A dull ache in her arm brought Annabelle to consciousness. She gritted her teeth, trying to place herself. Her mind did not want her eyes to open, and she felt out her surroundings, noting a strange feeling of restraint in her arms, a sensation of soreness almost everywhere on her body, and the strangest feeling that she couldn’t possibly be at home, although she knew she was in a bed from the way the sheets felt on her skin.
But these felt nothing like her silk sheets. Some sort of linen, she supposed.
“Here,” someone said softly, and the voice sounded familiar, kind, but she couldn’t place it. “They ran out of milk so I threw in a bit of extra sugar.”
“Thanks, that’s fine.”
That voice, that one she knew. Blake. Her heart raced slightly, and she recalled where she had been before she wound up wherever this bed was. She’d been at the cabin, Michael pointed a gun to her head; he was going to pull the trigger. Why...why was she not dead?
Was she dead?
Her eyes fluttered open, and she looked around. Everything bathed white, like she expected death to be, but the machines around her said hospital, not pearly gates.
“Michael,” she croaked.
“Oh my god,” the kind voice said. “She’s awake. Annabelle?”
Annabelle turned her head slightly and saw a kindly face. Instantly, the voice connected with her memories. Aunt Rose. Aunt Rose, with her tired, sagging face and her constellations of age spots.
“Michael,” Annabelle said. “Michael did it.”
“We know,” Blake said, setting down a cardboard coffee cup and gently taking one of her hands in both of his. Her eyes scanned his face sleepily, wondering why he looked so calm. She’d just said who the killer was. She was in a hospital. Why was everyone so calm? She tried to sit up, but Aunt Rose gently pushed her down again.
“Where is he?” she said. “Did he escape?”
“No,” Aunt Rose said. “No, he’s dead, Annabelle.”
Annabelle blinked, her eyes gazing up at the strange white ceiling, with its ceiling tiles she knew weighed next to nothing, the sort found in office buildings. She felt the urge to throw a pencil and see if it would stick, but she didn’t have a pencil.
And she couldn’t move her arms.
“Why am I here?” she asked. “What happened?”
While Blake held her hand, Aunt Rose told Annabelle about a phone call she placed to a friend in Scotland, how they discovered Michael was responsible for Julia’s death, and at least a dozen others. When they found Annabelle gone with her phone still there, she called Blake, and they rushed to the cabin.
“We nearly came too late,” Rose said. “He pulled the trigger when Blake’s shot startled him, and he hit your arm, thank goodness. I’ve seen his work; he’s a brilliant shot. If Blake fired a fraction of a second later, you wouldn’t be here now.”
“I only heard one gunshot,” she said, frowning.
“The doctors said you fainted at the gunshot,” Blake explained, his thumb caressing her hand rhythmically. “Between the emotional stress and the shock, it was too much. And when he shot your arm, the pain.... Well, you were rushed to the hospital, and they’ve kept you heavily medicated. You’ve not really been properly conscious now for three days. How...how does your arm feel?”
“It hurts,” Annabelle admitted, still gritting her teeth. “Did it go through clean?”
“No, it shattered a bone,” Rose said apologetically. “You’ll wear the cast for a while. But they dealt with all the surgery and such with you unconscious, and the doctors said you slept off the worst of it. They should be able to adjust the medication better now you’re awake. You’ll probably be out of here by tomorrow.”
Annabelle nodded, looking around the room again. She’d never been in a hospital before, but she didn’t like the idea of them. You didn’t go to hospitals because things in your life went brilliantly.
“What’s with the arm restraints?”
“They worried you’d shift in your sleep and disrupt the IVs,” Aunt Rose said, smiling. “But you don’t need those anymore. You can eat just fine for yourself. Let me go and alert the nurse. I’m sure a doctor will want to examine you.”
Annabelle watched her aunt leave and felt Blake squeeze her hand slightly.
“How long have you been here?” she asked, glancing at his creased uniform. “Don’t you have traffic tickets to hand out?”
He laughed nervously and said, “No, I never left. I...I’ve been showering and sleeping here and everything. Your aunt brings me food and coffee. I don’t sleep much.”
“I can’t imagine there’s anywhere comfortable, if this is what the beds feel like.”
He frowned a little, looking down at her hand.
