Willing Sacrifice by Joey W. Hill

 

 

Prologue

“All right back there, Mrs. Kensington?”

“Yes, Max. If you ask me one more time, I will make you stop the limo and shoot you with your own gun.”

“Yes ma’am. That’s clear thinking, having me stop the car before you shoot me.”

“I’m pregnant, Max. Not mentally defective. Now, at the risk of sounding like a rich and powerful woman with minions to indulge my every whim—shut up and drive. Or raise the glass and annoy Janet.”

Max pressed his lips together, as if hiding a smile. “Yes ma’am,” he repeated.

Sitting in the front passenger seat, Janet shifted onto her hip so she was facing him. While it helped her sort through the paperwork she had in her lap, it also served the purpose of keeping an eye on their very important passenger.

Savannah Kensington was in her eighth month and had been put on bed rest five weeks ago for pre-eclampsia. Because of that condition, as well as being in her late thirties and having other physical factors that concerned the doctor, she had to go in for regular diagnostics to monitor the baby. Today she had one of those appointments, but she’d called Janet early, before Matt arrived at the office. Janet had to hide her own smile, recalling the conversation.

“Janet, when Matt gets there, please ask him if he could send the car to the house a couple hours early so I can go for a drive. I was a complete bitch this morning and I know he’s likely to walk in and tell you he’s cancelling his Baton Rouge meeting. If he does that, I swear to God I will lose it. Tell him I called to wish him a good day and to apologize for being cranky. Make it sound as though you suggested the drive, and I’m very happy about it. Reassure him that we women know what we’re doing, the universe is in balance, and we’ll handle things. He can go to his meeting.”

“Is it just a cover, or would you really like to go for a drive?” Janet asked.

Though the man was a six-foot four-inch female fantasy, Matt Kensington, head of Kensington and Associates, was overprotective to the nth degree. As well as being his pregnant wife, Savannah was CEO of Tennyson Industries and a remarkably independent and self-contained woman. Sharing some of those same qualities, Janet understood the woman’s state of mind, the frustration Savannah’s weary sigh revealed.

“It’s utterly pathetic,” she confided, “but I would love a drive. Maybe go to one of the parks and sit by the water for a little while.”

“It’s not pathetic,” Janet assured her. “And I’m glad you meant it. It’s very difficult to get a lie past him.”

“Try impossible.” There was a smile in Savannah’s voice now. “I owe all of you an apology. I know he’s been coming to work agitated, and Matt agitated is like dealing with a wounded bear. Much like dealing with me, I expect. The only thing that’s kept this pregnancy from triggering a double homicide is the innocent life we’d be sacrificing.”

Janet chuckled. “Peter dropped Dana off at the church this morning, so Max may have come in early. I’ll check and see if he’s available.”

“Give him my thanks and my regrets beforehand, since I’m sure to be highly ungracious when he picks me up.”

“They’re men. They like it when beautiful women abuse them.”

* * *

When she’d disconnected the call, Janet had realized she had some paperwork that needed to go to the airport for signing by their private charter company. She could easily courier it, but with Matt and all the others heading out of New Orleans to go to Baton Rouge today, it was going to be relatively quiet. From Savannah’s tone, she might appreciate having a woman along. Plus, if Max was driving…

So here she was. Savannah had insisted Max take them out to the airport first, and the women had chatted along the way, Janet bringing Savannah up to date on K&A business matters she would find interesting, and any other tidbits about business district gossip and politics. Max put in a word now and then, but mostly he drove. Even so, Janet was far more aware of him than she knew she should be.

She could dismiss it as mere sexual attraction, because the former SEAL kept his body in the kind of shape that gave even the most practical woman salacious ideas. But since every one of the five-man K&A executive team, including Matt, had the face and form to turn a woman’s head three hundred and sixty degrees if necessary to secure a proper view, she was usually immune to that. However, there was a steady core to Max, a quiet mystery, that kept drawing her attention. Several vital issues made them incompatible, but even so…there was nothing wrong with thinking about it, was there?

They stopped at the park for about a half hour. Janet walked Savannah the short distance to a bench and stayed with her while Max relocated the car to the street, eschewing the more remote parking area provided off the road. He obviously had no intention of letting them out of his sight, even though Janet could buzz his cell.

