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       Jacked, p.41

           Tina Reber

  I couldn’t even imagine… I’d had a few things shake me to the core in my thirty-two years but this… it was gutting me like a slow twist of a very sharp blade. I had to keep fighting the haunting images from carrying Erin’s uncle’s casket. I didn’t even want to think about what her two cousins must still be going through.

  The corner of my eye blurred.

  Erin squeezed my hand. “We can be on a plane tonight,” she said as the darkness inside the tunnel surrounded and swallowed us. Some of it even seeped inside me.

  I let go of her hand and shoved my sunglasses up on my head. “I know.”

  “He was awake, Adam. And talking. That’s a great sign.”

  She was dead serious and shifting effortlessly into doctor mode with her reassuring bedside manner.

  I nodded while praying to a god that I sometimes had a hard time believing in. “As soon as he’s stateside…”

  Her fingers tightened on my thigh. “The second the plane is in the air, we’re D.C. bound. I have contacts at Walter Reed.”

  The bright afternoon sun was warming the end of the tunnel, casting beams through my inner darkness. I fought back the shit that threatened to take me over and tapped my sunglasses back into place. She didn’t need to see a grown man cry for God’s sake. Again.

  I cleared my throat. “What about your fellowship?”

  I didn’t need to look to know her reaction; I could feel it through her hand and the chill that followed when she pulled it away. “I can apply again. It doesn’t have to be now. Don’t worry about it.”

  I tugged her hand away from her mouth and put it right back on my thigh. “Erin. No.”

  “I’ve met all the prerequisites, Adam. And I did a tox rotation during my residency. I’m—”

  “You’re what?”

  “I’m not sure anymore.”

  Traffic slowed to a crawl. So did her voice. “What are you saying? You changing your mind?”

  “You need to be in that lane.” Erin pointed. “Behind the silver truck.”

  Fuck, I hated traffic jams, especially into Manhattan. “You’re not giving up your dreams for me. No fucking way.” I hit the gas and maneuvered in front of a small car while some other asshole chucked his finger at me. Screw them. “Let’s set that shit straight right now.”

  Erin braced her hand on the roof. “I’m not.”

  I was glad we were stopped so I could let her see I wasn’t kidding.

  “Your brother is going to need a lot of help when he gets home.”

  That crushing pain I felt yesterday when I sat in my parent’s living room and heard that Jason had lost both of his lower legs in the explosion pressed the air out of my chest. Thinking about his hearty laugh, that troublemaking smile, the fact he’d no longer be able to press down on a fucking brake pedal with his foot—it was suffocating.

  “We’ll deal.” My molars were hurting again. I noticed her shift in her seat.

  “I know you will,” she muttered.

  “I didn’t mean it like that, Erin. But I won’t allow you to put your life on hold for me. For anything.”

  “I’m not. Believe me.”


  “I just don’t want…”

  Her words died on a vigorous head shake, as if she was trying to erase them from the air.

  “Don’t want what?”

  “Nah.” She fluttered a hand.

  “I brought rope and cuffs, Doc. Fair warning.”

  Her head whipped my way. “Is that a threat, Cop?”

  “Nope. That’s a promise, sweetheart.”

  I enjoyed seeing her squirm in her seat. The way her thighs sealed up told me that part of her liked my brand of interrogation, too. “You were saying?”

  “Two more blocks and you need to make a left.”

  I nodded, trying not to hit the variety of shit in my lane. People swarmed all four corners of the intersection like ants in a giant maze of insanity. A delivery truck was blocking one side; a black stretch limo was straddling both lanes in front of me. New Yorkers were a special brand of dedicated crazy.

  Since we were going nowhere fast, I figured I’d stare at her until she confessed. She needed to know she was out of options with me.

  “I’m not sure the fellowship is the way I should go,” Erin finally said. “I’m not sure I’m cut out to be stuck in a lab every day. My hours would be different and that’s gonna cause…” Her arm straightened. “That lane. Next intersection is your turn and then I think we only have about five blocks.”

  Instead of finishing her sentence, she fiddled with the map on her cell. I’d questioned craftier criminals with much better diversion skills. “Gonna cause what, Erin?”

  She acted surprised and confounded by my question. “What?”

  I listed my mental notes while she made this Q&A into a challenge. “Fellowship. Lab. Hours changing. Gonna cause what?”

  “Distance,” she finally said.

  Would she work out of another building or something? It took my mind a minute to catch up. Had I not been negotiating traffic with pedestrians on every side I would have slammed on the brakes and pulled over. “Between us?”

  One shoulder lifted. “It’s a concern.”

  “It shouldn’t be.”

  Another shrug followed by some fidgeting. “I’ve been so singular in my focus for so long that it’s become engrained. I’m not sure why I even want it anymore.”

  I knew she was sidestepping. “I’m not going anywhere, Doc. If you change your mind about what you want to do, then that’s on you, but it has to be what you want, not what you think you need to do because of me.”

  She stared out her window. “Hotel should be on the left.”

  I glanced over at her quickly, frustrated that she’d even think I’d let distance come between us. “Did you hear me?”