“Did you love him?” he asked, his voice sounding strangely small. Maybe it was the drugs.
Annabelle sighed, leaning her head back on the pillows.
“I didn’t know him, did I? None of us knew him. I thought I loved him, but how could I? All of it was a lie.” She shivered a little. “He said he wanted to kill me so we could be together forever. That we would be together the rest of our lives. He meant to shoot me and kill himself. And he...he tried to with Julia, tried to kill them both in the crash, but he survived.”
Blake looked up, an animalistic look of fury twisting his features. The twist shifted his nose so much it actually looked more crooked than usual.
“And he killed your father and sister,” he snarled. “How could he think you would love him for that?”
Annabelle shook her head and said, “He wasn’t right in the head, Blake. I don’t think he could help it. He looked...so convinced that was the best thing, convinced we were meant to die together, and he needed to kill us.” She squeezed Blake’s hand weakly. “I kind of feel sorry for him. He couldn’t have lived a very happy life if that was his idea of absolution.”
Blake’s dark, humorless laugh chilled her slightly, but before she could change the subject, Aunt Rose returned with a startlingly thin doctor with slick black hair, who flipped through her chart.
“How do you feel, Miss Benton?”
“Sore. And my arm is throbbing.”
He leaned over to the drip of her medication, which she just sort of assumed was something like morphine, considering she’d been shot. “The soreness is from being in bed for three days,” he said, still flipping through her chart. “If you keep down food tonight, we’ll be able to give you pills instead of the drip, and you’ll be discharged. Otherwise, your recovery is going fine. We’re going to say three months on the cast, but we’ll monitor it. You’re still young enough it could heal more quickly. You hungry?”
He called a nurse to bring up food, and he removed the IVs for water and nutrients from her, carefully bandaging her skin where they came out.
“I’m afraid the food will be a bit gross today,” he said conspiratorially. “It’s the spaghetti. I keep telling them patients hate it, but the kitchen staff doesn’t listen to me. Let a nurse know if there’s anything you need, and I’ll come around to see in the morning if you can be discharged.”
“Thank you, doctor,” she said as he left. Aunt Rose sat down next to her, looking a bit smug about something, but Annabelle thought perhaps pleased was a better word. After all, it couldn’t be easy on the family after everything they’d been through. “How’s my mother?”
“Crying incessantly,” Aunt Rose said with a sly smile. “You know her. But they held the burials. We decided you wouldn’t mind us going ahead, since you attended the service.”
“That’s fine,” she said with a shrug. A nurse brought in a tray of food and carefully laid it out on bars over Annabelle’s lap before removing the restraints. Aunt Rose and Blake helped Annabelle prop up on her pillows so she could eat more easily. When the nurse left, Annabelle pulled a pained look at the plate of spaghetti, which really looked remarkably pathetic – limp and a little bit soggy.
“I need to call your mother and run some errands,” Aunt Rose said, watching Annabelle’s newly unrestrained arms pick up a fork and poke at the over-cooked noodles. “I’ll ask a nurse and see if I can bring you back something more appetizing. What would you like?”
“About three cheeseburgers,” Annabelle whined. “And cake.”
Aunt Rose said she’d see what she could manage and kissed Annabelle’s cheek before leaving her and Blake alone with the suspect sustenance.
“Does it look alive to you?” she asked nervously, but Blake’s face brightened every time she poked the food, so she kept on poking. People smiling felt refreshing.
“Sort of,” he said, moving a bit closer, looking almost...shy in the way he smiled at her. “The Jell-O looks edible, though.”
Annabelle rolled her eyes and said, “Yes, but I still have all my teeth and am no longer ten. You won’t convince me Jell-O is a good idea. Cake, now that’s a dessert.”
“You can drink my coffee.”
“Probably better not to have caffeine until I’m fully recovered from being unconscious,” she said, giving him an apologetic, grateful smile. “But thanks for the thought.”
Blake licked his lips and nodded, picking up the spoon and poking the outside of the plastic Jell-O container, watching it jiggle unnaturally, ripples bending the surface, but leaving it smooth when it calmed again. Unnerving.
“Don’t do this to me again,” he said softly. “Please.”
“Do what?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “Let you poke Jell-O?”