“It’s like they all take a class,” Savannah muttered. She waved Janet off once she was settled. “Why don’t you go take a stroll? I’m just going to sit here and watch the ducks a bit.”

While her tone suggested she’d be fine if Janet and Max jumped in the lake and drowned, Janet took no offense. Max had looked a little concerned when Savannah insisted on walking to the bench. Janet had given him a slight shake of her head, stopping him before he tried something admirable but misguided, like offering to carry Savannah, or driving the limo over the green and only stopping when the bumper was within a hair’s breadth of the bench.

If the whole world was hovering over her while she felt like an overinflated balloon, Janet expected she’d be just as cranky as Savannah. She chose a bench about twenty-five yards away, making a show of checking her email on her phone. When she glanced over her shoulder toward the car, Max nodded to her, holding eye contact for an intriguingly long moment before shifting it back to his primary charge.

Janet was amused to find her cheeks warmed from the attention. Yes, definitely something fascinating about the man.

Savannah was gazing meditatively into space, oblivious to passing joggers and cyclists, the ripple of wind on the lake. Janet knew they didn’t have to worry about her overdoing. No matter how hormonal or frustrated Savannah was, she and Matt were equally protective of their unborn child. Being downwind of the woman, Janet could hear Savannah humming a lullaby, all while keeping her arm curled beneath her belly, holding what would surely be their only biological child, given the difficulty of this pregnancy and Savannah’s age.

Janet lifted her face to the wind, closing her eyes. She didn’t do enough of this, simply taking a moment to relax. She wondered what it would be like if it was just her and Max, and he was sitting next to her. He’d likely be as quiet as he always was. She imagined reading next to him, his arm along the back of the bench, fingers sliding along her upper arm as he gazed up into the branches of a live oak spread over them. He would be like that tree, a powerful, comforting presence.

Maybe Max was her midlife crisis. She could do far worse.

Once back in the car, Savannah said little. She instructed Max to drive around the city, making loops through different districts until it was time to head for the doctor’s. Then she laid her head back on the seat as she studied the passing terrain. Glancing over at Max, Janet noticed him checking his rearview mirror. He’d been doing it even more frequently these past fifteen minutes, and now she realized he wasn’t watching traffic, but Savannah. Taking her legal pad, she scribbled the question, turned it in his direction. Problem?

He shook his head, checked the mirrors once again. Janet followed his gaze. Savannah’s thick-lashed eyes were half closed. Her long blonde tail of hair fanned out over her shoulder. The woman was stunningly beautiful on a normal day. Despite the changes to her body, pregnancy had enhanced her attraction, making her blue eyes more vivid, the golden hair even softer and thicker. She projected ice princess calm, but it came with a physical delicacy that drew men to her. Her designer maternity wear was a tailored pale-green creation with pleats and slashes forming soft folds from the empire waist. Janet noticed Savannah had her hands on that expanse of cloth, pressing her palms against her stomach here and there. Perhaps she was having cramps or gas pains. She wondered if that was why Max kept checking on her.

“Just a feeling,” he murmured. “I’ll take you back by the office and then run her home. Maybe hang around a while.”

Janet debated whether to ask him for more details, but then—unfortunately—she didn’t have to ask.

There was a sudden indrawn breath from the back, followed by a sharper, startled gasp. When her head snapped around, Janet saw Savannah had gone from a relaxed position to one where she was hunched forward, both arms curled around her belly. “Janet…

From Matt, Janet knew Savannah was stoic about pain, barely made a whimper about anything. Now a cry wrenched from her lips, strangled back with the greatest of effort. “Oh…Oh God…this…”

“Get in the back,” Max ordered, flipping the console out of Janet’s way. “Now.”

Janet was already in motion, abandoning her heels so they wouldn’t slow her down as she navigated between the front seats. The moment she was seated next to Savannah in the roomy back area, the limo leaped forward. Max was buzzing the office, using the steering wheel controls to activate his hands-free.

“Randall, I’m en route to the hospital with Mrs. Kensington.” He glanced at the GPS, and Janet saw the ETA was approximately thirty minutes with traffic. His jaw tightened. “Her ob-gyn needs to be contacted.”

