Authors: Crystal Hubbard
Genesis Press, Inc.
An imprint of Genesis Press, Inc.
Genesis Press, Inc.
P.O. Box 101
Columbus, MS 39703
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, not known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying, and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without written permission of the publisher, Genesis Press, Inc. For information write Genesis Press, Inc., P.O. Box 101, Columbus, MS 39703.
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author and all incidents are pure invention.
Copyright © 2011 Crystal Hubbard
Manufactured in the United States of America
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This book is dedicated to Aaron, who helped me out of a jam at the Phyllis Schlafly library in the West End. Men like you prove that romance and chivalry are alive and well.
I would like to thank Mr. Jun and C.K., the martial arts instructors who equipped me with knowledge and skills that have served me well through the past two decades, on and off the mat. I also owe the most humble debt of gratitude to the friends and loved ones whose stories inspired this work as well as that of Burn, the companion novel to this book. They are too numerous to list here, but I hope they know that I hold them in my heart as precious treasures.
Missouri Medical Center
Moving faster than the electronic eye controlling the glass double doors of the hospital’s exit, Zae Richardson impatiently pushed open the door on the right, nearly spilling the contents of the black suede handbag clutched in her left hand. She stepped into the early dawn, the chilly breeze of late November raising gooseflesh on her bare arms. Her shaky legs took her to a stone bench several yards from the doors where she sat, propping her purse on her knees.
Hands shaking, she drew a slim, gold canister from her purse. She popped its lid with her thumb and plucked out the lone long, brown cigarette. The tiny box of wooden matches from Brio’s was easier to find. The matches were old, and it took several tries before she managed to light one and touch it to the end of the stale cigarette pinched between her lips.
She took a long draw, holding it for an instant before exhaling. The spent match found itself flying into the neatly pruned hedgerow behind Zae while she set her purse at her hip. This was her first cigarette in eight years. The sharp smoke burned its way into her lungs and her eyes teared, but not because of the smoke.
On an upper floor of the hospital, in one of the intensive care units, Giancarlo Piasanti, one of her best friends, lay after surgery to remove two bullets. Not since the loss of her husband Colin in this very hospital had fear and helplessness so overwhelmed her that she had sought relief from a cigarette. She had promised Colin that she would quit smoking—and she had—the night he died. Tipping her face skyward, she uttered a silent prayer asking Colin’s forgiveness for this lapse.
“You all right?”
Zae snapped her head toward the familiar male voice. Its owner had come upon her so quietly, she hadn’t been able to ditch the cigarette. “Chip,” she whispered. “I—”
He picked up her purse to take its place beside her, straddling the bench. His wild, butter-gold curls provided the only color in the otherwise dismal morning. He was her martial arts instructor and Gian’s best friend. If anyone could understand her need for a smoke, it was Chip.
“No,” she sighed. “I don’t think I am.”
Chip’s left arm, solid and heavy with muscle, came to rest over her shoulders, drawing her head to his shoulder. He took the cigarette from her slim fingers, dropped it to the pavement and ground it under his heel. Zae crossed her legs and leaned into him, clutching handfuls of his chambray shirt. Chip put his right arm around her waist to hold her more securely.
“He’ll be all right,” Chip assured her. “His doc says so. Cinder and his family are in with him now. He’s awake, he’s talking. Gian’s been through worse than this.”
Zae shivered within Chip’s warmth. “We could have lost him.”
“We didn’t.” Chip massaged her exposed arm. “That’s all that matters now.”
“We could have lost Cinder, too,” Zae persisted. “And my daughter. That son-of-a-bitch Sumchai Wyatt went after my baby girl!”
“He’s dead,” Chip responded, emotionless. “Eve is safe, Cinder is fine and Gian is going to be fine. Asking for more than that is just plain greedy.”
Unable to work up the energy to argue with him, Zae settled deeper into his embrace. Chip’s sturdy frame was just the support she needed. The even rise and fall of his chest, the soft warmth of his breath on her forehead—if they sat like this for another few seconds, she would fall asleep. She sat up, pulling from the comfort of his body, and reached around him for her purse.
“I should get home,” she said, standing to search her purse once more, this time for her car key. “CJ will be up for his music lesson soon, and I want to make sure the girls are okay.”
“Cory’s with them,” Chip told her. “He’s been checking in with me every couple of hours. He says everybody is fine. They watched a couple of movies and the girls fell asleep in the family room.”
“I know. I called home a little while ago. But I need to get home to my children.” She took her keychain from her purse but promptly dropped it as she turned toward the parking lot adjacent to the circular driveway. She picked her keys up, fumbled them again, then kicked them out of reach when she took a step to retrieve them.
