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       Inferno, p.1

         Part #4 of SKALS series by Adriana Noir
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  Sebastian plowed a hand through his hair, his pale stare never wavering from the building. Hatred and fear rolled in his stomach, pitching the meager contents of his lunch. The Benz’s stiff leather steering wheel creaked beneath his tightening grasp. One way or another, he was going to have to push thoughts of Project Blue aside. He was going to have to fight through the sickness knotting his gut, and he was going to have to face Marx without letting the smug bastard catch on to what he knew. Releasing a ragged breath, he pulled the key from the ignition with a rueful shake of his head. He’d never been one to shirk his responsibilities or push them aside, but after seven years of service, the prospect of stepping inside SKALS headquarters had never felt more cold or damning.   His shoulders slumped as he eased out of his vehicle and squinted against the midday sun. All too soon, the darkness and grim grey walls would close in around him. Today, it felt as if the bleached concrete complex would swallow him whole. Sebastian scrubbed a hand over his face and tried to pull himself back together. Death waited for no one here. It prowled the grim corridors and slithered beneath cold steel doors, claiming its victims at will. He held no illusions. One solitary misstep and it would claim him too. This was the devil’s playground. Here was where evil felt most at home.   A cold chill rippled down his arms when the first blast of air-conditioning washed over his skin. After nodding at the guards stationed inside, he made his way through the dimly lit labyrinth, his body on autopilot. Sometimes, it was better not to think, not to feel. Seeking distraction, he fished out his phone and scrolled through his messages. The silenced call from Josh stared back at him along with an accusing text message.   Where the hell are you, Baas? Call me back.   Brow knitting with his frown, he keyed in a quick response.   I’m here now. What do you want?   He shot the guard stationed outside his office a cursory glance. Tension hummed through the big man, and his expression was more anxious than usual. Their eyes locked and Sebastian knew Marx loomed, waiting on the other side of the door. Drawing a deep breath, he pushed it open, his narrowed gaze riveting on the broad span of the director’s back as he helped himself to a tumbler of whiskey. Marx downed the contents with a muffled grunt before turning. His full lips quirked at the corners, accenting the contented gleam in his eyes.   “There you are,” he said, his deep voice rolling like a low peal of thunder through the room. “I was starting to wonder if you were even going to bother showing up today. ”   “Why wouldn’t I?” Sebastian asked, shutting the door behind him. Giving Marx a wide berth, he strolled across his office and thumbed through the new stack of papers piled on the corner of his desk.   “It’s hard to tell with you lately, Baas. You seem to have acquired the habit of doing as you please. Where were you?”   Careful to keep his expression neutral, he studied the commander, trying to gauge his mood. It was a moot question. Little, if anything, escaped the director’s attention. Marx was fully aware he’d spent the morning talking to Colleen James. The suspicious glint fueling the dark pits of his eyes said as much, as did the stern set of his jaw. Shifting his attention, Sebastian straightened the paperwork before rounding the corner and stationing himself behind his chair. He was still reeling from the impact Project Blue had delivered to his system, and it was best to keep as much distance between them as possible until he had a chance to process that information and cool down.   “Skip the interrogation, Marx,” he said flatly. “You know the answer to that as well as I do. ”   “Indeed, I do,” the director agreed. “What I would like to know is what you were doing there?”   “I was following up on the case. It was my understanding you wanted Patrick James located as quickly as possible. I felt given her treatment here yesterday, she might be a little more eager to assist. ”   “I see,” Marx stated. He lifted a heavy brow. “And was she?”   “She’s working on it. ”   Marx’s broad shoulders jerked in a show of amusement. “I’m sure she is. Let me give you a gentle reminder here, Agent Baas. There are rules and protocols to be followed, one of which is not running off on renegade missions of your own. The next time you feel the need to follow up on information, clear it with me and be sure to take one of your teammates with you. Is there a problem between yourself and Agent Reevers that I should be aware of?”   Sebastian’s eyes constricted into thin slits upon seeing the look of satisfaction dancing across the commander’s craggy face. Obviously, that kind of discord was exactly what the bastard was hoping for. The prick didn’t even bother trying to mask his optimism. He felt the muscles along his jaw jump in a dangerous twitch as the familiar burn of rage bubbled through his veins.     “Sorry to disappoint you,” he bit out, “but not that I know of. ”   He stiffened as the door flung open without warning and shoved them both into a hate-fueled silence. Tilting his head, he regarded his partner.     Josh’s chest heaved as his bewildered gaze darted between them. Pausing, he scrubbed a hand across his nape. Uncertainty replaced some of the panic stamped across the sharp angles of his partner’s face.   “Can we help you, Agent Reevers?” Marx asked with more than a twinge of sarcasm.   “I just…what are you doing here, Baas?”   His normally smooth baritone was strained, incredulous. Sebastian’s brow lowered and knitted in confusion.   “Where else would I be?” he asked.   “Perhaps you’ve forgotten how to knock, Joshua. Or maybe you failed to notice we are in the middle of a meeting. Either way, I suggest you remove yourself from this room and find something useful to occupy your time,” Marx interrupted.   “But…”   “Now, Reevers!”   The commander’s harsh bark was almost deafening. Sebastian flinched, unable to help the grimace that rose with the renewed throb behind his sinuses. Something close to pleading haunted Josh’s eyes as they locked with his from across the room. He watched with more than a twinge of curiosity as helplessness and frustration played across his partner’s face like a kaleidoscope before he departed with a slow shake of his head. The uneasy feeling returned full force. Whatever it was, it was important. Something was wrong. His heart stutter-stopped in his chest.   Had something happened to his sister or one of the kids? His piercing gaze swung to their director and narrowed in question. What the hell was Marx trying to hide this time?   It was hard to tamp down the suspicion and accusations, especially knowing what he did. Marx’s power trip wasn’t just threatening his family this time around. It was life and the entire world, as he knew it. His fingers bit deep into the back of the padded office chair to keep from curling around his gun.   “You need to get your men under control. ”   Clenching his jaw, Sebastian forced a stiff nod.     “I want a full report on your conversation with Mrs. James within the hour. I suggest you get it done before then. ”   Blowing out a forceful breath, he watched the commander leave. He raked his hands through his hair, giving the disheveled curls a wild tug before dropping into his chair. He didn’t have time to confer with his team about what he had learned, let alone see what had Josh in an uproar. Part of him knew that was exactly what Marx intended, but it was better to play along, at least for the moment, than risk another long stint in one of the reconditioning cells. After pouring himself a drink, Sebastian downed the sweet amaretto whiskey with a grimace. Perhaps it was better this way. Every time he thought about Project Blue, or what Marx’s plans with the program might entail, his stomach burned, panic threatened, and fear started to get the upper hand. There was no room for that here. Here in the land of death, only cold calculation and anger were allowed to breathe.       After dropping the report on Marx’s desk, he prowled the corridor, searching for his partner. Despite the distractions menial paperwork provided, he couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling seeping into his bones. Frowning, he keyed in his partner’s number. He tensed at the sound of the phone ringing down the hall and disconnected the call. Josh appeared around the corner a few seconds later. Frustration and worry gat
hered in creases around his steely eyes.   “There you are. Jesus, it’s about time,” Josh hissed.   “I got to you as soon as I could. What’s wrong?”   “When is the last time you checked in on Taylor?” Josh asked, glancing over his shoulder before closing the distance between them.   “I haven’t talked to her since I left the house this morning. She was going to run some errands with Rupert and check in with me this afternoon. Why?”   “I’ve been trying to get ahold of you all morning. There was some kind of accident. The call came in a little bit ago. I overheard Marx talking to the hospital, and I’m guessing it was pretty bad. As soon as he found out it wasn’t you in the car, he started looking for ways to tie you up. You gotta get out of here, Seb. Go see what’s up. I’ll cover for you as best I can. ”   The world droned in and out around him as he backed away and tried to process that last dose of information. First Blue and now this. It was too much. Just too damn much. Plowing a hand through his hair, he shot his partner a parting glance and made a beeline for the front entrance. His guts felt lodged in his throat as he shoved the doors open and shouldered past the guards hard enough to send one of them stumbling back on his heels. He offered no apologies. His steps quickened as he strode toward the Benz, fully expecting Marx’s deep voice to shatter the silence behind him. It wasn’t until he slid behind the steering wheel that he let out the breath he’d been holding. His hands shook as he fumbled for his keys, his gaze darting to the front doors. After several tries, he finally managed to jamb it into the slot. Gunning the gas, he threw the car into reverse and peeled out of the parking lot with a shrill bark of the tires.   