As the final piano notes of the live televised concert faded into the stale air of the cheap motel, he turned off the TV and swung himself off the bed and into his wheelchair.
“Is everything ready?”
“Yes, but sir, we really think you should let us do this by ourselves.” The security operative made a half-hearted gesture towards the wheelchair.
“She was kidnapped once, and you think she’d happily jump into a van with a stranger?”
“Sir, it would only be for a little while...”
“Goddammit, you have no idea what it’s like. I have no idea what it’s like. But I will never, ever, do anything to cause her a moment of distress again, do you understand!?” He hadn’t meant to shout. He was very grateful to these people. Without their protection, he would have been a sitting duck in that hospital, unconscious and on a ventilator at first, and then so weak he needed help to piss for months.
His old bosses didn’t know he was still alive, and his closest friend had only found out a month ago. His secret was entrusted to a very private group of people who specialized in hiding people long-term. He was getting stronger, but he might never get out of this chair, and that left him vulnerable. He might have to stay hidden for the rest of his life.
Was it right to make contact with her and make her vulnerable, too? He’d asked himself this question a thousand times over the last month. There were a lot of bad guys out there who were still upset over what had happened.
But she was the best thing that had ever entered his life. He had to try. He’d planned the details down to the very smallest move. No one would know she was gone until she’d had time to think about his offer, and if she said no, he’d make sure she was returned to her life before anyone around her noticed.
Maybe this was selfish. Hell, it was definitely selfish.
“Let’s go.” He powered the wheelchair out of the motel room doorway and over to the van. The lift was waiting, and a moment later his chair was secured inside. The security team settled in, and they were on their way. They had to time their arrival precisely.
He chewed on his finger, a habit from childhood that had come back in the last few weeks, ever since he’d dared to hope he might see her again.
The theater was just two minutes down the road. As they pulled up to the stage door, a man nodded at them and disappeared inside. They sat in nervous silence.
The door opened, and a voice he’d worried he’d never hear again drifted through the windows of the SUV.
“Dan? Why are you back here? When you weren't at the concert I was worried you'd gotten another threat. Is Laura okay?”
“Laura is fine. There’s a fan who really wants to meet you.”
“Please, there’s just too many emotions after these concerts. I need to go home.”
“Dan…” She stepped outside, squinting in the bright light that hung over the door. In the last year, she’d lost the gaunt and tired appearance from her captivity, and her lush curves had filled out. Her skin was lightly tanned. Her curly red hair was much longer than before. Loosely braided and hanging over one shoulder, it shone like a vivid sunset under the stage door light. He’d never seen a more beautiful sight, and his heart was full for the first time in a year.
“Open the door,” he instructed the operative up front. The van door rolled open.
“Claire,” he called, softly.
She peered into the dark van and her brown eyes flew open in shock. She went pale and her knees buckled. Dan threw an arm around her waist.
“Josh?” she whispered.
He held out his hand. “I have a lot to tell you. A lot to explain. Will you come and talk with me? Just for a little while. Then you can leave again, if you want.”
Emotions flitted across her face—astonishment, fear, anger, and so much hurt—and he knew he deserved every one of them, and worse, for leaving her alone for so long.
But still he held out his hand, hoping against hope. And finally, when he thought his heart would burst from the waiting, she nodded. She placed her hand in his, and he held it tight as she climbed into the van.