“Get a grip, Nina,” I whispered to myself. Inside the elevator, I pressed the button, and took a deep, cleansing breath as the doors slid closed.
When they opened again, the relaxing breath proved to be futile.
“Wel . Look what the cat dragged in,” Sasha said. One hand on her hip, one hand holding a short stack of papers, her long red curls set off her sharp features. A mature person would admit that Sasha was beautiful—I, however, had accepted long ago that Sasha brought out the stubborn, angry child within.
“Oh, my. Did you get yourself a perm while I was away? I guess the eighties are coming back.” I brushed past her, deciding against shoving my shoulder into her bony arm.
“Hot rol ers. Grant has made a point to mention the curls today, too.”
“Where is Grant?”
“In his office. He waited for half an hour in yours. You’re late.”
“I came straight from the airport. Why are you stil here?”
Sasha shrugged. “I keep whatever hours Grant keeps.”
I rol ed my eyes and held out my hand. “Are those for me?”
“Yes,” she said, handing them over. “I was about to make copies.”
“That won’t be necessary. Thanks for staying, but you should head home.” I took the papers and made my way to Grant’s office. His shoeless feet, in hideous tan and green argyle socks, rested on his desk.
“There she is: Mrs. Peanut.”
“Don’t start,” I said, setting the documents on his desk. “I told you I would be right over. Why did you send Sasha to make copies of these?”
Grant covered his face with his hands. “Sasha’s a sweet girl—to me—but she’s an overachiever. I’ve been making up things for her to do.”
I laughed once. “She wants the assistant job. That’s why she’s been in your hair.”
“In my hair, in my office, in my desk, in my face, in my way. She’s incorrigible. I honestly don’t have enough for her to do. She refuses to help out in the other departments and won’t leave until I do.”
“Grant. She’s an intern. She shouldn’t refuse to do anything.”
Grant thought about my comment for a moment and then nodded. “That’s true. You can give her a new assignment in the morning.”
“Oh, no. You’re not pawning this off on me. Sasha is your problem.”
Grant fel back against his chair. “I don’t want to upset her, and you don’t seem to mind. I thought you’d be happy to do it.”
“How has this company lasted so long with such a weenie in charge?” I said, scanning the document. “Are these…bul et points?”
“I had Sasha type it out. I told her I didn’t want to forget anything.” I made a face, and Grant shrugged. “I didn’t see her for an hour. She had trouble perfecting the margins.”
“Grant, you know this account inside out. You didn’t need to touch base with me. Just get the damn agreement signed and send them on their way.” I stood, irritated he had wasted my time.
“I plan on it. The trouble is, this deal has the potential to take Titan in a different direction than what your father had envisioned.”
“Jack envisioned making money. Do the deal.”
Grant’s shoulders fel , and his eyes lowered to his desk, despondent.
“Wait a minute…,” I said, pointing my finger at him. Grant immediately tensed. He was caught. “You didn’t want to talk about the meeting at all ! You wanted me to take care of Sasha for you!”
Grant reached out to me. “You don’t understand! She reorganizes my desk every morning! She makes lists for my to-do lists!”
“You’re not married to the woman. I can’t believe you pul ed me away from my first night back from my honeymoon for this.”
His eyebrows shot up. “How was it, by the way? Must have been somewhere tropical. You managed a decent tan. I never thought you would run off and get married. Jack wouldn’t have approved.”
“You can’t elope when you’ve been engaged as long as we have. It was more last-minute planning. I’ll cal you tomorrow between classes for updates.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Grant said, staring at the information packets on his desk. Sasha had undoubtedly worked on them throughout the week. They were color-coded and alphabetized. “She…uh…thought it would personalize the packets to put their names on them. In cal igraphy.”
“She’s a cal igrapher?”
Grant slumped in his chair. “She thought we should hire one for the task.”
My face flushed. Grant was now all owing Sasha to misuse company funds for one of her ridiculous whims. “I’ll have a talk with Sasha tomorrow.
Beth has mentioned that the filing room needs some attention.”
