy as his had been, “And you can bet you’ll get that bill before we leave.”
“Lizzie,” Dane said, carefully enunciating each word so she got the message, “get the fuck away from him.”
The threat in Dane’s tone, and his body language, was clearly evident. Eliza turned but pulled Zack with her, trying to herd him toward the door.
“Eliza,stop,” Zack said quietly, not wanting to vent his seething emotions on the other woman. But he planted his feet all the same, making it impossible for her to budge his much larger frame. “This is important. The most important thing in my goddamnlife. I can’t leave here. Not until I get the info I’m looking for. I’ll kick the motherfucker’s ass if it gets me the intel I want—that Ineed.”
“Sir, should I call the police?” Cheryl inquired anxiously of Sterling.
Before Zack could follow up and make another demand, the glass entryway swung open and a woman hurried through, her gaze immediately focused on Sterling and his assistant.
As she took in the other DSS members, her face reddened in embarrassment. Several things happened simultaneously. Wade rushed toward her and she hastily babbled an apology for interrupting.
Zack went completely still, not so much a single breath escaping his lungs as he drank in the sight before him. His throat closed in and he couldn’t speak. Couldn’t think. All he could do was stare.
“I’m so sorry, Wade,” she said in a rush. “But I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to display the last painting. I just . . . can’t.”
The pain on her beautiful features was clearly evident. Her eyes were haunted by ghosts of the past. Ghosts that mirrored Zack’s own. Because he was staring at one right this very moment.
He finally managed to rip himself from the stupor enveloping him and force the single, choked word from his mouth, his entire mind quaking with disbelief.
GRACIE’Shead snapped up, obviously seeing Zack for the first time after she’d burst through the doors in her haste to recant the agreement to hang the painting Cheryl was still clutching nervously.
Her gaze was horror-stricken and her face was deathly pale. Utter terror was reflected in her wide brown eyes.
She immediately started backstepping, turning as if to flee, and she would have if Sterling hadn’t made a grab for her arm to prevent her from falling. As it was, she slipped from Sterling’s grasp, sprawling onto her backside on the marble floor, and still, she pushed herself backward, her body language signaling horrific fear as she frantically tried to escape.
Zack stepped forward, unbelieving. God. This was his dream come to life and she wasrunningfrom him? Looking at him like he was a goddamn monster? What the fuck was going on?
“Gracie,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “My God, Gracie, I thought you were dead! All these years. You can’t imagine . . .”
He never got to finish his statement because her expression grew even more horror stricken—if such a thing were possible. Tears filled her eyes and devastation bathed her entire face. Gut-wrenching, terrible grief, betrayal and heartbreak. All the things he himself was feeling and had felt for more than a decade.
“You meant for them tokillme too?” she choked out, her words so garbled and panic-stricken that he nearly didn’t comprehend them. But he heard every one and it only increased his bewilderment a hundred times more.Kill her?This was his dream turned worst nightmare of his entire life.
“What are you talking about?” he demanded. “Who are you talking about?Who tried to kill you?” Didn’t she know that he’d take apart anyone who ever tried to harm her? That there was nothing he wouldn’t do to protect her? Had she had no faith in him at all? Had their time together meant nothing at all?
He was about to explode with the need for answers. A million questions were in his mind demanding to burst free. But his primary desire was simply to touch her. Hold her. Confirm to himself that he wasn’t dreaming. That this wasn’t some morbid fantasy, a manifestation of years of wishful thinking taunting him so soon after his vow to put it all behind him.
Wade gently picked her up but then forcefully put her behind him. He wrapped his arm behind him to secure her solidly to his back, a barrier between her and everyone else in the room and especially Zack, whom he had pinned with a murderous glare that promised violence and retribution.
“Get the hell away from her,” Zack barked. “Now.”
He didn’t want this man so much as touching her. Thinking to protect her from Zack? This guy had shady written all over him. What the ever-loving hell was Gracie’s association with Sterling and why was there possessiveness written all over the other man’s face? As if Gracie belonged to him, was his to protect when she’d always been Zack’s. But then maybe . . . God, he couldn’t—wouldn’t—go there. His sanity was already hanging by the barest thread and he was precariously close to losing all semblance of control, he who was always in control, his emotions always tightly in check.
Gracie let out an inarticulate sound of fear and even with her behind Wade it was apparent she was in full meltdown. Wade turned to his assistant, allowing Zack a brief glance at Gracie, whose face was red and swollen, tears streaking down her cheeks and so terrified that it broke Zack’s fucking heart.
Beau intercepted Zack, putting his hand on Zack’s shoulder.
“You need to back off, man,” he said in a low voice. “Look at her. Is that what you want to do to a woman ever?”
Eliza was at his other side, her arm curled around his arm, obviously in support, but so too was her sympathy for Gracie evident in her eyes, her features as stricken as Gracie’s own.
Gracie’s fear and distress was palpable in the room. No one was unaffected, least of all Zack. But why was she afraid ofhim? It made no goddamn sense! The world had gone crazy around him and he needed answers. The longer he went without them, the more insane it was driving at him, eating at his very soul until he was about to go mad with it.
“Back the fuck off,” Dane growled.
It pissed Zack off that members of his own team was putting themselves between him and Gracie, as iftheyfeared him hurting her.Him. Jesus Christ. But then they’d never seen him so unhinged and out of control. They were likely having their own what-the-fuck moment and wondering just who the hell they’d hired when, until now, he’d always been cool and unflappable, even under the most extreme circumstances.
“She is—was—my goddamnlife,” Zack choked out in a gut-wrenching tone.
Gracie was struggling against Wade’s hold on her, obviously in a bid to escape. To run. To get as far away from here—Zack—as possible. Wade’s hold only tightened on her. And that only served to piss Zack off even more. This man had no right to touch her, to hold her against her will, even if hethoughthe was protecting her.
“Call the police,” Sterling barked at his assistant.
Dane held his hands up. “Whoa. I think everyone needs to take a step back and calm the hell down.Youcalledushere.”
“And I’ve asked you to leave,” Sterling said bitingly. “Which you’ve refused to do. So unless you get out in the next three seconds, the policewillbe called and you will be charged with harassment. One has only tolookat her to believe that charge.”
He nodded again at Cheryl, who seemed frozen in place, eyes wide, still clutching the painting that had started it all.
“We’re leaving,” Dane said calmly.
“No, the hell we’re not!” Zack roared. “Not until someone gives me some goddamn answers!”
Eliza gently pulled him a short distance away from Beau and the others and said in a voice too low for the others to hear, “Hon, come on. You’re doing more harm than good. Look at her. Reallylookat her. She’s scared out of her mind. And this standoff isn’t doing her any good. I understand that this is important to you. But you know where she is now. You knowwhoshe is. I’ll help you. I swear I won’t rest until I help you get the information you need. But right now, you have to leave or this is going to get even uglier than it already is. And if this woman is important to you, which she obviously is, then you aren’t winning any points here. Don’t do or say something you can never take back. Take the high road. Not out of respect for that egotistical asshole, Sterling. But for Gracie. Do it forher.”
Dane and Beau both closed in on Zack, Dane gently nudging Eliza away with a soft directive to remove herself from the situation and then they both took Zack by the arms and hauled him toward the door.
It went against every fiber of Zack’s being to simply walk away, as Gracie had apparently once done. To just give up, without a fight, for the single most important person in his life. The only person who’d ever meant the entire goddamn world to him. The woman he would have done everything for. Sacrificed anything for, no matter how important. Would have protected with his life. And would have spent the rest of his life loving and cherishing her to the exclusion of all else.
But his team wasn’t giving him a choice. He struggled, but Isaac and Capshaw added their strength and they forced him past where Sterling stood, glaring them all down, his arm still tightly holding Gracie, who was firmly shielded behind his much larger body.
In the end, they simply subdued him, though it took them all, and with their combined strength they pushed him into the parking lot.
He wanted to hit someone. His fists were clenched and his body language was clearly defiant. The others knew it. Beau pushed him against his truck and got into his face.
“I don’t claim to know what the fuck just happened back there, but you need to pull it together and fast. This isn’t you, man. You don’t treat a terrified woman like you just did. You don’t push the issue when she’s out of her mind with fear. I get this is important, but there has to be another way than you ending up in jail on assault and harassment charges.”
Zack shoved him back and then closed in, going nose-to-nose with Beau.
“You tell me, if that was Ari. If someone got between you and Ari and then told you to back the fuck off. Would you just walk away? Take the fuckinghigh road?” Zack roared, throwing the last two words out with the disdain they deserved.
Beau paused, his eyes flickering with instant understanding. Then he closed his eyes a moment and sighed. “Jesus. So it’s like that.”
Rage. Grief. Fury. Soul-deep sorrow. They engulfed Zack and despair slammed into him like a tidal wave. His shoulders sagged and he closed his eyes, leaning back against the vehicle and out of Beau’s—his friend’s—face.
Eliza’s cool hand covered his arm, squeezing just enough to get his attention and wrest him from the fog surrounding him.
He glanced her way and saw bright emotion in her eyes as she inserted herself between him and Beau. Almost like sheknewhis story. As though his dark, stormy thoughts were displayed in real time and she could see right into his shattered mind.
“I’ll help you, Zack,” she said softly. “You just tell me what I need to know so I have a starting point. You don’t have to tell me all of it. As little or as much as you’re comfortable sharing. I swear to you on my life that I won’t rest until this is resolved for you. Iwon’tgive up. You have my word.” And left unspoken was the fact that Eliza’s word was solid. She didn’t offer her word lightly, and neither did she ever break it when given.
Before he could respond, Eliza pulled him into a hug, which was an impressive feat given her height and weight disadvantage. But her hug was fierce. Packed with emotion, solidarity. Loyalty. She was the sister he’d always wanted to have.
He’d grown up an only child, his mother ditching him and his father when Zack was still a baby. And Gracie had come from a broken home with an alcoholic mother who didn’t even know Gracie existed most of the time. Her father? Some random hookup of her mother’s. She didn’t even know who the father of her child was, never mind Gracie ever knowing her father.
He and Gracie had both wanted children. As many as they were blessed with. They wanted to fill their home with absolute love and a strong sense of family. All the things he and Gracie had been denied.
“How soon?” he asked in a barely audible voice, one that was so strained it cracked with just the two words.
He didn’t have to explain the two-word question. Eliza knew exactly what he meant.
“We can go into the office now,” she returned. “Or if you prefer, I’ll grab my laptop and meet you at your place. Or you can come to mine. It’s up to you.”
She was offering him a way out of further losing his shit in front of the others, something he was grateful for because he wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep it together before he completely broke down.
It was like a ten-ton anvil had dropped from the sky and squashed him like a bug. He was still reeling from the shock of seeing Gracie in the flesh. No longer a ghost from his past, but a living, breathing woman—no longer a girl of sixteen—twelve years older but just as heart-achingly beautiful as ever.
“Your place,” he managed to get out. “If that’s okay.”
It was the only place where he felt comfortable enough to spill his guts. He damn sure didn’t want to have this conversation in front of all his coworkers at the office. He’d hidden his pain from the rest of the world for twelve years. Only since he’d gone to work for DSS had he formed any semblance of a friendship with others.
They’d just seen him at his lowest, but he knew it would only get worse, and he had no desire for the others to know the torment he’d lived with for so much of his life. He knew he was pathetic, but it didn’t mean he wanted more witnesses to his weakness than necessary. Furthermore, now that finding Gracie was no longer an impossible dream but a stark reality, he didn’t give two fucks how pathetic it made him that he refused to just let it go. As fucking if!
She gave his arm another reassuring squeeze. “Then run me back by the office so I can get my car. I’ll just need to go in and get my laptop and then you can follow me over to my place.”
“Thanks, Eliza,” he said softly.
“No thanks necessary,” she said just as softly.
GRACIEburied her face in Wade’s back, her entire body trembling. She couldn’t control the shaking. And the cold. God, she felt cold to her very bones.Shockwasn’t even an adequate word for what she had felt looking up into the eyes of an older but still devastatingly handsome Zack Covington. If anything, he was more handsome. Gone was the boyish charm and easy smile and in its stead was a much harder looking man, one that appeared as damaged as she was herself.
She’d thought she’d felt pain over the years. Grief. Regret. She didn’t think it could get any worse than what she’d already been dealt.
She was wrong.
Because never in that time had she faced Zack. Never since that night. No amount of imagining or mental preparation could have possibly prepared her for the reality of seeing him, when she’d made certain they would never again cross paths. Apparently fate wasn’t on her side. Also apparent was that fate evidently didn’t think she’d already suffered enough heartbreak for a lifetime.
Wade turned, sliding his arms around her in a comforting gesture. He gathered her to him tightly, hugging and soothing her with a low-pitched voice.
“He’s gone now, Anna-Grace. He can’t hurt you. I won’t let him hurt you ever again.”
His words seared through the chaotic tumble of her thoughts and through the numb that had settled over her body, paralyzing her. She shoved away from Wade sharply, catching her footing when she would have fallen again.
“I have to go,” she babbled, searching desperately for an escape route.
She couldn’t go out the front. What if he was out there waiting for her? What if he followed her? What if he found out where she lived? What if he already knew?
Oh God, he had to know where she was. How hard could it really be to find her despite the lengths she’d gone to over the years to ensure her privacy and make it so no one would ever discover her?
“I have to get out of here, Wade,” she said, hysteria rising in her voice. “Please, you have to help me. I have to gonow. But where? I have to think of someplace he can’t find me. I can never come back here. I have to leave. I have to go. Tonight. Before he shows up at my apartment!”
She knew she was making no sense. She didn’t care. She also knew that she was allowing irrational fear to override all else. But her sense of self-preservation had firmly taken over and she was content to let it do its thing. She hadn’t survived this long by ignoring it.
Wade’s hands slid up her arms and gently but firmly grasped her shoulders, holding her, forcing her to look at him. His expression was hard and anger glittered in his dark eyes. He wore that dangerous look that would scare the holy hell out of anyone else, but she’d learned that despite it, despite his appearance and the fact that there were things about him she didn’t know—preferred not to know—that he was no threat to her.
“Anna-Grace, look at me,” he said in a tone that brooked no argument.
Her eyelids fluttered and she lifted her gaze to meet his, desperately trying to keep the mind-numbing terror at bay.
He framed her face in his hands and gently stroked his thumb over her bottom lip.
“You willnotallow him to control your life any longer,” he said, soft reprimand in his voice. “You’ve allowed him too much control for too long. That’s over with. He can’t hurt you now. I swear to you, I’ll never let him hurt you. Do you trust me?”
She bit into her lip, because God, that wasn’t an easy question for someone like her. Someone who trusted no one. Who had no reason to trust anyone. And yet she’d already admitted that she did trust Wade. They’d established that point. One he was calling her on again. But before they’d been just words. Now they meant something.
She reluctantly nodded and he relaxed the slightest bit, almost as if he were afraid she’d deny it and run from him just as she’d run from everything else in her life for the last twelve years.
“You arenotthat frightened young girl any longer,” Wade said gently. “You’re strong. You’ve built a life for yourself. A career. A very promising career. You’re talented. Far more talented than many of the big names in art right now. You’ve created a place for yourself in the world. Are you going to let him destroy all that?”
Anna-Grace frowned, because when put that way, while she hadn’t had a choice over what happened to her all those years ago, now? Shedidhave a choice. She was a different person than she’d been then. Older. Wiser. Not as young and naïve. Not as gullible. And yes, as Wade said, she was stronger now.
It was nearly laughable to consider any part of herself strong when she’d hidden for so long, scared of her own shadow. But shewasstrong. Stronger than she gave herself credit for. And Wade was also right in that she’d built a life for herself. Right here. Her showing was in a week. It was what could launch her entire career.
Wade leaned in and pressed his lips to her forehead in a gesture that looked decidedly intimate. To someone peeking in on them, they would appear to be lovers, clear affection between them. Only Anna-Grace and Wade knew better.
“Take a stand, Anna-Grace,” he whispered. “You aren’t alone. You’ll never be alone. Don’t allow your past to rule your present a single day longer. This is your moment to shine. Your moment in the sun. Don’t let anyone ruin it for you.”
She squared her shoulders and then lifted a hand to cup over Wade’s that still rested on her cheek. She leaned into his palm and briefly closed her eyes.
“I’m not that sixteen-year-old innocent, naïve girl any longer,” she said falteringly. But her voice grew stronger as she continued. “I’ll never be that girl again.”
She looked up at Wade with fire in her eyes.
“He took my life from me once. I won’t let him do it again. I’ll never allow him—anyone—to have that kind of power over me again.”
Wade smiled. “Now that’s the Anna-GraceIknow.”
Anna-Grace took a deep breath. “I’m scared, Wade. I won’t lie about that. You heard him. He thought I was dead. What if they were supposed to kill me?”
Wade’s expression became hard. So hard that she shivered at the danger reflected in his dark eyes. His thumb rubbed along the indention of her chin and then moved to the corner of her mouth.
“I will never allow any harm to come to you, Anna-Grace. I swear it on my life.”
ZACKpaced the interior of Eliza’s living room like a caged, restless lion ready to attack and kill. He dragged a hand repeatedly through his short, spiked hair until it was in complete disarray, shooting in a dozen different directions.
Sweat. He was sweating. His shirt was damp. His brow glistened with moisture. And a bead slipped down his spine, making him itchier and more irritable by the minute.
“Zack, sit down.”
Eliza’s voice was soft, but it carried a hint of command.
She glanced over the top of her laptop and motioned for him to sit down on the other wing of the sectional sofa. Eliza’s apartment was a study in comfort. Decorated in warm earth tones with a splash of femininity. Not overdone. Not too girly. It was a place a man would feel welcome. A place he could call home.
He’d dreamed of surprising Gracie with a huge home. A two-story mansion with at least seven bedrooms, and jack-and-jill bathrooms connecting the children’s bedrooms in twos. He’d wanted four boys and then two girls. Six of the bedrooms would be connected by a bathroom so that only two children would ever have to share one. And of course he’d want the little girls last so they’d have older brothers to look out for them and spoil them every bit as much as he would.
Gracie had loved the house that Zack had grown up in. It was the epitome of the American dream. Two-story white frame house with homey dormers, a sprawling front porch with a swing and a white picket fence surrounding the house. It was precisely the sort of home she’d daydreamed about, though he’d never brought her over after that first disaster when he’d taken her to meet his father. The memory still enraged him. His father had completely humiliated Gracie. Had made her feel like a piece of filth. Hell, he’d even called her white trash. Had said that even the trailer park was too good for the likes of her. Given that Gracie was homeless for the most part, it had been a low blow. A trailer would have been welcome to Gracie. Anything that put a roof over her head.
After Gracie’s uncle had died, Zack had been relieved, until he realized that Gracie had no place to live. Still, he recognized she was much better off homeless than under the power of an abusive relative.
Zack had found her a tiny motel on the Dover side of the lake. She landed a position as a room cleaner, which didn’t provide much of anything in the way of a paycheck. But what it did provide was a place for her to live—a tiny bedroom on the first floor next to the office—and it provided her one meal a day, her choice of breakfast or dinner from the homestyle cooking restaurant attached to the motel. Zack gave her money for the other two meals of the day, and he often ate breakfast and dinner with her so that he ensured she didn’t go without.
Every morning she rose before dawn to begin her day. She left in time to get to school and then she resumed her job afterward.
Zack came home at every opportunity. His father was disgusted by the fact he was so hung up on a girl that he was blowing what should have been the best years of his life. There were no frat parties or endless girlfriends, no living large with his star quarterback fame. No, he attended his classes and made all his practices, but he always looked forward to the end of football season, when he could come home to Gracie.
He’d never stayed at school over the weekend once football season was over. As soon as his last class on Friday had ended, he’d immediately get into his truck, having already packed the night before, and head straight home.
Though he’d never offered her the disrespect of taking advantage of her sexually—he, like her, had wanted to wait—Zack had spent most nights with Gracie, him taking the floor while she slept in the bed, and they’d talk for hours.
