Thoughts of all the things that could have gone even more wrong kept me awake. I touched Michelle often as she slept, reassuring myself that she was still with me. And, I kept reminding myself that the day hadn’t gone as wrong as it could have.
Around dawn, I left the bed. Restless, I went to the kitchen and ate the leftovers, hoping a full stomach might help me sleep. It didn’t. So, I went to the bathroom, thinking a hot bath would do the trick. However, seeing her clothes hanging over the glass shower door filled me with regret and anger all over again. Knowing sleep wouldn’t happen, I stripped, put on the suite’s other guest robe, and called down to the desk to arrange for our clothes to be laundered. After someone came for the dirty clothes, I took a quick shower. Then, I paced for a bit. Finally, I sat down beside the phone.
I dialed Jim’s number and waited. He picked up in the middle of the second ring.
“Hey. It’s me.”
“You’re alive.” I could hear the genuine humor and relief in his voice. “How are things there?”
“Good. Really good. She Claimed me.”
“Mom’s going to—”
“I know,” I said with a half-laugh.
“You don’t sound as happy as I would have thought.”
I sighed and leaned back into the cushions.
“I am happy about that. But, Michelle got hurt.”
“Yeah, Dad told me. She’ll be okay though, right?”
Frustrated, I hesitated.
“Is she awake?” Jim asked.
“No. She’s still sleeping. She’s been out pretty much since we got here. And, yeah, she’ll be okay. I’m not sure I will be, though.” Jim remained quiet, letting me talk. “I left her alone. That’s how they got her. Even after hearing she’d been locked away for four years, even after hearing what they’d done to her brothers, even after Blake sent men to our home to try to take her back, I left her alone. What kind of dumbass am I?”
“A big one, apparently. You’re sitting on the phone with your brother instead of snuggling with your Mate.”
I almost laughed before I caught myself. “She was bleeding, Jim. The mutt who took her hit her head so hard she was bleeding. And her stomach is one huge bruise. I think he hit her there, too. And, do you know what she does when I ask? She tells me everything is okay and not to worry. She comforts me. I don’t want comfort…”
“You want revenge.”
“I do. I want Blake to bleed.”
“He will. Give it time. You should have that patience thing down by now.”
“Yep. I should. Did you hear about the meeting with the lawyer?”
“In a few hours, right?”
“Yeah. What do you think?”
“I think she’ll want to go. And, I think you won’t be a dumbass again. Don’t forget Grey and Carlos have your back. Your front, too, if you need the protection.”
“Anytime. Now, let me go back to sleep.”
I hung up the phone and went to lay by Michelle again. Talking to Jim had eased some of the guilt I carried. It wasn’t gone, just not a priority. Michelle was.
Relaxed, I dozed until someone knocked on our door. The woman with our laundry also had a pair of shoes for Michelle, a set of toothbrushes, and a small tube of paste. I thanked her and closed the door. I took everything into the bathroom.
After brushing and changing into clean clothes, I went back to Michelle. She hadn’t moved much in her sleep. The few times she did, she frowned. Her stomach was definitely hurting her. Gently, I trailed my fingers over the bruise.
It took an hour before her breathing changed. I stopped trailing my fingers along her skin and waited. Her pulse increased, but she didn’t open her eyes. Instead, she tried to ease my hand off her stomach but cringed at the effort.
“Might as well open them,” I said softly.
Her eyes popped open, and she turned her head to look at me. I ran my fingers over her skin again. Her eyes widened, and a jolt of panic came over our link as she let out a squeak. She lifted her head to look down at herself, winced, and dropped her head back down to the pillow.
I waited for her reaction to what I’d done. She didn’t yell. No anger came over the link. Love washed over me. Her love. Every moment I spent with her humbled me. I might not deserve her now. Maybe not ever. But, I would take every day as another chance to try to be the man worthy of her.
She turned her head and gave me a shy smile, her heart skipping a beat.
“You lied to me,” I said, trailing my fingers over the worst bruise. “You’re not fine. How much pain are you in?”
She glanced down at her stomach and slightly shook her head. “Emmitt, I’ll live. Don’t make a big deal out of this.”
A thread of embarrassment reached me. I didn’t understand how my concern would embarrass her. She pulled the robe around her, rolled to her side, and boosted herself up on one arm. Although I felt the pain through our link, she was careful to keep her expression bland, a clear sign she didn’t want my help. After a moment, she slid her legs off the bed and eased herself into a full sitting position.
She glanced at the alarm clock beside the bed.
