One mistake can ruin everything… until you are redeemed.
Dieran, a young boy who died at the hands of Riverbrook Academy, made a huge mistake. He thought being trapped there was bad enough when he was alive. But now he’s dead. And he’s got nowhere to go.
For weeks he’s been trapped, unable to leave. Unable to move on.
But then one day, a mysterious new property owner shows up at the academy. And weeks later, all the kids, the ones he thought had escaped Riverbrook, return. And to his horror, the blonde-haired girl returns, too.
The new owner claims the experiments on the kids are over. But Dieran knows it’s a lie.
Now is his chance to redeem himself. The only problem is, ever since he attacked the doctor, he’s been unable to make contact with the living world.
But the girl is there because of him and he won’t stop until she’s either safe or dead…
Redeemed is the chilling sequel to Shattered, the first book in The Hexon Code series. Look for the third book in the series – Blackout.
***** Read a preview of Redeemed below. *****
ONE MISTAKE CAN change your whole life. And sometimes that mistake leaves you trapped on earth after death, sentenced to an eternity of regrets.
I never meant to hurt the doctor. But the knife had been right there in front of me and I had picked it up. He had rounded the corner with the pretty blonde-haired girl and before I knew it he was crumpling to the floor, his legs sprawling out from under him and blood seeping into the front of his shirt. It wasn’t until I heard the girl’s ear-splitting scream that I realized what I had done.
If I could take it back, if I could take away her screams, her tears, and the constant ringing in my ears, I would do it. I would do anything. I knew what it was like to lose someone you cared about, to see them get ripped from your arms and taken away from you. It had happened to me and now I had just made it happen for someone else.
It was my fault.
When I picked up the knife that day, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I remember feeling confused by its presence. How had it gotten on the floor? And was anyone actually planning to use it? And if so, who? And for what?
And then I saw the doctor.
I thought they were all the same. Working together to figure out the best ways to make us sick and then analyze the results. But when I watched the girl collapse to her knees and cry as she tried to pull him into her arms, I realized I had made a mistake. I couldn’t imagine her being a part of the administration’s plan to kill us all. Not her. She seemed innocent. Too innocent and kind to play a part.
My biggest fear now was that I would spend an eternity wandering the quiet halls of Riverbrook Academy alone.
I had died a few weeks ago at the hands of Dr. Martin and his team of nurses. I didn’t understand why or what caused my death exactly. I just knew how awful I had felt toward the end. The excruciating pain and weakness. The headaches. The nausea and the vomiting. I had wanted to die just to feel better. And eventually I had.
I think only a handful of kids suspected the truth. The administrative staff had painted a grand picture of me going off to live with a young married couple on their farm in Vermont. The kids believed I’d get to ride horses, feed chickens and pigs, and harvest vegetables. I would have given anything for that to be true. Anything for a chance at life. I wasn’t ready for death and I was too young. But really, is anyone ready for that?
Things were bad at the academy, but I had my whole life ahead of me and there were other kids who made living here bearable.
It was my understanding that once I turned eighteen, if I hadn’t been adopted first, I would be released and be able to live on my own. In the real world, doing real world things. I was too young to have figured out what I wanted to do when I was older. I had spent hours staring out the window in the commons room. All I could see past the gates were trees. An endless view of trees that blocked the early morning sunlight. What was it like beyond the trees?
I could remember sunrises from before. My dad and I used to sit on our porch in the mornings while my mom got ready for work. He’d drink black coffee while I drank orange juice, and we’d sit in silence as the sun rose above the horizon. Then he’d turn to me and say, “That’s some sunrise,” and I’d nod. “Today is a new day,” he’d say. “And every morning is beautiful.”
But now all I could do was imagine it. None of my mornings were beautiful. I was alone. In this dark place. And with nowhere to go.
All because I had made a mistake.
Stabbing Dr. Winden was an accident. But accidents still come with consequences. Now, because of what I had done, I was stuck on earth and wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to move on.
Marris hadn’t done anything wrong. Neither had Cullen. And yet they had been forced to stay until the other kids were taken away. Was it because the blonde girl had been saved? Or was it because the Cattsens had been stopped? Which good deed admitted them into heaven? Did it have something to do with their own goals?