He’d hated that she’d be so tired the next day, struggling to get up early and get her duties done by check-in time, and so he’d often help her. The two had become a formidable team, coming up with an efficient method of cleaning the rooms spotless in twenty minutes. That made Zack happy because it meant she was his for the rest of the day.
Most high school football players’ favorite night of the week was Friday. Friday meant football and the rush of adrenaline after pulling off an impossible play. Friday was Zack’s favorite day as well, but not because of football. To him, football was a means to an end. A way for him to provide for Gracie and the children they’d one day have.
It was his favorite day because he knew that at the end of it, Gracie would be in his arms, her head pillowed against his shoulder.
Until the time he returned home to find her gone. For good.
He didn’t understand it. Maybe he’d never understand it. But he sure as hell wasn’t going to walk away without some sort of an explanation. If she didn’t need him—didn’t want him—then by God she’d look him in the eye and tell him so.
Eliza’s concerned voice filtered through his thoughts and he glanced over to see that evidently she’d been talking—or rather trying to talk—to him for the past several seconds, and he was unresponsive.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “Just thinking.”
“That much is evident,” she said softly. “Want to tell me about it?”
Zack closed his eyes and sighed. “You’re going to think I’m a head case. I mean, when I stand back for a minute and truly look at the situation, if it were anyone else, I’d think they were a complete idiot. I mean who the hell stays hung up on a girl—woman—fortwelve years? Jesus. It’s pathetic.”
He winced, realizing just how much he’d admitted. He blew out his breath in a long, frustrated stream. What the fuck did it matter? Eliza was going to find out anyway. He wasn’t going to hold back any information that might enable Eliza to track Gracie down, no matter how pitiful it made him look.
“I’d say someone who stays hung up on a woman for that long must have truly loved her,” Eliza said quietly.
There was no judgment in her eyes. No pity. Nothing but unwavering support and friendship.
“Yeah,” Zack murmured. “I did—do. Or at least I did. Hard to say what the fuck I’m feeling right now.”
“So tell me what happened and why you lost your shit when you saw her again in the gallery. I’m assuming that’s the first you’ve seen her since . . .”
He nodded and then sighed.
“There’s honestly not much to tell. Gracie and I were high school sweethearts. I say high school, but I was four years older than her so we only attended school together my senior year. She was a freshman when we met. I had a full ride to University of Tennessee playing football. Quarterback.”
“You played for the pros, didn’t you?”
“Until an injury took me out,” Zack said.
“You could have played still.”
Zack didn’t even respond to the fact she obviously knew his story. Or at least part of it. DSS would have done a thorough background check before hiring him on.
He nodded. “Yeah. I could have rehabbed. Missed one season at the most. Trained hard in the off-season and come back in the fall. The doctors thought I’d make a full recovery with intensive rehab.”
“But you chose not to.”
Again he nodded. The team owner, the manager and the coaches had been pissed. The fans had been pissed. He’d been labeled a quitter. A loser when for so long he’d been a winner. But without Gracie he didn’t feel like he’d won fucking anything. Football wasn’t enough to sustain him when he’d lost everything that meant anything to him. Football was only a means to provide for Gracie, for him to give her the kind of life he’d dreamed of. Without her, football didn’t mean shit.
“Because of Gracie?” she asked gently.
He hesitated a moment, then met her gaze again. “Yeah. Because of Gracie. She disappeared. One day she was there. And then I came home and she was gone. No note. No word. No message. Nothing. It was as if she’d never even existed. Only, to me she did. She was my entire fucking world. School. Football. None of it mattered if she wasn’t there to share it with me. I almost didn’t even go to the pros. My old man was apoplectic. And in the end, the only reason I did go to the pros is because I thought that if I had a high enough profile, Gracie would know where I was. That she would even contact me. Come to me if she was in trouble.”
“So you have no idea what happened to her?”
“None,” he said flatly.
“Did you report her missing? Get the police involved?”
He emitted a harsh laugh. “My fatherwasthe police. The chief of police. He didn’t lift one goddamn finger to find her. He was too busycelebrating. He fucking smiled when I told him about her disappearance. Told me it was the best news he’d heard all year. When I asked him to issue a missing person’s report and actually look into her disappearance he told me his department’s resources were much better used when not wasted on people who didn’t matter.”
Eliza frowned. “Excuse the observation but your father sounds like a real gem.”
“Don’t sugarcoat it for me,” he said, his jaw clenching. “He’s a bastard. A selfish, misogynistic chauvinist.”
“You’ll forgive me if I never go out of my way to meet him,” Eliza muttered.
Zack lifted one corner of his mouth in a half smile. “You’d kick his ass.”
“At least you fell pretty far from that tree,” she observed. “And damn right I’d kick his ass. If he pulled that bullshit with me I’d rearrange his balls for him. Now, let’s get back to Gracie. From what you’ve told me I can pretty well piece everything together. Or at least it suddenly makes sense. You get hurt. Choose to bow out instead of rehab. You enter law enforcement and go on to be recruited by a government organization until Beau stole you to our side. I assume you chose the career you did because of Gracie.”
Her eyes were far too discerning. It felt as though she had crawled underneath his skin and now had a prime view of everything he’d hidden from the world. And it wasn’t a very pleasant feeling.
He nodded, his jaw tight to the point of discomfort. “I wanted to find her. I looked fucking everywhere—have looked for her for twelve years. And then today, that closemouthed fucker at the gallery. Swear to God, Lizzie. I wanted to take him apart on the spot.”
“Yeah. I noticed.”
“I knew he knew something even before Gracie showed up. It was too coincidental. The painting was of a place only Gracie and I had knowledge of. Not that other people hadn’t ever seen it. But she and I never came across anyone in the years we met there. She loved to draw and paint. It was her dream. Now suddenly a painting of that same place shows up in a gallery and it’s signed ‘A.G.’? And the name of the painting isLost Dreams? And then the bullshit about the artist not mattering security-wise, that the artist preferred anonymity. I guess the reason why is now apparent. She’s hiding. From me. But who else? And what the fuck is her connection to Sterling? Because that was not the reaction of a gallery owner to just another artist he plans to make money off of.”
“So Anna-Grace is her real name, but you call her Gracie.”
Zack nodded. “Only I called her Gracie. It was my pet name for her.”
Eliza typed as he spoke, presumably taking notes. When she finished pecking, she glanced back up, her gaze meeting Zack’s.
“I need you to grab a notebook and pen off the coffee table and write down every single thing you can think of that might help me locate her. Full name. Any known relatives even if they’re deceased. This could take a while, so how about you order takeout while I run some searches. It could be a long night.”
Hope eased a little of the burning sensation in his chest. His pulse sped up and he swallowed several times to keep the knot from forming in his throat.
“Thanks, Lizzie,” Zack said in a low, utterly sincere voice. “You have no idea what this means to me.”
Eliza shrugged and for a moment Zack could swear he saw a flash of pain in her pretty eyes. “We all have shit we deal with. We all deal with it our own way. I don’t want to build up false hope, Zack. I may not be able to turn up anything, but I’m going to try my damnedest.”
“Sterling has all the information I need,” Zack bit out. “He’s going to talk. I don’t give a fuck how he does it. But he will. I’ll fucking destroy him otherwise.”
“Be careful,” she warned. “He’s involved in a hell of a lot more than just art galleries. The galleries are mostly a front for his other ‘activities.’ ”
Zack lifted an eyebrow. “What does that mean exactly?”
“The preliminary background check that Quinn performs on all prospective clients turned up a few discrepancies.”
His gaze sharpened. “You think he’s dirty?”
“Can’t tell you that for a fact.”
“What’s your opinion then?”
“So why were we even meeting with him?” Zack asked. “Beau doesn’t operate like that. He’d die before ever doing anything reminiscent of his father.”
DSS didn’t take on any client who could potentially drag the company through the mud. They didn’t have to. They could pick and choose at their leisure. They certainly weren’t hurting for clients.
“Maybe Caleb made the decision. Beau may not have even seen the report yet,” Eliza said. “And as I said. I can’t tell you that he’s dirty for a fact. It’s merely and only my opinion. One that Dane doesn’t share—at least for the moment. I’m judgmental, what can I say? Dane is more tolerant.” She said the last with a shrug.
“Your instincts are good, Lizzie. I’ve never known you to be wrong about someone. So if you think he’s dirty, I’m certainly willing to believe the same. And if he is dirty then what the hell is his connection to Gracie? Because you didn’t see his eyes when I said her name. She’s not just a faceless artist he gives gallery space to in order to display her work. And he clammed up quick when I started asking questions about her.”
Pink dusted her cheeks and warmth reflected in her gaze at his assessment—confidence—in her skills. Lizzie, like Beau and everyone at DSS, were just good people. They’d certainly come along at a critical point in his life.
Instead of plunging recklessly into a risky career in law enforcement, one that came with a high possibility of burnout, he’d joined an elite agency. His job challenged him, made him focus on something other than the last twelve fucking years of his life. Made him feel as though he had a purpose instead of just going through the motions.
How ironic that just a couple of days earlier he had thought to himself, after a particularly bad night of tossing and turning, that perhaps it was time to let go—truly let go—and move on. Live his life and do something with it.
He didn’t have that luxury now. Because now he knew she was out there. Close. Close enough that he could have run into her at the grocery store, or gas station. God, how long had she been in such proximity to him?
“We’ll find her, Zack,” Eliza vowed. “But you need to prepare yourself for the possibility that she could run. The showing could and will likely be canceled. She obviously feels threatened by you. And, well, you need to prepare yourself for the fact that she . . . left you. Willingly. Because from my position, that’s what it’s starting to look like.”
Her words slid insidiously beneath his skin, cutting sharply to the very heart of him. Where Gracie lived, always a part of him, never leaving even if that’s exactly what she’d intended.
Grief, a very different kind of grief, welled up in his soul, suffocating, like a swollen storm cloud heralding the rain.
Never once had he even given thought to the possibility that she’d left him for the simple reason that she no longer loved him. He’d tortured himself endlessly with all the possible reasons she’d vanished, as though she’d never existed at all. Maybe he had been the only person who’d ever cared about her. So why would she reject him and everything he’d ever promised her?
What earth-shattering event had caused two lives to be permanently altered, damaged, never to truly heal?
But then she’d hardly painted a picture of someone who’d endured hell on earth as he had for the last decade. For the first time, anger, something alien to him until now welled in his chest, traced acid to his stomach.
No, she’d been pursuing her dream all the while he had been chasing his.
His beautiful, sweet Anna-Grace.
The memories of her that he’d held so firmly in his heart, fearing that they’d dull with the passage of time, eluded him for the first time in twelve long years.
No, he’d never, ever felt anger toward Gracie.
It was the bitterest taste in his mouth, one he knew he’d taste at the mere mention of her name from now on. Because now he saw the future—Gracie’s future. And nowhere was Zack a part of it.
ZACKstood outside the Sunshine Art Studio just a few blocks from Joie de Vivre, his fists curled tightly at his sides. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath. Each one seemed torturous through his constricted airway and chest. Had she been this close all this time?
The irony wasn’t lost on him. After he had spent a decade searching for Gracie, had she been in the same city? And for how long? Had she already lived here when he moved to Houston to take the job with DSS? After years of chasing his tail, how funny that he’d come across her in the line of his work.
As good as Eliza was, even she couldn’t make information materialize out of thin air. Information was scarce on the reclusive artist. Quite by luck Eliza had come across an obscure article in an art publication that had mentioned classes being held at the Sunshine Art Studio several blocks down on Westheimer. Three artists rotated through, teaching art to children who showed promise at a young age. One of the artists was the mysterious A.G.
And so here he was, a knot in his throat, his palms sweaty as he stared at the door. Minutes before, the studio had emptied. Smiling, laughing children had spilled from the doorway, all rushing to meet their waiting parents in the parking lot.
Now all was quiet. There were no other vehicles in the lot, which meant if Gracie was here she’d either walked to the gallery, taken public transit, or . . . someone had given her a ride. Boyfriend? Lover? Husband? Wade Sterling perhaps?
It set his teeth on edge to entertain the idea she belonged to another man and was forever out of his reach.
He huffed another breath and berated himself for being such a coward. All he had to do was walk through the goddamn door. Only a door separated him and . . . Gracie.
So why was he paralyzed with fear? Shouldn’t he be eager to confront her and find out what the hell had inspired her epic meltdown in the gallery when they’d come face-to-face for the first time since she’d disappeared from his life?
Or perhaps he was simply coming to terms with the possibility that if she was alive and doing well, working as an artist, it meant she’dchosento leave him without a word. No breakup. No closure. While he’d been unable to move on, to get over it, she evidently hadn’t suffered the same.
He ran an agitated hand through his hair and then swore under his breath.
Get it together, dumbass. You’ve waited twelve fucking years for this. Just open the goddamn door.
He forced his legs to move, ignoring the tremble in his knees. The door loomed closer until finally his hand grasped the handle. All he had to do was . . . push.
He shoved instead, disgusted by his hesitancy.
Then he was inside. Instantly, he was assailed by . . . hominess. Everything he’d ever imagined of a home with Gracie in it. The colors were warm and soothing and yet light and airy. He sniffed the floral-scented air. Around him papers were strewn on tables or affixed to easels. Paint was splattered over the dropcloths and smudged on the small kid-sized desks.
Nostalgia floated through him as he remembered all the times he and Gracie had talked about children. Their children. Did she have children of her own now? He didn’t think he could bear to see a miniature little Gracie knowing he wasn’t the father. That Gracie had pursued their dream without him.
He nearly turned and walked right back out of the studio. He wasn’t sure he could bear to face the truth. That she simply hadn’t wanted a life with him. But he froze when a familiar voice sounded in the distance.
“Wade? Is that you? I’m washing up, but I’ll be out in a minute.” Zack went stock-still as laughter, beautiful feminine laughter, rose. It sent a chill, a shock, straight down his spine. And only further confirmed his suspicions about her association with Sterling. “The children were rather exuberant today so I’m afraid I’ll get paint all over your seats!”
He’d know the sound of her voice—her laughter—anywhere, such a welcome change from the tear-stained, barely choked out words of terror from their “reunion.” He stood, frozen, waiting for her to come forward when what he wanted to do was tear down the door of whatever room she was in and demand answers to all the questions tumbling out of control in his mind.
He was tempted to just turn his back and walk away. Much like she’d done twelve years ago. But unlike her, he needed closure. He needed an end to the torture he’d put himself through over the last decade imagining her hurt, dead and a hundred other dismal possibilities. Ironically, none of his imaginings had been good. And yet it appeared she was doing just fine.
“Sorry I kept you waiting,” she said breathlessly.
And then she appeared and he drank in her appearance like a man starving.
She wore a paint-splattered smock that she was in the process of untying when she lifted her gaze and saw him.
After their first confrontation, he should have been prepared for her reaction, but a small part of him had hoped that it had simply been the shock of seeing him so unexpectedly. But hewasn’tprepared, and it hurt his heart to see how she looked at him even now.
She froze. Went so still he wasn’t even sure she was breathing. And just as before, fear—honest-to-God terror—entered her wide, shocked eyes.
She backpedaled hastily, throwing her hand out behind her to find the door she’d just appeared from. She stumbled, righting herself by planting her hand against the now-closed door, leaning heavily on it while scrambling for the handle as if desperate to put that door between them again. To lock herself away from him.
She was terrified of him.
What the ever-loving fuck was going on?
“Gracie,” he said hoarsely. “It’s me, Zack. For God’s sake, I’m not going to hurt you. Do you have any idea what it’s like for me to see you? Alive? Well?”
His initial shock was quickly replaced by anger as everything welled up. All the fear and grief he’d lived with for so long. And to be greeted likethis? As if she hadn’t been a major part of his life. Like he hadn’t loved her for most of his life, and she wasn’t the only woman he’deverloved.
“My God, I thought you weredead,or hurt or somewhere out there suffering, that you neededme,” he ground out. Jesus, he felt like a complete fool for thinking she’d ever needed him. What had changed? She’d been his world and he thought he’d been hers as well. He needed to know why. Didn’t he deserve that much, at least?
“You disappeared off the face of the earth. What was I supposed to think? Didn’t I at least deserve a goodbye, have a nice life?” He nearly choked on the last part. “Not even a ‘fuck off,’ or ‘see you later’? No, you just disappeared, leaving me to think the worst. For twelve fucking years I’ve thought the worst. For twelve fucking years I’ve gone to bed every goddamn night sick at heart because I thought I had failed you in some way. That I hadn’t been there when you needed me and that some sick fuck had hurt you, kidnapped you or murdered you. And all this time you’ve been happy as a lark, painting and moving on with your life while I’ve spent the last twelve years turning the earth over looking for you?”
She was pale as death and looked as though she was going to be sick. She was actively seeking escape routes, her gaze darting quickly but never meeting his, and God, he didn’t think he could bear to see the fear in those eyes again.
Why the fuck was she afraid ofhim?
“Get out,” she rasped, tears choking her voice. “God, justget out!”
Tears welled in her eyes and silently slid down her cheeks, and despite his rage and sense of helplessness, his insides twisted, because no matter that she obviously had dumped him and moved on, his first instinct was to comfort her because damn it, he couldn’t bear to see her cry. Couldn’t bear to see her hurting.
And the fact that he was evidently the cause of her distress?
“What thefuckis going on here?”
Zack whirled around in response to the male roar to see Wade Sterling standing just inside the studio, a murderous expression on his face. But as his gaze drifted to Gracie, his expression immediately became one of concern.
And what really pissed Zack off was that Wade immediately crossed the room positioning himself solidly between Gracie and Zack, and then, keeping his eyes on Zack the entire time, he firmly pushed her behind him. Just as he’d done at the gallery. A clear protective measure, as if Gracie needed protection from Zack. Of all people, Zack.
Sterling’s stance was aggressive as he stared Zack down, clearly poised for a fight. And Zack was spoiling for one. There was nothing more he’d love than to knock the bastard on his ass so he’d take his hands off Gracie. But he couldn’t afford to lose his shit a second time because God help him, he might not get a third. She might do just what Eliza had predicted and run. He couldn’t lose her again. Not after finding her after so very long. Once had been devastating. Twice? He wouldn’t survive. Not this time, under these circumstances.
“Why the fuck are you so afraid of me, Gracie?” Zack asked quietly. “You at least owe me that much.”
Gracie emitted a strangled sound and it only served to further piss Sterling off. She wouldn’t even get out from behind her “protector” long enough to look at Zack, much less offer any sort of explanation.
“Ioweyou?” she said with a sob. “God, just leave me alone. Haven’t you done enough? You think I owe youanythingafter what you did? You ruined my life! You betrayed me. God, I can’t even wrap my head around why you’d even bother to look for me unless that once wasn’t enough. Or maybe you just wanted to finish the job.”
She completely broke down, her composure melting. Sterling half-turned to put his arm around her in a gesture of comfort and when he looked back at Zack, there was absolute fury in his eyes.
“Look, I get it,” Zack bit out. “You’ve moved on. You have a boyfriend, lover or whatever. But I have to say you have a shitty way of breaking things off with someone you supposedly cared about.”
Sterling cut off any response Gracie might have made, though Zack doubted she would have responded because she was openly crying. It was a knife to Zack’s heart. In all the ways he imagined seeing her again, this was never the way he imagined it going down.
“Gracie and I aren’t romantically involved, not that it’s any of your goddamn business,” Sterling bit out. “I’m herfriend. And as her friend, I look out and protect what is mine. You’ve got two seconds to get the fuck out of here and so help me God, if you come within a hundred yards of her ever again I’ll slap a restraining order on you so fast your head will spin. If you violate that restraining order, I’ll spend every dollar I own to ensure you never see the light of day again.”
