CHAPTER TWENTY

When you suddenly find yourself in a dangerous situation, your brain splits into two parts, the part that’s actually going through the situation, and the part that stands back and tries to understand what’s happening. And those parts are not necessarily sharing information with each other. So it took a few moments for me to focus on what Nick was saying.” . . . can’t ignore me, you bitch. You can’t keep me away if I want to see you.”

He wanted me to know he was all-powerful. He wanted to prove I couldn’t beat him.

My mouth had gone so dry I could barely talk, while sweat broke out on my face. “Yeah,” I said in a suffocated voice. “You definitely found a way to see me. How’d you do it? You couldn’t have figured out the combination.”

“I used an override key.”

Each apartment in the building had two override keys, in case of emergency, or in case someone forgot his or her touch-pad number. One set of all the residential keys was kept in a room behind the concierge desk. The other set was locked away in the management office.

“Vanessa gave it to you,” I said in disbelief. That was illegal. It could get her prosecuted. Did she hate me so much that she would risk going to jail just to stick it to me after she’d been fired?

Apparently so.

“I told her I needed to drop some things off.”

“Well, you did,” I said faintly. “Thanks for the bracelet. But you didn’t need to bring the gun, Nick.”

“You’ve been ignoring me — ” I m sorry.

” — treating me like I mean nothing to you.” The gun jabbed my temple hard enough to leave a bruise. I stayed still, my eyes watering. “I sure as hell mean something now, don’t I?”

“Yeah,” I whispered. Maybe he had come here with the sole intention of scaring me. But he was working himself up as he always had, letting his temper build. Once he started getting angry, it was an avalanche. You couldn’t hold it back.

“You fu**ing ripped me off in the divorce, and left me in Dallas, with everyone asking about what happened, where you were . . . What do you think that did to me, Marie? Did you give a shit about what I was going through?”

I tried to remember what Susan had told me, that a narcissist needed to walk away feeling like the winner. “Of course I did,” I said breathlessly. “But everyone knew you could do better. Everyone knew I wasn’t good enough for you.”

“That’s right. You’ll never have it as good as you did with me.” Nick shoved me hard, and I slammed against the wall, my breath knocked out. The gun pressed against my skull. I heard the click of the safety being turned off. “You never tried,” he muttered, urging his h*ps against my backside. A wave of nausea went through me as I felt the bulge of his erection. “You never did enough. It takes two to make a marriage, and you were never fu**ing in it, Marie. You should have done more.”

“I’m sorry,” I said around fitful gulps of air.

“You left me. Just walked away from that apartment in your bare feet, like goddamn white trash, to try to look as pitiful as possible. To make me look bad. And then you got your as**ole of a brother to push a divorce through. Just throw a handful of cash at me, and expect me to disappear. Legal papers and all that shit don’t mean a thing to me, Marie. I can still do what I want with you.”

“Nick,” I managed, “we’ll sit down and talk as long as you want if you’ll just put the gun aw — ” I broke off with a grunt of pain as I felt a blunt white explosion behind my ear, and heard a tinny high-pitched sound. A thin, hot trickle of liquid ran behind my ear and down my neck. He had hit me with the butt of the gun.

“How many men have you fucked?” he demanded.

No good answer to that one. Anything I said would lead to the subject of Hardy, and Nick’s sense of humiliated fury would go into full swing. I had to pacify him. Soothe his injured ego.

“You’re the one who matters,” I whispered.

“Damn right about that.” His free hand gripped my hair. “Dressing like a whore, cut your hair like a whore. You used to look like a lady. Like a wife. But you couldn’t handle that. Now look at you.”

“Nick — ”

“Shut up! Everything you say is a lie. Every time you took one of those pills, it was a lie. I was trying to give you a baby. I wanted us to have a family, but all you wanted was to leave. Lying slut!”

He used his grip on my hair to drag me down to the floor. His temper had heated to full boil, and he was shouting more filthy words, jamming the gun against my head. My mind, my emotions, disengaged from what was happening, the intimate violence that was coming. Just like before, only now with a gun at my head. I wondered dazedly if he would pull the trigger. His body crushed mine as he used his weight to pin me down. His breath was rank and boozy as he muttered near my ear. “Don’t scream, or I’ll kill you.”

I was stiff, all muscles bitterly tensed. I wanted so badly to survive. My mouth flooded with the flavors of salt and metal. The familiar-awful touch of his hand paralyzed me as he started to drag the hem of my skirt up.

We were both so absorbed in our savage struggle, one bent on inflicting harm, one resisting body and soul, that neither of us heard the door open.

