Long Road Home eBook: Page2

Maya Banks (2011)


  Her breaths came jerkily and tears burned a fiery trail down her cheeks. “I’m so sorry.”

  “What are you sorry for, baby?” His worried gaze swept over her.

  She took in a huge breath. “Mom, Pop.”

  Pain contorted his brow. He glanced briefly away as if to compose himself. When he looked back at her, only his eyes held a shadow of sadness. “Try not to think about that now,” he murmured. “You need to rest and get better so I can take you home.”

  Home. The word sent shards of pain racing through her. She no longer had a home. No longer had a family. Manny was all she had left, and he would die just like the Trehans.

  His hand cupped her cheek, soothing the hurt away with gentle fingers. What she wouldn’t give to let him solve all her problems, just like she had done so many times in her youth. He had always been there when she had fallen, her protector. Only now, she had to be the one to protect him.

  She inhaled deeply, allowing his spicy scent to curl over her. It provided her comfort, if only for a few moments. He leaned forward, pressing his lips to her forehead as his hand stroked her hair. “Do you hurt? Do I need to call the nurse?”

  She hurt all over, but even the strongest narcotic wasn’t going to take away her pain. And she couldn’t allow her mind to be dulled. She was a sitting duck in this hospital, both she and Manny targets.

  Slowly, she shook her head. “I’m okay.”

  Manuel watched the battle play out over her face, his gut clenching at her obvious pain. Her injuries weren’t life-threatening, thank God, but her ribs had taken a hell of a beating.

  He had to work to keep his hands off her. He needed to touch her, hold her. Convince himself that she was lying here in front of him, very much alive. In his darkest hours, he’d allowed himself a brief moment to believe that she really might be dead. Might never come back. Yet here she was. Changed. Very different from the starry-eyed girl who had left for France three years ago. But still, it was her. What horrors had she endured?

  He tamped down the surge of impatience. His questions could be answered later. For now he would rejoice in the fact that she had come back to him, and he would see to her safety. He stood up and squeezed her hand. “Get some rest. I’ll be close by.”

  Her eyelids were already fluttering closed as he stepped into the hall. He pulled out his phone and punched in Tony’s number.

  “How is she?” Tony asked immediately as he answered.

  Manuel sighed. How to answer that question? She was alive, but beyond that he wasn’t sure how she was at all. “She’s okay, I think.”

  “I’ve arranged her transfer to a military hospital in Bethesda. The paperwork is materializing as we speak. She’ll be transported to the airport by ambulance. An army helicopter will fly her to the base in Colorado Springs. From there, she’ll be flown to Maryland.”

  “Thanks, Tony. I owe you.”

  “Not a problem. Even the army won’t have a clue who she is.” Tony chuckled.

  “You find anything else out?” Manuel asked after a moment’s hesitation.

  “Not yet, but I’m on it.”

  Manuel hung up the phone. Tony would come through. There wasn’t much he couldn’t find out. Being a computer geek for the CIA had its perks.

  He re-entered Jules’s room but stood quietly back, watching her sleep. Her pale face held such an air of vulnerability. A wave of possessiveness rolled over him, startling him with its ferocity. Though her adopted parents had played an important role in his life, his feelings for her were not those of a sibling. They never had been.

  He moved quietly back to her bedside and eased into the chair by her head. To his surprise, she opened her eyes. Those beautiful blue eyes that had haunted his dreams for so long.

  “You should be asleep,” he said reproachfully. Unable to help himself, he smoothed a short blonde curl from her forehead and tucked it behind her ear. She’d cut her hair.

  Her expression was inscrutable. “When can I get out of here?”

  He arched an eyebrow. “You’ll be leaving in a few hours, but don’t get any ideas. I’m having you transferred to a hospital in Maryland where I can keep a close eye on you.”

  She frowned. “Maryland?”

  “I’ll explain everything later. When you’re better.” Though how he was going to explain his other life to her, he didn’t know.

  “Do you live in Maryland now?”

  “You could say that,” he said vaguely.

  “I don’t have any clothes,” she said with a frown. “I can’t go anywhere. Can you go out and get me something? Please? I’ll pay you back, I promise.”

  “For God’s sake, Jules. Don’t worry about paying me back. But I shouldn’t leave you alone.”

  She shrugged. “I’m sure your watchdogs won’t let anything happen to me.”

  He stared at her in surprise. How had she known about the guards he had posted? An uneasy feeling stole over him before he shook it off. This was Jules. And all she wanted was something to wear. “I’ll be back in less than an hour. While I’m gone I want you to sleep.”

  She nodded tiredly and sank further into her pillows. Dropping a kiss on her head, he turned and walked out the door. He informed the two guards of his plans and gave them strict instructions not to allow anyone but the doctor and nurse inside the room.

  His feeling of unease followed him out of the hospital. Leaving Jules wasn’t his most brilliant idea. He paused for a moment when he got to his car. Glancing toward the entrance, he considered going back. He could always get her clothes later. They weren’t important. Her safety was. Digging out his phone, he dialed Tony again.

