She gave him a half smile that cinched his heart. “I won’t argue with you about that.”
“I have a few questions. I know you probably don’t fell like talking, but…”
“No, I’m actually sorry it’s taken this long.” She sat up a little straighter and struggled to adjust the pillows underneath her.
Without thinking he leaned over her and fluffed the pillows. Their faces were only inches apart, and for the first time he witnessed a raw awareness in her eyes. An awareness of him.
She visibly swallowed and glanced down, breaking their gaze. When her cheeks tinged pink he knew he was right. Up until this point he thought he’d been the only one fighting his feelings. Now he knew he wasn’t alone.
Too bad this wasn’t the time or place to do anything about it.
She took a deep breath before beginning. “I went to Starbucks to get a coffee. I was so angry with you, but after twenty minutes I started feeling guilty. So, I bought two more drinks for you and Nikolai and was on my way back when I was stopped by a blast from my past.”
Dane didn’t say anything, but he moved closer to her bed when he sensed her anxiety.
She continued after only a few seconds. “I’m not sure how much Robert has told you about my past, but I ran into a sort of ex-boyfriend.”
Her eyes widened, but the shock was short lived. She mumbled something under her breath too low for Dane to hear, but it was enough to be glad he wasn’t Robert at the moment.
“Yes,” she muttered.
“I can’t believe that piece of trash had the nerve to bother you in broad daylight.” Dane’s blood boiled at the thought of that loser near her. They’d checked him out, but he hadn’t been at any of the same social functions as Calista in nearly a decade.
“Well he did and he wasn’t making much sense. Apparently his career has been on a downward spiral since we broke up. He was blaming me and I’m not sure why. I haven’t seen him in over ten years. That’s actually why I never even mentioned him. I haven’t thought about him in so long.”
“What exactly did he say?”
“He said he was going to go to the tabloids with his story. When I questioned him, he said he’d tell the world what I had done to him. He was acting crazy. Deranged almost.”
She shuddered before continuing. “He said if I didn’t pay him what he wanted, I would be sorry. And…” her voice became thick with tears as she tried to continue.
“Take your time.” Dane was right next to her by now and took her hand in his.
He was grateful she didn’t pull away. Just the opposite in fact. She seemed to gather strength with him near.
“He grabbed me by the shoulders and told me he could cut my throat just right so I would never sing again. I panicked and ran across the street. In my effort to dodge oncoming traffic I must have slipped and slammed my head on the curb. The next thing I remember is waking up here. The doctors tell me I’m lucky it wasn’t worse.”
Dane jumped out of his chair with such force that it tumbled backwards. “I’m going to kill that bastard.”
Nikolai barged in, gun drawn. “Is everything all right?”
“No, everything is not all right. We have business…” He broke off when she reached out a delicate hand and grabbed his as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Please don’t leave,” she murmured, her voice thick with sleep.
“I’m not leaving your side, I promise you.” Even to his own ears, his voice sounded strangled.
The word was said so quietly, he almost didn’t hear her above his own breathing.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, cousin. The deeper you fall for her, the harder it’ll be later.”
Dane didn’t respond. Did Nikolai think he didn’t already know that?
“If she finds out the truth you know she won’t forgive you.”
Dane took a ragged breath and admired her delicate features as she slept. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Calista, Dane, and Nikolai left the hospital a day later. The doctors wanted to keep her an extra day for observation. Part of her knew that Dane had wanted to keep her there too, but she also knew he didn’t have the heart to argue with her. She felt a twinge of guilt at using that against him, but not enough to stay in a depressing white room another twenty four hours.
“Uh, guys, what’s that?”
She pointed to an envelope and box leaning against the door to her condo even though they’d all seen it.
She didn’t miss when Dane and Nikolai exchanged a quick glance. Hello? She was standing right next to them.
“Stay back.” Nikolai and Dane ordered in unison.
She ignored them.
“It could be a get well card from one of my neighbors.” Calista spoke up, even though she knew the odds of that were slim to none.
Granted she’d owned the condo for six years, but she hadn’t lived there for even six weeks. And, no one knew she’d been hospitalized. They’d even managed to keep it from the press.
