Taiwan. It’s a long way from Texas. “What about paperwork?”
“I’ve arranged everything. We’ll have what we need by morning. We need to do this.”
This is the ultimate test, the confirmation I trust him completely, and I reach deep, doing what I’ve always done to survive, and what Liam claims I’ve done well. I listen to my instincts and they say I belong with this man.
I inhale and nod. “Yes. Okay.”
The trust I’ve given Liam seems to deepen our bond further and every nervous moment I have, he seems to anticipate with a touch, a look. A moment no one else could have with me. Moments I had never thought I’d share with anyone, ever.
Bedtime comes and I climb into bed. Liam brings my purse and sets it next to me. I frown and he lays a small leather case on the bed. My pulse leaps even before he unsnaps it and shows me what’s inside. “It’s a Smith & Wesson .38. Compact and easy to fit in your purse.” He presses it into my hand. “Comfortable?”
I close my eyes, swallowing the knot in my throat. “As comfortable as needing this is going to get.” I check it, confirm it’s loaded, and close it back in the case. “Thank you.” I stick it in the black Chanel purse and it fits perfectly.
Liam sets my bag on the nightstand, and climbs into bed with me. “I want to feel your skin,” he murmurs, stripping away my gown and his boxers, and wrapping me in his strong arms, my back to his front. But this moment isn’t about sex and passion, of which we have plenty for one another. It’s about hope, and fear, and the kind of loss neither of us want to feel again.
“Safety first,” he reminds me, stroking my hair in that soothing way he does. “Answers second. I’ve got you, baby. I promise. I’ve got you and I’ve got us.”
My lashes lower, letting the scent of him, familiar and warm like his arms, ease the tension in my body. He’s right. Safety first, but I can’t escape this horrible feeling gnawing at my gut. Like once I leave, I’ll never come back. I’ll never come back. Unable to fully sleep, I drift in and out of that thought. Once I leave...
Suffocating from the smoke pouring into my room, I shove open the window and suck in fresh air but I’m not sure I want to breathe. My mother...she’ s stopped screaming. I don’t know what that means. What does it mean?
“Mom! Mom, answer me!”
“Jump, Lara!” my brother shouts. “Jump now.”
“Not without you and Mom and Dad!” I shout back at him, angry at something, everything. Afraid of the orange flames licking a path through my door, ready to consume it as they had the hallway.
“You see the flames, damn it,” he answers. “I can’t get to you. I’m going out another window. I’ll meet you outside.”
The flames move closer and I perch on the edge of the window. He didn’t say anything about Mom and Dad. “Mom’s okay? Did Dad get to her? Did he get her out?”
“Goddamnit, Lara. How many times do I have to tell you to jump out of the f**king window! I’m running out of time. Get out so I can get out.”
The flames jump to my bed and I scream. I barely remember perching on the window sill but I’m grateful for my sweats and tennis shoes as I wobble and have to catch myself. It’s dark and I can’t see below but I know the roof slants and there’s a tree just below my bedroom. Heat sears my back and I yelp, climbing out onto the roof and squatting, clinging to the window’s ledge to keep from sliding into the darkness. Praying the fire trucks will come before I jump. Why aren’t they coming? Why aren’t they here?
Flames flash through the center of the window and I let go of it, sliding into a near tumble. Somehow, I right myself flat on my stomach to watch flames eating away at my curtains.
“Please get them out, Chad. Please. All of you get out.”
Looking over my shoulder, I scoot farther down the slant and my feet catch on the gutter, and it almost gives. Cautiously, I inch around and manage to get to a squat. It’s dark, so very dark, and I try to gauge how close the tree limb is. At least I can’t see how high it is. I hate how high it is.
I reach for the limb when a blast from behind me shakes my bones and I’m thrown from the roof.
Gasping, I sit and the sound of screeching tears through my ears. Alarm. Fire alarm. Smoke bites viciously at my nostrils. Oh God. Oh God. No. I start to shake all over. This can’t be happening. I blink Liam into view, standing over me, shouting something at me. I don’t know what. I just know the house is on fire. The house is on fire.
Liam curses and throws the covers off of our na**d bodies, wrapping an arm around my neck and pulling me to him, his mouth finding my ear while the alarm remains brutally loud. “Get dressed, and remember, I’ve got you, baby. I’ve got you and I’ve got us.” He lets go of me and he’s out of the bed, buck na**d and headed for the hallway.
He’s got us. Brave and heroic words that he believes, but so did my brother in his own way. So did my father. My heart lodged in my throat, I scramble off the bed, and my adrenaline is pumping but I am remarkably calm. I will not crumble. I will not be defeated. And I will not jump out the window alone again.
I dart for the closet and tug on gray sweats and a t-shirt, and it’s impossible to escape the memory of doing the exact same thing six years ago. I’m just shoving my feet into tennis shoes when Liam appears in the closet doorway, already dressed in the same black sweatsuit he’d worn on Saturday.