Chapter 12

Gideon and I arrived back in Manhattan just before midnight on Sunday. We’d spent the previous night sleeping apart, but most of the day together in the master bed. Kissing and touching. Laughing and whispering.

By silent agreement we didn’t talk about painful things during the rest of our time away. We didn’t turn on the television or radio, because it seemed wrong to share our time with anyone. We walked on the beach again. We made long, slow, lazy love on the third-story deck. We played cards and he won every hand. We recharged and reminded ourselves that what we’d found with each other was worth fighting for.

It was the most perfect day of my life.

We returned to my apartment when we got back into the city. Gideon unlocked the door for us with the key I’d given him, and we entered the darkened space as quietly as possible so that we didn’t wake Cary. Gideon gave me one of his soul-melting kisses good night and headed to the guest room, and I crawled into my lonely bed without him. Missing him. I wondered how long we’d be sleeping apart from each other. Months? Years?

Hating to think of it, I closed my eyes and started to drift.

The light flicked on.

“Eva. Get up.” Gideon strode into the room and straight to my dresser, digging through my clothes.

I blinked at him, noting that he’d changed into slacks and a button-down dress shirt. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s Cary,” he said grimly. “He’s in the hospital.”

* * *

A cab was waiting for us at the curb when we left my apartment building. Gideon ushered me in, then slid in beside me.

The cab seemed to pull away very slowly. Everything seemed to be moving slowly.

I clutched at Gideon’s sleeve. “What happened?”

“He was attacked Friday night.”

“How do you know?”

“Your mother and Stanton both left messages on my cell phone.”

“My mother…?” I looked at him blankly. “Why didn’t she…?”

No, she couldn’t call me. I hadn’t had my phone. Guilt and worry drowned me, making it hard to breathe.

“Eva.” He put his arm around my shoulders, urging me to rest my head against him. “Don’t worry until we know more.”

“It’s been days, Gideon. And I wasn’t here.”

Tears poured down my face and wouldn’t stop, even after we arrived at the hospital. I barely registered the exterior of the building, my attention dulled by the hard driving anxiety pounding through me. I thanked God for Gideon, who was so calm and in control. A staff member provided the number of Cary’s room, but his helpfulness ended there. Gideon made a few middle-of-the-night phone calls that got me access to see Cary, even though it was well outside visiting hours. Gideon had been a very generous benefactor at times and that wasn’t easily dismissed or forgotten.

When I stepped into Cary’s private room and saw him, my heart shattered so completely, my knees went weak. Only Gideon kept me from falling. The man I thought of as my brother, the best friend I’d ever had or ever would have, lay silent and unmoving in the bed. His head was bandaged and his eyes blackened. One of his arms was stuck with intravenous lines, while the other was in a cast. I wouldn’t have recognized him, if I hadn’t known who he was.

Flowers covered every flat surface, cheerful and colorful bouquets. There were balloons, too, and a few cards. I knew some would be from my mother and Stanton, who were certainly paying for Cary’s care as well.

We were his family. And everyone had been there for him but me.

Gideon led me closer, his arm tight around my waist to hold me up. I was sobbing, the tears flowing thick and hot. It was everything I could do to remain silent.

Still, Cary must have heard me or sensed me. His eyelids fluttered, then opened. His beautiful green eyes were bloodshot and unfocused. It took him a minute to find me. When he did, he blinked a few times, and then tears started rolling down his temples.

“Cary.” I rushed to him and slipped my hand in his. “I’m here.”

He gripped me so tightly, it was painful. “Eva.”

“I’m sorry I took so long. I didn’t have my phone. I had no idea. I would’ve been here if I’d known.”

“S’okay. You’re here now.” His throat worked on a swallow. “God… everything hurts.”

“I’ll get a nurse,” Gideon said, running his hand down my back before slipping silently out of the room.

I saw a small pitcher and cup with straw on the rolling tray table. “Are you thirsty?”

“Very.”

“Can I sit you up? Or no?” I was afraid to do anything to cause him pain.

“Yeah.”

Using the remote lying near his hand, I raised the top part of the bed so that he was reclined. Then I brought the straw to his lips and watched him drink greedily.

