musicians to take their places.
She fled, running onstage, sliding into her chair. She picked up her violin and sucked in huge, steadying breaths as she valiantly tried to regain her composure. She couldn’t blow this. She couldn’t allow her emotions to rattle her performance. Desperate to clear her mind and give the performance of her life, she focused on her father, his pride in her and his determination for her to be exactly where she was right now. Peace instantly descended as she struck the first note and the haunting strains of the violins rose from the orchestra. She wouldn’t let him down. Not now, not ever. For him, she would do this.
When the last echo of her violin slowly dissipated and Hayley’s solo signaled the end of the concert, the crowd erupted in applause, giving her and the entire group of assembled musicians a standing ovation.
Tears glittered brightly on Hayley’s face as she rose and took her bow. As soon as the curtains fell, she hurriedly left the stage, dodging the many congratulations and excited celebration of her fellow students. She paused just offstage to hastily wipe away the evidence of her emotion and bent to put away her violin.
A strong hand squeezed her shoulder and she stiffened, pausing a moment before rising to meet Maddox’s gaze.
“You did amazing, sweetheart. You absolutely nailed it.”
She offered him a weak smile of thanks as Justice and Zander pushed in to create a barrier between her and the stampede of people chattering excitedly and high-fiving madly.
“Come on, let’s get you home,” Justice said gently. “We’ll talk later. Promise.”
She said nothing as she allowed Zander to take her case, and she followed Maddox’s lead as Zander and Justice flanked her in the direction of the nearby exit.
Hayley turned briefly and offered a small wave and a halfhearted smile in the direction of Kara, the first-chair cellist who was throwing the afterparty. She didn’t refute Kara’s joyful “See ya there!” She was too embarrassed to explain that she wouldn’t be attending and definitely not why.
As soon as the cooler evening air hit Hayley’s face, her stomach curled into a knot and she hesitated, her step faltering as she bent over to control the surge of nervous energy as it tried to find an outlet. She’d pushed it and all her rioting emotions down for her performance, but now reaction was setting in and her knees were shaking violently.
“Hayley? What’s wrong?” Justice asked sharply. “Are you going to be sick?”
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and jolted back upright. “I’m fine,” she said stonily.
Zander, who had paused just ahead of her, turned in her direction, and to Hayley’s horror, she saw a car roar precariously close to the small group heading for Maddox’s car. Simultaneously, the front and back windows on the passenger side slid down and two guns appeared. Before she could shout a warning, shots sounded.
She lunged toward Zander as her violin case went skidding across the ground. Desperately she tried to push him away, but when her body slammed into his, his arms wrapped around her like steel beams and they both went flying to the ground, Zander landing atop her with a sickening thud.
She was screaming his name. She knew she was and yet she couldn’t hear anything. All she could feel was the warmth of his blood as it soaked into her clothing and the absolute limpness of his unconscious body.
Hayley huddled in the corner of the waiting room, head down, knees drawn to her chest in a tight ball as she rocked back and forth. The police had questioned her incessantly, but there was little she could tell them. It had all happened so fast. She couldn’t even provide a description of the vehicle because all she’d seen were the windows sliding down, guns aiming in her direction. She could only remember the terror and certainty of Maddox, Justice or Zander being killed. And then Zander covering her. Taking the bullet that should have hit her.
Hayley had become extremely frustrated and increasingly more agitated to the point of hysteria that she couldn’t recall much at all about the gunmen. Only that they’d worn masks covering their entire faces except for their eyes. When it’d become apparent that as a result of their questioning, she’d only become more distraught, the police had turned their attention on Justice and Maddox. They’d been rigid and angry, more worried about Hayley than they were about cooperating with the investigating officers. Only when a witness at the scene had been able to give the authorities a lead on the vehicle the shooters had driven had the police finally stopped their inquisition.
Never fully aware, even during her questioning, Hayley had withdrawn even further, the feeling of Zander’s weight over her, the warmth of his blood covering her skin the only memories that overwhelmed and tortured her.
Several times a tentative seeking touch registered on her shoulder or arm but she flinched away, refusing to be drawn from the fog of worry, torment and guilt. She hadn’t been allowed to ride to the hospital with Zander, though she screamed his name and fought tooth and nail as Maddox and Justice both pried her away from Zander’s unconscious, bloody body. She’d refused to allow anyone to examine her, saying that Zander was the one who’d been shot. It was he who needed their attention. And she’d been furious with the police and their repeated attempts to distract her from her vigil.
She went still when she heard Maddox a few feet away on his cell phone as he apprised Silas of the night’s events.
