These deleted scenes are unedited, straight from the bin to you... LOL
When Jae Stumbles onto JR's wreckage...
“Still?” I huff out with a long breath when I spot flashing lights on the horizon.
I’m coming off an extra-long shift at a hospital that treats the nursing staff as if they’re disposable and think a voucher for a free coffee at the cafeteria makes up for hours of pay being docked from the interns’ wages. I’m struggling to repay crippling student loans on a resident’s salary, so I’d hate to think how bad it is for the interns.
Desperate to miss a long detour, I pull down a darkened side street. I haven’t lived in this area long, but my father said every road leads one way.
I love my dad with all my heart, but I regret his words of wisdom half a mile later. With the moon covered by clouds and the GPS on the dashboard of my leased car blank since cell service is nonexistent, the marshy woodlands siding the road have me recalling the Halloween movie marathon my roommate forced me to watch last weekend.
I’m not an overly skittish person. Blood and gore are part of my job description, but when it comes to darkened woods and endless minutes of silence, I backpedal like years of hard work didn’t get me where I am.
The Korean features I was gifted from my mother often have people mistaking me as brainy. They assume my walk into medicine was an easy, effortless trek.
Let me assure you, that’s far from the truth.
I studied hard, crammed in many late-night sessions with my father, and had two tutors instead of the standard one. I may look dorky, but what my almost black hair, almond-shaped eyes, and hued skin fails to disclose is the fact I have a heap of Australian blood running through my veins.
I’m wild and eccentric, the apple of my father’s eyes—when I’m not on the verge of hyperventilating for taking the beaten track one too many times.
This is how unsolved murders begin.
Confident my inner monologue is on the money, I pull to the edge of the road before attempting a three-point turn. I’m not the world’s best driver’s and the road is super narrow, but I conduct the maneuver within the stipulated number its title was derived from.
As I toss the gearstick into first in preparation to commence my fast exit of the scary woodlands, a flicker of light in the rearview mirror captures my attention. It isn’t obnoxiously bright, and it’s far smaller than a twinkling star in a cloudless sky, but not dull enough to ignore.
I took the Hippocratic oath. It’s one of the oldest and most respected odes in the medical field, so despite my gut’s request for me to flatten my foot to the floor, I toss the gearstick into reverse before careening down the narrowed side street.
“What the hell?” I groan out in disbelief when the distinct wobble of a flat tire slows my pace only a hundred feet later. I was rostered on for many night shifts, so I only recently had my tires checked and rotated.
When my phone fails to connect my call, even with two bars on the screen, I toss my head back and groan. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
With the flicker forgotten and my mood sitting in a very dark pit, I throw off my seatbelt, peel out of the heated driver’s seat responsible for the sticky condition of my back, then head for the trunk to fetch out the tire changer thingmabob.
I don’t know how to change a tire, but considering I can keep a man alive with multiple gunshot wounds to his chest, I doubt it will be too much of a challenge.
I’m partway to the trunk when a second flicker steals my attention. Since I’m close this time, it doesn’t take me long to work out that it’s the flash of blinkers. Someone is stranded in the dark, dangerous woods alongside me, and knowledge is more distressing than it is comforting.
“Are you okay?” I shout through the gulley of trees and marshland separating us. “Do you need help?”
Curiosity takes hold of my senses when they fail to respond. I can hear their engine running and see the warm puffs of smoke expelling from their exhaust, but there isn’t a single sign of life.
“Oh shit,” I breathe out heavily when I adjust my position so I can take in more details of their retro car. They’re not still because they have a flat tire. The front panel of their car is smashed in, and there is a massive hole in the windscreen.
Not thinking, I dart into the densely treed section of land I was frightened of only moments ago. I’ve never been more grateful for my tiny height and structure than I am when my race through the soggy marshlands occurs without me being bogged. I reach the car remarkably fast, and even quicker than that, I’m pressing my fingers to the female driver’s neck.
Very very cold.
There’s nothing I can do for her. She’s been gone for hours, if not days.
I double guess my experience with cadavers when a groan sounds from my right. It’s rough and groggy. Similar to a roar a bear would make, but fueled with too much pain to ever believe he’s out hunting this late at night.
My smarts kick back in when my eyes return to the deceased female behind the steering wheel of a late model Honda Civic has them stumbling onto the circular hole in the bug-free windshield. It is on the passenger half of the car, and the driver is slumped over the steering.
“Oh shit,” I mutter again like it’s my favorite profanity before taking off in the direction the groan came from.
It’s dark, and these parts don’t have streetlights, but it doesn’t take me long to find the cause of the groan. The Civic’s headlights are shining right on him, not to mention the fact a fallen tree trunk props him up.
This time around, my check for a pulse is more successful than my first endeavor. Although weak, his heart is beating, considering his vast range of injuries, that in itself is a success.