He relaxed with a sigh. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, baby girl.”

“What the hell happened?” I set the empty cup down and grabbed his hand again.

“Fuck if I know.” His voice was weak, almost a whisper. “Got jumped. With a bat.”

“With a bat?” Just the thought made me physically ill. The brutality of it. The violence… “Was he insane?”

“Of course,” he snapped, a deep line of pain between his brows.

I backed up a half step. “I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t. Shit. I’m-” His eyes closed. “I’m exhausted.”

Just then the nurse came in wearing scrubs decorated with cartoon tongue depressors and animated stethoscopes. She was young and pretty, with dark hair and sloe eyes. She checked Cary over, took his blood pressure, then pressed the button on a remote wrapped around the guardrail.

“You can self-administer every thirty minutes for pain,” she told him. “Just press this button. It won’t dispense a dose if it’s not time, so you don’t have to worry about pressing it too often.”

“Once is too often,” he muttered, looking at me.

I understood his reluctance; he had an addictive personality. He’d traveled a short ways down the junkie road before I kicked some sense into him.

But it was a relief to see the lines of pain on his forehead smooth out and his breathing settle into a deeper rhythm.

The nurse looked at me. “He needs his rest. You should come back during visiting hours.”

Cary looked at me desperately. “Don’t go.”

“She’s not going anywhere,” Gideon said, reentering the room. “I’ve arranged to have a cot brought in tonight.”

I didn’t think it was possible to love Gideon more than I already did, but he somehow kept finding ways to prove me wrong.

The nurse smiled shyly at Gideon.

“Cary could use more water,” I told her, watching her pull her gaze reluctantly away from my boyfriend to look at me.

She grabbed the pitcher and left the room.

Gideon stepped closer to the bed and spoke to Cary. “Tell me what happened.”

Cary sighed. “Trey and I went out Friday, but he had to bail early. I walked him out to grab a cab, but it was nuts right in front of the club, so we went around the corner. He’d just taken off when I got nailed in the back of the head. Took me straight down and whaled on me a few times. Never got a chance to defend myself.”

My hands began to shake, and Cary’s thumb rubbed soothingly over the back.

“Hey,” he murmured. “Teaches me. Don’t stick my dick in the wrong chick.”

“What?”

I watched Cary’s eyes drift shut, and a moment later it was clear he was sleeping. I glanced helplessly across the bed at Gideon.

“I’ll look into it,” he said. “Step out with me for a minute.”

I followed him, my gaze repeatedly turning back to Cary. When the door closed behind us, I said, “God, Gideon. He looks terrible.”

“He got knocked around good,” he said grimly. “He’s got a skull fracture, a nasty concussion, three cracked ribs, and a broken arm.”

The list of injuries was horribly painful to listen to. “I don’t understand why someone would do this.”

He pulled me close and pressed his lips to my forehead. “The doctor said it’s possible Cary will be allowed to leave in a day or two, so I’ll make arrangements for home care. I’ll also let your work know you won’t be coming in.”

“Cary’s agency needs to know.”

“I’ll see to it.”

“Thank you.” I hugged him hard. “What would I do without you?”

“You’re never going to find out.”

* * *

My mother woke me at nine the next morning, gliding fretfully into Cary’s room as soon as visiting hours began. She pulled me out to the hallway, drawing the attention of everyone in the immediate area. It was early, but she looked amazing in eye-catching red-soled Louboutins and an ivory sleeveless sheath dress.

“Eva. I can’t believe you went the entire weekend without your cell phone! What were you thinking? What if there had been an emergency?”

“There was an emergency.”

“Exactly!” She threw up one hand, since the other arm had her clutch tucked beneath it. “No one could get hold of you or Gideon. He left a message saying that he was taking you away for the weekend, but no one knew where you were. I can’t believe he was so irresponsible! What was he thinking?”

“Thank you,” I interjected, because she was getting wound up and repeating herself, “for taking care of Cary. It means a lot to me.”

“Well, of course.” My mother took it down a notch. “We love him, too, you know. I’m devastated this happened.”

Her lower lip trembled and she dug in her bag for her ever-ready handkerchief.

