Lover Unleashed Chapter Four

Downtown Caldwell had a lot of tall, windowed buildings, but there were few like the Commodore. At a good thirty floors in height, it was among the taller in the concrete forest, and the sixty or so condos it housed were Trump-tastic, all marble and nickel-plated chrome and designer-everything.

Up on the twenty-seventh floor, Jane walked around Manny's condo, looking for signs of life and finding ... nothing. Literally. The guy's place was about as much of an obstacle course as a damn dance floor, his furniture consisting of three things in the living room and a huge bed in the master suite.

That was it.

Well, and some leather-seated stools at the counter in the kitchen. As for the walls? The only thing he'd hung anywhere was a plasmascreen TV the size of a billboard. And the hardwood floors had no rugs, just gym bags and ... more gym bags ... and athletic shoes.

Which was not to say he was a slob. He didn't own enough to be considered a slob.

With growing panic, she walked into his bedroom and saw half a dozen blue hospital scrubs left in piles on the floor, like puddles after a rainstorm, and ... nothing else.

But the closet door was open and she looked inside - "

God ... damn it."

The set of suitcases lined up on the floor were small, medium, and large - and the middle one was gone. So was a suit, given the bald hanger hanging in between the other jacket-and-slacks pairings.

He was off on a trip. Maybe for the weekend.

Without much hope, she dialed into the hospital's system and paged him once more -

Her call waiting clicked in, and as she looked at the number, she cursed again.

Taking a deep breath, she answered, "Hey, V."

"Nothing?"

"Not at the hospital or here at his condo." The subtle growl coming over the connection amped up her going-nowhere rush. "And I checked the gym on the way up here as well."

"I hacked into the St. Francis system and got his calendar."

"Where is he?"

"All it said was that Goldberg is on call, true? Look, the sun's set. I'll be out of here in, like, a - "

"No, no ... you stay with Payne. Ehlena's great, but I think you should be there."

There was a big pause, like he knew he was being held off. "Where to next for you?"

She gripped the phone and wondered who she should pray to. God? His mother? "I'm not sure. But I've paged him. Twice."

"When you find him, call me and I'll come pick you up."

"I can get us home - "

"I'm not going to hurt him, Jane. I'm not incented to rip him apart."

Yeah, but going by that cold tone of voice, she had to wonder whether the best-laid plans of mice and vampires, blah, blah, blah ... She quite believed Manny would live to treat V's twin. Afterward? She had her reservations - especially if things tanked in the OR.

"I'm going to wait here a little longer. Maybe he'll show. Or call. If he doesn't, I'm going to think of something else."

In the long silence, she could practically feel a cold draft through the phone. Her mate did a lot of things well: fight, make love, deal with anything computer-based. Being forced into immobility? Not a core competency. In fact, it was guaranteed to make him mental.

Still, the fact that he didn't trust her made her feel distant.

"Stay with your sister, Vishous," she said in an even tone. "I'll be in touch."

Silence.

"Vishous. Hang up on me and go sit with her."

He didn't say anything further. Just cut the connection.

As she hit end on the phone, she cursed.

A split second later, she was dialing again, and the instant she heard a deep voice answer, she had to brush away a tear that for all its translucency was very, very real. "Butch," she croaked. "I need your help."

As what little was left of the sunset disappeared and night stamped its time card and took over the next shift, Manny's car was supposed to have gone home. It was supposed to have driven itself straight into Caldwell proper.

Instead, he'd ended up on the southern edge of the city, where the trees were big and the stretches of grass outnumbered the asphalt acres ten to one.

Made sense. Cemeteries had to have good stretches of pliable earth, because it wasn't like you could plug a coffin into concrete.

Well, guess you could - it was called a mausoleum.

Pine Grove Cemetery was open until ten p.m., its massive iron gates thrown wide and its countless wrought-iron street lamps glowing butter yellow along the maze of lanes. As he entered, he went to the right, the Porsche's xenon headlights sweeping around and washing over stretches of grave markers and lawn.

The site he was drawn to was a beacon that ultimately signified nothing. There was no body buried at the foot of the granite headstone he was going to - there hadn't been one to bury. No ashes to put in a canister, either - or at least none that you could be sure weren't mostly those of an Audi that had caught on fire.