The drive to Flagstaff seemed to take forever. Sebastian cursed traffic lights and drivers alike, his balled fists slamming against the steering wheel in agitation anytime either got in his way. Sweat slicked his palms and traced his temples by the time he skidded into one of the parking spaces near the emergency room entrance.   Guilt twisted his insides as he remembered silencing Josh’s call. How many more precious minutes had he wasted? Was he too late?   The thought was almost more than he could bear.   Sebastian’s heart pounded in the base of his throat as he pushed the doors open and scanned his surroundings. Plowing both hands through his hair, his eyes darted over the vast sea of white, blue, and green uniforms, searching for someone to help him. Despite the abundance of staff, he’d never felt more helpless or alone. Reaching out, he snared the nearest doctor, his fingers curling around the sleeve of the man’s starched lab coat.   “I’m looking for someone,” he explained, his voice strained as he flashed his badge. “Her name is Taylor. She’s twenty-one, long dark hair, grey eyes. She was in a car accident. ” The doctor’s gaze shifted pointedly to the death grip Sebastian maintained on his coat. Flushing, he forced himself to let go. “Please,” he added with a hint of desperation.   The man’s warm, brown eyes softened and he nodded as he smoothed his clothes. “We have a Jane Doe matching that description, but I’m afraid I can’t give out much more information. ”   “I need to see her. I need to know if she’s okay. ”   The man studied him for a long moment, his warm brown eyes both gentle and intense as he mulled those words over. After several long seconds, his high, smooth forehead creased, and he gave a thoughtful nod. “I see. I believe she’s still undergoing some tests. I’ll check on her status. You’re more than welcome to wait here. ”   Swallowing against the lump in his throat, Sebastian drew a measured breath and scanned the waiting room, but he saw no sign of Taylor’s burly Cajun bodyguard. Pushing his worry aside, he ignored the doctor’s suggestion and followed the man through the set of doors leading past triage and into the corridor housing the patients.   The doctor stopped short outside one of the rooms. He seemed to draw himself up, extending his lanky height, before he squared his shoulders and tuned to face Sebastian.     “I believe I asked you to wait outside. ”   He studied the laminated identification tag clipped to the front of the man’s coat before leveling his gaze. “That isn’t going to happen, Dr. Polaski. This woman means a great deal to me on both a personal and a professional level, and I’m not about to let her out of my sight. You can either deal with that fact, or you can try to remove me yourself. ”   “And risk you slapping me with assault or federal charges?” the man asked dryly.   Sebastian forced a cold smile. “We all have choices to make in life. ”   Giving a disgruntled shake of his head, the doctor opened the door and stepped aside, allowing Sebastian access to the vacant room. His knees wobbled as he took in the small pile of tattered and bloody clothing discarded in the corner, and he braced a hand against the wall to steady himself. Pride be damned, the fear of losing her was starting to get the better of him. Blinking against the bitter sting in his eyes, his shoulders slumped. Something close to a prayer bordered on his lips. Deity or devil, it didn’t matter which. He would have gladly promised the blackened remains of his soul to either if it meant saving her.   “It shouldn’t be much longer,” the doctor stated softly, some of his reservations fading. “They took her up about thirty minutes ago. ”   Sebastian turned on his heels, almost grateful for the distraction. “Are you the physician treating her?”   “Yes. ”   A mute nod was all he could manage. As much as he wanted to press for more information, the words remained locked in his throat. Cinching his hands behind his back, Sebastian moved to the door and searched the hall for any sign of Taylor.   “What do you know?” he asked once his back was turned and his emotions were somewhat shielded.   “Not much at this point. She was unconscious when they brought her in. She took some nasty blows on impact. The tests should tell us more. ”   Sebastian released a shaky breath. His fingers knotted tighter behind his back. “You have to be careful with her. She’s…she’s expecting, but please don’t put that on her paperwork. Not yet. ”   “Thank you. That’s very valuable information to have. We try not take any unnecessary risks with women until their condition is clear. I will let the rest of the staff know. ”    “There was a large gentleman with a scar and a heavy accent riding in the car with her. Where is he?”   “I believe he is under Dr. Jacob’s, care. Would you like me to check on his status?”   “Yes, please,” Sebastian stated quietly.   