“Sir, can you hear me?” I check the dilation of his eyes before opening his mouth to ensure he isn’t choking on your tongue. Although he doesn’t respond, I continue talking to him, aware unconsciousness isn’t always the cause of a patient’s unresponsiveness. “I’m going to lay you on your back before transferring you onto your side. I’ll go slow, but if you need me to stop, squeeze my hand. Poke me. Do anything, and I will stop. Okay?”
I wait for him to respond. When that doesn’t happen, I climb over the tree trunk, carefully pry his back away from the scratchy material digging into his back, then stuff my arms under his armpits.
The man, I’m guessing to be late teens, early twenties, isn’t overly tall. At a guess, I’d say around 5’12, but it takes everything I have to move him from the tree trunk to the ground.
“Just a little more,” I assure him with a grunt before carefully rolling him onto his side with a gentle tug on his wrist.
My heart beats out of tune when the hitching of his shirt exposes a new range of injuries. He is black and blue all over, and his wrist is contorted at an odd angle. He could have snapped it while landing after his sail through the air, but if that is the case, how did he get from the marshland to the tree trunk without his jeans and shirt getting covered by the gunk making my clothes a soggy mess?
When the memory of the driver’s icy cold skin pops into my head, I realize miracles don’t come with answers. It’s cold out, but she has the body temperature of someone who’s been dead for days. If that’s accurate, his survival is worthy of world headlines.
Once I have the unnamed man in the recovery position and his torso covered by the blazer I yanked off so quickly, threads popped, I calculate the distance between my car and the one that’s a twisted mess of metal and glass. I need to call for help, but the thought of leaving his side for a minute makes me sick.
“I’ll be right back, okay?” I promise when it dawns on me that I don’t have any other choice but to seek help. Although his body is battered and bruised, I’m petrified his internal injuries will supersede his external ones. If that is the case, he needs urgent medical attention ASAP.
It’s an effort to walk away from him, and it isn’t one I take lightly. I sprint more than I walk the twisted wreck he was ejected from.
“Come on,” I mumble under my breath when my hunt for a cell phone in the car’s console nosedives. “What teen doesn’t carry a phone with them this day?” I lock my eyes on the lady, whose raven hair looks extremely dark against her pale skin. “I’m sorry about this.” I’m not expressing regret that she’s dead. Her accident isn’t my fault. I’m apologizing for rummaging through her pockets like the dead deserve no respect.
I stuff my hand halfway into the pocket of her jeans when a smell vaping off her skin freezes me in my tracks. The deceased have a different smell to them, and although every muscle in your body relaxes shortly after death—including your sphincter—her scent doesn’t match that. It’s chemical and off-putting, similar to the smell of the morgue my father gave me a tour of when I was ten years old.
The deceased woman’s peculiar smell is a thing of the past when the device I’m seeking illuminates on the floor between her feet. After grumbling out another apology, I fish out the device showing over a dozen missed calls and several text messages from two local numbers, swipe away their worries like they’re unfounded, then dial 9-1-1.
A squeal of frustration rattles in my chest when my call fails to connect. “How can I have no reception? It’s 2014, for crying out loud!”
Desperate, I climb out of the wreckage that is nowhere near as crumbled on the inside as it is on the outside. After straying my eyes to the stranger to make sure he’s still in the recovery position, I hold the woman’s phone in the air, seeking a bar.
The signal indicator jumps between one bar and none when I move toward the back of the Civic. It holds steady when I hoist myself into the air via the back bumper.
That’s all I need—one bar.
“Hello,” I squeal out in excitement when my call connects.
When the signal indicator dulls like it’s about to disconnect, I balance on my tippy toes before stretching out my arm. “There’s been an accident. I’m approximately sixteen miles west of Heatherstone Hospital. I turned down a side street.” I whack my head while attempting to remember the name of the street I took. “It started with an M. It was just before the detour on Freeway 21. The driver was deceased on arrival, but the passenger is alive.”
I pause to take a breath, giving the emergency services responder the chance to speak. “Did you say the passenger is alive?”
“Yes. Just. He’s badly beaten.”
I feel like an idiot diagnosing his injuries as if he is a victim of an assault, but years of medical training won’t allow me to formulate another excuse. His wounds correspond with someone who was beaten to within an inch of their life, and car accidents don’t produce knuckle wide bruises to your ribs and face.
“Have first responders been dispatched?”
A keyboard being clicked sounds down the line before the officer responds, “Three minutes ago. They’re four minutes out.”
“Okay. Great. Thank you,” I breathe out in relief, even with shock being my most potent emotion.
Who calls for help without stopping to offer assistance? Even if you’re not a medical professional, karma will gnaw your ass for walking away from someone in need, and rightfully so. It should.
“I’ll have you stay on the line until they arrive.”
Although the operator can’t see me, I shake my head. “The passenger has regained consciousness, but there’s no cell service that deep into the marshlands.”
