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Authors: Laurelin Paige

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BOOK: Last Kiss
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Reeve rubbed at the back of his neck, nodding, taking it in.

“When she wakes up,” Brent said, “she might be wanting some kind of upper, if you know what I mean. She was pretty fond of the white stuff when she was here last.”

Reeve shook his head. “Joe – the guy who brought her here – said he thinks she’s not into that right now. He’s pretty sure she’s moved onto opiates.”

So that’s what he’d talked to Joe about. He was looking out for Amber, and I was grateful. And I was also selfish because it was disappointing to realize he hadn’t been asking about me.

Jeb considered, raising a brow. “Heroin?”

Reeve shook his head again. “Codeine. Oxy maybe. She got beat up pretty bad, but he said she’s been begging for a pill every two hours.”

“Do you know if he gave her anything?” Jeb asked.

“Some Vicodin. He said he gave it as directed to help with her pain. The last was about four hours ago.”

Jeb seemed to do a mental calculation. Satisfied with his result, he said, “I just put some morphine in her IV as well as something to help her sleep. We’ll have to watch the clock carefully and only give her what she needs rather than what she asks for. In the morning I’ll see if I can get my hands on some methadone.”

Brent clapped a hand on Reeve’s back. “I’m going to go check on security, make sure we’re covered in case —”

Reeve cut him off. “He won’t come here looking for her.”

“With all the other activity lately, are you sure?”

Reeve hesitated, then said again, “He won’t come here. But extra security is a good idea.”

A chill ran through me as I thought about what Joe had said about Amber’s tattoo. But I trusted Reeve’s perception of danger. If he said he didn’t think Vilanakis would come around, I believed him. The additional security was likely just a measure of precaution.

As soon as Brent left, Reeve addressed Jeb again. “What do we need to do for her tonight?”

I nodded, wishing I’d asked first.

“There’s nothing you can do at this point.” Jeb looked at his watch. “She’s probably going to be out for a while. I’d take this opportunity to get some sleep. I’ll stay with her until the morning in case she wakes up.”

“I could take the first shift.” Again Reeve spoke before I could. His offer rubbed me in places that I didn’t know were raw. I told myself it was simply because I wanted to be the one by her side.

Well, if he was going to stay, so was I.

But then Jeb said, “I’d rather it be me. I want to be there in case she has any strange reaction to the medicines or in case she takes a turn.”

Reeve hesitated before conceding. “Come and find me if there’s any change.”

“Will do, boss.”

“Then I’ll see you in a few hours.” Without even a glance at me, he turned on his heels and headed for his bedroom.

Jeb gave me a tight smile then opened the door to Amber’s room, leaving me in the hallway, alone.

I remained in the hallway for a handful of seconds before following Reeve into his bedroom.

He’d left the door open – whether that was to be available for Amber or an invitation for me, I wasn’t sure. I was afraid it wasn’t the latter. But I traipsed in anyway. I needed answers. I needed assurance. I was prepared to demand both.

Until I crossed the threshold and saw Reeve undressing.

He peeled off his shirt and tossed it on an armchair then sat on the bed and began tugging at one boot. The sight of his half-naked body made my own body react with a rush of desire, every time, current circumstances notwithstanding. That he was stripping with no sexual intention was somehow even more arousing, the intimacy of it shocking and surreal. As if he and I were actually a couple, and not a sham, despite Amber’s return.

That realization did things to me.
He
did things to me. Things that no man had ever done, no matter how deep inside of me he’d been.

“I’m tired, Emily,” he said, without a glance in my direction. “It’s been a long night. For both of us. So whatever it is that you want to discuss, it’s going to have to wait until we’ve gotten some sleep.”

Well, that burst the bubble of affection swelling in my chest. How the fuck was he able to brush me off without giving me even a crumb? With barely an acknowledgment, after everything we’d shared? How could he sleep when the woman he’d cared so much about was broken and beat-up in the next room? And how could he not want to question me about the secrets I’d withheld as much as I wanted to question him?

He knew.
 