  “Yes, I heard you.”

  The ache in my shoulders subsided. “Good. If you don’t want the fellowship, then that’s your career decision. It has nothing to do with what’s growing between us.”

  Her attention whipped my way. “What is growing between us?”

  I pulled her hand to my mouth, finding it hard not to pull the rest of her into my lap and show her exactly what was growing. “Good things.”

  MY LATE AFTERNOON meeting with Melissa Werner and the asshole who worked for her went as I had expected—pressure tactics to sign the new contract mixed with a healthy dose of patronizing ass-kissing.

  The second she sauntered around her oversized glass-top desk to greet me, wearing a short black skirt and skyscraper heels, I knew I had to get the hell out of there fast. She leaned forward a lot, accentuating several thousand dollars of enhanced breasts, and did the shy smile thing meant to entice.

  It was difficult paying attention to the legalese that covered twelve printed pages while sitting in the same room with a woman who looked ready to devour my cock. Knowing that I had left Erin curled up in my hotel bed was enough to snuff out Melissa’s obvious advances.

  Ms. Werner was less than pleased when I turned down her offer for dinner but there was no way I was going to put myself into that situation. Erin gave me her blessing to go, saying she’d order room service and just study, but only an asshole would leave one woman to go out to dinner with another.

  I was already selling a chunk of my soul signing this contract; I’d be damned to lose my integrity dicking over a woman I cared very much about in the process. I don’t know why, but Erin’s opinion of me mattered, and I didn’t want to let her down.

  I probably let Nikki down a lot when we were together, but she never gave me a reason to care. Shitty, I know, but the truth.

  I tipped the next sheet up to kill the glare. The print on the page was starting to blur. Melissa’s sickly-sweet perfume was making it worse, creating a headache on top of my annoyance. Erin favored the simple scent of peaches and honey—flavors I had grown accustomed to and was missing to the point of distraction. I wished she were here with me. She
’d probably understand this mumbo-jumbo contract better than I could.

  The fancy pen in my hand felt hot and poisonous.

  Stabbing Harry in the neck while watching his condescending smile fall into stunned fear also crossed my mind.


  I got to the section outlining my responsibility for attorney’s fees and all costs incurred from any breach or threatened breach of contract when the sweat started trickling down my back. “I’d like my attorney to take a look at this.” I didn’t have an attorney, but fuck if I’d sign this shit on the spot.

  Melissa’s heavy sigh was unnecessary. “We gave you this contract weeks ago, Adam. I presumed you’d already reviewed it with your counsel.”

  Didn’t take much to bring out her inner bitch. Made the desire to get up and walk out that much more enticing.

  “Been a little busy.” I didn’t need to justify my actions to her or anyone else for that matter.

  She started rapping the pen in her hand on the tabletop. “Your absence from the show from your injury has cost us a lot already, Adam. I can’t keep delaying production because of this.”

  “Shit happens on the job.” Her lecturing tone caused automatic guilt to arise. I was backed into a corner and there was only one way out. “You already have a signed contract for production. I don’t see why not signing this would hold up anything.”

  She stared right at me. “You don’t understand—”

  My chair rolled back when I stood. “I understand perfectly.” I snagged the papers, wrinkling them in my fist. “But I don’t recall seeing all this stuff about you having the right to sue me if I don’t perform for you for a certain amount of hours per week before.”

  Melissa huffed. “Adam, please sit.”

  Harry’s gaping pie-hole would have pissed me off had it not been so amusing.

  “Actually, Ms. Werner, I think we’re done here.”

  “My head of Production feels we should air the footage from the auto accident.”

  Anger spiked right through me, welding my feet to the floor. “Is that how you want to play this?”

  She didn’t seem to care either way.

  I wanted to wipe the smug grin off Harry’s face. He shrank back in his chair when my desires registered. He cleared his throat. “Melissa, I don’t think your father would have wanted—”

  Her glare turned arctic. “The company is mine now,” she huffed, and then collected herself. “It would be best to not delay this any further. Page two outlines the additional compensation we discussed. I was able to adjust that to fifty thousand for the last twelve episodes with a guaranteed one hundred fifty thousand for a second season. That doesn’t even include the variety of endorsement and modeling requests that will most likely arise, though you should probably get an agent to handle that for you. Stipulations are outlined on page seven. That’s the beauty of New York. One fantastic opportunity can lead to many.”

  There were very few women in this world that I envisioned hitting, and this one was moving quickly to the top of the list. I turned my glare on the balding douche-bag. “Thought I said that any salary adjustments would go to the entire team.” The contact crinkled in my hand.

  Melissa twisted in her chair, setting her long legs back on display. “Listen, Doll, it’s you we want on camera, not them. It makes no sense to give them what’s rightfully yours. I’m trying to make this a win-win for you. I don’t know why you’re making this so difficult. You’re going to be famous.”

  My knees unlocked, getting me closer to the door. Screw this. Fame was the last thing I needed or wanted. These people had no clue who I was or what I wanted, beyond a solid exit strategy. And I sure as hell didn’t want her misplaced affection. “I need a few days to review all of this. I’ll be in touch.”