“You and what fucking army?” Zack said in a deadly quiet voice. “If you’re herfriend,then this has nothing to do with you. This is between me and Gracie and you need to butt the hell out. I’m not going to hurt her. Jesus Christ, I’d never hurt her. I loved her. I’ve loved her forever.” His voice cracked as he said the last, and he broke off to save himself the humiliation of breaking down in front of them both.
“You disgust me,” Sterling sneered. “It’s obvious she wants nothing to do with you, so take the hint and get the hell away from her and stay away.”
“I’d rather hear what Gracie wants fromGracie,” Zack said pointedly. “She owes me that much.”
For the first time, Gracie stepped to the side of Sterling, her face red and tear-stained. Zack’s heart clenched and his fingers curled into tight balls at his sides. He stared at her, really stared, absorbing every detail about her.
She’d always been beautiful but now she was even more so. Hauntingly so. She was thinner. She’d lost the glimmer of youth in her face and her eyes looked so much older than he remembered. As if she’d endured hell and back and had aged far beyond her years.
Her hair, which had always been shoulder length, with layers and bangs, was much longer now, the bangs gone, and as he studied her further, he realized she was really thin. There was a fragile, delicate air to her that had never been present even when she’d lived and endured terrible conditions.
His gaze narrowed, because where before she’d always had a glow about her, despite the abovementioned living conditions, and she’d always been quick to laugh and had always been happy, she lookednothinglike that now. What the hell had happened to her? What was all that bullshit about him ruining her life? His mind was ablaze with questions as all she’d said finally sank in.
She was quiet and subdued, as if the light inside her had been extinguished. She looked . . . sad. Not at all like his Gracie.
What the hell had gone wrong? What was shethinking,remembering? And why did his heart feel like it was shattering into a million pieces? Where was the self-righteous anger he’d felt just seconds ago? Why had it suddenly fled and left him with the feeling that the truth—whatever that was—would likely kill him? That he might never recover from the ugly revelation?
She lifted her gaze, almost as if she were having to force herself to look at him, to keep her gaze connected to his. There was so much sorrow in the depths of those sweet brown eyes that it took his breath away. And hurt. So many negative emotions that Zack felt them like hurled daggers.
“Please leave,” she begged softly. “I nevereverwant to see you again. That’s me speaking, Zack. Not Wade. Not anyone else. It’s me. Think whatever you like, but don’t you ever touch me.”
Touch her? He hadn’t been close enough to touch her. He could understand the never seeing or talking to her again, but why would she tell him never to touch her?
Something was terribly wrong and it frustrated the hell out of him because it was obvious that nothing was going to be accomplished today. For one, there was this fiercely protective guard dog looking for the world like he’d love nothing more than to beat Zack to a bloody pulp. As if this smooth-talking rich asshole had a chance in hell of taking Zack down in a fight.
Then there was the fact that Gracie couldn’t even look at him. She was white as a ghost, shaken and obviously terrified. Ofhim,goddamn it.
All she’d said slammed into him like a bullet. He’d ruined her life. He’d done this awful thing and then the part about finishing the job?
The accusations she’d hurled at him swarmed in his mind like angry bees. He forced himself to look her calmly in the eyes and he took a step forward, which immediately made Sterling bristle.
“Read my mind, Gracie,” he said softly. “All you have to do is read my mind. Whatever it is you think I’ve done, just look inside my mind. You’ll get your answers, though it’s evident you don’t think I deserve them.”
She closed her eyes, tears streaking down her cheeks in never-ending rivulets.
When she reopened them, there was raw, naked emotion.
“Even if Icould,I wouldn’t,” she said, her voice cracking under the strain. “God, I never want to see intoanyone’smind again. That’s the only thing I can ever thank you for, because you took that from me too.”
Her response took him aback. What the fucking hell was that? What did she mean he took her ability? There were so many questions tumbling through his mind that he had to make a concerted effort not to go off on a tangent, demanding answers right now.
But the last thing he wanted was a goddamn audience for what was certain to be a highly volatile conversation. Patience was not a virtue he possessed and this was frustrating him to the point of madness. So instead of bombarding her with the questions that were nearly tearing his lips off, he made his next statement with firmness just to make damn sure that the pussy Sterling didn’t miss the message that Zack in no way would be deterred in his pursuit of the past and what went so horribly wrong.
“We need to talk, Gracie,” he said grimly. “Without your little watchdog standing guard. You name the time and place. I don’t care how public it is, if that’s what will make you feel safe with me.” He damn near choked on those words. Hurt her? Wanting her to feel safe fromhim?
“I’ll even have the goddamn police present if that makes you feel better. But whatever the hell it is youthinkI did to you, I can tell you that you are dead wrong. And if it takes the rest of my goddamn life, wewillhave this conversation, Gracie. I won’t give up. I won’t go away. I won’t forget. I’ve waited twelve years for this moment, and I’ll be damned if I walk away from you like you walked away from me.”
ZACKturned the corner of the street a few blocks down from his apartment, sweat sliding down his spine. He’d pushed himself harder than normal, and his usual two-mile run had turned into three. It wasn’t until he’d seen the sign for his bank that he realized he’d far surpassed his routine run.
Not even taking a moment to rest or cool down, he propelled himself onward, blanking his mind to his inner turmoil as he made the jog back to his apartment.
The entire night before he and Eliza had searched exhaustively for leads on Gracie, and she’d been right here under his nose all along. Then for a second time, his quest for the truth had been stymied when he’d confronted her earlier today in the studio. He’d been put off, thanks to Sterling’s interference,twice. He’d been forced to retreat and wait for a better opportunity, though now that Gracie was tipped off to his presence and very unwelcoming of it, he wondered if she’d tuck tail and run. As she’d apparently done before.
Which meant waiting. More waiting.
Goddamn it, but he was tired of waiting. He’d waited twelve fucking years for this moment. He was further frustrated because it wasn’t as though he no longer knew where Gracie was. She was here. In this city. So close and yet so far away.
Never had he imagined their reunion would go as it had. She’d been afraid of him. Hell, not afraid, she’d been absolutely terrified.
His mind kept yanking him back to the look on her face. No shock. No pleasant surprise. No greeting for the man who’d loved—and searched for—her for more than a decade.
He knew he was missing one giant piece of the puzzle here. But hell if he knew what it was. If only she would talk to him. Give himsomething. Jesus, didn’t he deserve more than what he’d gotten? She acted as though she were the wronged party here. But he sure as hell hadn’t run out on her and left her to wonder if he was even alive for twelve goddamn years.
He’d given her everything. His heart, soul. He’d promised her forever. And he’d goddamn meant it. Not many college kids knew exactly what they wanted from the future. But he had. From the moment Gracie had entered his life, he’d had absolute focus. He’d known that his life would forever revolve around her.
Well, he’d certainly been right on that count. Because even when she’d disappeared,everythinghad revolved around finding her again.
He’d planned their lives together to the nth degree. He wanted her to have everything she could ever dream of. Though he planned to always take care of and provide for her, he knew an education was important to her. Her circumstances embarrassed and shamed her. He hated that, hated that he couldn’t take that away for her. He didn’t care if she had a degree or not. He knew he’d make good money playing pro ball and that she and their children would never want for anything he could give them.
But at the same time, he wanted her happy. And so they’d talked about her going to college after she graduated from high school. They were young. Had all the time in the world—or so he’d thought. No need to rush anything. He wanted her to have security. So she’d attend college, earn her degree, and only after would they think about having children.
Honestly, waiting to have children wasn’t an issue for Zack. Yes, he had it all planned. But he wanted those years with Gracie—just the two of them—before they added children to their family.
Maybe he’d been so wrapped up in the future that he hadn’t been paying enough attention to thepresent. Obviously something had gone extremely wrong. Something he’d been oblivious to, because he’d never seen this coming. He’d never forget the shock of finding her gone. Vanished. And the incessant question, one he’d hammered on repeatedly for the next twelve years.Why?
By the time he jogged through his complex toward the east wing, which was made up of three-level town houses, dusk had faded to night. His breath blew in a cloud and the evening air brushing his sweat-glistening skin caused a cascade of goose bumps over his arms.
He slowed to a walk when he neared the gate leading to his unit. Though the town homes were connected, the front and back yards were separated by privacy fences. And the gate at the end of the paved walkway to his front porch was opened via a security code.
He frowned when he saw the display was completely dead. Just what he needed. To be locked out of his own goddamn apartment. Frustration coiled through his blood like a venomous snake. He slammed his fist against the gate with an emphatic curse.
To his surprise, the gate wobbled and opened a few inches. Zack frowned, wondering just how good the supposedly high-tech security features actually were in this joint. Well, he wouldn’t bitch too much. Having the gate open saved him the hassle of contacting the manager and being able to get into his own goddamn house.
His motion-activated lights were obviously a victim of whatever was wrong with the gate. A prickle of unease raced up his spine. His head came up, his nostrils flaring as he scanned the dark exterior of the house. The light was on in the midlevel TV room. But the outside light that illuminated the steps to the porch, and which he always left on, was off.
Cursing the fact that he didn’t have his pistol, he paused at the bottom step. From his periphery, a shadowy form came into focus. His head yanked in that direction and he tensed, prepared to defend himself.
He blinked to narrow his focus and realized that he was looking at aperson,obviously unconscious—or dead? Sprawled a few feet from the bottom step, hidden from the street by shrubbery, was a human body. It had to be a woman or a very small man. The only thing readily visible was two bare feet.
His pulse accelerated and he rushed to the body, his chest hammering in fear as he reached to turn the person over. The head lolled as he rolled her to her back and then all his breath left him when he saw who the person was. Oh God. Oh God. No. Please no.
Her name escaped him in an agonized cry.
His heart nearly exploded in his chest. He let out his breath in a long, visible cloud. His vision swam with moisture and he blinked, needing to see how badly she was hurt.
Oh dear Lord. She was beaten. Badly. Bruises marked and colored her swollen features. Dried blood was smeared down her chin and neck. Worse, her hands were tied behind her back. She’d had no way to defend herself. No way to ward off the blows she’d received.
Bile rose in his throat and it took every ounce of strength not to throw up. Tears burned his eyelids. His hand shook violently as he fumbled at her neck for a pulse. Let her be alive. Don’t let him have found her after twelve long years only to lose her again.
With his other hand, he gently smoothed her hair from her face, wincing when he saw the extent of the bruising. God, where could he even touch her? What if she’d sustained internal injuries? She could be bleeding. He could still lose her!
He nearly wilted with relief when he felt the faint, erratic patter of her pulse. And then he shook the shock and utter confusion away and bolted into action. He yanked his cell phone up and quickly dialed 911.
As he spoke with the dispatcher, providing his location and Gracie’s condition, he tried to make Gracie as comfortable as possible without moving her too much. The last thing he wanted was to cause her further harm by doing something careless.
His call ended, and he tossed the phone down so he could focus more carefully on Gracie. He bent down and gathered her gently against his chest, hoping his body heat would offer her some respite from the damp chill. He tugged at the ropes that had cut into her wrists. Then he frowned when he felt the rough abrasions on her skin.
She was so still. One could easily believe she was dead. Her breaths were so light that her chest barely made any movement at all. They were also shallow. He knew she needed oxygen and silently urged the ambulance to get there as fast as possible.
When he’d arranged her head so that it wasn’t at such an awkward angle, he quickly assessed the rest of her body, his heart in his throat. Nothing looked broken, but how was he to know?
And then something else caught his eyes. Something familiar. He went utterly still, his gaze fastening on the tag affixed to her toe. No. Oh hell no. There was no fucking way.
An inarticulate sound of rage erupted from his throat as he ran his hand down her leg, checking for further injury before he carefully detached the tag from her toe. He was careful to only touch what was necessary and then he read the scrawled words, the now-familiar handwriting like salt poured on an already festering wound.
This is what happens to people who get in our way.
Son of a bitch! Gracie had been targeted because of him. He’d led the enemy straight to her! How could he have known?
His entire body was flushed with heat—rage. His skin and heart burned with it.
Months ago, they’d found another body with the same tag attached to the toe. Ari’s biological father. He hadn’t survived his beating. Would Gracie live?
He closed his eyes, unable to even consider the possibility. Were his worst fears of what had happened to her twelve years ago being realizednow?
They had underestimated the enemy. Mistaken their silence and patience as them having given up. Now Zack realized that they’d simply been watching—and waiting—for the right moment to strike. To find a vulnerable target, since getting to Ramie and Ari, the two women married to brothers Caleb and Beau, would prove pretty damn difficult, given the fact that their husbands kept very close guard over the women they loved.
Zack was assailed by the knowledge that, just as he’d failed Gracie twelve years ago, so too had he failed her now. He hadn’t even considered the risk of him seeking her out, doing nothing to cover his tracks. Never had he imagined the lengths this fanatical group would go to in their effort to strike back at DSS.
This would kill Ari. She was so tenderhearted, and the idea that someone had been so grievously hurt because of her . . . Of course it wasn’t her fault. But she wouldn’t see it that way. All she would point out is that until she came into the picture there was no way for her past to touch DSS and those associated with it.
With a curse he reached for his phone again. Where was the goddamn ambulance?
He punched in Beau’s number, willing the other man to answer. He needed Beau to get the word out to the others. They weren’t safe. None of them were. Beau and Caleb would be pissed and they’d lock down their women so neither would be touched by violence ever again. They’d suffered far too much in their young lives. They’d seen more damage and hurt than any ten people would in their lifetimes.
“Beau, we’ve got a problem,” Zack said grimly when the other man answered.
“Talk,” Beau said, his tone immediately matching Zack’s.
“They got to Gracie,” he said, nearly choking on the words. “The goddamn sons of bitches beat her.”
“Whoa, back up. What the fuck?”
Zack closed his eyes in relief when he heard the distant wail of a siren.
“I’ve got to make this quick. The ambulance is almost here. The same people who beat Ari’s biological father to death, the ones who also tortured and killed her biological mother, got to Gracie. Same MO. I found her body outside my apartment. Tag attached to the toe with the same message.”
There was a horrified silence and then Beau’s explosion of curses.
“Is she alive?” Beau asked.
“For now,” Zack choked out, nearly beside himself with worry and grief. “It’s bad, Beau. I don’t know how bad. But she’s breathing. For now. Look, I have to go, but you need to let the others know. And Lizzie. God. Make sure she watches her back. I was with her all night last night. They’re obviously keeping close watch or else how the hell would they tag Gracie so soon after I saw her? Call Dane. Make sure Lizzie is safe. And make damn sure Caleb knows so he can protect Ramie.”
Zack hung up before Beau could respond. The ambulance was right outside his gate and he took his hand away from Gracie with a whispered plea. “Don’t give up, Gracie. Fight. You have to be all right. I can’t lose you again.”
He brushed his lips across her forehead and then surged to his feet so he could direct the medics to where Gracie lay.
ZACKpaced the floor just outside the exam room they’d taken Gracie to. He’d firmly dug his heels in, refusing to leave her side until one of the nurses gently pointed out that they could do their job much quicker and more efficiently if he wasn’t in the way.
Then she’d guided him to the door and told him he could return the minute the doctor finished his assessment and read the results of her lab tests and X-rays.
He couldn’t even see inside, had no clue what was going on, and that sucked. What if she stopped breathing? What if she died, alone, with no one by her side to tell her she was loved?
He leaned against the wall, rocking his head back to rest, and scrubbed his hands over his face for the third time. His eyes felt like sandpaper. There was a knot in his throat that refused to go away. He couldn’t speak more than a few words before his voice would break and then fall to an emotional, unintelligible tone.
Zack looked up to see Beau and Caleb a few feet away in the hallway.
“How is she?” Beau asked grimly as he and his brother approached.
Zack threw up his hands in frustration. “I don’t know, damn it! They shoved me out of the room and told me to wait. That was fifteen fucking minutes ago.”
Beau muttered under his breath and Caleb’s face was strained, his expression intense.
Then realizing that the two men were here in front of him, alone, Zack yanked his head up. “Where are Ramie and Ari?” he demanded.
“Safe,” Caleb bit out.
“Ari wanted to come. She was horrified,” Beau said, anger etched on his face and in the twist of his lips. “She was crying when I left her. Jesus. I can’t believe those motherfuckers would beat an innocent woman to prove some goddamn point. Andwhatpoint?”
Caleb shook his head in disgust.
“It’s not her fault,” Zack said fiercely. “It’s mine and mine alone.”
“Bullshit,” Beau said. “It’s not her fault and it’s certainly not yours.”
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” Caleb said. “We have to move forward and we’re going to have to take a more aggressive stance with these fuckers. I—we—all thought they were no longer an issue. They haven’t reared their heads since everything that went down with Ari. I shouldn’t have let it go but I just wanted us all to be able to put it behind us. Especially Ari. But now we’re going to have to switch tactics and go on the aggressive.”
“Fuck yeah,” Beau said. “We need to hunt these assholes down and let them see what it feels like to be used as a punching bag. Jesus. It turns my stomach to think of at least two women they’ve beaten. One of them was killed!”
Zack shuddered, his hands shaking. He curled his fingers into tight balls to alleviate the twitch but he couldn’t prevent the image of Gracie’s bruised, battered body from hurling through his mind.
“I’ve already put Dane on it,” Caleb continued. “Every single man employed by DSS is being put on this job. This agency’s soul focus will be on locating and taking down every single person who had a hand in this. It is ouronlypriority.”
“Thank you,” Zack said.
Beau hesitated, searching Zack’s expression for . . .? Zack wasn’t sure, but uncertainty shone in Beau’s solemn gaze.
“What?” Zack asked.
“Were you able to work things out. Before . . .” Beau broke off and lifted his hand toward the door to indicate Gracie.
“No,” Zack whispered. “I went out for a run. I don’t normally run as far. God, I wish I hadn’t. If I’d gotten home sooner maybe I would have caught the fuckers. And she wouldn’t have lain out there in the cold for God knows how long.”
“She was just lying there when you got back?” Caleb asked.
Zack nodded. “My gate’s security pad wasn’t working. But the gate was open. The outside motion-activated lights didn’t work either. When I got to the steps, I saw her on the ground out of the corner of my eye. They just left her there to die!”
“Does your apartment complex have security cameras?” Beau asked.
“I’ll get Dane over there to pull what he can. Maybe one of the cameras caught the assholes and we can get an image,” Caleb said.
“I bagged the tag,” Zack said. “I tried to touch it as little as possible. Maybe we can get a print.”
Beau nodded. “We’re reporting this, right?”
“Absolutely,” Zack said firmly. “I’ll take all the help we can get. I want these fuckers, Beau. I don’t care what we have to do in order to nail their asses to the wall, but I want their goddamn blood.”
“Don’t blame you,” Caleb said softly. “If it were Ramie . . .” He shook his head.
Beau’s expression tightened and rage glowed in his eyes. “It was Ari not too long ago and now it’s Gracie. Fuck this. I’m with you, Zack. I want their asses and I’ll do whatever the fuck it takes to take them out. But I think we go with Briggs and Ramirez. This may very well be out of their jurisdiction, but they’re the only two I trust on this and they know the history.”
Zack nodded his agreement. The two detectives had worked with them before and were familiar with the oddities that accompanied DSS’s many jobs. They wouldn’t be met with skepticism over some freakish story about a group of fanatics who targeted anyone they deemed as a threat to their “cause.” Some fucking cause.
The door to Gracie’s room opened and Zack surged forward, every muscle in his body coiled tight. He held his breath, barely able to speak through numb lips.
“How is she?” he demanded.
The nurse smiled at him. “The doctor will be out shortly to discuss her condition, but she’s going to be okay. Nothing life threatening.”
Zack closed his eyes. He staggered with relief and for a moment he weaved, unsteady on his feet. “Thank God,” he whispered.
“Easy there, man,” Beau murmured, grabbing Zack’s arm to steady him.
“Can I be with her now? I don’t want her to be alone when she wakes.
The nurse’s eyes softened. “Of course. After the doctor comes out and discusses her condition, you can go in. She’s woozy and confused though.”
“Why?” Zack instantly demanded.
