She nodded and wiped the back of her hand over her cheeks. “Yes,” she whispered.
“Good. I told Rex to suck it. If he gives you any trouble, fire his ass.” A small snort left her and I thought I saw the ghost of a smile teasing at her lips.
It had taken a few hours, but after Cecil had arrived and started going through all the legal shit that Harper hadn’t been able to deal with, he’d discovered one little thing that told me Todd Jones had been thinking of his daughter’s happiness long before he’d gotten sick.
A year before Harper had started working for Rock America, the magazine had been losing ground and had needed a big infusion of funds. Cecil had stepped in as a silent partner and helped Rex out. Whether Todd had helped Harper get her job in the first place was still questionable, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. She now owned the controlling shares of the magazine. What she wanted to do with that new power at work, I didn’t have a clue, but I knew she could—and would—do great things with it.
The door to the limo opened without warning and Cecil stuck his head in. “You guys go on. I’m going to ride back to your house with Emmie and Nik.” His gaze went to his stepdaughter and his eyes softened. “I love you, Harpie. Enjoy your time alone, sweetheart. I’ve got everything covered here.”
Weakly, Harper lifted her hand and reached for Cecil’s. “I love you too, Cece. Th-thank you so much for being here for me.” Fresh tears spilled free and she sniffed a few times before giving him a watery smile. “Don’t work too hard, though. Okay?”
“I promise.” He gave her hand a loving squeeze before letting go and stepping back. His eyes went to me. “Keep her safe,” he practically growled.
“I will,” I vowed before he shut the door.
No sooner had the door closed was it opened again. Emmie stuck her head in. “I love you both.”
“Love you, Em.”
“Thanks for everything, Emmie,” Harper told her with a small smile. “I honestly don’t know what I would do without you.”
“That’s what family is for, babe.” She blew us a kiss and stepped back to let Peterson get in. Her eyes were hard when she looked down at the bodyguard. “Take care of them for me,” she commanded before shutting the door.
“Where are we going, anyway?” Harper asked sleepily as she put her head back down on my shoulder.
“I thought I’d surprise you,” I murmured, pressing my lips to her forehead. “But you can bet it will be somewhere far away from any paps, or people. Or even the fucking internet.”
“Mm,” she sighed. “Sounds like paradise.”
I couldn’t have agreed more.
It was a long flight. We had to stop to refuel in Paris, but Harper had been sound asleep through that brief stop. She’d woken up around the time we’d flown over the French Alps, and she’d been glancing out the window with the first signs of excitement in her eyes that I’d seen in over a week as she tried to figure out where we were going.
“Will we be able to go skiing?” she’d murmured as she looked down at the snow-covered mountains.
“Where we’re going, there are no slopes, beautiful,” I’d given in and told her.
Her eyes had brightened and she covered her mouth with her hands when she realized exactly where we were going. “You didn’t,” she whispered. I gave a shrug and winked at her as I took a long swallow from my bottle of water. “Shane!” she squealed and seconds later she was out of her seat and straddling my lap, not caring that Theo and Peterson were sitting just a few feet away or that the flight attendant was just behind the curtain.
My body tightened as soon as her hot little body was on top of my own. She pressed sweet little kisses all over my face. “I love you so much, Shane. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” She thrust her fingers into my hair and pulled my head back. “Thank you,” she whispered and sealed her lips to mine.
I didn’t care about our small audience as I gripped her luscious ass and squeezed. We hadn’t made love in a week and I was about to go insane with the need to be inside of her tight body. I still had a few hours left before I could do that, but I would savor every second of the torture she was putting me through right then.
Breathless, she pulled back. “You bought it, didn’t you? The cabin where we spent our first anniversary?”
I grinned up at her, remembering the fun we’d had the week we’d spent at the cabin in the Swiss Alps. My body tightened even more at the memories, but I held on to my willpower—mostly. “It holds some really good memories, beautiful.”
