Carter reed 2, p.22
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       Carter Reed 2, p.22

         Part #2 of Carter Reed series by Tijan
 
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  parents did. Andrea shot out her hand and hissed, “Don’t. Don’t touch me.”

  The nurse held her arm as her parents stepped away.

  “You’re my father? For real?”

  He looked at the floor. “Yes.” His voice was thick. “I’m sorry, honey—”

  “Stop,” she hissed again. “No more lies, Dad. This is my sister, and thinking over everything, you were never supportive of me finding her. You told me she was probably dead. That’s what you—you tried to convince me of it, but I knew I had a sister. She gave me a drawing, and I had that. There were two sets of thumbprints. Mom, you told me it was a friend, but I remembered it wasn’t. All this time, you guys were trying to bury Ally. That’s why I couldn’t remember her, because I was gone. I thought…” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “No. And her brother. I was convinced he took her from us. You told me you knew there was abuse. But it wasn’t him; it was our mom. You let me think it was him.”

  She looked at her father as if he’d plunged a dagger into her back. A tug of sympathy rose up in me. She felt betrayed, and she had a right to, but this was her father. He was her flesh and blood. I’d give anything to know who mine was. No. I’d give anything just to have AJ back for five minutes.

  Clearing my throat and watching all eyes swing toward me, I asked, “Is she still alive?”

  “Oh, no.” The wife began sputtering.

  He shook his head, eyes panicked. “No, no. I won’t let you look for her.”

  So she was.

  She was alive.

  “Is she still there?”

  Andrea’s mom paled even more. Her hand went to her chest, and she whirled to her husband. “Edward, they cannot—”

  He touched her arm, quieting her plea, and looked at me. “Young lady, you cannot go looking for her. Corelea was a spiteful and dangerous mother to you then. I shudder at the thought of what she’d do now, if she could get her hooks in you.”

  “Or me, you mean.” Andrea moved forward to stand beside me. She tightened the blanket around her. “You mean if my mother had her hooks in me? Because we have money, Daddy. You have money. I have an inheritance. How would you feel if all of that was squandered away? Everything you worked for, all your life, was ripped away? How would that make you feel?”

  She lifted her chin, but her lips trembled. A disgusted sound mingled with her words. “Would it piss you off if I did that? Gave my mother money that you’d earned, like the truth you took from me? My sister. You could’ve—” She started to fall.

  Her mother rushed forward. “Andrea.”

  “No.” She pulled her arm away from her, but she faltered again. She was so weak. The nurse rushed to support her other side, and I reached around her, trying to help. It didn’t matter. Andrea fell to the floor with a thud as her head made contact with the tile. It was a good, hard smack.

  I felt sick.

  “Andy!” her mother exclaimed, falling to her knees beside her daughter. A group of medical staff swarmed around her, and in the rush, I was pushed backward.

  They hoisted Andrea onto a gurney and wheeled her down the hallway. Her mother followed behind, hugging Andy’s blanket to her chest.

  Then the only people left were her father and me. He stared right at me. I readied myself, but I saw no anger there. I thought he would’ve blamed me, the way I could tell his wife did. There’d been an accusing flash in her eyes. But not with him.

  I felt a pang in my chest.

  He looked…sad. “I’ve always known it was wrong to lie to Andy,” he said quietly. “The truth would come out. I knew that, especially once she was convinced she had a sister and went to find you. The day she told us she was taking a semester off of graduate school to find you—that was the day my lies were going to be over. It was only a matter of time. That was years ago. I thought I’d have all this time to prepare what I was going to say to you. But here you are.” He took a deep breath. “And I still have no idea what words I could utter to make anything right with you again. I am truly sorry, Ally.”

  “Emma,” I murmured.

  “What?”

  “Emma.” I cleared my throat. “My name is Emma.”

  “Ah. I see. Yes. Emma.” He tried to smile at me. “That’s a lovely name, too.”

  Yeah. Lovely. That was not the word I’d use to describe anything in that moment, much less my name, but it was the name AJ gave me. It was the name I would keep, no matter what.

  “Emma!”

  Theresa waved at me from the elevators. She frowned, studying Andrea’s father beside me, and asked, “Did you find her?”

  I forced myself to nod. Look normal. Act normal. Maybe then everything would be normal? That was a lie, though. Nothing was normal for me. I should’ve been used to that. Never hope for normalcy. Maybe then I might get it? But no. I skimmed a glance back toward Andrea’s dad.

  He patted me on the arm before turning away. “I’ll be seeing you, All—Emma. You take care.” Then he took off in the direction his wife and daughter had gone.

  “Hey.” Theresa stood in front of me now. She smiled, but there were questions in her eyes. “You okay? Who was that?”

  Who was that? “No one.” Was I okay? “I will be okay.”

  Her eyebrows bunched together. “Huh?”

  “Nothing.” I linked my elbow through hers, heading for the elevator. “I just want to go home.”