I had seen Marris and Cullen standing together at the front entrance of Riverbrook, watching as the kids were loaded onto the buses. Marris waved, I assumed to the last girl getting on the bus, the one who had seen me in the commons room after my death. When they kissed, I looked away. And when I looked back a moment later, they were gone.
There was an older kid, too, though I didn’t know his name. He had been standing near a thin, old man, the blonde girl, and Dr. Roben from the infirmary. And he had disappeared, too, his body fading into nothingness.
That left only me.
Or at least the only one left I was aware of. I was sure there were others. They just hadn’t revealed themselves.
I can’t begin to describe the loneliness I’ve felt here over the last few weeks since everyone left. I’ve walked every hallway a hundred times over. I’ve walked along the perimeter of the high security fence. Every now and then I find a dead animal lying on the outside of the fence and it makes me wonder what they found so interesting about this place. This place that kills children.
If I can ever leave this place, I hope it’s because my punishment is over. I hope it’s because I’ve been redeemed.
My name is Dieran and this is my story.
AS I LAY on the front lawn, I stared up at the stars, spotting each one as the sky became dark enough to reveal them. I couldn’t stop thinking about how darkness was a necessary evil. You had to lie in the darkness in order to see the light of the stars. And you had to go through death, the darkest of all things, in order to know the truth.
Which is that Riverbrook Academy for Unwanted Children was killing kids.
It was the reason though that I didn’t understand. And why did they make me suffer? They knew I was in pain. Excruciating pain. But still they refused to give me anything for it. When the nurses spoke, they acted like I wasn’t even in the room. Maybe the pain should have been strong enough to block out the noises. Or at least get me to stop paying attention to what they were saying.
But I heard every word.
Not that it mattered. I didn’t understand what any of it meant. And there wasn’t anyone I could talk to now who could make my situation better. It was too late.
After everyone left, it was quiet. Too quiet. Even the crickets and the frogs were quiet, like they had seen the whole thing and were too shocked to make a sound. Or maybe it was my own energy that was drowning them out.
I yelled into the night even though I knew no one could hear me. And the people I was yelling at were no longer there. I was hoping it would make me feel better, screaming curses at them, but I found no relief. Nothing that dulled the ache I felt deep in my soul.
I don’t know how long I lay there. Twenty minutes? Maybe hours? I had nowhere to go. Nothing to do. No one to talk to.
One question that kept eating at me was, why had I stuck around after my death when it seemed apparent that others had moved on? What purpose did I have, prior to stabbing the doctor, to remain on earth?
I had only been at Riverbrook about a month before my death. Just in time for the yearly vaccinations. I hadn’t connected with anyone, really, while I was alive. Was there someone I was supposed to help? Someone I had talked to before my death?
There was Jonathan, but it was too late to save him. He had already died. I had seen him outside standing next to the older boy.
Maybe I had already fulfilled my original purpose and now I was just suffering the consequences of my actions? I didn’t understand it. And I didn’t think I ever would.
Finally, I rose from the cold, hard ground and started walking toward the gate, staring up at it as I approached.
A police officer had closed the gate when everyone left earlier, probably to deter any trespassers. Of course, I didn’t know why anyone would enter it. They wouldn’t if they knew what went on inside Riverbrook’s walls. Or maybe the building would become a local attraction. Didn’t journalists and photographers often break inside old buildings? Or did that only happen in films?
I reached out my hands to grip the wrought-iron bars, but my hands went straight through, sending a weird sensation through my body. After another failed attempt, I peered through the bars and stared down the dark road, watching for any signs of life. But there was nothing. No lights. No movements. All was unbearably still.
With a sigh, I turned and left the gate behind, heading past the restricted section of the building’s entrance. I held my hand out and tried to graze the chain-link fence, but still my fingers passed right through.
I shoved my hands in my pockets and scrunched up my shoulders against the chill in the air. I didn’t know why I felt cold. I was dead. I shouldn’t have been feeling anything at all. But I guess what kind of suffering would this be if I couldn’t feel the full effects?
As I walked, I could hear leaves and branches rustling in the light breeze that passed through the trees. And I could hear the buzz from the electrified fence. I followed alongside the fence, taking my time as I walked its entire length until I reached the gate again. Still not tired, but finding nothing else to do, I walked across the courtyard and stared up at the plywood that now covered the splintered remains of the main entrance.
Slowly, I climbed the stairs and outstretched my hand. When it passed straight through the wood, I sighed. Pressing forward, I walked through the board and came to a stop inside the entrance.