It was the only thing that made sense. Somehow, he
knew
. That I wasn’t simply Emily Wayborn, actress and professional girlfriend. That I was Emily Wayborn, formerly Emily Barnes, Amber’s best friend. Emily Wayborn, liar. He knew and I was caught and I could barely see straight, could barely get air inside my lungs.

“You knew,” I whispered. I’d lied, and he knew, and I needed to hear from him what that meant for us.

He stood to step out of his jeans then pulled back the bedcovers. “I said we’ll talk about this in the morning.”

I couldn’t wait even another minute, not when our entire relationship was on the line. “You knew and you didn’t say anything.” I’d spent months worrying he’d discover that I’d gotten close to him only to learn what had happened to Amber. Months of monitoring what I said and did, weeks and weeks of keeping my guard up, and he’d already known.

The more I thought about it, I wasn’t just anxious but angry. “You knew and you let me go on pretending. How could you?”

He spun toward me, his eyes narrowed with incredulity. “
You’re
mad at me? You were the one who came into my life under false pretenses. To use me. And you’re mad at
me
?”

My stomach twisted with the guilt, and even though I deserved the accusations, I suddenly didn’t have the will to defend myself. “You’re right. Let’s talk about this in the morning.”

I spotted the pile of my clothes I’d left in front of the bathroom earlier and crossed to gather them, already thinking ahead, already planning the picture that I wanted Amber to see. She wouldn’t be able to understand without my explanation that I’d hoped she was alive when I began things with him, or that I only let myself fall for him when I believed she wasn’t.

That last part was a lie – I never
let
myself anything with him. I never had any control. Now it was obvious – he had been manipulating
me,
not the other way around.

A fresh wave of rage rolled through me. Clutching my clothing to my chest, I swung toward him. “I thought she was dead, Reeve!”

He’d climbed into the bed. Now he sat up, his head tilted as though confused. “Dead?”

“How could you let me believe that?” My throat choked on a sob and I noticed my cheeks were wet. I hadn’t realized I was crying.

He took a moment to process. “I had no idea,” he said finally, softer than before. Even though he was a skilled liar I had a feeling he was telling the truth. “Why did you think that?”

“Because Joe showed me an autopsy report.”
Why the hell didn’t
you
think that?
He’d had the same report in his e-mail. But I wasn’t ready to let him know that I’d snooped through his things.

His brow furrowed. “The autopsy of that anonymous woman from the Dumpster last fall? How the hell did Joe get ahold of that?”

“He’s good at his job,” I said snidely, not exactly remembering where Joe had said he’d gotten it.

“Yeah, I guess he is. Except that it wasn’t actually a report about Amber, was it?” The hardness was back in his tone, and, instead of regretting that I’d pushed his kindness away, I was grateful that I’d succeeded. I knew what to do with harsh. I didn’t know what to do with compassion.

“The description matched her to a T. Including the tattoo on her shoulder.” I shuddered remembering how well the report had depicted Amber. I hadn’t wanted to believe it was her. I’d fought it as hard as I could. Until I couldn’t anymore, and I had to accept it. “I mourned her, Reeve.”

Tenderness flickered across his stone features and then disappeared. “If you had bothered to talk to me about it, I could have saved you that grief. But you didn’t.”

I rolled my eyes and bent to scoop up the panties I’d missed. “Like I could talk to you about that.”

“Right. Because I wasn’t supposed to know that you were her friend.”

“Yes, that was one of the reasons.”

“What were the others?” He twisted toward me, throwing his legs off the bed. “Did you think
I
killed her?”

My lips parted, taken aback by his reaction and by how fast he’d jumped to the correct conclusion.

When I took too long to respond, he stood and took an aggressive step toward me. “Tell me, Emily, is that what you thought?”

I shrunk back, holding my clothes to my chest as though they could protect me from him. He started to ask again, and I blurted out, “No. But I thought you might have had someone else kill her.”

“The whole time? The whole time we’ve been together, that’s what you thought?”

Yes, it had been what I’d thought. The terrible thing was that it said as much about myself as it did about him. It was humiliating. That I could be the type of person who would stay with a man who might have killed someone I’d loved – it was difficult to admit.

