“I’m his son-in-law,” I assured her when she seemed hesitate to give me the information. I couldn’t blame her. I was dressed in jeans that had seen better days and an old Demon’s Wings shirt that was at least six years old and almost as worn as my jeans. I had on my running shoes instead of the boots I normally would have worn and my hair was sticking in every direction because I’d been running a hand through it all the way there.
After a small hesitation she finally sighed and told me where to find him. Giving her a sorry excuse for a smile, I rushed through the hospital to find my wife.
I saw Peterson standing outside the door to Todd’s room but his eyes were on the nurses’ station. I saw a few nurses working, moving around the two women seated at the desk. A nurse was sitting beside Harper, holding her hand as tears poured down my wife’s face.
My heart stopped at the sight of those tears. Each one that fell was like acid to my heart and I jogged down the corridor until I was standing in front of the desk. Their heads lifted as I came closer and the look on Harper’s face made me glad I’d come even though she’d been so adamant about doing it on her own.
“What’s wrong?” I tried to keep my voice down, not wanting to draw more attention to her than she was already getting, and also not wanting to draw it to myself and cause a field day with the staff, patients or any family that was around. I didn’t want the fucking paps to swarm the place because they got tipped off I was at a damn cancer research hospital for critical care patients.
Her eyes were swollen and puffy, her nose red, telling me she’d been crying for a while. Her chin trembled and she swallowed hard before she answered me. “Todd’s very sick.”
I reached for her hand, holding on to it even as I walked around the desk and crouched down in front of her. “How sick, beautiful?”
Two fresh tears spilled out of her violet eyes. “Paige says it could be any time now.”
My hold on her hand tightened at the pain on her beautiful face. “What can I do? Tell me and it’s done.” Whatever it took to take that look away, I would do it. No matter the cost, no matter the time.
She shook her head. “There’s nothing anyone can do now, Shane. He’s here to be made comfortable until…” More tears and a small sob caught in her throat.
I dropped to my knees and wrapped my arms around her waist. Her head bent, her arms going around my shoulders, as she buried her face in my neck and sobbed so hard it made my chest ache.
I’d only met Todd Jones twice in the four years that I’d been with Harper. Twice was enough for me to figure the man out. He was basically an emotionless robot whose only real passion was business and making money. He’d treated Harper with an indifference I’d seen that hurt her just as badly as her mother’s verbal abuse had throughout her life.
I’d wanted to punch him in the face, knock some sense into the man. Didn’t he realize what a treasure his daughter was? How bright she could make his day if he would just take the time and look at her when she smiled? Cecil had no problem seeing that and cherishing the time he got to spend with his stepdaughter.
Now Todd’s life was ending and even though Harper had no reason to love the bastard, there she was crying her heart out over a man who had never once hugged her. It was more than he deserved, but I knew that it was how Harper was. So kind and sweet. Her soul shone with the beauty of her heart. It was why I’d fallen so deeply for her in the first place. It was why she would always own me.
I was exhausted after a full day of trying to hire on a full staff.
I’d gotten the floor space for an even lower price than I was willing to pay. That had been easy compared to what I was going through now. I was trying to hire the best in the field. The only problem with that was, there weren’t all that many people who were as good as me or Annabelle, which was exactly what I was going for. I didn’t want to have to spend months training everyone on the simplest of things.
I’d been doing the initial interviews myself and then any follow-up interviews were done with Annabelle sitting in via Skype.
After two weeks, things were finally coming together and I was starting to relax a little at work. At home… Yeah, that didn’t happen often these days. I felt jumpy, edgy, always looking over my shoulder, expecting something bad to happen at any second. Every time my phone rang when I was at home, my stomach would knot up.
I felt like I was a kid again, so twisted up with nerves like I had been when my mother was so stoned out of her mind she didn’t know where she was half the time. She’d always known I was around though, and had let me know all too well with each beating she would inflict on me.
Back then I’d clung to my saviors, to the four boys who had become my heroes in rusty armor. When they had left, I’d had to learn to deal with it all on my own. To become independent. Now…
Now I clung to Nik like he was my lifeline, and he was. Sometimes I hated leaving the house without him there to hold me, but I knew that he would be there when I got home. Knew that he would always be there to take care of me when I was taking care of everyone else.
The house smelled of spaghetti sauce and buttery garlic bread when I walked in the door. I followed my nose to the kitchen where Nik was just pulling the garlic bread from the oven. Jagger was sitting in his highchair with a plate of lightly sauced noodles, which he was eating with his hands rather than the small fork on his plate. Mia was at the island, watching her father as he carefully cut the crispy bread.
I was home later that night than usual, and it had taken some getting used to for me to drive into the city rather than just go next door to the guesthouse and work from there. Without the help of a nanny now, Nik was handling being a stay-at-home father like a pro. He was made for taking gentle care of kids. Hadn’t he proved that much with me when I was only five and he’d been fifteen?
“Ma-Ma!” Jagger greeted me happily when he saw me in the doorway to the kitchen.
