“You need to say you were mugged and don’t remember anything. I’ll handle the rest.”

“My name . . . Ashley . . .”

“No. Be Gia. I’m Chad. Just say you remember nothing. I’ll handle it.”

“Thank you,” she squeaks, more tears running down her cheeks.

I stroke the dampness with my thumb. “Why are you crying?”

“Scared. I’m . . . scared. ”

“Don’t be scared. I’m right here. Help is coming.”

Sirens sound in the distance, throwing me back in time to smoke and fire and death. I cup her body to me, pushing myself to my feet. “I need to get her to the front door.”

Tellar backs out of the stall, moving to the exit to hold it open. I rush out into the hallway and it’s a blur. I don’t see people. I don’t see things. One minute I’m holding Gia, and the next she is lying on the sidewalk with emergency personnel all around her.

“What’s her name?” a paramedic asks me.

“Gia. Gia Hudson.”

A police officer appears, and Tellar and I are giving a statement when Gia starts shouting my name. I rush toward her, trying to get her to lie down, while she tries to sit up. The instant her eyes meet mine, she relaxes and I go down between two men, taking her hand. “I’ve got you. I’m here.”

“Don’t leave me.”

“I won’t,” I promise, relieved as they start an IV. “As long as you don’t leave me. You hear me? Don’t leave me.” But she doesn’t answer, her lashes lowering, dark half-moons on her too-pale cheeks. She is unmoving, so still, that I watch her chest, savoring every tiny lift I find, every piece of evidence she’s alive.

The next few minutes become a whirlwind that finds me in the back of an ambulance, Gia having no idea I’m there. I stare at the monitors as I had her chest, terrified by how slow her heartbeat is one moment, and how rapid the next.

“Why is that happening?” I ask the paramedic traveling with us, a surehanded man in his late thirties.

“Most likely an impact of whatever drug she was given. We’re close to the hospital.”

The implication being that she needs to be there now. Holding her hand, waiting for the drive to end, I promise myself I will never feel this helpless again. Never. Again. And while killing every member of the consortium had once felt like it would invite revenge seekers and more trouble, right now that plan sounds pretty damn good.

The ambulance stops and the doors are jerked open. I exit and watch as they rush Gia into the hospital, at least five people surrounding her, and there’s no mistaking their urgency. The instant we are inside the building, she is rushed to the back room, and I am left staring at the double doors.

Alone.

“Any news?” Tellar asks, stepping to my side, and I can’t believe the relief I feel at this stranger’s presence.

“No news. She didn’t wake back up on the ride over, and they seemed to be waiting for her when we got here.”

“That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”

“It means they knew she is in real trouble.”

“No. It means they were making sure she never got into real trouble. I did a lot of years in Special Ops. With an unknown toxin, time is considered critical. And we acted quickly, and so did they—not to mention Liam’s a huge donor here. He’ll have a lot of pull to get her whatever she needs as fast as it can be received. I know you don’t trust any of us, and in your shoes, I’d feel the same, but Liam Stone’s a good man and he loves your sister.”

“Chad!”

At the sound of Amy’s voice, I turn to find her running toward me, and I want to wring Liam’s neck for bringing her here when she should be hiding somewhere, protected. Safe. I fully intend to say as much, but she flings herself at me, hugging me, and I am so damn glad she is alive and well that I hold her and don’t let go.

“How is she?” Amy asks, leaning back, hugging herself, and shivering. “I left my coat at the coffee shop.”

My mind flashes back to the bathroom, to Gia curled against me. So cold, she’d said, and now I’m cold straight to the bone, yet somehow my frozen heart is being painfully thawed.

“Chad.” I jolt again at the sound of Amy’s voice, looking down and realizing her hand is on my arm, and I’ve spaced out while Liam fucking Stone has all but painted a target on her chest by bringing her here. “Are you okay?” she says, sounding worried. “Is Gia okay?”

“Gia wasn’t good when they took her back.”

“Do you know what drug she was given?”

“Not yet,” I say.”

Amy stares at me a long moment. “You love her.”

Love. I repeat the word in my mind, but it settles in my chest, heavy. Painful. “Love isn’t a word I’ve allowed myself to use with anyone but you in a very long time.”

She studies me several beats. “But the possibility is there and won’t go away.”

“We barely know each other,” I argue, though she is right when there’s every reason for her to be wrong.

“And yet somehow she feels more right to you than anything has in six years. That’s how it was for me with Liam when I met him. It was illogical. It was terrifying because of all the reasons I had to fear strangers. But it wouldn’t go away. And I didn’t want him to go away no matter how many times I told him I did.”

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