“Break it to her gently.”
I rol ed my eyes. “Weenie.”
My office looked exactly as I’d left it. Beth had de-cluttered a bit during the week, but other than that, it was untouched. I sat in my father’s chair and let out a cleansing breath. Taking over the company wasn’t supposed to happen until after graduation, and I wondered how I would juggle my last year at Brown with my pregnancy and the pressure of running Titan. I would be a mother before I’d be a col ege graduate. Everything was happening so fast.
A familiar pair of hands gently touched the bare skin between my shirt and neck. Jared’s thumb massaged into my tense muscles. My head automatical y bowed, and I sighed. Without a word, he kneeled behind me and let his lips trail from my shoulder to my neck. I tilted my head, making the passage easier for him.
“You never come in here,” I said, smiling. “I must be real y tense.”
His hand made its way down my shoulder, arm, and then traveled slowly down my side, resting on my stomach. His fingers pressed into my skin, palming my bel y like a basketbal . His firm grip took me off guard, and I felt my eyebrows move in, curious what he was up to. His lips weren’t as soft as they usual y were; instead they felt dry and scratchy.
“A little lip balm goes a long way, love,” I whispered.
“Is this unpleasant for you?” A voice rasped.
I looked down. The hand cupping my stomach had pasty, abnormal y long fingers. The nails were filthy, and came to a point at the ends.
When I turned, a pale face and black eyes were just inches from my face. The creature grinned, revealing two rows of unnatural, razor-sharp teeth.
I sat up straight and blinked my eyes. The office was dark and quiet, except for the sound of my heart thumping in my ears. My breath was quick and shal ow. The frightening man was no longer behind me, but a dark figure sat in the green chair on the other side of my desk. I gasped.
Jared reached out. “It’s okay. It’s okay, it’s just me.”
“Oh,” I said, touching my fingertips to my chest.
“Bad dream. I must have dozed off.”
“It’s been a long week,” Jared said, forcing a smal smile. “My dad wasn’t there, was he?”
“No,” I said, trying to calm myself. “No. I don’t know who it was. Someone with too many teeth.”
Jared nodded once. “I could sense them.”
“Or it’s just that I’m pregnant. I’ve read pregnant women notice an increase in nightmares.”
Jared frowned. He was always one to imagine the worst. With good reason, granted, but it would be nice if he would admit for once that something perfectly normal could be the culprit. I stood, grabbed my briefcase from the floor, and then shoved my feet into my shoes. I didn’t remember taking them off. I must have been exhausted.
“Claire cal ed,” Jared said.
“Is something wrong?”
“Ryan’s fine. They were wondering if we wanted to join them for dinner.”
“At the hospital?”
I ran my fingers through my hair and wiped the mascara that had likely smudged under my eyes. “I am hungry. That’s the best time to eat hospital food, right?”
“I thought we could bring some take-out.”
“Even better,” I said, opening the door. “I know just the place.” Jared put his hand on the knob over mine, and leaned down to kiss my lips.
Instantly, I felt better. His lips were their usual soft and smooth. Not as warm, though.
I took a deep breath and smiled. No bul ets raining down, no explosions, and no men breaking into the building with automatic assault rifles. Our first day back would be without event. I dared to hope that Hel would wait until the baby came to bother with threats. Their typical pride and overconfidence would give us a little more time to plan, and to win over some key all ies on the other side.
As we drove through the streets of Providence, it suddenly seemed like the home I had known in my childhood. In that moment, it wasn’t harboring threats at every corner; it didn’t seem dark and sinister. It was the picturesque, bustling, traffic-heavy town I remembered. Where I was born. Where my child would be born, and where I’d walked the streets with my father. Providence was the backdrop of my love story with Jared. It was stil home, and this is where we would make our stand.
“You’re curiously relaxed this evening,” Jared said.
“I don’t know,” I sighed. “Everything just feels right.”
We picked up dinner and then made our way to the hospital. When the elevator doors opened, Jared grabbed my hand and led me to Ryan’s room. The door was open, but it was quiet inside.