The silence and stillness that followed was numbing. Dropping into a chair stationed near the vacant slot where the bed used to be, he scrubbed a hand over the tension and worry that tightened his face. His eyes burned with unshed emotion and his breath left him in a shaky exhale. The hustle and bustle of the hospital echoed around him, the sound of soft sneaker soles slapping against linoleum, the ragged coughs and groans of the elderly and ailed, the rhythmic whir and beep of machinery, but his world—his entire life—stood completely and utterly still.       ~*~*~*~           The sense of being somewhere unfamiliar and strange filtered through the fragmented dreams surrounding Taylor. A cool, comfortable darkness enveloped her, but the faint medicinal smell clinging to the inside of her nose pulled her from her slumber. Fighting their leaden weight, she forced her eyes to flutter open and blinked against the elongated shadows blanketing the room. The gentle whir of machines and rhythmic beeps set her heart pounding in her chest. A keening whimper pushed past her lips, and her body throbbed in protest as she struggled to sit up. Lifting a shaking hand, she fingered the Steri-stips stretched above her left eye and winced at the searing pain still shooting through her skull. Her eyes darted around the room before settling on the hazy outline of the man dozing beside her bed. The memories came crashing back full force and Taylor pressed a hand to her mouth to smother her cry.     The other flew to her abdomen in a moment of blind panic.   Her stomach churned, and for one terrifying moment, she feared she would get sick as the sounds of crunching metal and splintering glass replayed in her ears. It all still felt so real. So fresh. Horrified, she winced as Sebastian’s sleeping form came into view.   The five o’clock shadow usually dotting his face had darkened to a seven, and his pristine uniform hung disheveled and rumpled on his frame. Thick, sandy curls stood on end in wild disarray and it looked like he’d aged years since the last time she’d seen him. Her
eyes settled on the dull glint of the silver skull and crossbones still clipped to his collar and a crushing guilt consumed her as Taylor realized he hadn’t been home.   Her brow knitted as Sebastian sat up and stretched with a grunt. Yawning, he ran his hands over his hair to smooth it down and glanced her way. He rocked forward with surprising speed and grace, his sage eyes widening. She watched him glance at the monitors beside her bed and her breath caught as those piercing green pools once again swung her way.   “Baby, thank God you’re awake. How are you feeling?” he asked. His voice was husky and broken with remnants of sleep and concern.   “Okay,” she whispered. “My head hurts. ”   “I know, sweetie. ”   The back of her throat closed around a lump. Her eyes drifted shut and she tensed as she felt him slide into bed beside her. The burgeoning sense of guilt she felt threatened to crush her. So many questions burned unanswered on the tip of her tongue. She struggled to find a way to fight through the fog and spit them out, but she was so scared the answers wouldn’t be ones she wanted to hear. The mere thought alone made her want to cry.   “The baby…” she choked, her hands fluttering instinctually to her stomach.   “Shh. It’s okay, sweetheart. Both of you are going to be okay. You’re all right,” he soothed, pressing a tender kiss against her temple.   Relief swept over her and the lump strangling her lessened enough that she could breathe.   “How?” she trailed off, uncertain how to ask. Talking alone felt so foreign and draining.   “I had them do an ultrasound while they still had you listed as a Jane Doe. Your doctor is a very kind and understanding man who promised to keep those results separate from your records. Our little one is healthy and safe. Everything is fine, sweetheart. ”   “You got to see it?”   She could feel him smile against the top of her head as he wrapped his arms around her and nodded. “I did. They let me hear the heartbeat and everything. You’re around eleven weeks along,” he murmured.     “Eleven weeks,” she whispered. “That’s almost three months. ”   “I know. You must have gotten pregnant the very first time we were together after the attack. ”   She smiled, comforted by his words and the memories that came with them. “In the shower,” she mused.   Sebastian’s soft chuckle filled the room. “More than likely. ”   She peered at him, trying to contain her amusement.   “What?” he asked, pinning her with a questioning look.   “You weren’t kidding about the super breed. Your little guys really do know how to swim. ”   Laughing softly beneath his breath, he offered a knowing wink.   “I’d hate to see what happens when you try. ”   The comment drew his attention. Turning slightly, Sebastian leaned over her, his lips curling with a contented smirk. Trapping her beneath his stare, he let his gaze roam over her at a leisurely pace.   “You’ll find out someday, darling. That much I promise,” he said, issuing the last word in a hot whisper against her ear.   