Gun in both hands, I inched down the hall of Nick’s apartment. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, my nerve endings tingling and my senses on high alert for any indication there was someone here. So far, the apartment was empty. Nothing had been disturbed.
“Nick,” I said over my shoulder, keeping my voice down, “did you leave your bedroom door open or closed?”
“I don’t know. Probably closed.”
I pursed my lips. Up ahead, the door was ajar.
As I took another step forward, I said, “Stay up against the wall.”
Fabric rustled behind me, so I didn’t look back to make sure he’d done as I asked. Instead, I continued toward the door, listening for any movement beyond it. If Jesse was here, he could be in any state of mind. Lucid. Volatile. Going through withdrawal. In the middle of a high. The kid was mentally ill anyway, plus he was a crack addict. After he’d attacked Nick the other night, breaking his nose and nearly strangling him, there was no predicting what would be going on in the kid’s head now.
At the door, I paused for a moment, listening. Then I nudged the door open with my foot.
Everything happened so fast. So goddamned fast. He must have been completely still, completely silent, and I didn’t see him until he raised the gun. Until the muzzle flash startled me, sent me stumbling back in the same instant fire ripped across the side of my arm and a donkey kick’s worth of force hit the center of my chest.
Nick tried to steady me, but we both went down.
As he scrambled to his feet, I gripped my upper arm. It was a minor wound. Grazed me. My chest ached where my vest had stopped the second bullet, and breathing took some extra effort, but it was nothing serious.
And Jesse was still here.
“Are you okay?” Nick asked. Concern and fear were etched all over his bruised, cut-up face.
“The gun.” I coughed, then spoke through clenched teeth. “Get my gun.”
The pistol that had been in my hands had fallen just beyond the open doorway, so Nick took the revolver from my ankle holster.
From the other side of the doorway came a hysterical, familiar voice: “Oh God, oh God, oh God… ”
“Jesse, put the gun down,” I called out. I moved to my knees. “Jesse… ”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry!” came the shrill, shaky response. “I didn’t mean to, Mark, I didn’t—”
“Jesse, just calm down.” I kept my voice low. The kid only knew me by my undercover name, and probably had no idea I was a cop. He was already delusional and had long ago bought into a charade my partner and I had put on for months. As I tried to figure out how to defuse this situation, I noticed Jesse had dropped his weapon. The noise and the kick must have scared the shit out of him. That, or he’d realized he’d hit me—not Nick, the one he probably wanted to shoot—and freaked.
Dropping my voice a little lower, I said, “Nick. His gun. It’s on the floor.” I nodded toward the bedroom.
Nick looked. Then he turned to me and mouthed, “What do I do?”
“Just stay there.” I gestured at the revolver in his hand. “Aim the gun at the doorway.”
He cocked his head. “Aim the—”
“Just do it. He goes anywhere near either gun, do not hesitate to fire.”
Nick nodded and drew the hammer back. He swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing between the purple and red welts across the front of his throat. I thought he shuddered. He had to have been scared out of his mind, but he did as I said, adopting the shooting stance I’d taught him and aiming his weapon at the bedroom doorway.
“Jesse, move where I can see you,” I ordered.
“No, no, I can’t, it’s—”
“Jesse, move where I can see you. Now.”
Tentative, unseen movement shuffled across carpet.
“Jesse, I’m not fucking around.” I sucked in a breath as I gingerly pushed myself to my feet, still clutching my wounded arm. “Get in front of the doorway with your hands in the air and don’t touch that gun. Come on, Jesse.”
“Can you see him?” I asked.
“Not yet,” Nick said.
“Come on, Jesse,” I barked. “Now.”
“Please don’t shoot me,” came the shrill voice from the other side. He was crying now, almost hyperventilating.
“I’m not going to shoot you unless you reach for a gun,” Nick said. “Come out now, or I’m coming in.”