“We need to get to the lawyer’s office. How long will it take from here? I don’t even know where we are,” she said.
Jim would love knowing he was right. Grey, too.
“About thirty minutes,” I said, answering her original question as I got out of bed and moved to help her stand.
“Really, Emmitt, I’m fine,” she said.
Determination hit me, and I knew what she was going to do as soon as she leaned forward. I quickly offered my hand, unwilling to watch her hurt herself more. Even with my help, she winced and leaned into me.
As I held her in my arms and waited for the pain to fade, she lightly bit my neck. The sensation of her teeth on my skin sent a jolt of need through me. Humor pushed pain aside as she tried to hide her grin.
To say I loved and needed this woman was an understatement. I existed because of her, for her. She was, and would remain, everything to me.
I helped her to the bathroom where she quietly retreated for the next five minutes. When she emerged, her hair was smoothed down, she wore her clean clothes, and she smelled slightly minty. She looked ready to meet the reporter.
She eyed my clean yet ripped shirt, and I knew I wasn’t.
“We’re going to need to get our things,” I said.
She wrinkled her nose at the idea.
“They dropped these off this morning,” I said, showing her the shoes before bending down to help her step into them. She lightly rested a hand on my shoulder as she lifted one foot then the next. It reminded me of the night I’d taken her to dinner, and my fingers itched to caress her calf.
“Ready?” I asked when both flats were on.
“Just a second.”
She walked back into the bedroom and stood there, looking around for a moment. A sense of awe washed over me, and I knew she was remembering last night. She was mine. Finally.
She glanced back at me and reached for my hand.
“I’m ready,” she said.
Love washed over me, and I kissed the back of her hand before we left the suite. She was silent as she walked beside me. I studied her, watching for any sign of discomfort. There was no hitch in her step today and no pain in our link. I knew better than to think it meant she was fine.
At the front desk, I asked for a cab. It didn’t take long for one to arrive. Michelle winced getting into the back seat and leaned her head on my shoulder once I slid in beside her. I held her hand, trying to comfort her.
When we pulled up before our hotel, I sent a message to Grey.
We’re here. I don’t want to leave her alone again, and I don’t want to take her inside.
Carlos will be right there.
Michelle nervously eyed the hotel.
“Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
She nodded, and I closed the door. Carlos was already in the lobby with a bag.
“Grey’s waiting in your room. We tried putting it back the way it was.”
I nodded and went to the room. The beds were separate again, but the bedding on Michelle’s bed was ripped. So were her clothes.
My bag was on a chair. I went to it and pulled out a clean shirt. The mutt had left my things alone.
“Why just her things?” I asked Grey, who was watching me.
“Not sure. Maybe to send her a message that Blake is angry?”
“I think the bloody head and bruised stomach conveyed that well enough.” I left the damaged clothes where they were and picked up what still looked okay. There wasn’t much. A bit of pink material caught my eye. I picked up what was left of her bikini.
“I think this is about things,” I said. “She took away Blake’s things. Her brothers. Her money. He’s trying to take away hers.” I tossed the material aside. “Let’s go finish taking away his things.”
After listening to Michelle on the phone two nights ago, I knew Blake was still trying to get at the money Richard had left her. Since I couldn’t get to Blake yet, I’d settle for making him hurt some other way.
The worry I’d been feeling from Michelle since I’d entered the hotel vanished when I left it. She didn’t comment as we climbed in. Carlos was careful not to press against her this time.
I gave the lawyer’s address to the driver and handed Michelle her nearly empty bag.
“There was nothing else worth taking,” I said.
The news crew was waiting outside the lawyer’s office when we pulled up. Carlos and Grey hung back while I stood near Michelle as she talked to the reporter. I paid less attention to the questions the woman asked and more attention to our surroundings. We were in a nicer part of town. People were walking by on the sidewalks. I kept scenting the air but didn’t catch anything that hinted Blake or his men were nearby.
When the reporter left, we filed inside the lawyer’s office. The receptionist sat behind a long, glossy counter and looked up at us with a welcoming expression.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m here to see Mr. Nolan,” Michelle said.
The woman glanced at all of us. “Please have a seat.”
She picked up the phone and dialed. As she spoke, Grey winked at her. The woman paused mid-sentence, obviously having lost her train of thought. Michelle hid a smile behind her hand as the woman struggled to maintain her end of the conversation.
You’re going to get us kicked out, I sent Grey.
Nah, I’m just making a lasting impression.
A moment later, the woman led Michelle into Mr. Nolan’s office. I followed while Grey and Carlos stayed behind in the sitting area.