“Are the police investigating?” I asked.

“Yes, of course, but I don’t how much good it will do.” She dabbed at the corners of her eyes. “I love Cary dearly, but he’s a tramp. I doubt he can recall all the women and men he’s been with. Remember the charity auction you attended with Gideon? When I bought you that stunning red dress?”

“Yes.” I’d never forget it. It was the night Gideon and I first made love.

“I’m certain Cary slept with a blonde he danced with that night-while they were there! They disappeared and when they came back… Well, I know what a satisfied man looks like. I would be surprised if he knew her name.”

I remembered what Cary had said before he fell asleep. “You think this attack has something to do with someone he slept with?”

My mother blinked at me, seeming to remember that I didn’t know anything. “Cary was told to keep his hands off ‘her’-whoever ‘her’ is. The detectives will be coming back later today to try to pull some names out of him.”

“Jesus.” I scrubbed at my eyes, needing my face wash badly and a cup of coffee even more. “They need to talk to Tatiana Cherlin.”

“Who’s that?”

“Someone Cary’s been seeing. I think she’d get a kick out of something like this. Cary’s boyfriend caught them together and she ate it up with a spoon. She loved being the cause of the drama.”

I rubbed at the back of my neck, then realized the tingle I felt was for another reason entirely. I looked over my shoulder and saw Gideon approaching, his long legs closing the distance between us with that measured stride. Dressed for work in a suit, with a large cup of coffee in one hand and a small black bag in the other, he was exactly what I needed at just the moment I needed him.

“Excuse me.” I walked toward Gideon and straight into his arms.

“Hey,” he greeted me, with his lips in my hair. “How are you holding up?”

“It’s awful. And senseless.” My eyes burned. “He didn’t need another disaster in his life. He’s had more than his share.”

“So have you, and you’re suffering along with him.”

“And you’re doing the same with me.” I pushed up onto my tiptoes and kissed his jaw, then stepped back. “Thank you.”

He handed me the coffee. “I brought some things for you-a change of clothes, your cell and tablet, bathroom stuff.”

I knew his thoughtfulness had to come at a price-literally. After a weekend away, he should be digging his way out of a small mountain of work worth millions, not running around taking care of me. “God. I love you.”

“Eva!” My mother’s startled exclamation made me wince. She advocated withholding the words I love you until the wedding night.

“Sorry, Mom. Can’t help it.”

Gideon brushed coffee-warmed fingertips down my cheek.

“Gideon,” my mother began, coming up right beside us, “you should know better than to take Eva away without any means of calling for help. You do know better.”

She was clearly referring to my past. I wasn’t sure why she thought I was so delicate that I couldn’t function on my own. She was far more fragile.

I shot a sympathetic glance Gideon’s way.

He held out the bag he’d brought for me, the calm and confident look on his face conveying his total comfort in dealing with my mother. So I left him to it. I didn’t have it in me to deal with her until I’d caffeinated myself.

I slipped back into Cary’s room and found him awake. Just the sight of him made the tears well and my throat close up tight. He was such a strong and vibrant man, so full of life and mischief. It was the worst pain to see him looking so broken.

“Hey,” he muttered. “Quit the waterworks every time you see me. Makes me feel like I’m gonna die or something.”

Hell. He was right. My tears didn’t do him any good. Instead, what little relief they gave me just put more of the burden on him. I needed to be a better friend than that.

“I can’t help it,” I said, sniffling. “It sucks. Someone beat me to it and kicked your ass before I could.”

“Is that right?” His scowl faded. “What’d I do now?”

“You didn’t tell me about Brett and Six-Ninths.”

“Oh yeah…” A bit of his old sparkle came back into his eyes. “How’d he look?”

“Good. Really good.” Very hot, but I kept that thought to myself. “Although right now, he might not look much better than you.”

I told him about the kiss and the resulting fight.

“Cross threw down, huh?” Cary shook his head, then winced and stopped. “Taking on Brett took guts-he’s a barroom brawler who loves a good fight.”

“And Gideon is a trained mixed martial artist.” I began digging through the bag Gideon had brought. “Why didn’t you tell me Captive Soul had signed with a major label?”

