Charged, p.30
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       Charged, p.30

           Jay Crownover
 

  I changed my game plan and my direction and started off for the falls. When I hit the crudely worn path that was barely obvious from our last visit, it was clear that people had recently used it. There were several pairs of footprints in the moist earth, including a set that had to be Avett’s because they were tiny and the tread matched the heavy soles of her ever present combat boots. Plants were bent and hanging askew from impatient bodies moving by them and there was a tuft of dark hair caught in the gnarly bark of one of the pine trees that sat off to the side of the trail.

  I rolled my sleeves up even though the temperature seemed to be dropping with each minute that passed. I was so frustrated with the way that my shoes slowed my progress that I kicked them off and pulled off my argyle socks. I hadn’t ran through the woods with bare feet since I was a kid and there was something about having my toes sink into the mud and the undergrowth that immediately took me back to a place that was purely primitive and wholly primal. I wasn’t simply a worried man going after the woman he loved; I was part of the woods, part of the mountains, part of the place I came from and that had formed me.

  I made pretty good time considering the cold and the impending darkness. I was used to the altitude and the strain it took on the lungs and the rest of the body, but I doubted the men I was hunting were. Avett wouldn’t have taken them directly to the drop-off either. I figured she would have done her best to wear her captors out, to buy herself some time so that her folks had a fighting chance to get free.

  When the roar of the falls hit my ears I slowed my pace and ducked off the trail so that my arrival wouldn’t be as visible to the two men that were standing with Avett right at the edge of the falls. Even in the dwindling light, I could see how pale her face was and the black lines that still marked her cheeks from earlier. She was shaking and had her arms wrapped so tightly around herself that she looked even smaller and younger than she normally did. Her terror and vulnerability was being broadcast loud and clear even through the distance that separated us.

  One man was facing her where she had her back to the drop-off. He had a handgun pointed directly at the center of her chest, and he was so close to her that if he pulled the trigger, there was no way he was going to miss a vital part of her. There was another man that was clearly the lookout standing with his back to them as he faced the rapidly blackening woods and scanned the trees. He also had a weapon in his hand, but he was clearly nervous because he kept shifting the gun from hand to hand and his weight from foot to foot. Every time a bird squawked or the squirrels made the trees rustle he looked over his shoulder at his partner and told him to hurry the hell up.

  “We walked two hours through the fucking forest to get up here so there better be some kind of secret pirate cave behind that waterfall, bitch.” The guy with the gun pointed at Avett took a step towards her and she took one back. One more and she would go over the edge, which I was pretty sure had to be her plan all along.

  Slowly, she shook her head from side to side. “I told you, there are no drugs. I told you the night you tried to rape me and I’m telling you now. I had nothing to do with Jared ripping your boss off.”

  Rage, unlike anything I’d ever felt, boiled furious and thick in my blood. The man that was threatening her was the one that had hurt her previously, and all I wanted to do was tear him apart and scatter the pieces into the wind.

  “You need to hurry the fuck up and get over the hard-on you have for that stupid bitch. I think I heard something move out there.”

  The other man swore back at him and waved the gun around. “Stop being paranoid. You need to get your ass out of the city more.”

  “You’re the dumb fuck that believed her when she told you that the drugs were in the woods. What kind of junkie would ever hide drugs out here? Stupid fucker. We don’t even get cell service this far out, so how can you check to see if the guys took care of her parents? You blew it and Acosta is going to have both our asses.”

  I held my breath as their argument escalated. I waited and watched because I needed the guy with the gun pointed at Avett to turn around. I didn’t want to make a move until I knew she was totally out of the line of fire. I couldn’t bear the idea of her catching a bullet on accident.

  “I’m telling you something is out there.”

  “Well, go check it out, then.”

  “Put a goddamn bullet in her and then you go check that shit out. I don’t fucking work for you.”

  The other man turned his head and looked over his shoulder as I eased my way even closer to the rock outcropping.

