Immediately Ash turns her attention to Gabby, who was frantically scrambling across the tiled floor of the lobby.
Across the floor to an immobile Jax and the pool of blood slowly growing around him.
Lucas paled and sprinted to his side.
“Gabby assess his leg. I’ll work on his chest wound. Lucas call 911 and find us some towels.” Ash began barking orders, shouldering him out of her way so she could kneel at Jax’s side.
Cold dread spread through Luke’s muscles holding him in place. Jax couldn’t die. He’d lost too many people. He couldn’t lose Jax.
“Lucas!” Ash’s sharp call jarred him out of his stupor. He met her brown eyes something unspoken passing between them, reassuring him. “Towels. 911.”
Luke’s fist glimpse of Ash.
But Lucas couldn’t have told you what any of the others looked like because all he saw was her. She was tall and slender with soft curves covered in dark jeans and a black backless top. Her dark hair was long, falling midway down her back in soft shiny waves. Her skin was flawless, pale and smooth and begging to be stroked. The door jingled, indicating another customer walking in and she turned, a wide smile lighting her features and he swallowed wanting to be the one to put that smile on her face for the rest of his life.
What the fuck is wrong with me? He shook his head, attempting to clear it, but her dark brown eyes lingered. God those were gorgeous eyes.
I can’t believe it. April is over and I’ve completed the A to Z Challenge for the first time.
I’ve day-dreamed of being a writer for years. Have created characters and stories both in my head and on the page. But I’ve never said it out loud. I’ve never shared my stories with anyone. Until now.
For this year’s A to Z Challenge I used each letter to introduce a different character in my upcoming book series. That’s right, I’m writing a series of novels! So if you like any of the characters you’ll be seeing them again. Let me know your favorites!
Participating in this Challenge helped me commit these ideas to the page, introducing characters I’ve been playing with in my mind to the world. And I want to thank everyone who visited and commented and followed for helping to inspire me, encourage me, and build my confidence.
See you soon.
I grin, immediately recognizing my little sister’s voice. I glance up as she races down the stairs and into my waiting hug. “Hey, Little T. How you been?”
She laughs at the ridiculous nickname and squeezes me tight before stepping back. “It’s so good to see you! Is it true, what Erik said? Are you back to stay?”
“It’s true,” I confirm. “At least for now. I have some business to take care of.” I’ve been out of the country, mostly traveling, for almost six years. It’s weird being back – like I have one foot in two different worlds. I’m not sure where I’ll end up settling but I think this is where I need to be to get my idea off the ground and make it a reality. Even if it means swallowing my pride and asking my father for help. Which is why I’m here.
“Yay! I’m so excited.” My sister’s enthusiasm helps calm my nerves about being home. I’m not sure I’ll get the same welcome from the rest of the family. I’ll soak it up while I can.
“Where is everybody?” I ask, stashing my backpack in the entry closet. Yes, my backpack. I literally came right from the airport. Luckily I had an overnight layover in Miami so I was able to shower at the hotel before my flight this morning. I would have felt at a distinct disadvantage talking to my father with nearly thirty hours of travel grime and rumpled clothes.
“Dad’s in his office.” I roll my eyes at this pronouncement. What’s new? “Mom and Ethan and Riley are out back with the event planner getting everything ready. Ilyssa should be down any minute. And Erik is picking a friend up so won’t be here until the barbecue starts. Is that enough of an update or would you like me to report in on the cousins as well?”
I grab her in a mock head lock and ruffle her hair. “That’s enough T.”
She laughs and struggles out of my hold. She’ll never really know how much her easy acceptance is making this so much less painful and awkward for me.
“I just wasn’t expecting it to be so quiet in here.”
“It won’t be in two hours when the festivities begin. You remember how crazy packed and fun these things are. I can’t believe it the Fourth already!”
It’s an annual tradition in the Abbott’s to hold a massive family BBQ/picnic/hootenanny over the Fourth of July. The longer my father has been in public office the larger the guest list has gotten. We still hold the barbecue in the back yard of our Chicago home, but now with the help of a professional party planner and catering staff. It’s no longer just my mom and aunt bringing side dishes while my dad and his brother grill. But tomorrow all my siblings and cousins will head to Michigan and my uncles lake house for a long weekend of just family.
And I guess, this year, I’ll be going too.
“When do you start work?” I ask.
My not-so-little-anymore sister has just finished a graduate program at the University of Chicago. She’s had plans to take over the family company for as long as I can remember. The very life I ran like hell from.
“Uncle Eddie thought I deserved a summer off.” Our uncle runs the family company but as it was started by my grandfather, we’ve all reaped the benefits. Teagan has spent every summer and school break working in various departments and roles, wanting to know as much as possible about the ‘family business’. Unlike me, the lazy oldest son who left to backpack for a summer sabbatical and never came back.