I toured every room of the building, trying to memorize the layout. I had nothing else to do. When dawn lightened the sky again, I headed back to the commons room and stood at the window and stared out at the courtyard.
That’s when I saw a fancy black car drive up to the gate.
I WATCHED AS a man stepped out of the car and walked to the guard shack. It looked like he was unlocking it with a key. A few minutes later, the gate was gliding open and he was driving into the courtyard.
He stopped beside the stone plaque, got out again, and gazed up at the building.
Now that he was closer, I got a better look. He had graying short hair and he wore tan slacks and a bright white buttoned shirt with the top button undone and the long sleeves rolled up over his forearms.
And he was smiling.
Not a full-blown smile like he was watching a funny movie. More like one of satisfaction. Or like he was imagining things he would do with it.
Finally, he walked across the courtyard to the gate at the restricted section of the property and unlocked the padlock with another key.
Quickly, I ran out the room and down the hall, hoping to meet him at the loading dock, the only other entrance into the building from the front.
When I burst through the door into the warehouse, he was just starting to open the outside door. I blew out a breath. It had been a few weeks since I had seen anyone so I wasn’t quite sure if he would be able to see me.
After the man stepped inside and flipped a switch, blinding light filled the room.
Shielding my eyes, I followed him through the interior door. Instead of stopping at the elevators, he kept walking down the hallway and then through the door into the main part of the building.
He shoved his hands in his pockets, and together, we walked the floor and peered into all the bedrooms and classrooms. Then he stepped into the kitchen and turned the lights on.
I watched him check out the storage closets and then he walked slowly through the rest of the kitchen, periodically inspecting the ovens. Then he stopped and cocked his head as he stared down into the sink.
I hurried to his side and gasped when I saw the bloody knife. Slowly, I backed away.
The man looked up and scanned the room. Then he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a phone. After punching in a number, he held the phone to his ear.
Seconds later, a man’s voice said, “Miles, you at the property? Everything all right?”
“Yes,” he replied. “There’s a knife lying in the kitchen sink. Looks like it’s covered with blood. Know anything about that?”
“Not a thing. But get rid of it. I don’t want the police snooping around.”
Miles nodded as he pursed his lips like he was considering the best way to handle a bloody knife.
“Oh, and Miles?” The man paused briefly before continuing. “I want the place up and running by the end of the week.”
“Yes, sir.” Miles ended the call and then turned the faucet on. As the water washed off the blood, he opened the cabinet under the sink, pulled out a large bottle of bleach, and set it on the counter. Then he picked up the knife between his thumb and forefinger and held it under the stream of water.
After he set it back in the sink and poured bleach over it, he washed it with dish soap, dried it with a paper towel, and then slipped it into the empty slot in the knife block.
Finally, with a sigh, he strode out of the kitchen.
I hurried after him, quickening my pace to keep up. We walked to the restricted section and then stopped at the elevators.
We rode up to the fifth floor and walked into a large office with windows covering the walls and even parts of the ceiling. Dark, rich-looking wood furniture filled the room, from the expansive desk in the middle of the floor to the floor-to-ceiling bookcases that fit perfectly between the floor-to-ceiling windows.
He sat down at the desk, logged into the computer, and then began making notes on a large notepad.
While he worked, I walked over to one of the windows on the left and peered out at the courtyard. Never in the time I had lived at Riverbrook had I peered out of a window that was not barred.
Evidently, the administrative offices weren’t barred. But that made sense. They weren’t forcing anyone but the kids to stay inside the building.
As I watched the sunrise, a construction van drove through the open gate.
I glanced at Miles, but he didn’t seem to know or care that it was there. When I turned back to the window, a dump truck and another semi-truck pulling a big machine on a trailer were driving up to the gate.
Over the next hour, I watched the construction crew rip out the old stone plaque in the courtyard. The one that read Riverbrook Academy for Unwanted Children.
After the plaque was gone, the crew entered the warehouse at the loading dock.
With a sigh, I walked over to Miles and looked over his shoulder at the data he was typing into the computer. I didn’t understand any of it, but the file name read ‘Financial Projections and Budgets.’
Folding my arms over my chest, I backed away and leaned against the bookshelf behind me while I listened to the workers who were now in the basement repairing the fire damage. I overheard them talking about the integrity of the building’s foundation and structure and then one of the men deemed the basement reparable.