“Ma’am, I would strongly recommend that you stay on the line…”
If she continues talking, I don’t hear a word she says. Her warning is drowned out by my frantic stomps back to the man whose one blue eye not hidden by swelling is so beckoning, I race into the dark, scary woods without an ounce of fear slicking my skin.
When Jae wakes up after the blast...
“Stop. You don’t want to go that way. S-she’s dead. She’s cold. You can’t save her.”
My head screams for me to wake up, but the more I follow the dark-haired stranger to the twisted wreck he escaped by flying out the windscreen without a speckle of glass on him, the deeper I descend into my nightmare. It’s scarier than any of the movies I watched this Halloween, yet for some reason, I feel safe because I’m with him.
“It’s too late. She’s gone.”
Tears almost dribble down my cheeks when I take in his devastated eyes for the hundredth time this morning. His face is badly bruised, and one of his eyes is almost swollen shut, but nothing can take away from the sheer remorse in his hooded gaze when he absorbs the image I’d give anything to remove from his mind.
His baby sister is dead, and there isn’t a single thing he can do about it.
With this dream playing throughout my head nonstop the past several hours, I know what happens next long before my nose crinkles in disgust about the pungent aroma of gasoline. There are too many puddles to be solely from a cracked tank, and the explosion shortly after my nose notices the scent backs up my claims. It’s like someone drenched the stranger’s sister’s car with gas.
In quicker than I can think, I’m thrust back. When my head whacks into the tree trunk the stranger was propped up on when I arrived, rendering me unconscious, I wake up...
As my head struggles to inform my heart we don’t know the outcome of the blast just yet, I stray my eyes to the machine that should announce to the nurses that my heart is in tachycardia. It’s beating so fast it feels like it’s about to escape my chest cavity.
The already furious speed increases when I notice the monitor at the side of my bed isn’t flashing any warnings.
It isn’t even turned on.
Although frustrated, I understand hospitals like this one are often understaffed, so instead of taking my frustration out on the nurse I’m about to buzz to my room, I take it on the call button on the remote wrapped around the steel barrier keeping me in bed.
I was so eager to seek an update on the unnamed man who survived a traffic accident only to be blasted into hell, I made it to the nurse’s station of the ICU department before my daring escape caught up with me.
When a junior nurse threatened to cuff me to the bed if I didn’t stay put, I reluctantly slipped back into bed before eventually falling asleep. I wouldn’t have taken her threat as literal if I hadn’t caught the quickest glimpse of a single object dangling off her hip when she wrote down her threat so I could comprehend it.
With the blast sinking me deep into the marshland, my ears are filled with mud. I can’t hear a damn thing, meaning I don’t just startle when the nurse arrives as seconded, but I also scream the house down.
“I’m so sorry,” I whine out when I get my heart rate back under control. “You startled me.”
With his twisted lips advising he isn’t amused, he taps on the whiteboard I was handed when I woke up in a hospital gown without any panties.
Supposedly, I yell to compensate for my lack of hearing.
They would too if their rights were so harshly overlooked. I’ve been here for five hours, and the only professional I’ve met is the nurse who threatened to cuff me to the bed. The rest are treating me as if I am a criminal.
“What's that?” I scribble across the board when the nurse with thick gloves and an angry sneer hands me a murky-looking substance in a medicine cup generally used to administer oral pain relief to children.
When he brushes off my question with a roll of his eyes, I push the glass cup away from my face before folding my arms in front of my chest. “There was no elixir medication prescribed in my chart, so unless you tell me what it is, I’m not taking it.”
I don’t know where he got his license to nurse, but it couldn’t have been at any medical school I attended. It is illegal to administer drugs to a patient without their consent, but he flips that notion over his head by blocking my nose so my lips have no choice but to part.
Within a second of them sucking in much-needed air, he pours the bitter tasting concoction down my throat. Despite his unforgiving hold, I spit most of the liquid out. It dribbles down the side of my face as anger bubbles in my veins.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing!” I’m yelling. Rightfully so. This is beyond a malpractice case. Personal liberties are also on the line. “I want to speak to your superior immedi—”
My words are interrupted by more than the frantic churns of my stomach. I emitted most of the liquid, but a small portion of it is still coats my tongue and the walls of my mouth, and its effects are immediate.
“What… did… you…do?” Big woozy breaths space my words. Several mainstream pain medications make you giddy, but the side effects of this medication are unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Within seconds the man’s features are too blurry for me to take in, and the room spins around me.
“Help…” I reach out for the nurse call button when my heart rate drops dangerously low. “I need—”
The dark-haired stranger thwarts anything I’m planning to say. He doesn’t just snatch up the remote twisted around the railing off my bed so harshly he snaps the cord, though. He clamps his hand over my mouth as well.
I can’t hear a single whispered word leaving his mouth, but one mesmerizing blue eye hidden beneath a scattering of bruises is the last thing I see before I succumb to the blackness engulfing me.
