He wanted to hate her. He just might fall in love instead.
Zane McCord might not say it often, but he loves his brothers no matter what, even when he's acting like a jerk, and he knows it. When his brother Jimmy dies with tension hanging between them, he turns all his hatred to the woman who deserves it—Ava Rainer, the one responsible for his death. He refuses to like her. He won't help her. He wants her nowhere near him. Except she's suddenly on his farm and sneaking her way into his heart with her own pain. The guilt is eating him alive, but maybe...just maybe...they can heal together.
The entire McCord Family Novel series: (Each book can be read as a standalone.)
Protecting You (Book 1): Zane & Ava
Trust in Love (Book 2): Austin & Sophie
Deserving You (Book 3): Emmett & Deja
Always Kind of Love (Book 4): Ethan & Penelope
Release date: April 10, 2015
Publisher: Amanda Siegrist
Print pages: 276
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Ava sat at her desk, going over reports from the day before. Case files upon case files filtered onto her desk daily. Being one of the supervisors for the crime lab in New York City wasn’t easy, yet, she wouldn’t trade it for the world. She loved her job—the tedious paperwork, the grueling crime scenes, the occasional coworkers who were ungrateful and spiteful, or the victims who cried for closure for the loss of a loved one. The joy she experienced from finding evidence to arresting a suspect was worth it. Then bringing it into the lab and dissecting everything to its core.
Nothing could compare.
But some days, her mind could wander into territory that should be left at home.
“Ava? You okay?”
Ava blinked in surprise as Jimmy waved a hand in front of her face. “Yeah, of course. This triple homicide down in the West Village area…. I was thinking I need to go back and maybe make another sweep. I have nothing for evidence, and it’s driving me insane. Maybe I missed something.”
“You never miss anything.” Jimmy sat down across from her. “You looked a million miles away. Everything okay?”
Ava smiled. “Everything’s fine.” Jimmy raised a brow in skepticism. She sighed in defeat because she could never hide anything from Jimmy—not that she ever tried. Honesty was always the best policy in her book.
“Spill it,” Jimmy said with a tender smile mingled with concern.
“I was thinking about you and Zane. Have you called him today?” She leaned forward as she asked the same question she asked every day for the past six months since she last saw Zane burst into her office.
Every time she asked, Jimmy’s face shut down. He hated talking about it.
“I don’t intend to until he apologizes for whatever he said to you. Something that I would appreciate knowing, but you refuse to tell me,” Jimmy said as his lips formed a tight line. “The way he came barging in here was uncalled for. He needs to respect you—and me, for that matter. I just want him to be happy for me. Proud of me.”
“It doesn’t matter what he said. Someone needs to be the bigger person and call. It should be you. You always called him until that day, no matter what he said. I feel like it’s my fault, and I hate that. Just call him. I would if I knew he’d stay on the line with me,” Ava said with a wry smile.
“My answer stands firm. He can call first.” Jimmy ran a hand through his hair, sighing. “It isn’t your fault. Don’t feel guilty. I love my brother no matter what, and it’ll all work out in the end.”
She smiled wide at the one thing he always said about his brother no matter how pig-headed he could be. It amazed her how Jimmy—before the big argument—could still call home, even knowing that Zane would probably ignore everything he said and demand he comes home. The attitude never changed.
“Call him, please.”
Another sigh echoed between them as she gave him her usual look of disapproval in the matter. “You know, you’re just as stubborn as him. I even think he uses that same look on his face that you have now.”
“I can’t imagine your brother and I have anything in common,” Ava said, laughing lightly.
Jimmy shook his head and started to get a small twinkle in his eye. “No, I’d have to disagree. You’re both stubborn. You’re both loud and outspoken. You both state your opinions without thinking. You’re both willing to stop what you’re doing at the drop of a hat if someone needs your help. Maybe you have a funny way of showing it sometimes with that hard exterior, but you both care deeply for family and friends. I’d say you have a lot in common. You’d make a good couple. He’d be perfect for you.”
“Are you nuts? Me, dating your brother? Are you feeling well today? A fever, maybe.” Ava tried to lean across her desk and feel his forehead.
Jimmy moved his head away, laughing. “You both have your hearts in the right place for me. It’s too bad they can’t connect the way they should.”
“Jimmy, get outta here if you keep talking like this. Your brother hates me, and I can’t say I like the man either. However, I will not go as far as hate because he is your brother.”