In the afternoon, they set up a brand new stone plaque.
I stared at the new name that was engraved in the stone. Kensington School of Excellence.
I tried to figure out what that meant. Were they turning the place into a boarding school? Or was it still an orphanage?
But then I remembered what the man—the one Miles had called about the knife—had said about the police.
And then I knew.
Despite the name change, it would always be Riverbrook. I knew it for what it was. Still the place where children come to die.
MILES RETURNED EARLY the next morning. I followed him to the basement and walked with him as he checked out the repairs the construction crew had done the day before. Seeming satisfied, he walked back to the elevators and rode up to the fifth floor.
I didn’t know what I’d learn from him; he wasn’t much of a phone person. So, while he headed for his office, I walked to the stairwell.
As I was staring through the bars of the commons room window, the staff returned. Three of them I recognized from before, but now there were others, mostly doctors. Someone had to take over Dr. Winden’s position in the morgue. And Dr. Martin never returned. Neither did Dr. Roben.
There were seven men and six women who appeared to be staff residents. Their driver set wheeled suitcases and luggage bags on the loading dock and then drove away. I watched them climb the stairs and walk through the doorway at the dock entrance. I knew it was only a matter of time before the kids returned as well. And the teachers.
With nothing else to do, I wandered the halls again, following the staff to their living quarters on the fourth floor. I watched them unpack their bags and store their belongings in the closets. I watched them dress in their new uniforms. Several of the men wore guard uniforms while the others put on lab coats. The women appeared to be either nurses or researchers.
Two nights before the fire, I had sat staring out the window in the commons room and tried to block out the noises around me. But I couldn’t find peace from the horrible sounds of screaming in the basement.
In death, I had noticed that my hearing improved. I could hear the squeak of the wheels that transported staff members down the hallway of the fourth floor. I could hear the hum of the elevator and the grating sounds of the pulleys as the elevator car descended to the basement. And I could hear the roaring sounds of what I could only guess were from the fire in the crematory. I knew they weren’t coming from the boilers or the air circulation system. They were different. And they followed the screams.
Closing my eyes only made the sounds louder. They lasted for three long hours. I felt sick to my stomach just listening to them, just thinking about what they meant. Never in my wildest imaginings had I envisioned Riverbrook as a place of death. There had been rumors about children being punished in the basement, but I never really believed them. Not until I got sick and was taken to the infirmary. When I died, my fears were confirmed. Riverbrook really was killing kids. No one got adopted like they claimed.
By morning, the majority of the in-house staff was dead. All but two guards and a nurse were left. The guards had been the ones to haul the others to the basement. I just didn’t understand why. What had they done to deserve death? What did any of us do to deserve death?
After watching the new staff get settled into their rooms, I followed the researchers to the laboratory, a place I had never been before. We walked along a wide hallway, lined with glass walls. Beyond the glass appeared to be tiny rooms, each containing a bed, a small sink, and a toilet.
“What is this place?” I asked out loud, looking from one of the researchers to another. They exchanged a quick look, but neither one replied. Had they heard me? I wasn’t expecting an answer.
I stared at the units again and wondered what they could possibly be used for.
At the end of the long hallway, one of the men swiped a key card over a digital panel at the side of the door. A glass door slid open, allowing the four of us to pass through.
I looked around the room as I followed them inside. There were stark white countertops with stainless steel sinks and metal cabinets overhead as well as under the counters.
As I watched them walk across the room and start taking items out of the cupboards and drawers, Miles appeared in the doorway.
The others looked up and waited for him to speak.
“I’d like to personally thank you for coming here today,” he said, walking into the room. “We have much work to do if we are to prove that this facility is a worthwhile investment to the board.”
The researchers nodded, but said nothing.
“As I mentioned to you during your interviews, I need each of you to produce your own version of what you believe is the most effective way to control the violence we’ve seen in some of the students who were here during the Cattsens’ ownership.”
Wait, what? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was he suggesting that these researchers were here to help the kids? Could I really believe that he wanted what was best for them? Was it too good to be true?
And what exactly did most effective way to control the violence mean? Did he mean they had to use a way that would actually save the kids or were the researchers allowed to kill them?
I didn’t understand why they would want to kill us in the first place. Were they just evil people or did they believe they were doing something good for society?
