After another puff, I say, “Yesterday, before lunch, and yes, I know it’s fucked. I just…need something to get me by while Lia’s here.”

Understanding dawns on Aidan and he steps closer, saying under his breath, “Luc, I can get you something. Fuck, you must be about to come apart at the seams.”

In truth, I’ve gone far longer than three days without cocaine. I’m normally not a daily user; I could go weeks if I needed to. It is, however, my go-to answer for major stress, and Aidan is correct: three days under the type of pressure I’ve been dealing with has been hell, but I’m fighting it. “No, I’m trying to come off it. I’ll just keep smoking these nasty things and eating a pack of gum afterwards to combat the taste. I think I brushed my teeth fifty times yesterday.”

“Yeah, okay, man. Let me know if you change your mind.” I wonder idly why all of my friends are always so quick to offer to supply me. Maybe they should have staged an intervention long ago instead of enabling me. I offer him a cigarette, knowing he smokes on occasion—usually promoted by stress, as well—but he shakes his head, dropping to one of the cement benches. “What are you doing?” He asks so quietly I almost miss it.

I turn to face him, raising a brow. “I thought we already established that.”

Rubbing his face, he shakes his head. “No, what are you doing in this situation with this girl? Luc, you’re the strongest person I’ve ever known, but you can’t be here again. Lia reminded both of us of Cassie almost from the start, and now you’re back at the exact place where you almost lost it all before.”

Anger races through my veins, pissed he would dare to approach this subject right now. Feeling the need to hit back, I say, “You forgot one big difference. I’m not here because my fucking throat has been slit by my crazy girlfriend.”

Aidan blanches, looking as if he’s taken a blow to the face. “Luc…that’s not fair…”

“What the fuck was fair about the whole thing, Aidan?” I snap, still angry over this whole conversation. “Was it fair that Cassie killed my child, almost killed me, and damn near killed herself? Was it fair to you that you were there to witness most of it? And it sure as hell isn’t fair to Lia to compare her to Cassie! That woman lying in there beaten all to hell by her fucking stepfather has never done anything to deserve what’s happened to her. I have no idea why everyone suddenly feels the need to warn me, put a label on my relationship with her, or compare her to Cassie, but I’m sick of it. I’m not leaving her here alone, and I’ll destroy anyone who attempts to harm her. As my employee, I need you to run my company while I’m here, but as my friend, I need you to support my decisions. Even if they don’t make sense to you.”

Aidan looks at the ground for a moment before raising his head and grinning. “Damn, man, when did you become such a drama queen? Yeah, I’ll run your company, probably better than you, but when this is over, I better get fucking Employee of the Month or shit’s going to hit the fan.”

I barely miss a beat at Aidan’s quick-fire change of subject and mood. Sometimes when things get the better of him, he starts talking about the past, but just as quickly, he pushes it away. In truth, he can’t deal with it any better than I can. The difference in us, though, is that Aidan is still very much tied to the past through his love for Cassie. He cannot walk away from her; therefore, he has never been able to move on. Sometimes, I think that out of everything that happened between Cassie and me, Aidan might actually be the one who has suffered the most for it. He’ll never leave Cassie, though, so trying to convince him to move on is useless. We all have our crosses to bear in life, and his is tied solidly to the girl who was once one of us. I’m not even sure he loves her in the way he thinks he does anymore. His need to save her colors everything he does.

We talk for another few moments before I start to get restless. I don’t like leaving Lia for long, and I want to be there when she awakes. Aidan and I continue to discuss the most pressing business matters as we walk back through the hallways of the hospital and toward Lia’s room. When we are halfway there, I hear a commotion coming from that direction and take off running to the partially open doorway. When I step inside, I’m met by utter pandemonium. Lia is not only awake but also standing in the middle of the room, wires hanging off her body as she fights against a nurse who is holding her arms down. Another nurse circles her with a syringe, trying to talk to Lia soothingly. “What is going on here?” I say, but my words are lost as Lia screams, sounding weak and terrified.

“Fuck,” Aidan breathes from behind me.

As I really look at what’s going on, I immediately understand part of what is upsetting Lia. She’s being restrained. To someone so recently overpowered by another, this is the worst form of torture to her right now. Moving in front of Lia, I say, “Release her; you’re scaring her.”

The nurse holding Lia ignores me while the one attempting to sedate her says, “Sir, please step out of the room. We’ll handle this.”

As if the sound of my voice finally reaches her, Lia lurches forward, trying to extend an arm toward me. “Luc, I need to get it off! Please, help me!” I have no idea what she’s talking about, but I know she needs me and that they’re hurting her more than they are helping. I ask them to release her a few more times before I’ve finally had enough.

“Take your fucking hands off her right now!” I roar. “If you hurt her, I’ll own you and this hospital!” Both nurses freeze, seeming too shocked to move for a moment. The one holding Lia drops her arms, stepping back uncertainly. Lia takes a few halting steps toward me before I quickly cover the rest of the distance, scooping her into my arms as gently as I can. There is blood dripping from her hand caused by the IV, which she dislodged during her struggle. I know she needs medical attention immediately, but I also know she needs to feel safe before that happens. She curls into my arms as if knowing I’ll protect her from the world. I perch on her bed, juggling her on my lap before finally getting us both settled. “I’ve got you, baby,” I whisper against the crown of her head. “I won’t let anyone hurt you. Shhh,” I continue to soothe her until her body relaxes against mine.

By this time, two security guards stand in the doorway, along with Aidan and my aunt. The two nurses seem to have calmed down somewhat, and I motion to the one with the syringe. It kills me to have to do it, but I understand that unless Lia is sedated, they’ll probably be unable to reattach her IV lines without hurting or subduing her. I continue to speak softly to Lia, trying to reassure her with my presence. When the needle goes into her arm, she flinches but doesn’t try to pull away. I can feel her breathing grow heavier, and just as I believe she is asleep, her eyes pop open and she grips my arm. “Don’t leave me, Luc,” she pleads in a voice that slays me.

Tags: Sydney Landon Lucian & Lia Billionaire Romance