The nurse held up a hand. “It’s to be expected. She awoke in awful pain so we administered IV medication to make her more comfortable.”
“So she doesn’t have a head injury?” Zack asked hesitantly.
“I’ll let the doctor bring you up to speed on that,” she said. “Oh look, here he is now.”
She stepped away from the door so the doctor had room to get through. Then she hurried away, saying she’d return shortly to check on Gracie.
All three men focused intently on the doctor and some of what they were feeling must have shown on their faces because the doctor hesitated and took a step back, his expression wary.
“How is she?” Zack asked anxiously.
“She’s undergone extensive trauma over ninety percent of her body.”
“Jesus,” Caleb muttered.
Beau swore and Zack clenched his fingers into fists at his sides.
“How bad is it?” Zack asked in a low voice.
The doctor grimaced. “She has a few broken ribs but fortunately she didn’t puncture a lung or another vital organ. As odd as this may sound, the beating appeared to be calculated. As though her attacker intended to do as much damage as possible without her sustaining any mortal injuries. Because as I said she sustained bruising to ninety percent of her body and yet apart from the cracked ribs she has no other broken bones. But some of the bruises are deep and will require careful attention while she’s recovering. She needs to be on strict bed rest for a few days and I can’t stress this enough. She needs to limit her movement to only what is necessary. Someone needs to be with her when she showers or bathes. And she has to take her recovery slowly. There’s no rushing this and no shortcuts. Her body needs time to heal. Period.”
“She won’t lift a finger,” Zack vowed.
The doctor cleared his throat. “I assume the authorities have been contacted? By law we have to report any crime, suspected or real.”
“They’re on their way,” Zack said. “My first priority was getting her to the hospital.”
The doctor nodded. “You did the right thing.”
“Can I see her now?” Zack asked anxiously.
The doctor nodded again. But as Zack started to pass him he stopped him momentarily.
“She must take her recuperation seriously. This isn’t something that will go away overnight. She’s going to hurt very badly for the first several days. It’s imperative that she not suffer any emotional or physical upset during this time. And if I were you, I’d seek out professional counseling for her. After an attack, a common reaction is denial or the victim just wanting to forget about it and make it go away. That’s not healthy and it won’t work. You may have to push her and she likely won’t thank you for it at first, but she needs to accept and work her way through what happened to her.”
“I understand,” Zack said quietly. “I appreciate your efforts, Doctor. And rest assured, she will not have to do anything other than rest and get to feeling better.”
“I’m glad to hear that. And I dearly hope whoever did this to her is arrested immediately.”
The doctor’s expression grew fierce as he said the last and anger blazed in his eyes.
“I’ve been a doctor for twenty years and no matter how many times you think you’ve seen it all and can’t possibly be shocked by what comes through the ER, there’s always another case that leaves me shaking my head and wondering what kind of scum gets his rocks off by beating an innocent woman. Especially in the manner that Miss Hill was. I have no doubt this was a well-measured attack meant to do as much harm as possible without killing her.”
“We know,” Beau said in a savage tone. “And the bastards who did this to herwillpay. You can take that to the bank.”
“Good,” the doctor said emphatically. “Now I’ll let you see Miss Hill. I’d like to admit her for observation and keep her at least forty-eight hours before I release her. She’ll be moved up to the floor when her room is ready and she’s admitted. Do you happen to have her insurance information? The admitting nurse will need that and her other personal information as well.”
Zack hesitated because he didn’t know anything about Gracie. He knew everything and nothing, or at least what used to be. Who was Gracienow? The last forty-eight hours had shattered any illusions he’d had.
“It will be taken care of,” Beau interjected.
The doctor nodded and then stepped away from the door to let Zack pass.
Zack sucked in a deep breath, squared his shoulders and braced himself before walking into the room.
He let out a strangled cry when he saw Gracie lying on the bed, eyes closed but her forehead marred with pain, her features tight and her lips firm in a thin white line. Even at rest, she looked as though she were in horrible pain.
How scared she must have been. If the doctor was right—and Zack had no doubt that he was—she had endured a cold, methodical beating. It hadn’t been done in a rage. No, it had been administered impersonally. She’d been a job to someone. Nothing more.
But she hadn’t known that. How long had she endured the pain? Had she been scared to death they’d eventually get bored and then kill her? Had she prayed for death? God, he hoped not.
He approached the bed hesitantly, his gaze anxiously searching the monitors and instruments. She was being given oxygen but there was no heart monitor. That had to be a positive sign that they weren’t concerned she’d die. But then the doctor had said she’d be fine. Just in pain. That she needed to take it very easy. That was one vow he’d absolutely meant.
When she was discharged, she was going home with him. But not back to his current place. Not with those bastards still out there, circling like vultures. Her beating had been a message. To him. To DSS. His mind was already going full gear. He would have Beau find a secure location for him to move Gracie to. And security would be top-notch.
He eased his way to the head of the bed, careful not to wake her. For a long moment he stood, drinking in her fragile appearance. His heart ached. His chest was tight with discomfort.
He leaned down, cupping his hand over her brow, one of the few places left untouched by her attackers. Gently he rubbed his thumb over the bridge of her nose, wincing as he took in the extent of her facial bruising.
God, he wanted to kill those bastards for touching her. For laying their hands on what was his. Gracie had always belonged to him. The last twelve years no longer mattered. She was here now. And if he had his way, she’d never go anywhere else.
He lowered his head to press his lips against her brow. He closed his eyes as his breath blew warm against her skin.
“I’m so sorry, Gracie,” he said bleakly. “God, I’m so sorry.”
She stirred slightly and he quickly lifted his head, his gaze anxious. He held his breath when her eyelids flickered and then opened.
She blinked a few times, her face crinkling in confusion. And then she let out a low moan and tried to lift her head from the pillow. Her arms flailed out in a defensive gesture and more sounds of fear and desperation spilled from swollen lips.
“Gracie. Gracie, honey, you’re all right. It’s me, Zack.”
She went utterly still and if possible she grew even whiter beneath the purple of bruises. Her head swiveled so that her gaze locked with his.
Terror swept through her eyes and her lips parted and then shut repeatedly as though fear had robbed her of speech.
Zack ran his hand lightly down her arm to where the IV attached at her wrist. He flinched when she withdrew so quickly it pained her. She emitted a soundless cry, hurt flashing in her eyes.
What the fuck?
He managed to keep the frown from his face. Barely. It took everything he had to stand there and take her response. If it had only been now he could understand. It was understandable for a woman who’d been attacked to have an instinctual defensive response. To be afraid.
But it wasn’t just now. It wasn’t because she’d been attacked. She’d reacted the same way on the two other occasions they’d come into contact. Like he was some kind of monster. She hadn’t merely been surprised or afraid. She’d been fucking terrified. Ofhim!
“Do you remember what happened?” he asked softly, ignoring, for now, her fear of him.
She let out a small, defeated whimper. The sound nearly slayed him. He reached behind him to snag the lone chair, pulling it toward the bed so he could sit. So he didn’t loom over her and frighten her more.
She visibly swallowed and then licked her lips.
“Would you like some water?”
For a moment she just stared at him with wide, frightened eyes. Then, slowly, she nodded. She kept her frozen gaze on him the entire time as he stood, went to the sink and ran water in one of the small cups.
He walked back to the bed, and holding the cup with one hand, he carefully slid his free arm behind her neck and lifted just enough that she could sip without spilling it on herself.
She took several long swallows and then broke away, coughing. Her face spasmed with agony and her arm went instinctively to her stomach, to her injured ribs, holding it while she tried to suppress the cough.
“Easy,” he murmured, easing her head back down.
As he turned away, he saw that both hands were curled into tight fists, the backs of her knuckles completely white with strain.
When he was settled back in the chair, he reached for the fist on his side and carefully unrolled her fingers and then curled his around hers.
“Why are you so afraid of me, Gracie? I don’t understand. God, there’s so much I don’t understand. But we’ll start with this, the most important. Don’t you know I’d never hurt you? That I’d kill—will kill—anyone who does?”
Tears welled in her eyes and silently leaked down her temple to disappear into her hairline. She fixed her gaze on the ceiling as those shiny rivulets continued to run.
“Please talk to me, Gracie. Tell me what’s wrong. Why are you so goddamn scared of me?”
“I don’t want you here,” she choked out.
Her free hand went to her throat, rubbing as though it hurt her to speak. Fury raged inside him. Of course her throat hurt. There were visible hand and finger marks surrounding her slender throat. As if those bastards had choked her repeatedly.
Those words, those simple five words, gutted him to the core.
“Why?” he asked bluntly. “Why do you hate me so much, Gracie? I loved you. I always loved you. And you left. God, do you have any idea the hell it’s been wondering what happened to you twelve years ago? Not knowing if you were dead or alive. Somewhere hurting. In need of help. Didn’t I deserve more than what you gave me? Not even a goodbye. Or ‘fuck off.’ You didn’t even do me the service of breaking up with me. You just . . . disappeared.”
“How dare you,” she spit out. “How dare you act the victim after what youdid.”
Alarm splintered up his spine. Finally they were getting somewhere.
“What did I do?” he demanded. “Tell me, Gracie, because I sure as hell don’t know. If I were someone you loved then you would have at least given me a chance to explain. You would have told me what was wrong and given me a chance, at least, to make things right. Ilovedyou. I would have moved heaven and earth to make you happy.”
She looked utterly horrified. Tears swamped her eyes, making them bright and shiny.
“You didn’t love me! Your idea of love is sick! It’s twisted. I don’t owe you anything. But you owe me more than you can ever repay. Listen to me carefully, Zack. There is nothing—nothing—you could ever do or say for me to forgive you. For you to even think it, for you to come in here and act as though I owe you something, is horrifying and so screwed up I can’t even fathom your gall.”
“What. Did. I. Do?” he bit out emphatically, emphasizing each and every word.
He was fast losing patience. He wanted to put his goddamn fist through the wall. He wanted to vent all the rage and grief festering inside him.
Gracie’s hand flew to her mouth and she gagged, choking and then coughing.
“Oh God, I’m going to be sick!” she cried.
Zack flew to his feet and then reached over, lifting her head again while yanking the emesis basin from the stand beside the bed. He turned her as she dry-heaved, her entire body convulsing.
Her sound of agony cut through him like a serrated blade. He hastily punched the call button for a nurse and then shouted loud enough that hopefully Beau or Caleb heard him.
The door immediately opened and Beau filled the frame.
“What is it?” Beau demanded.
“Get me a nurse. Now!”
Beau disappeared and was back just seconds later with a nurse in tow.
The nurse frowned and rushed toward the bed.
“What on earth happened?” she demanded.
“She got sick,” Zack said, stating the obvious. He hated when people asked the obvious. “And she’s in pain from the dry heaving. Can you give her something more? I don’t think her last dose of pain medicine is working worth a damn.”
“I’ll be right back,” the nurse said, hurrying toward the door.
Beau stood to the side, a worried expression on his face as they waited for the nurse’s return. Caleb entered quietly behind his brother and stood behind and just beside Beau, who’d taken position at the footboard.
Gracie stopped heaving long enough to cast a fearful look in Beau’s direction, and then her attention settled on Caleb, her features freezing as if she had only noticed there were three of them, thus three possible threats to her standing right here in her hospital room. Her gaze darted between the two brothers as if she feared one or both would hurt her. Zack was going to explode if he didn’t get some goddamn answers soon.
Finally the nurse returned, carrying two syringes. With crisp efficiency she stepped to the bed and lifted the arm that had the IV inserted. She rubbed and patted Gracie’s arm in a comforting gesture.
“It’ll be all right, hon,” the nurse said in a sweet voice. “I’m giving you something for pain and also for nausea. It should fix you right up. But I’ll check on you again in fifteen minutes. If you’re still hurting, I’ll call the doctor to see if we can up the order for pain meds.”
Gracie laid her head back on the pillow, tears running endlessly from the corners of her eyes. Her silent sobs were taking a piece of Zack’s soul, one by one. He’d never felt so helpless. How could he fix what he didn’t know? Whatever the hell it was he supposedly did was apparently catastrophic in nature. What on earth could put such fear and revulsion in her eyes and such hatred in her voice?
This wasn’t the sweet, loving Gracie he knew and had loved for most of his life.
“Try to get some rest now,” the nurse said quietly. “We’ll be taking you up to the room in an hour or so.”
Gracie let out a sound of protest when the nurse started to leave. The nurse frowned and gave Zack a quick, inquiring glance.
“She’s scared,” Zack said truthfully. “Wouldn’t you be?”
The nurse grimaced. “Don’t worry, Miss Hill. You’re safe here. No one can hurt you now.”
Gracie’s eyes only widened more and she cast a panicked look in Zack’s direction. But the nurse missed it, having turned toward the door once more.
“Uh . . . Caleb and I will just wait outside,” Beau said.
The entire room was weighed down by edginess, fear, even full scale panic. It was thick, it was nearly a tangible taste in Zack’s mouth. He should know, because he’d tasted fear more times than he could count since losing Gracie so long ago.
“Who are you?” Gracie asked hoarsely.
It seemed she’d been having an argument with herself as to which of the Devereaux brothers to speak to. And since it was obvious she had no intention of addressing Zack, she was likely deciding which Devereaux posed the least threat to her. Not that either brother ever looked remotely harmless. But since she was looking directly at Beau and hadn’t even acknowledged Caleb, it was obvious it was Beau she was asking the question of and Beau she’d decided posed the least threat of the remaining two men.
Zack couldn’t blame her for choosing Beau over Caleb. Beau could be intimidating but he did have a sense of humor and he was always cognizant of how his actions, words and demeanor often made the difference in gaining a client’s trust. Caleb, on the other hand, even on his best day, was intense and brooding-looking. He rarely smiled except when he was with Ramie or Tori Devereaux, the youngest of all the Devereaux siblings and the only sister to boot.
But then everyone was careful to shield the still very fragile and vulnerable Tori so she never feared the very people who loved her the most and protected her with their lives. At present, she lived with Caleb and Ramie, and from what little exposure he’d had with Tori, he doubted her living arrangements would change in the short term. According to Beau, Tori had made progress and was valiantly trying to do it on her own without her older brothers’—and now her two sisters-in-law’s—help. Unfortunately for Tori, she possessed three of the most over protective older brothers a girl ever had. Some brothers threaten someone—usually a guy—when it comes to their baby sister. But Tori’s older brothers wouldn’t make threats. Threats are a waste of time and only useful to cowards who have no intention of ever trying to back up their threats.
Beau looked startled by Gracie’s question, and for a moment, so too had Zack not registered it because his thoughts and focus weren’t where they should have been. Here. With Gracie.
Despite his initial reaction to Gracie directly addressing him, his expression eased into a reassuring smile and he stepped to the foot of the bed so Gracie could better see him. When he spoke, it was with gentle, soothing tones.
“I’m Beau Devereaux, ma’am. I work with Zack. I run a security company with my brother, Caleb. I don’t want you to worry any longer. We’re going to put one hundred percent of our time and effort into ensuring your safety and into finding the bastards who did this to you. I swear it on my life.”
She looked confused by Beau’s passionate statement. Her eyes flickered and then she turned them toward Zack. She seemed puzzled, as if she were trying to make sense of it all.
“But who’s going to keep me safe fromhim?” she whispered, staring directly at Zack.
“WHATare you going to do, man?” Beau asked in a hushed voice.
Zack ran his hand through his hair in a ragged, agitated motion.
The two men stood just outside the open door of the room Gracie had been moved to. Zack was leaning against the wall, exhaustion from two sleepless nights catching up quickly.
After Gracie had dropped her bomb of a question, one that Beau had been speechless to respond to, she’d drifted off under the influence of the meds and an hour later she’d been moved to a private room on the sixth floor.
“I don’t fucking know,” Zack said. “What the hell am Isupposedto do? She hates my guts. She’s terrified of me. And I don’t know why. She keeps mentioning this ‘horrible’ thing I did. Said it wasunforgivable.”
“Yeah, ouch. This runs deep, Beau. She had the same reaction at the gallery and the art studio. No way of faking that much fear. But Jesus,why? I don’t get it. Ilovedher, man. She wasitfor me. You know, the trite cliché that so many men, especially men like us, cringe over and roll their eyes? Not me. She was The One for me. And God help me but there will be no other woman for me.”
“I had our entire future planned. House, wife, kids. The American dream. I’d play pro ball for ten years if I were lucky. Bank the money and then retire and spend my time spoiling my wife and children rotten. Have a mini football team of our own if we were so blessed. She was on board. She said she loved me, and shedid. No one is that good an actress. And she sure as hell wasn’t using me. If that were the case she would have stayed and milked me for every dime. No, she cut out before I evenmadethe pros. I came home one day and she had vanished, leaving me to think the absolute worst.”
He blew out his breath and wearily closed his eyes.
“This is killing me, man. Think how you’d feel if you went home and Ari was just . . . gone. And you never heard from her again. And then twelve years later you find her, only she’s terrified of you, accuses you of some horrible betrayal and she hates you.”
“No thanks,” Beau muttered. “That’s some heavy shit you’re toting around, dude.”
“Tell me about it.”
Zack looked back in to the room to check on Gracie, but she appeared to be resting comfortably, devoid of the nightmares he was sure were haunting her.
Also encouraging was that the strain around her eyes and on her forehead had eased after the last injection of pain medication had been administered.
But as much as he knew she needed as much rest as possible, he was also impatient for her to awaken so that maybe, when she wasn’t in so much pain, and perhaps the horror of what she’d endured wasn’t burning as brightly in her consciousness, then maybe, finally, she’d talk. To him. And only him. No one to interrupt them. No one to come to Gracie’s rescue when she was already in the safest place she could be. And once she was discharged, he was taking her to an even safer place so she’d have time to heal. He only prayed that in that time, he and Gracie could talk about the past, something he knew caused her as much pain as he’d endured.
Please God show me the way to help her past this. Grant us both the courage to face our pasts. And for the both of us to heal. Together. So that we can finally live the dream we wanted so much instead of a twelve-year-long nightmare.
If only the beating of a few hours ago was the only thing currently causing her terror. Even if she did awaken better able to comprehend and put enough distance between the attack and where she was now, there was still the issue of her fearing Zack more than she had the assholes who had beaten her so brutally. And if that wasn’t enough to make him vomit in the nearest trash can, he didn’t know what was.
“I know it’s risky but . . .”
Beau’s unfinished statement was enough to break the stranglehold of panic and the litany of what-ifs and he glanced up to see what his partner was going to say.
Beau broke off, uncertainty flickering in his eyes. Beau was in no way indecisive. It wasn’t like him to hesitate. Zack cocked an eyebrow and mentally braced himself as he waited for his partner to continue.
“What’s risky?” he prompted when Beau wasn’t forthcoming.
“I just wondered if having Ramie and Ari herewouldhelp. I mean make her feel more at ease,” Beau added. “I’m sure itwasstartling to wake up in the hospital and have a bunch of surly-ass, pissed-off men in her room.”
“No way,” Zack said emphatically. “No fucking way. No way I’d risk them like that. I can’t believe you’d even suggest something like that. Caleb would lose his damn mind.”
“Just hear me out,” Beau said, holding his hands up. “Of course we’d have heavy guard, and those fucking bastards are cowards anyway. They won’t show their heads in public or broad daylight. They do their shit off the grid and in the shadows. And if it helped ease Gracie’s fears and convinced her you weren’t going to murder her in her sleep, then it would be worth it, don’t you think?”
“I think it’s a bad idea,” Zack said stubbornly. “And even if we wanted to do it, Caleb would never agree. Hell, can you imagine if Ramie accidentally touched Gracie? Or if Gracie touched her, not knowing what it would do? Then not only will Gracie have gone through hell, but then Ramie will experience that same hell.”
“True,” Beau grudgingly admitted. “I hadn’t thought of that. Still, there has to be something we can do. When Gracie is released from this place, she isn’t going to want your help and she’s an absolute target. Short of kidnapping her, I don’t see what you can do.”
