By Laurelin Paige
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 Laurelin Paige
All rights reserved.
My feet moved automatically, pulled by a force that couldn't be simplified with a label of compassion or curiosity or obligation. I crouched in front of Reeve and took Amber's limp wrist into my hands. My body was present, going through the motions of a concerned friend, but my head was in a fog. The smell of sex still lingered in my nose, the orgasms Reeve had given me still rang through me, low and wide, like the faintest waves sounding off a tuning fork.
Then there had been Reeve's declaration. He'd hinted both that he loved me and that he knew who I was, knew that I'd been Amber's friend. That had sent me into shock long before I'd been confronted with her ghost in the flesh.
She was supposed to be dead.
I was confused. I was relieved. I was more than a little scared.
Around me there was a buzz of voices, discussing Amber, but nothing they said made sense. All I heard was a steady drone and her whimpers softer than when I'd first seen her and barely audible. She didn't seem to be conscious, whatever pain she carried was so great that it slipped out in her sleep.
Reeve tried to get her eyes to open, slapping gently at her face with the same hand that had caressed me earlier in the evening, had been inside my mouth and cunt. The concern etched on his face and the tight emotion in his tone as he coaxed her were mirrors of the way he'd spoken to me in our most intimate moments.
"Emily. It's you," Amber whispered.
My focus snapped to her. I was aware now — of her, of her injured state, of the frenzy occurring on her behalf. Aware that Reeve now knew conclusively that his Amber was also my Amber.
"Yes, it's me." I stroked the length of her arm, forcing my gaze not to zoom in on her black eyes, her bruised nose, the sallow color of her skin. She'd been beaten badly. Her body was stick thin, her wrist fragile under my hands. I wrapped my fingers around it and registered a pulse, stronger than I'd expected from the near skeletal figure before me. This couldn't be the confident, vibrant woman that I'd known, and yet she couldn't be anyone else. My shoulders threatened to sag with guilt and grief, and my throat felt coarse like I'd swallowed sand.
But she needed strength, and I was a good actress. So I held my head high and made my voice a balm. "I'm here."
Her lip was too fat and bloodied to smile, but the corners of her mouth turned up slightly. "It is you." Her words were labored, her breath short. "Joe said you'd sent him. To save me. I —"
I glanced back at Joe as she broke into a coughing fit that tried to curl her torso in, but she couldn't manage to lift her head, the exertion too much for her.
"Save your energy. We're going to get you to a bed, Angel." Reeve nodded at his men.
Angel. Was that what he called her or simply an endearment he was using now? Either way it felt private. Like I'd walked into the middle of another couple's love scene.
"I need a few things from my office," Jeb said to one of the security guards. "An IV kit, my bag. There are painkillers in the safe."
He continued to issue orders, and I stood to get out of the way as Reeve gathered Amber in his arms. I turned to Brent, the ranch manager. "Shouldn't we call a doctor?" I was sure Jeb was good at what he did, but he was a veterinarian.
Brent shook his head. "Jeb's got all the training we need and we don't want to raise any unwanted attention."
I started to protest, but Amber called out, drawing my attention back to her.
Reeve was standing now, Amber in his arms, headed for the stairs, but he paused and spun so that she could see me easily.
"I'll be right there, Amber," I promised. "I'm just going to talk to Joe for one minute while they're making you comfortable."
She nodded, her lids closing as though they were too heavy to keep open.
I turned to the man who held her. Who moments ago was my man — now I wasn't so sure. His expression was hard and unreadable. But when his gaze caught mine, the room tilted. His eyes held a dark brew of emotion, so murky and filled that I couldn't determine what he was feeling, only that he was feeling. And that he wanted to share it with me. Even though it was obvious now just how much I hadn't shared with him.
My chest tightened, and I looked away, breaking the intense connection. It was all too much. I pivoted toward Joe, aware of Reeve behind me as he held his position a second longer before taking Amber upstairs.
I forced my full attention on Joe. I'd seen him as I'd come into the room, before I'd noticed the battered girl in Reeve's arms, but I hadn't gotten a chance to study him. Now I scanned him for similar injuries, for any sign that her rescue had caused him harm. When I saw nothing, I asked, "Are you okay?"
"Besides being exhausted, yeah. I'm fine."
I let out a shaky breath of relief. "I told you she was alive."
Joe chuckled. "You did."
In the beginning, I did, I'd insisted on it until he'd shown me the autopsy report of a Jane Doe that had matched Amber's description, a woman who bore the same V tattoo that Amber had on her shoulder. I'd found the same report in an e-mail to Reeve when I'd been snooping on his computer, which had further ended any hope that she was still alive.
"How did this —?" I wasn't sure how to ask the question. "How is she not dead?"
He ran a hand through his hair. "I don't know. I think we were deliberately thrown off." His expression told me exactly who he'd thought had done the throwing — Reeve Sallis. Joe had never trusted him, and with good reason. Reeve's reputation was shady at best. Five years before, his girlfriend, Missy, had mysteriously died while with him on his island in the Pacific. He'd been cleared from any blame in the crime, but my friend Chris Blakely, who had been close to Missy, had painted her relationship with Reeve as volatile. Chris was convinced that Reeve had killed her and had even gone so far as to hint as much on a recent talk show.