“You know, I was thinking of going home for Memorial weekend. You should come home with me. Have you ever been to Minnesota? A farm?” Jimmy asked, the excitement lighting up his face, replacing the sadness with ease.
“The answer’s no on everything. I will not come within ten feet of your brother, and that’s final.” Ava sighed. “I do like the idea of you going home, though. It’ll be good to make amends. It’s time. For someone who’s extremely close with his family, this must tear you up, not speaking to him.”
Jimmy cleared his throat and shifted his legs a little. “Of course, it does. But like I said before, I love him no matter what. Austin keeps me updated. We’ll work it out. You’re right, probably on Memorial weekend. It’ll be good to see his ugly face.” A wide smile spread. “Unless you think he’s handsome?”
Ava laughed. “Not that again. He holds no candle to your beautiful face.”
Jimmy chuckled along with her. “I just stopped by to see if you’re joining us tonight for drinks at O’Hares. Mahone’s birthday and all. I know you two don’t always see eye to eye, but just wondering.”
“Of course I’ll be there. And you know I’ll bug you again tomorrow like I always do. So, just call him.” Then she pointed a stern finger in his direction. “No more talk like we had today about him. That will never happen in a million years. You know I don’t date much anyway.”
“Stop working so much, and you’d have time to date more. Live a little, Ava.” Jimmy stood up with a smile. “And never say never. I like our conversations. I can always count on you to say it straight. My answer will stay the same unless he calls—which I would let you know.”
“Did you come all the way down to my office to ask if I was going to Mahone’s birthday party? You know I’d never miss that. He’d never let me live it down. What’s on your mind?” Her eyebrow rose in anticipation.
Just like she couldn’t lie to him or hold anything back, he usually couldn’t either.
“I was wondering if you knew if Tiffany will be there tonight.”
Ava couldn’t hide the grin as his cheeks turned red. “Yes, she’ll be there. I talked to her earlier. Are you finally going to ask her out? Because I think it’s time.”
“Are you kidding me? I can’t ask her out. She would say no. I was just hoping to see her beautiful face and ponder the thought of asking her out. I’ll never actually do it, though.”
“Jimmy, you’re nuts. She would love to go out with you. Trust me. Just do it.” Ava chuckled. “I should’ve known you would come here asking about her. She never made it to the last gathering we had, and you were so bummed. Why do you torture yourself?”
“I don’t know. I’ve built up some confidence, but I have a while to go before I ask the woman of my dreams out.” Jimmy shook his head at Ava’s smirk. “Stop. Forget I asked.”
“Never say never, Jimmy. I’ll just load you with a few drinks tonight and get you alone at a table with her. It’s time, Jimmy. You’ve wondered from afar way too long. Tonight’s the night,” Ava said with complete certainty. “If you don’t, I will for you. How embarrassing would that be?”
“Don’t you dare, Ava.”
“Hey, what’s an honorary sister if I don’t act like one,” Ava said jokingly. “I’m an only child. This is the only time I can act like a sibling.”
“We’ll continue this conversation tonight. You’re not saying anything to her. I think I’d rather you bother me about my brother.”
“Ooo, you really like her more than I thought. Here I thought you hated when I bring up your big brother Zane.” Ava laughed as Jimmy walked out, waving goodbye, refusing to hear anymore.
Ava still felt bad, but deep down, she was proud of Jimmy for standing his ground. He was finally showing his brother that his feelings mattered.
One problem at a time. The brother issue would take patience and time. Asking Tiffany on a date, not so much. She already had a wonderful plan in mind to help Jimmy. She couldn’t wait. He deserved to be happy.
He wasn’t hard to look at either. Soft brown hair with small bangs that swooped to the left. A gorgeous smile and beautiful baby blue eyes. She saw the way Tiffany looked at him. Even other women they worked with looked at him with stars in their eyes. Jimmy was oblivious, as he didn’t think of himself like that. He was just a nice, down to earth guy. Even his accent was cute. Although he insisted Minnesotans didn’t have accents—everyone else did.
His parents had raised a wonderful man. Something she told him a few times. She never told him how cute he was, though. She joked lightly with him about his looks. That was about it. Even his brothers, Austin and Zane, were handsome in their own right.
