Jessica’s eyes were closed. It was impossible to hear, think, or see anything else besides her, lying limp in Vincent’s arms as he tried to get her to stay awake.
“She passed out,” Jason said. His arm was outstretched toward me and he wasn’t holding my father’s legs anymore, which was foolish. But maybe I wasn’t hearing him correctly, because I thought he was talking about Jess, but he kept saying, “He passed out, Manson! He’s out. You’re going to kill him.”
He had to physically pry my arm loose from my father’s neck. As much as my thoughts were racing, it was like my brain was functioning at half the speed. My father fell limply beside me as my arm loosened, a bag of bones when he slumped to the floor.
Dead…or passed out…it didn’t matter.
Nothing else mattered.
I scrambled over to where Jess lay. Vincent had moved her into the living room, setting her down on the carpet as he timed her pulse with his finger on her neck. Her eyes fluttered for a moment as I grasped her hand, kneeling beside her.
“Alex…” she barely whispered the name. “Outside…Jojo…”
So that was what all the damn screaming was outside. Jojo was right next to me, staring at Jess with her ears pricked up. I didn’t give a fuck if Alex was alive or dead out there; the paramedics could deal with him when they arrived.
“I think she’s in shock,” Vincent said. His voice was calm, so damn calm I wanted to scream. “Too little oxygen, too much adrenaline. Just keep breathing, baby.”
Jason was there suddenly, a damp cloth in his hands. He wiped her face, cleaning the gasoline away from her eyes and mouth, his eyes narrowed in concentration.
“Is she awake?” Lucas was still on the phone as he knelt beside me. He relayed Jess’s condition over the line, rubbing his hand continually over his head, before he snapped, “Ma’am, I’m not hyperventilating. I’m perfectly damn fine.”
Sirens wailed in the distance. Vincent had one hand on Jess’s chest, the other on my shoulder. My anchor to reality. Jess turned her head, eyes glassy and half-lidded as she reached for my face.
“I’m here.” I clutched her hand, holding it against my cheek. Maybe I was in shock too, because I wasn’t certain if I could make myself get up, let alone leave her side. “You’re okay. You’ll be okay.”
Our yard was soon filled with flashing lights and sirens.
Lucas shut the dogs away as the house was swarmed with cops. Alex had gotten away from Jojo by climbing on top of the trash cans near the garage, but he hadn’t escaped her wrath. From the brief look I got as he was taken away, she had clearly broken his arm.
It barely felt real. I kept expecting myself to wake up gasping from another chaotic nightmare.
Lucas and I stayed with Jess as the paramedics took care of her, seated in the back of an ambulance. Vincent and Jason were giving their statements to police. My father was removed from the house, deliriously violent as he returned to consciousness. He was cuffed to his stretcher as he was loaded into an ambulance, and he looked right at me before they closed the door.
There wasn’t anything worth reading in his expression. Whatever it was that made him hate me, that made him into this monster, wasn’t going to go away.
But he was going away. Finally, after so many years.
Lucas flinched in dread as they put an IV into Jess’s arm. “Oh fuck. Ugh…” I clasped his arm, squeezing reassuringly. He was still shaking despite the blanket the paramedics had given him.
“Just close your eyes,” I said, but he still watched the needle go into her arm with a sickened expression. She had an oxygen mask over her nose, and bruises in the shape of fingers were darkening around her throat.
When I stumbled downstairs and found my father on top of her…God, it was like I blacked out. I couldn’t recall the moments between seeing them, and my father falling unconscious as I choked him out. Even now, that image of Jess’s face was frozen in my mind. How fucking fragile she’d looked as she’d clawed at his hands.
But she wasn’t fragile. She looked far stronger than I felt at that moment, leaning her head against Lucas’s shoulder as Jason and Vincent finally returned.
“Are you okay?” Jason said, tucking Jess’s damp hair behind her ear. She nodded, and Jason exhaled shakily. “Fuck, Jess. When you passed out, I…” He couldn’t even finish the sentence. He sat on the ambulance’s bumper at her feet, tracing his fingers over her pajama-clad leg. “I’m sorry they ever touched you.”
“Don’t be sorry,” she said, reaching down her hand to lay it on his head. “I’m okay, I promise.” She snickered suddenly. “You should have seen how fast Alex ran when he saw Jojo. She deserves all the treats.”
I laughed in sheer disbelief. Jojo had never even snapped at someone, let alone bitten a person. When I adopted her from the shelter after I moved out of the Peters’ house, she’d been a silly little puppy. She’d grown up into an even sillier dog.