“You need to get down here immediately,” Maddox said quietly. “She’s severely traumatized. She won’t let anyone near her. No, I don’t think she was hurt, but she’s not doing good at all, man. She needs you right now. She was devastated that you weren’t at the recital. She wasn’t herself after we told her that we had orders to take her directly back to the apartment. She wanted to go to some party she was invited to because she was under the impression you wouldn’t even be home tonight. She doesn’t understand the danger or the threat, or at least she didn’t. Damn it, Silas, she’s hurting and I don’t know how to make her stop.”
Fresh tears streamed down Hayley’s buried face, and her shoulders shook with sobs. She didn’t want Silas here. Not when it was so obvious she meant so little to him. Zander should have never been at her recital that night. He should have never been shot.
If he died because of her, she’d never forgive herself. Never would she be able to look any of the men now gathered in the waiting room in the face.
A furor of activity and sound echoed from across the room, and she dimly registered the arrival of more of Silas’s friends. Then she heard an unfamiliar man’s harsh demand to know what had happened, and when she realized who he was—Drake—it only caused her to tear up all over again. What had happened? Did he know where his wife was and that Silas was with her and not with Hayley as he’d promised?
“Is she all right?” Drake demanded. “What the hell happened? How did this happen and who the hell is responsible?”
He raged on, but Hayley shut him and everyone else with him out. Everyone was there except the one person she most wanted—or had wanted. At the moment she didn’t think she could bear to face him.
“Who is with Evangeline?” Drake demanded hoarsely.
Hayley flinched and shifted so that her arms were now covering her ears in addition to her head.
“I sent Thane over so that Silas could get here as fast as he could,” Maddox said calmly. “I’ve kept him updated every few minutes. He’s one pissed-off man right now. Last time I spoke to him, he was just five minutes from the hospital, so he should be walking in any time now.”
So Drake did know that Silas had been with his wife all night, and was apparently unbothered by it. But then it was hardly likely that he knew the depth of his brother’s devotion to the woman he’d married.
Hayley curled into an even tighter ball, ignoring the pain, the guilt, her overwhelming worry for Zander, knowing that the very last thing she could handle right now was facing the man who’d broken his promise—and her heart.
/> * * *
Silas threw open the doors to the emergency room and immediately scanned the waiting area for Hayley, his heart lurching in fear when he didn’t immediately spot her.
“Where is she?” he demanded hoarsely.
Drake and Maddox both stepped toward him and then turned in the direction of a faint, blood-covered figure huddled into a barely visible ball in the far corner.
“Hayley!” he cried, immediately shoving Maddox aside.
But Drake and Maddox held restraining hands on both his arms.
“Just hold up a minute,” Maddox murmured.
“What the fuck?” Silas raged. “Why hasn’t she been taken care of? Let me go, damn it!”
“She hasn’t spoken to anyone except the police when they questioned her, and even then she was pretty out of it. She won’t let anyone near her,” Maddox said in hushed tones. “She said she wasn’t hurt and screamed at everyone to take care of Zander. She tried to shove him out of the path of the gunmen but was too late and Zander took her down with him to protect her. She’s freaked-out, man. You’re going to have to take care with her.”
Silas’s face was a wreath of torment. Oh God, this was his fault. He never should have left her care to others. She was his responsibility. Not Evangeline. Not anyone else. Hayley was his and he’d failed her and his brother unforgivably.
“Let me go,” he choked out, finally shaking loose from the restraining hands.
He hurried to where Hayley was hunched down on the floor, her arms covering her head entirely. His heart hammered violently as he took in the amount of blood—Zander’s blood—on her clothing.
He reached out, his hand shaking, and touched her hair.
“Princess?” he whispered. “Are you okay? Are you hurt? Say something to me, my darling girl.”
She reacted violently, wrenching away from his touch, her eyes wild as she scooted backward, bumping into the chair at her side. Pain instantly flashed over her face, but what she said stopped him in his tracks.
“Don’t touch me!” she hissed, shrinking farther away from his outstretched hand. “Don’t ever call me that. I’m not your anything.”
His mouth fell open in shock and then he glanced over his shoulder to where the rest of his brothers were gathered, looks of extreme worry in their eyes. In Maddox’s and Justice’s, though, he saw faint pity and understanding. What the hell was going on and what hadn’t they told him?
Something Maddox had said to him on the phone only just registered. At the time he’d been frantic with worry over Hayley, fearing that she’d been seriously injured.
She was devastated that you weren’t at the recital. She wasn’t herself.
He closed his eyes as sorrow gripped him. And so much regret.
“We need to get you up, Hayley,” he said in a soft voice. “I need to make sure you weren’t injured. I can’t tell what is Zander’s blood and what could be yours.”