Austin had that ladies’ man look with a slight swagger. He also had soft brown hair like Jimmy, but with rich brown eyes that sucked a woman in with one piercing stare. She had felt weak in the knees the first time she met him. She had spent some time with him when he visited Jimmy every so often. He was just as sweet and down to earth as Jimmy. She had overcome her initial attraction with ease, feeling a brotherly affection, as she did with Jimmy.
Zane was a whole different matter. She hated admitting it, but he was good-looking, too—in a little more rugged way. His facial features were a little harsher. Or it could have been the anger imploded on his face that gave her that impression. She met him only once. It could only be described as a disastrous encounter. She could still recall his black hair that held a slight wave, his bangs sliding to the right as he advanced at her with his deep green eyes that sliced her open. His words had no effect on her at all, but his eyes had ripped her apart with one penetrating glare. She was amazed Jimmy suggested what he had.
She and Zane—never!
Another officer knocked on her door, making her push all thoughts about Jimmy and his issues to the back of her mind.
“Come on in, Officer Dalture.” Ava pasted a professional smile on and got back to work.
Ava made her way out of the building for her last call of the day. Sarah, one of her crime scene investigators, went home sick, so she decided to cover the rest of her shift.
Normally supervisors didn’t go out into the field as often, but Ava loved it. She still worked in the field as much as she could, detesting the paperwork part of her job. She enjoyed the sensation of arriving at a crime scene and dissecting everything to the core, finding the evidence, looking for clues. It was like finding pieces to a puzzle hidden within another puzzle.
She worked her butt off every single day, no matter if she was sitting behind a desk or working at a crime scene. Hell, she worked hard to even get a job with the crime lab. It wasn’t easy with no experience to gain entry into her field. She managed to start as a rugged crime scene investigator, working double shifts to get as much experience under her belt as possible—when it was offered—which was often. Crime never slept in New York City.
Before she knew it, she slid right into the supervisory position with the skills and education she possessed. She had double-majored at NYU in chemistry and biology, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in both studies. Two years ago, she even earned a Master of Science degree in chemistry. To say there wasn’t tension with her coworkers would be lying, but she also wasn’t afraid to ream into them or speak her mind about their dubious opinion on the matter. Get over it. She had the devotion and over-the-top work ethic while they slacked around and meandered their way through the job.
She was committed to her job and proudly displayed her hard work behind her desk. The shopping trip to purchase the perfect frame for each diploma was a trial. Nothing was right for her. It was too dark brown, not delicately carved in perfection, or the glass didn’t shine with glory.
Her best friend Ashley had come with her, finally snatching a frame with annoyance, throwing it into her arms, saying, “This one works. Let’s have some drinks to celebrate already.” It had been black, straight-edged with precision, tiny gold emblems in each corner of the glass that sparkled with elegance. She hadn’t seen that one and instantly agreed with her. Or maybe it was the thirst for drinks that finally overcame her eagerness for the perfect frame. Sometimes when she walked into her office and saw her degrees hanging with pride, she felt content and complete inside.
Ava made her way to Greenwich Village, where officers received a call for a home invasion. The suspect entered through the front door of apartment 202 and started attacking the occupant. Ava wasn’t positive whether it was random or if the homeowner was a specific target. The victim, a twenty-three-year-old, white female, was en route to the hospital with multiple stab wounds. The first responding officers felt a faint pulse, even though her torso had been layered with deep cuts. A neighbor called 911, and the same officers who called for an ambulance secured the scene. The suspect fled before the officers arrived. No weapon was found near the victim.
That was the only information relayed to her. It was now her job to find the physical evidence to support an arrest and trial of the suspect—perhaps even help in identifying the suspect. Her phone rang as she pulled up to the apartment building.
“Hey, Jimmy. I’m coming tonight, don’t worry. I have to process a crime scene first in Greenwich Village.” Ava grabbed her crime scene kit from the passenger seat and then exited the car.
“I got the call myself. On Twelfth Street, right?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Any update on the woman yet? Did she make it to the hospital?” Ava nodded a greeting at the officer standing outside the building.
“She died on the way. It’s now a homicide. Are you there yet?”
“Just walking up to her apartment door now. See you soon, Jimmy.” Ava nodded at the other officer standing by the woman’s apartment door.
“Okay, I’m about five…ten minutes out. See you soon, Ava.”
