• Nancy C. Weeks

It's #FreeRead Friday. Greed, Chapter Three


It's Friday, and it's time for #FreeReadFriday!


I hope you enjoyed the first couple of chapters of In the Shadow of Greed, Book 1 of Shadows and Light series. Here is a little more of Jason McNeil and Sarah Tu. If you missed the first two chapters, you can find them HERE.


Chapter Three

October

The elevator door swished open on the third floor and Jason stepped out. The odor of soiled linens from a large laundry cart stored in an open closet next to the elevator hit his nostrils. He usually tried to avoid the elevator, but tonight he was bone tired. He didn’t have the energy to climb three flights of stairs.

As he headed down the corridor toward Hanna’s room, his sister-in-law walked toward him. “Jennie, what are you doing here this time of night?” he said, leaning down to kiss her cheek.”

“I brought a couple dinners for Sarah.”

“Is she here? I didn’t see her car in the lot.”

“No, but I stored the containers in the refrigerator in the staff break room and left Sarah a note. I guess you two are still avoiding each other?”

“Not avoiding exactly,” he said with a grin. He searched behind her. “Where is Jared?”

“He and Noah are working out the final details of Noah’s new assignment.”

Most of the time, Jason was thrilled his brothers shared his love of law enforcement. This wasn’t one of those times. Noah, Jared’s twin was about to disappear for a few weeks. Jason lived with the dangers of undercover work. If he could talk Noah out of it, he would.

“So, you came out here to get your mind off Noah leaving? We’ll keep him safe.”

“I have no doubt about that.” Jennie took in a heavy breath and let it out as she scanned the hallway. “I’m here because Hanna is here.”

Jason touched her arm. “How can I ease this pain?”

Jennie never met Hanna, but they shared the same nightmare. Greg Scarvey.

Once Scarvey finished with Hanna, he turned his sick fixation on Jennie by picking up a Baltimore Sun newspaper. Jason still woke in the middle of the night, images of Scarvey’s apartment racing through his mind, one bedroom with Hanna’s college ID covering every inch of wall space, while the second bedroom had Jennie’s face. That was her reward for being named Teacher of the Year.

“Only time will do that, Jason. I’m lucky. Elías Mendoza’s obsession with me saved my life and ended Greg Scarvey’s. But being where Hanna was…that’s why I’m here. As long as she’s here, I’ll be here as much as I can. It tears Jared apart because he can’t fix this, and I hate that, but…”

“You don’t have to explain that ‘but’ to me, dear sister. I get it.” He eased her into his arms.”

“This helps,” Jennie whispered, wrapping her arms around his waist.

“That’s good, damn good.”

She inched away and glanced toward Hanna’s room. “I think Hanna beat this latest infection.”

Jason let out a sigh of relief. “Good. But how much of this can she take?”

“Ask her.”

Damn. How did she do that? “Please don’t go there.”

“I will, as soon as you stop fighting this connection with Hanna.”

“Sometimes I wish I never said anything to you.”

“Well, you did. No take backs. On another topic, Captain Ferguson mentioned your transfer and asked Jared to talk you into staying.”

“No way did Jared send you.”

“He didn’t.”

“Jennie, if I don’t get away from here, I’ll go crazy.”

“Not if you accept what’s happening to you. I’ve seen you with Hanna. You are living a miracle and there’s a reason she’s pulling you to her. You need to figure out what that is, not run away from it.”

“Jennie…”

“This is not about how much I’m going to miss you. There are things we can’t explain because there’s no explanation. Know this, Jason McNeil. Whatever is going on with you and Hanna isn’t going to disappear because you’re halfway across the country.”

Jason pulled her back into an embrace. “We can’t all have angels working on our behalf. I have to let Hanna go and you have to let me go.” He kissed her lightly on her forehead. “Come on, I’ll walk you to your car. Remember to text me when you get home.”

“Jared’s home.”

“Text me anyway.”

When Jason entered Hanna’s room a few minutes later, he was hit with a trace of citrus from the artificial air freshener Sarah insisted was Hanna’s favorite. The custom-made floral curtains hung from the large picture window and various photo frames of Sarah and Hanna graced the surfaces. But despite the homey touches Sarah tried to create, it was still a hospital room.

He shrugged off the depressing effect the room always had on him before he slowly approached the bed positioned in the center. The soft overhead light fixture lit the room like a flickering candle. Surrounding the bed were the ever-present machines that kept constant track of Hanna’s vital signs. Jason lowered the side rail, perched on the edge of the mattress, and lifted her thin, frail hand into his.