So I didn’t answer him, and that was an answer in itself.

The barely controlled fury in his eyes flared and his features turned to stone, but somehow I understood that what he was really feeling in this moment was disappointment.

I felt that disappointment, too, so vividly, both from him and from myself, and suddenly I understood that I really should have been embarrassed that I’d thought he could have done something that terrible and never talked to him about it. I’d been in a committed relationship with this man for more than two months. I’d let him in, let him consume me, and yet I’d still kept him at a distance, even when I knew he’d tried to let me in.

Now, for the first time, I cared about what I did to Reeve instead of just caring about what he did to me. I’d hurt him, and that felt shitty.

“Look.” I sighed, trying to lessen the blow. “I don’t know why you think that’s an impossible conclusion to jump to. You’ve done everything in your power to keep me frightened of the things you were capable of.”

He laughed, a dark
ha
that held very little humor. “You wanted me like that, Emily. You wanted me to be the man who would frighten you, and don’t you try to say for a moment that you didn’t.”

“Just because it’s what I wanted doesn’t mean that’s not who you really are.”

“No. I guess it doesn’t.” His eyes met mine, and again I saw all the emotion he’d shown me downstairs, his pupils like a dark and turbulent storm. He held me in that gaze for several long seconds.

Then he took another step toward me. “I told you what happened. I told you she left here, alive. You didn’t believe me? I thought you trusted me. You
acted
like you trusted me.”

It was an opening – a chance for me to fix everything, and I knew it. I’d told him once that, for me, trust equaled love. He’d wanted me to trust him because he’d wanted me to love him. He wanted me to say it now.

But I
didn’t
trust him. And I
did
love him. I could have told him that, and it might have made a difference.

Funny how the idea of actually admitting my affection was so much more frightening than believing he was a killer.

Somehow I managed to keep my eyes on him when I spoke next. “I never said I trusted you.”

He shook his head in disbelief. “This is not when we have this conversation. Not when we’re tired and stressed.” He turned back toward the bed.

I swallowed the ball in my throat. “Fine.” Then I headed for the door.

“Where are you going? You sleep with me.”

Those were the old rules – I slept with him when he was at the ranch. Now that Amber was here, I wasn’t sure what the rules were. And if I had rules, surely she’d had rules too. When they’d been together, where had Amber been required to sleep? Surely she hadn’t been allowed to sleep alone either.

Jealousy tugged at the pit of my stomach. I pushed it away. “I’m not leaving her side.”

“Emily, there’s nothing you can —”

I swiveled back in his direction, cutting him off. “I’m not leaving her!”

There was a part of me that wanted to ignore my desperate need to keep vigil in Amber’s room and stay instead with Reeve. Though we hadn’t yet said everything we’d needed to, I knew enough to understand that he’d forgive me for my wrongs if I let him.

The truth was, I could probably forgive him for his wrongs as well.

But Amber’s presence changed everything. I’d made promises to her long before I’d thought about making promises to Reeve. I’d vowed to never come between her and a man, and although she’d left Reeve, I couldn’t climb back into his bed until I was sure she understood the circumstances.

“Fine. Don’t leave her.” Reeve crossed to me in three easy steps. He grabbed my upper arms and pulled me close, his touch sending an unexpected jolt through my veins. I hadn’t forgotten what he’d said before she’d shown up. That he’d loved Amber’s best friend, and now I was sure that he’d meant me when he said it.

The full force of that hit me now – he
loved
me. He loved me enough to say it out loud.

But he’d loved her too.

He locked his eyes with mine. “This doesn’t change anything, Emily. You still belong to me.”

He allowed that to settle before he let me go. Then he shut off the light and returned to the bed.

I shut the door behind me and leaned heavily against it. Closing my eyes, I let out a long slow breath, replaying his last words over and over in my head.
You still belong to me. You still belong to me.

Yes. I did belong to him.

But I belonged to Amber too.

I woke with a start, my heart pounding and my throat dry.

“He just left,” a voice said behind me.