“Iwillkidnap her,” Zack said fiercely. “She already hates me. If making sure she stays alive until we bring down these assholes means she hates me more, then I can live with that. As long as she’saliveto hate me.”
Beau rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. “Okay, so we won’t bring the girls here. But I still think it’s a good idea to get them together with Gracie as soon as possible. This has clusterfuck written all over it.”
Zack mused a moment, glancing back through the doorway at Gracie a second time to make sure she was still resting quietly.
“There’s also the issue of Sterling,” Zack said, a foul taste in his mouth at the mere mention of the other man’s name. “I doubt the bastard will just stay away. They’re involved even though he says not romantically. But it would appear he keeps close tabs on her or at least has more than a passing acquaintance, so I’d expect him to roll in before she’s discharged.”
“I’ll get a man on him to monitor his comings and goings. At least you’ll get somewhat of a heads-up if he heads this way.”
“Lizzie is working on getting me another place to stay. I’m not going back to my apartment. The security there sucks. Ramie and Ari could come then as long as we have all safety measures in place.”
Beau nodded. “That’s a good idea. Let me know when Eliza finds you something. I’ll make sure it’s furnished and stocked with groceries and I’ll damn sure tighten security so you’ll know when an ant farts on the property.”
A light sound came from Gracie’s bed. Zack jerked around to see her stirring. The frown and strain were back on her face and she turned restlessly, a small sigh escaping her swollen lips.
Answering pain registered in Zack’s chest. He should be there at her bedside comforting her. Touching and holding her. Not be on the opposite end of the room because he couldn’t bear to see so much fear in her eyes when she looked at him. When she would look at him, that is. So far she’d avoided his gaze except for a very few times. As if she couldn’t bear to look athim.
“I’m going to run,” Beau said in a low voice. “But I’ll check back periodically. Text or call me if anything goes down or you need anything. And I’ll send Eliza over with dinner for you and Gracie, provided she feels up to eating. Maybe having Eliza here will ease some of Gracie’s fears.”
“Good idea,” Zack said. “I should have thought about her when you suggested bringing Ramie and Ari. But make damn sure Eliza doesn’t come alone. I’m not disrespecting her or her skills in the least, but I don’t want her going solo while these nut jobs are gunning for us.”
“No, I agree absolutely. I’d rather none of us fly solo anytime soon. They obviously have a hard-on for anyone remotely involved with DSS so all bets are off and I wouldn’t assume anyone is safe.”
“I want these guys, Beau,” Zack said in a low, fierce tone. “I want their blood.”
“You’ll get it if I have anything to do with it,” Beau vowed. “I have a few shots of my own to get in for what they did and tried to do to Ari.”
“Make damn sure she isn’t blaming herself,” Zack said.
Beau nodded and then clapped a hand over Zack’s shoulder.
“Okay, then I’m out of here right now. Seeing Gracie makes me want to get back to Ari and reassure myself she’s okay. This scares me, Zack,” Beau admitted. “If anything happened to Ari . . .”
“I get it,” Zack said in turn. “Believe me, I get it. Hey, do me a favor. When you call Eliza about dinner, ask her to buzz me on her way up so I can step outside to talk to her.”
“Will do,” Beau said. He blew out a long breath. “I’m sorry about this, man. Everything. I know it has to suck. I wish to hell there was something I could do—some way to help.”
“You can. By helping bring down the people who did this to her. I won’t rest until every last one of them is six feet under. Preferably in pieces.”
Beau nodded and then quietly walked away. Zack turned back to go inside the room and return to Gracie’s side, eager but at the same time reluctant for her to wake up again. Maybe this time he’d get some answers. There was only so much he could take, and this was eating him alive.
ZACKstood in Gracie’s cracked doorway as he waited for Eliza to make her appearance. After checking with the nurse to see if Gracie was under any dietary restrictions, he’d asked Eliza to bring soup. The nurse had told him that while there was nothing to prevent her from eating, it could very well be painful for her to chew and she might just not feel well enough to keep anything down.
He was going to sit by her bed and feed her himself if she needed it. He hated to think of her in any discomfort at all. He couldn’t take away the pain brought on by her injuries but he could at least ease any hunger she might have.
And hopefully Beau’s idea that another woman might make her feel more at ease was spot-on and Eliza would deliver in spades. No one could resist Eliza’s warm, earthy charm. She was as genuine as they came and could make anyone feel comfortable.
He just prayed today wasn’t her first failure.
A moment later his gaze caught Eliza turning the corner of the hallway and striding toward him at a brisk pace. When she approached, bags in hand, she automatically enfolded him in a fierce hug.
“How you holding up?” she asked gently as she pulled away.
“Not well,” he said.
There was little point in lying to her. Any idiot could see he was not okay.
She grimaced in sympathy and then handed a plastic takeout bag to him.
“I got the soup you asked for and I got you a sub, fully loaded, and there’s a bottle of my home-brewed tea for you in the bag as well.”
He smiled at her. “Thanks, Lizzie. You’re the best.”
“Beau brought me up to speed, so you don’t have to. I hope I can be of help to you, Zack. I know this has to be horrific for you, to not know what’s upset her so badly and for her to hate you. Man. I can’t even imagine what you’re thinking right now, what you’re going through. But listen. You know I’m only a phone call away and if you need anything, I mean anything at all, you call me. Got it? Day or night. I don’t give a crap what time it is.”
He reached for her and pulled her into another bone-crushing hug. As pathetic as it might have sounded, he just needed another of her hugs. She gave the best.
She kissed him on the cheek and followed up with a gentle hand to his face, patting lightly before withdrawing.
“Come on then. Let’s go see about Gracie.”
“She’s mostly slept since Beau left. She came around briefly but was in so much pain I had to call the nurse to get her more medicine. I probably shouldn’t wake her up. She needs the rest, I’m sure. But I’d feel better if she could keep some food down and also, you’re here, and I’ll be honest: I’m desperate. I’m willing to try anything to get through to her.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“I know, Lizzie. I know. I love you dearly. You and Beau. The others . . . You’re the only friends I have. I mean I stay in touch with a few buddies from high school but we see each other maybe once a year, although I haven’t seen them in the last two.”
“Can’t get rid of me,” she said lightly as she put the bag she was carrying down on the table by the bed. “Once you’re my friend, my friend you stay.”
Eliza turned to the bed and studied it for a moment.
“I assume this an adjustable bed and you could raise the back up a bit. Would make it far easier for her to eat.”
“Yeah. It does. I just have to be careful that movement doesn’t cause her even more pain. The doctor said she had a few cracked lower ribs. I don’t imagine that feels good with any sort of pressure on her abdomen.”
Eliza looked contemplative for a moment. “Actually, lying flat like she is, only elevated a bit is probably less comfortable than sitting up more. I had abdominal surgery several years ago and for a week after, the only way I could sleep was in a recliner. Lying flat on a bed? Agonizing.”
Zack frowned. “Damn. I didn’t think of that. I hope to hell she hasn’t been uncomfortable all this time.”
“Do you want to wake her or do you want me to?” Eliza asked quietly.
He hesitated, staring at Gracie’s closed eyes for a long moment. Then slowly he nodded. “Yeah, let’s give it a try. Maybe if you’re the first person she sees when she wakes up, instead of me, she won’t freak as badly.”
“I’m so sorry, Zack. I know that has to hurt you.”
He didn’t deny it but neither did he respond.
“Okay, well, you step back and get the soup ready to go. I’ll see if I can get Gracie to come around for me.”
Zack took a position by the sink, where he wasn’t directly in Gracie’s sight path but he could see her and Eliza both from where he stood. He found himself holding his breath when Eliza bent over Gracie and curled her own hand around Gracie’s.
“Gracie. Gracie, honey, can you wake up?”
Eliza was infinitely patient and she kept her tone low and soothing the entire time.
“Gracie. I have soup for you. You’re probably starving and could likely eat a horse by now, but I bet that jaw hurts like hell. Not to mention your poor mouth.”
Zack’s pulse accelerated when Gracie blinked and slowly turned her head in the direction of Eliza’s voice. Eliza smiled down at her and reached up with her free hand to push back the hair that fell over Gracie’s brow and partially obscured her sight.
“Hey, there you are,” Eliza said affectionately.
To a stranger, it would appear that Eliza and Gracie knew one another. That they had a close relationship. But that was the magic of Eliza.
Gracie’s face crinkled in confusion. She blinked again and moved her head slightly to the side as though she were trying to place Eliza.
“Do I know you?” Gracie asked, her voice hoarse and strained.
Her throat was probably swollen from the trauma and it likely hurt like hell to swallow. He was doubly glad he’d gotten Eliza to get soup. Chewing and swallowing would both be a bitch.
Eliza’s smile widened. “No, or at least you didn’t until now. My name is Eliza Cummings. How are you feeling? Okay, don’t answer that. Bad question, I know. Of course you feel like shit. And hon, not to offend you, but you look like someone ran over you, reversed and backed over you again.”
Gracie looked startled for the space of a moment before she visibly relaxed and let out a short laugh that ended with a cough and a groan.
“Do you think you could get down some soup? It’s nice and hot but not so hot it’ll burn your mouth. I’m sure your lips are pretty tender. It had time to cool off a bit on the drive over.”
Gracie nodded. “That sounds nice. Thank you.”
“Zack,” Eliza called softly. “Can you bring the soup over?”
Gracie’s gaze immediately tracked the room and she froze when it settled on Zack. A hurt, confused look simmered in her eyes and she glanced at Eliza as though she’d been betrayed by the other woman.
“Hon, don’t look like that,” Eliza said. “Zack is a great guy. He asked me to come. He thought you might feel better with another woman here. And hey, we need to even the odds at every opportunity, don’t you think?”
“Are you his wife?” Gracie asked, her stare returning to Zack.
It was the longest she’d ever looked at him at one time. She seemed to study him dispassionately. Almost as if she were analyzing him. What astonished him, though, was the look of pity she gave Eliza when she asked if Eliza was his wife. God, just what sort of sick fuck did she think he was?
Eliza let out a laugh. “Wife? Oh Lord no. I love him to pieces but we’d kill one another in the first twenty-four hours. We work together. Have been for a while now.”
Her expression grew confused again. He could see questions in her eyes but she closed her lips in a firm line and turned her face away from them both.
With a sigh, he held out the soup bowl to Eliza, and when she took it, he walked around to the opposite side of the bed so that Gracie was between them. Gracie averted her gaze to the ceiling as if shutting them both out.
One eyebrow cocked, Eliza shot him a quick look that clearly said,What now?
Zack pulled up the only other chair in the room and sat so close to the bed that he could prop his arm on the rail.
“Eat, Gracie. Eliza won’t bite. She’s the very best kind of person. If you won’t believe it of me, at least giveherthe benefit of the doubt.”
But first he needed to elevate her bed so she wouldn’t be wearing her meal.
He fiddled with the buttons on the side of the bed until he found the one that raised the head.
“I’m going to lift you up a bit so you can eat,” he said. “Let me know when to stop and tell me if it causes you more pain.”
Not waiting for a response, he pressed the button and a whirring sound started as the head half of the bed slowly elevated. At the first movement, Gracie’s hand flew to the railing as if to steady herself. Then she relaxed more, waited a moment and said, “That’s good.”
She sagged against the pillow and took several shallow breaths.
“Hurt?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No. It’s . . . better, actually.”
What a concession it must have been for her to speak directly to him. It beat screaming at him, or accusing him of doing whatever the hell it was he’d done, but then again, her yelling at him would be better than this icy silence between them.
He was silently begging her to talk to him. To tell him what had gone so horribly wrong in their relationship.
“Think you can handle it or do you want me to spoon it to you?” Eliza asked gently.
A rose color bloomed in Gracie’s cheeks, or at least the few places she wasn’t colored purple. She lowered her gaze as if shamed. Then she looked back up and slowly reached for the bowl.
“I can do it,” she said quietly.
She wiggled just a bit, repositioning herself before taking the bowl from Eliza’s grasp. Then she sank back down against the bed, seemingly exhausted from such a small task.
He was absolutely going to heed the doctor’s instructions to a T. And he’d use her period of recovery to wrestle whatever demons she had. Not to mention his own, since it was obvious thathewas her demon.
Each spoonful was painstakingly and slowly rendered. The hand holding the spoon shook, splashing some of the soup onto the sheet covering her lap.
Eliza immediately rose and ducked into the bathroom to get a towel. Then she placed it over Gracie’s lap so any further spillage wouldn’t get the sheets wet.
“Do you want to talk about what happened?” Eliza asked after a long period of silence.
Gracie was so shaken from her question that she dropped the spoon. Thankfully she’d already sipped the contents and had been on her way for another spoonful.
“The police have come by already,” Zack interjected. “They asked me to call them as soon as she woke up so she can give them a statement.”
Gracie closed her eyes and a thin stream of tears leaked down her bruised cheeks.
Eliza immediately took the hand that had been holding the spoon and she squeezed it but didn’t let it go. Instead she rested their linked hands on the mattress at Gracie’s side.
“Would you prefer then to wait until they arrive so you don’t have to repeat it?” Eliza asked.
“I don’t know anything,” Gracie said in a bleak voice. “One minute I was there. Alone. The next minute they were there. I don’t even remember most of what happened afterward. Just the horrific fear that it could happen again.”
Zack immediately stiffened. “Thatwhatcould happen again?”
Gracie closed her eyes and the hand Eliza held went white as she squeezed Eliza’s. Hard. But Eliza didn’t even flinch or act like she noticed.
All the color had leached from her face and she looked very much like she was going to be sick again. Eliza must have picked up on that fact as well because she immediately made a grab for the basin by the bed.
She merely slid it onto Gracie’s lap, taking the bowl that was still half full and putting it away.
“Gracie?” Zack prompted. “What could happen again?”
“In my worst imaginations did I ever think you capable of the things you’ve done, but to sit there and act like you don’t know, that you’re innocent . . .”
She turned her warm chocolate eyes on him, emotion simmering, shiny with unshed tears.
“Why, Zack? Did you hate methatmuch? Could you not just have broken up with me? Were you afraid I’d turn into some psycho stalker? Or were you worried I would make you look bad when you entered the pros? God, what you must have thought of me.”
She turned away again, tears running in endless streams. Zack was so dumbfounded by her barrage of heated questions that he couldn’t even form a coherent sentence. Eliza immediately found his gaze, her question evident but not vocalized. Did he want her to leave?
As much as he’d like her to do just that so he and Gracie would be alone to hash everything out, he knew that if he rushed this, he was going to lose big. He had to gain her trust in some way. No matter what it took.
He gave a quick shake of his head but kept his gaze fastened on Gracie and her tear-stained and bruised face.
“Gracie, look at me please,” Eliza said in a firm but gentle tone.
With seeming reluctance, Gracie complied.
Eliza gave her hand another squeeze. “Listen to me, hon. I don’t know what happened in your past. Only you know that. But what I do know is that Zack has looked for you—thought about you—every day for the last twelve years. He’s a good man. The very best. And he’s worried about you for so very long. Will you at least talk to him?”
“I just want to forget.Everything,” Gracie whispered brokenly.
His heart was in his throat. No matter that he knew he hadn’t done anything wrong.Graciethought so. She was convinced. Heartbreakingly so. How awful must it have been that she hadn’t even confronted him about it twelve years ago? And she couldn’t bring herself to even talk about it. She hated him. She wantednothingto do with him.
He surged upward from his chair and stalked to the foot of the bed, his hand gripping the back of his neck. He closed his eyes in utter frustration and despair. He was getting nowhere fast. He’d never wanted anything as badly as he wanted her trust. Her love. How the hell was he supposed to get both back when it was clear she neither trusted nor loved him?
“I’m tired,” Gracie whispered. “And I hurt. Can you push the call button?”
The question was obviously directed at Eliza. She never even looked his way while she made her request. Even so, he pushed forward and pressed the button himself.
For the briefest of moments their gazes locked as he once again stood to his full height. Her lips trembled and her eyes were still glossy with tears. The look of defeat in her features nearly unhinged him and broke his heart at the same time.
“Listen to me, Gracie,” he said in a quiet, firm voice.
He waited until she finally lifted her gaze to his, and he winced at the stark emotion in her eyes. The bareness. Like a desert.
“I need you to talk to me, but I understand that right now you’re upset and you’re hurting. But I’m not going away. Not until we have this—whatever this is—worked out between us. I won’t allow you to walk away from me again. Not when I’ve looked for you for so damn long. So here’s the way it’s going to be. While you are here, in this hospital, I or someone I work with will be with you 24/7. And when you’re discharged, you are going home. With me.”
She let out a strangled protest and he gently touched the tip of his finger to her swollen lips.
“Shhh, and hear me out.”
She went silent and he let his finger fall away instead of tracing the outline of her lips and imagine what she tasted like, if she still tasted as sweet as she had the last time he’d kissed her. Only, he hadn’t known it would be the last time. If he could only have that moment back.
“The men who attacked you went after you because of me—because of the people I work with. And you aren’t safe as long as they’re out there. Targeting their next victim. And I will not allow you to be at risk. Someone will have to go through me to get to you. Now, we can do it the easy way, which is you agreeing to come with me. Or we can do it the hard way and I carry you out of here.”
“What kind of people do you work for?” she asked, fear sparking in her eyes.
“The best, Gracie. The absolute best. Eliza works with me.” He nodded in Eliza’s direction. “I work for Devereaux Security Services. We protect people. Provide security. Any job that requires muscle and high technology.”
“Ironic,” she bit out, her eyes flashing with fire for the first time.
Well, he’d take anything over the fear and utter desolation that had seemed a permanent fixture in her soulful brown eyes.
She lifted her chin a notch higher, and she stared directly at him.
“Is this your penance?” she asked softly.
He swore violently, barely able to keep the blistering epitaphs from erupting off his tongue. He breathed in through his nostrils for a few moments as he sought to keep his temper in check.
He’d never been angry with Gracie. Never had a reason to. He wasn’t sure he had a reasonnowbut the anger was there all the same.
“Tell me what the hell it is I supposedly did,” he demanded. “It’s kind of hard to defend an action when you have no clue what it is!”
“Are you for real?” she asked incredulously.
Eliza leaned forward, interrupting the tense exchange. She squeezed Gracie’s hand in a gesture of reassurance but Gracie appeared to be as angry as he was. Again, he’d take that over defeat and sorrow any damn day of the week.
“Gracie, in order to atone for one’s sins, one has to know what sin has been committed,” Eliza said quietly. “You and Zack obviously have very differing accounts of what happened twelve years ago. Talk to him. Tell him why you’re angry. If nothing else, tell him to go to hell, but at least give him the opportunity to defend himself. Surely he deserves that much.”
Gracie’s voice cracked under the weight of emotion and tears rapidly filled her eyes once more.
“He deserves. God, that is so . . . I don’t even have words!” Gracie said tearfully. “I sure as hell didn’t deserve what he did tome—what he haddone. I can’t even think about that night or I get sick to my stomach.”
As if to drive home her point, she gestured wildly for the basin, which Eliza promptly shoved onto her tray, just as Gracie heaved the contents of her stomach inside it.
ONCEagain, Zack had been forced from Gracie’s room while the nurse did an assessment and made her more comfortable. Eliza stood next to him, watching the goings-on through the narrow glass panel above the knob.
She shook her head, her eyes awash with sympathy. “I don’t know what to say right now,” she murmured. “I can’t even imagine. I’m so sorry, Zack. This has to be hell for you.”
“Evidently it’s hell for her too,” Zack said bleakly.
He rubbed his face tiredly, lack of sleep fast catching up to him. Maybe he’d never sleep again. How could he when whenever he closed his eyes, all he could see was terror blazing in hers. The shadows under her eyes. How utterly fragile and breakable she appeared.
No, that wasn’t accurate. She was already broken. Anyone with eyes could see that.
