And you feel like you’re still here bleeding
You bleed until there’s nothing left
It doesn’t seem to ever be enough for you
But leaves you empty in the end
And then you throw it all away
– Throw It All Away, Staind
Tuesday, September 6, 2005
Queen of Angels: Outside the Church
Thunder rumbled in the distance as the first few rain drops began to fall. Elizabeth leaned into Jason’s embrace as she and Steven said goodbye to the last of mourners as they rushed to the car to avoid the drizzle threatening to turn into an early autumn thunderstorm.
They had declined a reception or a wake, neither of them feeling up to mingling with the members of their own family. Sarah and their parents were already heading to the airport, eager to be on their way back to their lives.
“I can’t believe Mom and Dad didn’t even want to spend another day,” Steven murmured as he watched their car disappear around a corner. “They’ve barely met Cameron—”
“They’re not interested in the life I’ve made here,” Elizabeth murmured. She looked at her brother. “Are you stopping by the Brownstone? Bobbie and Felicia wanted to have a few friends over—”
But Steven shook his head, casting his eyes toward the cemetery where their grandmother had been laid to rest next to her beloved husband. “No. I—I scheduled myself into work tonight. Just get my mind off of things.” He reached over to touch her shoulder. “You should, though. Or take the kids to be with Emily and Nikolas—”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I just want to spend the day at home with Cam and Evie.” She glanced up at Jason, who had remained silent on the matter. “I know you have to go to the warehouse—”
“I don’t,” Jason cut in. But he was frowning down at his phone even as he said it. She could see the icon indicating he’d had several missed calls.
“I’ll see you guys later.” Steven kissed his sister on the forehead and waved at Jason as he headed towards the parking lot. “Call me, Bits. Later tonight, okay? I want to check in.”
“Okay.” When he was out of earshot, Elizabeth turned to face her fiancé. “Jason. I know you have to—”
“Johnny and Max—”
“Are not you,” she said. “If we’re going to move to the new house tomorrow, there are probably a thousand details you need to deal with. I’d rather you go now and sort out anything you need to so you can come home for dinner and be with us tonight.” She forced a smile on her face. “I’m just going to pick up lunch from Kelly’s and maybe we’ll give Nora the night off so it can be just the four of us. She and I will pack what the kids need for a few days.”
His shoulders slumped. “I don’t want to go—”
“And I know that.” She leaned up on her toes to brush a kiss against his mouth. “I love you. Go to work, and I’ll see you tonight.”
The rain had dissipated almost as soon as it had soaked the city. Nadine had waited for the sheets of pounding rain to sweep through before leaving Kelly’s. The staff hadn’t been able to pull the tables and chairs in time; the remnants of drinks and food still soaking as she walked past them, sipping her hot chocolate.
She was nervous about today—she was going to track Emily or Steven Webber down at work and ask for Elizabeth’s number. Johnny was strong enough now to take the next step.
And while she was relieved that they were going to finally move forward, part of her preferred the world where Johnny was safe in her bedroom. Where no one with guns or knives could come at him.
As she started for her car in the parking lot, she stopped with a gasp as a car pulled into a free space. A tall, dark-haired man stepped out from the driver’s seat and opened the back door. Elizabeth stepped down, a light gray coat pulled over a black dress.
No time like the present, Nadine told herself, even as her feet felt glued to the cement. As Elizabeth and her guard passed her, she blurted out, “Elizabeth, I have to talk to you—”
The guard immediately stepped in front of his charge, but Elizabeth frowned at her for a moment. “I know you, don’t I? You work at the hospital—” Her eyes widened. “Milo, give me a minute—”
“Go stand over there for a minute.” She raised her brows at the younger man, who finally acquiesced to standing no more than five feet from her. “You’re Nadine,” Elizabeth said to her. “We met at my opening last winter.”
Nadine nodded, grateful now Johnny had forced that introduction. “With Johnny Zacchara. I need—” She swallowed hard. What if Jason didn’t tell her anything? What if Elizabeth didn’t know what was going on? This plan had seemed more reasonable in her room that morning.