  “I’m not putting a bullet in her until I finish what I started all those months ago. I hate being denied after I got a taste of something that I know is going to be so sweet.”

  “We don’t have time for that.”

  “We’re making time.”

  My teeth clenched together so tightly I was shocked my back teeth didn’t crack. I watched Avett’s arms fall and I saw her face shift from scared and shaken to serene and calm. I knew what she was going to do before she started to move. I took aim at the guy that was facing the woods and knew there was no more waiting for the right time, because the time was now.

  Avett took a step backwards and the ground disappeared under her as her body vanished over the edge of the rocks. I screamed her name because I couldn’t stop myself from doing so. The crack of gunfire echoed loud and furiously through the gorge as I fired at the same time as the guy aiming at Avett did. Gunpowder was acrid in the air as the guy who was the lookout crumbled to the ground and the other one turned to fire wildly in my direction. I dashed across the clearing, returning fire as bullets whizzed by me but didn’t land. My mountains echoed with the sounds of war and fury as I ran faster and faster until I hit the man that was shooting at me full force. I grabbed for the hand that had the gun and we struggled as I pushed him back and back, going for the ledge he had forced Avett over.

  Another round was fired as he swore at me and tried to kick me, but I had rage and love on my side, so he was no match for me. It took another heave and my shoulder in his gut to send both of us sailing through the air. Even in the darkness that was now all around us I could see him lose his grip on the weapon as we free-fell through the crisp mountain air. He screamed so loud that it hurt my ears and I was almost thankful as the frigid water engulfed me.

  The shock of the cold was enough to make my entire body stiffen painfully, and I had to really work to get my lethargic arms to cooperate to push myself to the surface. When I broke through, I sucked in lungfuls of air and frantically searched the inky water for any sign of Avett. I didn’t know if the man I’d taken over the drop with me had managed to hit her before she jumped and I couldn’t immediately see her.

  “Avett!” I screamed her name at the top of my lungs and started to thrash around as the cold threatened to suck me back under the surface. “Avett!” Her name and my fear bounced off the stone faces that surrounded me but she didn’t answer and I couldn’t see that unmissable pink hair shining anywhere in the darkness.

  “I can’t swim. You have to help me! I’m going to drown!” The gunman was suddenly visible a few hundred yards away, splashing and thrashing against the water like he was doing karate against an invisible appointment.

  “Avett! Goddamnit, I can’t lose you when I just found you. Where are you?” An owl hooted from somewhere overhead and I jerked my head around.

  There, floating right under the surface, was that spray of Technicolor hair. I screamed her name again and cut through the water as quickly as my numb limbs would allow.

  She was floating facedown and there was an obvious gash that decorated the side of her head, right above her ear. She felt like a lifeless doll in my hands as I pulled her frozen body to my own and muttered her name over and over again, and I struggled to keep the both of us afloat.

  The other man in the water with us was making so much racket I couldn’t hear if she was breathing or not but her lips were blue and she wasn’t responsive to
my touch.

  I thought my heart had fractured when I realized my parents were never going to be proud of me and everything I accomplished. I thought I had lost everything when Lottie left me after telling me she was pregnant. I was so sure I had absolutely nothing left to give to anyone after everything I thought I knew to be true was proven to be a lie, but with this woman that was everything in my arms not drawing breath, I knew I had no clue what heartache felt like and that I had more than enough to give her if it meant she would still be here with me.

  I tilted her head back as far as it would go without dunking her back in the icy water and started to breathe into her mouth. I breathed in all the love I had for her. I gave her air flavored with my confidence that we were meant to be, and laced with the knowledge that she made me a better kind of man. I breathed out and filled her lungs with the future I wanted to share with her and all the memories I wanted to make with her.

  It took far longer than I was comfortable with, but after a few breaths and some desperate kisses on her frozen lips she finally started to cough and sputter in my arms. Those wild eyes slowly opened, and her teeth started to chatter as she looked up at me, unfocused and visibly confused.