Ava put her phone away, set down her crime scene kit, and put on a pair of gloves. She turned toward the front door and hollered, “You didn’t touch anything other than where you had to help the victim, correct, Officer Sampson?”
Officer Sampson stuck his head into the doorway. “Yes, Ms. Rainer. Nothing else was touched. She was in the bedroom when we arrived. We secured the scene.”
Ava smiled in appreciation and turned back around. She was critical of all her crime scenes. A few officers and detectives despised her because of her demanding ways. She had a certain way she operated, and well, you’d better do it correctly. There was no excuse for disturbing evidence, not securing a crime scene well enough, or even letting in wandering citizens enthralled by a dead body. It was inexcusable in her eyes, and she let them know. They never made a mistake again.
The living room was a mess. The couch sat overturned on its back, a few cushions slashed open. The glass coffee table was shattered, pieces of glass blanketing the floor. Her eyes followed the trail of glass that had traveled into the kitchen. Dishes were strewn about the counter, more glass peppering the ground below, making it difficult to walk without stepping on a few pieces. There were also a few scattered drops of blood in the living room and kitchen area.
She grabbed her kit and made her way to the bedroom, pausing at the bathroom to the right. It appeared untouched, but she would fully examine that later as well. She continued down the short hallway, the small living space only a one-bedroom apartment. What did the twenty-three-year-old woman do? Greenwich Village wasn’t cheap to live in—even a one-bedroom apartment.
Walking through the open bedroom door, the massive bloodstain on the bed said plenty—the majority centered in the middle with a small amount pooling to the floor. She glimpsed around the room, taking note of the bedroom door that stood half hanging on its hinges. The woman clearly had the door locked briefly before the suspect tore it down. A few bottles of perfume and jewelry lay scattered on the ground, most likely having sat atop the dresser next to the door.
The closet doors were tightly shut, a blood smear on the handle. Curious about that, she set down her crime scene kit and opened it, removing a sterile swab to take a sample. One quick swipe and done. She capped her swab stick and slowly opened the closet door.
Before she had time to react, a man dressed all in black slammed into her, knocking her onto the bloodstained bed. The swab went flying out of her hand as he held her down with his body, piercing her left shoulder with the same bloodied knife that killed the other woman.
The knife sliced through her body, the pain ricocheting everywhere. He pulled the knife out, brought his hand swiftly up and back down to stab her again.
But her brain finally kicked into flight mode. She screamed and brought her knee up into his groin area, which had him dropping to the ground slightly, but he regained his stance quicker than she thought he would. Kicking again, she managed to roll from the bed. Her body moved toward the door as her mind centered on the icky substance clinging to her back and the throb radiating in her shoulder.
Shit. She was bleeding. She had never bled like this in her life.
He ran toward her, knocking her into the dresser before she could reach the doorway to freedom. Cringing from the pain of the drawer knob slamming into her back, Ava blocked another swing of the knife with her right forearm. More pain slashed up her arm as the knife cut her faintly.
The brute strength in the man was undeniable. The other woman had died. Multiple stab wounds. She felt death looming as well. Yet, quitting knew no bounds in her vocabulary. She refused to give in without the fight of her life. She raised her knee again.
Her firearm jabbed the top of her thigh as they fought against the dresser. She had to grab for it. Why the hell didn’t she do that right away?
He must’ve seen her reach down because he dropped the knife, slamming her harder into the dresser. Ignoring the pain from the drawer knob digging deeper into her back, she pushed back. He clung tightly to her shirt. The momentum of the push brought them near the window cushioned between the dresser and bed. The man turned her around slightly, shoving her toward the window, not letting go once. The force sent them both out of the two-story window.
The sound of glass breaking was deafening as tiny shards sliced her body. No more than twenty seconds could’ve gone by since he burst out of the closet. Officer Sampson had to have heard her scream.
The wind swept through her hair as the notion of preparing for impact flickered briefly. Before she could react in any way, her body hit the pavement hard.
Sounds muffled in the air, her name drifting to her ears from a distance, her mind foggy. Nothing was clear as she lay suffering from every point in her being. The need to breathe a simple breath of air, a struggle. Her arms wanted to move, but her mouth wouldn’t even cooperate in sucking in a deep breath.
A small gasp finally escaped as she attempted to roll into a sitting position, only managing a brief twitch of her body. Her head rang, pounding like a stampede of rhinos were stomping all over her.