“Hey, Hanna.”

Jason rolled the knots from his shoulders. “How was your day? Mine was same old, same old. I investigated bad guys, paperwork. Found bad guys, more paperwork. Locked up bad guys, still more paperwork.”

Hanna Tu remained motionless; only a gentle rise and fall of her chest.

Her vitals were stronger today. The latest lung infection took a real toll on her weakened system. Lightly brushing a strand of hair off her forehead, Jason closed his tired eyes as the unrelenting protective instinct permeated his thoughts.

“I can’t relax without knowing you’re safe. What do you need from me?”

No response. Lately, their time together was less frequent, a word or two, a simple phrase―nothing concrete. Maybe that was all she could give.

It took only seconds for him to fall into a one-sided conversation as he flexed the joints of her fingers as her physical therapist taught him to do. Reaching for the hand cream on the bed tray, he squirted some into his palm and began to rub it over the fragile skin. The vanilla scent wafted over him, reminding him of Sarah. With a quick shake of his head, he returned his attention to Hanna.

“Wake up, Hanna.”

He had pleaded the same request so many times he’d lost count. How he wished he could hear her say, I’m trying or I’m almost there. He couldn’t conjure up that response no matter how hard he tried.

Nor could he keep the questions at bay that haunted him more every day. “Could I have prevented this? How much pain did you have to endure before you lost consciousness?”

Jason’s fingers traced one long scar that ran from just above her elbow to her thin wrist. “I should have kept you safe. I should have been a better cop and stopped the bastard after the first attack.”

Let it go.

There she was. Her voice was so soft, sweet. It calmed him instantly. “I can’t.” He wrapped her frail hand in his, his thumb tracing the scars over the back of her hand.

Your guilt clouds what’s important.

“What am I missing, Hanna? Tell me. Why are you holding me here? Scarvey’s dead. He can never hurt you again.”

The door of her room opened, and a night nurse strolled into the room carrying a clipboard in one hand and a mug in the other.

“I made a fresh pot of coffee strong enough to stand a fork in. You look like you could use some.” The nurse handed Jason the cup before she checked the different IV drips.

“Thanks, Rose.” Jason accepted the cup and took a deep sip of the hot brew.

“Hanna had a good day. There’s more coffee where that came from and you know where to find it.” Rose wrote a note in the chart and exited the room as quietly as she’d come in.

He got up from the chair and strolled to the picture window, resting his hands up against the cold glass. Several moments passed before he continued.

“You needed me to keep Sarah safe. Well, she’s safe―you’re safe.” His hands fisted, the anguish rising.

“If there’s someone trying to hurt Sarah, tell me. Help me understand.” He sat back on the edge of the bed and reached for her hand. He had come to say good-bye. Leaving was the only thing he could think of to save his sanity.

He glanced at the monitors, praying for a sign that she heard him. Over the last several months, he had spent so many hours staring at those machines, his breathing and heartbeat began to synchronize with the beats on the screen and the gentle rise and fall of Hanna’s chest.

“This has to stop.” He forced the words out into the quiet room. “I just ran into Jennie and she believes we have a spiritual bond. Well, the universe may have conspired to bring her and Jared together, but that’s a once-in-a-lifetime miracle. Hearing voices isn’t real,” he said, clutching the handrail. “Nothing about this is real.”

He reached into the pocket of his sport coat and pulled out a sheet of paper. “I can’t bring myself to break this craziness on my own, so I put in for a transfer. I’m leaving the team. There’s a position available with the FBI field office in Austin with my brother, Mac. I’m even desperate enough to give up my badge and become a fed,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

“The paperwork came in today. This is for the best. Distance is all I need. You don’t need me. I can’t use you as an excuse any longer,” Jason whispered, trying to control the tremble in his voice. “Hanna Tu, you’ve drawn me to you. Wake up and tell me what you need from me because I can’t do this anymore.”

As always, when he needed a response from Hanna, she was silent.

“If I could understand, I would stay and fight. I’ve never quit anything in my life, and leaving feels like I’m giving up on you.” His eyes bore into Hanna’s facial features as his hands clenched the bed rail. “Make me understand or I have to walk away.”

“Then leave, Jason McNeil. My sister doesn’t need you. We don’t need you.”

The words stung like a fist clamped hold of his heart and squeezed.

For a moment, he thought it was Hanna. The soft, alluring voice was so familiar. But this voice came from behind him, solid, real.

He unclenched his hand on the rail, released the breath he didn’t realize he held, and faced Sarah Tu.