I tried. I went to the office every day. I wore the right suits and shook the right hands and stared at the briefs and spreadsheets and finance reports.
And I fucking hated it. I bailed the summer before my 30th birthday. It was just supposed to be eight weeks. Take some time to travel and chill out before getting back to business. But other than some sporadic holiday visits I haven’t been back since.
Unaware of my thoughts Teagan continues her explanation. “So I’ll start after our Labor Day picnic.”
Another Abbott tradition. Teagan and my brothers have never seemed to be bothered by the money we were born in to. Bothered probably isn’t the right word. I liked the money fine but it never felt like the suits I wore fit quite right. I was always a bit more restless. I wanted something of my own. Something my family didn’t touch. To prove I could make a life, design it the way I wanted, not what has been handed to me. Even if it looked a lot different from the one that my family built.
I cringe inwardly. So much for that. Here I am, years later, hoping to benefit from everything they’ve built.
But this is bigger than me. And I’m not going to let my pride stop me from making this a reality as soon as possible. I’ll take all the help I can get.
Even if it is coming from my dad.
Curious about Zane’s father? Meet Senator Theodore Abbott aka Uncle Theo here.
“Go,” he gasps. “Go.”
“Don’t die. Please don’t die,” I whispered, choking on adrenaline and fear.
But he is dying and we both know it.
And I have to keep moving. More will be coming.
Drawing one more shuddering breath, I attempt to calm myself as I stand. I cross the room and enter the security code for the wall safe my protector had installed. I empty everything in to my go-bag and turn back to the body of my protector. Trainer. Savior.
A broken sob escapes before I can choke it back.
What am I going to do? How can I do this without you?
I push down all the fear and grief and focus on the plan. He had drilled this plan in to me for years. I hoped I would never need it but he made sure I knew what to do.
A survival plan in case he was killed.
I hesitate standing next to him but force myself to find his gun and add that to my bag.
Then I go to the bathroom to wash the blood off my hands and tears off my face. I strip. My shoulder throbs. There’s a cut on my side but it’s not too deep. I’m going through the motions, bandaging my wounds quickly and efficiently as I’ve been taught.
I know I don’t have much time. I stuff all my clothes in a garbage bag and dress again with clothes from my bag. Jeans, a black tank top, a gray hoodie and sneakers. Nothing memorable.
I pick up both bags and move to the hall closet. Crouching before the open door, I remove a hidden panel in the back wall.
My little sister’s wide terrified eyes blink at me from the hidden crawl space.
“I hid. Just like we practiced.” Her voice is scratchy with fear. I squelch my own tears, knowing she needs me to be strong right now.
So I nod, trying to smile reassuringly. I try to pretend this was just another practice drill. “You did so good,” I tell her.
She crawls out of her hiding spot and into my arms. I squeeze her tight for a brief moment, then set her down.
“Time to go now. I have your bag.”
“What about Andre?”
“He can’t come with us this time, sweetie. This time it’s just us.”
I see her bite her lip nervously but she doesn’t ask anymore questions.
“Up,” I instruct, lifting her back into my arms once I get the bags situated. “Close your eyes until we get outside. Promise?”
“Promise,” she whispers her pledge, squeezing her eyes shut tight.
I take us through the apartment avoiding Andre and the bodies of the men who attacked us, doing my best to shield her from total knowledge of what happened here. She already knows far more than a six year old should.
They’d only sent three which tells me he wasn’t sure it was us, was just following a tip. If he’d known for certain I was here he would have sent a dozen men at least, not willing to let me get away again.
I know too much.
But when they don’t report in, he’ll know. And I can’t rule out there’s at least one other still outside in a vehicle.
Andre’s plan was a good one. We have provisions in place. My sister and I should be able to disappear again, if we move quickly.
We take the stairs to the basement so we can leave through the emergency exit in the back. Andre had taught me ages ago how to dismantle the alarm. We take a bus to nowhere, just watching to see if anyone else is following. Renee is quiet as she sits beside me holding my hand tightly. She learned long ago how to be silent and take up no space and she reverts to this state when she’s afraid. As her sister, it hurts my heart that she can’t cry and yell and act out like a normal six year old. But in this moment, this is what I need for her to do.
To be invisible and let me work.
Let me protect us both. As Andre prepared me to do.
After an hour switching between bus routes I am satisfied we’re not being followed and hail a cab, giving him the name of a hotel on the outskirts of the city.
I don’t want the hotel. But if someone ever does find him and ask him about the two young girls in his cab this is all he’ll know.
