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“No. They haven’t told me anything.”

“Did you call someone to wait with you?”

“My boyfriend is on his way. I won’t call the rest of my family until I know what’s going on. I appreciate you coming. I know Ryan will appreciate it too. It can be a group effort to chew his ass for worrying us once they let us see him.”

“Anything I can get you?” Ava asked. “A drink? Something to eat? A blanket?”

Jackie shook her head and continued pacing.

Chase wanted to bust through the swinging doors and get some answers. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he braced his shoulders against the cement wall, his stomach too queasy to pace.

Time dragged. The click of Jackie’s heels competed with the beeping machines that echoed from the nurse’s station.

Ava left him alone. She left Jackie alone too. The three of them were the only ones in the waiting room, but they might as well have been miles apart.

The doors opened.

“Jackie Ackerman?” a woman wearing blue scrubs asked.

“Yes. I’m here. I’m Jackie.”

The woman wandered over. Fatigue lined the skin around her eyes, but her face remained blank. “I’m Doctor Silsbee. I headed the team that worked on your son.”

“How is he?”

She paused. “I’m sorry but he didn’t make it.”

“What? Didn’t make it as in…he died?”

“Yes. I’m sorry. He coded twice and our attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.”

Every bit of blood drained from Chase’s face. He watched the doctor’s mouth move, but her words were muffled by the accelerated beating of his heart in his ears.

Silence. Then a switch turned on and sound blasted his eardrums.

“No!” Jackie yelled at the doctor. “No. It’s not possible. Ryan is just a kid. He’s tough. He’ll pull through. I know it.”

“I’m really sorry, Miz Ackerman. The trauma to your son’s brain was too severe. I can request a counselor or a clergyperson for you to talk to.”

“I don’t need a fuckin’ counselor, I need to see my son.”

Doctor Silsbee appeared to brace herself.

Chase felt himself splinter into two halves. One part stood there stoically, reasonably, wanting to help. The other part let lose a low-pitched wail that escalated into an unending scream.

“How do I know you’re not lying to me?” Jackie shrieked. “How do I know this isn’t some big goddamn mistake and you’ve got Ryan confused with someone else’s kid?”

“Ma’am, we have verification from the ambulance crew who brought him in from the fairgrounds. I’m really sorry.”

“Bullshit. This isn’t funny! Take me to him. Now.”

Heartsick, and barely hanging on by a thread, Chase stepped between her and the doctor. “You don’t want to see him, Jackie.”

“Move out of my way.”

He curled his hands around her upper arms and said softly, “Look at me and listen.”

Something shifted in her. Jackie blinked pain-filled eyes and whispered, “But I have to see him.”

“No, you don’t. There’s no reason for you to do this to yourself. Don’t have your last memory of Ryan be what you see lying on a gurney. Because that image will overtake everything, even all the good ones. He’s not there anymore. That’s not him. He deserves better and so do you.”

“He can’t be dead.” She shook her head so hard her tears splattered his cheeks. “How can he be dead?”

Because he refused to wear a helmet. The stubborn kid might be alive right now if he’d listened to me.

Shame and guilt warred inside him at the ugly and callous words his brain tossed out. God. How could he even think that at a time like this? Ashamed, and fearing Jackie might see those thoughts in his eyes, Chase ducked his head and walked away.

A burly biker strode in and Jackie launched herself at him. Her raw sounds of anguish nearly knocked Chase to his knees.

He couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t do anything but stand there helplessly and witness Jackie spiraling into debilitating grief.

Goddammit to fucking hell. He wanted to punch someone. Kick something. Hurt himself so the pain on the outside matched the pain on the inside.

Ryan. Dead. Eighteen years old. His life just starting. So full of happiness and joy. Now gone. That light forever extinguished.

He couldn’t stay in this hospital another second. He very calmly walked out the door, even as his legs urged him to run. The night air was so thick with humidity it was impossible to suck enough air into his lungs. He felt as if he were drowning. Chase closed his eyes, hating being mired in that special slice of hell called limbo.

Ava’s voice brought him out of his dark thoughts. “Chase?”

He flinched when she touched him.

“Baby, come on, let go of the railing.”

Railing? He looked down at his white-knuckled grip on the metal handrail, then at Ava standing next to him. Tears dripped down her cheeks. His mouth couldn’t form any words.