“Her pager and cell numbers are on my desk, right next to the phone.” Janet jumped in immediately. Max’s gaze caught hers in the mirror. “Tell them she’s experiencing constant pain and…” Janet laid her hands over Savannah’s, gripping her stomach. The area was hard. Really hard. Oh God. “Her stomach is rigid.”

“In short, prepare them for an emergency, in case that’s what this is.” Janet was impressed by how calm Max sounded, looked. There was no doubt it was definitely an emergency, but he had the presence of mind to make it seem like anything else was a possibility. She’d never seen Savannah look frightened before. It flipped the same switch for Janet, taking her to a cool place in her head, a place where everything else shut down.

“Max is going to get us there,” she said firmly. “Hang on.”

“It hurts. Oh God…this doesn’t feel like labor. There’s no…end…to it. Oh God…”

“I’m here. Hold on to me.” Feeling wetness, Janet looked down, bit back an oath. Blood was dripping down Savannah’s legs. She pulled off her trim suit jacket, balled it up. “Open your legs, honey. It’s okay. Let’s just press this here.”

“My water?”

“Yes. No.” She changed her mind. Matt Kensington could scent a lie, but his wife’s radar was just as sharp, perhaps even more so in this state. The kid wouldn’t get anything past either one of them. “Savannah, you’re hemorrhaging. Let’s see if we can get that slowed down. Press your legs together, tight. I’m going to lay you down, get your hips propped up. I know it hurts, but try to stay as still as you can.”

Thank God the limo had backseats like wide couches. Janet had no idea if the change in position would help, but she couldn’t imagine Savannah being upright when blood was dripping out of her would be helpful. As she helped her maneuver, she saw Savannah’s gaze latch on to the front of Janet’s blouse. In changing her grip on the coat between Savannah’s legs, she’d smeared herself with a liberal amount of blood.

“No.” Savannah’s jaw firmed. Shuddering with pain, she curled her arms tighter around her stomach. “I’m not losing you, angel. You stay with me. Matt…”

“Randall will call him first thing after the doctor. He’ll be on his way. It’s all right. Women can handle everything, remember? By the time Daddy gets there, the universe will be aligned, everything will be in balance. We’ll be sharing a latté and cooing over your new baby.” God willing.

“Unh…” Savannah’s cry wrenched everything inside Janet, but she quelled it, keeping her hands steady over the woman’s. Her stomach was like a stale egg, no sense of movement or life, and she knew Savannah registered it as well. Janet met her gaze. “It’s going to be okay. The baby’s in there fighting. You can’t be scared. You don’t want to scare her.”

Savannah nodded. She closed her eyes, tears of stress on her face, her lips pressed together tight. She tried to hum a little, like she had when she was on the park bench, and Janet joined her, smoothing her hands over her stomach, very lightly, since everything seemed to be causing Savannah pain.

As she did that, a part of her stayed aware of other things. The world was flashing by, the limo moving in a zigzag pattern that was remarkably smooth, though constant. Constant movement didn’t happen in New Orleans traffic. When she tuned in to what was happening, she felt like she was perched on a roller coaster car, careening through a minefield.

Max was maneuvering the limo between cars as if they were orange cones on a professional course. He never touched the horn, knowing New Orleans drivers were cantankerous enough to slam on brakes at such an insult, but Janet suspected he didn’t need the warning signal. All they had to do was look up in their mirror, see that black behemoth bearing down on them with no intent of stopping. If they weren’t fast enough to shift out of the way before he got there, he was already around them. He barely braked at the stoplights, not checking green or red, merely whether he had an access to get through them.

She’d heard that Max knew combat driving, part of his SEAL training, but she’d had no idea what it meant until now. Though she was a pretty adventurous driver herself, she wondered if it was the better part of valor to keep her full attention on Savannah. The decision was made when he dodged a traffic snarl by roaring up an alley, narrowly missing an officer on horseback. The cop shouted, but Janet would be surprised if he got anything more than two letters of the back plate before Max screeched around the next turn.

“So…did Matt make you come with me today?”

