How had it come to this? I wondered wretchedly.
My vision was blurred and I just couldn’t bring myself to focus on anything but that hand. It was limp in mine, but unscathed, and if I looked up, I knew there was a good chance I’d find answers that I wasn’t willing to accept. Somehow, uncertainty was something to cling to when the worst-case scenario was so much more likely than the alternative.
A paramedic was crouched on the other side of her, but I couldn’t look directly at him, couldn’t let myself see what he found as he swiftly checked her vitals.
The paramedic called out loudly. I didn’t catch what he said. My mind wasn’t processing words just then. I was still focused with a single-minded purpose on that lovely hand. There was no telling how long I crouched there, motionless with dread, trying to prolong the moments, telling myself she would be fine, but filled with a stark desolation that made it hard to even breathe.
The paramedic said something else, and I didn’t realize that he was speaking to me until someone nudged me rather impatiently from behind. I blinked at the man, not really seeing him as I tried to hear what he was saying.
“Please move, sir. We need to get her on a stretcher. You’re in the way.”
I moved automatically, so unused to being told what to do that I obeyed instinctively, knowing that no one would dare give me an order if it wasn’t important.
I only shifted back the slightest amount, but a stretcher was being pushed persistently against me until I backed away far enough to give them room to work.
I pushed back with desperation when I realized that they were going to put her on the stretcher.
I won’t let them take her away from me, I thought. I’ll die before I let them put her in a bag.
Big arms circled me from behind, pulling me back. “Let them work, James,” Tristan said gently into my ear. I hadn’t even realized that he’d followed us here.
“Sir, every second you delay us could be crucial to her survival,” the other paramedic said, clear impatience in his tone.
I let Tristan pull me back as I tried to process those words.
Survival, he’d said, as though she had a chance. They weren’t putting her in a bag; they were staunching the flow of blood from the side of her head and moving her.
He’d said survival, I thought again. They weren’t taking her away because she was dead. They thought they could help her.
I hovered close, my thoughts becoming slowly more coherent as I began to realize that she wasn’t dead, and God willing, she might survive. With desperation, I began to let myself hope, every inch of me trembling.
I gave them room to work, but I hovered as close as possible, desperate to see what they would do, fearing that if I so much as glanced away from her I might lose her.
I was moving around her, trying to get closer to her without getting in the way, and so I saw when the first paramedic shifted her head enough to apply pressure to her wound. I whimpered when I saw the bloody hole in the side of her face. It was up near the spot where her jaw met her ear, or at least I thought that it was. It was hard to tell with all of that blood.
I never took my eyes off her, and what they were doing to help her, but I began to hear the other sounds in the yard as still more paramedics arrived. I heard another man sobbing. It had been going on for a while, but I hadn’t really noticed it—I was making so much noise myself.
Javier, I thought, dawning horror making me search him out. He hovered over the fallen form of Stephan. A paramedic was busy staunching the flow of blood from Stephan’s chest, prepping him to get on a stretcher, another man helping him. No, I thought, please no. They both had to live.
I followed the stretcher closely as they moved her, and no one dared tell me not to. I watched her chest as she breathed faintly on the long drive to the hospital. It’s a miracle, I thought. He put that gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger, and if she survives it, I have witnessed a miracle. I made crazy promises to God on that long drive, promises to give him my soul in exchange for that miracle.
I wasn’t myself as I followed her unconscious form inside the hospital. I felt disconnected from reality as they worked on her. I began to fight when they wouldn’t let me follow her into surgery. Clark and Tristan had to snap me out of it. It wasn’t until the world came back into focus that I realized that I had been in shock.
“James, you need to be present for this,” Tristan was telling me, his voice firm, his eyes steady. “Your influence can help them. I guarantee it. You can’t follow her into surgery, but you can call in some favors.”
“Buy the fucking hospital if you want them to give Bianca, Stephan, and Blake their best chances,” Clark added.
The nurse was putting a blanket over my shoulders, saying soothing things, and shooting Tristan and Clark perplexed looks. Tristan understood me well, though, and his tactic couldn’t have been more brilliant. I didn’t have time to wallow in this, and certainly none to agonize about it. What I needed was action. The more the better. There were things I could do to help.
“Get the board of directors and the head of the hospital on the phone,” I told Clark. “If they ask what it concerns, tell them that someone is willing to donate an obscene amount of money for some special treatment.”
He nodded, and moved away, a small, satisfied smile gracing his mouth. I remembered that he’d said Blake, as well. I was relieved that she at least had a chance. I also knew that the names he hadn’t mentioned were surely dead. Paterson and Henry had fallen in their duty of protecting Bianca. I made a note to pay out the families of both men. It was the smallest consolation, but at least neither of them had left behind children, or wives.