The air vibrated with an inhuman sound, and the entire room exploded, chaos unfolding. I managed to look up, my neck twisting painfully, and a brutal form was rushing toward us, and the gouge of cold metal left my skull as Nick raised the gun and fired.

Silence.

My ears were temporarily numb, my body resounding with the force of my terrified heartbeat. The smothering weight was gone. I rolled to my side and opened my blurry eyes. Two men were brawling in a pounding, choking, jaw-cracking dogfight, sweat and blood flying.

Hardy was on top of Nick, pummeling over and over. I could see the fight draining out of Nick as damage accumulated, bones fracturing, skin rupturing, and still Hardy wouldn’t stop. There was blood everywhere — Hardy’s left side was drenched and welling crimson.

“Hardy,” I cried out, lurching to my knees. “Hardy, stop.” He didn’t hear me. He had lost his mind, every impulse and thought bent on destruction. He was going to kill Nick. And judging from the rate his own blood was pouring out, he would kill himself in the process.

The gun, knocked out of Nick’s hand, had skittered a few yards away. I crawled over and picked it up. “Hardy, leave him alone now! That’s enough! It’s over. Hardy — ”

Nothing I said or did was going to matter. He was on an adrenaline-fueled rampage.

I had never seen so much blood. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t passed out yet.

“Damn it, Hardy, I need you,” I shouted.

He paused and looked over at me, panting. His eyes were slightly unfocused. “I need you,” I repeated, staggering to my feet. I went to him and pulled at his arm. “Come with me. Come to the sofa.”

He resisted, looking down at Nick, who had passed out, his face swollen and battered.

“It’s okay now,” I said, continuing to tug at Hardy. “He’s down. It’s over. Come with me. Come on.” I repeated the words several times, coaxing and commanding and hauling him to the sofa. Hardy looked ashen and haggard, his face contorting as the murderous instinct faded and pain began to hit him. He tried to sit, ended up collapsing, his fists suspended in midair. He’d been shot on his side, but there was so much blood, I couldn’t see the exact location or extent of the damage.

Still holding the gun, I ran to the kitchen and grabbed some folded dishtowels. I set the gun on the coffee table and ripped Hardy’s shirt open.

“Haven,” he said through thready breaths, “did he hurt you? Did he — ”

“No. I’m fine.” I wiped at the blood and found the wound, a surprisingly small, neat hole. But I couldn’t see an exit wound, which mean the bullet had gone in and possibly ricocheted, doing damage to the spleen, liver, or kidney . . . I wanted to burst into tears, but I forced them back and placed the pad of dishtowels over the wound. “Hold still. I’m going to put pressure on your side to slow the bleeding.

He let out a groan as I pushed downward. His lips were turning gray. “Your ear — ”

“It’s nothing. Nick hit me with the gun, but it wasn’t — ”

“I’ll kill him — ” He was trying to rise from the sofa.

I shoved Hardy back down. “Stay still, you idiot! You’ve been shot. Do not move.” I put his hand over the folded dishtowels to maintain the pressure while I dashed to get the phone.

I called 911, David, and Jack, while keeping the dishtowels clamped tightly on the wound.

Jack was the first to reach my apartment. “Holy shit.” He took in the scene before him, my ex-husband stirring on the floor, Hardy and me on the sofa. “Haven, are you — ”

“I’m fine. Make sure Nick doesn’t do anything else.”

Jack stood over my ex-husband with an expression I’d never seen him wear before. “As soon as I get the chance,” he told Nick in a deadly quiet voice, “I’m going to drop you in your tracks and gut you like a feral hog.”

The paramedics arrived, followed soon by the police, while the building security guards kept anxious neighbors from coming in. I wasn’t aware of the exact moment Nick was taken out of the apartment by the police, I was too absorbed in Hardy. He drifted in and out of consciousness, his skin clammy, his breathing weak and fast. He seemed confused, asking me at least three times what had happened, and if I was okay.

“Everything’s fine,” I murmured, stroking his tumbled hair, gripping his free hand firmly while a paramedic inserted a large bore needle for an IV. “Be quiet.”

“Haven . . . had to tell you . . . ”

“Tell me later.”

“Mistake . . . ”

“I know. It’s okay. Hush and be still.”

I could tell he wanted to say something else, but the other paramedic put him on high-flow oxygen and applied patches for a cardiac monitor, and fitted him with a stabilizing board for transport. They were fast and efficient. What EMS professionals call the “golden hour” had started: the time between when a victim was shot and the time he arrived at a trauma center for treatment. If more than sixty minutes passed before he got treated, his chances of survival started to drop.