  As we got on the elevator, she hugged me against her side and pressed a kiss to my temple. “I’m glad you’re okay, Emma. I missed you.” She cupped my face with her palm and pressed my head down to her shoulder. “You deserve a year-long vacation after the hell you’ve been put through. Just think of all the gun ranges and wine nights we could have.”

  I groaned, my mouth moving against her shirt. “I’ll need another year to recuperate from that.”

  She laughed, jostling her shoulder underneath my head. “Oh, Ems. That’s what Carter’s for. He’ll help you with all the rejuvenation you need.” She tightened her hold on my arm pressed against her side. “Now, let’s get home. We have a few wine nights to catch up on.”

  I almost started laughing. Yes. Yes, we did.

  Carter was still with the police and after checking in with Peter and Drake at the hospital, I went back with them. Peter told me to wait with my friends until he came to get me. He and Drake were going to be questioned by police soon and he didn’t want me around them. So when we got to Noah’s place, Amanda threw her coat off and headed for the kitchen. I lingered in the hallway, wanting to call Carter’s phone just in case I got him, but Theresa yelled from the kitchen.

  “Come on, Emma! You’re here. You’re back with us. We’re going to toast to you.”

  “Toast?”

  Noah came from behind me and went straight for the refrigerator. Amanda held a bottle of wine and wiggled her eyebrows at me. Theresa came from the cupboard with five wineglasses. I’d just finished counting them when Brian filtered in and went to the wall. He leaned against it, tugging at his collar as he shoved a hand inside his pocket. He seemed content to sit back and watch the entertainment. He pulled at his collar again and his gaze skirted mine before jumping to Amanda.

  I thought he was content. Maybe not.

  “No,” Noah said, distracting me as he shut the fridge door with a bottle of rum in one hand and two beers in his other. He slid a beer over the counter to Brian, who caught it and tipped it toward him in salute. Noah nodded back, then plopped the rum in front of Amanda and Theresa.

  Theresa’s mouth hung open, and her eyebrows had shot up. “Uh—what?”

  He nabbed the wine bottle from Amanda, flashing her an apologetic smile, and put it back in the refrigerator. With his beer, he turned to face me. He held his bottle in the air. “No wine for you ladies tonight. You’re drinking the hard stuff because tonight—” He smiled at me, “—we’re celebrating one of our own coming back home.”

  “What?” I could feel the tears forming behind my eyes. “What do you
mean?”

  A slow smile spread on Theresa’s face, and she grabbed a carton of juice, filling three glasses. As soon as Theresa moved the juice to the next glass, Amanda poured rum into it.

  Noah waited until all three of us had a glass in hand. He gestured to me. “Come on, raise it up. This is for you, you know.”

  I felt my face getting warm. “What are you guys doing?”

  “Our sister is home.”

  I looked at Amanda. She’d said that so softly and eloquently. She spoke as if it were a fact, as if she were declaring what we all knew. I sucked in my breath. I hadn’t known. I hadn’t—I’d thought it and felt it, but the fear of being abandoned was always there. Because of Carter, because of who I loved, I thought they’d someday turn their backs on me.

  “I second that.” Theresa looked like she was bursting at the seams. She bounced up and down, waiting for me to lift my glass. “Come on, Ems. You’re back with us. You’re safe. Your sister is safe, and hey—you have a sister! A true blue sister. That’s amazing. Don’t get me wrong, though. I do not want to know what all happened out there because, you know—” She winked in Brian’s direction. “But you’re home. You’re alive, and we missed the hell out of you.”

  The tears weren’t going to stay hidden. One slipped down my cheek, and I felt more coming. I tried to swallow the emotion, but I knew my smile was watery. “You guys… Thank you.” I couldn’t. The words weren’t coming. This. I really felt accepted by them, no matter what happened or what would happen. I flicked some of the tears away. “You have no idea how much this means to me.”

  Theresa frowned. “Because we’re drinking rum instead of wine?”

  “We love you, Emma.”

  I heard the tenderness from Amanda again. When I turned to look, she held my gaze and continued to smile softly at me. She glanced to Brian, then back to me, and her smile lifted up a notch. I knew what she was trying to convey to me then. No matter what happened, we were family. I nodded, and that broke the dam. I couldn’t stop crying after that.

  “Oh, Emma.” Theresa came around the counter and hugged me, glass still in hand. Amanda laughed as she joined us, with her glass, too. “Wait.” Theresa raised her glass. “We should all take a sip like this.”

  “What?” Amanda frowned at her.

  “I mean it. I know it sounds stupid. We’re mixed up in a knot here, but let’s try it. It can be a new thing, like a bonding, sisterly-drinking thing. If anything, we’ll all look really dumb together.”

  “Oh my god.” Amanda rolled her eyes.

  “Hush it.” Theresa shot her a look, but she was trying not to grin. “This is what memories are made of. When we act stupid, we know we’re going to act stupid, and we do it anyway. Now drink, woman.” She lifted up on her tiptoes, straining toward her glass.