She looked back down. Savannah had gritted out the words, though she appeared to be concentrating for all she was worth on something deep inside of her. Though she’d never been one comfortable with intimate gestures, intuition had Janet stroking the woman’s hair back, then locking her hand with hers once again, all while keeping the other hand busy pressing the compress between Savannah’s legs.

“No. You gave me the perfect opportunity to make my move with Max. I was just about to jump him in the front seat before you interrupted us.”

“Damn it, I thought it was my day to jump him. Dana shouldn’t have all the fun.” Savannah gave her a grimace that passed as a smile, then she jacked forward over Janet’s hand “Oh…”

“Hold on, honey. You make any noise that helps.”

Savannah shook her head, but the moans kept vibrating in her throat. Janet hummed the lullaby, rocking with Savannah, tiny movements that might help mitigate the pain, but not nearly enough.

“Dr. Rosen’s on the other line,” Randall barked through the speakers, because Max had kept the connection open with him. “She wants to know—”

“She’s bleeding badly, and her stomach is still hard. The pain is constant, going on six minutes now.”

Janet leaned forward to be sure Randall could hear her. The coat was getting heavier, telling Janet blood was soaking it. She could feel it trickling down her arm. When Max’s eyes coursed over her bloody blouse, his expression reflected her own reaction. “Fuck,” he muttered.

She heard garbled voices, Randall communicating with the doctor on another line, then he was back. “Max, where are you?”

Janet saw the GPS had realized what kind of driver it had. The ETA was now ten minutes out, even though for a normal driver it would be twenty. Max merged onto the interstate, the limo shooting into the middle lane. As he did, the speedometer tipped past a hundred. Janet was aware of the cars flashing by outside, but that wasn’t her concern. Everything was blood and pain, Savannah gasping.

“About eight to ten minutes,” Max responded.

“What—” Randall began.

Matt…” Savannah’s cry of agony blasted through the limo, bringing the security chief up short. Randall’s stomach had probably jumped into his throat, same as Janet’s had.

“Has Matt been called?” Janet asked sharply, squeezing Savannah’s leg. Hold on, honey…

“He was already on his way back. He left the meeting early. He’s about thirty minutes away. Don’t crash into each other in the hospital parking lot.”

“He knew… Janet…”

“Of course he did. The man’s omniscient. You know that. It’s okay. It’s okay. You just focus on breathing, and getting you and that baby there. Dr. Rosen will make it right. Matt put the best baby doctor on the Eastern seaboard up in a penthouse apartment, just for you. Remember? He’s not going to let anything happen to this child, or to you. Savannah.”

Janet sharpened her tone, bringing Savannah’s attention back to her. “He takes care of you. You’re his. He’d expect you to remember that.”

It was something they never talked about directly, but of course Janet knew that Matt Kensington was a sexual Dominant. All five of the K&A top management team were. Their wives, including Savannah, were strong, fascinating and accomplished women, and every one of them was her respective Master’s submissive soulmate. Now, in this moment, where pain threatened to take away Savannah’s strength and courage, Janet reminded her she’d surrendered herself to Matt Kensington, trusting him utterly.

Mission accomplished. Savannah’s blue eyes flickered as if Janet had thrown her a lifeline. The pregnant woman was wearing the delicate collar he’d given her, and her fingers went to it now, bloodying the rose quartz and silver. Her eyes closed against the pain, but the words she spoke were fierce.

“I won’t let him down. I won’t let either of them down.”

“He knows that. They both do. We’ve got you. You keep thinking about that, honey.”

Savannah’s eyes opened once more. Janet saw the strength of character that either impressed or scared the hell out of everyone who met Matt’s wife. “I’m going to fight, Janet, but if something happens, you tell them to save this little girl.”

“I will, but a baby needs a mother. You fight, honey. Fight like you’ve never fought before. You survived over thirty years with that brute of a father of yours. This is a piece of cake.”

“You always…know…so much. I’m glad Matt…has you.” Savannah’s head jerked back abruptly, her body contorting.

“I’m here, I’m here.” Janet clung to her. “You listen to me. I’m not taking your place, I can damn sure tell you that. Working for him’s bad enough. Doesn’t matter how much money he has or what he can do to a woman with his dick. So you better not go anywhere.”