  “Speak to me,” Tony said.

  “How are you at picking out women’s clothing?”

  Tony chuckled. “I haven’t had any complaints. You thinking of a wardrobe change?”

  “Not for me, bonehead. Jules. She wants some clothes, and I don’t feel comfortable leaving her alone.”

  “I’ll take care of it, but you owe me big-time, buddy. Buying women’s clothing isn’t my thing. Now if you wanted something from Victoria’s Secret, I’m your man, but somehow I don’t see you wanting a teddy for Jules.”

  Manuel rolled his eyes. “Just get her the basics. I’ll make it up to you.”

  “Damn right you will.”

  As Tony hung up, Manuel grinned. He could protest all he wanted, but Tony would do just about anything for him. A sentiment Manuel returned.

  Feeling better, he strode back into the hospital. He stopped briefly by the cafeteria and bought a cup of coffee. He hadn’t had any in over twenty-four hours, and he was feeling it. He took a cautious sip as he stepped into the elevator. It was terrible. Had the consistency of motor oil. But it was caffeine and it smelled like coffee, so he didn’t complain.

  When he arrived at Jules’s door, he nodded to the guards and quietly walked inside. He stopped short, nearly dropping the Styrofoam cup, when he saw her standing by her bed. Worse, she had pulled off her nasal cannula and was working on her IV. She was so intent on her task that she hadn’t heard him.

  He set his coffee down on a chair by the door and strode over to her. “What the hell are you doing?”

  She whirled around and then swayed. He caught her against him when she would have fallen. She winced when she made contact with his body.

  “I have to get out of here,” she said desperately.

  He held her to his chest, feeling the erratic beat of her heart. It had been so long since he had held her. He picked her up, mindful of her injuries, and placed her back on the bed. She was light in his arms. Too light. She had gotten way too damn thin.

  He held up her arm to inspect the IV. Satisfied that it was secure, he looped the plastic tubes over her ears and slipped the cannula back in place. “You aren’t going anywhere.”

  Her lips formed a tight line, but he could see the panic, the fear in her eyes, and it pissed him off. What was she so afraid of? Who had done this to her? To Mom and Pop?
r />
  He sat down beside the bed and leveled a hard stare at her. “Now, suppose you tell me where it is you’re in such a hurry to go.”

  “I’m not safe here… You’re not safe here.”

  His brow wrinkled as he looked curiously at her. He hadn’t wanted to bombard her with questions so quickly, but if he didn’t now, he might not get another chance.

  “Where have you been, baby?” he asked softly. “What happened three years ago?”

  Chapter Four

  Jules stared at Manny, the concern in his eyes nearly her undoing. It was all there in his face. Worry. Anguish. She’d caused it all.

  She closed her eyes and turned away. She’d never considered herself a coward. Hell, she’d faced death down more times than she could count, but she couldn’t bear to look him in the eye any longer.

  “Was it that bad?” he asked, a catch in his voice.

  “I don’t want to talk about it.”

  He blew out his breath in frustration, something he’d always done when aggravated.

  “I’m sorry, Manny,” she offered, trying desperately to keep a tight rein on her emotions. Seeing him, being able to touch him was all she had dreamed of for the last three years. And now that she could, his possible recrimination kept her at a distance. “Please don’t hate me. I couldn’t bear it if you hated me.” Her voice cracked, and she fell silent.

  “Jesus, Jules. What on earth are you thinking?” He pulled her almost roughly into his arms. He held her against his chest, her face buried in the warmth of his shirt. She breathed in, content to remain still for just a moment.

  Too soon he eased her away and forced her to look at him. “I don’t hate you, Jules. Christ, I’ve dreamed of little else other than seeing you again. Hoping against hope you weren’t dead. Nothing could make me hate you.”

  His green eyes probed her intently, his eyebrows furrowed in grave determination. He looked older, and she wondered if she was the cause of the lines around his eyes. Yet another thing to add to her growing pile of guilt. If only she had never gone to France. If only. There were so many if onlys.

  Nothing could make me hate you. He had no idea the things she had done. Would he really say that if he knew?

  She was tired, so damn tired. She closed her eyes wearily and leaned back against her pillow. When she opened them again, she saw concern flare in Manny’s eyes.

  “I’m going to have the nurse give you a sleeping pill. You need to rest. You’ll be transferring in a few hours.”

  Alarm shot through her. She couldn’t go with Manny. Couldn’t place him in danger. Northstar wouldn’t hesitate to kill anyone who got in his way. Until she could find a way to be free of the bastard, no one close to her would ever be safe.

  Her mind whirling, she nodded slowly. She still had the pill she’d been given earlier. She hadn’t wanted anything that would dull her senses. Coupled with the one she would be given now, it might be enough to put Manny to sleep.

  When he rose to consult the nurse, she slipped her hand under her pillow and pulled out the pill she had hidden there.