“Johnny’s with you, isn’t he?” the other woman’s face softened as Elizabeth reached out a hand to rest on Nadine’s forearm. “I know what’s going on. I know that he was missing for several weeks, and that you’ve been taking care of him after Friday night. He’s okay, isn’t he?”
Oh, God. Nadine sucked in a deep breath. “He’s okay. He just—he wants to talk to Jason. He needs his help, and-and for obvious reasons he doesn’t feel comfortable being out in the open—”
“It’s fine.” Elizabeth gestured to the guard. “Milo, I need you to call Jason and tell him that I’m coming to the warehouse—”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Miss Webber. The warehouse is under construction—”
“Milo,” she said in that even tone that had worked earlier. “This is Nadine Crowell. She’s Johnny Zacchara’s girlfriend. She’d like to talk to Jason about him. I think you and I both agree that this should happen.”
“And I’m going to be there. I just have to call my nanny to tell her I won’t be picking up lunch after all.” Elizabeth drew out her cell phone. “I want this over. I want my life back.”
“It’s never over, though, is it?” Nadine asked hesitantly. When Elizabeth looked at her, confused, Nadine clarified, her cheeks flushing. “I just mean—there’s always going to be something else.”
“Yeah.” Elizabeth sighed. “But if you’re lucky, you can convince yourself it’s worth it.” She looked to Milo as she raised her own phone to ear. “You’re not dialing anything, Milo. Either you call Jason and arrange the meeting, or I’ll go with Nadine in her car.”
Milo sighed and reached for his phone.
Warehouse: Jason’s Office
Jason played Courtney’s brief voicemail once more, frustrated with the lack of information. “What do we know? What’s happening at the hospital?”
“Hard to tell,” Max admitted. “There’s no one on Sonny’s door, but no one has come or gone in the last hour. And we talked to Courtney—she says two men showed up when Carly was inside and no one came back out before she had to go. She’s responsible for the boys while Bobbie’s having the wake.”
“What about Ruiz? Any movement there?” Jason looked to Tommy. “What do we know?”
“Nothing new. If anyone flew up in the last day or so, then he did it on a private flight.” The other man hesitated. “Or they were already here and laying low.”
“Jase, the kids are secure at the Hardy house,” Johnny told him. “Junior’s locked up tight at his girlfriend’s place. Elizabeth is on her way home, and tomorrow we’re moving all of you to the new house which has more security than Fort Knox.”
Jason sat down at the end of the long conference table. He didn’t know what to do next. He couldn’t predict the next step. Would Sonny go for him personally? Would he go after the business? How was he going to come at him? Would he wait until he was released from the hospital or would he strike through others?
All these years learning from Sonny—and he had no idea how protect the people that mattered. How to keep control.
“No one is coming and going from that hospital unless we know it,” Bernie said, his voice quiet and almost kind. “Maybe we should call Elizabeth and see if we can move the kids at least tonight. You’ll feel better if she and the kids are under lock and key.”
And it was a good idea, but Elizabeth had buried her grandmother today and, damn it, she deserved the opportunity to be in her grandmother’s home today. To have this day, at least, to mourn. That Jason’s life, which had intruded on hers so often in the last year, would take even this from her—
“Call Courtney,” Jason said finally. “If she has the boys, I want her to take them to New York with her. I’ll clear it with Bobbie, and if it comes to it, Carly. But I can’t—” Remembering the shattered woman he’d last seen at the hospital, he continued, “I don’t think she’ll argue if we keep the boys out of the line of fire.”
But Evie was still here. And Bernie was right. Moving the kids tonight would be for the best.
His cell phone rang, the shrill tone stabbing into his ears. Jason glanced at the call screen as he picked it up, his muscles seizing as he saw Milo’s name flashing across the screen.
Milo was with Elizabeth. Why would he call and not Elizabeth?
“Is she okay?” Jason demanded as he opened the phone. “Milo—”
The voices in the room went silent at Jason’s question and all eyes were trained on him.
“We’re all good, Jason,” Milo said quickly. “I’m at Kelly’s with Miss Webber, and she’s on the phone with your nanny. Nadine Crowell stopped us as we came to Kelly’s. She wants to talk about Johnny.”