It was the wrong thing to say. A haunted look filled her eyes and tears welled, sliding soundlessly down her cheeks.
“Is he dead?” she whispered.
“No, princess! He’s going to be okay. I swear it. They’re taking him to surgery, but nothing vital was hit. He lost a lot of blood and he’ll need time to recover, but I swear to you he’s going to be all right.”
“I’m not your princess,” she said tearfully. “I don’t even matter to you.”
His heart nearly exploded out of his chest. He wanted to cry like a baby, but he held it together by the thinnest thread.
Then she suddenly began pushing herself up, ignoring the protests from his brothers that she shouldn’t move. She pushed his hands away as he reached to steady her, but as his hand glanced over her bare leg before her dress fell back into place, fear lanced through his entire body, temporarily paralyzing him.
His palm came away bright red with fresh blood. Terror seized his veins, turning his own blood cold. His apology for missing an event he’d sworn to her he wouldn’t miss would have to wait. Everything would have to wait until it was determined how badly she was hurt.
She stood to her feet, her hand immediately clutching her side as she swayed precariously in front of him. Pain and confusion registered in her eyes, making her look even more vulnerable than she had when he’d first seen her huddled on the floor covered in blood.
“Hayley,” he said in a soothing voice one might use when trying to calm an injured wild animal. “Listen to me, sweet girl. You’ve been hurt. I think you may have been shot. You’re bleeding, baby. Let me get a doctor to look at you. I swear to make things right just as soon as you’ve gotten the care you need.”
“You’ll never make this right,” she whispered in a voice strangled by tears and emotion.
Devastation was written all over her face and she seemed to not even register anything else he’d said other than he would make things right. She was in fierce denial of her injury, her sole focus only on Zander and his well-being.
When she took another wobbly step back, another savage round of objections rose sharply from his brothers, and Maddox suddenly appeared at Hayley’s side, his eyes bright with concern.
“Hayley, sweetheart, listen to me,” Maddox pleaded. “Honey, you’re hurt. You’re bleeding badly. You have to let us get you back to an exam room.”
She shook her head adamantly, her eyes going wild once more. She was obviously in shock and only partly cognizant of her surroundings and completely unaware of the danger she was in. Seeming to forget that Silas was still in front of her, in her haste to move away from Maddox and his entreaty for her to submit to medical care, she bolted forward.
Silas lunged for her as her knees gave way and collapsed beneath her. She dropped like a rock and he barely managed to catch her before she hit the floor.
“Get me a doctor!” he roared as he surged to his feet, clutching Hayley to his chest in desperation.
He watched in horror as her blood dripped to the floor, and then he glanced back to where she’d been ever since she was brought into the ER, and he nearly lost his mind when he saw the bright smear of blood all over the area where she’d huddled.
Impatient, he charged through the swinging doors that led back to the treatment area. He was immediately met by a nurse who stared at him in shock.
“She’s been shot,” he said hoarsely. “Please help her.”
The nurse went into immediate action, yelling for a stretcher. As soon as one was hastily wheeled over by an orderly, Silas gently laid her down and the nurse took over, shoving him back. But Silas refused to leave her. The nurse argued furiously that he was impeding in her care and it finally took the efforts of four of his brothers to wrestle him back to the waiting area, where he began his long vigil.
Forgotten was Drake’s meeting with the Luconis, determining what the potential threat to them was or even apprising Drake of his conversation with the mole planted deep within the bowels of the Vanucci organization. All Silas could focus on was Hayley and the fact that she had been shot, and every minute that no one came out to give him an update on her condition, he died a little more.
Silas sat in the darkened hospital room holding Hayley’s limp hand, exhaustion taking its toll on him. It had been the longest night of his fucking life waiting for word on her condition. And then the ER physician had come out and reported that she had indeed been hit by one of the bullets that had riddled Zander’s body, and she was being taken straight to surgery to remove it from her lower abdomen.
Maddox had painfully recounted to Silas and the others how Hayley had seen the car—and the guns—aimed in their direction before he, Justice or Zander had and that she’d launched herself at Zander in an effort to protect him. Maddox and Justice had been grim and pale upon learning she’d been shot, and Silas knew well the guilt they felt for thinking they hadn’t been able to protect her, because Silas shared it.
His brothers had remained in the waiting room until Hayley was brought out of surgery and into
recovery and waited still until she’d been moved to a private room, still groggy and out of it from the anesthesia. Every single one of them had filed in to see her and ensure for themselves that she was alive and breathing.