Violet eyes darkened. “Yes, it definitely does.” She brushed a softer kiss over my lips and pulled back enough that she wasn’t making me have to grit my teeth in agony. Thank fuck, because I was about to go off in my damn suit pants. “Is Ranger with Emmie?”
“He’s not at Emmie’s.” Her eyes widened and she opened her mouth but I cut off her protest. “Linc is going to stay at our place and watch him, beautiful. Ranger gets to stay where he’s comfortable and we have some muscle watching the house. Linc is going to be staying with us for a few months. At least until Christmas.”
“Really? You promise?”
I’d asked Linc to stay and it hadn’t taken more than two seconds for him to agree. After the last shit-trick the stalker had pulled, I wanted all of the people Harper loved and trusted to be a constant in her day-to-day life. I was scared shitless that she was going to pull back from me when I finally showed her the latest stab that evil cunt had taken at our relationship.
Honestly, I only had myself to blame for all this crap. I never should have done all the shit I’d done in the past. Now it was back with a vengeance to haunt me. I just hoped it wouldn’t cost me the most important person in my life.
What the fuck?
I must have asked myself that at least a few thousand times in the last week. This shit was getting ridiculous and I was getting sick and tired of it all. I hadn’t slept, had barely eaten, and I felt like pure crap. If I didn’t know better I would have sworn I was pregnant from just how bad I was feeling, but that was nonsense. I’d taken safety measures to make sure that Jagger was our last bundle of joy by having my tubes tied after delivering him via C-section.
My being sick wasn’t from pregnancy this time, though. It was stress, plain and simple. I was queen of dealing with stressful situations and fixing them without a problem—at least not too many, anyway. I couldn’t fix this, though. Fuck, it felt like I couldn’t fix anything anymore, not without five more things popping up that needed fixing.
I was running on pure willpower these days and all I wanted was to crawl in bed and sleep for a month. Sleep was my enemy, however, and just thinking about closing my eyes at night just added to my stress. Sleep only brought nightmares, and the nightmares only made everything so much worse.
It was the same dream every time. Of finding Mia covered in blood, hearing Liam’s agonizing scream when he realized Gabriella was dying. The terrifying part was that I knew it wasn’t a dream. It was a memory. Everything I saw when I slept had actually happened. I hadn’t been there to protect my daughter. She’d been saved by the one woman in the world I’d always considered my nemesis, and that woman had nearly paid the price of my child’s life with her own.
I always woke up with my hands soaked. For a second I would think it was Gabriella’s blood until the fog cleared and I realized my palms were just sweaty. Then I would get up, shower, check on both kids to make sure they were safely in bed, and roam the house for hours before sitting down behind my desk in my home office to try and get some work done.
Coffee was my best friend now and if I’d actually had time for it in my busy-as-hell life I might have even taken up smoking. My lungs were thankful I hadn’t, but my nerves were second-guessing the small taste of release.
My latest what the fuck moment was now standing in front of me, dressed in a simple black dress and lacking her usual overpowering scent of expensive but n
ot-so-pleasant perfume and without the gallon of makeup that was usually covering her face. I didn’t know what Monica Jones Calloway hoped to accomplish by coming to her ex-husband’s funeral so out of character and minus her sidekick, Ariana Calloway. Yet there she was, staring at me with what looked like sincere tears in her eyes.
“Sorry you won’t get to talk to Harper.” I wasn’t sorry, not even a little bit. I wasn’t going to let this bitch sink her nails into her daughter if I could help it. In my eyes she was no better than my own mother had been. Maybe she hadn’t beaten Harper, but she’d shelled out enough verbal abuse to deem her just as big a monster as my own had been. “She’s had a tough week and needs a break from everything.”
Monica wrapped her arms around herself, nodding her blond head. “I read about the stalker that’s been bothering her. I thought you would have been breaking down my door accusing me or Ariana.”