Turning, I found Joe sitting on a chair beside the love seat I’d camped out on. His feet were propped up on the arm of the couch, and he was reading something on his cell. The chair he was sitting on had been across the room before, and its new location disoriented me.

Stifling a yawn, I asked, “
Who
just left?”

“Sallis.” Joe pocketed his phone and shifted his attention to me. “You called his name just now.”

“I did?” I tried to remember what I’d been dreaming but couldn’t. Judging by the angle of the light streaming in the window, I’d slept through the morning. “What time is it anyway?”

“It’s a little after one.” He looked me over. “Have you been here the whole time?”

After leaving Reeve’s room earlier, I’d stopped by my room to dump my dirty clothes and shower. The scent of sex had still clung to me and although I was probably the only one who could smell it, I’d needed to get it off of me. Needed to hide any evidence of my relationship with Reeve – for now.

Then I changed into yoga pants and a T-shirt and came down to Amber’s room. Jeb had given me the love seat and with his hat over his face, he’d snoozed in the armchair, the one Joe sat in now, when it was still across the room.

“Basically. I don’t remember falling asleep.” Rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I noticed a thermos on the side table between us. “Is this for me?”

“I believe so.”

Thank God.
I took a sip. It wasn’t hot but still warm enough to drink so I downed half of it, my eyes on the sleeping figure in the bed across from us. She looked better in the daylight, her skin less pale, her bruises less purple. “Has she woken up at all?”

“Once, when the doctor was here, but the report I got said it was only for a minute. She slept most of the drive here from Chicago too. Pretty much she wakes up to get another pill, and then she’s back under. Doc’s got her on some sugar water to get her some energy.”

“’Doc’,” I chortled. “Jeb’s a veterinarian. He births cows. We should be getting her to a real M.D.”

Joe leaned back in his chair and crossed his ankle over his opposite knee. “Nah. That guy’s a people doctor. He might do animal medicine, but he knows what he’s doing with her. Leads you to wonder why a ranch would have a full-time doctor on staff posing as a vet. What kind of regular injuries go on around here that they’d need that?”

I looked up, surprised at the implication. Then, as always when it came to anything to do with Reeve, defensive. “There could be any number of reasons.”

“Guess that’s just part of the Sallis mystery, isn’t it?”

He was prodding me, trying to get me worked up, but I didn’t have the strength. I pulled my feet up underneath me and studied his profile, his strong jawline, the tattoos that snaked out under the sleeve of his T-shirt, the same one he wore yesterday. He was scruffier than usual, his buzz haircut grown out and his face hidden behind a week-old beard. He was sexy, I noted, in a bad boy kind of way. Which should have done it for me.

Except Joe was only bad boy on the outside. He looked hard and detached, but behind that rough exterior was the heart of a puppy. He was loyal and just. Like Robin Hood – skirting the law but for a greater good.

And that was his problem – he was decent. A little
too
decent for me. I liked my bad boys with a rough core. And when they were packaged in refinement and money, I liked them even more.
Champagne taste
. Amber had taught me well.

Joe tilted his head toward me, catching me staring.

I reddened. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

His grin said he noticed my blush. Said he liked it. “It’s my shift to watch Amber.”

“You relieved Jeb?”

“Sallis relieved Jeb. I relieved Sallis. It’s a four-hour rotation.”

I looked down at the thermos in my hand, then at the chair that had been pulled up next to me. “Was that there when your turn started? Or did you put it there?”

“It was there. Why do you ask?”

Then Reeve had moved it here. To be next to me while I slept. He’d also left the coffee. Amber had returned, and he was still caring for
me
. I shouldn’t like the warm hum that spread through my chest at that knowledge. Not when it was a victory that pitted me against my friend.

“No reason,” I said to Joe. “I’m surprised you’re still around. Thought you would have rode off into the sunset by now. Isn’t that what you do?”

He chuckled. “Haven’t been here long enough to see sunset yet, have I? Reeve invited me to stay a while. Actually, he encouraged me to stay. I think he wants to figure out what I know. Probably so he can cover his tracks.”

“Or so he can protect his ranch. He might not be the bad guy, you know.” Those were words I maybe should have been saying to myself. Not that it mattered. His status as antagonist had not been a deterrent in my feelings for him so far.