  “You found me.” Her words were raspy and barely audible over the noise the gunman was still making as he faltered and floundered in the water behind us. He might not be able to swim but he was doing an all right job of keeping his head above water.

  “You found me first, Avett.” I closed my eyes and squeezed her as tightly as I could. “I love you.”

  One of her arms moved sleepily up and around my neck as her legs started to kick so that she was helping keep us afloat.

  “I know you do, Quaid.”

  “I will always come after you. You know that, right?”

  She nodded and winced as she put her fingers to the oozing wound on the side of her head. “You didn’t only come after me, you jumped.”

  I rasped out a shaky laugh and rubbed my frigid nose against her cheek. “Yeah, I jumped and I always will, when it matters. You matter more than anything, Avett.”

  She opened her mouth to respond when her name, called by a voice that sounded as frantic as I felt, split through the darkness. He father had found us. He had come for her, like he always did. Her eyes widened as I hollered back to Brite, “We’re in the water! You have to climb down and help us out. Avett is hurt.”

  She wrinkled her nose at me as I started to float us towards the lower outcropping of rocks. “I hit my head when I jumped.”

  I breathed a sigh of relief that she hadn’t been hit with a bullet. “Good thing your skull is rock hard and you’re the daughter of a badass.”

  I huffed in exertion and wondered if hypothermia was close to setting in. I was so cold I couldn’t even shiver anymore, and I was pretty sure my lips were as blue as hers.

  “You saved him and your mom. You saved everyone, including yourself. That makes you your own hero, Avett.” I couldn’t keep the pride out of my voice, even though I was pretty sure I was going to black out if we didn’t get out of the water as soon as possible.

  She let out a shaky laugh and her arm tightened around my neck as her dad and two men I didn’t recognize suddenly appeared on the rocks. Brite called Avett’s name, again the fear and panic that only a parent could have when their child was in danger reverberating from one side of the ravine to the other.

  She looked at me and then back at our rescuers with a faint smile touching her quivering lips. “I might be able to save myself now, but it’s still nice to know that the people that love me will show up when I need them to.”

  I kissed her hard and fast as I finally got us to the rocks.

  “Always.” I’d told myself I needed to show her that I loved her.

  All I had to do was jump.

  CHAPTER 19

  Avett

  3 weeks later …

  I used the key Quaid had given me a couple weeks ago to let myself into his loft and simultaneously wrinkled my nose and covered my ears as I walked into what looked like a culinary massacre.

  When he texted and told me that he would take care of dinner tonight, that he wanted to cook for me, I was surprised. The only person that ever got any use of that amazing kitchen in his loft was me, and the delivery guy who brought in packages of carryout and set them on the counter. Quaid wasn’t exactly comfortable amidst the pots and pans, but the gesture was sweet and I knew the reason he was doing it was because I had been beyond anxious the last few days about what the future had in store for me.

  Jared’s trial had been pushed back because of all the new charges and empirical evidence against Acosta and his goons. His attorney had filed a motion for continuance while he tried to figure out how to argue against the new kidnapping, attempted murder, attempted arson, tampering with a witness, and coercion charges that his client was now charged with. Quaid was sure the feds were going to step in now that there was enough evidence to put Acosta away for a long time, but so far everything was still happening on the state level. Realizing he was very much the low man on the totem pole, Jared had swung back the other way on the legal pendulum, and fired Tyrell, and was singing at the top of his lungs to the D.A.’s office. He missed his shot at a deal, but in exchange for his testimony against Acosta, the D.A. had agreed to move him to a secure facility where Acosta’s reach on the inside couldn’t get to him. Quaid thought my ex was hoping for a federal deal that would move him into witness protection, but he assured me that wouldn’t happen. Jared was going to do jail time, and I didn’t feel bad about it at all.