“Because you didn’t need to fall into that hole again. There are girls who can date rock stars; you’re not one of them. All that time on the road, all those groupies… You’d drive yourself and him insane.”

I shot him a look. “I’m in total agreement with you. But I’m insulted that you’d think I’d run back to him just because he made it big.”

“That’s not why. I didn’t want you to hear their first single if it could be helped.”

“‘Golden’?”

“Yeah…” He studied me as I headed toward the bathroom. “What’d you think of it?”

“It’s better than a song titled ‘Tapped That.’”

“Ha!” He waited until I came out again with my face washed and hair brushed. “So… you kissed him.”

“That’s the beginning and end of that story,” I said dryly. “Have you talked to Trey since Friday?”

“No. They’ve got my phone somewhere. My wallet, too, I’m guessing. When I came to, I was here, wearing this”-he pinched at his hospital gown-“freakin’ thing.”

“I’ll get your stuff for you.” I dumped my toiletries back in the bag, then went to sit in the chair beside him with my coffee in hand. “Gideon’s making arrangements to get you home with a private nurse.”

“Ooh… that’s a fantasy of mine. Can you make sure the nurse is hot? And single?”

My brows rose. Inside, though, I was so relieved to see him looking and sounding more like himself. “You’re obviously feeling better, if you’re feeling frisky. How did things go with Trey?”

“Good.” He sighed. “I’d worried that the party wouldn’t be his scene. I forgot that he knew a lot of the people already.”

Cary and Trey had met at a photo shoot, with Cary modeling and Trey assisting the photographer behind the camera. “I’m glad you had a good time.”

“Yeah. He was totally set on not getting laid.”

“So you tried… after you said you wouldn’t.”

“This is me we’re talking about.” He rolled his eyes. “Hell yeah, I tried. He’s hot and great in bed-”

“-and in love with you.”

He released his pent-up breath in a rush, wincing as his chest expanded. “No one’s perfect.”

I had to bite back a laugh. “Cary Taylor. Loving you isn’t a character defect.”

“Well, it’s not very smart. I was such an asshole to him,” he muttered, looking disgruntled. “He could do so much better.”

“That isn’t your decision to make for him.”

“Someone needs to make it.”

“And you’re volunteering because you love him, too.” My mouth curved. “Don’t you think that sounds ass-backwards?”

“I don’t love him enough.” All traces of levity were wiped from his face, leaving behind the wounded and lonely man I knew all too well. “I can’t be faithful like he wants. Just him and me. I like women. Love them, actually. I’d be cutting off half of who I am. Just thinking about it makes me resent him.”

“You fought too hard to accept yourself,” I said softly, remembering that time with more than a little twinge of sadness. “I totally understand and don’t disagree, but have you tried talking to Trey about it?”

“Yes, I talked to him about it. He listened.” He rubbed his fingers over his brow. “I get it, I do. If he told me he wanted to bang some other guy while seeing me, it’d bother the fuck out of me.”

“But not if it were a woman?”

“No. I don’t know. Shit.” His bloodshot green eyes pleaded with me. “Would it make a difference to you if Cross were banging another man? Or just another woman?”

The door opened and Gideon walked in. I held his gaze when I said, “If Gideon’s dick touched anything but his hand or me, we’d be over.”

His brows rose. “Well, then.”

I smiled sweetly and winked. “Hi, ace.”

“Angel.” He looked at Cary. “How are you feeling this morning?”

Cary’s lips twisted wryly. “Like I got hit by a bus… or a bat.”

“We’re working on getting you set up at home. It looks like we can make that happen by Wednesday.”

“Big tits, please,” Cary said. “Or bulging muscles. Either will do.”

Gideon looked at me.

I grinned. “The private nurse.”

“Ah.”

“If it’s a woman,” Cary went on, “can you get her to wear one of those white nurse dresses with the zipper down the front.”

“I can only imagine the media frenzy over that sexual-harassment lawsuit,” Gideon said dryly. “How about a collection of naughty-nurse porn instead?”

“Dude.” Cary smiled wide and looked, for a moment, like his old self. “You’re the man.”

