“Your dad doesn’t look seventy.”
I skimmed a hand down her back as she passed through the open door into the bracing, cold Philadelphia night air. “No, he doesn’t.” Cocking my brow at her, I added, “But that doesn’t mean you have to keep flirting with him.”
“Oh, hush.” My wife, Isabel Downing, turned to grin at me, the look on her face unrepentant. “He loves it.”
“I know that.” Rolling my eyes, I hooked my arms around her waist. “That doesn’t mean you gotta do it.”
She wiggled her eyebrows at me. “You’re not jealous of your seventy-year-old daddy, are you, baby?”
I wasn’t going to dignify that with an answer. If I did, I’d lose all pretense at dignity.
Instead, I gave her a quick, hard kiss.
She was breathless when I pulled away. Dark eyes sparkling, she grinned up at me.
The smile faded the moment I began my next question. “You ever going to talk to me, Iz?”
It was a repeat of the conversation we’d had probably three dozen times over the past few weeks. She was holding back on me about something. I’d caught her having strange, furtive conversations, or there would be times when I’d come home during the day and she’d be gone—not because she was at the ballet academy she attended with Daria, my sister-in-law, either.
I told myself there was no reason not to trust her.
But when she sighed and disentangled herself from my arms, it made it harder to keep believing that.
“Sean, it’s nothing,” she told me, her face somber. “Just some things I’m trying to work out in my head.”
“Maybe you should talk about them,” I said, smoothing a hand down her wool covered arm. “I mean, we’re married. You don’t have to do that stuff alone anymore.”
“If I need to talk about this stuff, I’ll let you know. I promise.” She caught my wrist and turned it toward her, scowling when she saw my watch. “Crap. I’ve got to go.”
I caught her arm when she would have turned away. “Not so fast,” I said, pulling her up against me for a quick, rough kiss.
A slightly dazed smile lit her face as she pulled away. “Hold that thought,” she told me before turning and walking away.
She glanced at me over her shoulder a few seconds later, wiggling her fingers.
“Everything okay with you two?”
I looked over at Briar. I hadn’t even heard her come out.
My big sister slid her arm through mine and studied my face as I tried to figure out the right way to answer.
“I don’t know.” I looked back toward Isabel. She smiled at me through the windshield of the car. I wanted to think everything was okay. Needed to think everything was okay. But… “I just don’t—”
The world split open, and hell engulfed my entire universe. A wall of fire slammed into us, knocking us both back. Instinctively, I turned toward my sister, trying to block her from the inferno, but she was already gone, and when I reached out, trying to find her, my hands came up empty.
I opened my mouth to scream and inhaled nothing but heat and smoke.
My throat went raw, but I kept trying.
I was screaming. I knew I was. I could feel it.
But beyond that thunderous silence in my ears, I heard nothing.
I couldn’t see anything either. The world was a red mask before my eyes. Then I realized my lids were practically glued shut. Dazed, I rubbed at them. Finally, I was able to drag them open. It felt like an eternity. In reality, I had no idea how much time had passed. Hours? Minutes? Seconds?
Dust and smoke choked the air, all colored orange by a strange, flickering light.
Fire, I realized.
The world was on fire.
I stared at the blaze, the heat of it singeing my skin.
The word started in the very bottom of my soul.
I silenced it, not wanting to acknowledge the reason for it.
Blinking the grit from my eyes, I continued to stare at the raging inferno, willing my brain to make some sort of sense. Slanting my gaze slightly to the left, I saw the gaping storefront, and the still-functioning part of my brain filled in the blanks. The chocolatier Isabel loved—
I shoved myself onto my hands and knees, that scream in my throat breaking free once more.
But again, even though I screamed, I couldn’t hear it.
My legs didn’t want to work, and it took two tries before I finally managed to get onto my feet. Even then, I swayed for several seconds as I tried to find my balance.
I took a wobbly step forward. Adrenaline kicked in, and the next step was steadier.
The heat threatened to cook me from the outside in, but I ignored it, taking a third step, this one almost normal.
I had to get to Isabel—
Strong arms grabbed me and yanked me back.
An insane sort of fury came to life inside me, and I went crazy, bucking and twisting and shoving against whoever held me. He was taller than me, and judging by the way he wrenched me clear off my feet, he was also a lot stronger.
It didn’t matter.
He was in the way.
I needed to get to Isabel.
Those strong arms wrenched me around as I swung back with my head, making contact. Something hot splashed onto the back of my head and neck, but I didn’t even feel a feral sort of triumph. I’d smashed the bastard’s nose, but it didn’t matter since he was still holding me.
