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Nathan sat outside and waited impatiently while the assembly of doctors examined Jessica. In the short twelve hours since she had awaken, she had been inspected by a neurologist, a psychologist, a physical therapist, Dr. Hanover, and a slew of other random physicians. She had to be going out of her mind, considering merely an hour ago she had learned that her three roommates had been stabbed to death and she had been on the brink of death herself.
He had made phone calls to the station, telling Mike that he was going to stick around in Raleigh for a few days and then he had made a point to call Stoneybrook Manor, already assuming that Jessica would want to know how her grandmother was. Unfortunately, the news wasn’t so good. It seemed Eugenia Wolfe had had another stroke that now left her speech impaired and her health declining. After everything else that Jessica had to deal with, learning that her grandmother was in rapidly failing health was another thing to add to that list.
Nathan had checked his voice mail, finding a message from Cameron Demauro. He had called to find out if there was any change in Jessica’s condition, almost seemed panicky and anxious. Nathan knew that he had to tell the young man she had come out of the coma, but in time. He didn’t want many people knowing that she had awoken. Once that information got out, whoever had put her here would surely be back to make sure she didn’t have a chance to talk.
Nathan glanced up just as Dr. Hanover was exiting the room. He pulled himself to his feet and met the man halfway, noticing the grimace on his face instantly. “What’s wrong?” he asked, worry tainting his voice.
“Nothing like what you’re thinking,” he replied, his aggravation evident.
“Miss Porter… is she okay?”
“Yes. She’s coming along nicely. Healing better than I could have hoped. Why don’t you and I take a walk?”
Nathan nodded and followed the man through the double doors, down a long hallway to another door that lead to an office. Richard Hanover slid behind the large oak desk, lifting a hand and motioning to the leather chairs placed directly in front of him for Nathan to sit.
Nathan plopped into the chair, feeling fatigue overtake him as he stared at the bewildered face of the doctor. “What’s going on?”
“She wants to leave,” he replied in a hushed voice.
“She wants to leave.”
The older man simply nodded.
“You’re kidding,” he groaned, shaking his head with half amusement and half irritation.
“I wish I were. But as she so delicately put it, she’s a big girl and she wants to leave.”
“Where does she think she’s going to go?”
“I don’t know. But she says that other than feeling very weak and a bit sore all over, she’s fine and she just wants to get out of here.”
“What do you think?”
“I think that she has no business leaving the hospital until she has made a complete recovery.”
“And you told her this?”
“I did. And she said that as long as she is in her right state of mind, she has the right to check herself out of here at any time, despite doctor’s advice.”
Nathan nodded, not understanding why the woman would want to check herself out of the hospital after everything that had happened. He abruptly stood up and strode over to the door, casting a glance at the doctor. “Let me go talk to her. Maybe I can put some sense into her head.”
He strode out, back down the long hallway, and through the double doors, straight into the room without knocking. It was his mistake. Jessica sat on the edge of the bed, her feet dangling over the side, the gown off her arms and shoulders, her torso bare to the waist. Nathan’s eyes widened as he stopped dead in his tracks and gawked at her, unable to tear his gaze away from the bare flesh of her breasts.
Her eyes shot up to his, horrified and embarrassed as she reached down for the gown and lifted it over her chest to cover herself. “Ever hear of knocking,” she bit out angrily.
Nathan turned around, his back to her. “Sorry. I wasn’t expecting to walk in here and find you half naked.”
“You wouldn’t have found me half naked if you would have knocked,” she countered as she shoved her arms into the sleeves of the gown.
Nathan stared at the door, trying desperately to get the mental image of what he had just seen out of his mind. Yet, he couldn’t block it and cursed under his breath. Damnit it all to hell! He was a man just like any other and there was nothing wrong with that slight tightening in his groin at the sight of a beautiful, bare-chested female, no matter what the circumstances were. Still, he wanted to kick himself in the ass. Why couldn’t he have just knocked? Because he was an idiot, that was why.
“I understand you want to check yourself out of the hospital,” he inquired in a strained voice.
“Yep.” She stared at the back of his head and groaned. “You can turn around now.”