Jesse stepped into view. His eyes were wild with fury and probably no shortage of chemical influence, but also red from crying. His hands were up and his face was blotchy, vertical streaks marking where tears had cut through the dirt on his skin. He struggled just to breathe in between sobbing, and when he looked past Nick and saw me, he cried even harder.
“Oh God,” he moaned. “I’m sorry, Mark. I’m sorry…” He whimpered and shook, brushing frantically at his arms like he had unseen insects crawling all over him. His legs trembled under him as he rocked back and forth. Fuck. He was probably coming off a high, maybe even a binge, and if ever a crackhead was going to be volatile and dangerous, this was it.
“Jesse, put your hands back up,” Nick said calmly.
Jesse’s hysteria shifted to anger when he glared at Nick.
“Fuck you. I wanted to hit you, not…” He looked at me again and crumbled into renewed crying. “Mark, oh God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to! I’m so...” He mumbled something after that, sobbing and struggling to speak. He started to sink to the floor, way too close to my gun for comfort.
“Stand up, Jesse,” Nick said sharply. “Stand up and put your hands where I can see them. Now.”
Jesse obeyed, but stared at Nick with nothing but rage in his eyes. “You killed Chelsea.” His voice cracked and he blinked rapidly. “You killed her! I saw you, I saw you and I tried to save her…”
“Jesse, I didn’t kill anyone.” Nick’s voice shook, but the gun in his hands stayed rock steady.
“Listen to him, Jesse,” I said. “He didn’t kill anyone. Chelsea’s alive. She’s fine.”
“No, she’s not," Jesse said. “I’m not stupid, Mark. I saw her. I fucking saw her.”
“And you damn near killed me,” Nick growled.
Jesse crumbled into incomprehensible crying and mumbling.
Struggling to keep my voice calm, I said, “Chelsea is not dead, Jesse.”
“You’re both lying.” Jesse’s voice inched toward even greater hysteria. He tore at his own hair, wavering back and forth on shaking knees. “She’s dead. I saw her, and they moved everything out of her house and took it all away, and—”
“Jesse, I can call her,” Nick said. “We’ll let you talk to her. She’s alive, I promise.”
Jesse clutched his hair and shook his head and fidgeted. “You’re lying. You’re lying. I’m not stupid, Mark. I’m not stupid and she’s dead. I saw her, I saw what he did to her, I saw it, you—”
“She’s not dead, Jesse,” Nick said.
“You’re lying!” All at once, Jesse lunged and Nick fired. The sound and recoil must have caught him off guard, especially with the vertigo from his concussion, and he grabbed the doorframe for balance.
Jesse dropped to the floor, screaming. For about two seconds, I thought he was neutralized and this might be over, but then he went for one of the guns.
“Nick! The gun!” Without thinking, I shoved Nick out of the way. A gunshot. Pain. More shots.
I dropped to my knees, holding my arm. The wound was worse than it had been earlier. Far worse. No, no, it wasn’t. This was a new one. A deeper, bloodier one, right through my upper arm.
“Oh, fuck… ”
A hand materialized on my shoulder.
Nick’s voice sounded far away as he said, “Are you—”
“Get the gun,” I said through my teeth.
Nick left my side. I was vaguely aware of movement, of Jesse moaning beside me, but more than anything, I was aware of the hot blood slipping through my fingers and over the back of my hand. My head spun. I slumped forward, my vision turning black, and from nowhere, Nick was beside me again.
“Easy,” he said. “Lie back.” He guided me onto my back, which slowed some of the spinning. Then he was gone again. Panic rose in my throat, alternately directed at the wound, my waning consciousness, and Nick’s absence.
His voice and presence returned. “Look, I’m a paramedic and one of these guys might be bleeding out.” Who is he talking to? “I need both hands to do this. Just send help and send it now.”
A second later, something clattered beside me. A gun? A phone? Fuck if I knew, because the pain in my arm worsened. Someone was moving my arm. Squeezing it.