I also didn’t understand the whole thing about the greater good. The teachers had always preached that idea in my classes. That it was okay to make certain sacrifices if it meant it had a positive impact—another common word I heard from the teachers—on a larger percentage of the population. But how could one group of people make decisions for the rest? What made their decisions better than someone else’s? Weren’t people responsible for their own lives?
Miles continued talking but I had zoned out, lost in my own thoughts. I couldn’t stand to look at anyone anymore because I didn’t believe they were concerned about my welfare. I guess that didn’t matter anymore. I was dead now. But I had believed that the people here had cared about me. Had wanted to see me succeed and to keep me safe.
I had been wrong.
They didn’t care about me. No one cared about me. All they cared about was themselves and what they could gain from my suffering.
I wanted to make them pay. But the people who had been here before were now replaced by new people. The Cattsens were in prison. Or at least I hoped they were. Locked inside a cell like the one the guards had put me in for disobeying curfew not long after my arrival.
Thinking about the basement made me shudder. The cell had been pitch black and cold. And unbearably quiet…until the screaming started.
I had clamped my hands over my ears to try to block out the noise, but it hadn’t helped. The screams went on for what felt like hours. I tried to call to whoever it was, but that only made my throat hoarse, so I stopped. I just hugged my legs to my chest and rested my cheek on my knee as I sat there on the hard floor and waited it out. When the screaming finally stopped, it was too quiet again.
The next night, or what I thought was the next night—it was impossible to know what time it had been—the screaming started over.
That’s when I realized it wasn’t coming from the living.
A few weeks earlier…
DANA PACED THE FLOOR of the hospital’s waiting room, her flats stamping lightly on the hard tile. She tried hard to steady her breathing, but the more she paced, the more out of control she felt. Her body trembled and her lip quivered. Tears welled up as she covered her mouth with a hand to stifle a sob.
When arms wrapped around her, she flinched. But then she realized it was Mr. Sheffield. She relaxed and sobbed against his chest as he patted her lightly on the back with his hand.
After a few moments, he said, “Why don’t we get something to eat?”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to leave him.”
“He’ll be in surgery for another couple of hours,” he said, his voice soft.
She shook her head again. “I can’t leave. What if the doctor comes out?”
“He’ll be okay,” he said gently. “Besides, you need to eat.”
Finally, she relented and let him lead her out into the hallway. She hung onto his arm in case her wobbly legs betrayed her and sent her crumpling to the floor. Perhaps food was what she needed. She was starting to feel faint.
Several people passed them in the hallway. Some of them gave them sad smiles, like they knew about what had happened hours before. But there was no way they could know. Not this soon at least.
Dana bowed her head, trying to avoid their curious eyes. They reached the elevators and as Mr. Sheffield outstretched his free hand toward the panel of buttons, the elevator dinged and the doors slid open.
Two uniformed male officers stepped out, nodding politely at the man as they brushed past him. They didn’t seem to notice Dana. Or if they did, they showed no reaction. Their footsteps faded as they headed down the long hallway.
Mr. Sheffield coaxed her into the elevator car and let her hold his arm as they rode down to the main floor. Slowly, they made their way to the cafeteria and picked a table under dim lighting near the window. The sky was dark and the dining hall’s lights along with the building’s bright outside lights made it difficult to see the stars.
Finally, Dana let go of his arm and sank onto the hard chair. While he went to get food, she hugged her arms to her chest and took a deep breath.
Everything had happened so slowly. Waiting on autopsy results at Riverbrook, figuring out how to defeat the Cattsens—not that she had played a part in that—and now waiting on Donovan’s doctors to finish the surgery that would repair the damage the ghost boy had done. Even the moment of the stabbing had seemed to happen in slow motion. Donovan’s wide eyes, filled with shock and pain, the way he crumpled to the floor, her scream that had filled the hall.
But maybe all that was from the sedative he had given her after Marris released them from the holding cells in the basement. And why she was feeling so tired now.
She let out a slow breath and closed her eyes. When a chair scraped across the tile floor, she jerked her head up and opened her eyes.
“Sorry,” Mr. Sheffield said, giving her an apologetic look as he sat down. “They’ll bring the food when it’s ready.”
