Defiance and Dedication
Book 9 in the Untouchable Series
This series must be read in chronological order, to avoid spoilers
Autumn in New York promises a turn in the seasons as we kick off the next stage of our lives. Colorful leaves falling, dropping temperatures, and the first days of classes loom even as the lingering summer heat and humidity make the city stifling.
Summer was a time to get away, to just be us, and what a magical time it was, but we can only run away from our lives for so long. We have family, careers, friends—new and old—as well as commitments waiting for us. With a new place to call our own in a new city I’m already half-in-love with, we’re not afraid of the challenges ahead.
Of course, not everyone is rooting for us, not everyone wants us to succeed, and some choices may come back to haunt us. But don’t come for those I love and expect me to do nothing. They might want to surround me in a layer of protection, but they’re mine and I’m more than willing to fight to keep them.
Feel free to test me, I’ve never failed one yet.
Defiance and Dedication
Book 9 in the Untouchable Series
Defiance and Dedication
My head hurt. It really, really hurt. The smell of antiseptic burned my nostrils. Worse, the beeping of machines seemed to add to the dull thud hammering inside my skull. I debated rolling over but my stomach revolted, so I stayed put. I had zero interest in puking.
The air was cold and warm. Weird. It took a minute for the fact my eyes were closed to even register. Where did I get this damn headache? Ugh, I started to stretch out a hand. There was always someone curled up nearby, maybe they could grab me some aspirin, but I didn’t find anyone.
Suppressing a groan of frustration, I peeled my eyes open. The door knocker banging away in my brain got considerably heavier and louder. The smell of antiseptic seemed to increase and I swore I could taste it in the back of my throat.
I hated hospitals.
I hadn’t been a fan of them before Homecoming, and after… a shudder raced through me. Waking up there, groggy and out of it, all of that helplessness and shock bled from fresh wounds. I squeezed my eyes shut. Maybe if I refused it, pushed past, it would go away.
I’d survived Mitch. That was in the past. The guys and I… oh the guys. I frowned and forced my eyes open again. Why was I in the hospital? I tried to reach for the reason, but the fog in my brain swept the information away. Like it was right there on the tip of my tongue. The IV in the back of my hand stung when I gripped the rail.
The cold metal grounded me and I licked my dry lips. Too dry. Even my throat hurt. It took me a minute to focus my eyes. I was in a room. That was something. The beeping machines were really annoying. Didn’t they turn those off? At least the sound? Also, why was…
A grunt of sound in the corner and I turned my head. A smile stretched my sore mouth and I ignored the headache. Coop. He was sprawled back in the chair like someone had dropped him in it bonelessly.
It was one of those that would stretch out for sleep. He kind of hung off the end with one of his legs straight out and the other bent, the foot on the floor like he was ready to go somewhere. He looked—great, if tired.
“Coop.” Oh my voice came out a solid croak and I coughed. I glanced around, but there wasn’t even a cup within reach. “Coop…”
At my second call, his eyes fluttered open, and his head lifted a fraction from the fist he’d braced it on. Those gray-green eyes I loved so much were as unfocused as I felt. I probably shouldn’t laugh at him, not when there was an indentation mark on his face from his own knuckles. I definitely shouldn’t laugh when he frowned so fiercely the sleepiness fled from his expression.
If I thought I was croaky, I had nothing on him. His normally deep voice seemed rougher and far more raw. There was an ache in the word that made me want to fumble off the bed and pull him in for a hug. I had cables and wires and tubes sticking out of me for some reason.
Even a quick sweep around me didn’t reveal any quick way to ditch them and climb out of the bed. I had to settle for thrusting out my free hand, the one without the IV sticking in the back of it. Coop shot to his feet and his hand clasped mine in a grip so tight, it actually hurt.
“Hey,” I whispered as I tugged him closer. It took no effort on my part at all, I went from holding his hand to enveloped in his hug.
“Holy shit,” he whispered. “You’re really here.”
“Of course, I’m here.” Yeah, I was a few marbles loose at the moment, I swore the fog was eating away at my thoughts. The damn marching band playing in my head didn’t help either.
My eyes drifted closed though as he buried his face in my hair. The scent of him filled my lungs. Coffee. Chocolate. Coop. All together it was home. He was home.