He laughed uncomfortably and shook his head.
“Annabelle, I...I thought you died. All I could see was the blood and your body on the ground and I...I panicked. I drove faster than I’ve ever done in my life to arrive in time and shot a man I thought of as a mentor and it still wasn’t enough. I.... Rose called the ambulance, calmed me down and made me see you were alive, that it just hit your arm and you were going to be fine. I’ve never been so afraid, so hurt in my whole life.”
She watched his throat, seeing the skin shift around his Adam’s apple as he swallowed. Something about the way he babbled on felt different, strange, and she’d had more than enough people go crazy on her for a lifetime. He didn’t appear to be crazy, but then, neither had Michael.
But you know Blake, said a voice in her head. You really know him, known him for all your life. You cried on his shoulder when you lost Julia; he earned detention for punching the first boy who broke your heart. He’s your friend.
He choked out a strange, strangled laugh, and she looked up at his eyes, realizing he was crying, and she didn’t know what to say. How did they go from poking unappetizing food to crying?
“I promised myself I would never say this,” he said, almost looking through her, although his eyes gazed right into hers. “I swore up and down. But when I thought you died and I never told you, it hurt more than anything I’ve ever felt and I can’t let that happen again.” Annabelle shifted uncomfortably in the bed. He set down the spoon and picked up her hand, utterly shocking her as he lifted it to his lips and kissed her knuckles. “Annabelle,” he whispered, like a child afraid of their own shadow, shrinking a little at the sound of his own voice, “I...I’ve been so in love with you for as long as I can remember, and I never said because I never thought it could go anywhere. You’re...you’re too good for me, but I don’t care anymore.” He cleared his throat. “Do you want to go for coffee sometime?”
Annabelle just blinked at him for a moment, thinking this must be a dream. She was still unconscious, the drugs talking. After all, she’d known Blake almost her entire life. How could she miss something so...so...big?
But as she scratched her fingertips gently with the fork, she realized she was definitely awake, and Blake was definitely sitting there, confessing his love, and asking her to coffee. She saw nothing to do but laugh, so she chuckled, and his face turned confused, even worried. Was she laughing because of the drugs? She didn’t know, but it felt surprisingly good.
“Blake,” she said when she finally caught her breath, “we go for coffee all the time.”
“I know, but I thought more coffee...on a beach,” he said, smiling shyly again. “In, like, Mexico or something.”
Annabelle was intrigued by this strange date idea, and while Mexico wasn’t exactly her favorite vacation spot, she suspected he would be willing to negotiate. She certainly could use plenty of time away from Vista del Marina.
“What about your job?”
He grinned, squeezing her hand a little in excitement.
“I’ve been promoted. I pulled off the biggest bust of the year and saved a local heiress.” They laughed. “It comes with more vacation time and a bonus. So, I thought, maybe when you’re healthy enough to travel, we could go away for a while. A couple of weeks?”
Annabelle leaned back on the pillows and smiled, closing her eyes.
“That sounds perfect,” she sighed. “But not Mexico.”
“Where would you prefer, then?”
“Have you ever been to Saint Lucia?”
He laughed, because they both knew he’d never travelled further than the Mexican border. He kissed her knuckles again, and Annabelle felt like a weight lifted off her shoulders.
As promised, the following morning doctor came around to find Blake sleeping in the chair beside Annabelle, holding her hand. She smiled at the doctor and shrugged slightly.
“How do you feel?” he asked, his voice jolting Blake to wakefulness with a snort and a sharp intake of breath.
“I’m fine,” she said, smiling. “I imagine when you unplug me from this thing I’ll hurt, but otherwise good.”
“Food stayed down alright?”
“I’m sorry about the spaghetti.”
“Not your fault. So, am I free to go?”
She was discharged as promised, given a prescription of oxycodone, and Blake drove her back up to the mansion, holding her hand the whole way.
“What happened to my car?” she asked. “The Volvo, I brought it to the cabin.”
“Adyson drove Miguel up to the cabin, and they brought it back,” Blake said. “She’s been in a really good mood about something every time she visits. Your mother said it’s not decent to be so pleased when you’re in recovery, but I really don’t think Adyson cares.”