  A few seconds later, a cheerful younger woman walked in carrying a tray. “I brought you another cup of coffee,” she said to Manny.

  “Thanks.” He took the cup from her with an expression akin to extreme relief.

  She directed her attention to Jules and gave her the same option she had earlier. “Can you swallow another pill or shall I give you an injection?”

  “I can swallow it,” Jules said in a low voice.

  The nurse poured a glass of water, and Manny took it and the pill from her. He walked to the side of the bed and helped Jules sit forward with his free arm. Jules took the pill with the hand she’d palmed the other pill with and quickly shoved both in her mouth. She took a sip of water and made a show of swallowing, but she rolled the pills under her tongue. She’d have to hurry before they dissolved.

  “I’ll be back to check on you a little later,” the nurse said before leaving.

  “Thank you,” Jules murmured.

  As soon as the nurse walked out, Jules glanced over at Manny, who had sat down with his cup of coffee. “Can I have a sip?”

  He lifted an eyebrow. “I didn’t realize you drank coffee. You always hated it before.”

  “I don’t really, but I remember you always drank it. The smell reminds me of you.”

  He smiled and handed her the cup. “Careful you don’t burn yourself.”

  As she put the cup to her lips, her stomach lurched at the idea of ingesting the nasty brew, but she tilted it back, shoving the pills from her mouth into the steaming liquid.

  She held onto it for a moment, giving the pills time to dissolve before she handed it back to Manny. Hopefully she wouldn’t have to wait long. She didn’t have much time before he transferred her out.

  Knowing she had to be convincing, she settled back with a yawn and closed her eyes. The temptation to give in to sleep was strong. She was tired, more tired than she’d ever been in her life. She focused on the faces of her parents, anything to give her a sense of purpose. Then her thoughts drifted to Manny. She couldn’t lose him too. Even if it meant remaining as far away from him as possible.

  After what seemed an interminable amount of time, she cracked open one eye and peeked over at Manny. He was yawning broadly and was slouched in his chair. He looked at the coffee in disgust, as if wondering why it wasn’t keeping him awake, then impatiently drained the last sip.

  A twinge of guilt nipped at her. She was betraying him in the worst way. He would be hurt and not understand why she’d left. But she could take his censure if it meant he would stay alive.

  She continued to watch him from the corner of her eye. He shifted restlessly and rubbed his eyes then checked his watch. Once he glanced over at her, and she held her breath, hoping he wouldn’t figure out she wasn’t asleep. When she was about to scream in frustration, his eyes fluttered closed, and his head sank to his shoulder.

  She lay there another twenty minutes, wanting to give him a chance to slip into deep sleep. Then she quickly pulled out the IV, careful to leave it dripping so the alarm didn’t go off and alert the nurse.

  Now more than ever, she wished Manny had gone out to get her clothing. Being seen running around in a hospital gown was the quickest way to draw unwanted attention.

  Noiselessly, she slipped from the bed, her bare feet hitting the cold floor. She closed her eyes for a moment and braced herself against the pain. After several ragged breaths, the discomfort abated, and she straightened cautiously.

  There was only one way out. Through the guards posted at her door. She wrinkled her nose in distaste. She needed to conserve as much energy as possible, and right now she felt as weak as a kitten.

  With a sigh, she walked over to the door and cracked it open. To her relief, she only saw one man outside her door. Maybe the other was on a coffee break. Which meant she needed to hurry before he returned. She gestured frantically to the guard. “Quick, come here!”

  He shot toward the door, and she opened it wider for him. When he was completely within the room, she struck with incredible speed. Planting her elbow sharply in his diaphragm, she left him gasping for breath. Before he could react, she brought her clasped fists down on the back of his neck. He crumpled soundlessly to the floor.

  Pain and dizziness assaulted her, but she couldn’t give in to them. Not wasting any more time, she stuck her head out the door, looking both ways. To her relief the hall was empty. She slipped out of her room and ran to the stairwell at the end of the hall.

  Her breath coming in rapid spurts, she hurried down the stairs to the first level. Her head spun crazily, the pain nearly overwhelming her. She couldn’t stop.

  If she could find some hospital scrubs, they would make her less conspicuous than the thin gown she wore. On the first level, she peered out of the doorway to the stairwell, trying to decide which way to go. She chose right and followed the signs toward surgery. She held her breath every time she
passed another person, but they were all in a hurry, paying no attention to her.

  Finally she came to the surgery ward and began trying doors. She found linen closets, personnel offices, but no scrubs. Finally, at the end of the hall she hit pay dirt. Stacks of neatly folded scrubs lay on shelves. She tore off her gown and pulled on pants and a top. She then yanked a cap over her short hair, tucking strands up under the elastic. Lastly, she pulled on shoe covers. They wouldn’t offer much in the way of warmth, but they’d at least keep her feet dry for a little while.

  Anyone would be hard-pressed to identify her as the ragged girl who had lain in a third-floor bed. She set out for the nearest