Mia and Nik lifted their heads, so completely different in looks, but oddly with the same expression on their faces. Mia smiled, her eyes tilting up at the outer edges just like her father’s were doing right then. “Hi, Momma.”
I moved across the room and wrapped my arms around the little girl’s shoulders. “Hi, baby doll. How was school?”
She was finally in kindergarten and so far she was enjoying it. “It was fun. Momma, can I take ballet classes?”
My eyes widened at the request and I looked up at Nik to find him shaking his head with a grin on his face. “A few of the girls in her class are taking dance classes. They showed her some of the ballet positions they’d learned today and now she wants to be a ballet dancer when she grows up.”
I found myself returning his grin. “Oh, yeah?” A ballet dancer. That was a new one. Every week, Mia wanted to be something new when she grew up. The week before it had been a veterinarian because she’d seen the neighbor’s dog with a cone around his neck because he’d had stitches in a delicate place. In other words, he’d had his balls snipped. Not that I’d have told Mia that. The week before that she’d wanted to be a nurse because she’d spent the day with her father and brother over at Axton’s house and Dallas had had to put a Band-Aid on the scratch Mia had gotten while playing outside.
“Can I, Momma?” Mia pleaded. “Please, please, please? I’ll be a good girl.”
I kissed her forehead. “What do you think, Daddy?”
Nik put the freshly cut garlic bread on a plate and carried it over to the kitchen table. “Sure. It will be good for her. She needs to socialize more.”
I bit the inside of my cheek. He was right. Mia hadn’t been doing more than going to school during the week and visiting her uncles on the weekends. I didn’t let her go to friends’ houses like I’d done when she was in preschool. I didn’t even let her go to Jordan Moreitti’s house anymore, although she visited ‘Aunt Gabs’ more often than she did anyone else these days.
was turning my daughter into a hermit.
“Okay,” I said, giving in with an easy smile, even though my anxiety over it was turning my stomach. “I’ll take care of it tomorrow.”
“I’ll do it,” Nik said as he put the rest of dinner on the table. “You handle work, and I’ll take care of the dance thing.”
Finished with his task, he moved around the island and wrapped his arms around me. “No buts. I can take care of something as simple as signing our daughter up for dance classes.” He buried his face in my neck and I couldn’t help but shiver as he traced little circles over that sensitive spot right behind my ear with his wicked tongue. Evil—delicious—man. “Let me help you.” He wasn’t asking, but telling me, so I snapped my mouth shut.
I wouldn’t willingly admit it out loud, but he was right. Nik was completely able to handle any paperwork that would have to be filled out, write a check for payment, and get our daughter the things she needed to participate in dance classes. I knew I didn’t have to take care of everything, but I felt like I had to.
Nik’s tongue stopped tracing those little circles only for his teeth to sink into the tender skin where my shoulder met my neck. I had to bite my lip to keep from crying out from the pleasure in front of my children. Slapping at his chest, I pulled away, my body already aching for bedtime so he could relieve the pain he’d caused between my now wet thighs.
Ice-blue eyes gave me a knowing look and I tried to keep my eyes from straying to his jeans, having already felt the evidence of his need for me pulsing against my stomach. We had to feed the kids and get them bathed before we could do any of the fantasies now running through my head.
We sat down to eat and it was only with the first bite that I realized I hadn’t had time to stop long enough for lunch that day. I grimaced as the spaghetti hit my empty stomach, not for the first—or even tenth—time that day reliving a time when having an empty belly was a regular occurrence.
Seeing the discomfort on my face, recognizing it immediately for what it was, Nik dropped his fork onto his plate and reached for my hand. “Baby girl, you have to take better care of yourself.”
I squeezed his fingers. “I know. Sorry, babe. I was so distracted with work that I didn’t remember to eat.”
“Did you hire anyone yet?”
“Two girls and one guy. All three are fresh out of college, but they have some experience.” I twirled my spaghetti around my fork distractedly. “It’s only on a trial basis, but it should help me out a little more.” I hoped, at least.
“Good,” Nik said with a nod as he released my hand so he could finish his dinner. “You’re looking tired, Em. Did you sleep at all last night?”
“A few hours,” I lied. Barely an hour, actually. Even if I could have fallen asleep, I hadn’t wanted to. The nightmares always found me when I was sleeping. It gave me a new perspective on what Drake had had to live with for so many years. I would never question the need he’d had for the Jack Daniels again, that was for sure.
Maybe it would help me sleep, too.
Even as the thought flitted through my head I squelched it. I wasn’t going to go down that route. My mother had been a drug user and it had turned her into a monster. Drake had fought his battle with alcohol for half his life. I wouldn’t follow in either of their footsteps. There were too many reasons not to.
I was trying to wipe the mess off of Jagger while Nik rinsed our dishes and put them in the dishwasher when my phone went off. It was lying on the island beside Mia where she was enjoying some ice cream for dessert and her eyes went to it at the same time I turned around. “It’s Uncle Shane,” she said excitedly and reached for the phone before I could stop her.