I shrugged. “The thought had crossed my mind a time or two.” Or six. Seller and his men had eliminated either of them from their list of suspects, though. For one, because Shane didn’t have a past with Ariana. For another, Seller had confirmed that the pair had been in London during the summer tour. Ariana had set her sights on some rich, old English man. Harper wasn’t even on her current radar.
“How is she?” Monica asked with a small wobble in her tone that I couldn’t decipher as being real or not.
Fuck, now I was losing my ability to read people.
“She just lost her father, so how do you think she is?” Dallas snapped as she moved to stand beside me. “What the fuck are you doin’ here, cunt-bags? Todd left it all to Harper. You’re not even mentioned anywhere in his will, so there’s no reason for you to come stick your nose in this shit.”
Maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me, but I could have sworn Monica’s chin actually trembled. “I wanted to pay my respects. Todd was once a very important part of my life. He gave me Harper…” She lowered her gaze. “And now I have neither.”
“Boo-fucking-hoo.” Dallas put her hands on her hips, making her pregnant belly stick out all that much more. “No one’s interested in hearin’ your sob story. Get lost, bitch.”
The older woman sucked in a shuddery breath, her shoulders actually shaking for a moment, before she nodded her down-bent head and turned to go. She took a step to leave and then paused and glanced back, her gaze going straight to me. “Tell Harper I love her,” she murmured and walked away.
“That gold-digger was only around to cause trouble. Or to con money out of Harper. Now that Cecil has cut her and Ariana off, they are hard-up for cash. She can’t even afford a bottle of foundation these days,” Dallas informed me, her blue eyes shooting daggers into Monica’s back. “Trust me on this, redhead. She was only here for what she could get one way or another.”
I nodded, agreeing with her, but part of me couldn’t help wondering if the woman might have been sincere.
I was losing my fucking mind.
Gods, I needed to sleep.
Dallas wrapped her arm around my waist and urged me to turn. Our husbands were waiting by the SUV we’d arrived together in. Cecil was already inside my Escalade, his phone to his ear as he spoke angrily to whomever was on the other end. Nik and Axton stepped forward to meet us before we could reach the vehicle. Dallas left me to wrap herself around Ax while Nik pulled me into his arms and kissed the top of my head.
“How much sleep have you had, Em?” Axton demanded as he turned his hazel eyes on me. “You look like a ghost.”
“She hasn’t been sleeping at all,” Nik said, ratting me out. “She walks the floors all night. I’m about to roofie her so she has no choice but to sleep.”
I grimaced, knowing that he wasn’t joking. My husband had tried to stay up with me a few times, but I’d always sent him back to bed. After the nightmares—that visited me every time I closed my eyes—came the pain of knowing that Nik shouldn’t still love me after what I’d let happen to our daughter. It left me scared and vulnerable and that usually led me to feeling pissed at the world. I didn’t deserve such an amazing man to love me, to take care of me. I wanted to hide. From him. From myself.
From the godsdamn world.
Axton muttered something to Dallas that I didn’t hear but the way she went still had me glancing at her. The two were staring at each other, an entire conversation going on with just that look alone. After only a few seconds, Dallas nodded and turned back to me. “Let’s get you home, redhead.”
“I have to go into the office,” I told her. “I have two meetings this evening and at least three more interviews.” My job didn’t stop with family tragedies. If anything it only made it more necessary. I had to keep the hounds at bay.
“Annabelle has that covered,” Nik assured me as he turned back to the Escalade with his arm wrapped around me tightly. When we reached the SUV he opened the front passenger door and lifted me inside like I was a kid who needed helping. His hand squeezed over my ass for an all-too-brief moment, making me ache for the delicious rocker. Before I could get comfortable in the seat and turn to kiss him, he was closing the door.
I pouted up at him through the window and he gave me a sexy wink before walking around to the driver’s side.
Behind me Axton was helping Dallas in before climbing in himself. Cecil was so into his conversation that he didn’t even seem to notice us. “Do you want us to drop you off first?” I asked my pregnant friend.
