I gripped his fingers in mine, squeezing. “I made it, Stephan. I’m fine. You saved me again, but you need to wake up now. You were hurt, but it’s nothing that you can’t survive. Please, wake up.” I got louder as I spoke, my voice rough with emotion.
He didn’t so much as twitch. I glanced at his heart rate monitor, but could make no sense of it. I glanced at the closest nurse. “Have his vitals improved?” I asked her.
She pursed her lips. “They haven’t altered.”
They let me linger for a few more minutes, and I murmured soothingly to Stephan. He never responded, never moved. I hadn’t really thought he would, but I felt a crushing disappointment as they wheeled me away from him. Some part of me had been arrogantly hoping that the sound of my voice, and the knowledge that I had survived, would be enough to rouse him. He had been my last thought as I’d blacked out, and my first thought on waking. Knowing him as I did, I had just assumed that seeing me fall had been like that for him. Perhaps it really was beyond his control. That thought defeated me more than anything.
I drifted off as they carted me back to my own room, and I knew by the floaty feeling that it was a drug induced sleep.
When I woke again, James was watching for it. He was speaking to me the instant my eyes blinked open groggily.
“He’s improved. Less than two hours after you spoke to him, he opened his eyes for the first time, and they tell me his vitals have finally begun to improve. The doctor went so far as to say that there is a good chance that he will pull through.”
“How long was I asleep for?”
“Only four hours. Stephan’s first word was your name. He was just as frantic to see you, though he was in no condition to pull his own IV out.”
There was a reprimand in his voice, and I could hardly blame him. I studied him, trying to see just how much he’d been damaged by it all, because I knew for a certainty that he had.
“You were right,” I told him, “I shouldn’t have gone back to the house.” I’d been so sure he was just overreacting, but somehow his instincts had been dead on. I’d never dreamed that my father could still get to me with so many people protecting me, but he had managed to beat all reasonable odds. “Are you furious with me?”
His face went a little slack, as though the question had caught him completely off guard. “The thought never even occurred. There’s no room left in me for fury. After thinking you were dead, then realizing that you would live, I’m only capable of relief. We may have to start going to church now.”
“Church?” I asked, perplexed.
“Yes. I prayed for a miracle, and you survived.”
I supposed that it was all rather miraculous, and I was more grateful for my life than I’d ever been after the ordeal, but I had more questions. “Was my father on something? He took so much damage, and still he kept coming.” I spoke slowly and carefully. Speaking would be rough for a while, and I knew that my words were hard to understand.
James nodded. “Yes. He was on several somethings. Some mix of crystal meth and bath salts. Your father ambushed Henry, then beat him to death with a large rock a few blocks from your house. He took his gun, and walked to your house. He jumped the fence in back and landed on Paterson, who shot him. He shot him back, a point blank shot to the chest. They said it killed Paterson almost instantly, partially because of the type of bullets in the gun, and the range of the shot.”
“Blake confronted him, and shot him again in the chest. They deduced that this made him drop his gun. He then picked up Paterson’s gun. This was a smaller gun, with lighter ammo, and what he shot all three of you with, which is most likely why you survived. Henry’s gun is the one that Stephan found and used to shoot your father in the head. Let’s just say that gun had more effect on a giant, drug-crazed man, especially since Stephan had such unerring aim. The bodyguards were trained to shoot for the heart, but Stephan went for a headshot.”
I nodded, thankful that he’d given me a full explanation, but devastated by all of the senseless loss. “Those poor men.”
James nodded gravely. “Yes, I know. So much went wrong. It’s hard to imagine that one man wreaked so much havoc when he was outnumbered like that, but they say the mix of drugs gave him a superhuman burst of strength. None of us considered that possibility, much to my everlasting regret.”
I squeezed his hand, which enveloped mine warmly. I searched his beautiful eyes, knowing that he felt a crushing guilt like I did. “I’m so sorry, James. If I’d had any ide—“
“Don’t,” he interrupted. He gentled his voice, and his eyes. “Please don’t. We can’t take anything back, just as we couldn’t have seen the future. All we can do is be thankful that it wasn’t worse. When I first set foot into that backyard, I was convinced that my worst nightmare had come to fruition. I’ll never stop being grateful that you survived that. We are unspeakably lucky that there weren’t more lives lost. All three of you were critical just days ago, and are now on the road to recovery.”
It was several days before Stephan was moved from the ICU, and we were both awake to see each other. We had a teary-eyed reunion, clutching hands and sobbing like babies.
“I was so afraid that you wouldn’t recover,” I gasped.
He gave a strangled half-laugh, half-sob. “You were afraid? I watched him shoot you in the head. I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover from the sight.”
I winced at the visual. “But you saved me.”
“Always, Buttercup,” he said, squeezing my hand hard. “Always.”
He continued, quickly switching to a lighter topic. “Would it be tacky for me to get engaged just over a week after you did?”