Lifting it to her ear she smiled brightly. “Hi, Uncle Shane.”
I scooped Jagger up from his highchair and crossed to the island. “Mia, let Momma talk to your uncle.”
She shook her head and held the phone closer to her ear. “Uncle Shane, why do you sound funny? Are you sick?”
Ah, hell. Now what?
“Mia.” I made my tone firmer this time and she glared at me.
“Momma wants to talk to you, Uncle Shane. I love you. Bye.” With a pout she handed the phone over and went back to eating her ice cream while sulking.
Sighing at my daughter’s attitude, I lifted the phone. “Hey,” I said in greeting. “What’s up?”
“Emmie, I’m sorry. I need some help.” His voice sounded choked-up and when I listened closer I thought I heard him sniffling his nose. He was crying, or had been recently.
“Did the stalker strike again?” I asked, lowering my voice so Mia wouldn’t hear me.
“No. This isn’t about her.” He blew out a frustrated breath. “I’m over at USC Norris Cancer Hospital.” My eyes widened. What the fuck was he doing there? “Todd Jones died about twenty minutes ago, Em.”
Well, hell. “How’s Harper?”
Nik’s head snapped around, his brows lifted in concern. I shook my head and shrugged, telling him without words that this wasn’t about the stalker but that Harper was probably upset nonetheless.
“She’s a mess. She got to spend a few hours with him before he died.” Another frustrated sigh, this one shuddering. “The staff here have started dealing with everything for him. Apparently he was able to tell them what he wanted done once he was gone.”
“That’s good,” I told him as I handed Jagger over to his father. The baby protested the exchange though, whining and reaching for me. I gritted my teeth, hating having to hand my son over when all I’d wanted to do was cuddle with him and his sister for a little while before giving them each a bath. That wasn’t likely to happen now. Shane needed me and I wasn’t going to leave him hanging. “What do you need me to do, Shane? Do you need security over there?”
“Maybe, but that’s not why I called. The first thing the staff had to do when Todd died was call his lawyers. They must have been waiting by their phones because they just walked through the door, Em.”
“Okay…” I had no idea where he was going with this.
“They want Harper to sign papers. There’s an entire briefcase full of the shit,” he muttered as if trying to keep from being overheard. “He’s left everything to her and they need her to sign it all now. If she doesn’t, Jones’ CEOs will take control at midnight.”
I’d had everyone who was directly connected to my family investigated. Harper, Dallas and Linc had been investigated the moment Lana had moved in with them when they had lived together in New York. I’d investigated Harper’s parents when I’d met the girl’s mother—lovely woman that she was.
If her own mother could treat her the way she’d been treated, then I’d wanted to know what kind of a man her father was. I hadn’t liked what I’d found out about him as a father, but as a businessman he was a shark. Todd Jones wasn’t a poor man by anyone’s standards. He had controlling interest in so many companies that I’d given up looking at the long list when I’d had the man investigated. If Harper now had his controlling interests, then there was going to be some crazy media coverage of it.
More media wasn’t something anyone needed right then, Harper especially. It would only put her more in the spotlight and give the stalker better access to her and her personal life.
I leaned back against the island and pressed the palm of my hand to my now aching head. So many things suddenly needed to be done and I was making mental lists. If Natalie’s doctor hadn’t officially put her on bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy, I would have said screw it and called her to help me. She could have handled some of the phone calls at least, but that wasn’t going to happen. For one, I wasn’t going to add this stress to her. I’d never willingly put her or that precious baby in any kind of danger. For another, Devlin would probably rip my head off.
There would have to be a press conference—that was unavoidable—to soothe the shareholders in any of Todd Jones’ companies
. So many fucking companies. Oil. Import/exports. Agriculture. Medical equipment. He even owned one or three media corporations. Those were just a few of the companies under his command.
What the hell was Harper going to do with all of them? What would the CEOs do to get control of them? Harper was a smart chick, but she had her passions and didn’t give a damn about anything else work-related. She wasn’t going to want to run those companies.
“I’m going to send a lawyer over, Shane,” I assured him as I put him on speaker and started going through my contact list. The damn thing was so damn long it took a few seconds to find the name I needed. “Then I need to call Annabelle.”
My new partner could handle the press better than I could. I’d want to tell them all to go fuck themselves by the end of the interview. Annabelle had proven to me more than once that she had the patience of a saint when it came to those asshats. With Annabelle back, I would also have someone to help me with the million and one other things that would have to be done on top of the things that I already needed to do.
Thank gods I’d been smart enough to find a partner to help me.
Annabelle Cassidy was going to be my saving grace.
I felt numb and more than a little sick. Nothing tempted my appetite, not even my usual sweet tooth. What I did eat, I couldn’t keep down for longer than ten minutes, so I gave up on trying to eat. Shane was keeping me hydrated as much as he could, but I barely noticed when he put a fresh bottle of water or Gatorade in my hands. I sipped, nodded when people talked to me, and stared at a blank wall without seeing it or anyone around me.