Savannah was well beyond smiling, but Janet’s resort to the shocking language made her strangle on a chuckle. “Can’t wait…to tell…him you said that.”

“I’ll deny it. Tell him you were delirious.” Glancing up, Janet was relieved to see the hospital sign flash by. The limo skidded to a halt at the emergency entrance. Underlining how serious the situation was, Dr. Rosen was already waiting with a gurney and a small army of medical personnel.

Before Max had brought the limo to a full halt, the ob-gyn surgeon had her hand on the door handle. Janet backed up, squeezing Savannah’s hand with one last reassurance before the medical staff swarmed into the limo like ants. She found the door behind her open, Max helping her out of the way, his hand on her elbow. He had his eyes fastened on what they were doing, the shocking pool of blood on the seat and floor.

Seeing it herself, her knees started to wobble. No, she couldn’t do that. She had to listen to what they were saying, do what needed to be done, be ready to tell Matt everything he needed to know when he arrived. There would be paperwork to handle inside, because there always was. Most important, she needed to stay as close to Savannah as she could, as long as they would let her.

“Go with her,” Max said, reading her mind as the medical team got Savannah out of the limo. “I’ll park and come find you. I’ll take care of everything. Go.”

She nodded, following the gurney and Dr. Rosen. His sudden absence felt like an amputation, as if what had happened in the limo had fused them together. Savannah was whisked away, the staff headed for the surgical wing. It left Janet swaying in front of the ER admitting desk. The stout, silver-haired nurse she faced looked like she regularly handled the worst that NOLA could deliver. Now she gave Janet a once-over. “Let’s get the basics, then we’ll get you some scrubs and a sink.”

Janet glanced down. Things had gone far beyond that initial smear to her blouse. She was soaked in Savannah’s blood. On her clothes, her hands and arms. It was probably even smeared on her face. Oh God, if Matt…

Janet.

She closed her eyes. Damn the man’s timing. Giving the nurse a look she hoped conveyed the possible need for a second gurney, she turned to face Matt as he came through the emergency doors. Had he conjured a winged horse to get here right on Max’s heels? It wouldn’t surprise her if he had. Matt Kensington’s abilities exceeded that of a mortal man’s. Most of the time.

His piercing gaze took in her appearance. In the next moment, Matt Kensington turned pale as a ghost, his face gripped with an anguish and fear that tore her heart from its framework.

Once, a long time ago, Matt Kensington had stood between Janet and the loss of her soul. She’d do everything she could to return the favor now. Fight like a tiger, honey. Fight for him, because he needs you so much more than you realize. And we all need him.

Or maybe Savannah did realize it. The way she’d looked at Janet, her gaze practically boring into her. I’m glad Matt has you.

Closing the distance between them, she put her hands on Matt’s forearms, despite the blood she transferred to his white shirt. He’d shed his jacket and tie in the car. In that uncertain moment before she spoke, when he didn’t yet know what had happened, she thought she might be holding him up.

“They took her to surgery. The uterus wall detached, Matt. They have to operate now to save her and the baby.”

* * *

In certain situations, time really had no meaning. It was simply one task after another, lined up to keep the cold knot of fear at bay, the knowledge that everything might be brought to a screeching halt by a doctor’s somber face, the resigned gaze. By the time she and Matt were in the surgery waiting room, Max had joined them. With barely a glance, Max understood what she needed. He sat down with Matt, beginning to relay additional details in that direct way that helped her usually unflappable boss. Information. Men always thought it could help solve things, change them.

Max had pressed her cell phone into her hand, along with her hands-free earpiece. When he did, he’d tightened his fingers on her briefly. She kept him and Matt in her sight but out of hearing range as she started her list of calls. Matt hadn’t given her any guidance, but then he rarely had to do so for any situation. She wouldn’t be seeking any for this one. Now that the initial shock was wearing off, he was practically vibrating with suppressed fury and frustration. Savannah and his child were behind a closed door somewhere, going through an indescribable trauma, yet he couldn’t help them, couldn’t be at their side.