  Amanda and I did the same. My lips barely touched my glass, but I tried. Amanda screamed and began laughing. She started hopping up and down, jostling me. “Hey,” I said. My lip was almost there. I could just feel it when my glass tipped. I had one second to register what was coming, and I closed my eyes just as the liquid rained down on me.

  “Oh my god.” I laughed, extracting myself. I was wet, and a little cold, but everyone laughed. Peeking out through one eye, I could tell Amanda and Theresa were in similar states, both drenched. Noah and Brian stood by with the emptied glasses in hand.

  The three girls shared a look, and as one, we launched for the guys.

  Theresa leapt for Noah’s beer, but he lifted it up and out of her reach. Instead of jumping for it, she darted around him, opened the fridge and pulled out a champagne bottle. Noah’s eyes got big once he saw what she’d grabbed, and he began backing away. It didn’t matter. She sprayed it all over him, shaking the bottle up and down.

  “Theresa.”

  “You asked for it!” she yelled. “I’m giving back, Noah.”

  Amanda and Brian were tussling, too, and I stepped back to watch both couples. Seeing what Theresa had done, Amanda bypassed her boyfriend’s beer altogether and grabbed the rum.

  “Hold up,” I called.

  “Good thinking.” She set it back down and grabbed the juice container. Instead of shaking it like Theresa had, she climbed up the counter and tipped it over. Brian just stood there, letting her do it. He shook his head and fought back a grin.

  When he saw me watching, he lifted his hands in a shrug. “What do you do? I asked for it.” Then he twisted around, snaked an arm around her waist, and plucked her off the counter.

  Amanda shrieked, but it wasn’t from terror. She was excited. No, I corrected myself—she was happy. As he swung her around in a circle, I saw that she was genuinely happy.

  Good.

  That warm emotion settled in my gut. It was firm, and it resounded through me. Everything I’d done was worth it. Leaving them, hiding with Carter—all of it was worth it. Making sure Amanda had changed her mind? That was more than worth it. She wasn’t Mallory. She had a future. She needed to live it as much as possible. And me? I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket. I had my own future.

  I snuck away, but as I did, I glanced over my shoulder. Brian was ducking Amanda’s tickling hands and watching me. We shared a look. I wasn’t sure what message was in it, but he nodded and started tickling Amanda all over again.

  He was distracting her so I could go.

  I got to the front door, where I was able to read my text message.

  There are men downstairs for you.

  I frowned. It wasn’t a number I recognized. Carter?

  A second passed.

  Another.

  Then my phone buzzed again. This is Cole. Carter is coming here.

  I stared at it for a moment. That was odd. Why didn’t he—

  “Is that Carter?”

  Brian stood behind me, his head tilted to the side, hands in his pockets. When I kept staring at him, he bobbed his head forward, indicating my phone. “I just know there’s not much that would pull you away from Amanda and Theresa.”

  I narrowed my eyes. What did he mean by that?

  He backed up a step and held his hands up. “Again. Wow.” He scratched behind his ear. “I can interrogate a serial killer, but you, you scare the crap out of me.”

  I did?

  “I just…” He closed his eyes and his head fell back. He groaned, then stared at the ceiling for a moment. “Man. What is it now? Three for three? Four for four? I’m striking out all over with you. Four walks, and I gave a run away. I’m going into foul territory.”

  I could hear Amanda and Theresa laughing in the kitchen. Whatever feelings I had for this guy, I had to put them aside. I gestured to them and said, “That sound.”

  He looked at me, traces of a frown on his face.

  Amanda laughed again.

  “Right there,” I said. “She’s happy.”

  “Because of you—”

  I shook my head. “No, because of you. Yes, I hate that you’re a cop. You know why. We all do. But she loves you, and I love her, and that’s what matters.”

  “Yeah,” he murmured. “I’m not like normal people, Emma. I can read the small print. She’s happy. You’re happy that she’s happy, but I’m a cop. I’m with her. You’re with a criminal. I know that you’re going to pull away. You have to. I get it. I do. Carter Reed is your number one, and no matter how we try to make things sound pretty, the bottom line is that—”

  I didn’t need him to say it. I said it for both of us. “—you’re a cop.”

  “Yeah.”

  “She doesn’t sound like that when it’s just me around,” I told him.

  He frowned. “What do you mean?”

  “You know what I mean. It’s you. I love her like a sister. I do. But you’re going to be her family. Not me.” I held my phone up. “I have my family waiting for me. I have to go.”

  “Brian! She’s still in the bathroom?” Theresa yelled from the kitchen.

  I was leaving without saying good-bye. Again. In so many ways, t
his was wrong, but having to say good-bye to them again? They wouldn’t understand. I didn’t know how to explain it, but this was right. It had to be.

  Amanda was happy. The reason for it meant I had to go now.

 
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