“Hello, Sarah. Give me a moment and I’ll get out of your way.” Her expression was hidden in the shadow of the doorway, but her anger hit him square in the gut.

He turned to pick up Hanna’s hand and raised it to his cheek.

So, the silent treatment again. Not one word of advice?

Instead, a hint of the aromatic vanilla musk Sarah always wore assailed his senses and made his heart hammer. He shifted, and from the corner of his eye, he watched Sarah. She remained by the door, her eyes glued to the floor as her hands twisted together in front of her.

“My sister and I got along fine before you came into our lives, and we’ll do fine without you.”

“If you would allow me to explain...”

“No, Detective McNeil, you don’t owe me an explanation. You want to leave, so leave.”

*

Sarah moved around to the opposite side of the bed from Jason and stared down at her sister. I did it again. My foot is lodged so deep inside my mouth; I’ll never get it out.

Why did she always lash out at him? She watched him raise her sister’s hand and rest it on his forehead. Grief swam in his eyes, and she caused that grief―again.

She didn’t mean to eavesdrop. He had such a unique connection to Hanna. It was as if Hanna’s life force was stronger, more vibrant, alive, when he was with her. And his presence somehow brought Sarah closer to Hanna.

Lashing out at Jason came too easily. He didn’t deserve it and to make matters worse, he never shot back, except for a deep sadness that edged into his eyes.

He cared a great deal for her sister, and his concern was genuine. It’s what drew Sarah to him in the first place. But if Jason’s grief was real, how could he desert Hanna now? And by leaving Hanna, he was leaving her as well.

From the moment they met in the trauma unit, he intimidated her like no one else ever had. She understood numbers, and he didn’t fit in any known algorithm. His very size overwhelmed her. It wasn’t his height but his presence that set her on edge. And if she dared shut down around him, he would yank her back so fast, her head spun.

Jason was impossible to ignore. At first, he’d covered his personality with his badge and bombarded her with question after question about her sister’s daily life to the point Sarah wanted to scream.

Had Hanna been seeing someone? Had there been any threatening letters or emails? Who were her friends? Did she have any enemies? Was there anyone new in her life? When was the last time Sarah had spoken to her sister?

Every question put Sarah on the defensive, proving over again how self-absorbed she had become. Hanna needed her, counted on her. And Sarah let her down in the worst possible way.

Scarvey stalked her sister for weeks without either of them being aware of the threat. That too was on Sarah. Little got past her when her head wasn’t buried in her work. No matter how critical it was to national security to disable the dangerous botnet, Qualnto, it wasn’t worth Hanna’s life.

She glanced across the hospital bed at Jason. He leaned down and brushed his lips over Hanna’s forehead. Sarah’s breath caught in her throat.

Maybe the connection between the three of them was formed by the nightmare they’d shared; each one unknowingly drawing strength from the other. What would happen to Hanna when Jason left? How would Sarah get through the day without him?

“I’m sorry, Jason. I didn’t mean―”

“I understand.” Jason’s deep baritone voice washed over her.

“I don’t know why I lashed out at you. That’s not me, I don’t…”

“I know,” Jason replied, touching her elbow.

“You don’t have to leave.”

“Yes, I do, it’s time―way past time. When I’m settled, I’ll call and let you know where I am.”

“Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of running away?”

“I’m not running away.”

“Yes, you are.”

Jason gently pulled her off the stool, drawing her into his arms. Sarah’s body went stiff on contact. He took her hand and headed toward the door.

“What are you doing?”

“We need to talk. Hanna doesn’t need to be part of it.”

He opened the door and headed down the hallway. He entered the unoccupied guest lounge, closing the door behind him.

She tugged her hand free. “I don’t know why we…”

“Give me a reason to stay.”

Sarah’s breath caught as he reached for her and pulled her into his arms. His next words sent her mind into a spin. “Tell me you want me with you.”

She swallowed a lump in her throat. Please stay.

“Tell me you need me in your life.”

“Hanna needs you…”

“No. Is there a you and me?”

No. She had no right to the life he was offering her, at least not until Hanna woke up. She owed Hanna her everything.

“I… it’s not that easy.” She moved from his hold. “I know what you’re asking, Jason. I don’t want you to go, but I can’t ask you to stay for me.”

Jason’s posture changed and a deep hurt edged into his eyes. She ached to erase the pain she caused. One fact was crystal clear to her. If she let him walk out of her life, he’d never come back.

“You’re going to throw away…?”

“Please understand, Jason. Please.”