“Keep a tight grip on this.” Nick guided my hand to a towel he’d wrapped around my arm. “Hold it against your side. It’s going to hurt like hell, but don’t let go of it.”
I gripped the towel, which sent daggers of pain shooting through the wound. “Fuck, that hurts.”
“It’s going to. But don’t let go.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I looked around at the blood and bullet holes in the room. “Looks like you’re fucked for your damage deposit,” I muttered.
Nick chuckled. “And I thought I had a dark sense of humor.” He nodded at my arm. “Keep holding that.”
He started to stand.
Panicked, I seized his wrist. “Wait, where are you going?”
Nick gestured at Jesse. “I have to help him. He’s bleeding badly. I’m not going far and help is on its way.”
“Nick…” My heart pounded. My head spun faster.
Don’t leave me like this. Nick, don’t leave. Don’t go, please.
But he got up. As I fought to stay conscious, to see through the pain and my fading vision, he got up and walked away.
He walked away.
He walked away.
Nick… don’t leave me like this…
~ * ~
My eyes flew open and I pulled in a breath.
That same fucking dream again.
I wanted to tell myself it wasn’t real, that it was just a damned dream, but I knew better. Sighing I rubbed my eyes. The dull ache in my other arm reminded me that no amount of “it’s not real” would change the fact that the dream was real. It had happened. The better part of a year ago, yes, but whether it had happened back then or just now, it was anything but “not real.”
I fidgeted, cursing under my breath. No wonder my arm ached: it was pressed between the back of the couch and me. I moved just enough to free my arm, then raised it, bending and straightening my elbow gingerly. Same thing had happened last night. One of these days, maybe I’d learn how to sleep on the couch without fucking up my arm. Like facing the other direction or something.
Then again, it would all be a moot point if I just got up and stayed in the bedroom, but I couldn’t. Not now.
I couldn’t sleep in the bedroom because Nick was gone.
I was used to spending nights apart, but this was different. This wasn’t like when he stayed at the firehouse for his three day shifts. During his rotations, he was gone for a few nights, and when that was over, he came through the front door in the morning, sleepy-eyed and exhausted, shortly before I went to work.
Not this time.
He was really gone this time. Not moved out yet, but all it would take was a borrowed pickup truck, some cardboard boxes, and a few hours to take care of that.
He hadn’t decided yet if this was permanent, but it didn’t feel temporary to me. There’d been too much finality in the click of the front door two nights ago. He hadn’t stormed out. He hadn’t slammed the door. He’d just quietly said he couldn’t fight anymore that night, that he had to go, needed to go—Nick, please, don’t go—and then he’d slipped through my fingers.
I exhaled and rubbed my forehead, swallowing the lump that kept trying to rise in my throat. We’d had problems for a while now, but I’d been so sure we’d be all right. Even when we’d fought and couldn’t stand the sight of each other, when we’d gone days on end without speaking, I’d known we’d make it through. Somehow, we’d make it through.
I’d thought we would, anyway. There’d never been any doubt in my mind that what we had was solid enough to weather damn near anything.
Now, all I knew was that Nick’s side of the bed was empty.
In the beginning, Detective Andrew Carmichael and paramedic Nick Swain barely escaped Nick's delusional stalker with their lives. Now, months later, the physical scars haven't quite healed, and neither have the emotional ones.
Lingering guilt and resentment threaten to tear their relationship apart, but Andrew isn't ready to give up. He's nearly lost Nick once, and he's not giving him up this time without a fight.
In a last ditch effort to keep them together, Andrew suggests a weekend away, but is that enough time to find a reason to keep their relationship alive?
Or is it time to let Nick walk away?
TITLE: Search Me (Cover Me #3)
COVER ARTIST: Lori Witt
LENGTH: 31,000 words
PAIRING: Gay, Bisexual-identifiying Characters
GENRE(S): Contemporary, Cops, Second Chances
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