“I just need a hug,” she murmurs before pulling away and smiling reassuringly at Van.
“You’re a sweet girl, bebe,” I whisper in her ear. “Who has Sam?”
“He’s with Mama. She took him home with her. I called Cindy and asked her to watch the inn for tonight.”
I inwardly cringe, but nod. Cindy has been Gabby’s friend since grade school.
And she spent an out-of-control, mistake of a night in my bed.
“How are you feeling?” I ask, as I lean in and plant my lips on Van’s forehead. She’s cool to the touch.
No fever from shock or infection.
“Sore,” she says, and smiles as I pull away. Strong women. “I’ll be okay.”
I kiss Kate and drag my knuckles down her smooth cheek before sitting on the bed at Van’s hip.
The looks that Van and Gabby exchange aren’t lost on me. They’ll grill me later.
“I have news.” I take Van’s hand in mine and look her dead in the eye.
I exhale, wondering how much information I should give her. “He’s in custody.”
She closes her eyes in relief and her body seems to sag. “Thank God.”
“He won’t hurt you ever again.” She frowns and looks back into my eyes.
“Is he in custody, or in the morgue?”
I grin ruefully. “He’s not dead. Unfortunately.”
“But he’s hurt.”
Strong and smart.
I nod, but don’t elaborate.
“You’ve never lied to me, E. Not once.”
“So, why are you now?”
“I’m not lying.”
Gabby snorts and I send her a hard stare, shutting her up.
“You’re not telling me everything. How did you find him? Was he arrested?”
“I didn’t find him.”
She tilts her head to the side, and there she is. My Van. She narrows her eyes, and I know I’m in for it.
“What. The. Fuck.”
“Ben found him.” Her eyes widen, but I continue. “I haven’t seen him yet. But I saw Ben. Swollen knuckles, sweaty. A little blood.”
“Don’t you dare defend that fucker,” Gabby says angrily.
“No, I want to know if it was Ben’s blood!”
I smirk. “Honey, nobody makes Ben bleed.”
She sighs in relief, but then frowns again. “So, Ben called the cops?”
“I honestly don’t know how it went down. I’m assuming we’ll find out tomorrow. Ben found him, and made him see that turning himself in was best for Lance’s well-being.”
Van’s lower lip quivers, making my gut tighten. “He did that for me.”
“We would do anything for you, bebe.” She grips onto my hand with her uninjured one and squeezes, holding my gaze in hers, and an entire silent conversation passes between us.
I love you. Thank you. I don’t know what I would do without you.
I love you. Always. You’re welcome. You don’t ever have to know what it is to live without us.
“Go home,” she whispers instead. “Take Kate home. She’s tired, but she won’t admit it.”
“I’m not tired,” Kate lies easily.
“She’s lying,” Van says.
“I know,” I reply with a grin and glance over at Gabby, who still has tears in her eyes. “You got this?”
“Of course.” She grins, the dimples in her cheeks showing. “Vanny’s stuck with me all night. It’ll be like when we were kids and I’d sneak into her room and sleep with her because my room was haunted.”
“Your room wasn’t haunted,” Van replies with a roll of the eyes. “You just liked my bigger bed.”
“My room was haunted,” she insists, talking to Kate now. “My things would be mysteriously moved. I heard voices.”
“Those voices are in that hard head of yours,” I reply and grin when she sticks her tongue out at me, just like she did when she was small. “But I am going to take Kate home now.”
“Kate appreciates it,” Kate says sarcastically. “She also loves it when you talk about her like she’s not here.”
“She’s testy,” Van says. “She’s been bossing the nurses around all day.”
“I’m right here,” Kate says.
“I know how to reel that bossy side in,” I assure Van, and laugh when Kate mutters right here, people. “We will check in on you in the morning.”
I take Kate’s hand in mine and kiss it as I lead her out of Van’s room and into the hallway. As soon as we’re out of view, she pulls her hand from mine and walks ahead of me to the elevator, keeping her distance as we wait.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
She simply nods, her eyes trained on the door of the elevator.
I move to brush her hair behind her ear, but she flinches away from my reach. My first reaction is frustration. Does she think that I would hurt her? But then she turns her sad green eyes to me and just shakes her head, and I relax.
It’s not me. She’s hanging on by a fucking thread.
I nod once and keep my distance to the car. Halfway home, I try to take her hand in mine, but she pulls away and clasps her hands tightly in her lap. Her whole body is tense. Her eyes trained on her lap.
For the first time in my life, I want to make it better for a woman. I want to hold her and protect her, and she’s not mine.
She’s never going to be mine. And the thought of her leaving makes me feel…
I don’t know what, it just makes me feel.
I park and she jumps out of the car, walking quickly to her loft.
“Kate. You’re coming up to my place.”
“No. I’m not.” She doesn’t stop walking.
“Yes, cher, you are.”
She stops and turns to glare at me. “No, I’m not. I don’t want you tonight, Eli.”
“You’re getting me.”
“You know what?” she rails, her eyes fierce, her gorgeous hair a riot of curls around her face. She advances toward me, anger vibrating in every muscle of her body. “I don’t need this. I don’t need another man telling me what I will and will not do.”
“You shouldn’t be alone.”
“Shouldn’t. Won’t. Can’t.” She gets up in my face, and I’ve never seen anything like her. She’s on fire, standing out here on the sidewalk in the French Quarter, yelling at me. “You’re an asshole!”