But it didn’t matter how gentle or kind one could be. When it came to protecting those we loved, I guess Jojo and I were the same.
“I should have killed Alex,” Lucas said fiercely. “I should have fucking killed him —” But Jess nudged him with her shoulder.
“Don’t let the cops hear you say that,” she said gently. “I’m glad you didn’t kill him, Lucas. I need you with me. I need all of you with me.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” Vincent said. He rubbed his hand over my back, and I reached back my free hand for his.
I needed all of them with me too. We were better when we were together, we were stronger together.
And we would stay together. No matter what it took.
“Jessica! Oh my God, my baby! My poor baby!”
Jessica’s parents had arrived. Her mother rushed toward us, flinging her arms around Jess. The paramedics were getting annoyed with so many people crowding their workspace, but Mrs. Martin was in hysterics and wouldn’t be moved. She was weeping openly, her arms trembling as she held her daughter.
“Mom, I’m okay,” Jess said. “I’m fine, I promise.”
Her father approached, and I hurriedly stood up. He extended his hand, shaking mine first, then Vincent, Jason, and Lucas’s. He was wearing only a coat over his blue pajamas and slippers. “The police told me you saved my daughter. It’s a shame we didn’t have the chance to meet under better circumstances, but I hope we can get to know each other after all this mess.” He looked over at Jess and shook his head, his eyes shining. “I don’t know what we would do without her. I…thank you. Thank you for looking after her. For protecting her.”
“We always intend to keep her safe, Mr. Martin,” I said, putting as much emphasis on always as I could.
“We love her,” Vincent said, and Mr. Martin looked surprised to hear it stated so bluntly. But I think we were all done mincing words. There was too much left unsaid for far too long.
Mrs. Martin was now weeping on Lucas’s shoulder, which was a sight to behold. He was rubbing his hand on her back awkwardly, saying, “Now, now, don’t work yourself up over all this.”
“We all love her, sir,” Jason said. “That may not be what you want to hear from us, but —”
Mr. Martin held up his hand, stopping him. “All I want to hear is that my daughter is safe, happy, and loved. It’s not my business to tell her how to live her life.”
Despite everything that had happened, it still brought relief rushing through me to hear him say that. I was so damn tired — tired of fighting, of struggling. I wanted peace. I wanted to live the life I’d been fighting for.
Mrs. Martin suddenly came up beside me, wrapping her shaking arms around me. She was still weeping and shivering with the cold. She hadn’t even put a jacket on.
“You saved my baby,” she sobbed, holding on to me for so long that I had no choice but to hug her in return. She kept thanking me, crying and apologizing. I didn’t know what to do or say other than to comfort her.
The paramedics were preparing to leave, readying Jess to be transported to the hospital to get her head checked out. She was lucid again, or close to it. The remnants of panic that still gripped me were chased away once I held her again, joining her in the back of the ambulance.
“You look so tired,” I said. “Do you feel okay? How’s your head?”
“I’m okay,” she said, her words running together. She still sounded spaced-out, despite the brightness in her eyes. “I’m really sleepy. But they said it might be because —” She yawned. “Because of a concussion. I don’t feel concussed.”
“We’re not taking any chances,” Lucas said firmly. It was maddening for him that only one of us could ride in the ambulance with her. Vincent was struggling to get him into the WRX so they could follow us to the hospital. “I want them to check you out, run whatever tests they need to. What if you’ve got internal bleeding or something?”
“Don’t freak yourself out,” Jason said. He planted both his hands on Lucas’s shoulders, steering him toward the garage. “I’m going to get those nurses to fucking drug you when we get there. You’re going to give yourself a heart attack.”
One of the paramedics told me I needed to ride in the front passenger seat, but I pretended not to hear them. I laid my head down against Jess’s chest, closing my eyes. I wanted to hear her heart beating, strong and steady. I wanted to feel her warmth, her soft skin, her beautiful voice.
“I love you,” she said. It sounded like her sleepiness was winning, as the ambulance bumped out of our yard. “I don’t ever…ever want to be without you. Please…please promise…”
She was half asleep. Maybe she didn’t realize what she was asking, or maybe she was more coherent than I was. It didn’t matter.
“I promise, angel,” I said. “I promise you’ll never be without us again. You’ll never be alone. You’ll never have to doubt.” I kissed her fingers, watching her beautiful face as she closed her eyes. “I love you, Jess. Then, now, and always.”