Taylor’s cheeks flushed as she shifted against his side and tried to nudge him away. “You’re horrible. ”   “Mmm. That I am,” he agreed, tracing a reverent path along the underside of her jaw. “But you love me. ”   “I do. I’m just trying to figure out why. ”   He clicked his tongue at the barb and tipped her chin up with an admonishing shake of his head. “Careful, sweetheart. You’re going to make me feel I have something to prove. ”   Her shoulders jerked with silent amusement. Turning her head, she rested her cheek against the warm, reassuring strength of his body. The movement brought a fresh wave of pain and she stiffened. Sebastian adjusted her, turning her slightly into him and soon, his cool fingertips settled above her brow and rubbed in gentle circles. It amazed her how much relief the subtle pressure brought.   “Rupert,” she asked. “Is he…”   “Shh. He’s fine, Taylor. He has some cuts and he took a beating, but he’s going to be okay. They released him this morning. ”   “How long have you been here?” she asked, bracing herself for the answer. The last time she woke up in a room like this, she’d learned she’d lost three weeks of her life.   “Since yesterday,” Sebastian stated softly. “You’ve been in and out for the last few hours. They wanted to keep you comfortable and keep an eye on your head. We should be able to go home soon though now that you’re awake. ”   She let out a thankful breath. “Good. You really need to wash up and change. ”   The teasing helped lighten the atmosphere some. A small smile curved her lips as she felt Sebastian shake beneath her.   “It’s probably not my best look,” he admitted with a sheepish smirk. “But it’s nothing a hot shower and a shave won’t fix. Now you on the other hand…”   “I…” she faltered, her words fading as she fingered the butterfly sutures stretched above her eye. “Is it really that bad?”   Sebastian sighed. “No, baby. You will always be beautiful. Especially to me. I was just trying to be funny and failed. ”   She fought a smile. “I hate to say it, but you did. You really do need a better sense of humor, Sebby. ”   “So I’ve been told. ” A long silence spanned between them, filling the minutes with an uneasy tension. Sebastian broke it by burying his face in her hair and pulling the scent of her deep into his lungs. “I need you to tell me what happened, Taylor. Whatever it is, no matter how bad or how upset you think I will be I need you to tell me the truth. ”   She stiffened, ignoring the pain rolling through her battered body as she tried to focus. The details were fuzzy but bit-by-bit they started to filter back to her. The memories chilled her to the core and spawned a bone-numbing fear. Fear of Marx, of SKALS, of all the unseen threats that seemed to lurk, waiting, around every turn. Part of her wanted to cry, to ask God one simple question: Why? Hadn’t they been through enough already? Caution advised her to keep silent. For whatever reason, posing such rhetorical questions only tended to make things worse, like you were tempting fate.   They had done enough of that lately, too.   Settling against him, she let her eyes drift shut once again and released a shaky sigh.   “I don’t know, Seb. I really don’t. ” She bit the inside corner of her mouth for a second and shook her head as much as she could muster. “It’s kind of blurry, but I remember the car started acting funny. We hadn’t even made it halfway down the road yet and it started shimmying and shaking. I was trying to make it to the shopping plaza so I could pull over and pop the hood. I’m no expert, but I had to jimmy things in the pickup truck so many times I thought I might be able to figure it out. The stoplight changed, but when I tried to brake, nothing happened. I put the pedal to the floor, I tried pumping it, but nothing,” she said, her breath coming quicker as she remembered gliding through the open intersection and the absolute panic that came before the deafening crunch of metal and splintering glass. “I tried everything, but I just couldn’t stop, Sebby. I couldn’t stop…”   “Shh. Okay. It’s okay. ” He frowned against her temple, his fingers never stopping their soothing massage. “I’m trying to understand here, but it doesn’t make any sense, baby. The car is brand new. It didn’t even have a hundred miles on it yet and an issue with the motor wouldn’t affect the brakes. ”   “I know…but that’s what happened, Seb. I swear. I’m so sorry. The car is totaled, isn’t it?”   “Yeah, sweetheart. It is, but I don’t give a damn about that. All that matters is that you and the baby are okay. I’m just trying to figure out what happened here, Taylor. That’s all. ”   “I don’t know. I really don’t. ”   “Okay,” he murmured, his voice coming in a calming rumble. “I’m sorry I’m pushing, but this is important. I need you to think back for me. Think back to the beginning. Did you notice anything strange before you got in the car? Anything at all. ”   She frowned. The throbbing inside her skull intensified as she struggled to fight her way through the hazy memories crowding her brain. Then she sat up, a cold trickle of fear crawling down her spine. Turning as much as she could against his chest, she searched his eyes through the shadows.   “This wasn’t just some freak accident, was it?”   “I don’t know. Right now, I just want to take every precaution. Think for me, sweetheart. ”   Her brow knitted in concentration. She winced feeling the small beads of sweat condense on her forehead. It was bad enough being in the hospital without stewing in your own fluids.   “There was something strange,” she said,