Her first call was the most important, yet the one she hoped would be least necessary. “Yes, may I speak to Reverend Dana? Thanks… Dana, this is Janet. Savannah’s in surgery. Something went wrong.” When her voice quavered, she stopped herself, forced it to calm before continuing. “You need to come right away. Matt may need you. I’ll have Randall send a car. Call Jon and have him come straight to the hospital as well.”

Dana would call all of them, all four of Matt’s executive team and their wives, not just Jon. However, if the worst happened, Dana and Jon were the ones Matt would need most. The worst simply couldn’t happen, however. Janet refused to accept that. She thought of Savannah’s jaw firming, the determination in the pain-racked features. She would fight. No matter her pain, no matter her exhaustion, angels would have to drag Savannah Kensington’s soul screaming from that room to take her away from the child and husband she loved so much.

“Ma’am?” She turned to see an orderly, a gentle black giant with the brown eyes of a deer, standing by her. He held a set of scrubs and a pair of disposable booties. It was the first time she realized she was walking around in her stockings.

“You look like a size small to me,” he said kindly, indicating the scrubs, “but I brought a medium as well, just in case.”

He directed her to the bathroom, fortunately placed right across from the waiting room. Max acknowledged her gesture, letting him know where she’d be, then she disappeared behind the wooden door.

She knew it was a mistake, but after she closed the door, she turned and looked at herself in the mirror. With the next breath, she was somewhere else entirely.

Another bathroom, very different from this sterile environment. There’d been a gilt-edged mirror, gold fixtures, a marble floor and countertops, but blood didn’t care about such things. She’d had it in her hair but hadn’t remembered when it had gotten there. It had also splattered across her face. She remembered that. That was what happened when you hit an artery. She’d stood in the bathroom, holding the knife and meat cleaver in her hands. For endless moments, she’d simply stared at them. The rage that had kept her going, made her incapable of stopping, was draining from her like blood itself. Her legs ached, an incomprehensible irony…and vindication.

No. Stop it. That’s over and done. No time for that shit right now.

“Janet.”

She came back to the present like she’d been shot, with a jerk and wide, staring eyes. Max was standing right behind her. She hadn’t locked the bathroom door. She’d pulled off the shirt, was standing there in her lace bra and her skirt, her stockings. The blood had soaked through the thin blouse, so she had a stain on one of the bra cups. Fortunately, he’d closed the door behind them so passersby couldn’t see her. Or Matt.

“Matt…”

“Lucas just got here. He’s with him. Apparently the meeting finished earlier than expected. They’re all headed back into New Orleans now.”

She was still gripping the sink, and the blood had created pale pink rivulets on the white tile. “Okay. All right.”

Picking up one of the washcloths the orderly had given her with the scrubs, Max ran it under a stream of warm water. He gave her a look, making sure she was okay with it, then rubbed the cloth over her shoulders, down her sternum, over the tops of her breasts, her upper abdomen. He took away the blood, left warm, clean dampness behind. Balling up the blouse, he jammed it in the biohazard can, no question that she could ever wear it again. She had her hair in a twist on her head, but some pieces had come down. He moved them out of his way to run the cloth over her neck. Then he rinsed out the cloth, picked up a clean one and did it all over again, covering the same terrain.

She stared at his face throughout. No thoughts in her head, though she should be thinking of a hundred details. His face wasn’t expressionless, not exactly. It was like staring at one of those old concrete statues tucked in the corner of a garden. Something that had been there forever, seen everything come and go, and still it stood, just as strong. “You did good,” she managed.

“So did you. You could be a combat nurse.” Those steady gray eyes held hers in a lock as intimate as a physical embrace. “You with me now?”

She nodded. He picked up the scrub top, offered it to her. If she didn’t pull it together, he’d probably help her take off the skirt, dress her in the drawstring pants like a child. She cleared her throat, resisting the urge to let him do just that. “I’m okay. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

“All right.” But before he turned away, he did something remarkable. He put his arms around her. Despite her surprised stiffness, he closed the step between them to hold her close. The contact with his body sent a current through her, waking up frozen nerve endings. As he cupped the back of her head in one large palm, his heat and strength surrounded her. She once again remembered the way he’d navigated through that traffic, never showing panic or lack of control. Neither had she. He was right. They’d both done damn good.