As soon as she’d come around, her respirations immediately increased, her blood pressure rose and she became diaphoretic. The nurse had been quick to administer IV pain medication and Hayley had been out ever since, resting peacefully and pain free.
His brothers had urged him to get some rest, even volunteering to take turns sitting at her bedside while he slept a few hours, but he’d refused, adamant that he be with her every moment and that he be at her side when she finally regained consciousness and was aware of her surroundings.
He stroked her fingers and the inside of her wrist, then lowered his head, closing his eyes to remove the images of her bloody and falling and his haste to catch her before she hit the floor and injured herself further. The same images that had tortured him all night.
His head jerked upward when he felt her twitch and then heard her restless movement followed by the whisper of her ragged breath. He surged to his feet, leaning over the bed so he could stare into her eyes the moment she awoke. Her eyelashes fluttered sluggishly and the tip of her tongue darted out to rub over dry, cracked lips.
When her eyes finally opened, they were unfocused and dazed. A small gasp of pain escaped her, her eyes growing bright.
“Princess, are you in pain?” he whispered urgently. “Should I call for a nurse?”
Even as he posed the question, he reached for the call button and depressed it. As he waited for the nurse’s arrival, he stroked a hand through Hayley’s hair and then lowered his head to press his lips against her forehead.
She moaned again and he could see her open her mouth, trying to speak. He gently hushed her.
“Wait for pain medicine, sweet girl. It hurts you too much to speak right now. Wait just a minute and then you’ll feel much better,” he soothed.
Her gaze finally became focused and when it settled on him, recognition flashed and just as quickly her eyes filled with tears. His gut clenched tightly and his throat knotted thickly with emotion.
“Please don’t cry, princess,” he choked out. “You’re breaking my heart.”
The door swung open and Silas glanced up in relief to see a nurse approaching the bed with a cheerful smile.
“I see you’re awake, Miss Winthrop. Can you tell me how you’re feeling?”
“H-hurts,” Hayley rasped.
The nurse gave her a sympathetic look and then deftly inserted a syringe into the IV port of her hand. She checked Hayley’s vitals and then told Silas that the doctor would be making his morning rounds soon and would give an update on her condition as well as how long he expected her hospital stay to be.
As soon as the nurse left, Silas turned his attention back to Hayley, who was lying on the bed, eyes fluttering closed as she sighed with relief.
“Better?” he asked as he gathered her hand in his once more.
Her eyes came open and settled painfully on him. He knew he’d have to apologize quickly and hope she forgave him for completely failing her.
“Who is she?” Hayley demanded bitterly.
Silas reared back, surprised and puzzled by her question. “Who is who, princess? I don’t understand.”
“Evangeline,” she hissed.
His eyebrows went up even further. “Drake’s wife. I told you that, remember?”
Hayley turned her gaze upward, refusing to meet his stare any longer. Her lips were trembling and he could see the moisture welling in her eyes that had nothing to do with her physical pain.
“No, who is she to you?” Hayley said scornfully. “You don’t go on regular dates with the wife of a man you consider a brother and refuse to offer any sort of explanation to someone you claim is important to you unless that brother’s wife means more to you than she should. Why do you constantly drop everything on a dime for Evangeline? Why do you and your men refuse to even speak about her around me, like she’s some huge damn secret and all of you are so protective of precious Evangeline?”
She broke off with a choked sound of pain that ripped his guts right out of him. Before he could even collect himself to respond to her deep upset, she forged relentlessly on.
“But most of all, why do I get pawned off on your men and shoved aside and completely forgotten for another man’s wife? If she’s so precious and everyone loves her so damn much, then why couldn’t one of the others go do whatever it was you did with her so you could come to an event you not only promised me you would attend but knew how important it was to me? I kept telling myself I was being hasty and jealous and too fast to jump to conclusions. I gave you the benefit of the doubt over and over again when it’s obvious that I was right to be suspicious all along. Last night showed me in exacting detail exactly where I stand on your list of priorities and it’s not very damn high,” she said so low he almost didn’t hear.
But he had heard. Every single word. And now he watched as endless streams of tears slithered down her pale, ravaged face. At first he’d been shocked at the conclusions she’d drawn. He’d felt immediately defensive, angry even, his instinct to correct her very bad opinion of Evangeline, but then he realized she was exactly right. Furthermore, she didn’t know Evangeline, because as she’d said, he and his brothers had shut her down at every turn out of duty and loyalty to both Evangeline and Drake, never recognizing the fact that the two women should have absolutely been introduced. His relationship with Evangeline explained. The lack of trust both he and his brothers had demonstrated toward her was appalling and unforgivable.
Looking at the matter from her perspective, he cringed. Fuck. All the times