“Johnny’s girlfriend tracked Elizabeth down?’ Jason asked, a little unnerved by that. “Are you bringing her here?”
“And Miss Webber,” Milo continued. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer. We’ll be there shortly.”
Jason hung up and looked back at the room. “Nadine Crowell cornered Elizabeth at Kelly’s. They’re both coming to the warehouse to talk about Johnny.”
“Junior’s smarter than I would have given him credit for,” Johnny admitted, scowling as if he hated to give the enemy any sort of compliment. “Did Sonny know about the girlfriend?”
“He knew she existed,” Jason said. “I never gave him any more information about her.” And now he was relieved that he’d kept that close to the chest. He’d not revealed Nadine’s identity to protect her from Sonny sending people to harass her, but now that Sonny was actively trying to kill Junior, it had allowed the younger man to find a place Sonny wouldn’t think about.
“He probably wants to broker a deal so he can get the hell out of the city,” Max said. “Is it smart to involve Miss Webber in this? Shouldn’t you send her home?”
“Elizabeth will keep Nadine comfortable,” Jason said. “As for the rest of it—to be honest…there’s not much Elizabeth doesn’t know about this situation,” he admitted. “I had—”
“You had to tell her,” Bernie finished. “It involves Sonny, and it’s not like she’s not personally involved. It’s her life being uprooted, her kids at risk.” He nodded and looked to the rest of the men, as if warning them. “It’s just smart. I never liked the way Sonny kept Carly out of the loop.”
“Miss Webber’s good people,” Johnny put in, loyal to the bitter end. “It’s not like this is business as usual.”
And with Johnny and Bernie solidly behind Jason, Max and Tommy just kind of shrugged in acceptance. Involving women, even on a peripheral basis, wasn’t the norm but nothing about this situation could be considered ordinary.
“What’s the plan? What kind of deal are you gonna offer Junior?” Tommy asked.
“I’ll get him home to Crimson Pointe,” Jason said, “but I want—” he hesitated, because once he said it out loud—once he made this arrangement—there was no going back. “Sonny’s working with Ruiz. That’s pretty clear. I can’t…I can’t take on Ruiz on my own. He’ll pay me lip service, but he’s never cared for me.”
“Not after the Moreno situation,” Max said with a bit of regret. “He never liked you turning the business over to him.”
“Yeah, well…” Jason rolled his shoulders. “I was…” Stupid to think he could get out of this. Naive to think Moreno would stop seeing him as a threat. In this business, you either killed your opponent or you were killed. You didn’t get to walk away.
“But everyone is terrified of Anthony Zacchara,” Bernie said. “You want Johnny’s help in getting Zacchara on our side—”
“And once Zacchara gets Ruiz to back down,” Tommy cut in, “we’ll just have to deal with Sonny, which is a lot easier when I’m not fucking worried Hector will send Javier and Manny up here. They’re fucking insane.”
“It’s not a bad plan,” Johnny admitted. “It mostly hinges on whether Junior can pull it off.”
There was a knock on the door and a moment later, Milo came in, Elizabeth and Nadine on his heels. The blonde looked as nervous as she had the last time he’d seen her in New York.
Her blue eyes widened in alarm when she stumbled to a stop at the foot of a table filled with hulking, annoyed looking men. She looked to Elizabeth, who put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “I don’t—”
“They’re basically teddy bears,” Elizabeth assured her. “Nadine, this is Max and Johnny, two of the best men you’ll ever know.” She gestured to Bernie and Tommy. “That’s Bernie, the smartest man I know, and…” She tilted her head. “I think we only met once—”
“Tommy,” the older man said with a nod. “It’s nice to see you again, Miss Webber.”
“Nadine is a friend of Emily and my brother’s from the hospital,” Elizabeth said, and Jason had to shake his head as he realized her mission. Treat this moment as nothing more than an ordinary meet and greet. They needed Nadine more than she needed them, and if she bolted, Junior might just contact Anthony Zacchara without going through Jason.
Which was the very last thing they needed right now.