About a half a mile of roping turns later, he eased off the accelerator and let the car glide to a stop. As far as he could tell, he was the only one in the whole cemetery, and that was just fine with him. No reason for an audience.

As he got out, the cool air did nothing to clear his head, but it gave his lungs something to do as he inhaled deeply and walked over the scratchy spring grass. He was careful not to step on any of the plots as he went along - sure, it wasn't like the dead would know that he was above their airspace, but it seemed like a respectful thing to do.

Jane's grave was up ahead, and he slowed as he approached what wasn't left of her, as it were. In the distance, the sound of a train whistle cut through the stillness - and the hollow, mournful sound was so fucking cliched he felt like he was in some movie he would never sit through at home, much less pay to see in a theater.

"Shit, Jane."

Leaning down, he trailed his fingers along the top of the marker's uneven edge. He'd chosen the jet-black stone because she wouldn't have wanted anything pastel-y or washed-out. And the inscription was likewise simple and unfussy, just her name, dates, and one sentence at the bottom: REST IN PEACE.

Yup. He gave himself an A for originality on that one.

He remembered exactly where he'd been when he'd found out that she'd died: in the hospital - of course. It had been at the end of a very long day and night that had started with the knee of a hockey player and ended on a spectacular shoulder reconstruction, thanks to a druggie who'd decided to take a shot at flying.

He'd stepped out of the OR and found Goldberg waiting by the scrub sinks. One look at his colleague's ashen face and Manny stopped in the process of removing his surgical mask. With the thing hanging off his face like a chin bib, he'd demanded to know what the fuck was wrong - all the while assuming it was either a forty-car pileup on the highway or a plane crash or a fire at a hotel ... something that was a community-wide tragedy.

Except then he'd looked over the guy's shoulder and seen five nurses and three other doctors. All of whom were in the same state Goldberg was ... and none of whom were rushing to pull other staff in for rotation or prep the operating rooms.

Right. It was a community event. Their community.

"Who," he'd demanded.

Goldberg had glanced back at his support troops and that was when Manny had guessed. And yet even as his gut had gone ice cooler on him, he'd held on to some irrational hope that the name about to come out of his surgeon's mouth would be anything but - "

Jane. Car accident."

Manny hadn't lost a beat. "What's her ETA."

"There isn't one."

At that, Manny had said nothing. He'd just ripped the mask off his face, wadded it up, and thrown it into the nearest bin.

As he'd passed by, Goldberg had opened his mouth again. "Not one word," Manny had barked. "Not. One. Word."

The rest of the staff had stumbled over themselves to get out of the way, parting as sure and clean as fabric torn in half.

Coming back to the present, he couldn't remember where he'd gone or what he'd done after that - no matter how many times he played that night back, that part was a black hole. At some point, however, he'd made it to his condo, because two days later he'd woken up there, still in the bloody scrubs he'd operated in.

Among the galling shockers of the whole thing was the fact that Jane had saved so many people who'd been in car wrecks. The idea that she'd been taken in that very way had seemed like Grim Reaper payback for all the souls she'd snatched out of the bony-handed reach of death.

The sound of another train whistle made him want to scream.

That and his cocksucking pager going off.

Hannah Whit. Again?

Who the hell -

Manny frowned and glanced at the headstone. Jane's younger sister had been Hannah, if he recalled correctly. Whit. Whitcomb?

Except she had died young.

Hadn't she?

Mad. Pacing.

God, she should have brought her track shoes for this, Jane thought as she marched around Manny's place. Again.

She would have left his condo if she'd had a better idea of where to go, but even her brain, as sharp as it was, couldn't seem to throw out another option -

Her phone ringing was not exactly good news. She didn't want to tell Vishous that forty-five minutes later she still had nothing to report.

She took out her cell. "Oh ... God."

That number. Those ten digits that she'd had on speed dial on every phone she'd owned before this one. Manny.

As she hit send, her mind was blank and her eyes filled with tears. Her dear old friend and colleague ...

"Hello?" he said. "Ms. Whit?"

In the background, she heard a dim whistle.

"Hello? Hannah?" That tone ... it was just the same as it had been a year ago: low, commanding. "Anyone there?"

That quiet whistle sounded again.

Jesus Christ ..., she thought. She knew where he was.

Jane hung up and flashed herself out of his condo, out of downtown, out past the suburbs. Traveling in a blur at the speed of light, her molecules went through the night in a twirling, swirling rush that covered miles as if they were but inches.