She had to get up.
Blood slowly dripped down the side of her face as a fire lit up inside her body with the pain radiating everywhere. The bruises on her back from the dresser, the tiny slices covering her body, it all made it hurt to move. It was as if time halted. She saw everything happen. She felt everything happen. But she could only lie there.
Out of the corner of her eye, the man struggled as well, but not as badly as she. She forced her hand to grab for her gun, feeling nothing but smooth pants.
The sleek feeling in her hands turned rough when she came across a rip. She’d have to buy new pants. She hated shopping and the decisions it came with. It took her forever to find the perfect outfit, as she could be particularly picky. She would have to drag Ashley with her. She had the essence of moving the chore with ease—throwing decent clothes in Ava’s arms when the irritation hit her that it was taking too long.
The ringing in her ears rapidly pierced through her, increasing in strength, the sound as if a fire alarm was going off inside her. Scarcely moving her head to shake it away, she tried to remember what she should be doing. It hit her instantly when she moved her hand back up her body and felt the oozing substance in her hair. Slowly, she forced her body to sit up. Halfway there, a gun centered into her vision.
One second she was facing the barrel of a gun; the next, she was falling backward as a body knocked her back down. A sharp zinging ache pierced her right shoulder. Her world shifted into slow motion.
The sensation of a bullet tearing through her skin. The force of the body knocking her back. The heavy feeling of someone on top of her. A warm sensation filtered in, wetness spread onto her shirt, soaking right into her body.
“Officer down! Officer down! I need a bus now!”
Again, time slowed to a stop. Her brain tried to focus on what her eyes just saw, what her body just felt.
“Ava! Detective McCord!”
What? Jimmy was here. Everything would be okay. She tried to sit up and focus.
Then more pain zapped her as someone shoved her back to the ground. “We have to stop the bleeding. Maybe you should lie back down, Ava.”
Ava’s blurry gaze found Officer Eaton, who had been standing outside when she arrived, trying to press into her wound. Blood flooded her shirt in a bright red fashion. Then she turned her head at the body lying next to her and started screaming. “Jimmy! Oh, my God!”
Her eyes zeroed in on his chest where blood poured out in a steady stream. Immediately sitting up, the dizziness rushed over her. She ignored every ounce of pain as she put her hand over his wound and tried to staunch the bleeding.
“Where’s the ambulance? He needs an ambulance!” Ava screamed as she shoved Officer Eaton off her shoulder.
“Ava, please. I need to stop the bleeding. You’re losing too much blood,” Officer Eaton said as Officer Sampson stood near the suspect who had been shot as well, unsure of what to do, the terror written on his face.
“No. Help me with Jimmy. Help me,” she cried, pulling Jimmy closer, almost cradling him in her arms. “Please, Jimmy. Hold on. The ambulance is on the way. You’re going to be just fine. Hold on.”
Ava tried to press harder into his wound, but the wooziness crept back in. She looked over at Officer Eaton. “Help me.”
Officer Eaton ignored her as he tried to clamp a hand over her wound again. She shoved at him. “Help me with Jimmy.”
“Ava, listen to me. Detective McCord is…” Officer Eaton started to say. “We have to stop the bleeding. Please let me help you.”
Ava pulled Jimmy even closer and started crying. “Jimmy, please. I got you. You’re going to be just fine.”
Sirens sounded in the distance. “The ambulance is almost here. Jimmy? Do you hear that?”
Her head started to spin. The ambulance pulled up. Doors slammed—paramedics running toward them. The next moment—nothing but blackness.
Zane walked out of the barn and headed to the building they built for their offices, not too far from the barn itself. He had built the office a few years ago, hating to trample inside the clean house when he wanted to go over paperwork. Eleanor, their long time cook and all-around housekeeper, appreciated the gesture.
The farm wasn’t large by some people’s standards, but it was large enough for him. They owned roughly a hundred cows, about forty hogs, some chickens, horses, and a few goats—because his mother had loved goat milk. Maintaining his animals, the grounds around the house, and the fields that covered almost 300 acres kept him busy. It took hard work and plenty of his time. The farm passed from his father, from his father, and so on. He had thought he and his brothers would run it together, but it hadn’t turned out that way.
Austin was still on the farm but chomping at the bit to leave. Zane made him feel guilty about it, forcing Austin to stay—making Zane feel guilty for making him feel guilty. He felt like he already lost one brother; he didn’t want to lose another.
