I dig the blade into my skin until I feel a sharp pinch, blood slowly trailing from the wound. Zade’s eyes track it, his eyes alight with fury.
The greasy-haired man returns his gun to my mother, a smart-ass grin on his face.
“Touché, diamond.” He tips his chin up to his partner, who’s still holding his weapon to my father. “Grab her.”
Then, he addresses Zade and Sibby, “Both of you drop all those weapons, and kick them away.”
The guy with the baby face approaches me, and I take a big step back. “You don’t get to touch me. Not until I know you won’t hurt any of them.”
His eyes narrow, but then they flit over my shoulder, and a moment later, I feel the danger behind me.
“Fuck, Addie, move!” Zade barks, but it’s too late.
A gun presses into the back of my head, distracting me long enough for his arm to come around and grab ahold of my knife, flinging it to the side.
Concrete fills my bones, my body turning to stone as he wraps his arm around my neck and pulls me back into him, moving his gun to my temple.
“You forgot to check the attic,” the new intruder whispers in my ear. He drops his arm from around my throat and slides his hand across my tailbone and down my thighs, checking for any weapons, and then throwing them to the floor when he locates them. He squeezes my ass for extra measure, and I can’t contain the snarl from slipping free.
Oh, yeah. He’s going to die.
Tension radiates from Zade, his murderous gaze tracking the man’s wandering hand. I bet he’s imagining all the ways he could remove it from his body, just like he did Arch’s. Sibby is still, her eyes bouncing in every direction, probably calculating how quickly she can kill one of them before their gun goes off.
“Better be careful,” Zade murmurs, his eyes boring into the man holding me. “That diamond has sharp edges.”
Baby face turns his weapon on Zade, “Shut the hell up. Both of you get against the wall.”
Zade smirks, raising his hands in mock surrender, but the look in his eyes is deadly.
Sibby refuses to budge, though, so the man storms toward her and grabs her by the arm, attempting to haul her there himself. She goes wild, scratching at him and causing a massive scuffle.
Hooked on the inside of my sleeve is a pen gun—a handy little weapon Zade got me. I put it there for a situation exactly like this, deliberately keeping it out of any apparent spots to hide a weapon. It only has a single bullet, but it’ll be enough.
The chaos distracts all the men enough to slide out the pen gun from my sleeve without any of them noticing.
Sweat beads across my hairline, and though adrenaline is running rampant in my system, calmness overtakes me.
Hurriedly, I take aim on the greasy-haired man and click the button on the pen, the bullet ripping from the small weapon and through the man’s brain, killing him immediately.
The utter surprise is enough time for me to knock away the gun from my head, my captor’s reflexes delayed as he fires off a shot at my feet, scarcely missing my toes. The bullet ricochets, and I think I hear someone gasp, but I’ve already turned around and am sending my fist flying into his face.
My father is shouting through the tape on his mouth, but I can’t look now. My opponent slides a knife from his pocket and swings it at my face.
Rearing back just in time, the blade slices through the air within an inch of my nose. Grabbing ahold of his hand wrapped around the handle, I snap it back, his wrist breaking from the force.
He cries out, dropping the knife. Before I can land another punch, this one to his throat, his head kicks back, a hole now in the center of his forehead.
I turn with wide eyes, finding Zade tucking away his weapon.
“Sorry, baby. He touched your ass, therefore, I needed to kill him.”
A piercing scream distracts me, drawing my eyes to Sibby happily stabbing away at the man beneath her, while my dad squirms like a worm on a hook. His stare pinballs back and forth from the psychotic girl at his feet to his wife.
My eyes widen when I get a good look at my mother. Her head is drooping, chin tucked into her chest and blood soaking through her shirt.
“Oh my God,” I cry, rushing over to her. Zade reaches her first, pressing his fingers against her throat to feel for a pulse.
“She’s alive,” he breathes. “But her pulse is faint. She needs a doctor now.”
Tears immediately well in my eyes, and panic turns my brain to mush. I open my mouth, limbs frozen, and wide eyes locked onto my dying mother. “Adeline,” Zade barks, and my eyes snap to him. “Focus, baby. I need
you to come here and put pressure on the wound.”