Overall, the lengthy meeting enlightened me on a few topics. Richard had been fighting Blake’s hold on his family by filtering money into hidden accounts without Blake’s awareness. If I were to guess, I would say it was even the reason behind Richard’s death.
Instead of naming his sons equal beneficiaries, he clearly stated he wanted them to receive nothing and left everything to Michelle, including guardianship of the boys. It had been the only protection he could give his children.
And, because Michelle stepped forward to claim Richard’s estate, Blake was completely cut off from any chance of touching the money he’d lost. It was a stunning amount.
Michelle and the lawyer talked about what to do with the money. She decided to set up two trusts. Creating one for her brothers didn’t surprise me. Creating one for the pack did. Yet, as I thought about it, I understood what she was doing. She was giving herself a layer of protection. Even if Blake was to take her again, he would never be able to reach all of the money.
When they finished, the lawyer stood and walked us to the lobby.
“If you have any questions, big or small, call me. I’ll be happy to help.”
“Thank you, Mr. Nolan,” Michelle said.
He nodded and went back to his office as the receptionist called us another cab.
While we waited outside, Michelle’s stomach growled.
“Hungry?” I asked.
“More homesick than hungry. Can we just go straight to the airport and see if we can get an earlier flight?”
There was no reason for us to linger. Blake had played his hand. And, Michelle had played hers.
The cab pulled up, and I opened the door for her. She took her time sliding in, but her care didn’t help. I still felt her pain and was glad she was ready to go home. She’d been through enough. Since the beginning I’d had the need to keep her safe, but the events of the last twenty-four hours were skyrocketing that need.
“What’s wrong?” she asked as we drove toward the airport.
Grey turned to look at me, a knowing glint in his eyes. I glanced at Michelle and shrugged, not wanting to lie to her or make her feel smothered.
She slipped her hand into mine and leaned against me.
“Is this something I have to figure out for myself? Because, if it is, I have to say it will be awhile. I’m fried. I just want to get home and be with you, my brothers, and…well, my family.”
Her family. Hearing her say it soothed me.
“Nothing’s wrong.” I kissed the top of her head, glad we were feeling the same need for home.
“Are you feeling neglected? Like it was a bite and run?”
I choked a bit, and Grey howled with laughter in the front seat.
“Turn around, Grey,” Carlos said. I appreciated his attempt at help but knew Grey wouldn’t listen. My discomfort was way too amusing for him.
“No,” I said, stroking my thumb over the back of her hand. “I’m just worried about you.”
“I’m here. I’m fine.” Love washed over our link a moment before she reached for me and pulled me down for a long kiss.
When she pulled back, her face was flushed and her scent sweet.
“Enough of that, I think,” she said.
I nodded reluctantly, flicking a glance at the driver and the quietly grinning Grey. There would be plenty of time later. We had a lifetime ahead of us.
It didn’t take much longer before the cab pulled up to the airport drop-off. Everything was relatively quiet as we took our bags and paid the driver. It took a while to find an earlier flight, but it was worth it when Michelle heard we would be taking off in an hour.
“Let’s find something to eat,” I said when we had our tickets.
It wasn’t hard to find a place to eat. We followed our noses to a restaurant that was emitting a mouthwatering, smoked meat smell. Grey was quick to lead us toward a back booth. He patted the seat next to him and looked at Carlos.
“Come here, honey,” he said with a laugh.
Carlos sighed and sat down. Grey would never give up on trying to lighten Carlos up.
Michelle slid into the opposite booth and picked up the menu as I sat beside her. When the server came to take our orders, I let him know our flight time and then asked if he could make me two half-pound burgers on the rare side. Grey and Carlos asked for the same while Michelle ordered a BLT. Once the server left, Michelle turned to me.
“So how did you find me?”
“Your blood.” The memory of seeing it smeared across the door would give me nightmares for the rest of my life. She squeezed my hand in comfort, and Grey took up the story.
“It was on your room’s door. We followed the scent trail out the side door. From there, we picked up the scent of the car. They had eyes watching the route, and we ran into a bit of trouble that slowed us down.”
“How many?” she asked.
“Enough,” Grey said. “But, not too much for Carlos here to handle.” Grey nudged Carlos with a grin. Carlos didn’t answer. Instead, he turned to look at the baseball game on the television.
“Thank you,” she said.
The server brought us our bill just in time for us to pay and walk back for boarding. Tension gripped Michelle. I understood and held her hand.
Home was calling.