I want the storage facility half a mile away. That’s where I’ll find additional supplies and a car that Andre insured was untraceable.
And three hours after we were ambushed and Andre killed, my sister and I are driving away, leaving Philadelphia. Heading to Chicago.
I don’t know if Andre would agree with my choice of city. But I feel it’s where I need to be.
I hope I’m not wrong.
Renee is sleeping in the back seat, a stuffed elephant clutched to her chest.
I review everything Andre has taught me. Focusing on his instructions helps me keep the terror at bay. I prepare myself for what I will need to become in this next phase of my life.
Smart. Aware. Disciplined. Patient.
“Piper.” I tilt my head when she looks up, indicating I’d like to talk to her outside.
She jumps up eagerly. She’s been on the campaign beat for the last two months and has proven to be smart, professional, and tenacious. The Senator likes her. He’s sent me to offer her a sit down. One on one time with the Senator two weeks before his presumptive re-election is quite a win for any reporter.
I lead her just outside the doors. We’re currently in Springfield at a town hall for the Senator and local citizens. I know she won’t want to miss much even though it’s starting to wrap up. But I also knew this was the best time to catch her.
“Xander. What’s up?”
“Senator Abbott would like to meet with you.”
She grins. “Wonderful. I’m in.”
I laugh. “I figured. Can you meet him at the Chicago campaign office tomorrow morning 8am?”
“I’ll be there. Thanks, Xander.”
I nod. “You’ve earned it.”
Still grinning, she slips back inside the auditorium.
Before I can follow her in my cell buzzes. I curse when I see the name on the screen.
This is so not what I need to deal with right now.
That name never brings anything good into my life.
I take a deep breath and push ‘accept’, greeting him by name.
“Xander.” His voice sounds terse, never a good sign. “Are you somewhere you can talk for a few minutes?”
Can I talk? There’s a couple thousand citizens and two dozen reporters on the other side of the door I’m standing beside.
But it’s not like people don’t know about my history. One google search and it’s all there, laid out for public consumption. In all it’s ugly glory.
“I’ve got probably three minutes,” I offer. Better to know what’s going on sooner rather than later.
“Greyson’s lawyer has petitioned for a hearing. It’s scheduled for next week.”
“On what grounds?”
“They claim his treatment has been effective. They’re asking for him to receive early release.”
“What?” Early release? I’ll say four years in to a twenty year sentence is ‘early’. “How is that possible?”
“I don’t know. We’re having our own experts interview him. You should be getting a call from the Department of Corrections but as a courtesy I thought I should alert you.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“Xander – one other thing. Your mother is on the list to make a statement of support.”
Shock and fury war within me.
“Surprised me too.”
I hear cheers from beyond the door. I suspect the Senator is wrapping up. Soon I’ll be surrounded by hundreds of eager, listening ears.
“Ian, level with me. What are the odds he wins?”
“I’m going to do my best. If I had my way he’d be in a high security prison, not a mental hospital. After he meets with our psychiatrist I’ll have a better sense of the situation. Can you come in sometime next week? Would you be available to speak on the motion?”
Two weeks. Two weeks from now is Election Day.
Fury is winning as the shock begins to fade.
Greyson somehow always manages to fuck up my life, manipulating everyone around him to his advantage. Even from hundreds of miles away and in an institution for the criminally insane.
My fucking brother.
Want more of Piper? click here.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Senator, click here.
I grab a bottle of bourbon and give myself a healthy pour.
I’m such an asshole.
I stare out the window blindly, annoyed at the sunshine. I want the weather to match my mood. It’s far more beautiful outside than I deserve.
This is an awful idea. I can’t seriously be contemplating living this lie. I’ll never get away with it. Eventually she’ll hate me. Again.
Hate me still.
I rub my temple almost welcoming the headache coming on.
It’s an awful idea. Truly depraved but the alternative is also unthinkable. At least to me and my selfish impulses.
My best friend Derek enters my home office.
“You look like hell.”
I grimace. I’m sure that’s true.
I nod. “She’s resting upstairs.”
He stands beside me in front of the bar cart and pours himself a drink. He clinks our glasses together. “Thank God she’s okay, man.”
I stay silent. There’s a million things I want to confess, to unload, but my thoughts are a jumbled mess. It’s my fault. All of it.
It’s my fault.
Derek moves to sit in one of the leather wing chairs behind me. “What did the doctor say?”
“She’s lucky. Fairly minor injuries overall. But they don’t know if her memory will return.”
“She doesn’t remember anything?”
I turn to face him. “No. Nothing. Me. Us. She didn’t even remember her own name.”
“That’s some crazy soap opera shit, bro.”