JR after saving Jae...
“Argh!” I scream my frustration into the street before pounding my fist into the brickwork in the side alley of an old industrial estate. I ran until my feet were bleeding and my heart threatened to give up before accepting a ride from a commuter who was worried my injuries were from a traffic accident instead of a rigged fight, yet I’m still not clear of controversy.
I shouldn’t have suspected any less since my endeavor to flee led me to Hopeton—the very town that sucked the life out of me before I was born.
Corruption and controversy are everywhere I look. In the late-night broadcast playing on a television in the shopfront window of an electronic repairs shop that would have gone out of business years ago if it didn’t laundry money for my father. On the early edition newspapers printed and stacked outside the local paperboy’s house, and in the bank account I perused when I was desperate for a one-way ticket out of town, I planned to bribe anyone I could.
The papers my father showed me looked legitimate because they were.
Every penny I had is gone.
I am flat broke.
With defeat weighing down my head, I weave through the residents of Hopeton like it’s perfectly normal to get around in soaked hospital gowns with no shoes on their feet. In a way, I guess that is the norm around here. The drugs my family inject into the community every day are screwing with more than their heads. They’re killing society as a whole, and proof of that was in the news broadcast I watched before I begged a homeless man to use his phone so I could log into my banking app.
Jae wasn’t just a good Samaritan. She was someone’s daughter. But instead of her father celebrating her final year as a resident at Heatherstone hospital, he will bury her. The news of Jae’s death is circulating through the papers even more than Ophelia’s. It’s front-page news on every article in the country. Ophelia only got a second-page mention in the Hopeton News set to be delivered later today.
I doubt news of her untimely demise will extend further than that. The media treat mafia entities like royalty, but just like fairness and equality, reverence isn’t given to the female members of a crime syndicate.
The only reason they paid any attention when my mother died was because they made out a federal agent killed her. That was the first and last time a female member of the Petretti conglomerate was given any attention, and even then, it was overshadowed by my father playing the victim.
He plays the victim even when he’s the villain.
My walk to the motel six I’ve been staying at the past couple of months is cold and long. The hotel receptionist takes one look at my drenched hospital gown and beaten face before he snatches up the spare key to my room and hands it to me. I don’t have the strength to thank him with words, so instead, I dip my chin before making the slow trek to my room.
Before the shower can beckon me to it, I uncurl a neckline identical to the one I gave Jae from around my wrist and place it into my box of keepsakes. I don’t have much in there. An expired driver’s license, a photo of Roberto, Dimitri, and me huddled around my mother when she gave birth to Ophelia on the bathroom floor because my father refused to pay the medical bills for a child he never wanted, and a rolled bundle of notes. I keep half of my savings with me, and the other half is in my toolbox at Old Man Stephens Workshop.
It’s the first place I plan to visit after washing off some of the scum coating me—like this type of vile can be washed off.
I’ve only just soaked my hair under the moldy showerhead when a flicker through the open bathroom window captures my eye. There’s no ventilation system in this musty, cramped space, so you either shower with the window cracked open or risk slipping ass over tit in the steamy conditions since I like my water scorching hot.
“What is that?” I murmur to myself when the flicker grows so large it can no longer be mistaken as the tip of a cigarette of a homeless perve hoping to catch an eye full of my gunk. It’s so bright it looks like a raging inferno.
My stomach circles the gurgler with the goop on my back when my weary head finally clicks on. That parcel of land is the direction I walk every morning. It’s part of Old Man Stephens ranch.
“You fuckin’ prick!” I grind out through clenched teeth, too angry to stutter. This isn’t a coincidence. My father never leaves any witnesses, and although Old Man Stephens was in the dark as much as I was about his unexpected visit today, he still knows too much.
The horrible things my body has endured the past twenty-four hours are forgotten when I toss on a shirt with no regard for the oozing wounds on my back, then yank on a pair of jeans. After stuffing my feet into dirty sneakers, I snatch my wallet off the bedside table and high-tail it to the door.
I don’t know what compels me to turn around and grab my necklace halfway out the door, but the weight on my chest feels nowhere near as heavy when I slide it into the pocket of my jeans.
The pendant was gifted to me the night Agent Tobias Brahn returned me to my family compound under the guidance of his superior officers. He told me that as long as I wore my St Christopher medallion, I’d be safe.
The torture didn’t stop until I ripped off the necklace and twisted it around my wrist.
That’s why I gave Jae my spare pendant. I had hoped it would save her from unnecessary pain, but I am slowly learning that gimmicks don’t change anything. Only actions will.
My plans backfire for the second time today when I race down the muddy driveway of Old Man Stephens ranch. No number of fire extinguishers could put out the blaze engulfing his workshop. It is so overcome with flames not even the rain drizzling from the sky dampens it.