We sat like that forever. His hand trembled as he stroked my hair. It was that single thing that kept me from demanding what was going on. Well, that and the softness of his shirt, the warmth of his hug, and the smell of coffee tickling my nose. I probably shouldn’t push it, considering I’d wanted to throw up just a few minutes ago. Still, I might legit kill for coffee.
His shoulders shook, this time with laughter, and he finally loosened his grip to lean back. Letting go of my hand, he dropped the rail so he could sit on the edge and then he gathered my hand back in his.
I met his gaze and looked at him. Really looked.
“What’s wrong?” Before he could call me on the stupidity of that question, I gave a small shake of my head. Small, because the first shake just increased the slam of the drumbeat against my temples. A droplet hit my lap and I glanced down. Runny noses were—oh, I was bleeding.
Coop pressed a cloth gently to my nose. “Easy,” he murmured. “We got this.”
It was sweet but.. “Coop, what happened?”
“What’s the last thing you remember?” The guarded tone and the careful expression set off warning bells. The cacophony joined the rest of the rock band that had taken over for the marching one to hammer away at my brain.
“Um…” I frowned, focusing on him as I tried to get my thoughts sorted. The foggy feeling hadn’t gone away, if anything, it intensified. “I… what is the last thing I remember?”
The corners of his mouth quirked a bit higher. “I asked first.”
“Ha ha.” I would have smacked his chest, but he still had hold of one of my hands and the other had the IV in it. Each time I flexed my fingers, it hurt. Why did I not notice it and then when did it begin to throb?
Right. Last thing I remembered. I snapped my focus back up to him and frowned. “We—we drove out to see my grandparents.” That filtered through the fog, a single piece of information like it got lost and wandered out on its own. “Right, we went to the Hamptons.”
It was like putting together the pieces of a clear puzzle where the colors and images only filled in as I snapped the disparate sections together. The more I thought about it all, the more it hurt.
“We were spending the weekend out there.” An image of that first night after we’d arrived when Patience asked us to get dressed flitted across my mind like an exotic bird bursting out of the mist. It really did fall into the category of one of these things was not like the other. “We had to get dressed up for dinner, so strange. They change clothes three times a day and that’s only cause they’re on vacation. In the city or in more formal settings it might be five times.”
Insane. Absolutely insane. Archie’s amusement at my quiet rant about it while I looked in the closet of dresses they just happened to have on hand since I hadn’t packed anything remotely this fancy had been the only thing keeping me from actually getting mad.
“It was absurd. Like a theatre of it. Why did we have to get into fancy clothes to eat dinner at home? I thought at first we were going out, but nope…just dinner in a formal dining room. Archie was in a nice tux and so was his grandfather. So was mine.”
I shook my head again. The dull thump had quieted some. Coop’s small smile had a kind of sad glimmer to it, but he didn’t interrupt me.
“Anyway, it was just weird. But I refused to change for lunch the following day and my grandfather harrumphed his way through the meal.” Then he did something really sweet. He hadn’t changed for lunch the following day and when Patience glared at both of us, he just lifted his glass to me. It was probably the most warmth we’d ever shared.
Grandpa Ted could get him to smile. The two of them could ramble on for hours about various subjects. But whenever I offered something, Ted would respond and my grandfather would frown into his glass. It stung, more than a little. Patience begged me to—well, have more patience and what stunned me more was that Archie said the same thing that first night.
Coop’s frown deepened as I relayed that. “Maybe they both saw something I didn’t, but at lunch on Sunday, when he didn’t change and instead just sat at the table with me. It was like—we finally had something in common we could share.” Not that we were going to be holding hands and sharing life stories, but some of the chasm between us closed. A little.
I’d take it.
More, the look on Patience’s face had been its own reward and Archie…
“What next?” Coop asked, prompting me as though I’d gone quiet. Maybe I had.
“Um,” I said as I searched my memory. The moment he asked, the fog rolled in and swarmed the thoughts until it was just me, alone and drifting. “I don’t know, Coop. My head hurts. My mouth is dry…I swear every muscle in my body is sore. What’s going on?”
He scrubbed a hand over his face. Interlocking our fingers, he gave my hand a squeeze and I gripped him tighter. For as long as I could remember, when something bad happened, he held my hand. Good things, too, but it was when I needed steadiness, he shared it with me.
Fear crawled through me. “Coop?”