My first call was to my offices in Vegas, and then New York—to my second-in-command. I enlisted all of the help at my disposal to get the ball rolling faster.
I woke with a violent jerk, my thoughts going immediately to Stephan. It was as though the sight of him lying there, lifeless, with bloody holes in his chest, had just been circling around in my head while I was out. I remembered everything as though it had happened just instants before, though I knew very well that I was in a hospital by the familiar sounds and smells.
I turned my head sharply, seeking out James. The short motion made my head ache and the side of my face burned sharply.
I felt my hand in his and knew that he’d stayed at my side for the ordeal. I saw in his weary, grief-stricken face how it had cost him, what he’d been put through.
“Stephan?” was the first word out of my mouth. It was agony to try to talk. I had to speak through my teeth, since I could barely open my mouth. I ignored the pain, focusing on James, desperate for an answer.
James raised his bloodshot, agonized eyes to mine. Those turquoise depths had never looked so relieved. He gasped in a breath, as though coming up for air. He blinked at me several times before he found his voice. “He’s recovering from surgery.”
I only heard his voice in one ear, and wondered vaguely if I’d lost the hearing in the other. But that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered to me but finding out about Stephan just then.
“How badly was he hurt? Will he be okay? I need to see him now,” I said, trying to sit up.
He paused for a long time to choose his words, and that scared me more than anything. “He’s in the ICU. He was badly hurt. No one can see him—“
I pulled the IV from my arm, sitting up. The pain in my head and ear temporarily darkened my vision and a dull roar started up in the ear that was working. “I need to see him now.”
I didn’t realize what a commotion I’d caused until I’d been wrestled back into the bed, and saw the amount of people that had gathered to restrain me.
My eyes sought out James while a nurse shoved needles into my arm. I felt terrible as I saw the tears running down his cheeks and the helpless look on his face. “Please, James. I have to see him.”
Finally he nodded. “Please don’t do that again. I’ll arrange for you to see him, but you must stay in your bed.”
I nodded, closing my eyes in relief. He would do as he said. He always had.
I didn’t sleep, but I didn’t open my eyes again until I felt my bed begin to move. A team of nurses surrounded me, James at my right, clutching my hand as he followed beside the wheeled hospital bed. “Who else made it?” I asked James, bracing myself for the answer.
“Blake was wounded badly, but they’re telling me now that she’ll make it.”
“So that means that…” I swallowed hard, finding it hard to finish the sentence.
“Paterson and Henry died before the paramedics could arrive. Your…father did as well.”
I processed that, blinking away tears. “You wouldn’t believe how many holes he had in his chest, and still he kept coming…”
“It was a bullet to the brain that ended him,” James told me. “Stephan came to just long enough to take him out. I owe him yet another debt that I can never repay.”
My chest burned and I shut my eyes, letting awful tears run down my cheeks. Of course Stephan had survived long enough to save me. My hero. I couldn’t lose him. My eyes shot back open as a thought occurred. “Did he see my father shoot me?”
“He must have. They deduced that your father must have gotten off the shot just before Stephan fired. They tell me your struggle is all that saved you. He shot into your cheek. There was damage, but he missed his target.”
I tried to touch the bandaged side of my face. “How on earth?”
“You’ve lost significant hearing in that ear, and they had to do surgery on your jaw. There will be scarring along your jaw and cheek, but we will make sure it’s minimized as much as possible. You will have the best plastic surgeons in the world at your disposal.”
He continued to talk, but I barely even heard him, my mind still on Stephan. I couldn’t care less about the scarring, my jaw, or even the loss of hearing. I was alive. The rest were details.
But Stephan… Stephan had to live. “How long was I out?”
“Tell me about Stephan’s wounds.”
“Both bullets missed his heart, if only barely, but one punctured a lung, and he’s had some internal bleeding that has persisted. The doctor who performed the surgery believes that it was a success, but he says that Stephan won’t be out of danger until his vitals stabilize. It’s been very touch and go. They tell me he’s improved, followed by a decline, but he’s getting the best care available, and he’s a healthy young man, so they say we can be hopeful, even though he’s not yet stabilized.”
“If I see him, if I speak to him, it will help,” I said, more hopeful than certain. “If he knows I made it, he’ll pull through. He would have been devastated if he watched my father shoot me. This will help.”
My vision was completely blurred with tears as they rolled my bed beside Stephan’s. They wheeled me as close as possible, my feet pointed in the direction of his headrest. They were considerate enough to bring our unencumbered hands close. Javier was on the other side of him, his head bent over his other IV covered hand.