Chip picked them up for her. “Let me drive you,” he offered. “You’re tired and distracted. You’ll have an accident at the rate you’re going.”
Zae’s natural inclination was to deny everything Chip had said. A major part of their friendship involved a certain amount of contention. But with his blue eyes beaming concern upon her and his calloused palm open to receive her keys, her urge to debate never materialized. She gave him her keys and let him walk her to her Volvo, his hand a pleasant weight at the small of her back.
Chip unlocked and opened the passenger door for her. He got in the driver’s seat and had finished adjusting the rearview and side mirrors before noticing that Zae hadn’t fastened her seatbelt. He leaned over and buckled her in.
“What about your car?” she asked as Chip started the engine.
“I’ll ask Gian’s brother to drop it off at my place.” Chip smoothly exited the parking lot and put on the right-turn signal at a stop sign. “I can walk home from your house.”
“Thank you, Chip.” Zae closed her eyes and reclined her seat.
“My pleasure, professor.”
Traffic was light this early in the morning and the lights favored them. Chip talked the whole ride, his Tennessee drawl a lullaby to Zae’s ears, his dialect more apparent because he was tired. He talked about everything and nothing. Zae wondered if his chatter was his way of keeping his mind off Gian or an attempt to keep hers off him. Whichever, she was grateful for his caring and hoped that someday she could return it. But under far different circumstances.
* * *
Zae dragged herself into her home office and sat heavily in her swivel chair. She leaned over to slip off her athletic shoes, placing them neatly to one side under the desk. Sitting upright once more, she caught a glint of sunlight on the upper right corner of a silver frame propped on her desk, to the left of her flat-screen monitor. Colin, her husband, smiled at her from the frame, his handsome face unlined, relaxed. The photo had been taken two years before his death. Little had either of them known that even at that moment, a malignant tumor had been eating its way through his colon. The murderer had remained virtually silent right up until she’d insisted Colin go to the emergency room following a bout of stomach distress.
“It was those clams,” Colin had told her through a groan, a plastic food storage container held to his face in case he upchucked once more. “I should have known better than to order a seafood special in the middle of October in St. Louis.”
His attempt at humor had fallen flat. Zae had concentrated on the road, running red lights and racing twenty miles over the speed limit to get her ashen husband to Missouri Medical Center.
She had hoped that his ailment involved only a bad clam or two. But she’d never seen a case of food poisoning that resulted in bloody stools, or one that had left its victim complaining of stomach aches in the weeks prior to their flight to the ER.
Their worst fears had been realized two days after Colin had been admitted to Missouri Medical, following an endoscopy, a colonoscopy and surgery to remove what Colin had continued to call his bad clam. The tumor was large, and by the surgeon’s account, it had likely been growing for ten years, slowly closing Colin’s colon like an ever-tightening napkin ring. The deceptive, stage-four adenocarcinoma had made itself comfortably at home.
Having metastasized to his lymph nodes and liver, the cancer refused to free its hold on Colin. He’d fought valiantly, his strength ebbing in spite of Zae’s fierce determination to cure him with love if three aggressive cycles of chemotherapy could not. Colin’s spirit and wit remained sharp, right up until the moment he closed his eyes in his sunlit room at Missouri Medical, never to open them again.
Until last night Zae hadn’t returned to that hospital. She had taken great pains, by design or subconsciously, to never even drive past it. Her overnight vigil there with Gian brought back too many memories. She touched Colin’s photo to her forehead, a somber, weary chuckle escaping her. After eight years, she could still smell the scent of the plastic tubing that had run toxins meant to save his life into the portacath implanted in Colin’s chest. She could taste the sweat of his brow and still cringe at the memory of his pain.
“Thank you, Lord,” she silently prayed. “For saving Gian.”
Because I know I wouldn’t have been able to handle losing someone else I love
Three soft knocks sounded on the open office door, followed by, “Zae?”
She lowered the picture frame and caught Chip’s reflection in it. His tousle of dark blond curls and expression of concern briefly eclipsed the black-and-white image of Colin before Zae hastily returned the frame to its place on her desk. She gave her eyes a quick swipe before turning around.
“Are you all right?” Chip asked from the doorway.
Unsure she could yet form words without sobbing, she nodded.
“Anything else I can do before I leave?” he asked.
Zae wanted to tell him that he looked as tired as she felt. Dull circles hung under his blue eyes, and his posture had lost a bit of the Marine stiffness she’d grown accustomed to. The lump of emotion in her throat likely to betray her, she again kept silent, responding to him with a shake of her head.