Finally unlocking my muscles, I do as he says and press both hands against her chest. Crimson bubbles through my fingers, coating my skin within seconds.
Distinctly, I see Zade untying her bonds and then my dad’s. There’s a sharp command telling Sibby to stop grinding on the dead man beneath her, then Zade talking to Jay through his earpiece, but everything is drowned out after that.
There’s too much blood rushing in my ears. Too much anxiety eating me alive from the inside out.
“Mom,” I say shakily. Dad’s arms come around her, gently lifting her head and calling out her name. Tears are streaming down his ruddy cheeks, and it’s then I realize my own face is wet.
“Serena, hey honey, look at me,” Dad coaxes, but her eyes stay firmly closed.
“I need to lift her,” Zade says.
“Don’t you touch her!” Dad shouts, going to slap Zade’s arms away. “We need to call an ambulance.”
“Dad!” I exclaim, pulling a hand away to stop him. “Stop, he’s trying to help.”
“I will be faster than an ambulance, I promise you,” Zade assures, staring firmly in my father’s eyes. Dad is a rule follower. He goes by the book. And even in his mania, he understands that Zade isn’t taking her to the hospital only because he’s faster, but because we’ve all committed a crime, and he doesn’t want them to know.
Which means we’re not going to a real hospital, either.
Gritting his teeth, Dad releases Zade and lets him pick up my mom, her head flopping onto his chest as he stands.
“Everyone get in the car. Let’s go, now, Sibby.”
We climb the basement steps, tear through the house, and pile into Zade’s car—all of it a blur. I let Dad sit in the passenger seat while my mom is draped across mine and Sibby’s lap. I continue to put pressure on her chest, whispering to her softly to stay alive.
Zade must still have Jay on the line because he says, “Call Teddy and let him know we’re on our way. Gunshot wound to the chest.”
“Let me guess, there’s some made-up story you have, huh?” Dad snaps from the front seat while Zade tears out of the driveway and onto the road. He handles the car with ease, despite the unnerving speed we’re traveling.
“Well, no, not really,” Zade answers, not the least bit perturbed by my dad’s anger. “We’re not going to the police. And we’re going to a surgeon, with real experience—”
“We’re not going to the hospital?!” my father booms, his voice deafening. I flinch, heart pounding. I’ve told Zade before that my dad wasn’t an integral part of my life. He always lingered in the background, there but not really—kind of like Gigi’s ghost in Parsons Manor.
But there were a few times in my childhood where he raised his voice, and each time, it sent birds scattering off their branches and my back hunching in attempt to make myself smaller.
He’s a simple man, but he can also be scary.
“No, sir,” Zade responds casually. Nothing intimidates him, and if I haven’t had a close look, I’d think he has balls of fucking steel hanging between his legs.
“I don’t care who the fuck you are, you better turn this car around and take us to the GODDAMN HOSPITAL!” he yells, his face growing increasingly red, even in the dark of the car.
“Raise your voice to me one more fucking time,” Zade threatens, his voice deepening. “I guarantee you that I can knock your ass out without even swerving this car.” My dad rears back, eyes bugging with shock
“Dad,” I cut in before my other parent ends up getting shot, my voice soft but stern. “I would never let her die, and you know that. Please just trust us.”
His glare sears through me, but I don’t look away, my entire body beginning to shake from the mix of adrenaline, shock, and panic.
Scoffing, he turns away, muttering under his breath, “I can’t fucking believe this shit. Adeline, what the fuck have you gotten involved in?”
I frown. “I didn’t even do anything, Dad.”
He turns back to me with incredulity. “You think I didn’t see the three of you kill those men in cold blood? The little crazy one—”
“Don’t call me crazy!” Sibby screeches from beside me, causing me to flinch, the pitch hurting my ears. I pause, noting how manic she looks right now. Her chest is pumping, and her brown eyes are wild, like she’s a tiger cornered in a small cage.
Dad must see it, too, because he trains his glare onto me. “Don’t sit here and act like you’re the daughter I raised,” he barks. “You just murdered someone.”
“He was going to kill Mom,” I defend, in disbelief he’s lecturing me right now. He’s in shock and angry, and taking it out on me.