  She was calling out my name to stop, but my entire focus was on the elevator doors in front of me.

  ERIN SAT UP on the bed when I came through the door to our suite. Melissa Werner went all out reserving this place. I didn’t know what a room like this cost but it couldn’t have been cheap. I had no doubt that she had an ulterior motive but after that meeting fiasco, I expected to get the bill.

  Erin was wrapped head to toe in white towels, relaxing with her computer tablet. She never left home without it, always studying something.

  “You’re back early. You okay?”

  I set the room key card and my wallet on the desk and pulled my coat off. I thought the walk back to the hotel would clear my head, but seeing her all washed and clean made me feel even dirtier. My choices were simple: either I give into their demands and turn my life into a joke or tell them to fuck off while destroying the career of the woman who held my heart.


  Erin softly padded across the floor and hugged my waist. “I didn’t expect you to be back so soon.”

  I studied the wood grain in the desk, unable to meet her eyes.

  She started to slip away. “I’ll go get ready.”

  I grabbed her wrist and pulled her back, needing her arms around me. I had to find a way to tell her that didn’t ruin us both, but for the moment it was easier to ignore it.


  Her cheek was tucked in the curve of my spine, making the strength I was trying to muster up even that more difficult.

  “What happened?”

  Two words. Two words that would lead to so many others I wasn’t ready to say. I didn’t want her to worry. The last thing I wanted was for her to feel bad about the decisions I was left to make, because there was no way in hell I was going to ruin her life while I was making a mess out of mine.

  “Nothing, babe. It’s just a lot to take in.”

  Her arms tightened. “Liar.”

  My woman saw right through my bullshit.

  “I need a minute.” The bathroom seemed like the safest place for me to hide while coming up with a plan. I untangled her and gave her a quick kiss. I knew she was disappointed and probably confused but I didn’t want to lie to her.

  I hoped spending a few quiet moments locked behind a door would help, but the messages on my cell were nothing more than another irritating distraction. Several texts from the same unknown number littered my screen.

  I stared at the texts, trying to determine if Nikki sent them, but something didn’t fit. I thought about replying—telling the sender to fuck off—but instead, I just deleted them. Knowing my luck, Erin would accidentally see this stupid shit, which would undoubtedly cause unnecessary problems.

  I washed my hands, my face; even brushed my damn teeth.

  Staring at my reflection just made everything worse.

  I switched the bathroom light off. Erin was sitting on the edge of the bed, legs crossed, one foot bobbing while her focus was absorbed by the wrinkled page in her hand. Several papers lay next to her on the bed.

  My chest felt heavy.

  She was engrossed in whatever she was reading until her eyes met mine. “I think I understand.”

  Each breath was like dragging dirty air into my lungs.

  “Did you sign this?”

  She’d found the contract. My head swayed, giving my answer.

  “Good. This…,” she exhaled, nodding, “this is a lot. Is this what you want?”

  I’d rather have a punch in the face. It would be easier. “No.”

  “I presume you already have a contract with them, or is this it?”

  I should have sat down and talked this out but my legs weren’t cooperating. “That’s a contract amendment.”

  “Amendment?” Her brow tipped. “Seems heavily in their favor.”

  “I thought so, too.”

  “Like here, in paragraph… what is it, fourteen B, they retain the right to withhold compensation for episodes that you fail to appear in due to your negligence. I suppose this is in case you’re injured again, but I’d have a contract lawyer look this over because, dayum. That’s pretty vague.”

  My shoulders ached. I must have misread that paragraph. Appa
rently Melissa Werner was into fucking me any way she could.

  “They are not required to compensate you for regular wages lost during public appearances. My God. This is a train wreck. Don’t sign this, Adam.”

  “I have to.”

  She slapped the papers down on her lap. “Why?”

  “I don’t have a choice.” My admission burned right up my throat because they were words I had no intention to ever say out loud. Self-loathing and regret made my skin feel like it was on fire. I knew I couldn’t stop bullets, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t take one for her.

  I wanted to shred the paper into tiny bits until nothing existed but a pile of dust, because no matter how I tried to protect her I was going to be the source of her hurt.

  Erin turned indignant. “Of course you do.”

  The knock on the door caught both of our attentions. Erin gripped the front of her fluffy robe. I watched her run around the room. “Shoot. Let me get dressed.”

  I really preferred knowing she was naked under that thing. Whoever was on the other side had bad fucking timing. Or good timing.

  No, it was definitely bad.

  I peered though the peep hole, taking in the uniformed figure of a hotel staffer. Male, approximately twenty-two to twenty-four years old, didn’t look nervous. He seemed mostly bored than anything.

  “Did you order room service?” I asked, unlocking the door.

  He greeted me with a smile. “Mr. Trent? I have a bottle of wine for you.” He pushed the cart right past me, stopping a few feet inside.

  Great. Just what a recovering alcoholic needed. “Whoa. Hold up.”

  Erin was tying her hair back while I shifted into a new level of pissed, already settling on the fact that this would be over right then and there if this is the way she wanted to be around me. “You order this?”

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