Claire sat next to the head of Ryan’s bed. Her head was resting on her fist, and she was smiling at him. Ryan’s fingers mindlessly twisted a section of blanket next to Claire’s arm. They seemed to be engaged in a sweet conversation about nothing in particular. I remembered when I was in that chair, giggling at Ryan’s nonsensical humor, and I was glad to see the light back in his eyes.
The IVs and telemetry leads were no longer streaming from different parts of his body. He seemed so relaxed with Claire next to him. I reached out for Jared’s hand. His knuckles brushed against mine as our fingers interlaced, and I looked up at him. He was smiling at his baby sister, pleased to see her final y content.
Ryan’s eyes wandered to the doorway where we stood. Claire slowly turned our direction and offered a smal smile.
“Knock, knock,” Jared said, holding up the bags of take-out. “Cheeseburgers. Nina said it’s your favorite.”
Ryan’s smile turned into a cheesy grin, and he threw his head back. “Oh, thank God! I thought I would starve to death.”
“Oh,” Ryan said, chewing an oversized wad of cheeseburger. “Red Stripe has the best burgers. Seriously. You shouldn’t do this to me in the hospital. I might think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
Claire rol ed her eyes. “Could you be a little more dramatic about a cheeseburger?”
Ryan stopped chewing, and wiped the bit of ketchup off the corner of his mouth with his wrist. “You don’t have to be jealous of a burger, honey.”
“Oh, brother,” Claire said. She pointed at Ryan. “Do you see what I have to deal with? Wil one of you cal OSHA?”
“I don’t know,” Jared said. “You looked fairly pleased when we walked in.”
Ryan took another bite and then smiled. “She acts tough every time someone visits. She doesn’t fool me, though.”
“Who else has visited?” I asked.
“Mom. Kim. Beth. Chad. Josh…yeah. That’s about it. No, wait….”
“How did that go? With your mom?” I asked.
Claire frowned, and Ryan winked at her. “It went fine. She’s developed a theory. Since the last time I was in a hospital you showed up, and now Claire’s here, Mom thinks I’m getting myself hurt over girls.”
“Aren’t you?” Jared said with a wry smile.
“Shut it, Jared,” Claire warned.
I handed Ryan his cup of soda. “You know, this is becoming a habit.”
His whiskers were far beyond a five o’clock shadow, and his hair had grown downright shaggy. He looked so much older than the last time I’d seen him in that hospital, and nothing like the Marine in the photos he'd sent with his letters. “Tel me about it. I thought I said two hospitalizations ago that it was your turn?”
“I took a turn.”
“Yeah, so you almost bled out, big deal. I’m three to your one.”
“Wel , I’m pregnant, so I’m due for a hospitalization this year,” I said, processing the words as I spoke them.
Ryan laughed. “Wait…what?” he said, his face morphing from amusement to concern.
I looked to Claire. “You didn’t tel him?”
She shrugged, her platinum, angled tresses bouncing when she did so. “It’s your business to tel . Way to dump it on him, stupid.”
I frowned. Ryan mirrored my expression. “Congratulations,” he said. He glanced to Jared, sent him a lightning-fast dirty look, and then returned his focus to me. He pushed up in bed, sitting tal er.
“Say it,” Jared said.
Claire watched the exchange, clearly unhappy. I wasn’t sure if she was just sensing Ryan’s change in mood, or if it was her own reaction to the sudden, unpleasant turn in conversation.
“It’s not my place to say anything,” Ryan said.
“You have my permission,” Jared said. After his last word, he gestured for Ryan to continue.
Ryan rol ed his eyes and looked to Claire. “Isn’t this exactly what none of you wanted to happen?”
Claire seemed uncomfortable answering for her brother, but she quickly shrugged it off. “Yes and no. Not going along with the prophecy in Shax’s book would have been the safer route—in theory—but Hel would more than likely stil anticipate its completion. Now that it’s happened, it’s a means to an end. We have a better chance at getting Heaven on our side.”