God, it scared him to death to see her in such a state. What the hell had happened twelve years ago? He was getting damn tired of the issue being dodged and Gracie’s refusal to let him in on the big goddamn secret. Especially when he seemed to be the only person who didn’t know what the fuck was going on.
“I wonder if you shouldn’t have a psychologist brought in,” she said in a low voice, ensuring it didn’t carry through the door. “She looks so . . . fragile.”
“I’ve used the exact same word to describe her more than once since seeing her in the art studio.”
“It’s evident she truly is frightened. Whatever it is she thinks you did is very real to her.”
“Tell me about it,” he muttered. Then he cupped the back of his neck and dug his fingers into the aching muscle. “Can you do some looking? You know where I’m from. Where we’re from. Can you go back twelve years or around that time, before and after the last time I saw her, and see if anything pops up? Something major? If it happened in our pissant little town then you can be sure it was all over the bloody place.”
“I can try, though I did a fair bit more poking around after you left my apartment this morning. And so far, I’m hitting a brick wall.”
Which is exactly how he felt, only in his case, it felt as though he werebeatinghis head repeatedly against that wall. And he was starting to feel the ache all the way to his soul.
“Oh, here she comes now,” Eliza said, hastily moving back from the doorway.
Zack surged to attention, scraping at the bristle of his unshaven face. He needed to get cleaned up. He looked—and smelled—like a goat. He was surprised the nursing staff hadn’t thrown him out or at least into a nearby shower.
The nurse quietly closed the door behind her as she stepped into the hall to join Eliza and Zack.
“How is she?” Zack asked urgently.
The nurse’s pretty face twisted into a grimace. “Exhausted. Hurting. Scared. At the end of her rope. Pretty much all apply here.”
Zack bit back a sharp curse.
“I gave her a sedative to help her relax. She should sleep soundly for the next several hours. You should go home. Get freshened up. There’s nothing more you can do here today.”
“I’m not leaving her,” Zack said emphatically.
The nurse hesitated and then blew out her breath in a long sigh. “She doesn’t want visitors. At least not today. So you should go. Let her rest. Get some rest yourself.”
Eliza nudged him in the ribs and stared pointedly at his unshaven jaw and his unkempt clothing.
“Let me make myself clear, ma’am,” Zack said, forcing calm he didn’t feel into his words. “Gracie has no one. And I mean no one. She is completely alone in the world apart from me. Now, do you really think it’s a good idea to leave a woman who just endured a horrific traumatic event completely alone? What if she wakes while I’m gone? Who the hell is going to be here to reassure her that those sons of bitches can’t hurt her anymore?”
The nurse’s entire face went soft and she reached out to squeeze his arm.
“She’s very lucky to have you then, if she has no one else. And she won’t be alone. I promise. We are monitoring her very closely and will continue to do so overnight. But you staying here at her bedside while she sleeps does neither of you any good. Go home. Grab a shower and something to eat. Try to sleep if you can, even if it’s only for a few hours. Then, when you come back tomorrow, everyone will be in a better frame of mind.”
Zack shook his head. “You aren’t getting this. Gracie was attacked and brutally beaten in a methodical, planned way. And you want me to leave her alone. Unguarded. Where anyone at all could walk into her room and kill her. Hell, they could kidnap her. Who on this floor would be able to stop them? And I can guaran-damn-tee you that they’ll be armed. They have absolutely no compunction about using violence to achieve their means. You see what they do to defenseless women. They tortured and killed another young woman who’d just given birth. So while I appreciate your concern for Gracie and her mental well-being, right now I am most concerned with her physical safety.”
The nurse went pale and she swallowed nervously. “Why weren’t we told this? No one told us!”
Her voice was rising, on the verge of hysteria. Zack put a hand out to ease her panic.
“I’m not going to allow them to hurt anyone here. The police are coming when Gracie wakes up next. In the meantime, someone from my security company will be here round the clock, and no one who isn’t medical staff or employed by DSS will be allowed access to her room. Someone will be stationed here at all times.”
“I understand your priorities, sir,” the nurse said, sincerity ringing in her voice. “But just as you have to take into consideration what is best for her in order for you to do your job effectively, so too must I prioritize her well-being, both emotional and physical, as long as she is a patient on my floor. And she was quite adamant that she wanted no further visitors today. So if someone is posted here—and they are more than welcome as the staff here would feel much better if there was tight security—then they must take position outside her room.”
“Ouch,” Eliza said, her lips twitching with humor. “I guess you’ve been schooled now.”
Zack shot her a glare. He was in no mood for her sharp wit. He needed about twenty-four hours of sleep, a hot shower, a pot of coffee and to get his hands on the bastards who’d hurt Gracie before he would be remotely mollified.
“It wasn’t my intention to be rude,” the nurse began.
“Oh no, you weren’t rude,” Eliza said, her eyes sparkling with laughter. “Not at all. It’s nice to see the men of DSS taken down a notch or two. It keeps their egos in check.”
The nurse smiled. “That bad, huh. Let me guess. And you’re the only female in the ranks.”
“Got it in one,” Eliza said with a grin.
“I’m Jacquie,” the nurse offered, extending her hand to Eliza.
“Hi, Jacquie,” Eliza returned. “I’m Eliza and this surly guy is Zack. We both work for Devereaux Security.”
Zack’s head was about to explode. He started to ask Eliza if she was high on something. How could she be out here, ribbing, teasing,jokingwhen Gracie lay on the other side of the door, curled into a ball, having cried those silent silver streaks until the nurse had administered the medication, at which point her eyelids had fluttered slowly until her lashes finally came to rest against her cheeks.
Jacquie gave him a thorough assessment, staring intently enough to cause heat to flood his cheeks. Hehatedbeing the object of scrutiny.
“I tell you what, Zack,” she said, using the name Eliza had provided. “I just came on an hour ago, so I’ll be here for the next eleven hours. You and Eliza run home, change, grab something to eat. I’ll call down to security and have them post a guard outside her door and I’ll also stay on this end of the floor so I can eyeball her door until y’all get back.”
Okay, so Eliza was a bloody genius who now had the nursing staff eating out of her hand. He silently groaned when Eliza turned her smug smile in his direction. He flipped her the bird when Jacquie’s attention was drawn to Eliza—and her cheeky victory smile. He shook his head. Sassy little heifer.
“Well, you heard the lady. And weareintruding on her turf,” Eliza said pointedly. “But we don’t get all riled up like you men do and start pissing on everything to mark your territory.”
Jacquie laughed. Zack just rolled his eyes. God save him from incorrigible females.
Zack wasted no time when he arrived at his apartment. Eliza had insisted on coming with him, so he’d have backup, since his security had been breached. But he still hurried, not wanting to expose Eliza—or himself—to further risk. If Gracie weren’t in the picture, then hell yeah. He’d bait a trap and he and Beau would run round-the-clock surveillance until the fuckers bit. But shewasin the picture. And she needed him, not that she’d admit or accept that, no matter what denials burst off her tongue.
His only thought was to get back to Gracie. He could be relentless. Hewasrelentless. He hadn’t gotten this far by wimping out. One had to be ruthless in order for the cards to fall one’s way. If anyone had ever thought him savage and single-minded, focusing on one goal and one goal only, then they’d know he’d locked on to his target and nothing would deter him from crossing the goal line this time.
Third and long. There’s the snap. Fake to the wide end. Looking . . . looking. He’s tucked the ball! Cut to the inside. Another fake! Oh wait! He just hurdled the defensive end! Folks, does this young man have moves or what? He breaks the tackle! Running . . . running. . . . Ladies and gentlemen! He could go.All. The. Way!Touchdown! With twenty-eight seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Zack Covington has just scored what is potentially the game-winning touchdown!
Remnants of that night. First-round playoffs. They’d been a Cinderella story from the onset of the season. No one ever expected them to make the playoffs. They were rebuilding. Replacing key positions vacated by trades, retirement and injuries.
Even the coach had admitted that they’d surpassed his wildest imaginings. With a majority rookie team plus a few irreplaceable seasoned veterans, they’d stormed onto the football field in week one of the regular season and they hadn’t looked back once. Sixteen and O. The start of the perfect season. Bye in the first round. The W in the second playoff. One more week until the big game.
It had been a huge night. Maybe the biggest night of his life. Hisoldlife. He wasn’t that starry-eyed, optimistic kid he’d once been. And the brief respite from so much ice and cold surrounding his heart had been glorious. It had lasted for maybe two minutes. Two wonderful minutes where the numbness couldn’t find him.
And then he’d seen a few of his teammates looking toward the boxes in the stands. One of them balled his fingers into a fist, pounded it against his chest before kissing it and flinging it skyward, straight in the direction of where the player’s wife and baby son sat somewhere in the sea of fans.
It had taken a space of a moment for Zack’s feet to touch back down on earth. There was no one for him to share this with. Gracie was gone.
This time his dream wouldn’t elude him. This time, for once, he wanted something for himself.
He wanted her not to look at him as though he were some monster. He wanted the fear in her eyes to be replaced with laughter and happiness. He wanted to love her.
And he wanted her to love him.
He finished shoving the clothing he needed into an overnight bag and then collected the few toiletries he required from the bathroom. He’d need to go shopping for Gracie after her release from the hospital. Or perhaps Eliza would be willing to pick up a few things for her.
He hurried back to the kitchen area, where Eliza had posted herself so she had a clear view of the front door.
“You ready?” he asked.
Eliza nodded. “But Zack, Jacquie is right. You need to eat. You look terrible.”
He grunted. “Gee, thanks.”
She shrugged. “Just keeping it real.”
“I’ll grab something at the hospital when the cafeteria opens. Gracie will probably want something then too, provided she can eat.”
“Her throat looked pretty bruised. I’d stick with soup or broth for now. That’s likely what they’ll send up on her meal trays anyway.”
“On your toes, Lizzie,” he murmured as they exited his apartment.
“Always,” she said lightly.
Their feet made the lightest of sounds on the concrete sidewalk. At the gate, Zack gave a gentle push, irritated that it squeaked loudly. Fuckers had obviously broken it when they’d broke in to dump Gracie.
They were nearly to Zack’s SUV when a dark, shadowy form appeared just a few feet in front of them.
“Down!” Eliza barked, shoving at Zack.
He dropped and rolled. Before he could get back to his feet, he was hit by what felt like a truck full of concrete. He let out a guttural sound and immediately went limp.
Surprised by the move, his attacker stumbled, unable to bear Zack’s weight. Zack took full advantage, ramming his shoulder into the guy’s midriff and taking him down hard on the asphalt surface.
Zack was just pissed-off enough, and he’d had to keep his fury leashed the entire goddamn day, that he let the lion out of his cage with a roar.
His sound of rage echoed across the parking lot. His attacker hit the ground, Zack down on top of him. He felt the harsh exhalation of the other man’s breath against his neck. Zack swung, punching viciously.
He reeled back when one of his attacker’s fists connected with his jaw. Goddamn it.
Zack rolled, remaining in motion, not wanting to present too easy a target.
He was tackled, his motion abruptly ceasing. And then, before any more blows could be landed from either side, Eliza’s command cracked the night.
“Hands up where I can see them, asshole! Give me a reason to shoot. Go ahead. You’ll make my entire week,” she snarled.
Zack was freed and the man slowly stepped away. Zack shoved to his feet and was on the guy in a split second. He grabbed one arm and twisted it hard behind his back, whirling the guy into motion. His forward momentum made the rotation easier and Zack pinned the guy’s arm high behind his back to render him immobile.
“Get me a goddamn light, Lizzie.”
A second later, a flashlight turned on and the beam tracked up the attacker’s body and then to his face.
“What the fuck?” Zack demanded. “Sterling?What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
BLOODtrickled down Sterling’s nose and his eyes blazed with fury, reflecting eerily by the flashlight Eliza was currently blinding him with.
“What the fuck is your problem?” Zack roared. “How about you take a trip downtown on assault charges.AfterI beat the shit out of you.”
Sterling’s lips curled with contempt. “You fucking pussy. You couldn’t take me in a fight. You’re too much of a goddamn pansy to ever get your hands dirty. No, you have others beat up on womenforyou.”
Zack punched him squarely in the jaw, sending the other man reeling backward. Sterling regained his balance and lunged for Zack, propelling both men to the asphalt parking lot.
A shot sounded, jerking Zack up. Sterling reacted no differently, hitting the ground with speed that told Zack the man was trained. His instincts were too good. Too practiced. The suave, wealthy and polished exterior he crafted covered up the raw, street-smart man underneath.
“What the fuck, Lizzie?” Zack roared. “Are you trying to kill me?”
Eliza huffed out in exasperation. “Look, we don’t have time for this shit. We’re out in the open. Not good. You’re calling attention to us. Not good. Need I go on?”
“And you didn’t just shoot a giant fucking firework into the sky?” Zack asked incredulously.
“Someone had to do something,” she pointed out. “Now, what do you say we have this conversation somewhere other than the middle of a public parking lot.”
“We’re done here,” Zack said flatly.
He didn’t know what Sterling’s issue was, but his insinuation that Zack had been purposely responsible for Gracie’s beating? What the fuck? Zack couldn’t even see straight, his vision was so clouded with red rage.
“No, thehellwe’re done,” Sterling said. “Where is Anna-Grace? What did you do to her?”
Zack looked at Sterling like he’d grown a second head. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“She’s disappeared, but that shouldn’t be news to you. Coincidentally, she disappears the day after you show up in my studio, harass her and scare the living hell out of her. It doesn’t take much effort to connect the dots here. But you fucked up this time, Covington. Maybe she had no one who cared about her then. But she does now. She’s important to me. And Iwillprotect her even if it means taking you down for good.”
The roar in Zack’s ears was nearly deafening. He was tired of Gracie’s—and now Sterling’s—hints of some past horrific event. He was tired of being found guilty for something he knew goddamn well he hadn’tdone.
He’dharassedGracie? Since when did wanting to know if the woman you loved more than anything in the world was okay constitute harassment?
And now this polished, prissy motherfucker was going to threaten him? Take him down? What thehell?
“I’ve about had enough of this dancing around the issue shit,” Zack growled. “Someone is going to tell me what thefuckit is I supposedly did to Gracie twelve years ago. Because looking at things from my side? I got dumped. Not only did I get dumped but I didn’t even get the courtesy of a ‘have a nice life’ or ‘goodbye.’ Not even a ‘fuck off, I never want to see you again.’ I got nothing. So for twelve years—twelve fucking years—I’ve thought the worst. And believe me when I say I have a rather vivid imagination. Then I finally locate her, only she’s not hurt. She doesn’t need anything. She’s happy. Started a new life. But the icing on the cake? She acts like I’m some kind of goddamn monster. Like I’m going to hurt her when she knows it’s the last fucking thing I’d ever do. I would have given her the entire world, but she pissed that into the wind when she disappeared, leaving me to think the absolute worst.”
Sterling stirred and looked very much like he wanted to start round three. Zack bristled, every muscle in his body tensing in readiness. Sterling wanted a fight, and Zack was spoiling to give him one.
“Damn it, you two!” Eliza exclaimed. “Swear to God, the next one to throw a punch is going to get shot. I wouldn’t even be prosecuted. They’d consider me to have saved the world from Dumb and Dumber here.”
“You arenothelping, Eliza,” Zack said through his clenched jaw.
“Listen up, because we don’t have a lot of time,” she said in a brisk voice. She pointed her finger—the one not curled around the trigger of her pistol—at Sterling, irritation evident in her eyes and words. “You’re coming with us.”
The automatic denial was said simultaneously by both men. Zack shot the other man a glare and then turned his glare on his current pain in his ass.
“You’re right. We don’t have a lot of time, which is why I’m not wasting it on his sorry ass,” Zack said, gesturing toward Sterling.
“The only place I’ll follow you to is hell,” Sterling bit out. “Just to make sure you stay there.”
“Shut up! Jesus. And they say women never shut up,” Eliza grumbled. “Now get in.Both of you!”
She gestured with the gun, indicating that Zack and Sterling should both get into Zack’s SUV.
“You drive, Zack. Don’t give a fuck where. But long enough that I can have a little chat with our friend here and so I can keep a gun on him in case he decides to do something really stupid like pissing me off even more.”
“You’re serious?” Zack asked in clear astonishment.
“Do Ilooklike I’m joking?”
Sterling didn’t look any more pleased than Zack but it was clear he had a healthy respect for the gun Eliza held.
Eliza yanked open the door to the backseat and pointed her gun at Sterling, then whipped it sideways, motioning for him to get in.
Sterling emitted a string of curses and Zack could swear he heard the other man mumble something about crazy-ass women with guns. If this weren’t such a what-the-fuck moment, Zack would laugh at the other man’s bemusement. It was always fun to watch people’s realization that Eliza wasn’t a harmless ball of fluff. She was always underestimated, a fact she’d told Zack had benefited her on more than one occasion.
Shaking his head and having his own sour thoughts about women—a particular woman—with guns, Zack climbed into the driver’s seat and cranked the engine.
“Where we going, Lizzie?” Zack asked in resignation.
He absolutely believed she’d shoot one or both of them. She wouldn’t kill them, but she’d certainly do some minor damage. She was a crack shot and could hit a target the size of a dime smack in the middle. So if she decided to permanently rearrange a guy’s balls, he knew she was absolutely capable.
“Don’t care,” she muttered, obviously still aggravated. “I need a few minutes and then you can drop him back off a block from here and let him walk back to his vehicle. By then the cops will likely be here.”
“And I’m supposed to explain how I arrived on foot at an apartment complex I don’t live in, to my vehicle that is parked there?” Sterling snapped.
“That’s your problem, not mine,” she said sweetly. “I’m sure you’ll have no interest in talking to the cops, seeing as you assaulted one of the tenants. A night in lockup might do you good, although you’d be sprung in under an hour, I’m sure.”
“Thirty minutes,” he snarled. “And so help me, you little wench. This isn’t finished, nor will I forget it.”
“Yawn,” she said, dragging out the word as if she had indeed yawned.
“So speak, Lizzie,” Zack said impatiently. “We don’t have all night.”
There was a pause. Silence filled the interior of the SUV and then Eliza finally spoke.
“Zack is getting pretty damn tired of the jabs about some mysterious event that transpired twelve years ago. Hell,I’mtired of it and I’m sure he’s hit his head against the brick wall more often than I have.”
That was the fucking truth. And then he realized what Eliza was doing. He’d been so focused on getting into and out of his complex that Sterling’s reference to what had happened twelve years ago had bounced off him and hadn’t been followed up on. Damn it.
His fingers curled around the steering wheel, the skin over his knuckles stretching thin. He was careful to make no sound. His respirations even shallowed as he strained to hear whatever it was Sterling had to say.
“You’re kidding, right?” Sterling asked in disbelief.
“Does it look like I’m joking?” Eliza ground out. “Start talking, Sterling. Either that or I’m going to start shooting, and in these close quarters, I can’t guarantee I won’t hit anything vital, although I’d really prefer not to have to clean up your blood from all over the inside of the vehicle. Blood makes me sick.”
“Unbelievable,” Sterling murmured. “I wonder, has he got all of you believing this innocent-victim act? Are you supposed to feel sorry for the asshole? Has he been telling you that Anna-Grace walked out on him without explanation, without a word, and he never saw her again?”
“I want to hearyourstory,” Eliza persisted. “We know Zack’s story. Now we want yours. Or what yousayreally happened. Cough it up.”
Zack went completely silent. Hopefully Sterling would get over his issues with Zack long enough to give them the information he so badly wanted—needed. But at the same time, he braced himself, holding his breath, because it had to be bad.
Instinctively, he knew it wasn’t something minor. It had to have been huge to send Gracie running. Away from him. And twelve years of silence? Of thinking he had betrayed her? Zack had always made it clear that Gracie could come to him for anything. He’d thought she always did. But it seemed when she needed him the absolutely most, she’d turned away from him and left without a word.
“Christ,” Sterling muttered.
“Just say it, for fuck’s sake,” Eliza pressed.