“No easy way to say this,” he began, then paused for a breath. The tension ratcheting up my spine pulled taut. Finally, he continued, “You’re in the hospital.”
I glared at him. “No shit.” Only the fact the faint movement of his lips could barely be called a smile kept me from pushing it. “Talk to me,” I begged him. Because the playfulness had long since drained out of the moment. “What happened?” I had to bite off the question of why was I here? If he were going to supply that easily, he would have already.
“It’s been a few months,” he admitted and my stomach bottomed out even as cold raced over my skin. Goosebumps prickled my flesh. I dug my nails into his hand, waiting for the punchline. “We’ve been here every damn day. At least one of us, often all of us.”
“That isn’t funny,” I whispered, and his expression turned so tragic tears spilled out of my eyes.
“I’m not joking, Beautiful,” he whispered in a voice that held so much apology, I swore my heart cracked. “It’s been months. We’ve been waiting and waiting for you to wake up.”
Indecision rippled across his expression. “The doctors warned us…”
I exhaled slowly. “Cooper.” I never called him by his full name. He winced. “Just tell me. Because right now, you’re scaring the hell out of me.”
“You’ve been here for months.” Here. As in the hospital? Before I could ask though, he added, “Unconscious for months.”
Disbelief flashed through me like a summer storm, fierce and loud. Even my headache seemed to take a backseat to the horror unfolding within me. “What do you mean months?”
“Exactly what I said, Beautiful.” He cupped my cheek and the absolute candor in his eyes coupled with a complete absence of humor threatened to crush me. How could I have been in a hospital for months? “There was an accident…”
The scream of metal sheering and the explosive crash as glass gave way. Horns. Shouting. Maybe me and—
“…and all we’ve been able to do is wait for you to wake up.” I missed some of what he said and at the same time, the disjointed thoughts pushed at the fog.
Wrenching the wheel.
I licked at my lips again. I needed water. I needed… “Can you get me water?” I whispered.
“Of course,” he said and gave my hand a squeeze before he stood. I lifted my hand to touch my forehead. The bleeding from my nose had stopped at some point. The taste of it was still in my mouth. It didn’t help with how dry my mouth was on top of it.
I’d been in the hospital for months.
I fell back against the pillows.
But what about school? What about my grandparents? What about…?
“Yeah, I don’t want to hear that,” Jake shouted from somewhere beyond the room. He had to be pretty upset if he was that loud. “Find someone who knows.”
My heart sped up. “Coop…”
“Yeah?” he glanced at me from the little bathroom where he was filling the pitcher with water.
Orange metal buckling.
The blast of an eighteen-wheeler’s horn.
We’d gone to my grandparents together. The accident.
Coop glanced away as he shut off the water.
“I mean it,” Jake yelled and I glanced at the closed door. Who was he yelling at? Coop didn’t seem concerned. So maybe this was normal behavior? But still…I kept waiting for the door to open.
“Did you tell them I’m awake?” I asked and Coop shot me a guilty smile.
“I should have, but I was kind of caught up in the fact you were talking to me again. The silent treatment doesn’t work for us, you gotta promise to never do that again.”
Guilt swarmed me. “I promise it wasn’t on purpose.”
“I know, Sweetheart,” he said with the saddest smile. “But I’m boring as fuck on my own and you didn’t laugh at a single joke and I swear, I was going for my best material.”
A weak laugh escaped me, but his eyes didn’t brighten at all. If anything, I swore he looked sadder.
“Coop, you’re scaring me.”
He crossed back to me and held out the ugly little peach, plastic cup. “I don’t mean to scare you, Babe.”
Babe? “Where’s Archie?” At his distressed look and glance toward the door, I focused on it, too. Were they all three going to walk inside? Jake’s voice climbed, his tone agitated but I couldn’t quite make out the words. Whatever answer someone gave him, he was not happy about it. I half-expected Coop to go and see what was wrong but he didn’t move.
I’d been in the Ferrari. On the way back from the Hamptons.
Flashes exploded out of the fog. Zooming past cars as the Ferrari raced faster and faster. Zipping around big rigs. Keeping an eye on the odometer…where was a cop when…
The crash of metal and the screaming—me screaming—as the vehicle flipped ripped through me. For the longest moment, I hung there, suspended by my seat belt and I couldn’t breathe.
Where was Archie?