She attempted to pry his fingers free. “Chase. Please. You’re scaring me. I’ve been trying to get your attention for five minutes.”

Something about her tone spurred him to act. His fingers uncurled, but he’d been clutching the metal so hard he’d lost feeling in his hands. No. He was numb all the way to the bone.

How long had he been standing there in shock? Absolutely lost in grief and disbelief?

She took his keys and half-shoved him in the truck and slipped into the driver’s seat. “We need to find a place to stay tonight.”

“Fine. Just find a liquor store first.”

“Chase. I don’t think that’s a good—”

“Find a goddammed liquor store.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chase had crawled inside a bottle for the past two days. How he hadn’t passed out wasn’t a testament to his ability to handle his liquor, but a testament to his stubbornness.

Ava had never felt so helpless. She wouldn’t mother him. She wouldn’t press him to talk. So she curled up beside him on the bed, offering her physical presence while he steadily polished off another bottle of rotgut whiskey.

He absentmindedly stroked her hair while he clicked through TV channels. Occasionally he’d switch out the remote for the bottle. His body temperature was warm despite that he only wore a pair of athletic shorts. He didn’t speak. At all.

He hadn’t moved either. Not even when her phone rang yesterday and she’d left him to take the call outside.

She hadn’t wanted to talk to Marnie—it didn’t matter what offer the woman dangled. No way was she leaving Chase alone at a time like this. No way. But Marnie hadn’t understood Ava’s absolute refusal to listen to the pitch for another audition. Not even after she explained she was dealing with a friend’s death. Her agent went on a tirade about sticking her neck out for her client, complaining bitterly about Ava’s lack of consideration for Marnie’s reputation. Ava half-listened, her mind elsewhere, mainly on the devastated man hiding in the motel room, just out of her reach.

Chase’s cell phone buzzed on the nightstand, startling her. He didn’t bother to grab it. The buzzing rings stopped for a couple minutes, then the phone began to vibrate again. Ava looked at him. “Aren’t you gonna get that?”

He shook his head.

The phone quit ringing.

Five minutes later it started again.

Chase took a swig from the bottle when it stopped.

By the third attempt, she rolled off the bed and picked up his phone. Caller ID read: Ryan Ackerman. She shivered and answered it anyway. “Hello?”

“This is Jackie Ackerman. I’m looking for Chase. He didn’t leave me a way to contact him. I found his name on my son’s phone, so I’m hoping this is the right number?”

“Yes, it is, Jackie. This is Ava.” She felt Chase’s gaze snap to her. “Did you want to talk to him?”

“Can I?”

“Sure. Hang on. Let me get him.” Ava covered the mouthpiece. “You need to take this.”

“I can’t.” His voice was rough from too much whiskey and too little use.

“You have to.” She spoke into the phone. “Jackie? He’s right here.”

Chase muttered and set aside the bottle to snatch the phone Ava held out to him. “Hey, Jackie. No. It’s all right, you’re not a bother.”

A bunch of “Uh-huhs” followed. Then, “Of course I’ll be there. No. That’s fine. I’ll find it. See you. Thanks for letting me know. Take care.” He punched the off button and tossed the phone aside.

Perched across from him on the other bed, Ava waited a minute before she asked, “What’s going on?”

He held up the bottle, studying the two inches of remaining liquid. “She gave me the time and place for Ryan’s memorial service. Memorial service. The kid had barely begun to live. Is there anything worse on this whole fucking planet than memorializing a promising life cut short?”

The lump in her throat prevented response.

“We all have to fucking sit there, looking at the goddamn picture of him, or the fucking casket, and pretend he’s in a better place? That this is some kind of master fucking plan? Wrong. Goddammit everything about this is so wrong I…can’t…even…” Chase tipped the bottle up and sucked it dry in three greedy gulps.

Ava wanted Chase to lash out. To act out. To lose control and throw the bottle at the wall as hard as he could, screaming his rage and frustration as it shattered. But he’d closed himself off.

Or so she thought.

Chase lurched to his feet and staggered to the bathroom. Slamming the door behind him. Attempting to keep her out.

Not a fucking chance, McKay.

She leapt up after him, but paused, unsure what to do. Pressing her back against the wall outside the bathroom, listening to him retch. Her belly roiled. Her heart seized with his every distressed whimper. Her tears fell freely as she heard him trying to hold back his sobs.