I looked around for Javier, taken aback at the question. We were completely alone, even James giving us a moment of privacy.
“You’re engaged?” I questioned.
He shook his head, wearing his most boyish grin. “No, but I want to propose. I wanted to get your blessing first.”
I gave him an exasperated look, then laughed. “Yes. If you want to be silly and ask for my blessing, then you have it. Always. Nothing would make me happier.”
“It’s going to be smooth sailing from here on out, Bee. We’ve earned it.”
I returned his carefree smile, hoping that he might be right.
NEARLY ONE YEAR LATER
I took deep breaths. I counted. I made my whole body relax. I was nervous—very nervous, and skittish, but much less so, than I’d thought I would be for this day.
“Deep breaths, Buttercup,” Stephan said gently. I couldn’t look at him today. He, more than anyone, made me emotional today. There was just so much joy in his eyes, so much barely suppressed excitement. It made me want to bawl like a baby and I had just sat through a painstakingly elaborate makeup process. Not to mention that my goal for the day was not to lose it in front of four hundred wedding guests.
“If you make her mess up her make-up right now, I will kick you,” Lana told him, but her tone was pure affection. Stephan and Lana had taken to each other like, well—like Stephan and I. She threatened to steal him from me nearly every time the three of us got together.
Lana looked stunning, of course, in a lavender dress that made those astonishing purple eyes stand out even more. She’d picked the color. As was her custom, she’d taken over that entire part of the process. I hadn’t balked. On the contrary, I’d only been relieved. This sort of event was well out of my area of expertise. I had never been the girl who dreamed of this, let alone ever thought of planning one of the things. I had gratefully taken all of the help I could get.
“Bianca, you should know that I’ve been put on guard duty by your determined bridegroom. He said that if you tried to run, I would get to tackle you.”
That made me laugh, and relieved some of the tension, as it was meant to.
“I don’t know if anyone’s told you this,” she continued. “But I have quite the reputation as a kick-ass fighter in Maui, so I wouldn’t test me if I were you.”
Not only had someone told me that story, everyone had. Lana’s Tutu, and her auntie, and even Akira loved to tell that story in great detail, and often. One girl fight and they thought she was the lightweight champ…
Lana wasn’t finished, but she’d moved on from Stephan and me. She had an elegant finger pointed at the two mischievous pixies who wore gowns that matched her own. “And you. The Debauched Duo. You had better stay away from my brother at the reception. I saw the way you were eyeing him. Don’t even think about it. I have plans for him that involve him finally settling down, and the two of you wouldn’t know settled if it invited you to a threesome!”
They just giggled, completely unfazed.
“We already bagged that one,” Marnie gasped.
“Double teamed him after the rehearsal dinner!” Judith said.
“He was awesome,” Marnie added.
Lana rubbed her temples. “Oh, God! I don’t know who’s more hopeless. Him or you two?”
“Them,” Jessa added from where she was getting her hair finished up. “I’ve known them for years. Definitely them.”
“They told me a story about seducing a priest one time,” Danika told Lana, giving her a sympathetic look. “Your brother is easy, but these two are nymphos. So if we’re talking hopeless, I vote them.”
“I swear I saw them eyeing up the minister that’s performing the nuptials,” Sophia added helpfully, adjusting the sleeve of her own lavender gown.
“I’m almost positive they were trying to hit on my dad last night, before they disappeared with Lana’s brother,” Jackie added from where she was working on my hem. I glanced down at her as she continued. “My poor father’s been a widower for five years, and he’s approaching sixty. They could have given him a heart attack.”
Marnie and Judith just giggled, enjoying the banter.
It all helped. I needed distraction. It wasn’t that I had doubts about James. I was sure of him, sure that I needed him, and that he was good for me. It was just the actual marriage part that got me scared. And the over the top wedding, which had started out so small, wasn’t helping. It had just sort of built into this thing that I couldn’t control anymore, though I wasn’t sure I ever could have. We should have eloped…
I never thought I’d be that person with more bridesmaids than I could keep track of, but there it was. I had opened my heart to more than Stephan, and it had opened like a dam breaking. There were so many people that I valued in my life now. My heart was no longer a block of ice with one thawed part just for Stephan. It was warm in my chest now. I was alive as I never could have been if I hadn’t met James. He had been right from the start. We were made for each other, and he had made me a better woman, a more complete one, when I’d let him into my heart.
I had calmed considerably by the time Javier peeked his head into the room.
We had decided on an outdoor wedding in the late spring, because we both loved the idea of a wedding amidst blooming flowers. James had chosen Wyoming, insisting that there was no other place we could have our vows, since this was where he swore I’d fallen in love with him. He claimed that I’d fallen for his mind-boggling equestrian skills first… I hadn’t been able to change his mind on that idea—I’d even admitted to him just how quickly I really had fallen for him, but he heard none of it. I didn’t really mind. I couldn’t think of a place I’d have preferred for such a beautiful day.