I wasn't sure which side of the fence I sat on. Reeve had assured me he'd had nothing to do with her death, and while I didn't know if I believed him, I'd decided the answer didn't matter. Now that Amber had returned, I had less reason to doubt him.
Joe, it seemed, was still skeptical. After months of investigating, he'd only found more incriminating evidence. Evidence that tied Reeve to the Greek mafia and a sex slave ring that Joe had been certain Amber had wandered into.
I thought of her bruises and shuddered. Joe was probably right.
"What happened?" I asked him, not wanting to know but needing to all the same. "Where did you find her?"
Michelis Vilanakis, the mob boss who I had pinned as a lowlife villain. It was the name I'd expected. Amber was last seen with him. Reeve was also connected to him — I'd seen pictures of the two at various events, as well as a few e-mails to Reeve from him.
"You just swooped in and rescued her from his house in Chicago? Or ..." I left the question open-ended, not able to imagine what the scenario had been.
"I got lucky actually." He shook his head, demonstrating his incredulity. "Really lucky. I'd been tailing Michelis for three days before I saw her. I didn't even realize who she was at first. But while I was in my car watching, she ran out of his house, upset about something. He followed after her, Emily. He grabbed her by the hair and yanked her back so hard I swore he was going to break her neck. Then he went off on her. Fucking pounded her face in while she struggled and cried. I don't know how her screams didn't draw a crowd."
I felt sick. "Maybe his neighbors are scared shitless of him. They ignore what goes on." Where I grew up everyone turned a blind eye. No one mentioned the drug dealer that lived next door. No one bothered looking in on me when my mother was passed out drunk in the front yard. No one intervened when Amber and I would arrive home with newly purchased designer clothes and unexplainable cash in our pockets.
"Probably so. He left her like that in his driveway. Whether he was leaving her for dead or planned to come back and get her later, I don't know. I grabbed her and took off."
"Why didn't you go to a hospital? Or the police?" I understood why Reeve's men would be wary, but Joe had more faith in the legal system.
"She refused to go anywhere but here. She was insistent and scared. She'd been to the doctor before, remember? With other bruises, and somehow she ended up back with her abuser. I didn't know who to trust. So I brought her here."
He tilted his head and studied me. "Didn't figure I'd see you here when I arrived."
"Yeah, well." I'd hired Joe to investigate Amber's disappearance, but I hadn't always been forthcoming with him about my own snooping. At the moment, I didn't want to think about the circumstances of my presence at Reeve's Wyoming ranch let alone talk about it. "How did you know to look for her there? How did you realize she was still alive?"
"I didn't. She's not why I was following him."
I wrinkled my forehead. "Then why ...?"
He gave me an incredulous glance, one that said he couldn't believe I had to ask. But I did have to. I needed him to say it.
And he did. "I was looking for you."
There was affection in the way he held my gaze, his expression so much easier to read than Reeve's had been, but equally hard for me to bear, for such different reasons.
I lowered my eyes to the floor. "Thank you, Joe. For finding her. For bringing her here." I couldn't manage to thank him for what he'd done for me. He'd gone willingly into danger, after I'd eluded him and been uncooperative. When I'd put myself in the damn situation after his countless warnings. I didn't deserve his concern. I couldn't condone it with gratitude.
He took a step toward me. "Emily, there's something else you should know." He waited until I looked up before he went on. "The tattoos. I found out what they mean."
"The V tattoos?" Besides Amber and the Jane Doe from the autopsy, I'd also seen one on an employee of Reeve's in Los Angeles. "Doesn't it just stand for Vilanakis? I figured it was some show of mob support. Like a gang tattoo."
"It does stand for Vilanakis. But the tattoos aren't inked voluntarily. They're like a brand. Anyone wearing the mark belongs to Michelis." In case I didn't get the picture, he clarified. "As in indentured servant."
"That's not even legal." Which was a ridiculous thing to say since I knew the mob didn't care much about the law. My throat grew thick. "What does that mean anyway? She got away. She's safe now. Right?"
"My impression is that Michelis brands people when their debt to him is too great to pay back in a lifetime. Which, if that's true, if Amber owes him that big, then he's —" He broke off at the sound of footsteps.
I wanted to know more, but when I turned I found Reeve approaching. I forgot about branding and servitude, and got swept up in the confusing mix of emotions that rose at the sight of him. There was so much unsettled between us — and that was without anyone else involved. Amber and Joe only complicated things that much more.
"She's asking for you, Emily," Reeve said, his eyes pinned on Joe. "She's in the suite next to yours." It was a dismissal that left little room for refute.
Besides, I really did want to be with Amber, so I nodded and headed upstairs, despite knowing that Joe could very well reveal all my secrets. Maybe it was time for those secrets to come out anyway.