He clenches his teeth, baring them at me as he spits, “If she dies, this will be all your fault. That bullet hit her because of you!”
His words feel like a bullet of their own, hitting me right in the chest and punching the air out of my lungs.
“What?” I choke out.
“When you were fighting with that guy, and the gun went off,” he barks, his face reddening. He stares at me like… like I’m a monster. “The bullet ricocheted and hit your mother.”
My mouth opens, speechless. I remember it ricocheting but never saw where it hit, distracted by the man I was fighting with.
Wave after wave of guilt slams into me, and fuck… this is my fault. I blink, my vision blurring with a fresh wave of tears. It feels as if my chest is cracking wide open, my heart spilling out right alongside my mother’s.
“She’s not the one that pulled the trigger,” Zade barks, defending me. Huffing, he turns around and stares out his window, vibrating with fury.
“This is your fault, too,” he accuses snidely, directing it toward Zade. “The both of you. None of this would’ve happened if it wasn’t for your criminal boyfriend, Adeline.”
Zade turns his head to my father, the leather steering wheel groaning beneath his tightened fists, and for a moment, I’m convinced he’s going to
completely snap it in half.
“I think it’s best you shut your fucking mouth from now on, or else I will do it for you. As you’ve made clear, I’m not a good man, and I care very much about how you talk to Addie. That man was holding a goddamn gun to your daughter’s head. This is nobody’s fault but the people who broke into your home.”
Dad meets his stare, words on the tip of his tongue. In the end, he shakes his head and turns to look out the window again, content with where his fingers are pointing.
The car falls into a weighted silence, the four of us conflicted for different reasons.
I look down at my mom, a sob working up my throat as I stare down at her pale face. My tears drip onto her cheeks, but I don’t dare remove my hands from the wound to wipe them away.
“I’m so sorry, Mom. I don’t want to do this life without you, so stay with me, okay?”
Try as I might, my PTSD is beginning to resurface as Zade whips us into a driveway within twenty minutes, driving up to a wooden cabin with a warm yellow glow emitting from the windows. I recognize this cabin— barely.
Zade brought me here right after he found me, and I hardly remember a thing about this place or Teddy, just that both the house and the doctor were warm and inviting. Opposite to the memories of a different doctor that are currently sending my blood pressure through the roof.
“This is Teddy’s house?” I ask, my hands numb.
Flashbacks of waking up in a make-shift hospital, an old man with pale blue eyes and a deranged smile beneath his bushy mustache leaning over me, asking me to come with him. My heart pumps wildly, and it feels like it’s cracking my rib cage from the force.
The second the car comes to a stop, Sibby is scrambling out of the car as if she was stuck underwater with no air. She storms off somewhere,
muttering about having to leave her henchmen behind. None of us have the mental capacity to worry about her in this second.
“Yes. I know you might not remember much, but his name is Teddy Angler, and his son is Tanner. They’re good friends of mine,” he answers, shutting the car off and hurrying to the back door.
“Keep the pressure on her chest,” Zade instructs. Quickly and carefully, he slides Mom out of my lap, cradling her against his chest while I keep my hands firmly planted on the wound. Together, we rush up to the front door just as it opens.
Two men usher us in, Dad close behind. The warmth and comfort of the house are familiar, yet still shocking to my system.
I recognize both men. The elder one is Teddy, and the younger one— though still in his forties at least—is Tanner.
They lead us down the hallway straight ahead and into a room with a hospital bed, IV pole, and several other machines.
Panic resurfaces, and I’m no longer standing in Teddy Angler’s hospital room but Dr. Garrison’s. He’s standing before me, pleading with me to come with him, a crazed look in his milky blue eyes. Half of his head is gone, blown off from Rio’s bullet, and his shredded brains exposed.
No, no, no. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to—
“Adeline,” Zade calls roughly, shaking me until Dr. Garrison fades, replaced by concerned yin-yang eyes. “You’re here with me, little mouse. No one is going to take you from me.”
I blink, vision blurred, and chest tight with panic.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, frustration beginning to filter in alongside the million other fucking emotions I can hardly contain.