“Nadine, you remember Jason from my art show in February,” Elizabeth continued. “It feels like that was years ago, doesn’t it?”
“It does.” Nadine’s shoulders slumped a bit as the tension left. Her eyes met Jason’s. “You were so nice that night. Johnny really respects you. Um…” She twisted her fingers in front of her. “He said he knew you weren’t involved in what happened to him because he never saw you there. And-and you have a reputation of not making people do something you wouldn’t do yourself. Or something.”
“We’ve spent weeks looking for Johnny,” Jason said. “We were worried we might not find him…” In time, he almost added, but stopped himself. “How is he?”
“You know that he’s with me?” She bit her lip. “No, I mean, of course you know that. I told Elizabeth, and the guard probably told you, and you’re not stupid—I mean, shoot—”
“Nadine…” Elizabeth touched her arm again. “Just tell them what you told me, okay?”
“He’s okay,” Nadine said. “He was grazed by a bullet—a-and he was pretty banged up, but he’s okay. He didn’t want to just—he didn’t want to just call his dad. He thought maybe his dad wouldn’t…I don’t know…be understanding about how it happened unless Johnny was in front of him. So he thought maybe you could help him get home to talk to his dad. You know, make this all go away.”
“We can do that.” But not right away. He had to contain Sonny and make sure his family was safe before he could take Johnny Zacchara out of town, before he could meet with Anthony Zacchara. “First, I’d like the two of you to go to a safe house.”
“What?” Nadine frowned. “I thought you’d just go send someone to take him home—”
“It’s not…” Jason hesitated. “It’s not that simple. There’s—we have a security issue, and I can’t leave. And I have to be the one to take Johnny to Anthony. Anthony will accept it better if I deliver him personally.”
“Oh.” Jason could tell Nadine didn’t quite understand, but she was smart enough not to argue. “I mean, okay. We could do that.”
“I’ll go home,” Elizabeth began. “And get out of your way—”
Jason held up a hand. “Wait a second.” He looked to Max and Johnny. “I need you two to go to the house—and do what we discussed, okay? Be ready to be in an hour.” Max and Johnny hurried out.
“Elizabeth, I hate—” He stopped. “We have to move to the safe house tonight. I’m going to ask you to stay here with Bernie and Tommy. With Milo. I’m going to pick up Johnny Zacchara and move him to the safe house, too. And Johnny and Max are going to meet Cody at the house. They’re going to get Nora and the kids.”
“Why can’t I go with them?” Elizabeth asked, color rising in her cheeks. “I can go with them and get the kids ready—”
He crossed the distance between them and drew her over to a corner of the room, lowering his voice so that no one else could hear them. “I don’t want us all to go to the safe house at once, okay? We’re going to stagger it in case one of us is being tailed.”
She swallowed hard. “What happened since the funeral?” Elizabeth asked. Her fingers tightened around his hands. “Is it bad? Are we in danger or are you being overly cautious?”
“I don’t know,” Jason admitted. “There’s—I don’t know exactly, but things are happening. And I need to know you and the kids are safe. And the kids…Cam and Evie…” He hesitated, searching her eyes. “They come first, right? As soon as I know they’re safe at the house, I’ll have you and Nadine moved there. Johnny and I will follow a bit later.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “You’re right. Will—can Cody or Johnny call me when they get to the house? Is there some way for me to know they’re okay?”
“I’ll make sure of it.” He drew her in for a quick embrace, brushing his lips against her hair. “I’m sorry. I wanted to wait until tomorrow—”
“No. We need to do what’s safe.” Elizabeth drew back, and some of the hesitation was absent. “If you think staggering our arrivals, if going tonight is safe—I’m okay with it.” She framed his face her hands, the metal of her engagement ring cool against his cheek. “I love you. Be careful.”
After Jason had left, Bernie and Tommy left to check on some business details they weren’t clear on. Milo moved to hang outside the door, and the two women were left in relative silence.
“Are you scared?” Nadine asked softly.
Elizabeth looked at her and sighed. It was useless to pretend she wasn’t. “Yes. I wish—I know why I’m not, but I wish I were with my kids.” She reached into her purse and drew out her wallet as a distraction. “Cameron is…he’s sixteen months now and he…” She laughed. “He gets into everything. He knocks things over and then he just smiles at you like you’re supposed to be proud of him.”