  I was still going to have to testify at Jared’s trial when he finally went to court, and now I was looking at having to be involved in the other trial against Acosta as well, but I was no longer scared or hesitant to face either my ex or the men that had made me run for my life. I wanted to see them all behind bars and I wanted justice served. I was ready and willing to do the right thing and I knew that I wouldn’t have to do it alone. My parents and Quaid would be right by my side as I told my story and that gave me all the courage I needed.

  I watched with wide eyes as Quaid swore and wrestled a pan with something black and smoldering in it into the sink as he wrenched on the water and swore like a biker. I shut the door behind me before the smoke from whatever he incinerated could set off the fire alarm in the entire building. He gave me an exasperated look as he climbed on top of the marble countertop with a towel and started to fan the shrieking alarm.

  “Hey.”

  “Hey, back.” The words came out on a laugh that quickly turned into a sigh of appreciation as his T-shirt rode up when he lifted his arms and exposed the ridged slats of his tight stomach. I’d had a lot of casual Quaid time since he wasn’t working right now, and I was getting used to him in faded jeans and T-shirts. I knew it wouldn’t last because he was already fending offers left and right from other law firms that wanted him, but I planned on soaking up as much of the softer, gentler Quaid as I could get. It was so much easier to get him out of jeans and a T-shirt than it was a three-piece suit, and ever since he jumped after me, and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he loved me and whatever kind of chaos I came with, I hadn’t been able to keep my hands, mouth, and the rest of me off of him. It wasn’t merely celebrating the fact that we both made it out alive and reaffirming the life we had together; it was a desperation to have as much of him, the need to make as many memories, and the desire to have as many stories that surround him and me as I could. Nothing was guaranteed, and I wanted to make sure the time I had with this man was spent in goodness, and a big part of that was getting him naked and inside me as often as I possibly could.

  It was a bonus that the guy who jumped for me also happened to be smoking hot and a serious professional in the bedroom.

  The smoke alarm finally quieted as I waved a hand in front of my face and made my way over to the counter. He climbed down and pulled me to him for a quick and biting kiss. His fingers brushed over the section of my hair that w
as shaved off and currently sporting a raised and pink scar from where my head and the rock collided. The other side was wound together in a long, rosy braid that he yanked on the end of as he leaned away from my greedy lips. Initially, the hospital had only buzzed a tiny section, but it was right above my ear and impossible to cover so I took the whole side of my head down in a buzz cut and was rocking a seriously asymmetrical and edgy haircut. The pink was back, bright and vivid, but Quaid seemed to like all of it and didn’t blink an eye at any of the drastic changes.

  “How did it go today?” His voice was curious, but also supportive. I knew that if I was bringing bad news in with me he would not only be there to help me through it but also to help me come up with an alternate game plan. One amazing side benefit of dating a man that was as sharp and as smart as Quaid was that he never saw anything as a dead end. All he saw was a way that was blocked for the time being, which meant an alternate route was needed. Because of him, I had finally found my new course and the dead end I was stuck in was no more.

  “It went okay. My grades aren’t really good enough to enroll for this semester because of dropping out before. I need to go back to community college and get the basics out of the way and get decent grades for a year, then I should be accepted into the culinary program at the arts institute. I can afford the classes at the community college, no problem, and if I take Asa up on his offer to work in his new bar, I should be able to save up enough money over the next year to pay for at least the first semester of culinary school when I get there. I want to do it all the right way and I think I’m on the right track.”

  It was scary to have such serious plans so far out in the future and I’d never been a very good student but I wanted to cook and I wanted to be the best at it that I could. I wanted to not only prove to myself that I could commit to something that mattered to me but I also wanted to prove to my parents and even to Quaid that I wasn’t falling anymore. I was climbing my way up and they didn’t need to worry about me slipping back down like they used to. I could still see rock bottom when I looked down, but after everything I’d been through in the last few months, I knew it wasn’t a place I ever wanted to be again. Rock bottom no longer felt comfortable or necessary.

 
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JAY CROWNOVER SERIES:

Marked Men

 

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