Just a few feet away, Briar was on her knees, staring at me, her hands clasped in front of her face. Daria knelt on one side of her. And on the other side, I could see my father, his face stricken with grief and rage.
I jerked against the arms holding me. “Get this fucker off!” I shouted into the silent void surrounding me.
I saw a familiar form coming at me from the side, and relief punched me in the gut.
Brooks. But he didn’t do a damn thing to get me away from whoever restrained me. Infuriated by that, I twisted and jerked forward with my upper body.
Finally, I broke the man’s hold.
Dimly, I realized it was Cormac.
He hit the ground, looking dazed, but even as I turned to go find Isabel, he grabbed my ankle. And I slammed right into Declan.
I caught the front of his jacket. “Isabel.” The word was like a knife tearing from my throat.
Would he hear me? Why couldn’t I hear me?
My brother’s normally hard, implacable face softened, and Declan curled his hands around my wrists as he spoke.
At least his mouth moved, but I couldn’t hear him. I couldn’t hear anything past the roaring of my heartbeat in my head.
I pulled a hand free and hit my palm against my ears. Something wet trickled out. Confused, I looked down and saw blood.
Declan caught me around the shoulders and forced me to turn.
For some reason, the entire scene came into focus, and some dim sense of hearing finally kicked back in as he pointed at the inferno.
“…gone, man. I’m so…sorry. Isabel…gone…”
* * *
A cop came to talk to me.
I shot him a dark glare and shook my head. There was sympathy in his eyes, something that surprised me, but I still wasn’t about to talk to him. Right now, I even had a good enough reason to avoid him. He continued his approach, and I shook my head, covering one ear with my hand.
I still couldn’t hear worth shit.
It seemed to be getting a little better, but the overall effect was like I had cotton batting shoved in my ears, and the only sounds I could hear was a dim, muffled roar.
Still, he was a stubborn bastard.
I looked away.
A shadow fell between us. From the corner of my eye, I saw Brooks. Distantly, I had some level of appreciation, but overall, nothing could penetrate the dark, gaping void that had settled inside me.
Sitting in the open door of one of the ambulances that had arrived on scene, I stared at the mess the bomb had left behind. Nobody would have ever been able to tell there had been a car there, much less my beautiful, mouthy, flighty, adorable wife.
Tears pricked my eyes, and I stubbornly blinked them back.
I didn’t deserve to cry.
That should have been me.
Vaguely, I was aware of the ambulance shifting as somebody sat down next to me. Turning my head, I saw Briar. Her face was dirty. Mine was probably worse. There were tear tracks on her cheeks and oily smears around her eyes where she’d tried to wipe them away. Our gazes met, and she reached up, touched one of my ears.
“…you hear?” she mouthed.
At least, I think that was what she said.
Shaking my head, I went to look away, and my gaze landed on a tall figure standing maybe ten feet away.
Finally, something pierced the bubble of numbness that had settled around me.
Raging, burning fury.
I didn’t remember lunging from the ambulance or closing the distance between us. I sure as hell didn’t remember knocking a cop out of my way or taking Cormac MacTavish to the ground.
Once I had him under me, I smashed my fist into his face, once, twice. Hard hands grabbed me, tried to pull me away, but the raw, animalistic fury was in full control, and I broke free, landing another savage hit.
Cormac didn’t even try to stop me.
“You killed my wife!” I shouted. Through my ravaged eardrums, I heard some dull echo of my voice.
Finally, somebody—no, two somebodies—pulled me off. A cop got in front of me, and then Briar was standing there. I couldn’t hear her, but I could tell by her actions and the way she moved that she was trying to talk the cop out of putting the cuffs he held on me.
I didn’t fucking care if he arrested me.
What did it matter?
Cormac got to his feet, blood on his face.
My father passed him a handkerchief, and he accepted, wiping the blood away.
I must have said it aloud because my father flinched and swung his gaze to me. He shook his head, and his mouth formed the word, “No.”
I wrenched again at the hands that held me. They loosened briefly, but I didn’t get away.
I swung my gaze to the left, then the right, realized it was my brothers holding me. Brooks moved to stand in front of me, and I bucked against Declan’s hold.
I didn’t realize what they’d planned until it was too late, and Declan had his arm around my neck. He’d been a champion wrestler in high school and also loved judo and boxing. He was a down-and-dirty fighter, and even at my best, I couldn’t take him.
The pressure around my neck increased, and darkness edged in on my vision.
I didn’t even bother to fight.
If I was unconscious, I wouldn’t have to think.