“Sometimes, after something like that, human touch helps ground you, brings back your focus.” He spoke against her hair.

It did. “It does,” she said into his chest. “Thank you, Max.”

* * *

As she expected, all four of his team came, with their wives or significant others. She leaned against the wall, watching the way they formed a protective circle around Matt, supporting him. All of them waiting.

Jon Forte sat in a chair at Matt’s back, a deliberate choice, Janet was sure. Though in business Jon was Matt’s engineering genius, with a secondary but no less significant talent for finance, that wasn’t the reason she’d felt it was as imperative for him to be here as Dana. The other men, more traditional Southern males, routinely teased Jon for his philosophical studies of ancient texts and the advanced yoga practice that gave his leanly muscled form a tensile strength, but their respect for his sincere and solid spiritual core was obvious in difficult situations like this.

Rachel, Jon’s wife, had just brought another round of coffee from the cafeteria. After she distributed it, she took a seat next to Jon, her hazel eyes serious. Because Rachel’s blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, Janet clearly saw the strain in her face they were all feeling. There were so many connections in this room…that had to mean something, didn’t it? A sense that things happened for a reason, that truly bad things couldn’t happen when bonds were this strong and fated?

For instance… Rachel was a physical therapist, but it was her second job, that of yoga instructor, that had brought her across Jon’s path. When he learned about the PT, that had connected her to Dana. Dana was an Army veteran who’d needed Rachel’s skills. Peter Winston, Matt’s operations manager and a former National Guard captain who’d served two tours in the Middle East, was her husband. He’d retired to care for Dana when she came back from Iraq so severely injured she lost her sight and most of her hearing. Fortunately, cochlear implant surgery had helped her regain much of the latter.

Janet shifted her gaze to Peter, his powerful body squeezed into a chair next to Dana. Since Max was Dana’s primary driver, the men often teased the big man about how similar he was to Max in build and coloring, with his storm-gray eyes and dark-blond hair. Nobody was teasing anyone right now, however.

Thinking about the men’s similarities, she turned her head to locate Max. He was standing at the corner of the waiting room, ready to help. He met her gaze briefly as she turned, then Janet’s attention was pulled to more pressing matters.

“Fuck this.” Matt surged up from the seat and moved toward the hallway. “I’m going to her.”

Peter was already in motion, but it was Lucas who was closest and intercepted him, shifting a step ahead of Matt.

“You can’t, man. You know that. She’s in surgery.”

“She needs me. They need me.” But the emotions beneath the rage said the words Matt was too much of a traditional, stoic male to say. I need them.

“I know that. But you don’t want to distract them from what they’re doing. They’re doing everything they can for her, and you don’t want them to spare a single second from that, right?”

Lucas, the voice of calm reason, Matt’s CFO and best friend since college. As an amateur cyclist who regular biked to work, the gray-eyed, sandy-haired, athletic male took his share of ribbing over stretchy shorts and compressed testicles, but his success in the sport reflected the focus and calm thinking he exercised now. He knew Matt so well…they all knew one another so well. The bonds they’d formed, through laughter and tears, were unbreakable. Janet’s fervent hope was the former, or something in a similar positive vein, would prevail by the end of this day.

She saw Cassandra, Lucas’ wife, link hands with Rachel. The way their fingers tightly intertwined reflected the anguish they felt for Matt, the worry for Savannah. They were all so used to Matt being in total command of himself and everything around him, the undercurrent of agony in his voice twisted something in all of them. Including Janet.

Ben joined Lucas now, on the opposite side of Matt, a subtly strategic move in case he bolted anyway, but Janet could tell her boss knew Lucas was right. He was simply a man of action. The waiting was killing him. And Ben knew it.

“Tell you what. Let Marcie go stake out the emergency room and see if she can get somebody going in and out to tell her anything. Best if you stay here, though, in case someone from admin needs anything from you, or if the doctor slips out a different door and she misses her.”