It was his own damn fault. He only had to call Jimmy and apologize. But he couldn’t do it. Call him stubborn. Most people did, anyway.
He opened the office door and stepped inside. Austin sat at his desk, typing furiously away at the computer.
“I hope it’s work you’re doing and not game playing,” Zane muttered as he sat down in his chair.
Austin stopped typing and looked at him. “You would assume I’m just playing around. I’m entering the figures that were piling up from the winter. Thank you very much.”
Zane was just giving him a hard time. He thought Austin knew that, but sometimes he could be quite serious, so maybe Austin thought he wasn’t joking. Zane pulled open his ledger and started to mark down which pigs were ready for sale. Stalls one through ten looked to be close to the 250-pound mark, which was what the local meat market liked for the size of the hog they bought.
“You know, I’m going over what we planted last year in the west field for corn, and I think we need to plant a little more this year. The field next to it has alfalfa. I think we could switch that to corn instead. We almost ran out last winter.”
Zane looked up briefly from his ledger. “I trust your judgment. It was only a so-so crop last year. Hopefully, we’ll have better luck this year. I noticed the automatic feeder in stall twenty wasn’t dispensing correctly. We need to fix that today.”
Austin nodded. “Yeah, I can go look at it when I’m done here. I’m almost done. Did you check on Old Betsy today yet? How’s she doing? Ready to calve?”
“She’s doing well. She’s sticking close to the barn. Not quite ready, but she’s close. Do you have to call her Old Betsy? She’s not old—or a pet that requires a name.” Zane looked exasperated as Austin gave him a ridiculous grin.
Austin stared at him as he picked up a pen and started to twirl it, then took a small breath. “So, I talked to Jimmy earlier today.”
“Yeah, that’s nice.”
“He’s planning on coming home for Memorial Day. It’s been a while since he’s been home.”
Zane averted eye contact. “That’ll be nice.”
“That’s all you have to say? You haven’t spoken to him in six months, and all you have to say is ‘that’ll be nice,’” Austin exclaimed. “Are you going to be that cordial when he gets here?”
“What do you want me to say? It will be nice for him to come home finally,” Zane snapped.
“Yeah, but he’s not staying home. You can’t treat him like that and make him feel guilty when he comes. Maybe you two can finally work things out.”
“I have nothing to work out. He took sides with that despicable woman. He would be home right now if it wasn’t for her,” Zane grumbled.
“That’s not true, and you know it. Ava is great. If you actually gave her a chance, you’d see that. If you just listened to Jimmy and how much he loves it in New York, you would know. Not everyone wants to be a farmer.”
“I’m not planning to leave you here alone if that’s what you’re asking.” Austin sighed. “I would just like to see you guys talking again, is all. Be nice to him when he visits. He would’ve come home for Christmas if not for your attitude.”
Zane glared at him. “I’ll be nice. I promise.”
Austin smiled slightly.
A knock sounded on the door, thankfully interrupting a conversation Zane didn’t want to continue. He never liked talking about the problems between him and Jimmy—or that woman, Ava.
“Come on in,” Zane yelled.
The door opened and Chief Robert Tanner of the St. Joseph’s Police Department stepped inside looking forlorn. “Boys. How are you doing today?”
Zane stood up and shook hands with him. “Good. What brings you by, Chief?”
“You should probably sit down, Zane.”
“I think I’ll stay standing if you don’t mind. What’s wrong?” He didn’t like the way the chief looked at him.
“I received a call earlier. The NYPD wanted to call but felt a person-to-person visit was more appropriate. Not delay the news.” Chief Tanner took a deep breath. “Your brother Jimmy died today in the line of duty. I’m very sorry, boys.” Chief Tanner almost choked out the last words.
Zane’s heart started to pound as the breath leaving his mouth almost suffocated him. He stood a few moments staring at Chief Tanner in disbelief. Did he really just hear the words he thought he had? Perhaps he should’ve sat down.
Or maybe he heard wrong. Yep. He had to have heard wrong.
“I’m sorry, Chief. Come again?”
“I’m sorry, Zane. Jimmy died today. I wish I didn’t have to say that to you. I know it’s hard to take in.”
The words pierced his brain, soaring straight to his heart as they became louder in his mind.
Jimmy died today.