“Don’t be, baby. Come sit down, and let them operate. Your mom is going to make it, okay?”
“Is that what Teddy said?” I ask, peeking around Zade’s shoulder, but I can’t see much behind Teddy’s larger stature and Tanner on the other side. Dad sits in the corner of the room, staring at Mom with a pinched expression.
“He hasn’t said much, which is a good thing. If he’s operating, then there’s a chance.”
Nodding my head, I let him lead me back out into a small living room filled with green and navy blue plaid couches, a bearskin rug, and a deer
head mounted above the brown fireplace, a fire raging within. The floor, walls, and furniture are made up of burnished wood, giving the house a homey, relaxed feel.
I collapse onto the couch and start to drop my head in my hands but immediately jerk away, reminded that they’re covered in dried blood. I glance around, hoping that I’m not ruining Teddy’s couch, and sit on the floor instead.
Then, I remember Sibby is still absent, and my head is swiveling all around.
“Where did Sibby go?” I question, wiping the snot leaking from my nose. Honestly, of all things, embarrassment is low on the list of things I should be feeling. And something tells me Zade has seen me in far more ridiculous situations while stalking me, so snot bubbles are the least of my concern.
Zade sits next to me, pulling me into his chest and cocooning me in his arms. As nice as it feels, I’m incapable of relaxing. Thousands of bugs are crawling beneath the surface of my skin, filling my skull with the buzz of their wings.
“I’ll check on her in a bit. There wasn’t room in the car for her henchmen, and they stayed behind. I think it’s freaking her out. They weren’t there when she was taken to the mental facility, and she probably has some sort of separation anxiety now.”
I nod my head. Her henchmen are as real to her as Zade is sitting next to me. It’s not as easy as just making them go poof or conjuring them before her whenever she wants. She sees them as real people, so she has to make sense of it when they do appear.
Eventually, they’ll come back to her, and she’ll probably see two men dressed as monsters walking up the driveway toward her.
“He was right,” I whisper. “It was my fault she was shot.”
“You didn’t fire off the gun, nor did you personally aim that bullet at your mother. It was not your fault.”
I remove myself from his arms, feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t pull the trigger, I still caused it when I pushed his arm down.
Sensing my inner turmoil, Zade rolls his neck, cracking the muscles. Sitting forward, he rests his elbows on his spread knees and links his hands
My eyes lock onto them, tracing the veins running through them. Those hands have killed so many and have protected many, too. How does he compartmentalize his sins from his good deeds?
“If you were me, would you feel guilty?” I question, my voice hoarse from the tears.
He casts his stare down, contemplating that. “You’ve seen me shoulder responsibility for a death I didn’t cause. When I took down a ring, and that little girl was shot and killed right before I got into the building. Or when you were kidnapped when I was supposed to be protecting you… it’s hard not to take it fucking personally. Feeling that weight is what makes you human. But there’s a difference between feeling another’s pain and blaming yourself because someone else hurt them.”
He lifts his gaze, the intensity burning his eyes searing me from the inside out.
“The rose carved into my chest is proof that it’s never that simple. Sometimes I cling to that guilt because I don’t feel so far gone. But that doesn’t mean I won’t remind you every day that the blame you shoulder isn’t worthy of you.”
I close my eyes, a weak attempt to hold back another wave of tears. A sob works its way out of my throat, and I cover my mouth to contain it, but that’s not any more effective.
“She was trying to build a relationship with me,” I blither. “And I… I was being difficult about it.”
Zade grabs my hand and pulls me into him, and though I feel undeserving of the comfort, I take it anyway, allowing it to soak into my bones while I cry into his chest.
I’ve taken pleasure in killing before, but that doesn’t mean I live without a heart. And all I can think right now is how peaceful it must feel to be empty.
“Addie, wake up.”
A hand softly jerks my arm, tugging me out of a restless sleep. I crack open my bleary eyes, dry and irritated from the tears.
“Is she okay?” I ask instantly, not even fully awake yet, looking around to see my tired father sitting on the other couch, his face set in a frown.
Zade, Teddy, and Tanner stand before me, and I feel a tad like they’re evaluating a patient with the way they’re staring at me.