I rode with Hardy in the ambulance while Jack drove to the hospital. It was only for Hardy’s sake that I managed to stay outwardly calm. Inside, I felt an anguish that seemed too great for a human heart to withstand.

We arrived at the ambulance entrance, and the paramedics lifted Hardy on a gurney up to the building floor, which was slightly higher than the floor of the ambulance.

Liberty and Gage were already at the trauma unit, having been alerted by Jack. I guessed the rest of my family wouldn’t be far behind. I hadn’t given a thought to how I must have looked, all wild-eyed and bloodstained, but I gathered from their expressions that my appearance was a cause for concern. Liberty put her jacket over my shirt and cleaned my face with some baby wipes from her purse.

When she discovered the lump behind my ear, she and Gage insisted that I get it looked at, despite my howls of protest.

“I’m not going anywhere, I’m going to stay right here until I find out what’s going on with Hardy — ”

“Haven.” Gage was in front of me, his steady gaze boring into mine. “It’s going to be a long time before they’ve got any news. They’re checking his blood type, doing CT scans and X-rays . . . believe me, you’re not going to miss a thing. Now let someone look at that hard head of yours. Please.”

I was cleaned and bandaged, and sent back to the trauma unit waiting room. As Gage had predicted, there was no news. Hardy was in surgery, although no one would tell us what it was for, or how long it would last. I sat and stared blindly at the television in the corner of the room, wondering if I should call Hardy’s mother. I decided to wait until I found out something about his condition — hopefully something reassuring — that I could relay along with the news that he’d been hurt.

As I waited, guilt sucked me down like quicksand. I had never imagined Hardy would suffer for my past mistakes. If only I had never gotten involved with Nick . . . if only I had never started a relationship with Hardy . . .

“Don’t think that.” I heard Liberty’s gentle voice beside me.

“Don’t think what?” I asked dully, drawing up my knees to sit cross-legged on the hard plastic chair.

“Whatever it is that’s put that look on your face.” Her arm slid around my shoulders. “You’re not to blame for any of this. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to Hardy.”

“Oh, obviously,” I muttered, casting a glance at the doors leading to surgery.

She squeezed me a little. “When I saw the two of you at the rigs-to-reefs party the other night, I couldn’t believe the difference in Hardy. I’ve never seen him look so relaxed and happy. Comfortable in his skin. I didn’t think anyone could ever do that for him.”

“Liberty . . . something’s gone wrong the past couple of days. Dad and Uncle T.J. — ”

“Yes, I know about that. Churchill told me. He also told me about something that happened today, which you really need to hear.”

“What is it?”

“I think Churchill should be the one to tell you.” She nudged me to look toward the visitors’ entrance, where my father and Joe were just coming in. Liberty stood and motioned Dad over to us, and he eased into the chair beside me. And in spite of all my anger and feelings of betrayal, I leaned against him and put my head on his shoulder, breathing in his leathery Dad-smell.

“What happened, Punkin?” he asked.

I kept my head on his shoulder as I told him. Every now and then his hand came up and patted my arm gently. He seemed bewildered that Nick would have done something so crazy, and asked what had happened to drive him off the deep end. I thought of explaining that Nick had always been that way, that his abuse had destroyed our marriage. But I decided to save that particular conversation for a better time and place. So I just shook my head and shrugged and said I had no idea.

And then Dad surprised me by saying, “I knew Hardy was going to come see you tonight.”

I lifted my head and looked at him. “You did? How?”

“He called me around five today. Said he was sorry he’d agreed to the lease deal, and he’d already told T.J. it was off. He said he hadn’t been thinking straight on Saturday, and it had been a mistake on both sides — us for offering, and him for accepting.”

“He was right,” I said shortly.

“So the deal is off,” Dad said.

“Oh, no it isn’t!” I scowled at him. “You’re still going to keep your end of it. You make sure Hardy gets the leases at the fair price he offered, and tell T.J. to forget the bonus. And if you do that, I’ll be willing to give you another chance at a normal father-daughter relationship.”

I was determined that for once in his life, Hardy Cates was going to have it all.

“And you’re going to keep on seeing him?”

“Yes.”

My father smiled slightly. “Probably a good thing, considering what he told me about you.”

“What? What did he tell you?”