As the heavens open up, I shift on my feet to face Old Man Stephens. His eyes are wet even with an umbrella sheltering his face from the deluge, and nothing but devastation is spread across his face.
“I’m sorry,” I murmur, genuinely remorseful. “I am so fucking sorry.”
As the emotions of the past twenty-four hours pelt into me, I fall to my knees.
And for once, I’m going to let my father win.
With an I-want-to-live gasp, I jackknife off an icy bed. My lungs act as if they’re drowning, like they haven’t sucked in an ounce of oxygen in minutes, and the blue tip on the end of my nose, although tiny compared to some, is painfully apparent.
I’m either waking up in Antarctica, or someone mistook me for being dead.
I am in the morgue. Not only does the smell alert me to this, so do the numerous bodies covered by white sheets on either side of me.
“It’s okay, Jae,” whispers the nurse with dark, exotic hair and kind eyes. “If I didn’t bring you down here, no one would believe you were dead.”
I don’t know what to respond to first. The fact I can hear her or her admittance that someone wants me dead.
After taking in the embalming station on my left, I go with the latter. Some instruments on the trolley next to it could drill out my brain along with the mud in my ears. “Why would anyone want to believe I’m dead?”
After assuring a large man with a bald head that she has things under control, the nurse I’m suddenly skeptical about her being a nurse joins me in the long line of dead people. “Because the accident you stumbled upon wasn’t an accident.”
“Well, duh. You can’t have puddles of gasoline and a full gas tank.” I realize my hearing still isn’t that great when my loud squeal bounces off the white-tiled walls during my reply.
Her eyes shoot to the unnamed gent before they return to mine. “The fact you remember that detail after consuming the drug you did it quite phenomenal. Usually, people given betradezliroids don’t recall anything after it.”
“Betra, what?” I wiggle my finger into my ear to clear away some of the gunk, grimacing when it coats both my finger and my ear with mud.
“Betradezliroid is a new drug currently sweeping the black market. Its sales are about to overtake fentanyl,” advises the man lurking at the side of the room, shocking me with more than a Russian accent. The illegal purchase of fentanyl is a billion-dollar business. It is why doctors need to be careful with who they trust. One script pad left in the sight of the wrong person could end a career.
“It’s designed to wipe your memory, but when given in large doses, it can also—”
“Kill you,” I interrupt, suddenly clicking on. “So you let them believe they were successful.”
“Yes,” the nurse chimes back in, unaware I wasn’t asking a question. “So now all we need to do is whip you up a new identity and ship you off to—”
“Some bumsville hick town, where years of medical studies will be reduced to immunizing the residence from future raccoon bites?” I don’t give them the chance to reply. "No. I’m not doing that. I’ve worked too hard for too long to give up just as the fruits of my labor are ripe enough to pick.” I slip off the steel gurney I don’t want to consider how many dead people have used before tightening my hospital gown around my body. “Now, if you could return my belongings and show me the way out, I’d greatly appreciate it.” My stomach gurgles in sync with the nurse. It’s a clear sign my terms won’t be met any time soon. “What did you do?”
“We’ve never had an offer turned down before,” she pushes out in a hurry. “So I may have jumped the gun a little.”
“Macy,” the big bald Russian growls out. “You said you had her approval.”
“She was flatlining in front of the perps who wanted her dead. What was I supposed to do, Tobias? Revive her then kill her again?”
“No, but you could have held off telling the nation she’s dead until you were sure that’s what she wanted.”
I choke on my spit. “Hold on! You what?” I’m on the verge of an anxiety attack. “My parents. I’m their only child. They won’t survive this.”
Macy shrugs like she disagrees with me. “They handled it pretty well.” When I look ten seconds from slapping her hard across the face, she adds, “But that may have more to do with the fact I told them you were on a special assignment with the Bureau, so we need you to play dead for a couple of months.”
“So they know I’m alive?”
She nods. “Yes… but for the integrity of the unit, they agreed with my suggestion for them to start their retirement three years early. They fly out tomorrow afternoon.”
Too angry to think straight, I snatch up a file I’m assuming is my case file from the empty gurney next to mine, and a brown bag of personal belongings, straighten my hospital gown as if it is a pricy dress, then storm outside. I have no clue where I’m going, but anywhere will have to be better than here.
“Let her go,” is the last thing I hear Tobias say. “She knows where to find us if she gets in trouble.”
“I thought you said you had a flat tire?” The Uber driver locks his eyes with mine in the rearview mirror. “They look fine to me.”
Even with him peering at me like a damsel in distress, his eyes have a cheeky sparkle to them that exposes he’s up for mischief anytime he can get it. It’s the cheekiness you’d expect from a man with a name like Grayson.
“It was.” I pause, breathe out heavily, then add, “I think.” The hallucinogenic the goon gave me doesn’t play around. My tone was confident when I blurted out my reason for leaving my car abandoned on the side of the road with the door hanging open, but now my words are as groggy as my head feels. “Can you wait for me to start it? I don’t want to be stranded if I have a flat battery.”