Teddy and his son look nearly identical. Both with soft green eyes, laugh lines, and square jawlines. The only difference is that Teddy has significantly grayer hair, and more wrinkles. Unlike Dr. Garrison, his presence is soothing, despite the words coming from his mouth.
“She’s not out of the woods yet,” Teddy answers gently. “The bullet just barely missed her heart, but thankfully, it went clean through and missed vital organs. She lost a lot of blood, and she’s still in danger of infection. She’s going to be out for some time, but I want you all to know you’re more than welcome to stay here,” he explains, casting a look at Dad.
I nod, though I find little relief. She’s alive, but that could easily change. “Do I need to give her blood or something?” I rasp, my throat just as dry
as my eyes.
“That’s okay, sweetheart. Your father is a match and kindly provided some, and I also have some bags of O negative stored if I should need it.”
Nodding again, I stand. “Can I see her?”
“Of course,” he acquiesces softly, lifting his arm to direct me forward. “I’m going to check on Sibby,” Zade says, pointing over his shoulder.
Frowning, I ask, “How long has it been?” I don’t remember how long I cried for until I eventually fell asleep in Zade’s arms.
“Only about three hours. She’s still sitting outside on the doorstep waiting for her henchmen.”
Nodding, I turn and head for the room, heart in my throat. And when I open the door and see her lying there so still and pale, I nearly choke on it.
The machine next to her beeps, her heart rate steady for now. There’s a chair beside her already, assumingly where my dad was sitting. He stayed in the room with her the entire time, and I feel a little guilty for that, too. I should’ve stayed with them.
But even now, being in here is threatening to send me back into that place with Dr. Garrison. I slide my hands through my hair, gripping the strands tightly in an effort to ground me. To keep me present.
I’m safe. Zade is right outside. And there isn’t an evil doctor trying to kidnap me.
Blowing out a breath, I sit in the recliner, and grab my mother’s hand. It’s cool to the touch, but she feels… alive. Not cold and stiff like a corpse, which brings me a small amount of comfort.
“You want to know what really fucking sucks?” I begin softly. “When I came home, there were a few times you had asked me to talk about what I went through, and I could never find the words to describe the terror of waking up to men holding you hostage, threatening to kill you. The unknown if you’re going to live or die. I told you that you wouldn’t understand. But I suppose you know what that feels like now, huh?
“And then, you’d try to explain to me the terror you felt when I was gone and not knowing whether I would live or die. And you said I’d never understand that, either… But that’s also not true anymore, is it?”
My eyes begin to burn again, and I release her hand to rub at them with the heels of my palms, silently threatening myself to keep it together. I’m tired of crying. It’s fucking exhausting.
Once I feel like I have it somewhat together, I drop them and grab her hand again.
“I’m holding your hand, but you’re still gone. And I don’t know whether you’re ever going to wake up. So I feel it now. And that… that just really fucking sucks.”
I sniff, rubbing the pad of my thumb against her hand, not sure if I’m comforting her or myself at this point.
“Dad hates me now, too. So there’s that,” I whisper. “I’ve shacked up with a criminal.”
I sputter out a weak laugh. “I’m a criminal. And I suppose that might be the one thing Zade is responsible for. Turning me into a trained killer. But you know what? I like it. I like being able to protect myself now. And I like that I don’t feel so weak anymore. Does that make me a bad person?”
I pause, frowning. “Don’t answer that. You’re going to ask me to stop. And you’re going to tell me you want the old Addie back. But she’s gone, Mom. And I know Dad disapproves of the new version of me, but I hope one day, you both will relearn to love who I’ve become.”
A single tear breaks free, and I curse the drop for betraying me. I quickly wipe it away, sniffling again.
“I’ll understand if you can’t. Sometimes I struggle with loving myself, too. But you know the one person who will? Who will always love me unconditionally? It’s my criminal boyfriend. And don’t you think that’s just fucking admirable?”
I smile without humor. “I think it’s only fair if we try, though. You decided that when I came home, I was worth loving as a broken shell of a person. I think you can learn to love me as someone who is fierce and strong, right? So now, I want you to come home, and whatever version of yourself you wake up to be, and whatever version you grow into—I’ll love you, too.”