“Sorry, Sarah, I don’t understand a damn thing. You fight me at every turn.” He heaved a sigh. “I give up.” His hand caressed her cheek and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. He cupped the back of her neck and said, “But I’m not leaving without this.”

His arms circled her waist and he brought his lips inches from hers. She should pull away, but she needed this as much as he did. One last time.

Their bodies melted into each other the moment their lips touched. Sarah had no idea how she was going to survive without him. Giving in for once in her life, she took what she desired.

The more she took, the more Jason demanded, flooding her senses. It was too much. She began to pull back, but Jason caressed her back and held her tighter against him. He wasn’t going to make this easy on her. Hell, she didn’t want him to.

His musky scent and the strength of his arms holding her tight against him flooded her senses. Her hand clutched the front of his shirt for balance. Her grip loosened and she stretched out her fingers so she could feel his heartbeat race against her palm. In that moment, her world evaporated until only Jason existed.

Then the kiss just ended. His lips brushed over her cheeks, her forehead, and he stepped away. Her legs trembled and everything in her wanted to cry out, don’t go.

Neither spoke as he moved toward the door.

How could he hold her like that and walk away? His next words rocked her foundation.

“Good-bye, Sarah.”

She couldn’t raise her eyes and watch him leave. When he disappeared from the doorway, she rushed into the hall. But before she could call out to Jason, Rose and another nurse dashed from behind the nurse’s station straight into Hanna’s room. The sound of a bed knocking against the wall hit her, and her heart dropped to her stomach. She sought Jason. He had just opened the door to the stairwell.

“Something is wrong with Hanna.”

Jason raced down the hallway. They met at Hanna’s doorway.

Hanna’s body was shaking so hard, her petite frame was rocking the bed. Her extremities stiffened and her lips and hands appeared blue.

“What’s happening?”

Two other nurses pushed past Sarah and entered the room. Rose concentrated on clearing Hanna’s airway. A loud, gargling noise came from Hanna’s throat as her body convulsed. One of the nurses placed an oxygen mask over her face while the other tried to keep her arms from banging the bed rail.

Sarah couldn’t catch her breath. Her heartbeat roared between her ears. “God, help her, do something!”

She could feel Jason’s arms come around her, leaning her against him. She began to struggle out of his arms to reach out to Hanna, but he just held her tighter.

“Let me go―Hanna needs me.”

“Let them help her, Sarah.”

As violently as the seizures attacked Hanna’s body one moment, the next instant they stopped, and everything grew still.

“What’s wrong? Is she okay?” Sarah cried out, taking a step forward.

Rose still hadn’t answered her but was checking Hanna’s vitals. After taking what seemed like several minutes to listen to her heart with her stethoscope, she rose. Sarah watched a private message pass between the nurses.

“Would someone please tell me what’s happening?”

Rose faced Sarah. One look on the nurse’s face and it was like an invisible fist reached out and punched her right in the stomach. She doubled over, trying to draw in a breath into her airless lungs. “No! No no no no…”

“Sarah, I’m so sorry.” The nurse’s eyes filled with tears.

Someone shrieked out so loud, the sound pierced through Sarah’s eardrum. Jason’s body trembled behind her. Each time she tried to reach Hanna, his arms hugged her against him. Rose spoke, but only bits and pieces registered through the screaming in her head.

Grand-mal seizure―too late―respiratory failure.

Sarah fought the arms holding her and finally broke free. She pushed past Rose and lifted Hanna’s body into hers. “Come on, Hanna. Breathe for me. You can do it. Breathe.”

“Sarah. Stop.” Jason tried to pull her away from Hanna, but Sarah just tightened her hold.

“No, Jason. Hanna can do this. She’s had seizures before.”

“She’s gone, Sarah. She’s…”

“No! She’s not.”

Back and forth, Sarah rocked Hanna in her arms as long wet tears streamed down her face. She couldn’t be gone―not after everything they had been through. It wasn’t over.

It can’t be.

~~~

That's it for this week. Since I'm exclusive with Amazon--so my books can be part of the Kindle Unlimited program--I can't post any more chapters of In the Shadow of Greed without the Amazon police slapping my hand. You can pick up you own Kindle, Print, or download your free Kindle Unlimited copy HERE. Next week, drop by and meet my to-date all time favorite couple, Jason's older brother, Jared McNeil and the love of his life, Jennie McKenzie. You don't want to miss these two.


Stay safe, healthy, and PLEASE wear a mask outside of your home.


Hugs to all!

Nancy C. Weeks


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