Grayson mumbles something under his breath, but I miss what he says. I’m too busy sliding out of the back of his dark sedan with windows so tinted I doubt anyone could see in.
“Are you sure you don’t want to pay? My purse is in the car.” I think. I don’t express my concerns out loud. I got enough sympathetic looks when I exited the morgue in a stained hospital gown with an ashen face. My skin is so pale, some hospital visitors mistook me for a corpse.
It dawns on me that Grayson followed me to my car when he asks, “What were you doing down this way, anyway? All the locals know it adds unnecessary mileage to your trip.”
“One, I’m not a local,” I answer before I can stop myself. “And two, I wanted to avoid the detour.”
“So you turned down a street earlier than required?” He doesn’t give me a chance to reply. He just mumbles something under his breath about state troopers foiling every plan he makes before he opens the driver’s side door for me.
“Thanks.” I slip behind the wheel before jabbing my key into the ignition. “Is Grayson your first name or last name?” I’m not known for small talk. I just have a terrible habit of asking a million questions when I’m nervous. Nothing against Grayson, he’s cute, and despite the groggy deliverance of my promise to pay cash once we reached my destination, he accepted me as his passenger, but something is still off with him. It’s like he knows everything even without me telling him anything.
The rev of my engine firing to life almost drowns out Grayson’s reply. “Technically, a bit of both.” He scrubs a hand across his five o’clock shadow. “Grayson is my mother’s maiden name, but since my parents never officiated things, some could say it’s both my first and last name.”
“Are your parents still together?” See? I have no interest in his family history whatsoever, but before my brain can advise my mouth of this, it blurts out questions for information I have no intention to retain.
Grayson jerks up his chin. “It’s a long story. One I don’t want to share out here.” He twists his lips before breaking them into a libido surging smile. “A bar with a cold beverage in my hand, though…” He leaves the flirty innuendo in his tone to finalize his offer.
As stated only moments ago, he’s cute but blue eyes, a cut jawline, and a deliriously handsome face don’t get you over the line with me. They only worked on the stranger I helped yesterday because there was something deep inside his soul calling me even more than my inequitable desire to help.
And since acknowledgment of that is still very much in my thoughts, I politely turn down Grayson’s offer. “Thanks, but I really should be getting home.” With a smile to show my gratitude, I commence closing the door even with Grayson’s hip blocking its close.
He gets the hint remarkably fast for someone with a never-take-no-for-a-reply attitude. “Alright, but if you change your mind, you know where to find us.”
I almost correct him until the quickest fanning of his jacket when he spins around to face his car exposes he wasn’t in the right place at the right time. He’s a federal agent.
They must have bought an entire team for the accident last night, and the realization has me so eager to get out of here, I tug on my belt so ruefully the safety mechanism catches.
“Come on.” I grit my teeth when Grayson beeps, wordlessly inquiring what has caused the delay. I wave for him to go around me. When he refuses with a brief shake of his head, I continue wrangling my belt into submission.
I do a little jig when the clip finally releases before tugging it across my chest and latching it into place. As I pull onto the street, my eyes stray to the side mirror. I’m not checking for traffic. Even with it being the middle of the day, this part of town is completely isolated. I’m captivated by a shadowy figure in the marsh. It looks to be around the same height and build as the man I helped last night, and the increase of my pulse is right on par as well.
It could be him, and the excitement it heats my veins with sees me doing something I never do.
I act my age instead of my fathers.
When I enter the freeway, instead of flooring the gas as I generally would, I slip my foot off the pedal.
Within seconds, Grayson pulls up to the side of me to give me a mocking, you-drive-like-a-grandma sneer. I brush it off as if being a led foot wasn’t integrated into my DNA at birth. I only have half a mile to travel before we reach the bridge that was jampacked yesterday afternoon thanks to all the nosey-Nancy’s wondering why a side street was swarming with state troopers.
That means I only have half a mile left to travel to learn the identity of the man whose room was so heavily guarded not even a doctor could get in to assess him.
Grayson gobbles up my bluff like he has no clue how undermining some women can be. When his car is swallowed by the hundreds of other commuters on the bridge, I slam on my brakes then pull down the side street that was barricaded from all sides last night.
With my knowledge of this area not strong, I take the same route Grayson did only minutes ago. My heart beats crazily in my chest when the shadowy figure peeks out of the marshlands for the second time. There’s no doubt he is of similar stature as the man last night. Even their hair coloring is oddly similar.
When my rake of his body lands on his knuckle-busted hands, not even thinking, I pull over, toss off my seat belt, throw open my door, then race across the marshland like his life is still in danger. I realize that is the case of my eagerness when a dark sedan rolls down the street before I’m halfway across the asphalt. When the back passenger window glides down, I almost shout for the stranger to get down. I don’t because there isn't a lit rag in the wrinkling, age-spotted hand. There’s nothing but a voiceless threat.