I chuckle. Derek is one of the few people capable of making me laugh. “Seriously. It’s all a bit surreal.”
I hear her coming. My wife.
She pauses just inside the door.
God she’s beautiful. From the first moment I saw her I’ve been obsessed.
It’s been a real problem.
I don’t know how to handle the emotions she stirs in me, but I know I’ve been doing a piss-poor job at it so far.
Her wide golden eyes are hesitant and vulnerable as she looks between Derek and I.
“Sorry, I didn’t know you had company.”
“Company? Jazzy, I’m insulted. I’m practically family,” Derek immediately reverts to their affectionate and teasing relationship.
She blushes, clearly uncertain. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”
I move to her side and place a hand lightly against the small of her back, attempting to reassure her. I feel her shiver under my fingers.
“Ignore him. He’s incapable of taking anything seriously.” I glare at Derek, warning him without words. “This is Derek. Unfortunately, you’ll probably see him around a lot.”
Derek grins at her, not looking at all contrite. “I’ve been hanging around Walker’s place since we were just kids in diapers.” He stands and gives her a quick hug. “Glad you’re okay, sweetheart.”
“My best friend,” I explain. “I apologize in advance.”
Jasmine laughs, her body relaxing next to mine. “So, we’ve probably met before then?”
“Many times,” Derek confirms. “I was the best man at the wedding after all.”
I interrupt before this goes too far down a direction I’m not prepared to deal with. “Did you need something, Jasmine?”
“I was wondering if you were going to be free this weekend…if you wanted to explore the city. Go back to places that mean something to me, maybe it will help….”
I smile gently, trying to hide my dread at this idea. “Of course.”
She exhales in relief, her smile widening and turns more confidently back to Derek. “You’re staying for dinner, I’m assuming?”
“See? You remember me just right.”
She laughs again, kisses me quickly on the cheek and excuses herself.
I watch her leave the room, absently touching the skin she just kissed, already wondering how I’ll get through an entire day in her company.
“Soooooo. I take it the divorce is on hold?” Derek’s words are like a slap to my face.
Stubbornly I just glare at him. I feel sick.
Undaunted, other men cower under this look, Derek just raises his eyebrows and waits patiently for my response.
She doesn’t remember she wants one,” I admit, silently cursing myself.
“And you’re not going to remind her.” It’s not a question.
I groan. Restless I begin pacing the room, prowling. Can I really do this to her?
But can I let her go either?
“I’m sure I should. I”m sure that’s what Seth would do.” I spit the name with venom.
“Who the fuck cares what that guy would do? She’s your wife.”
Distracted, I pause again staring sightlessly out the window. I throw back my remaining bourbon and admit, “She’s pregnant.”
I almost delight in the shock on his face as he stares back at me. It’s rare the Derek is at a loss for words or some smart ass comment.
“Should I offer congratulations?” he finally asks.
“No,” I tell him, pain ripping through my gut. I pour myself another drink. “You should save those for the father.”
Derek curses. I feel like someone is squeezing my throat, slowly suffocating me.
“I take it she doesn’t remember that either?”
“She knows she’s pregnant. They told us at the hospital after her accident. She just assumes I’m the father.”
“But you know you’re not?”
“How far along is she?”
“The doctor said six weeks.”
“And you two… you haven’t…?”
“Been sleeping together?” I finish his thought. “No. Not for months.”
“Not at all?” Derek is being a persistent bastard. I’m not exactly proud of the state of my marriage. Especially when I know it’s largely my fault.
Angry now, I jam one hand through my hair. Annoyed by everything, I snap at him. “Once. Okay? Once in the last four months.”
“So you could be,” he insists.
I glare at him in disbelief.
“Well,” he shrugs feebly.
“No,” I tell him, my voice firm. “No. I’m not.” I top off Derek’s glass. No point in drinking alone. Not when there is someone to join my misery.
“Look, I know I’m probably going to sound like a bastard for even suggesting this, but…”
“But?” I prompt when he trails off.
“Maybe…maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. Her not remembering. I mean, she’s safe. The baby is safe. Maybe this could be like a second chance for the two of you.”
I snort. “You think that hasn’t occurred to me? I already browbeat her best friend into keeping quiet.”
“God, I’m the bastard.” I run another hand through my hair in agitation. “Can I really do this to her?”
The truth is, I want a second chance. I want a chance to fix all the mistakes I’ve made. I don’t want to live without her. I’m just not sure how to live with her, to make her happy. Or if I even deserve that after everything that’s happened.
“Do what exactly? All’s fair in love and war and all that shit,” Derek mumbles into the last of his bourbon.
I sigh, looking at him helplessly.
“And which one would this be precisely?”