I grab the tree again and don’t even think about the drop, jumping to the ground, my bones rattling with the impact. That’s when I see Lara, flat on the ground, with my neighbor and trusted friend huddled over her. I’m rushing toward her when a glint of something to my right catches my eye. I stop, searching the line of trees and bushes separating us from another house. I go low and move back to the edge of the house, where the flames have yet to consume it, smoke billowing just above my head. And I wait. The glint comes again and I don’t wait for another confirmation. Whoever set that fire is watching.

I gasp and sit up, my heart thundering in my chest, but I am still in that nightmare, replaying the moment I’d found the bastard who’d set the fire, plowing him with my body and going down on top of him. Remembering the struggle and my hands on his throat. Choking the life out of him, and enjoying it. Fucking loving it.

“Chad,” Gia says softly, and I become aware of her lying next to me, her body pressed to mine, her hand on my chest over my thundering heart, the moon casting a warm glow over us from outside the windows. “I’m here,” she murmurs. “You’re here, not there.”

I grab her hand and look down at it, so small and feminine, so fragile, and I don’t want her to be hurt. Not by Sheridan and not by me. She needs to understand how bad this is, how deeply embedded in hell she’s become. “I killed the man who set our house on fire,” I confess, without looking at her. “I choked him to death and then threw him in the burning house. My only regret is that I didn’t throw him in alive.”

She surprises me by climbing onto my lap and cupping my face, and when I look into her eyes I find understanding, not condemnation. “He would have killed again. He might have come after you and your sister.”

“That wasn’t what I was thinking. I just wanted him to die for killing my family.”

“No one knows how they’ll respond in the midst of that kind of hell. No one can judge until they’ve lived the same nightmare.”

She presses her lips to mine, a whisper of unspoken acceptance in the touch. I expect that burning need to fuck away my edginess to overcome me, but it does not. Instead, there is only a calm I do not remember feeling in what seems like a lifetime, a sweet sense of rightness that only she, it seems, can stir. I roll Gia to her side, me on my back again. She settles on my chest, her leg tangled with mine, her hand on my heart.

By the time I’m drifting back to sleep, I decide that she’s right. Alone isn’t better, but with the smell of smoke still burning in my nose as if I really was in that nightmare, I know that sometimes it’s the right thing to be.

MORNING COMES, AND as tempting as it is to visit the house where Amy is living, I resist, aware of the many eyes that will be on her, looking for me. I won’t risk being spotted and ruining my chances of getting her out of Manhattan safely. Instead, Gia and I research Liam Stone, looking for connections to Sheridan, or anyone who would want the cylinder. At least where Liam Stone is concerned, I am both relieved and concerned when we find nothing to better aid my decision as to how to handle him and Amy.

Worse, perhaps, is Jared coming up with the same result of “nothing” as he digs for more on Rollin, who we both worry is a sleeping giant that could come back to bite us in the ass. Why fake his death? Where is he, and what is his role in all this?

By late evening, the three of us are sitting at the glass-topped kitchen table, eating grilled chicken sandwiches we’ve ordered from the concierge service, and going over the plan for the next day. By the time bedtime arrives I’m keyed up, eager to see my sister again, even from a distance.

I use Gia to burn off the energy, but I’m starting to realize that what I do with her is not the kind of fucking I’d do with other women. It’s not a blind lust I use as an outlet. It is passionate, burning-up-the-sheets sex, punched with every piece of emotional baggage I own and actually allow Gia to see. When it’s over, we are sated, exhausted, and I am certain I will sleep peacefully, but I do not. I have the nightmare again, the memory ripping at the frayed edges of my mind and doing more damage. This time, though, I somehow manage to wake without disturbing Gia.

For two hours, I stare at the ceiling, thinking through every option I have to end six years of hell, until I can no longer stand to circle the problem without answers. I quietly slip away from Gia and enter the bathroom, decorated in the same black and gray as my mind. Bypassing the oval black tub that tells me the designer was in a really fucking bad mood when he got to this room, I turn on the shower and step in. Before I can pull the glass door shut, Gia steps inside, wrapping her arms around me.

She tilts her chin up to look at me. “You aren’t okay, are you?”

In a blink, I have her against the wall, burying myself inside her, trying to drive away my demons. But though it’s fast and hard and wild, it’s only a small escape, one that doesn’t erase the memories of those nightmares, and I know why. I pull out of Gia and stare down at her. “To answer your question: No, I’m not okay. I’m about two days from telling my sister I’m the reason our parents are dead.”

It’s the first time I’ve said it out loud, and I swear the words linger on my tongue like boiling acid. And suddenly I am angry at Gia for understanding me instead of hating me.

I turn away and reach for the door. “Chad,” Gia says, confusion etched in her voice.

“We need to get dressed,” I say without turning. “Dress to blend in with a crowd if you need to.” I step out of the shower and grab a towel, leaving her the way I should have in the first place. Alone.

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones The Secret Life of Amy Bensen Romance
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