“That’s an interesting change of stance on your part. I’m not sure —”

He didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence because Amber opened her eyes then. “Emily?”

I set my coffee down and jumped to her side. “I’m here.” I smoothed the hair out of her eyes then said it again. “I’m here.”

She cleared her throat. “Water —”

“Yep.” Joe was at my side immediately, a plastic cup with a straw in his hand. I helped her sit up, and he held it as she sipped.

“Thank you.” She sounded better now, her voice less scratchy.

Joe set her water cup down and propped the pillows up behind her so she could stay sitting on her own. She thanked him again then turned her eyes to me. “You look so fucking good, Em,” she said, attempting a smile before remembering her lip was still fat. “Jesus, I must look like shit.”

I sat on the bed next to her, grasping one of her hands between both of mine. “You’re too skinny. But you were always too skinny. How do you feel?”

“Like I got kicked in the ribs a bunch of times by an asshole.” She put her free hand up to her face and pressed tentatively along her cheekbones. “I feel like my face is a giant cream puff. I don’t want to see it, do I?”

“Not today,” I agreed. “Probably not tomorrow either.”

She let out a sound that was half laugh, half groan. “You still know what I need to hear. God, I’ve missed you, Em.” It was hard to read her expression behind the swelling and discoloration, but there was sincerity in her eyes. She maneuvered her hand so that it clutched mine, and for a minute, every bad thing that had happened between us disappeared, and the years that had passed didn’t matter at all. She was the Amber I’d always loved and admired, and I was Emily, her protégée. Her best friend.

There was a rustle behind me, and I turned to find Brent at the door. “You’re awake. I’ll tell Reeve.” He was gone again before anyone could respond.

“Nice to see you, too, Brent,” Amber called after him. “He’s such a lackey. Anything you say to him goes straight to Reeve. Unless you’re telling him you want him to stick his dick in you. Then he’ll be super mum.”

“Did you…?” In the short time I’d spent with him, I’d gotten the impression he was a bit of a manwhore. I hadn’t been interested in finding out if he’d mess with his boss’s girl, and Reeve had made sure I knew in no uncertain terms that I was to remain faithful while I was with him. Had that rule been different for Amber? Or had Reeve put the rule in place because of her?

“With Brent? No way. Doesn’t mean he didn’t try.”

“Hmm.” I forced a smile at her attempt to waggle her brows. Inside, though, I felt a familiar stab of resentment. I’d forgotten that about her – forgotten how her ability to charm and seduce any and every man she met was as much a burden to our friendship as it had been a blessing.

It had been easy to forget those kinds of things when I’d thought I’d never see her again.

The seconds that followed felt taut, the strings between us pulling in opposite directions. Amber was the one who finally gave them slack. “But anyway” – she patted my hand – “tell me about you. I want to hear everything.”

Everything.
Such a big question and yet I could probably fill her in on my life in three sentences –
I’m a voice actress for a hit TV show. I came looking for you when you left our code word on my mother’s answering machine.
And
I met Reeve.

Everything. In a nutshell.

Joe saved me from having to stretch my three sentences into more substantial material. “Hey, I hate to intrude on your reunion, but do you mind if I ask you some questions now that you’re back in the land of the living?”

In other words, Joe wanted to get intel before Reeve showed up. As much as it irked me that Joe was always on his case, there were things I wanted to hear as well.

She pulled her blood-matted hair to one side, and I silently made a note to help her bathe later. “I guess I owe you at least that much. After you rescued me and all. He’s a hero, you know,” she said, winking at me. “You should be proud of him.”

“He knows I appreciate him.” I narrowed my eyes in Joe’s direction, wondering exactly what he’d told Amber about our relationship on their drive together from Chicago. Maybe she’d made her own assumptions. Whichever, I didn’t correct her. That could easily lead to having to admit my relationship with Reeve, and I wasn’t ready to do that. Yet.

If ever.

Joe ignored my glare. “Amber, what were you doing with Michelis Vilanakis?”