“but I don’t know if it has anything to do with what happened or not. ”   “No detail is too small. Tell me what you remember,” Sebastian coaxed.   “There was a man who caught my attention when we were putting the cart away. I probably wouldn’t have noticed him, but his hair was a blindingly bright silver that glinted in the sun. He was walking at a brisk pace and he didn’t have any groceries that I could see. Just a funny briefcase. That’s what really caught my attention. ”   “Funny how?”   “It wasn’t a typical business binder. It was boxy and looked like it was plastic. In fact, I remember standing there, almost half expecting the supermarket to blow. I felt silly afterwards when nothing happened. Like I had watched one too many Hollywood action movies. I even made a joke to Rupert about it when he asked what was wrong. I guess it wasn’t as farfetched as it seemed. ”   Sebastian’s forehead knitted. She could almost see him skimming through his memory, seeing if anyone he knew fit that description. They must not have, because he sighed with a frustrated shake of his head.     “Did you see him get into his vehicle?”   “Yeah. It was a sleek SUV. Black, a Navigator I believe. Like I said, it was so typical it wasn’t funny. ”   “What about a license plate? Do you remember anything about it? Any of the letters or digits?”   “No. I looked. I know I did, but I can’t remember now. I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore, Seb. I’m so tired and everything hurts. ”   “Okay, sweetheart. You did good. I’ll look into it. I promise. You just rest and get better,” he said, rubbing her temples. “The only thing I want you to worry about is taking good care of yourself and our baby. ”   Her heart sank upon hearing mention of their child. Her insides twisted as the cold reality of their situation settled over her like a wet blanket. Trying to still the tremble of nerves and pain shimmying through her, Taylor fought to find her voice.   “Do you think Marx might have had something to do with this?”   His hesitation and the deep creases forming in Sebastian’s brow gave her all the answers she needed. After a long moment, his shoulders fell with his exhale and he shook his head. “I don’t know, baby. I wouldn’t put anything past that smug bastard at this point, but one way or another, I swear to you, I will get to the bottom of this. I don’t care what it takes or what I have to do, I will find out who is to blame, and I will make them pay. I don’t care if it’s the dealership or Marx, himself. Someone is going to answer for what they’ve done. ”   The vehemence and anger in his icy rasp sent a cold chill down her spine. Shivering, she draped her hand over his corded forearm and stroked the light dusting of hair there in an effort to soothe them both. “Don’t do this, Seb. Not now. Just stay here and hold me…please?”   He stiffened behind her. “Do what, Taylor?” he asked. “What is it you don’t want me to do?” He craned his head in an attempt to study her face.     She tried to turn away, but the gentle strength of his fingers wrapped around her chin and brought her gaze back to his.     “I won’t just let it go, Taylor. I’m not you. I’m not wired that way. You’re all about forgiveness and compassion, but I can’t afford that luxury. In my line of work, those sort of things will get you killed. I’m not weak, and I’m not going to look the other way. I protect what’s mine. ”   Closing her eyes, she tucked her head beneath his chin and offered a mute nod. There was no point in arguing. Sebastian was smart. Deep down, he had to see it was nothing more than an ugly cycle they were both churning in. Violence and anger only perpetuated more of the same. Someone always had to do one better, to get the last laugh, until, in the end, there was no one left. He knew that. They both did, but there was no changing his mind.   As surprising as it was, it didn’t take much to still her thoughts. Pushing her frustrations aside, she contented herself with focusing on the strong, steady beat of his heart, the familiar comfort of his clean, woodsy smell, and the tiny life the two of them had created. As if sensing her thoughts, his hand spanned across her stomach in a protective cradle. His dimpled smile stretched against her hair in the darkness and his contented rumble vibrated against her.   “I love you, baby. Both of you. No matter what, please remember that. ”   “I will,” she promised. “We love you too. That’s why I’m begging you to be careful. ”   “Always, sweetheart,” he assured her softly. “Now close those beautiful eyes and get some sleep. I’ll be right here with you. I promise. ”   Wrapped in his arms, knowing he was there and would let no harm come to her, the rest of the world seemed a million miles away. Nestling closer, she let Sebastian’s all-encompassing presence envelop her and lull her back into the blissful numbness of her dreams.  
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