My father shook his head. “He asked me to keep it private. And I’m done interfering. Except . . . ”

I gave an unsteady laugh. “Except what? Damn it, Daddy, why do you have to quit interfering when you finally have something I want to hear? ”

“I can tell you this much. I’ve had two men approach me about their feelings for my daughter. One of ’em was Nick. And I didn’t believe a word he said. Not because you’re not worth loving. Nick just didn’t have it in him. But Hardy Cates . . . for all that he’s a rascal and a born redneck . . . I believed him today. He wasn’t trying to sell me something. He was just telling me like it was. I respected that. And whatever you choose to do about him, I’ll respect that too.”

Two hours passed. I paced, sat, watched TV, and guzzled burnt-tasting coffee flavored with powdered creamer and fake sweetener. When I thought I was going to explode from the tension of not knowing anything, the door opened. A tall white-haired surgeon stood there, his gaze sweeping the room. “Any family for Hardy Cates?”

I shot over to him. “I’m his fianc?e.” I thought that might get me more information. “Haven Travis.”

“Dr. Whitfield.” We shook hands.

“Mr. Cates used up all his luck on this one,” the surgeon said. “The bullet nicked the spleen, but no other organs were damaged. Almost a miracle. I’d have expected the bullet to bounce around a little more, but thankfully it didn’t. After we removed the bullet, we were able to do a relatively simple suture repair on the spleen and salvage it completely. Given Mr. Cates’s age and excellent health, there’s no reason to expect complications of any kind. So I’d say he’ll be in the hospital for about a week, and then it’ll take about four to six weeks more until he’s all healed up.”

My eyes and nose stung. I passed a sleeve over my eyes to blot them. “So he won’t have any problems from this in the future? No gimpy spleen or anything?”

“Oh, no. I’d expect a full recovery.”

“Oh, my God.” I let out a shuddering sigh. It was one of the best moments of my life. No, the absolute best. I was electrified and weak, and breathless. “I’m so relieved, I actually feel sort of queasy from it. Is that possible?”

“It’s either relief,” Dr. Whitfield said kindly, “or the waiting room coffee. Most likely the coffee.”

The hospital rule was that intensive care patients could have twenty-four-hour visitation. The catch was, you could only stay fifteen minutes per hour, except in special circumstances as approved by the nursing staff. I asked Gage to pull whatever strings he could to make sure I could come and go at will. My brother seemed vaguely amused by this, and reminded me about how I had once objected to using power and money to get special treatment. I told him that when you were in love, hypocrisy won out over principle. And Gage said he certainly understood that, and he went and got me special permission to stay with Hardy as long as I wanted.

I dozed in a reclining chair in Hardy’s room most of the night. The problem was, a hospital was the worst place in the world to sleep. Nurses came in hourly, exchanging IV bags, checking the monitors, and taking Hardy’s temperature and blood pressure. But I welcomed each interruption, because I loved hearing about how well he was doing, over and over again.

At daybreak Gage came to the hospital and told me he was going to drive me back to my apartment so I could shower and change. I didn’t want to leave Hardy, but I knew I looked like something the cat dragged in, and it was probably a good idea for me to clean up some.

Hardy had woken up when I came back at seven, and he was not pleased, to say the least, to find himself in a hospital bed and hooked up to monitors. I walked in to hear him arguing with a nurse, demanding that she take the IV out, and categorically refusing the pain medicine that he obviously needed. He didn’t want to be poked and prodded, he said. He felt fine. All he needed was a bandage and an ice pack.

I could tell the nurse was enjoying the argument with the big, blue-eyed male who was at her mercy, and I didn’t blame her a bit. He looked lost, a little anxious, and utterly appetizing.

And he was mine.

“Hardy Cates,” I said, coming into the room, “you behave, or I’ll step on your tube.”

The nurse seemed taken aback by my unsympathetic bedside manner.

But Hardy’s gaze met mine in a moment of bright, hot voltage, and he relaxed, reassured in a way that cooing sympathy could never have done. “That only works if it’s a breathing tube,” he told me.

I went to the tray on the bed-table and picked up the Vicodin tablets the nurse had been trying to get him to take, along with a cup of water. “Take these,” I said. “No arguing.”

He obeyed, shooting a glance at the nurse, whose eyebrows were slightly raised. “She’s little,” he told her, “but she’s mean.”

The nurse left, no doubt wondering why such a hunk hadn’t been able to find a nicer girlfriend. When the door had closed, I fussed over Hardy a little, straightening the covers and readjusting his pillow. His gaze didn’t stray from my face.

“Haven,” he muttered, “get me out of here. I’ve never been in a hospital before. I can’t stand being hooked up to all this crap. All I need is — ”

“Surrender to the process,” I told him, “and you’ll get out of here a lot quicker.” I kissed his forehead. “Will you behave if I get in there with you?”