Ben was legal muscle for K&A. With his devilish good looks—green eyes, dark hair and silver tongue—he was quite capable of convincing anyone of anything, but Janet understood why he was sending Marcie. Marcie, Cass’ younger sister, worked in corporate investigations for Savannah’s company, and no one was better at convincing people to inadvertently give up confidential information. And the attractive blonde with chocolate-brown eyes was only twenty-three, with a fresh-faced beauty and deceptive innocence that only enhanced that ability.

When Matt gave a grudging nod, rubbing a hand over his face, Ben glanced toward Marcie. No words needed to be exchanged for her to understand her task, and not just because she was just that intuitive. She and Ben had been an item for less than a couple months, but with such a bonded intensity that they all expected an engagement announcement any day now. She disappeared down the hallway.

Connections, bonds, fate. Janet repeated the thought to herself. The five men had supported one another through loss and gain, as well as when each man found the woman of his dreams. Those shared experiences, as well as the traits they had in common, like sexual Dominance, had made their relationship far beyond that of simple friendship. It was an unconditional brotherhood. As Janet looked around at the women, seeing faces that reflected a fear of the worst but also a complete commitment to support Matt and their men, whatever the outcome, she knew the women had become part of that inner circle as well.

She thought of Savannah, the grip of her hands, the fear in her eyes. Whatever happened, Matt would have these people. His link to them would help him survive. But Janet knew what kind of road that was, and she wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

* * *

Marcie returned with a report that Savannah was holding her own, but that the outcome for mother or child was still in the balance. Janet could tell Marcie wished she had better news, but she delivered it with painful honesty, knowing Matt wouldn’t settle for anything less.

He nodded, taking a silent seat in his chair once again, staring straight ahead. Ben touched Marcie’s face, gave her a reassuring nod and the girl returned to Dana’s side. The vigil resumed.

In some ways, Janet knew the news made things worse for Matt, but now he’d lapsed into a raptor-like stillness, staring at something beyond all of them. Just waiting. For the next hour, less than a dozen words were exchanged.

Finally, Dr. Rosen arrived in the waiting room.

She looked exhausted. Yet when Matt pushed up from his seat and faced her with the fixed expression of a man locked in stone, she gripped his hands and told him the thing he most needed to hear. “They’re both fine.”

Lucas put his hand on Matt’s shoulder as a hard shudder ran through the man’s large body, the stone cracking. The doctor proceeded to explain Matt had a healthy, six-pound baby girl, and that his wife, when she woke from her surgery, would want to see him first thing.

But Janet had been right. This would be their only birth child. They had to remove Savannah’s uterus, a full hysterectomy, but otherwise she was going to make a complete recovery. Amid the tears and congratulations, Dr. Rosen added, “Whoever your driver is, Mr. Kensington, he saved your daughter’s life, and very likely your wife’s. Ten minutes later, and we’d have lost both of them.”

Janet turned toward the entrance to the waiting room. Max had remained at that far wall like a soldier on watch duty, prepared for anything, but now he was gone. When she peered around the corner, she saw him striding down the hall toward the elevators. Mission accomplished, right? Though in a far less intense context, it was the same when she planned a major event for K&A. She didn’t usually stay for the event itself, only long enough to confirm she’d exceeded every expectation Matt had for it. For people like her and Max, having accomplished their mission was the victory. They didn’t need to stand around for the parade.

However, when Max reached the stairs, he stopped and looked back, as if knowing she was standing there. A muscle flexed in his jaw, and he lifted a hand, acknowledging her. Then the fingers curled and his face changed. The flash of regret told her he’d hoped to escape when he had the chance. A blink later, Matt touched her shoulder, passing her to move down the hall toward his employee.

She didn’t hear what her boss said to Max, because his voice was low, and got lower. She saw him gesturing, then Matt’s hands fell to his sides, conveying a helpless inability to express what was beyond words. Max’s expression transformed, reflecting the empathy a strong man felt when another strong man faltered. He stepped forward, putting his arms around Matt’s broad shoulders. It was a good thing they were a like height.

Janet had to slide down the wall, her eyes filling with tears. Her legs simply gave way at the unlikely sight of Matt Kensington, the most indomitable man she knew, weeping. Max’s face had that aged granite look as he held Matt. But his gray eyes shifted, locked with hers. Throughout the next few memorable moments, he didn’t look away.

Neither did she.