Relaxing, she nodded and forced herself to sit up straighter. She watched him as they sat in silence. He stared at the table between them as he rested his forearms on the metal surface and clasped his hands together. His throat bobbed as his eyes welled with tears. When he blinked the tears away, she shifted her gaze toward the kitchen where the cooks were preparing late dinner orders.
“Will you tell me about my daughter?”
When she turned back to him, he was running his hand over his face and wiping the tears away.
She gave him a sad smile. “She was my best friend.” Her voice caught in her throat.
“It’s okay,” he said. “You don’t have to.”
She shook her head as she sniffled. “She was funny and adventurous. And she had a good heart. She wanted to be a doctor.”
He smiled through fresh tears.
“I don’t know about recently though,” she said, her voice sad. “Donovan took me to his living quarters two years ago.”
He frowned. “I don’t know what that means. So, you never saw her after that? Even though you were living in the basement?”
She shook her head. “I wasn’t allowed upstairs. It would have raised questions for the kids who were still there. They were told I was adopted and that I had left the facility.”
Blowing out a breath, he clasped his hands again. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t imagine it was an easy thing.”
She swallowed hard and nodded.
“I have to ask,” he said gently. “What is your relationship with Donovan?”
Frowning, she cocked her head and stared at him for a few seconds as she considered how to answer him. They had never discussed their relationship. It just was what it was. And she had never called him by anything other than his name. Finally, she said, “He’s my boyfriend.”
“Isn’t he much older?”
“Six or seven years, I think,” she replied, not seeing the big deal he was trying to make out of it.
“That age difference is, what, half your age?”
Her eyes narrowed.
He opened his mouth like he intended to say more, but then the waitress appeared at their table holding a tray of food. She eyed them both as she set the tray between them and then nodded as he said, “Thanks.”
She set down a small stack of napkins and then headed back toward the kitchen.
He dished out the food: a bowl of creamy potato and chicken soup and a small plate of dinner rolls for Dana and a plate of chicken pot pie for himself.
“I’m sorry if my questioning sounds out of line,” he said, looking at her. “But if you were my daughter, I would want to make sure you’re not being forced into a relationship. Given the circumstances.”
“We didn’t plan it,” she said, shrugging. “It just happened.” Had she not been fighting the sedative, she might have said more.
He eyed her a moment longer and then nodded. “Okay.”
As she picked up her soup spoon, the night Marris followed her to their room played in her head. She smiled at the thought. When she looked up and realized Mr. Sheffield was watching her again, wearing a curious expression this time, she said, “Marris tried to attack him once.”
He cocked his head slightly.
“This was afterwards. When she was a…” She let the thought trail off when he clamped his eyes shut and nodded. Her gaze drifted to the table as she bit her lip. “She didn’t hurt him. She hadn’t figured out how to make the connection yet.”
He covered his face with a hand and his shoulders shook.
She didn’t know if she should keep talking, but she did anyway, needing to fill the void. Otherwise she’d start crying again. Maybe by telling him about Marris, she could help him in some way. “Marris tried so hard though. She thought he was controlling me. That I felt obligated to him because he had saved my life.” Shaking her head, she said, “The truth isn’t always what it seems.”
He picked up a paper napkin and patted his face dry as he took a deep breath.
“But that’s who she was,” she said, letting her gaze drift to her bowl. “A strong-willed girl who would never settle for less than what she wanted or allow anyone to take advantage of her.”
The man took a deep breath as he set the napkin down beside his plate. “Thank you,” he said.
She looked up and gave him a sad smile. His red eyes glistened. “I’m sorry you didn’t get to see her.”
“I did. Earlier today. But she seemed mad.”
“She always thought you had died in a car accident. It must have been a shock for her to learn the truth. That you’ve been alive this whole time.”
He nodded idly as he stirred his food.
“What happened? You were never able to see her?”
He shook his head as he cleared his throat. “I was in prison. Just got out a month ago.”
“How did you end up at Riverbrook?”
He was silent for a moment and she wondered if he would actually answer her question, but then he said, “When I learned she was taken to Riverbrook, I knew the place didn’t allow visitors. So, I reconnected with an old employer, intending to work under the radar until I could get her out of there, but Cattsen recognized the name right away and told me Marris had died already. Only that turned out to be a lie.”
“But Marris should have been given back to you. Isn’t that how the system works?”
He nodded. “She should have been since she was still a minor. But the Cattsens don’t operate that way. They never intend to return the children.”
“How did they get away with everything all these years?”