He suddenly dropped to his knees, burying his head in his hands. Deep retching sobs immediately poured out. He couldn’t stop them. The massive guilt settled right into his chest. It couldn’t be true. His brother was coming home for Memorial weekend—Austin just said so. Yet, as he sat there breaking down, they settled in his mind. He would never see his baby brother alive again.
Austin could only stare at the chief, who looked as if he could cry as well. He glanced at Zane, who sat on the floor, sobbing. He had never seen his big brother cry, not even when their parents died. He had heard him in his room once, the door closed, and he thought the sounds might’ve been crying. But talking about their feelings didn’t occur between them. They didn’t break down like this in front of each other—or other people.
He thought back to the words he just spoke to Zane about Jimmy coming home, about them making amends, the reality of it slamming into him.
They would never make amends now.
They would never talk through the problems and make Zane see how dumb he was acting. The plans he had started to form in his mind for Jimmy’s trip home, how they could work it out, they all fluttered away as Austin stared at Zane’s body shaking heavily. He imagined the same thoughts were running through Zane’s mind. The guilt he must feel.
Austin stood up, grabbing onto the desk. He took a deep breath and made his way to Zane. The floor felt like it could open up and swallow him whole. His world had just tilted off its axis, and he had no idea how to respond. But he knew he needed his brother, who was still here.
Zane slowly lifted his tearstained face and pulled Austin into his embrace. He didn’t think about what he was doing or who was in the room. He needed to feel Austin’s strength, as all his had left him. They loved each other; they just never showed it with this sort of affection. Zane couldn’t stop his emotions or the intense need to anchor himself to his remaining brother somehow. Austin was all he had left.
As soon as Zane wrapped his arms around Austin, the dam burst. His tears mingled with his brother’s, unable to hold them in, the reality of it tearing him up inside. They sat on the floor, hugging each other as they both cried. It kept running through Zane’s mind that Jimmy was coming home. He could make amends with him. Then, it would slam into him like a punch to the gut that it wasn’t a possibility anymore. His brother died, as he feared he would. He died thinking Zane hated him.
Suddenly, Austin pulled away and grabbed his arm. Zane looked at him and saw in his eyes that they needed more information. They needed to understand what happened.
But he didn’t want that. Ignorance was bliss. He wanted it all to go away and pretend it never happened. He wanted to continue talking to Austin about Jimmy’s upcoming trip home, the plans for how they would celebrate Memorial Day.
Instead, he nodded at Austin. They stood up together as Zane wiped his face with his shirtsleeve. Get it together. He had to be strong. He was always the strong one.
Zane sniffed his nose and tried to keep the tears back. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
“How…” Austin cleared his throat. “How did it happen?”
Chief Tanner stood in the same spot waiting for them to compose themselves. “He was responding to a crime scene. It wasn’t properly secured, and the suspect was hiding in the closet. The suspect fought with a crime scene tech, and they went out a window. Jimmy had just gotten to the scene when he saw his fellow coworker fall. The suspect was able to grab a gun and went to shoot the crime scene tech, but Jimmy took the bullet instead. He shot the suspect in the process as well. He and the suspect both died at the scene. I’m so sorry. He was a good man. He was a good cop, I was told. I have contact information for you…for you to call them or go to New York. Or for doing both,” Chief Tanner said as he held out an envelope to Austin. “Let me know what you boys need. I’ll be here for you.”
“Thanks, Chief. I’m sorry you had to be the one to tell us. I’m also glad it was you,” Austin said, putting a reassuring hand on Zane’s shoulder, who still hadn’t spoken.
What could he say? His brother was dead—died thinking he hated him.
“I’m sorry, too. Like I said, let me know what you need. I’ll leave you boys now,” Chief Tanner said, almost tearing up again. “I’ll stop by the house and tell Eleanor. Stay strong.”
Austin nodded. The chief walked out. “I’ll get us some tickets out there.”
Zane simply nodded. He didn’t know what else to do. What was there to say? His brother was dead trying to save the life of someone else. It sounded like him, and it made Zane mad. He wasn’t supposed to die so young. He should have stayed home and helped run the farm.
Zane pictured his face and the last time they spoke, the anger that swirled between them. The words spoken that couldn’t be taken back—or the silence that endured within the past six months. He dropped back to the floor, sobbing from all the regret and guilt of never making amends with his brother.
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