Taking a deep breath, Nathan turned back to face her, keeping his eyes on her face and not daring to glance anywhere else. “Why do you want to do something stupid like that?”
“Stupid?” she countered angrily. “Are you calling me stupid?”
“If you check yourself out, you are being stupid.”
She cocked her head sideways and stared at him with vehement eyes. “I don’t expect for you to understand this, but I don’t have health insurance.”
That made sense, he admitted. But, there were ways around such a predicament. With the stubborn set of her chin though, he knew that she didn’t want to talk about alternatives. “Where are you going to go?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet.”
Nathan took a wary step towards her, never losing eye contact as he shoved a hand through his tangled hair. “Look, the doctors don’t think you’re ready to leave.”
“They all just said that physically, I am fine. I will make a full recovery given that I take it easy for a while.”
“Okay. And mentally?”
“They said it isn’t uncommon for a victim who has experienced what I have to not remember. They said that the mind involuntarily locks out the incident and that it is nothing to be worried about.”
“Physical and mental well-being aside… you do realize that your life may still be in danger? If the person who did this to you thinks for any reason that you could point the finger at him, he’s going to come after you.”
“He could just as well come after me here.”
“But here you have around the clock protection.”
“Yes. But I don’t have anonymity here. I work for The Gazette, Sheriff Benson, and I know full and well that everyone who reads the paper knows that I was brought here. Nothing remains classified. I’m sure the reporters have had a field day with this story, no matter how hard you’ve tried to keep the details confidential.”
A smile tilted one side of his mouth. “Do you always have all the answers?”
“Always,” she conceded, cocking her head obstinately.
Nathan shook his head, half irritated and the other half fascinated by her. “Look, I refuse to let you leave here without protection.”
“I’m touched,” she bit out sarcastically.
Nathan gave her a scornful look, although he would never let on just how amused he was by her.
“I’ll hire a bodyguard if that’s what you want.”
“That won’t work,” he offered lightly, scratching the stubble that shadowed his chin. “I don’t trust anyone from the outside.”
“Then, put me with some police officers and send me on my merry way.”
“It’s not that easy.”
She threw her hands in the air, groaning with frustration. “I don’t care what you do, just know that one way or the other I’m leaving this hospital today, with or without protection.” Jessica eyed him for a long moment, a sarcastic smile tugging at her lips. “Unless you want to be my personal bodyguard,” she teased.
Nathan covered his face with his hand, rubbing at his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. He knew that the only way he would feel safe with her leaving was with him accompanying her. It wasn’t what he wanted, but was the only way. There was no one else that he trusted with her. And on the bright side, perhaps if he got her away from here he could help her recover her memory of what happened that night. Mike could hold down the fort in his absence, had done a great job of it while he had been on vacation.
As if noticing the wheels spinning in his mind, Jessie let out a short little laugh. “I was kidding.”
“I’m sure you were. But… it’s not a bad idea.”
And Nathan knew the perfect place to take her. He had a cabin up in the mountains where he went fishing. No one would ever think to look for them there. In fact, no one even knew about the cabin, couldn’t trace it back to him because it was in a different name just for that reason. The plan was coming together perfectly.
He could get Mike to drop by her house and pack her a suitcase and then get him a few changes of clothes. He could meet them in a few hours and they could get on the road, would be there by nightfall. Hell, Nathan could even call the caretaker and have the man make sure the cabinets and refrigerator were stocked and the place was ready for them.
Nathan turned to her and smiled, in spite of himself. “It’s not a bad idea at all.”
“I’m a big girl. I don’t need a babysitter,” she groaned miserably.
“That’s a good thing because I don’t plan on babysitting you. My only priority is to keep you safe.”
Rolling her eyes and puffing out an exaggerated breath, Jessica bit out angrily, “How lucky for me!”
“Are you always this sarcastic and bitchy or is it just me?” he tossed back at her, a mocking grin spread across his face.
Jessie stared at him for a long moment, realizing how difficult she was being but not really caring. In her defense, she was in the middle of a crisis here and scared out of her mind. For the first time in her life, she didn’t feel like being happy go lucky or placatory. She felt like being aggressive and uncompromising. Her life had fallen to pieces all in a matter of a day and being nice was the last thing on her mind.