“Nope,” she said with a smile. “I’ll come over and keep you company for a little while.”
“But I have to go into the office,” I reminded her.
“Nik just said that Annabelle can handle it,” Axton reminded me, his hazel eyes narrowed like a parent ready to scold me. “Isn’t that why you took on a partner, Em? So you don’t have to do it all?”
I shrugged. “Partly.” It was, but even though I now had Annabelle to rely on, I felt like I still needed to do it all. Work was what kept me sane most days. If it weren’t for so much to keep me busy, I might have started screaming weeks before. The kind of screaming that would force them to lock me in an asylum with a straightjacket.
“You’re not going to the office,” Nik told me with that look in his eyes he only got when he was trying to stay stern with Mia—and me on occasion. “We’re going back to the house and you and Dallas can relax for the rest of the day.”
“Right,” Axton said with a nod. “But first we have to stop at the drugstore. Dallas has to pick up her prescription.”
I blew out a frustrated breath and turned around to look out the windshield. “Fine,” I grumbled and put my seatbelt on.
The stop at the pharmacy took less than five minutes and Dallas and Axton were back in the SUV. The drive was quiet, no one speaking but Cecil as he took one call after another. He had a full plate right then taking care of not only Harper’s new assets, but his own company as well. We dropped him off at Shane’s house and then headed back to Malibu.
Finally at home, Nik offered to make everyone coffee. “Chamomile tea for you and Em,” he said with a grin at Dallas.
“But I want coffee,” I complained as I took a seat on the couch.
“Mean.” I pouted up at him, but he had that stern look on his face again and I stuck my tongue out at him.
“I’ll help you make it,” Dallas offered. “Babe, keep Emmie company.”
Axton dropped down beside me on the couch, sitting close so he could drape an arm around my shoulders. “The nightmares are bad, huh? Worse than when all that went down with Lucy’s old man?”
After a small hesitation, I told him the truth. “Yes. Ten times worse,” I whispered and leaned my head against his shoulder. “All I see is the blood, Ax. All that blood covering Mia. Then Liam screams and I see Gabriella on the ground. She’s dying and I can do nothing to help her.” I closed my eyes, trying to block out the images, but it didn’t help. It just made them more vivid for me.
“Isn’t that how it went down? Dalla
s told me how you all found Gabriella and Mia. What you’re describing sounds more like a memory.”
My tired eyes burned with tears. “Yes. That’s exactly how it happened. And I relive it every time I close my eyes.”
“I’m sorry, Emmie.”
We sat there for several minutes, neither of us speaking, Axton offering me a quiet kind of strength that I felt like I was lacking lately and I gladly accepted it. Nik came back with a tray loaded with coffee cups and a pot of tea. Dallas took the spot on the other side of her husband and started handing over mugs.
Being with our friends like this was kind of nice, even if I wished it was under different circumstances. Our kids were out of the house for the day, staying with the two babysitters that Jesse had gotten to watch them at his house. I felt a brief slash of pity for the two women who had to put up with not only my two kids but Luca and Lyric as well as Neveah and Cannon. I was pretty sure the sitters would be pulling their hair out by the end of the day, but we’d felt like the kids were far too young to understand what was going on that day.
Dallas handed me over a mug and I wanted to call her a traitor when I saw that it was tea. Blowing out a huff, I took a small sip. “This is too sweet,” I muttered.
“The sweetness is good for you. If Nik won’t let you have the caffeine kick, then you need some sugar, babe.” Dallas gave me a small smile and took a sip from her own mug. “If you don’t like it that way just gulp it down.”
Rolling my eyes at her, I took another small sip and then killed it off with a big gulp. The last swallow left a little bit of an aftertaste and I quickly grabbed the mug out of Axton’s hands to wash the taste away. “What kind of tea was that?” I grumbled, handing the cup back to my friend. “It tasted like ass.”
“It was probably from the sleeping tablets Dallas crushed up and put in there,” Nik said as if it were something that happened on a regular basis.