Deadly Obsession by Maggie Shayne (PAPERBACK)
So if the bullshit I wrote was true, then why the hell didn’t I practice what I made so much money preaching? You know, that whole “live in the moment” and “milk the joy out of every second of your life” bit.
I should. I knew I should. It was just a hell of a lot easier to tell other people what to do than to do it myself. Because, seriously, if I were giving advice to me—and I was, because my inner bitch never shuts the hell up—the conversation would go something like this:
Inner Bitch: “Say it back.”
Me: “I can’t say it back.”
IB: “Why the hell can’t you? He said it. He laid it right out there for you. He said, I love you. And what did you say back to him?”
Me, flooded with shame: “I said, ‘You’re shitting me.'”
IB: “Yeah. Real romantic.”
Me: “I was fucking surprised. Shocked. I wasn’t ready.” IB: “No one’s ever ready, dumb-ass. You still have to say it back.”
Me: “It’s too late now. I let the moment pass.” IB: “He’s waiting for you to say it back.”
Me: “Or maybe he’s changed his mind. He hasn’t said it again, after all.”
IB: “Why would he say it again? That would be like sticking his finger into a socket for the second time, hoping for a different result. Say it. Or you’re gonna lose him.”
Me: “I’m not gonna lose him.”
I glanced across the car at my favorite cop and silenced the imaginary conversation in my head. Actually, it wasn’t all that imaginary. My inner bitch and I had been having it over and over again since that night by the campfire a couple of weeks ago when I’d absolutely blown the chance to move this relationship up to the next level.
And I was sure there was no getting that moment back.
I was also sure that things had been a little awkward between Mason and me since then. My fault, I knew. I hadn’t responded the way I wished I had. But dammit, I was scared shitless to think of changing anything about this thing between the two of us. It was good. It was more than good. It was freakin’ amazing. It was bliss. Why fix what isn’t broken? Why move things to another place when the place they’re in is so damned wonderful? Why risk screwing it up? Why?
He looked at me, caught me staring. “What? Have I got fettuccine on my face?”
“No. You have gorgeous on your face. It’s all over you, in fact. Damn irritating.”
He smiled, flashing the dimple of doom. “Thanks.”
Say it. Tell him. Just tell him. You can’t leave him hanging another minute.
I hated to admit it, but Inner Bitch was kinda right.
“So,” I said, as we rounded a corner, “Mason, um, I’ve been meaning to, uh, you know talk to you about—”
“Holy shit!” He hit the brakes so hard that my seat belt hurt me. Then he jerked the wheel, gunned the car to get us out of the road and hit the brakes again. I saw the flames, then the people standing around outside—one filming everything on his damn smartphone—and then Mason was getting out of the car and shouting at me to call 911 as he ran toward the chaos.
“Mason, wait, where the hell are you—” I jumped out of the car, too, phone to my ear, running after him.
“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
“Um, house fire. Big one. Right off State Route 26 near Glenn Aubry.”
“Yes, help is on the way, ma’am.”
I clicked off and shoved the phone into my pocket, running now, despite my killer heels, because Mason hadn’t slowed down. Someone was screaming that there were kids trapped inside, and I wanted to punch them in the face, because there would be no stopping him now. Mason and kids was like me and…bulldogs.
Somehow I caught up to him and grabbed his arm from behind. Smoke stung my eyes and throat, and the heat was like a living thing. There was roaring and smoke, that acrid smell of burning stuff that wasn’t like any other smell. House fires didn’t smell like wood fires or campfires. They smelled like destruction.
He glanced back at me, removed my hand firmly, looked me right in the eyes and said, “I have to.”
“I know you do.” Dammit, dammit, dammit.
And then he was gone again, pulling his shirt up over his face and charging right through the front door, into the jaws of hell.
I swore it got hotter and wondered if that was because he’d just provided additional fuel.
You really should’ve told him.
“I know, Inner Bitch. I know.”
I stood there for what felt like a hundred and ten minutes but in truth was really only two. Fire trucks came screaming up. I ran over to the first one that stopped, jumped up on the running board and yanked the door open, startling the firefighters inside. “Hurry. My detective is in there!”
“Someone said there were kids inside. Detective Mason Brown went charging in to save them. Go get them out. Now.”