“You don’t waste any time, do you?” she teased. “Why is
anyone
with Micha? He’s got money and power, and he knows how to get the best drugs.” She had a nickname for him. I wanted to ask if everyone called him that or just her.

But I didn’t. Because I knew I was just searching for evidence that she had feelings for someone that wasn’t Reeve and that wasn’t helpful in the moment.

“You were with him of your own free will?” Joe asked.

“Embarrassing as it is to admit, yes. I was.” She glanced at me, and I wondered if she was thinking about the men I’d been with who’d treated me similarly. The men I’d been with freely. The men I’d be with freely now. Though the man I was with now hadn’t yet bruised me in any place I hadn’t wanted to be bruised. And maybe that was the difference.

I interrupted Joe’s interrogation. “How did you meet Michelis?”

“Through Reeve.”

“They’re friends?” He flicked his eyes in my direction. I could feel it even though I kept mine pinned on Amber.

“They’re… it’s complicated.” She sighed, leaning back against her pillow. I’d figured out that Michelis was related to Reeve. His uncle, I’d suspected. It seemed like it should be easy to say that they were family. Who was Amber protecting by not admitting that? Reeve or Michelis?

“Is their relationship the reason you left the phone message for Emily last August?”

I lowered my head to study my hands. Reeve had already told me his version of what had happened with Amber. She’d wanted to leave him, and he’d locked her up on the ranch, kept her there against her will.

At least, that’s what he’d said. I held my breath waiting for her to confirm that story.

“Uh, no. That was…” She trailed off and I peered up to see her gazing out the window. When she looked back at Joe, she said, “That was an overreaction on my part.”

“Why are you defending Reeve? What did he do to you?”

“Joe,” I warned, suddenly remembering the cameras that were in all of these rooms. Or maybe I would have warned him even if I hadn’t been concerned about that. Because I couldn’t bear accusations against my lover like I used to.

“I’m not protecting anyone that doesn’t deserve it. It was an overreaction. I felt more desperate than I needed to. That’s all.” Amber’s terse tone matched my own. She reached out and touched my knee. “I’m sorry I got you involved, Emily. I didn’t mean to send you on a wild goose chase.”

I covered her hand with mine. “But if you hadn’t left that message, then Joe wouldn’t have been where he was when you needed him.” And I wouldn’t have found you again. I wouldn’t have found Reeve.

“Instead I would have been left to die,” she said, and since her injuries were not severe enough to lead to death, I knew she meant she would have still been with Vilanakis then. “Right. Good thing I called.”

Something about her words felt like she didn’t mean them. Perhaps she had feelings for the man who’d repeatedly beat her after all. I could, unfortunately, understand that.

The bed shifted as Joe sat down behind me. I could feel his frustration before he spoke. “Amber, I’m sorry if this is uncomfortable for you to talk about, but I need some more concrete information.”

Amber folded her arms over her chest and winced, the gesture probably pulling uncomfortably against her ribs. “You got me back safe. Is there something else you’re after? I’m not going to press charges against Micha, if that’s where you’re going. That’s suicide, you know.”

Joe wouldn’t give up. “Can you tell me anything about the sex slave ring he’s involved with then? Were you at all part of that?”

“So that’s what this is about. You have grand aspirations if you plan to get involved with that, Joe. It’s very noble of you. I had no idea there were still noble men left. Leave it to Emily to find the last.”

This time I opened my mouth to correct her.

Joe beat me to speaking. “Do you have any information at —”

“No.” Her sharp response said she was frustrated now as well. “I don’t know anything about it. Well, nothing concrete. I heard rumors, but that’s all. I wasn’t involved in it.”

“And Sallis?”

Her expression bordered between skeptical and appalled. “Was Reeve involved in slave trade with Michelis Vilanakis? You’re kidding me, right?” Her eyes flicked from Joe’s to mine and back to Joe’s. “Oh, I guess you don’t know.”

“Don’t know what?” Joe and I asked in unison.

“Reeve would never do business with Micha. He loathes him.” She looked to me, as though she thought I was the only one who might understand what she was about to say. “It was the reason I was with him. I knew it would make Reeve unhappy.”

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