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In her numbness, Lanie vaguely lamented that one of her biggest flaws was that she didn’t know when to just let someone die. Her grandfather had always accused her of being too soft. He’d insisted that every human being was nothing more than a bag of meat that could bring pleasure or pain. They were all just avatars in a game, and should be eliminated when the cost-benefit analysis called for it. One day, someone would attempt to eliminate her in the same way, and she shouldn’t take it personally. Just keep going for as long as she could, amassing as many wins as possible. That was her grandfather’s philosophy.
She knew hers was a lot less practical. There were a lot of meat bags whose existence complicated her own, yet at times, she became too entangled to be able to just let them die.
Now, she fought the belief that she should have turned away when the Folgers crashed. Then she never would have gotten tangled up with Ben again. Then Belsito Santos wouldn’t have gone rogue, and Haines wouldn’t have tracked her to the hospital. Or, when Ben tried to find that stupid cross necklace, it wouldn’t have led Haines here. And this moment in time wouldn’t be happening. If she had let go of Ben while he was bleeding in the road or let him get hit by the ambulance or let him succumb to his injuries, none of this would be happening.
If she’d left Sean the minute he raised a hand to her, none of this would be happening.
As she stared at the closed door inside of Ben’s hospital room, the image of a curly-haired boy with piercing eyes frozen in her eyes, deep regret pulled at her until couldn’t stand.
Life would be so much easier if she was a person who could just walk away. She knew that. But still, she couldn’t bring herself to move. Her entire body was encased in ice.
And then, warmth. It started on her back. Then another patch on her arm. As she thawed, she started to sway, but then the hands caught her, and pulled her in, and suddenly everything was warm, and she could move.
A clear, white-gold gaze held steady on her. Ben gently rubbed her back, and for once, didn’t say anything.
“Did…did you hear that?” Her voice wasn’t her own. She’d been knocked right out of her body.
“Not if you didn’t want me to.” The sincere compassion in his eyes caressed her core like a gentle flame. She couldn’t move from this campfire. The cold winter was at her back. But she had to go. She had to move.
“I have to go,” she murmured dazedly, motionless. She didn’t realize she was wilting until she felt the heat on her face, and heard a strong beating sound.
All at once, she realized she was sitting in Ben’s lap on the chair closest to the door, with his arms around her. Somehow, he’d managed to get closer to her. In her dumbstruck haze, she hadn’t heard the click of the walker or the squeak of the rolling IV pole.
He held her just like that last night in Africa. Before everything blew up around her.
Before she could fully process this, her phone buzzed in her pocket. “I have to go!” She jumped away from him, then gasped when he cried out in pain. “I’m sorry!”
He rubbed his stomach where her elbow had connected. “Lanie, just take a breath. One step at a time.” Grimacing, he grabbed the walker from beside him and put it back over his legs.
She waved him off. “No, no. Just rest for a bit.”
Her phone buzzed again. Then again and again. Unknown numbers and blocked numbers. Texts piling in. It was beginning, she realized. Bel had done it. Succeeded at executing the plan they’d been working on for months to get rid of most of the board members at Towers and Ferami. But all that seemed irrelevant now, a distant memory.
Ben stood anyway, knuckles white on the bars of the walker. “Get…the…chair…” he puffed in a strangled voice.
Quickly, she moved the chair from behind him, and hovered around with his IV pole as he made determined, aching steps back toward his bed. He didn’t listen to her as she tried to convince him to sit down for a minute and take a rest; it was too much to do two trips in less than two minutes.
He got to the bed in only a minute, turned around, and managed to find the edge just as his legs buckled. Sagging into it, he nearly rolled off, but she pushed him back in, then gingerly lifted each of his legs. Damp with sweat and tears, he sucked in air, and the sound of his quiet sobs distressed her.
She put the pulse-ox on him and plugged his IV back in. “Here, have some water.”
“No!” he rasped. “You have to go. I’ll be fine by the time you get back. Don’t…let…this agony…be for nothing.” He tried to smile, but it became a twisted mask. He weakly slapped her hand away when she reached for him. “Go, Lanie. I’ll be here when you get back…And I’ll wait to open this until we’re both ready.” He put the box with the replica of Chelsea’s andalusite necklace in the top drawer of his bedside table.
“Okay…thank you.” Still feeling woozy, she stumbled out the door.
She didn’t remember how she got there, but she knocked on the open door of room 245. Only one bed was occupied. The woman was covered in bandages, and the places that didn’t have bandages were bruised and swollen. She was plugged into almost every wire and tube in existence. Lanie was still staring when Susan’s eyes slit open.
“Lanie…” she rasped, trying to lift her head. The wheeze was barely audible.
Lanie drifted to her side.
Her lips were cracked, and she licked them then swallowed hard. Lanie offered a cup with water and a straw, unable to keep her hands from trembling. “They say…I don’t have much time.”
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~ Romans 15:13