“Do you smell that?” Dane looked at Nikolai.
The smell was unmistakable even to someone as untrained as her. Calista scrunched her nose and gagged. Rotting flesh.
Dane took a pen from his pocket and slowly lifted the lid.
Bile rose in Calista’s throat. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
She clutched her stomach and tried to force the nausea back down. Both men looked up. She could tell they were surprised to see her standing so close.
“I’m going to get her inside. Call Sanders and get someone over here to pick this up. Everything needs to be analyzed.” Dane took Calista’s arm and guided her into the condo.
After what she’d just seen she wasn’t going to fight him.
“I can’t believe someone would do that to a defenseless animal.” Calista hadn’t known what to expect but she hadn’t expected a half decapitated, skinned rabbit. She shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself. “Aren’t you a little shocked?”
Dane nodded, but she could tell he was lying.
“You’re not shocked even a little bit are you?”
He shrugged and grimaced. “I’m sorry. Don’t get me wrong. Its disturbing, but I’ve seen a whole lot worse.”
“Was there a note?”
When he didn’t expand further Calista prodded him for more information. “Did you see what it said?”
“Are you intentionally being difficult, Dane? What did it say?”
He sighed and she watched an inner struggle play out in his eyes. He raked a hand through his dark hair and muttered, “It said you’re next.”
Nikolai’s voice interrupted them. “There’s something else you need to take a look at. I’m sorry, Calista.”
She was horrified that her voice came out shaky and unsteady. “What is it?”
“It’s a picture of you.” He looked from Dane to Calista as he held out the photograph.
“Oh no,” she whispered.
She went to grab it, but Nikolai pulled it back.
“Sorry, in case there are fingerprints.” He shrugged in explanation.
She collapsed on the couch, not trusting her wobbly legs.
Dane took the picture from Nikolai by the edges. She watched him as he studied it. Except the twitching of his jaw, his face betrayed nothing. She shouldn’t care what he thought, but she did.
Did he judge her? She could take a lot of things, but seeing judgment in his eyes would be too much right now.
The picture had been taken right after her eighteenth birthday, but it might as well have been a hundred years ago.
She was posed in such a manner that she looked back at the camera, but the front of her body faced away. Because of her forward stance, only the curve of one breast showed. There wasn’t any clothing on her except a pair of Brazilian bikini bottoms which might as well have been thongs. The word whore was scrawled across the picture in red ink.
“If I understand correctly, Robert filled you in on the story of Mike Valpas. Short of divulging the gritty details, that’s one of the pictures he took. By today’s standards that picture wouldn’t be risqué enough for Maxim. Hell, it covers more than some lingerie advertisements. Back then I was terrified it would get out and ruin me. I wanted to be taken seriously as a singer, and I knew that picture could hurt my image.”
Dane looked at Nikolai and she saw something pass between them she didn’t understand. Without a word, Nikolai nodded and disappeared into his room. She wanted to question them, but her body was fighting her. Calista gripped Dane’s arm tighter as he led her to her room.
“You need to rest and let us worry about this.”
She tried to protest, but he put a gentle finger over her mouth. “This could be the break we’re looking for. If Mike is the only one who’s seen this picture then that narrows down our playing field quite a bit. If we’re worrying about you, we can’t do our job.”
“I’m not going to leave again if that’s what you’re implying,” she muttered.
When he didn’t respond she struggled to find the right words. “I know I don’t owe you any explanations, but that was a different time in my life. My parents had just died and Connor was gone so much I rarely saw him. I guess I was what you’d call a late bloomer. Mike was the first guy who showed any interest in me. I was young and thought I was in love. Even if that picture hadn’t been written on, it would have disturbed me.”
“I can’t even imagine how hard it was to adjust to your industry at such a young age. You’re lucky you weren’t eaten alive,” he said softly.
“That’s thanks to Robert. He’s been my rock for the past decade.”
A small weight lifted when she realized he didn’t judge her. She didn’t need his approval, but she couldn’t bear it if she’d seen condemnation in his eyes. She sighed and sat on the edge of the bed and took off her coat.