Pine Grove Cemetery was the kind of place you needed a map of, but when you were ether in the air, you could case a hundred acres in a heartbeat and a half.

As she came out of the darkness by her grave, she took a halting breath and nearly sobbed. There he was in the flesh. Her boss. Her colleague. The one she'd left behind. And he was standing over a black headstone that had her name carved in its face.

Okay, now she knew she'd made the right decision not to go to her funeral. The closest she had come was reading about it in the Caldwell Courier Journal - and the picture of all those surgeons and hospital staff and patients had all but snapped her in half.

This was so much worse.

And Manny looked exactly how she felt: ruined on the inside.

Jesus, that aftershave of his still smelled good ... and in spite of having lost some weight, he was still handsome as sin, with that dark hair and that hard face. His suit was perfectly tailored and pin-striped - but it had dirt around the cuffs of the precisely pressed slacks. And his loafers were likewise soiled, making her wonder where the hell he'd been. He certainly hadn't picked it up from the grave site. After a year, the soil was packed down and covered with grass -

Oh, wait. Her plot had probably looked like this from day one. She hadn't left behind anything to bury.

As his fingers rested on the stone, she knew he had to have been the one to pick the thing out. Nobody else would have had the sense to get her exactly what she would have wanted. Nothing froufrou or wordy. Short, sweet, to the point.

Jane cleared her throat. "Manny."

His head shot up, but he didn't look over at her - as if he were convinced that he'd heard her speak only in his mind.

Making herself fully corporeal, she spoke louder. "Manny."

Under any other circumstances, the response would have been a laugh riot. He wheeled around, then shouted out, tripped over her headstone, and landed flat on his ass.

"What the ... hell ... are you doing here?" he gasped. The expression on his face started as horror, but shifted quickly to utter disbelief.

"I'm sorry."

It was entirely lame, but that was all that came out of her mouth.

And so much for thinking on her feet. Meeting those brown eyes of his, she suddenly had nothing to say.

Manny sprang to his feet, and his dark stare went up and down her body. And up and down. And up ... to lock on her face.

That was when the anger came. And a headache, evidently, given the way he winced and rubbed his temples. "Is this some kind of joke?"

"No." She wished it were. "I'm so sorry."

His vicious frown was achingly familiar, and what an irony to go nostalgic about a glower like that. "You're sorry."

"Manny, I - "

"I buried you. And you're sorry? What the fuck is this?"

"Manny, I don't have time to explain. I need you."

He glared at her for a long moment. "You show up after a year of being dead and you need me?"

The reality of how much time had passed weighed on her. On top of everything else. "Manny ... I don't know what to tell you."

"Oh, really? Other than, oh, b.t.w. I'm alive."

He stared at her. Just stared at her.

Then in a hoarse voice, he said, "Do you have any idea what losing you has been like?" He quickly brushed a hand over his eyes. "Do you?"

The pain in her chest made it hard to breathe. "Yes. Because I lost you ... I lost my life with you and the hospital."

Manny started to pace, going back and forth in front of her headstone. And although she wanted to, she knew not to get too close.

"Manny ... if there had been a way to come back to you, I would have."

"You did. Once. I thought that was a dream, but it wasn't. Was it."

"No."

"How'd you get into my condo?"

"I just did."

He stopped and looked at her, her gravestone between them. "Why did you do it, Jane? Why fake your death?"

Well, she hadn't, actually. "I don't have time to explain now."

"Then what the fuck are you doing here. How about you explain that."

She cleared her throat. "I've got a patient who's over my head and I want you to come have a look. I can't tell you where I've got to take you and I can't give you a lot of details and I know this is not fair ... but I need you." She wanted to tear her hair out. Fall down weeping. Hug him. But she just kept going because she simply had to. "I've been looking for you for over an hour, so I'm out of time. I know you're pissed off and confused and I don't blame you. But be mad at me later - just come with me now. Please."

All she could do was wait. Manny was not somebody you talked into things, and you couldn't persuade him. He would make the choice ... or he wouldn't.

And if the latter was the case, unfortunately, she was going to have to call the Brothers. As much as she loved and missed her old boss, Vishous was her man, and she'd be goddamned if she was letting anything happen to his sister.

One way or the other, Manny was going to be operating tonight.

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