Zack knew that tone. Knew she was fast running out of patience, and if Sterling didn’t start talking soon, she would likely lose her temper and start doing bodily injury to the man.
“He had herraped,” Sterling said in disgust.
Zack slammed on the brakes so hard the SUV fishtailed, swerved left and right before he wrestled the steering wheel enough to screech to a halt on the shoulder of the highway. He whirled around in his seat, the seat belt flying as he disengaged it.
Rage smoldered through his veins and he fixed Sterling with the full force of his wrath.
“What thefuckare you talking about? You better not leave a goddamn word out and you better have a solid goddamn reason for even suggesting such a thing. Ilovedher. I fuckingadoredher. She was my entirelife! I worshipped the ground she walked on. I would have killed the bastard who laid hands on her. Tell me it isn’t true.Tell me she wasn’t raped.”
Sterling’s brows drew together and he looked at Zack in confusion. His gaze flickered as he continued to study the seething man. The air in the SUV crackled with electric tension. Zack had never wanted to take someone apart with his hands more than right now.
Was Sterling telling the truth? Had Gracie been raped? And what the fuck was he sayinghe’dhad her raped? He was near to exploding and Eliza must have sensed it because she hurriedly intervened, putting her hand up to squeeze Zack’s hand that gripped the back of his seat.
“Don’t you leave a fucking word out,” Zack said around his clenched jaw. “So help me God, if you fuck me around on this I will make your life a living hell.”
Sterling continued to stare at him and Zack could see the wheels turning in the other man’s head. And Zack was beginning to grow antsy under the other man’s scrutiny. Almost as if Sterling was passing judgment over Zack. Fuck that. He didn’t need this goddamn pansy-ass bastard’s approval or his belief. He didn’t give a fuck what Sterling thought. The only person Zack needed to get through to was Gracie.
“Jesus Christ,” Sterling breathed, finally responding after his intense analyzation. “You didn’t do it, did you?”
“Didn’t dowhat?” Zack yelled. “No one willtellme what the fuck happened! I’m tired of everyone speaking in riddles. Just tell me what supposedly happened twelve years ago.”
Sterling rubbed a hand over his face, sagging back against the seat.
“Jesus,” Sterling muttered. “Anna-Grace is convinced you betrayed her. It’s not something she merely suspects. She knows without doubt that you orchestrated the entire sordid mess.”
“So why do you not think Zack did it now?” Eliza asked curiously.
“No one can fake that kind of reaction,” Sterling said in a low voice. “That kind of shock and surprise. Fuck. He didn’t even know about it. Am I right, Covington?”
Zack gave a clipped nod.
“Butyouknow what happened,” Eliza pressed. “She confided in you.”
“Finally,” Sterling admitted. “It took a long time. I mean I knew something bad had happened to her. She was so fragile. And sad. There was so much sorrow in her eyes that it hurt to look at her at times.”
“Christ,” Zack said, nearly choking on the knot forming in his throat. “She thinks I did that to her? That I set it up?”
He couldn’t wrap his mind around it. What the hell could he have done to ever make Gracie think he would do such a thing?
“Did she say why she thinks Zack was behind it?” Eliza asked curiously.
Sterling shook his head. “I asked. I mean from the way she described your relationship I found it hard to believe myself. But she was so adamant. Said she knew without a doubt that you’d horribly betrayed her. And after that one time, she never spoke of it again. She refused. I could tell it still hurt her even after twelve years.”
“Duh,” Eliza muttered. “Women don’t get over shit like that overnight.”
“But I didn’t do anything!” Zack said, his voice rising. “You can’t think I’d do something like that, Lizzie.”
She squeezed his hand again. “No, I don’t think so at all, Zack. But she does. And she’s the most important person in this equation. It doesn’t matter what I think. She’s the one who is convinced you fucked her over. Until you can convince her otherwise, nothing changes.”
“I have to get back to her,” Zack said resolutely.
His gaze flickered over Sterling.
“We’ll dump him back at his car and then we have to go.”
“Whoa, wait a minute. So youdohave her,” Sterling said with a frown.
Zack sighed and quickly brought Sterling up to speed on the events of the last twenty-four hours. He wasn’t sure when he’d stopped viewing Sterling as the enemy—a competitor—but it was clear the man cared about Gracie. Gracie had confided in him something she likely had never confided in anyone else. So whether Zack liked it or not, it would appear that Sterling was an important figure in Gracie’s life. Perhaps her only friend and ally.
“Son of a bitch!” Sterling spat out. “Who the fuck beats up an innocentwomanjust to send a message?”
“Cowards. That’s who,” Eliza said, her features wrinkling in distaste.
“How is she?” Sterling demanded. “I’d like to see her.”
Zack hesitated. The very last thing he wanted was for Sterling to have access to Gracie. But then again, perhaps allowing it would go a long way in rebuilding her trust in him.
“Just what is between you and Gracie?” Zack asked carefully.
He wasn’t agreeing to anything until he had a clearer picture of Sterling’s relationship with her.
Sterling studied him for a long moment. “It’s not like that,” Sterling began. “I’m her friend. Her only friend. I care a lot about her. She’s like a little sister to me.”
Zack’s eyes narrowed in disbelief. Gracie was hardly the kind of woman most men would view as their sister. She was beautiful. So beautiful it hurt to look at her.
Sterling let out a sound of exasperation. “Okay, sure, in the beginning I was interested. But after getting to know her, I realized that the last thing she needed was a relationship. But what shedidneed was a friend. Someone she could trust. And it took a long time for her to trust me.”
Zack felt grudging respect for the other man. It certainly appeared as though he’d been good to Gracie. Had been there when she needed someone. But it burned like acid in his mind and heart thathehadn’t been the one she leaned on. He hadn’t been her rock, her friend, her lover. He’d been . . . nothing. When she’d been everything in the world to him, she’d thought he’d betrayed her in the worst way.
He wanted to throw up.
“I need to know everything,” Zack said quietly. “We’ll drop you back by your truck so you can follow us back to the hospital. You can see Gracie. Maybe it will appease her fears if she sees a familiar face and understands that I’m not going to . . . hurt . . . her.”
He nearly strangled saying the last. As if he’d ever hurt her. But she didn’t believe the same. She believed he’dalreadyhurt her.
“Okay, but I really don’t know that much. Sorry. She wasn’t very forthcoming on the details. All she said was the man she loved had set her up and wanted to get rid of her. She then told me that you arranged for her to be raped by . . .”
He broke off and glanced warily at Zack as if afraid of the impending outburst.
“Just say it,” Zack said through his teeth.
What could be worse than what Sterling had already related?
He should have known it could get worse. It couldalwaysget worse.
“She was raped by three of your friends,” Sterling said softly.
Zack’s mouth flapped open and shut. He was utterly robbed of speech. His mind was such a red cloud of fury he couldn’t breathe. He didn’t think it could get any worse than Gracie being raped and believing it was at his instigation. But she hadn’t simply been raped. She’d been gang-raped. By people he trusted! People he calledfriends? He was a hair’s breath from completely and utterly losing all control and turning over the entire goddamn world to find the sons of bitches who’d violated Gracie in the most demeaning, dehumanizing manner possible.
“What friends?” he demanded hoarsely.
“I don’t know. I swear,” Sterling said. “She didn’t get into much detail. All she said was that three of your friends raped her at your request. That you wanted to get rid of her for good. It happened while you were at school. The day before you were due to come home again. She said you wanted the job done and for her to be gone by the time you got home from school.”
Tears of rage and anguish swirled chaotically in his eyes. This was insane. It was something straight out of fiction or some bizarre movie. This shit didn’t happen in real life, did it?
Hisfriendshad raped the woman he loved? Supposedly at his behest? And shebelievedthat?
How could she have had so little faith in him? She should have come to him. Immediately. God, he would have killed every last one of them. He would have done anything in the world to protect her, to make it better. He would have gladly spent the rest of his life in jail if it meant seeking justice for the horrific crime committed against her. He would have spared no regret and he would have made damn sure that Gracie was taken care of for the rest of her life. Had whatever she needed. And she damn well would have known that he loved her with every piece of his soul.
Someone he’d trusted had violated the woman he loved? It was no secret that Zack was solidly in love with Gracie. That he’d planned his entire life around her. Everyone knew it. Even his asshole of a father. Even his father had resigned himself to the fact that Gracie was going nowhere. That she’d forever be a part of his son’s life. That for Zack everything,everythingrevolved around her and her happiness. There was nothing he wouldn’t do, wouldn’t sacrifice for her love and happiness.
“So you know nothing at all other than she was raped. By my friends. Because I asked them to.”
He could barely even get the words out. They choked him. The taste was so bitter in his mouth that he gagged.
This wasn’t happening. After twelve years without her, he’d dreamed of this moment. The moment when they were reunited. Perhaps he’d imagined it a bit too optimistically. Maybe he’d truly thought that whatever misunderstanding had driven them apart could be overcome with a few words and that everything would be okay. That they’d resume their life together and live happily ever after.
How the hell were theyevergoing to be able to overcome this? He didn’t even know where to start.
Why would his friends rape her? Why would they try to tear them apart? Well, they certainly hadn’t tried. They’d succeeded beyond his wildest imagination. But it still kept coming back to . . .why? Had they hated her so much? Had they hated him so much? Was it jealousy? Resentment for what they deemed his perfect life? How could anyone do something so utterly despicable?
He searched his memory, trying to remember how they’d acted around her. Granted, she hadn’t been exposed to them often. Zack hadn’t wanted to share her with his friends or anyone else for that matter. He was extremely possessive of Gracie and his time with her. Had they resented being second best to a mere girl? Had they set out to ruin not only her life but his as well? He couldn’t wrap his head around any of it.
But he didn’t remember any animosity. His group of friends had been polite and respectful. They’d even teased and played around with her in an effort to make her feel comfortable. Gracie had been terribly shy. Her self-esteem and self-confidence hadn’t been strong. He’d used every opportunity to build her up. To make her secure in the knowledge that she was perfect to him. That he loved her, wouldalwayslove her.
The only person who’d been overtly hostile toward her and had never made the effort to disguise his dislike of her had been his father. But after that first time he’d brought her home to meet his father, he made sure the two were never exposed to one another again.
He couldn’t put his finger on a single guy from his large group of friends who he truly believed would do something so despicable. And yet Sterling had said she’d been raped bythreeof them.
Bile rose in his throat, threatening to erupt from his churning stomach. She’d been raped by three men. One was bad enough for any woman. But three? It didn’t bear thinking about. He was devastated. So heartbroken that he didn’t even know what to do, to say. How could he possibly make something like this go away? She’d live the rest of her life reliving the trauma of that event and there wasn’t a goddamn thing he could do to make it better.
Had she cried while they were holding her down? Had she called for him? Had she begged him to save her? What had she felt when she had been convinced that he had been the one to orchestrate the entire thing? And what the hell wouldevergive her that idea in the first place?
He was going to lose it. His hands shook around the steering wheel as he pulled back onto the road. His pulse was thumping wildly in his heart, at his neck, at his temples. The road stretched and blurred in his vision. Tears burned his eyelids and he rubbed them away with the back of one arm.
He had to keep it together. He couldn’t confront Gracie this way. Not when he wanted to rage at the world. He wanted to destroy something. He wanted the names of the men who’d done this because he would not rest until they had all paid for hurting Gracie. He would destroy every last one of them. He would not rest until justice was served.
Sweet, beautiful, good-to-her-toes Gracie. What kind of monsters would do that to her? And to somehow convince her that Zack had been behind it all? That he wanted to wash his hands of her in the worst possible fashion?
It was so sick and twisted that Zack couldn’t even comprehend such evil. From his friends. Guys he’d called friends. That they would gang up on a defenseless girl and ruthlessly torment her, degrade her and destroy her, driving her away from Zack forever.
How the hell had she made it alone? No degree. No training. No skills. On her own without anyone in the world to lean on at such a young age. God, he wanted to cry like a damn baby.
How many nights had she cried herself to sleep? How hard had it been for her to heal from such devastation without anyone to help her, to love and support her? He had been Gracie’s only source of support. No one else had given a damn about her, and in his youthful exuberance and optimism, he’d been convinced that he was all she needed. That he could provide everything for her. That she didn’t need anyone else and neither did he.
God, how wrong he’d been.
Because Gracie had no one.
Gracie thought the man who’d professed to love her had set her up for a horror no woman should ever endure.
She thought the man she’d loved had lied to her. Had played her, manipulated her, and ultimately betrayed her and thrown her away like she was nothing more than a piece of trash. Not important. Like she was no one. Like she was a nuisance and a hindrance to Zack’s life.
“Zack,” Eliza said softly, shaking him from his torturous thoughts. “You okay?”
“No,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “No, the hell I’m not okay. I’llneverbe okay. How could I be after hearing that? She thinks I had hergang-rapedby three of myfriends,Lizzie. She thinks I discarded her like yesterday’s garbage. How am I supposed to ever get over that? How am I supposed to ever get her to trust me, much less love me again?”
Eliza sighed. “I’m sorry, Zack. I don’t even know what to say. This is one fucked-up situation. Any idea which ‘friends’ it could have been?”
“No. But Iwillfind out,” he said in an icy, frigid tone that promised retribution like never before dished out. “So help me God, when I found out who touched her, who hurt her, who put their filthy goddamn hands on her, I’ll rip their fucking nuts off and shove them down their throats.”
“I’d be glad to help you,” Sterling said mildly. “I’m not without resources myself, and perhaps, as I’m not you, and the three in question would understandably be more wary around you, then I would have better luck finding out what we need to know.”
“I may take you up on that,” Zack said.
“Call me anytime. Gracie is my friend. Yes, at one time I entertained the idea that I’d like her to be more. But it was obvious she most needed a friend and so I filled that requirement. And now? I honestly do view her as a little sister, so you needn’t be worried about me influencing her one way or another.”
How ironic that a day before Zack would have gladly laid Sterling out for even breathing Gracie’s name and now the two were actually joining forces. But if everything Sterling had said was true, then Zack could only be grateful that Sterling had been there for Gracie when she needed someone so desperately. When she’d had no one else in the world.
That was over now.
Gracie might not want him but she had him. He was hers.
And by God, before it was over, regardless of whether Gracie was ever able to forgive him for what she thought he’d done, the bastards who’d hurt her would pay.
He wouldn’t rest until he’d brought his own brand of justice to his “friends.”
“JESUS,”Sterling said, his expression one of horror as he stared down at Gracie’s sleeping figure.
He lifted his gaze to Zack, who stood on the other side of the bed, shock and disbelief mirrored in his eyes.
“What kind of animal does this to a defenseless woman?”
The incredulity in his voice was echoed by Zack’s own. He didn’t get it. Maybe he never would. He saw violence and ridiculous shit every day in his line of work. But this? A cold, methodical beating meted out for the simple purpose of a message? Whatever happened to writing a letter? Or a threatening phone call, for God’s sake. Or better yet, not being a goddamn coward and bringing the fight to someone who could damn well defend themselves against such an attack.
Just come straight to the source. Bring the fight tohim. He was positively itching to administer a dose of payback.
“They’re fucking cowards,” Zack said, the words rumbling through his chest.
Sterling leaned over, concern etched on his face, and he gently trailed his finger over her forehead to her cheek and then to her jaw. Zack might resent the other man’s relationship with Gracie, but he at least seemed to genuinely care about her, so Zack couldn’t very well find fault with Sterling for being a source of support to Gracie when she needed it the most. Even as he burned with jealousy that Sterling had what he didn’t. A connection to Gracie, romantic or not.
Gracie obviously trusted Sterling, whereas Zack might never have or earn her trust again. It was a thought that formed a lead ball in his gut. His love for Gracie hadn’t diminished in twelve years, as would be the case for most people. He hadn’t been able to let go even when faced with the unlikelihood that he’d ever see her again. Never touch, kiss or simply hold her.
His biggest regret was never having made love to her. She would have given herself—her virginity—to him, but he’d wanted to wait for the sanctity of marriage. A marriage that had never happened.
He would never have disrespected Gracie by taking advantage of her. He was four years older than her, twenty to her sweet sixteen. He’d thought they had all the time in the world and that when they did make love, it would be as man and wife. Her virginity would be the most cherished of gifts. And now, to know that it had been ripped from her, with no care, no regard, none of the tenderness he’d planned? It made him so sick to his soul that it was a wound that would never heal. For her or for him.
Eliza called softly from the door and he lifted his head, turning his attention away from Gracie and Sterling.
“The police are here,” she said in a low voice. “It’s the second time they’ve been here and they aren’t going to be put off this time. They want to question Gracie.”
Zack sighed. He didn’t want to upset Gracie, but the police did need to question her if anything was going to be done. Though he seriously doubted the cops would find one damn thing on the men who’d done this. It really didn’t matter, and in fact, Zack almost hoped the policewouldn’tfind the bastards. He’d much rather exact his own brand of justice and personally take down every single person involved with Ari’s and Gracie’s abuse. It would sure as hell save taxpayers time and money.
“Show them in,” Zack said quietly. “Sterling is here so maybe that will put Gracie more at ease. It would appear she trusts him, if no one else.”
Eliza winced in sympathy. “This is six ways of fucked-up.”
“Tell me about it.”
Eliza ducked out and a moment later returned with detectives Briggs and Ramirez. They quietly greeted Zack and introduced themselves to Sterling when he stepped away from Gracie’s bed to meet them.
“It would be better if you woke her up,” Zack said, nearly choking on the words. “And stay with her while they question her. I’ll be here, but she’ll likely be more comfortable with you in her direct line of sight.”
Sterling nodded and then led the detectives to the bed. He glanced up at Zack in question and Zack nodded to indicate Sterling should wake her now.
Eliza moved closer to where Zack stood just inside the doorway. He was leaning against the wall where he had a clear sight path to Gracie. Eliza put her arm around his waist and gave him a fierce hug.
“I know this has to be so hard for you, Zack,” she murmured.
He hugged her to him and dropped a kiss on the top of her head. For a moment he simply held her. He needed this personal contact. The fact that he wasn’t alone was the only reason he hadn’t already lost his shit completely. As it was, he was hanging on to his sanity by the thinnest of threads.
He had to be strong for Gracie. He did her no good if he were an irrational, pissed-off ball of fury. Not to mention he’d scare the shit out of her when she was already frightened out of her mind by him.
His chest ached. His hearthurt. He wanted to be alone so he could grieve over all he’d discovered—and lost—in the last twenty-four hours. But he could do none of those things because time was of the essence and he didn’t dare give Gracie the chance to slip away or else he mayneversee her again. It was obvious enough that she’d planned to never cross paths with him. He would have spent the rest of his life never knowing her fate, if not for the happenstance of him recognizing the scenery in her painting.
“What if she hates me forever?” Zack whispered, confiding his deepest, most devastating fear.
Eliza squeezed him in a comforting hug. “Shhh, don’t do that to yourself. There’s no sense torturing yourself with the worst-case scenario. You’re going to have to be patient and take it one minute, one hour, one day at a time. She’s fragile. Not only are the events of the past alive and well in her mind, but now she has to contend with what happened to her now. Once is enough to break a woman. But two instances of her being attacked, being completely helpless?” She broke off, shaking her head.
“Yeah, I know,” he said in a low voice. “Damn it, Lizzie. I don’t know what to do! How am I going to convince her that I had nothing to do with her being raped?” He dragged a hand through his hair in agitation. “I don’t even know which so called friends did this to her and why.Why,for God’s sake? She never did anything to anyone. She was nothing but sweet and caring and gentle. God, it makes me sick to think of what happened to her. And I wasn’tthere,” he said brokenly. “I wasn’t there to protect her. I swore I’d never let anything hurt her. And Ifailedher, goddamn it!”
“You couldn’t have known, Zack. Especially if they were your friends. Howcouldyou have known? You don’t think people, much less people who were your friends, have the capacity for such evil. You can’t blame yourself for what happened.”