Nadine smiled at the photo. “He looks like you,” she said. “Jason has a daughter, too, doesn’t he?”
“He does.” Elizabeth handed her a photo of Evie, with her sweet and quiet smile. “She’s ten months old this week. She crawls everywhere. Lightning fast. And—” her chest squeezed, thinking of them both. “Evie’s so curious about everything. She just…she’ll sit and look around forever, just taking everything in. And then she touches everything. She likes to know how things feel, how they taste, how they smell…” Elizabeth closed her eyes. “I’m adopting her, you know, but I already feel like she’s mine. I tried not to fall in love with her—”
“It’s impossible not to,” Nadine murmured. “I’m a pediatric nurse and I’ve been working with your brother in pediatric oncology. It’s…” She shook her head. “I try not to love them, especially the ones that I know aren’t going to make it, but they need someone to love them. They’re so scared—” She looked at the photos that Elizabeth passed her. “Is it normal to love someone like Johnny so much and absolutely hate everything about their life?”
“At first?” Elizabeth said. “You’d be insane if you didn’t.” She waited a beat. “When I first met Jason, I always separated him from his job. He’s a person with this job, but it’s not the same thing. They’re barely related. But eventually, I realized that I wasn’t being fair to either of us when I pretended you could separate them. Jason has this life. It’s dangerous. It’s often violent. And in order for him to be good at it—which he is—he has to be those things.”
“How do you deal with that?” Nadine asked. “Johnny always tells me he’s not in the business, but he’s always going to be Anthony Zacchara’s son. You don’t leave that behind.”
“I began to understand that the reasons I loved Jason…” Elizabeth tilted her head to the side. “The things I love best about him? They come from this life. Jason makes me feel safe. He makes me feel loved. Like I’m the most important person in the world to him. And that’s because Jason focuses. He has to have laser focus when you do the work he does, or he can get in trouble or hurt.” She sighed. “I mean, I guess it’s not being a super empowered female when I say that I like knowing I’m safe when I’m with him, that he can take care of me, but I do.”
“It’s not wrong to want to feel safe,” Nadine said softly. “My dad walked out when I was a kid, my mom died, and my sister—she was a nurse in Ohio who was convicted of killing her patients. An angel of mercy—” She hesitated. “I don’t have a lot of family or friends. I left it all behind to get away from Jolene’s legacy. I knew I could never be a nurse there. I was alone when I met Johnny. He introduced me to his friends in New York. He helped me feel safe again, like I could trust myself, my own future. And now I have this job that I like, and I have friends here. I know I did that stuff for myself, but I guess, I mean, I get it.” She looked out the window where day was slowly giving way to night. “How much longer?”
“I don’t know,” Elizabeth began, but her next words were cut off as the window shattered and she heard that familiar sound of gunfire.
She threw herself across Nadine, dragging them both to floor as the room was riddled with gunfire. Glass shattered around them, and she wasn’t sure if it was just Nadine screaming or if was her as well.
When the gunshots faded, the door slammed open. “Elizabeth!” Bernie’s voice boomed. “Nadine!”
“Bernie…” Elizabeth gingerly got to her feet, but before she could get stable—Tommy was around the table, all but scooping her into his arms. “Tommy—”
She saw Milo grabbing Nadine as Tommy carried her towards the door. “What’s going on? What happened—”
“Shots were fired here and…” Bernie hesitated as they started for the SUV kept inside the warehouse garage. “And at your house.”
“My house—” Elizabeth’s heart seized as Tommy loaded her into the backseat of the car. “The kids—are they okay?”
Bernie’s face was pale. “We don’t know. We just took the call when we had shots here and now—” He exchanged a look of trepidation with Tommy as he climbed into the front seat after Milo and Nadine were in the back.
“Now what?” Elizabeth demanded, her voice sounded shrill to her own ears. “What’s going on?”
“We can’t get hold of Max or Johnny,” Tommy admitted. “They’re not picking up.”