Whatever the cause, Annabelle was happy that her sister was happy. When they got out of the car, Annabelle felt a little unsteady on her feet, but Blake caught her, letting her lean on him until she felt confident enough to just hold his hand.
Sure enough, Adyson stepped forward from the welcoming party smirked over Annabelle and Blake’s shoulders as someone drove up the driveway after them. Annabelle looked around at the sound of the engine and recognized the Porsche 911 Turbo instantly.
Luke Hatfield got out of his car looking sort of feral, with a massive amount of stubble and moving like he was ready to start attacking someone, and Adyson just sneered at him. She clearly found whatever she dug so urgently for, Annabelle mused.
“What do you think you’re up to?” he snapped at Adyson, waving a sheet of paper in front of her face. “Why was I sent this letter?”
Blake tensed at the sight of the sheet, snatching it from Luke’s hand and letting his eyes graze it. Then he grinned, handing it back.
“You’re finished, Mr. Hatfield.”
“It’s slander, all of it!”
“I’m afraid it’s not, Luke,” Adyson said smoothly. “I’ve chatted with your people, and placed into the hands of the police officers all of the documentation they need to lock you away for a good thirty years or more. After your stunt at the church, you won’t be likely to find a sympathetic jury anywhere in a twenty mile radius.” Annabelle and Sonia exchanged shocked, gleeful looks. Whatever Adyson caught him on, if they said thirty years, it must be serious business – a lot of it.
“I’m not going to jail,” Luke said sharply.
Blake handed Annabelle’s support over to Aunt Rose and stepped forward, knowing Luke Hatfield, especially an angry Luke Hatfield, could be incredibly volatile.
“Sir, you don’t need to,” he said calmly. “As you read in the letter, you’ve been given an alternative of an out-of-court settlement and time to make arrangements.”
“Selling or dismantling my company is not an alternative,” Luke snarled. “I spent more years than you’ve been alive building that company, son, and it’s not slipping through my fingers now!”
“If you build on practices like this, Luke, you can’t expect to keep what you’ve built in this day and age,” Adyson said loftily. “Now, Benton Tech is prepared to make you an offer. It’s more than reasonable, giving you plenty of money to retire on.” She handed him an envelope. “It’s a comfortable retirement or a jail cell. Your choice.”
Annabelle watched as Luke ripped open the envelope to read the terms of the suggested sale. His face grew more and more pale, but if Adyson thought it fair, Annabelle didn’t doubt it. Perhaps a hard kind of fair, but so it goes. She suspected it would hurt his pride more than his pocketbook.
Luke opened and closed his mouth a few times before getting into his car again and driving away at breakneck speed. The family stared after him, Blake slipping his arm around Annabelle’s waist as they stood there. Finally, Sonia said, “You know, I think he took that pretty well.”
They then returned to ushering Annabelle inside, taking her to the dining room where the servants prepared a party for her, complete with a massive cake. Adyson giggled happily when Blake kissed Annabelle, although just a quick, soft peck.
Annabelle felt a bit sleepy to properly enjoy the kiss, or the party for that matter, but she tried her best, mostly for the cake. When Aunt Rose decided Annabelle was too drowsy to continue an hour and a half later, Blake said goodnight and Aunt Rose helped Annabelle up to her room, pouring her a glass of water and doling out a dose of oxycodone when she forced Annabelle admit her arm hurt. She muttered indistinct words of thanks.
“Sonia’s going to drive me back to the airport,” Aunt Rose said, smoothing Annabelle’s hair as she took the pill. “In about three hours. Give me a call soon to let me know how the recovery is progressing.”
“And I’m leaving you with this card.” Annabelle’s bleary eyes watched as Aunt Rose set a business card down on the bedside table.
“It’s my agent. I’ve told her about you, and about my time here. And she’s eager to read when you’ve finished.”
Annabelle frowned, confused. Agent. Literary agent?
“But, Auntie Rose, I don’t—”
“You have a story, and people who’d love to type for you while your arm recovers. And you know what they say about the truth.”
“It shatters bones in your arm and gives you opiates?”
Aunt Rose chuckled and shook her head, and the room started to fuzz at the corners of Annabelle’s vision. The response was lost as Annabelle’s eyes fluttered closed, and she dreamed of coffee on a beach somewhere, on the hood of a Lamborghini.
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