“We’ve got a cop inside!” the driver shouted to his fellows as he jumped out. By then more men were jumping out of the other trucks. Hoses had been unrolled and water was cranked on. They all started beating the hell out of the flames with their hoses. A couple of them, wearing so much gear I didn’t know how they could walk upright, ran inside.
I’d never seen anything like this fire. No matter how much water they put onto it, it kept burning, kept coming back to life, like one of those trick birthday candles you can’t blow out. The crowd had backed up into the street now. Neighbors in their bathrobes and slippers, some of them even barefoot, shaking their heads and muttering to each other, and hugging their kids close to them. I glimpsed them in my peripheral vision but couldn’t take my eyes off the front door. Flames were shooting from the roof and licking out from every window. I was way too close. My face felt like it was getting an extreme sunburn. Someone grabbed my arm and said I should move back, but I just jerked away from his touch and stared at that door.
“Universe, if you take him from me, I swear I’ll never write another word. Don’t you dare even think about—”
Then I saw him. Mason came stumbling out the front door with a limp, unmoving child in each arm, their heads bouncing against his shoulders. They were both bundled in blankets. He wasn’t. His whole face was black with soot and he dropped to his knees before he even got clear of the flaming wreck of a house, just at the bottom of the front steps. Firefighters surged around him. The first two took the kids, unmoving in their blankets, and the next two picked Mason up by either arm and carried him across the lawn. Someone shoved a gurney under him, and his bearers dropped him onto it as it trundled toward a waiting ambulance.
The crowd closed between us, but I fought my way through it to get to his side, elbowed myself up close, grabbed hold of his hand, and saw that the skin was peeling off it and sticking to mine. I sort of yelped and yanked my hand away, and swore and cried all at once. The EMTs were working quickly, putting an oxygen mask on him and then cutting away his shirt to reveal that his left arm was badly burned, and the flesh underneath was trying to come away with the ravaged fabric.
Oh, God, it looked awful! They draped a clean white cloth over his arm and started soaking it in bottles of sterile water. I’d lost track of the kids. I think they’d been put into the back of another ambulance, and I knew they were as surrounded by EMTs as Mason was. But I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His eyes were closed. He wasn’t moving.
When one of the guys adjusted the oxygen mask, he smeared the black away from Mason’s cheek, and I realized it was soot, not charred skin, and almost sank to the ground in relief.
Someone grabbed me by the shoulders. “Easy, ma’am. Easy. Are you family?”
“Yeah.” I blinked. “No. Is he. God, is he.?”
“He’s alive. His vitals are good. Not great, but good. We’ve gotta get him into a burn unit. We’re gonna airlift him to Saint Joe’s. It’s the closest one. All right?”
“Airlift him?” Oh, God, it was bad. It was bad.
“Can you let his family know?”
Oh, God, the boys! And his mother. I nodded, mutely. “But I have to go with him.”
“You can’t, ma’am. We need room to work on him. If he has family, they’re gonna need your help more than he does. I promise, he’s in good hands.”
Already they were moving the stretcher into the back of the ambulance. I jerked free of the EMT and lunged toward Mason and leaned in close to his face, “I love you, too, Mason. I love you, too.”
But he couldn’t hear me. I’d waited too long. Dammit, I’d waited too long!
Then they peeled me off him and put him into the ambulance. It sped away screaming. I turned in a slow circle, not knowing what the hell to do next. I saw the ambulance with the children inside just as they closed the doors, but I had time enough to see them working on the kids. They must be alive, too, then.
Not so the body on the front lawn. The firemen who’d gone inside must have brought it out after Mason had emerged. It had a blanket over it. Too big to be a child. I hoped.
They were finally making progress beating down the flames. One of the firemen said something about gas, but I didn’t have time to listen. I had to go. I had to get to the boys, Mason’s nephews, who were at my place with Myrtle and my nieces.
Oh, Lord, how was I going to handle this?
I got into Mason’s oversize black Monte Carlo, his pride and joy. I had tears streaming from my eyes. I couldn’t let the kids see me like this. I didn’t know what to do. So I pulled my phone out of my pocket, stared at it for a long moment, and then I did the best thing I could think of.