“Pardon me for not being miss congeniality, but in case you’ve missed it, my life is pretty much in shambles right now. So…” She shrugged as if that simple gesture said it all.
Nathan chuckled. “It’s not an apology, but it will do.”
Jessie opened her mouth to object but closed it tight quickly. What was she doing? This man was trying to keep her safe, had promised to help her and she was treating him like shit. No matter what she was going through at the moment, she knew she had no right to take her anger and fear out on him. “I’m sorry,” she finally whispered, shaking her head at her own foolishness. “I’m just really tired and mentally drained and… Sheriff Benson, don’t think I don’t appreciate what you’re trying to do for me.”
He couldn’t explain why he felt so drawn to her, felt the overwhelming need to watch over her. Maybe it was just the cop in him or… he just didn’t know. All he knew was that he needed to shake whatever he was feeling. He could not afford for this woman to get to him, for their association to become personal. However, they were going to be spending quite a bit of time together alone in a cramped space. If nothing else, they at least needed to find an even ground.
“Look, the name is Nathan. No more of that Sheriff Benson bullshit. Okay?”
“And what do you prefer? Jessica or Jessie?”
“Jessie,” she replied softly.
“Okay, Jessie, we have to lay out some ground rules.”
“What kind of ground rules?”
“When we get to where we’re going, you are not allowed to go anywhere without me. You are not to call anyone on the phone or tell anyone where you are. Do you understand?”
“But… I have to talk to my grandmother. She is bound to be worried about me.”
“I will have an officer visit her and explain the situation to her.”
“Jessie, you have to trust me. No one can know where we are or even that you’re awake.”
She bit her bottom lip and nodded, the sadness evident in her expression.
Nathan reached over and brushed his hand across her cheek, grasping her by the chin and tilting her head so that she was forced to look into his eyes. “I know this is hard on you and I know that it’s unfair. But you have to trust me. Can you do that?”
Jessie swallowed hard. “It’s strange. I don’t even know you, yet you’re the only person I do trust right now.”
Nathan could see the vulnerability in her expression, read the helplessness in her eyes and it was his undoing. He quickly released her and took a step away, feeling something inside of him take over that was foreign and completely frightening.
“I need to make a few phone calls and talk to your doctor. Give me one hour and I’ll get you out of here,” Nathan replied harshly and turned away from her.
He didn’t wait for her to reply, knowing that he needed to get out of the room and get some air. Once outside, he shut the door and leaned against it, silently berating himself. This was going to get messy if he let his feelings get involved. He would not allow himself to be attracted to this woman, yet… Nathan couldn’t control it. He had felt it the moment he had touched her, the instant her eyes had met his for the first time. If he didn’t watch it, this was going to get very personal very fast and he’d end up having to protect her from himself just as much as he would the murderer.
* * * *
Jessie stared out the window of her hospital room, feeling vacant and empty. It was hard for her to accept the truth, that Sherry, Maria, and Karen were dead. In spite of all their flaws and imperfections, they were good people and even better friends. They had been there for her when she needed them most and that counted for everything.
Despite their obvious differences, they had all four been close. They had fought together as well as they laughed together. The fact that she would never hear their voices again or see their faces made her want to scream, to hit something as hard as she could. Sadness was undeniable. But guilt was overtaking her more. Why had she been allowed to live when they had died? What was the fairness in that?
Jessie felt the tears burning the back of her throat and covered her trembling mouth with the back of her hand. Sherry Phillips, Maria Melendez, and Karen Shephard were dead, were gone forever. And as much as she bitched about them, she loved them and would miss them with every fiber of her being.
Closing her eyes, she sent up a silent prayer for her fallen friends, pleading with whatever higher power that was listening. She just wanted them to be happy, to be void of pain and suffering wherever they were. And for herself, she prayed for the strength to get through what she was sure was going to be the most difficult time she had ever witnessed in her life. She didn’t want to remember that night but knew that she had to… for the sake of the three women who had been such a big part of her life and had left it so abruptly. She didn’t want to remember but knew that she needed to.