He shrugged. “They had a team of people who made sure the information never got out.”
They ate the rest of their meal in silence. When they finished, he carried the tray with their plates and bowls to the return counter and then walked with Dana back to the empty waiting room.
An hour later, the sounds of footsteps echoed in the hallway and then a male doctor dressed in green surgical scrubs and still wearing a green cap appeared in the doorway.
DANA ROSE TOO QUICKLY to her feet. When her head whirled, she reached out for something to grasp, but her hand touched only air. The doctor hurried across the room and gripped her shoulders, steadying her.
“You okay?” he asked, leaning down and looking her in the face.
She nodded as she lifted her gaze to his. “Sorry,” she said, her voice faint. “I’m just tired. How is Donovan?”
Frowning, the doctor studied her eyes for a moment and then gently grasped her wrist, pressing two fingers over her vein. “Are you feeling all right?” he asked. “Your pulse is slow and you have low blood pressure.”
“It’s the sedative. Donovan gave it to me a few hours ago. Before the accident.”
As the furrow between his brows deepened, his gaze shifted to Mr. Sheffield who was now standing beside her.
“Please,” she said, sounding desperate. “How is he?”
The doctor cleared his throat as he released her and stepped back. “He’s doing great.”
A sob escaped her lips. She covered her mouth with a trembling hand. When Mr. Sheffield wrapped an arm around her shoulders, she turned her face into his chest and sobbed.
The doctor gave her a moment and then continued, “Internal damage was minimal and we are stitching him up now. He will be out of surgery in another hour or so and will be heavily sedated for the next six hours to give him time to heal.”
Wiping at her eyes, she turned to look at him again and asked, “When can I see him?”
“I recommend that you go home to get some rest. When you return, you can see him during normal visiting hours.”
She shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere. He’s all I have left.”
“I’m afraid we don’t allow minors to sit with patients during surgery recovery.”
“I’m his girlfriend. I need to see him.”
“Doctor,” Mr. Sheffield said, trying to make an appeal. “Donovan would want her to be there when he wakes up. He’ll be worried sick about her.”
The doctor pursed his lips as he took in a long breath. Finally, he said, “All right. I’ll come get you when he’s out of surgery.”
“Thank you,” she replied, wiping away fresh tears.
After the doctor left, they sat back down on the sofa. She curled up on one end and rested her head on a throw pillow while Mr. Sheffield leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs.
She must have fallen asleep because the next thing she knew someone was touching her arm and calling her name. Opening her eyes and seeing a young woman leaning down in front of her, she flinched and sat up in an effort to back away. Mr. Sheffield was gone and no one else was in the waiting room.
“You’re okay,” the woman said softly. “Dr. Smithson asked me to get you. Your boyfriend is out of surgery now and in recovery.”
Relaxing, Dana asked, “I can see him?”
The woman nodded. She straightened up and waited for Dana to rise to her feet.
“You’ll need to be very careful,” the nurse said, leading her down the hallway. “His wound is on his left side and it will need time to heal.”
“Of course,” Dana replied, nodding.
“He will likely be groggy when he wakes up.”
She nodded again as she took a deep breath.
“If you need anything, press the help button. It’s located on the inside panel of the hospital bed.”
The nurse opened a door and stepped aside to let Dana pass through. She walked in and stopped in her tracks when she saw Donovan lying motionless on the bed. His face was too pale framed by the soft waves of his dark brown hair. Her throat tightened. She bit down on her trembling lip as she inhaled slowly.
“He’s lost a lot of blood,” the nurse was saying, her voice low. “It will take him some time to regain his color.”
Dana stepped forward and stood at the side of the bed. Up close, she could see his forehead was glistening with a slight sheen of sweat. He looked so helpless lying there, it brought tears to her eyes. He had always been the one to make sure she was okay. He had never needed her the way she needed him. The way she needed him watching over her, keeping her safe, making sure she took her medications every morning when all she wanted to do was flush them down the toilet and make use of a blade again. She didn’t know if she was strong enough to be what he needed now. All she knew was she desperately needed him.
She wiped away the tears and took in a ragged breath. Then she pulled a chair closer to the side of the bed. Slowly, she sat down and then reached out and placed her hand over his. His skin was warm and clammy. Bowing her head, she lifted his hand gently off the bed and kissed his knuckles.