* * *
If she really had been asking for me, she wasn't by the time I arrived upstairs. Now the only thing on her mind was getting something for the pain. Her shirt was off, and there were several bruises down her chest and arms, some yellowed and fading, others were much newer. Several near-black angry splotches lined one side of her torso. Jeb was pressing on them when I walked in, and though his touch seemed tender, the examination had her in tears.
I ran to hold her hand and stroke her hair, but she was in such agony, I wasn't sure how much my presence helped. Jeb finished tracing the lines of her ribs before looking up at me. "Emily, would you mind going down to the kitchen and making some ice packs? If there's some frozen peas or something, that would work just as well."
"Sure. Broken?" I'd had broken ribs before. I knew that pain.
"Just fractured, I think. But her breathing's not great. I'd like to get her on some oxygen so that she doesn't develop pneumonia."
"We have some for emergencies in the main office," Brent piped in. "I'll call down and have it brought up. And, Emily, there's ice compresses in the small freezer in the pantry."
I bent to kiss Amber's forehead. "Hang in there. We'll get you feeling better soon." She squeezed my hand so I knew she'd heard me, although I'm sure it was hard to believe in her current state of discomfort.
The men Jeb had sent for supplies were coming in as I left the room and by the time I returned with ice packs, Amber had been hooked up to an IV and fluid was dripping down the line into the vein at her wrist. Her eyes were closed. She was either asleep or almost there so I didn't disturb her. Instead, I handed Jeb the compresses, then sat on the love seat near the bed and watched, helpless.
I was actually grateful for that helplessness. Of the myriad complex emotions that were weighing on me at the moment, helplessness was the easiest to carry. It was the one I knew.
Brent returned with the oxygen tank as well as a heart rate monitor. Reeve came along with him, taking a perch on the opposite arm. Together we watched as Jeb and Brent hooked Amber up to the machines. We didn't speak or look at each other. Tension buzzed between us like a fly caught in a closed room. I was desperate to know what he was thinking and feeling. Was he as focused on her as he appeared to be? Or was his mind as caught up in us as mine was?
The longer I sat without his acknowledgment, the more my anxiety grew.
It was just after three when Jeb gestured for us to follow him out to the hallway for a powwow.
"Well?" Reeve asked, impatience in his voice.
Although he'd shut the door behind him, Jeb kept his voice low. "She's bruised up mostly. Her ribs are tender, but they seem to be just fractures. Her wrist is sprained and she has a concussion, all of which can be healed with time."
Reeve rubbed at the back of his neck, nodding, taking it in.
"When she wakes up," Brent said, "she might be wanting some kind of upper, if you know what I mean. She was pretty fond of the white stuff when she was here last."
Reeve shook his head. "Joe — the guy who brought her here — said he thinks she's not into that right now. He's pretty sure she's moved onto opiates."
So that's what he'd talked to Joe about. He was looking out for Amber, and I was grateful. And I was also selfish because it was disappointing to realize he hadn't been asking about me.
Jeb considered, raising a brow. "Heroin?"
Reeve shook his head again. "Codeine. Oxy maybe. She got beat up pretty bad, but he said she's been begging for a pill every two hours."
"Do you know if he gave her anything?" Jeb asked.
"Some Vicodin. He said he gave it as directed to help with her pain. The last was about four hours ago."
Jeb seemed to do a mental calculation. Satisfied with his result, he said, "I just put some morphine in her IV as well as something to help her sleep. We'll have to watch the clock carefully and only give her what she needs rather than what she asks for. In the morning I'll see if I can get my hands on some methadone."
Brent clapped a hand on Reeve's back. "I'm going to go check on security, make sure we're covered in case —"
Reeve cut him off. "He won't come here looking for her."
"With all the other activity lately, are you sure?"
Reeve hesitated, then said again, "He won't come here. But extra security is a good idea."
A chill ran through me as I thought about what Joe had said about Amber's tattoo. But I trusted Reeve's perception of danger. If he said he didn't think Vilanakis would come around, I believed him. The additional security was likely just a measure of precaution.
As soon as Brent left, Reeve addressed Jeb again. "What do we need to do for her tonight?"
I nodded, wishing I'd asked first.
"There's nothing you can do at this point." Jeb looked at his watch. "She's probably going to be out for a while. I'd take this opportunity to get some sleep. I'll stay with her until the morning in case she wakes up."
"I could take the first shift." Again Reeve spoke before I could. His offer rubbed me in places that I didn't know were raw. I told myself it was simply because I wanted to be the one by her side.
Well, if he was going to stay, so was I.
But then Jeb said, "I'd rather it be me. I want to be there in case she has any strange reaction to the medicines or in case she takes a turn."
Reeve hesitated before conceding. "Come and find me if there's any change."
"Will do, boss."
"Then I'll see you in a few hours." Without even a glance at me, he turned on his heels and headed for his bedroom.
Jeb gave me a tight smile then opened the door to Amber's room, leaving me in the hallway, alone. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Last Kiss by Laurelin Paige. Copyright © 2016 Laurelin Paige. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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