After cocking his fingers to replicate a gun, a man with silver hair and an angry sneer pretends to shoot the man standing at the side of scorch marks burned into the asphalt. He mocks him with a riling snicker before his driver takes off like a bat out of hell.
Mindful I didn’t just witness an exchange between upstanding members of society, I try to leave just as briskly.
I only get three steps away when a snapping twig announces my department. It has the man in the inky black suit spinning around to face me so fast his head would have to be as woozy as mine.
“Wait,” he snaps out when I continue retreating.
“I didn’t see anything. Neither now nor last night.”
My brisk strides slacken when he mutters, “You were here last night?”
There’s pain in his voice—pure, gut-wrenching anguish.
After nodding, I slowly spin around to face him. Although his face could grace the front page of any magazine in the country, I’m disappointed while drinking it in. His jaw is cut, and his nose is undeniable straight, but his eyes are gray instead of blue, and try as they may, they can’t see my soul after only one glance.
“Was she… did she…”
Even with his questions making no sense, I shake my head. His prompts belong to a man in the deep despairs of grief. He isn't here to cause trouble.
“She most likely died on impact. She wouldn’t have felt any pain.”
He sucks in a rattling breath. Relief is all over his face.
His eyes snap to mine when I mutter, “Her passenger, though. He had extensive injuries.”
With shame burning in his eyes, he pulls his knuckled busted hands behind his back before asking, “Did he survive?”
I nod, shake my head, and shrug at the same time. My nonchalant response infuriates the gray-eyed man, but since his anger doesn’t appear to be directed at me, I don’t shy away from it. “Do you know who they are?”
He nods before his dark brows pull together. “Do you?”
It takes my brain screaming three times for me to shake my head before it complies. “I stumbled onto the wreckage by accident. I don’t usually travel this route.”
“They shouldn’t have come down this road either.” He strays his pain-filled eyes to the black grass on the edge of the road. “I wouldn’t have even known it had happened here if the tow truck driver wasn’t a friend of mine.” After taking a moment to gather his composure, he stuffs his hands into the pocket of his pricy-looking trousers, then steps closer to me. “Did he see you?”
“Who?” I ask, hopeful he’s referencing the man I helped last night.
He nudges his head to the left. “The man who just drove by. Did he see you?” My already halfhearted head shake weakens even more when he adds, “Good. Keep it that way. If you don’t, you’ll be next.” While walking away from me, he mutters, “The Petrettis don’t leave bodies or witnesses.”
“The Petrettis?” I don’t care if you’re as pure as a catholic schoolgirl who’s never missed a day of church, if you haven’t heard of the Petrettis, you’re lying. Everyone knows who they are, and not for good reasons. When the wrinkled face of the man issuing an unvoiced threat finally registers as familiar, I stammer out, “I’m dead. I am literally dead.”
Too panicked to think straight, I race back to my car. The gray-eyed man shouts for me to stop, but I continue through the marshland like a gnaw from an alligator will be child’s play compared to what I’ll face if Col Petretti thinks I’m up in his business.
He’s a mafia leader. A criminal entity. He is cruel and heartless to his own flesh and blood, so imagine how bad he’d be to someone outside his realm.
As my brain runs through every detail of Col’s threat from the cocking of the hammer on his imaginary gun to the spit that left his mouth a second before his eyes strayed my way, I stumble out of the marshlands.
He saw me.
The man, who I now know is the notorious ringleader of the Petretti conglomerate, saw me hiding in the marshland.
I am dead. There are no misgivings to this, and it’s the reason I peer at Grayson leaning on the hood of my car with grateful eyes instead of frustrated ones. His team is my only hope, and although I doubt they’ll have me living a glamorous life, anything has to be better than not living at all.
“He was there.” Tobias, Macy, and Grayson’s eyes pop up to mine before they fall back to the surveillance image I’m pointing at. “He was at the accident scene.”
“He couldn’t have been. We had measures in pla—”
Tobias shuts Grayson up with a backhanded slap to his chest before he shifts his focus to me. His eyes are kind even when strangled by controversy. “Today?”
Grayson exhales sharply when I jerk up my chin. “He knew the victims. He warned me to stay away from Col.” As I bounce my eyes between Macy and Grayson, the more open of the trio, I ask, “Who is he?”
“That’s Isaac Holt,” Macy advises. “He is Ophelia’s boyfriend.”
“Was,” Grayson corrects. After plucking the photograph out from beneath my hand, he asks, “How did he seem?”
His eyes rocket from the glossy door at the back of the jet to mine when I push out bluntly, “Devastated. Truly and utterly devastated.” After shrugging to express my shock at his inability to understand remorse even while showing it, I add, “How else would you expect him to be? He just lost his girlfriend.”