I called my sister.
“Snap the fuck out of it!”
I’d been in midrant, complete with hiccuping sobs, when my big sister, who never even said damn, brought my runaway emotions to a sudden halt.
“Do I have your attention?” Sandra asked.
“Okay, first. Set the phone on your lap and put me on speaker so you don’t get killed, okay?”
Apparently she’d discerned from my initial projectile word vomit that I was driving while having a complete breakdown and talking on the phone. I did what she said and paid attention to the road. If I wrecked Mason’s ride he’d never forgive me. If he lived.
God, let him live.
“I’m going to meet you at your place, Rachel. But before you get there, I want you to pull yourself together. Right now.”
“But I don’t know how bad it is. I don’t even know if he’s going to—”
“Yeah, and you know what? Neither do those boys.”
Cold water in the face might have been as effective. But I doubted it.
“They’re kids. Their father is dead, and their mother is in a maximum-security nuthatch. At this moment, you are all they have, Rachel. You need to step up for this. It’s important.”
That brought me to full attention. I sat up straighter, and my tears dried up like they’d never been there. “I don’t know what to do for them, sis.”
“You go in there and you tell them the truth in the most positive manner possible. Live your books for once. Tell them you’ve got no reason to think he won’t be just fine, and make sure you sound confident when you do. If you look scared or uncertain, they’re gonna be terrified. They need a mother figure. So talk to them. Reassure them, and most of all, make sure they know that you’re there for them, no matter what happens to their uncle.”
I blinked hard, because those words hit me deep. I did not want to be a mother figure to those kids. I’d said it over and over.
“You would, wouldn’t you, Rache?”
“Be there for the boys if anything happened to Ma—”
“Yeah. I would.” And it was the truth, even if I had only just realized it. I was shocked, to be honest. I’d become way more attached to the dynamic duo than I’d been aware of. Josh was like Myrtle’s freakin’ littermate, and Jeremy was Mason’s mini-me, with a fair amount of teenage angst (most of it hard-earned) thrown in.
“Then you have to let them know that.”
“I’ll be there by the time you arrive.”
“Now hang up and call his mother.”
“Aw, jeez, Sandra—”
“Tell her not to drive. I’ll send Jim to pick her up and drive her in. Tell her he’ll be there soon. Just as fast as he can.”
“Hang in there, sis.”
I nodded hard, disconnected, thanked my lucky stars for a big sister who knew how to talk to me and called Mason’s mother. She took it pretty well, I thought, and I did a great job holding it together as I tried to reassure her, and told her my brother-in-law was on his way to pick her up.
And then I was home, rolling slowly through the wrought-iron gates I’d left open and along the driveway up to the my house. My haven. I shut off the engine, got out, then stood there a second looking at my front door like I was looking at my own grave. I did not want to walk in there and blow those kids’ lives to hell and gone. How much more could they take?
Then Sandra’s minivan pulled in behind me. The headlights shut off, and she was out and hugging me hard before I even took another breath.
It made me choke up when she hugged me, so I pushed her away, wiped at my eyes, looked into hers. “How’s my face?”
She took a tissue out of her purse and dabbed some smudged makeup away. “You’re good. You can do this.”
Nodding, I marched up the front steps, opened the door and stepped inside.
Joshua, Jeremy, and Sandra’s daughter Misty were playing video games on the sofa. Jere and Misty sat close enough so their elbows were bumping. Ah, young love. My other niece, Christy, who I think was trying out for the role of the bad twin lately, sat in a chair off to one side, her nose glued to her smartphone.
Myrtle was the only one who noticed we’d come in, and she came barreling across the living room unerringly and bashed me in the shins with her forehead, which was her typical greeting. I yelped, because bulldogs have skulls made of lead, and the kids finally noticed us there, paused their game and turned our way.
Jeremy met my eyes and went a shade paler. “What happened? Where’s Uncle Mason?”
I drew a breath. “Your uncle was hurt a little while ago. He’s going to be okay, though. They’re taking him to the hospital. We’re all going to meet him there, okay?”
Joshua blinked slowly and didn’t say a word. He looked terrified. They both got off the sofa, moving toward us.
Jeremy said, “Hurt how?”