“Donovan, I’m here,” she said, her voice soft but cracking. Sniffling, she clamped her eyes shut and pressed her cheek to the back of his hand. “I’ll be right here when you wake up.”
DONOVAN’S EYES fluttered open. His body ached and throbbing pain coursed through his abdomen. He sucked in a breath and gritted his teeth, bracing himself against the pain. He tried to move his hands but they seemed stuck.
“Dana,” he whispered. His throat was dry. He blinked up at the white foam tiles of the ceiling. He moved his fingers, slowly flexing them. There was weight holding down one of his hands.
Groaning, he rolled his head to the right and saw Dana’s blonde hair draped across her face, blocking most of it from view. Her eyes were closed and her head rested on his hand and against his thigh while she sat on a chair beside the bed. Her breathing, loud enough for him to hear, was shallow, but steady. No doubt the mild sedative he had given her at Riverbrook was still working.
He hadn’t planned on being locked inside the building. And then being stabbed. He had envisioned they would get out without any problems and then he would drive her to his family’s home in D.C., letting her sleep through the whole trip until he could get her back on her medications. In their rush out of the basement, he had forgotten all about them. And with their days inside the holding cells, she needed to get back on them before her symptoms started up again.
He berated himself for forgetting. How could he have forgotten? It should have been the first thing he thought about. Making sure she was okay was his main priority. Always.
Closing his eyes and gritting his teeth, he lay still. He needed more painkillers, but he was determined to let her sleep no matter how much pain he was in. When he heard the door swish open, he opened his eyes and watched a nurse walk into the room. She cast a quick glance toward Dana as she walked to his left side.
“How are you feeling?” she asked quietly.
He unclenched his jaw long enough to reply. “More painkillers.”
She frowned. “On a scale of one to—”
“Eight,” he said, cutting her off, his voice sounding panicked.
Giving him a small knowing smile and a curt nod, she said, “I’ll be right back.”
He clamped his eyes shut again and waited it out.
After a moment, Dana stirred, lifting her head. He felt her lips kissing the back of his hand.
When he opened his eyes, she was gazing at him. His throat tightened. “Dana,” he whispered.
“Hi,” she said softly, sitting up. “How are you feeling?”
He let out a ragged breath. “I’ve been better.”
She gave him a sad smile as she squeezed his hand.
“Are you okay?”
Nodding, she said, “Yeah. I’m just tired. A little faint.”
“Right now?” he asked.
“Have you eaten anything?”
She nodded again. “Mr. Sheffield and I ate in the cafeteria downstairs earlier.”
Just then the nurse walked into the room. In his periphery, Donovan saw her walk up to the left side of his hospital bed. While she worked, lifting the covers and carefully taking his hand and setting it on top of the white sheet, he said to Dana, “You ate a whole meal?”
“And you still feel faint?” When she nodded again, he sighed. He barely noticed the rush of morphine the nurse injected through his IV port on the back of his hand. “It’s most likely withdrawal symptoms then. It’s been several days since you had your medications.”
Biting her lip, Dana cast a nervous glance at the nurse who was eyeing them as she placed Donovan’s hand back under the covers. If she thought anything of their conversation, she didn’t say so.
When Dana looked down at her hands, Donovan turned to the nurse and said, “I need to talk to the doctor when he’s free. It’s important.”
The woman gave him a curt nod. “I will let him know.”
“Thank you,” he replied.
After she left, he turned back to Dana. She was still staring down at their hands. He whispered her name but she didn’t look up. When he lifted his hand to cup her cheek, a tear slid down her face.
“Look at me,” he whispered, his voice pleading.
She clamped her eyes tighter as she shook her head.
“Dana.” His throat was getting drier, hoarse. “Please.”
“I don’t need them,” she said.
He sighed. He knew she was referring to her medications. This wasn’t the first time they had discussed them. “Yes, you do.”
She shook her head again, refusing to look at him.
“Let me decide.” He closed his hand over her wrist and ran his fingers gently over the length of her scar.
“That’s not fair,” she said, pulling her hand away. “It was one time.”
He hadn’t really meant to draw attention to the scar; it was habit. He’d catch himself running his thumb or a fingertip over it, like he was willing it to fade or he was trying to smooth away her fears and all the things that made her feel sad or anxious. And it was a reminder to him that if he let her go for just a moment, he could lose her for good.
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