Gideon looked at me. “Eva.”

I stood and bent over to kiss Cary on the cheek. “I’ll be right back.”

We stepped out of the room and I saw my mother in conversation with the doctor, who looked dazzled by her.

“I talked to Garrity this morning,” Gideon said, referring to Mark, my boss. “So don’t worry about that.”

I hadn’t been, because he said he’d handle it. “Thank you. I’ll need to go in tomorrow. I’m going to see if I can get hold of Trey, Cary’s boyfriend. Maybe he can stop in while I’m at work.”

“Let me know if you need any help with that.” Gideon glanced at his watch. “You’ll want to stay here again tonight?”

“Yes, if that’s possible. Until Cary comes home.”

He took my face in his hands and pressed his lips to mine. “All right. I have a lot of work to catch up on. Charge your cell so I can reach you.”

I heard a faint buzzing. Gideon backed away and reached into an inner jacket pocket to withdraw his phone. He read the screen, then said, “I have to get this. I’ll talk to you later.”

Then he was gone, striding down the hallway as quickly as he’d arrived.

“He’s going to marry you,” my mother said, coming up to stand beside me. “You know that, don’t you?”

I didn’t, no. I still felt a little flare of gratitude every morning when I woke up and realized that we were still together. “What makes you say that?”

My mother looked at me with her baby blue eyes. It was one of the rare physical traits we didn’t share. “He’s completely taken you over and assumed control of everything.”

“That’s just his nature.”

“That’s the nature of all powerful men,” she said, reaching up to fuss with my no-nonsense ponytail. “And he’ll indulge you, because he’s making an investment in you. You’re an asset to him. You’re beautiful, well bred and well connected, and independently wealthy. You’re also in love with him and he can’t take his eyes off you. I bet he can’t keep his hands off you, either.”

“Mother, please.” I was so not in the mood for one of her lectures on the fine points of catching and marrying a rich man.

“Eva Lauren,” she scolded, facing me directly. “I don’t care if you listen to me because I’m your mother and you have to-or because you love him and don’t want to lose him, but you will listen.”

“Like I have a choice,” I muttered.

“You’re an asset now,” she repeated. “See that your life choices don’t make you a liability.”

“Are you talking about Cary?” Anger sharpened my voice.

“I’m talking about the bruise on Gideon’s jaw! Tell me that has nothing to do with you.”

I flushed.

She tsked. “I knew it. Yes, he’s your lover and you see an intimate side to him that few see, but don’t ever forget that he’s also Gideon Cross. You’ve got everything you need to be the perfect wife for a man of his stature, but you’re still replaceable, Eva. What he’s built is not. You jeopardize his empire and he’ll leave you.”

My jaw tightened. “Are you done?”

She ran her fingertips over my brows, her gaze shrewd and assessing. I knew she was giving me a mini-makeover in her mind, thinking of ways to improve what she’d given me from birth. “You think I’m a coldhearted gold digger, but my concern is maternal, believe it or not. I want very desperately for you to be with a man who has the money and wherewithal to guard you with everything he has, so I’ll know you’re safe. And I want you to be with a man you love.”

“I’ve found him.”

“And I can’t tell you how thrilled I am. I’m thrilled he’s young and still open to taking risks, so he’s more forgiving and understanding of your… quirks. And he knows,” she whispered, her gaze softening and growing liquid. “Just be careful. That’s all I’m trying to say. Don’t give him any reason to turn away from you.”

“If he did, that wouldn’t be love.”

Her lips curved wryly and she pressed a kiss to my forehead. “Come now. You’re my daughter. You can’t be that na?ve.”

“Eva!”

I turned at the sound of my name and felt a rush of relief to see Trey hurrying toward me. He was of average height and nicely muscular, with unruly blond hair, hazel eyes, and a slight angle to his nose that told me it’d been broken at some point. He was dressed in faded, frayed jeans and a T-shirt, and I was struck by the fact that he wasn’t Cary’s usual flashy type. For once, it seemed, the attraction had been more than skin deep.

“I just found out,” he said when he reached me. “Detectives came by my work this morning and questioned me. I can’t believe this happened Friday night and I’m only just finding out about it.”