Zack went still and straightened, homing in on Gracie’s bed as Sterling leaned over and gently began shaking her awake. The two policemen stood on Gracie’s other side, their expressions grim as they surveyed her bruised and battered face.
Gracie’s world was a haze of confusion and unease. She’d retreated into a drug-induced fog where pain and fear faded away, replaced by a false sense of security. Here she was able to block out her reality and avoid it. Things she’d sworn she’d put behind her had come storming to life the moment she’d seenhimagain.
She hadn’t thought she could feel such pain ever again. That she’d become immune to anything regarding Zack Covington. She’d thought she’d put his betrayal behind her, that he couldn’t possibly hurt her anymore. But some wounds simply didn’t heal. Some wounds continued to bleed, no matter how much time had passed. Worst of all, she now realized she’d merely been in denial all these years. Now it was as if the bandage had been ripped from a wound, causing it to bleed fresh all over again.
She’d been wrong. She hadn’t been remotely prepared for the wave of anguish that had consumed her when coming face-to-face with the man she’d loved with every part of her heart and soul. The man who’d betrayed her so horribly that she still couldn’t fathom it.
It had been crippling, robbing her of breath. It had shamed her, that she was so weak. That the day he’d shown up in her studio she had been completely helpless, unable to say or do anything in her fear-induced paralysis. If Wade hadn’t appeared when he had she didn’t know what she would have done. WhatZackwould have done. A man she would have never dreamed she needed to fear. A man she’d never imagined being capable of such . . . evil.
And now? The past had repeated itself. What did the two events have in common?
Why did he hate her so much? What had she done to make him despise her? What kind of person went to the lengths he did just to get his message across? And what message? If he hadn’t wanted her any longer, if he hadn’t loved her anymore, then why not just break things off with her? Why punish her for sins she knew nothing about? That she hadn’t committed!
Please, please God, let him be gone when she awakened again. She couldn’t do this again. She couldn’t face him, not after twelve years. She’d worked so hard to put the past behind her, to recover from something she hadn’t been sure she would survive. But shehadsurvived. It had taken heryears,but she’d put the pieces back together. She had a life now. And the moment her past caught up to her, she was thrown into a world of pain and violence and . . . heartbreak. Again.
“Anna-Grace. Come on, honey. I need you to wake up for me. There are people who need to talk to you.”
Her brow furrowed in confusion. She didn’t want to leave the warm cocoon formed by the pain medication. It was safe here. She felt nothing here. Just a blank, empty void filled with warmth and soothing light.
She drifted away once more, shutting out the voice that had infiltrated the fog surrounding her.
But it was persistent. Someone called her name again. Louder this time. She frowned and shook her head, wincing when the motion sent shards of pain through her skull. Why wouldn’t they just leave her alone? That’s all she wanted. Just to be left alone. She’d been alone for so very long. It was the only way she knew. The only life she knew. She didn’t dare trust anyone. Not after Zack’s betrayal.
Zack had been her entire world. Her love, hope and trust had been solidly wrapped up in him. If she couldn’t trust him, then whom else could she trust? No one. And that’s a policy she’d adhered strictly to for the last decade. Except . . .
Wade had befriended her despite her best attempts at holding him at arm’s length. He’d been persistent, not allowing her to remain indifferent to him. But the sad part was she was just waiting forhimto betray her as well. Even in their easy friendship, she was wary, convinced—having been taught the hard way—that betrayal was inevitable.
“Anna-Grace, you have to wake up. You’ve been sleeping long enough.”
A surge of relief overwhelmed her. Oh thank God. Wade was here. He wouldn’t hurt her, would he? Was she a fool for putting her trust in any man?
It had taken a long time for Anna-Grace to relax around him. She’d been understandably wary of him. But he’d patiently outwaited her, slowly and carefully wearing down her defenses until she’d finally let him in.
But even so, she hadn’t confided her past until recently. Some hurts were too private. Too painful. Telling him hadn’t been a relief, like ripping a bandage away quickly. It had been the most difficult, most heartrending thing she’d ever done. And afterward, she hadn’t been able to face him for days. She’d hidden, embarrassed and mortified at what she’d confided in him.
Only when he’d forced a confrontation and been firm with her that nothing had changed between them, that he was still her friend, had she finally acted rationally and accepted his offer of . . . friendship.
She wasn’t a fool. She knew Wade’s interest had been more personal when they’d first met. But after she’d finally confided in him her terrifying past, he’d never again suggested there be anything more between them than close friendship.
Going forward he’d been her rock. Her best friend. Even as she chided herself for allowing anyone close to her, for trusting someone again, she’d been unable to help herself. She needed human contact. Twelve years of isolation had worn on her, beating her down and dragging her further and further away from humanity. Wade refused to let her continue to hide. He’d pushed her, encouraged her and refused to let her shut him out.
He called her name again.
Her eyelids flickered open and she frowned at the effort it took. The entire room was fuzzy and for a moment she forgot where she was. She turned her head to the side, seeking out Wade, and the pain that splintered through her head reminded her of just where she was. And why.
Tears welled, stinging her eyes. Weakly she lifted her hand, flailing outward in an attempt to grab Wade’s arm. Then his warm hand curled around hers and she was imbued with his strength and support.
“Thank God,” she whispered hoarsely.
She frowned harder when she heard her raspy voice. Her free hand flew to her throat to massage absently at the sore muscles. It felt as though her throat was nearly swollen shut. Remembering the huge hands wrapped around it, squeezing, nearly choking her time and time again, she understood why it hurt so badly now.
Her attacker had wanted her to believe she was dying. He’d closed off her airway until she nearly passed out, only to relax his grip so she could gulp in more air. Then he’d done it all over again until she’d lost count and had prayed to lose consciousness so she could escape her current hell.
“Wade?” she croaked.
He bent and pressed his lips to her forehead. “Yes, Anna-Grace, it’s me. You’re safe now. I swear it on my life.”
Tears streaked hotly down her cheeks and she gulped back a betraying sob.
“The police are here, sweetheart. They need to talk to you. Ask you some questions. I know you hurt. I know you’re tired. But it’s important that we catch the bastards who did this to you. If I help you sit up some, can you try to answer a few questions at least?”
Her heart pounded violently and her entire mouth went dry. Police? Questions?
She cast her fearful gaze to the side only to collide with two tall, somber looking men. Both wore short, clipped hair that made them look more military than plainclothes detectives.
“Miss Hill,” one of the detectives said politely. “My name is Detective Briggs and this is my partner, Detective Ramirez. We’d like to talk to you about the attack on you. Are you up to answering a few questions for us?”
She almost said no and took the coward’s way out. But determination gleamed in the policemen’s eyes and she got the impression that even had she said no they wouldn’t have simply given up and walked away.
So she nodded hesitantly.
“I’m not certain I’ll be of any help,” she said in a low voice. “It all happened so fast. I mean on one hand it seemed to last forever. I thought they were going to kill me. I thought I was going todie. I wanted to die,” she said painfully, closing her eyes in shame.
Beside her Wade cursed, and she could swear she heard it echoed from across the room.
“When I try to remember, it’s all one big blur. I don’t know who they are or what they wanted.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to accuse Zack. To tell them they should be questioninghim. But she was too afraid of retaliation. She had to leave this city. She wasn’t safe here. He knew where she was. God, he’d said he’d looked for her. Why? Hadn’t he been determined to get rid of her? Or maybe the men who’d raped her were supposed to have killed her. Silence her for good. And for what? For loving him? What had she done so wrong that he would have such a terrible thing done to her?
She closed her eyes and more tears spilled over the swollen, scratchy rims of her eyes. Wade curled his hand around hers and squeezed reassuringly. Then he slid his arm behind her and eased her upward while telling one of the detectives to elevate the back of her bed.
A low whirring noise sounded and soon the bed was elevated enough that she could sit up without too much pain or discomfort.
But then she got a good look at her hospital room. Her gaze homed in on the two people who stood in the background, beyond the foot of the bed close to the door, and she froze, fear paralyzing every muscle in her body.
Completely stricken, she stared helplessly at the monster who’d haunted so many of her dreams. Standing beside a woman who was vaguely familiar to Anna-Grace. She let out a low whimper of terror and desperately clung to Wade’s hand, her only anchor in a sea of madness.
Her nightmare come to life was standing at the foot of her bed staring intently at her.
The man she’d loved with every fiber of her being. The man she’d given her heart and soul to. The man she’d saved herself for, vowing she’d never be with any other man, only to have that precious gift ripped from her in a violent, horrific, soul-shattering act.
ZACKfelt as though he’d been punched right in the gut. All his breath left him and pain rolled over and through his chest—his heart—and tightened every one of his nerve endings. As soon as Gracie’s gaze found him, her expression turned to one of stark fear . . . and then utter revulsion.
God, he couldn’t bear the fact that she thought . . . He couldn’t even repeat it to himself. The very idea of orchestrating her rape—the rape ofanywoman—was so repulsive that nausea rose from the depths of his stomach and swelled in his throat. What kind of sick bastard would do such a thing?
And then it hit him even harder that people he knew, people he’d trusted, people he’d called friends had horrifically assaulted her. In a way hewasresponsible because he’d introduced these “friends” to Gracie. He’d exposed her to them. What possible threat to them could she have been that they’d taken such extreme measures? Were they just sick, twisted fucks whom he’d sorely misjudged?
He couldn’t bear the way she looked at him. The horror on her face and then how she gripped Sterling’s hand even harder and looked to him as if for . . . protection?
“Get him out!” Gracie said in a near shriek, her voice breaking under the strain.
She choked on the words and ended in a coughing fit that obviously pained her.
The detectives whirled around as if expecting to find someone new in the room. Their looks grew puzzled when they saw that only Zack and Eliza stood there. Detective Brigg’s gaze sharpened and then he glanced back at Gracie’s sheet-white face and back at Zack, a frown twisting his lips.
“What’s going on here?” Ramirez demanded.
Gracie was shaking like a leaf now, her panic escalating into a full-blown anxiety attack. The hand that wasn’t holding Sterling’s flew to her mouth but jittered so much her fingers were tapping her lips in a nervous staccato.
“Make him leave!” she said, her hysteria rising.
“Shhh, Anna-Grace,” Sterling said soothingly. Or rather he tried to calm her. But Gracie was a mess. A terrified mass of anguish that ripped Zack’s heart right in two.
She shook her head, her teeth chattering so violently that when she tried to speak, her words died in a garbled mess.
Sterling turned to Zack, regret lining his forehead. “Maybe you should go,” he said in a low voice. “For now. Until Anna-Grace answers the detectives’ questions.”
“Why are you so afraid of him, Miss Hill?” Detective Briggs asked, still staring holes through Zack.
Any other time Zack would appreciate—and commend—the detective’s solicitousness and his attention to detail. But right now he really just wanted the two men to ask their questions and get the hell out. They had assholes to catch that didn’t include Zack.
To Zack’s surprise, Sterling looked up at the detective while soothing Gracie with one hand and said, “She’s understandably afraid of a lot of men right now. Can you blame her? She’s been brutalized and I’m sure she’d like to get this over with as soon as possible. So, please, ask your questions and leave her to rest.”
Ramirez frowned but didn’t pursue the matter further. But Zack still held his breath as the detectives refocused their attention on Gracie. Sterling leveled a stare at Zack and lifted his chin to indicate Zack should leave.
Damn it. As much as he hated the idea of not remaining to hear Gracie’s account of what happened, he couldn’t afford to upset her further.
Eliza nudged him toward the open door and he reluctantly stepped into the hallway. When he was well enough away from the room, he slammed his fist into the wall, emitting a sound of rage that had been bottled up far too long.
Tears coursed down his cheeks, carving harsh grooves in his skin. Then after three successive punches, the last forming a crack in the paint, he leaned forward, pressing his forehead against the wall.
Eliza put her hand on his back and simply held it there in a gesture of silent support. Finally, when he felt capable of words, he swallowed back the throbbing knot in his throat and turned to face Eliza.
“What am I going to do, Lizzie?” he asked brokenly. “Jesus, I don’t even know what the statute of limitations is for aggravated rape in Tennessee. What if she decides to prosecute, for God’s sake? I mean Iwanther to. I’d like to see those bastards rot in prison for what they did, but to think I engineered it? I could well go to jail along with those assholes.”
“It could never be proved,” Eliza said grimly.
“And that’s supposed to make me feel better? Iwantjustice for her. But I’m not going to take the fall for something I could never—would never do. But how can I ever convince her of my innocence? For twelve years she’s thought I’ve set her up. That’s just under half her lifetime! She’s believed in her heart and soul for over adecadethat I betrayed her in the worst possible way. And why would she ever get such an absurd idea if they hadn’t planted it? So in essence I was betrayed by guys I considered friends. I can’t fathom any of my college friends doing such a sick, twisted thing. And to set me up? This is all insanity. It’s like something out of a goddamn soap opera. Shit like this doesn’t happen in real life. Only itishappening. To me. To Gracie.”
Eliza blew out her breath. “I don’t know what to tell you, Zack. I wish I did. I wish I could make this all better for you.”
“I just want to talk to her, to explain. To have an opportunity to make her trust me again.” He broke off and hesitated before saying the last. “To make her love me again,” he whispered. He lifted his gaze to Eliza’s once more. “I’m an idiot. Go ahead and say it. What kind of moron remains in love with his high school and college sweetheart for twelve years?”
“There aren’t any rules when it comes to love,” Eliza said softly. “Unfortunately we don’t always get to pick who we love or how long we love. Love is . . . inexplicable. It can fuck you up and tie you in knots, or so people say. Can’t say I’ve ever had the pleasure, nor can I say I’m very sorry about that. Seems like loving someone is opening oneself to all kind of pain. No thanks.”
Eliza’s nose wrinkled in distaste and in that moment Zack wholeheartedly agreed with her. Love sucked. Love made you entirely too vulnerable and it gave far too much power over yourself to someone else.
Zack’s cell rang and he glanced down, pulling it from his pocket to see Beau’s name and number flash on the LCD screen.
“Hey, man,” Zack greeted lamely, knowing he sounded like a man for whom talking on the phone was the very last thing he wanted right now.
“Got everything worked out for you and Gracie. Untraceable residence. Fully stocked and completely secured. Once you and Gracie get settled, at least two of our guys will be stationed at watch on the premises with a third making periodic drive-bys. I also called in a favor with HPD and they’re going to add you to their routine patrols around the clock.”
“They may not want to do me a favor for long,” Zack muttered.
If Gracie launched her accusations against Zack to the two detectives, he might well find himself behind bars and then extradited back to Tennessee, where this entire sordid mess began.
“What was that?” Beau asked.
“Nothing. Continue on. I need to get back to Gracie,” he lied.
“Any idea when they’re discharging her?”
A jolt of panic blew through Zack. He wasn’t ready for her to be discharged. She’d freak over going home with him. But at the same time maybe that’s precisely what he needed. Time alone with her to convince her of his innocence. Provided she didn’t scream the walls down around him and get him arrested for kidnapping.
Maybe he should rethink having Eliza stay with him and Gracie or even bring Gracie to Eliza’s place.
He sighed, closing his eyes.
“No. I wouldn’t think they’d discharge her any sooner than tomorrow afternoon. She’s pretty banged up and she looks like hell.”
“We’re working on this around the clock, Zack,” Beau said, his voice serious. “No stone is being left unturned. Wewillnail these bastards. No matter what it takes.”
“Thanks, man. I appreciate it.”
He hesitated before bringing up what was weighing most heavily on his mind. He almost didn’t confide in Beau, but Beau was solid. The closest thing Zack had to a best friend after most of his life had been in solitude and self-exile. He’d grieved for Gracie for years and he’d purposely closed himself off from other people. He hadn’t allowed anyone close. Not until he came to work for the Devereauxs. And, well, Eliza knew, so it followed that the others would know soon enough as well, though he doubted Eliza would break his confidence.
“I need your help with something else too.”
“Anything, man. You know that. Name it.”
Zack put a hand to the back of his neck and glanced at Eliza, who sent him a look of support, as if she knew exactly what it was he was going to talk to Beau about.
“I need some discreet digging done on some people back home in Tennessee. Old . . . friends of mine.”
He nearly choked on the words. Hatred consumed him. He’d never before knew what it was like to hate as much as he hated the people who’d done this to Gracie. He shook with rage, could barely see through the haze of fury clouding his vision.
“Okay. What am I looking for here, Zack?”
Beau’s voice had gone somber, as though he sensed the importance of Zack’s request.
Praying he didn’t break down over the phone with his partner, he quietly recounted everything that Sterling had told him earlier.
At the end there was a shocked, prolonged silence. Zack could well picture Beau’s open mouth as he put together all the information Zack had just given him.
After a long pause, Beau, in a raised voice, said, “What the fuck?”
Zack could hear him seething through the phone and could easily imagine Beau’s big body bristling with anger.
“That’s insane!” Beau sputtered out, before Zack could offer anything further. “Jesus, that’s just . . . crazy! She believes that? She honestlybelievesthat horse shit?”
Again, Zack closed his eyes as weariness—and relief—blew over him. It was nice to have unconditional trust from the people he worked with. Not only worked with but considered close friends. His only friends, ironically, since parting ways with the group of “friends” back home. The same group of guys he still kept up with. The same fucking assholes who’d destroyed his and Gracie’s lives. The same men who had horribly abused the woman he loved.
“She believes it,” Zack said quietly. “She gets hysterical every time she sees me.”
“Shit. I’m sorry, man. That has to suck. What are you going to do?”
“Somehow convince her that I had nothing to do with her rape,” Zack said quietly. “It’s all I can do. And in the meantime, I need to do whatever I can to dig up the truth so I can get justice for Gracie. For me. For . . .us. And for all the time we lost.”
ZACKfidgeted and impatiently paced the hallway in front of Gracie’s door. He checked his watch for the sixth time and blew out his breath. It had been an hour since the police had arrived to question Gracie. What the fuck was taking so long? He hated being out here, out of the loop, like he didn’t figure prominently in Gracie’s life or well-being.
She might not want him in any loop, but Zack wasn’t backing down and he damn sure wasn’t walking away from Gracie, even if that was what she repeatedly demanded. Maybe it made him a complete bastard. Maybe he should comply with her wishes and disappear. It was obvious his presence was causing her extreme emotional distress.
But damn it, he just couldn’t do that. He couldn’t let her go without a fight. He had to find a way to make her believe that he hadn’t done this terrible thing. If only she could read his mind.
He stopped his pacing and froze.
Eliza immediately picked up on the change in mood because she approached him, concern mirroring in her eyes.
“What is it, Zack?”
He huffed out his breath, remembering Gracie’s emotional tirade. That she couldn’t read minds anymore, that shewouldn’teven if shecould. She’d said he’d taken that from her too. What the hell had she meant by that? It was the simplest solution. If only she would reach into his mind, then she’dknowthe hell he’d been through the last twelve years. She’d know that he’d spent more than a decade searching for answers—forher. And she’d damn sure know that he had nothing to do with her rape, that he woulddiebefore ever hurting her.
“Do you remember, when all that shit was going down with Ari, when I said that I used to know someone who read minds?” he asked quietly.
Her brow furrowed in thought, and she was silent for a moment, as if trying to recall the incident. Then her eyes flashed in recognition as she evidently remembered his long-ago statement.
“Yeah, I remember. But you never expounded. I’d forgotten all about it, to be honest.”
“I was talking about Gracie. She could read minds. I know it sounds crazy, but you of all people shouldn’t have a problem believing it. I mean after Ramie and Ari and all the crazy assignments we’ve had.”
Eliza’s features bunched into confusion. “But Zack, if she can read minds, then surely . . .”
“Yeah, I know,” Zack said, cutting her off in midsentence. “The second time I saw her, in the art studio when she lost her shit and freaked out. When she was so terrified of me and hinted about this horrible thing I did. I told her to read my mind. It would be so simple, right? I told her to read my mind if she had any doubt, that she’d quickly know the truth and that whatever the hell shethoughtI’d done, she’d know I didn’t!”