Without hesitation, Hardy maneuvered himself over to the side, grunting in pain at the effort. I slipped off my clogs and climbed in carefully, resting in the crook of his arm. He sighed deeply, a sound of contentment.

I nuzzled gently into his warm neck, breathing him in. Hardy smelled antiseptic, medicinal, like he’d been sprayed with eau-de-hospital. But underneath the sterilized blankness I found the familiar fragrance of him.

“Hardy,” I murmured, stroking his wrist, “why did you take that stupid deal from Dad and T.J.? And why’d you call it off?”

His hand found mine, long fingers folding over my palm. “I went a little crazy after I saw my dad on Friday night.”

“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”

“I bailed him out and dropped him off at a motel with some money. And I told him to get lost. But what I didn’t tell you . . . I should have . . . is that he and I talked for a few minutes. And he said — ” Hardy stopped, gripping my hand more tightly.

I waited as he took a few unsettled breaths.

“He got pissed when I told him what I’d do to him if he ever called Mom again,” Hardy muttered. “He said that was funny coming from me, because . . . I was the reason they’d gotten married. Mom had stopped going out with him, but then she had to go back to him because she was pregnant. It was my fault she ended up with the son of a bitch. Her whole life has been hell because of me. She’s suffered — ”

“No. Hardy . . . ” I lifted up and stared into his dark blue eyes. My chest ached with sympathy. “You know that’s not right. You know it wasn’t your fault.”

“But it’s a fact that if I hadn’t come along, Mom wouldn’t have married him. And once he got her, her life was ruined.”

I understood Hardy’s feelings even if I didn’t agree with his logic. But his anguish and irrational guilt couldn’t be solved with convenient platitudes. He needed time, and love, to come to terms with the truth. And I had more than enough of both to give him.

Hardy kissed my head. His voice was deep and rough. “I hate being his son. I hate the half of me that’s him, and I can feel it, that part that’s a bad, low, worthless son of a bitch, and when Churchill and T.J. came to me with that deal, I thought why the hell not. I was going to have to leave you anyway. Because I loved you too much to drag you down with me.”

My hand crept up to caress the rigid line of his jaw. “Why’d you change your mind?” I whispered.

“After I calmed down a little and had a chance to think, I figured . . . I love you enough to try and deserve you. I would do anything, be anything, for you. Last night I went to your apartment to beg you to give me another chance. I was shaking in my boots, thinking you might not forgive me for Friday night.”

I flushed as I remembered the long, erotic hours with him in the darkness of his bedroom. “Of course I . . . I mean, there’s nothing to forgive.” My voice lowered to an abashed whisper. “I wanted to do all that with you.”

His body had turned so warm, I wondered if he was blushing too. “I thought it might have been too much for you. I pushed you too hard. And after what you’d been through with Nick . . . well, I was afraid you wouldn’t want me in your life anymore. So I was coming to your apartment to tell you how sorry I was. How gentle I would be from now on. And even if you don’t want me now, I wish you’d just . . . let me be near you, at least. In case you ever need me for anything.”

I had never heard him so utterly humble, never imagined it was possible. I guided his face to mine until our noses almost touched. “I need you for a lot of things, Hardy. A lifetime’s worth of things.”

He kissed me with surprising strength, his mouth warm and demanding.

“I love you,” I whispered. And it was a testament to the man’s considerable vigor that in spite of blood loss, drugs, and a distinctly unromantic hospital setting, he put some serious moves on me.

“Don’t,” I said with a shaky laugh as his free hand wandered boldly over my front. “We’ll set off the cardiac monitor. And they’ll kick me out for compromising your recovery.”

But Hardy paid no attention, of course, doing exactly as he pleased.

“You know,” I said, arching a little as he kissed my neck, “I told the hospital staff I was your fianc?e, so they’d let me stay in here with you.”

“I’d hate to make a liar out of you.” Hardy smoothed my hair back. “But after what happened last night, you’re feeling grateful, and I don’t want to take advantage. So tomorrow, when the gratitude’s worn off . . . I’ll probably ask you to marry me.”

“I’ll probably say yes,” I told him.

Hardy brought my forehead to his, and I was lost in the brilliant blue depths of his eyes.

“Soon?” he whispered against my lips. “As soon as you want.”

It occurred to me in retrospect that I probably should have been nervous about getting married again, in light of my past experiences. But everything was different with Hardy. His love came with no strings attached, which I thought was the greatest gift one human being could give to another.

“You know,” I told him on our wedding night, “I’m just as much me when I’m with you, as I am without you.”

And because Hardy understood what I meant, he pulled me into his arms, against his heart.

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