I couldn’t hold his slightly accusatory tone against him. “I just found out early this morning myself. I was out of town.”

After a quick introduction between my mother and Trey, she excused herself to go sit with Cary, leaving me to elaborate on the information Trey had gleaned from the detectives.

Trey shoved his hands through his hair, making it look even messier. “This wouldn’t have happened if I’d taken him with me when I left.”

“You can’t blame yourself for this.”

“Who else do I blame for the fact that he’s screwing around with another guy’s girl?” He gripped the back of his neck. “I’m the one who’s not enough for him. He’s got the drive of a hormonal teenager and I’m working or in school all the damn time.”

Ugh. Total TMI. It was a struggle not to wince. But I understood that Trey likely didn’t have anyone else he felt comfortable discussing Cary with.

“He’s bisexual, Trey,” I said softly, reaching out to run a comforting hand down his biceps. “That doesn’t mean you’re lacking.”

“I don’t know how to live with this.”

“Would you consider counseling? With both of you, I mean.”

He looked at me with haunted eyes for a long minute; then his shoulders slumped. “I don’t know. I think I have to decide if I can live with him cheating. Could you do it, Eva? Could you sit at home waiting for your man, knowing he was sticking it somewhere else?”

“No.” An icy shiver coursed through me at the mere words. “No, I couldn’t.”

“And I don’t even know if Cary would agree to counseling. He keeps pushing me away. He wants me, and then he doesn’t. He’s committed, and then he isn’t. I want in, Eva, like he’s let you in, but he keeps shutting me out.”

“It took me a long time to break through to him. He tried pushing me away with sex, always coming on to me, taunting me. I think you made the right decision keeping it platonic on Friday. Cary puts his value on his looks and sex appeal. You need to show him that it’s not just his body you want.”

Trey sighed and crossed his arms. “Is that how you two got close? Because you wouldn’t sleep with him?”

“Partly. Mostly it’s because I’m a mess. It’s not as obvious now as it was when we met, but he knows I’m not perfect.”

“Neither am I! Who is?”

“He believes you’re better than he is, that you deserve better.” I grinned. “Me… well, I bet part of him thinks I deserve him. That we deserve each other.”

“Crazy fucker,” he muttered.

“He is that,” I agreed. “That’s why we love him, isn’t it? Do you want to go in and see him? Or do you want to go home and think about it?”

“No, I want to see him.” Trey’s shoulders rolled back and his chin lifted. “I don’t care what put him here. I want to be with him while he’s going through this.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” I linked my arm with his and led him to Cary’s room.

We entered to the sound of my mother’s trilling, girlish laughter. She sat on the edge of the bed, with Cary smiling adoringly at her. She was as much a mother to him as she was to me, and he loved her so much for that. His own mother had hated him, abused him, and allowed others to abuse him.

He looked over and saw us, and the emotions that swept across his face in that moment caused a tightness in my chest. I heard Trey’s breath catch as he got his first sight of Cary’s condition. I kicked myself for not telling him in advance not to make the mistake of getting weepy like I had.

Trey cleared his throat. “Drama queen,” he said with gruff affection. “If you wanted flowers, you should’ve just asked for them. This is extreme.”

“And ineffective, apparently,” Cary rejoined hoarsely, clearly trying to pull himself together. “I don’t see any flowers.”

“I see a ton.” Trey’s gaze did a brief slide across the room, then went back to Cary. “Just wanted to see what I was up against, so I could beat out my competition.”

There was no way to miss the double meaning in that statement.

My mom rose from the bed. She leaned over and kissed Cary’s cheek. “I’ll take Eva out to breakfast. We’ll see you in about an hour or so.”

“Gimme a sec,” I said, passing the bed quickly, “and I’ll get out of your hair, guys.”

I grabbed my phone and charger out of my bag and plugged it into an outlet by the window.

As soon as the screen flickered to life, I sent a quick group text message to Shawna and my dad, saying simply: I’ll call later. Then I made sure my phone was silenced and left it on the window ledge.

“Ready?” my mom asked.

“As I’ll ever be.”

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