“Men in that industry aren’t the same as us.” He gestures his hand between Tobias and him during his comment. “They don’t care.”
“Says you.” I slump into my chair before straying my eyes to the oval window of a private jet. With the hour early, the sky gives off a luminous orange hue. “You didn’t see the hurt in his eyes. He was…” I stop to think of the right word. When I can’t find one, I settle on, “Broken. Death changes you. It guts you so bad you’re left with nothing but a shell. Some come back from it. Others don’t. I don’t know which way his chips will fall.”
I think the silence is because I’m slowly chipping through the hard exterior of agents who’ve seen so much anarchy, they’ve lost the ability to understand genuine remorse but am proven otherwise when Tobias thrusts a driver’s license, passport, and social security number my way.
“Jayda. That’s original,” I huff out in surprise when taking in my new identity.
“The closer we stick to the facts, the less chance there will be that you’ll expose your old identity,” Macy discloses before locking her eyes with mine. “This isn’t for us, Jayda. It is for you. We don’t have a mark on our head.”
“Thanks for the reminder.”
With my mood surly, and my sense of understanding obliviated, I snatch the documents out of Tobias’s hand before curling my legs under my body and tilting away from them. Our flight to my new home away from home won’t take long, but with the precious cargo ushered into a room at the back of the private jet far more critical than me, I don’t see the tour of my humble abode lasting longer than a couple of minutes.
I’m once again about to face the big bad world alone. Except this time, I’m running away from the carnage instead of straight for it.
“Is it always this busy?” I shout to project my voice over the hum of a bustling surgical department. I’m so deep into my element, the horrifying thirty-six hours I recently endured are a thing of the past. I thrive when I’m knee-deep in carnage and mayhem. It’s only when I’m the cause of the upheaval do I wilt.
“No,” replies the head of neurology at Saint Francis Hospital. “But the population of the town quadruples during ski season, and with us being the only hospital in a one-hundred-mile radius with a team of surgical specialists, we’re run off our feet from Thanksgiving all the way through to Easter.” Jacinta digs her hand into a box of gloves. After passing me a set, she nudges her head to a complex surgery taking place in an operating theatre below us. “The mountains out this way are steep. Falls are a regular occurrence.” She shifts her pretty blue irises to me. “But very rarely are they a simple break. Head knocks and unconsciousness account for two-thirds of the ski incidents we operate on here every year. The reattachment of severed fingers attributes for the rest the surgical allotment.”
I wiggle my finger in my ear to make sure I didn’t mishear her.
She did say severed fingers, right?
She pats my arm, her eyes kind despite the unwholesome chuckles I hear rumbling in her chest. “From ice skates. They’re a deadly weapon when laced on the wrong pair of feet.”
I breathe easy again, suddenly conscious my walk on the unlawful side of the law isn’t something you simply get over by changing locations. I don’t even think a handful of therapy sessions will have me forgetting that incidence any time soon.
After nudging her head to the surgery in full swing, Jacinta asks, “What do you say? Are you eager to assist in the drainage of a subarachnoid hemorrhage on a silver screen actor who lied when he said he performs his own stunts?”
I choke on my spit that she’s so generous with her surgical procedures before coughing out a halfhearted reply, “Perhaps tomorrow? The flight was long. I’m zonked.”
I doubt Jacinta will ever mistrust me when the combination of a perforated eardrum, vertigo, and a lagging sleep schedule sees me crashing to the floor as viscously as the actor who may never act again, much less perform his own stunts.
The groan of a woman on the verge of snapping rumbles in my chest when my awakening in a hospital bed is quickly followed by a whiteboard and marker being spotted in my peripheral vision.
“I can speak.”
Jacinta arches a brow to hide her grimace before jotting down on the whiteboard, “But can you understand me if I don’t use this.”
My eyes dart between hers when her lips move, but I don’t hear a single syllable escaping her hard-lined mouth.
“What’s happening? I could hear fine only hours ago.”
“We don’t have an ENT on staff.” She waits for me to read what she wrote before scrubbing it out with the sleeve of her undershirt and starting again, “But from what I can see, the eustachian tubes in your ears have malfunctioned.”
The eustachian tube is responsible for regulating the air pressure in your ears. It’s the part of your body you try to activate by chewing, swallowing, and yawning during take-off and landing.
“If it is from pressure during your flight, the symptoms should disappear in a couple of days.” Jacinta writes. “But until you’re given the all-clear from a specialist, you can’t commence your placement. The risks are too high.”
“My hearing doesn’t affect my capabilities. I’ll wear a damn whiteboard around my chest if I must.”
Jacinta appears pleased by my offer, but when her eyes stray to a pompous-looking man at her right, I realize the decision is out of her hands.
I’ve been sidelined—again.
I can only hope the suspension is short.
I live to work, not work to live. If I don’t have this, I will have nothing. Not even him, the blue-eyed man who keeps my thoughts clear even while surrounded by controversy.