Two thousand one hundred and ninety one days, three hundred and twelve weeks, seventy-four agonizing full moons—the full sum of the six years since he’d been consigned to hell weighed upon A.J. Buckley. He faced the courtroom dressed in a new suit he hadn’t purchased as they dangled the bait of freedom. The suit still stank of human tailors, a fact which barely registered past the curtain of his isolation. Not even the presence of a dominant male wolf acting as his attorney ruffled him. He sat without comment or expression as they debated his future.
What did he care? They’d taken him out of the cage, dressed him, shackled him, and shuffled him into the heart of human justice. They should have left him alone, but even on that point he could barely bring himself to react. Ryan Huston appeared at his cell, ordered him into clothes then accompanied him to the courthouse. He went because he was told to do so.
When they were done, he would go back because he’d been told.
“Your Honor, the following affidavits, signed and certified by the Medical Examiner, his assistant, and one crime scene tech, states the police failed to properly preserve the crime scene prior to their arrival and continued to contaminate the scene during the investigation, thereby obstructing justice.” Ryan Huston touched the folder on his desk. “The expert testimony of these witnesses was certified by the prosecution during the initial trial.”
The judge was an older man with a stern visage. He flipped through the papers in front of him and glanced from Ryan to the men in suits at the opposing table. “Mr. Langfield, Mr. Huston is correct. You certified all of these witnesses as experts, which means their affidavits are also certifiable to this court.”
“Yes, Your Honor.” Mr. Langfield sounded particularly glum about the subject. The faint odor of bleach almost drowned out the sour note of his disdain, or maybe it was the lemon polish used on the wooden table and fixtures throughout the room. Both burned A.J.’s nose.
“Why wasn’t this testimony entered during the original trial, Mr. Huston?”
“The witnesses were never asked, Your Honor. Their testimony and reports were given and only the facts of those findings were questioned, not the condition in which the evidence was collected nor the interference of the police officers on scene.”
The prosecutor hurled words into the air, but they still sounded pro forma. “Objection, Your Honor. Relies on speculation.”
“I thought these three were all involved in the processing of the scene and the body?” The judge’s inquiry was met by icy silence before the prosecutor nodded. When the jurist continued to ask questions, A.J. stopped listening. He didn’t give a damn about their squabbling over the bones of information. What good did it do?
Ryan answered several questions, never resuming his seat. On his feet, he commanded attention. Why Toman decided to send the pack’s attorney to liberate him after so much time passed already escaped A.J.. Maybe his task wasn’t to liberate, maybe it was simply to tease. What else could his Alpha do, except dangle the opportunity of escape then snatch it away?
He could kill me. That action, however, would be a gift. One he didn’t think Toman would bestow upon him. He hadn’t before, not when A.J. had been arrested. He hadn’t during the trial. He hadn’t when they’d thrown A.J. into a cage and locked the door.
No, the Alpha of Willow Bend had simply ignored him. Exile would have been kinder. Death would have been easier. Cool, creamy strawberries with a bite of chill teased his nostrils. A.J. jerked his attention from the distance to focus on the room. Like a promise of refreshment, the fruity scent stroked his senses, evoking memories of hot summer days and a treat to escape the heat.
“Mr. Huston, are you prepared to present these witnesses to the court for cross-examination?”
“Yes, Your Honor. They are waiting outside.”
A shuffle of movement, a halting panicked breath of air and A.J. turned his head a fraction. She sat in the back of the courtroom, her wan expression too pale and sallow beneath her natural skin tone. No longer supple and lithe, she looked as though all the vitality had been drained from her. Skin stretched over her cheekbones too tautly. Her caramel eyes were large, the pupils constricted.
The doors opened and pushed a fresh wave of her scent toward him. Hands clenching, he switched his attention to the new arrivals. Deeming none a threat, he returned to studying her. Her gaze collided with his, and awareness clanged off the hardened layers of apathy encasing his soul.
“Your Honor, in the event you throw out the evidence collected at the scene, I move for an immediate reversal of the conviction as the prosecutor never had a case to begin with.”
Another hurried discussion brought the attorneys to the judge’s bench. A.J. could hear every word they said, but very little of the subject registered. He’d ordered Vivian to not testify. Was she here for the prosecution? Would they try to force her testimony as they had the first time? Despite her steadfast refusal, the prosecutor had hammered at her on the stand. It had taken every ounce of his control to stay in his seat.
He’d wanted to savage them all—more so when they’d arrested her. The image of her being taken from the room in handcuffs had been burned into his brain.
“You’re growling,” Ryan said, his voice too soft for most ears. “Stop.”
Closing his eyes briefly, he swallowed the sound. When he opened them again, Vivian was gone, leaving only the faintest hint of her scent.
“You do not have a case,” the judge said, not allowing the prosecutor to finish. “Your case was built on a house of cards with contaminated evidence at the crime scene as the foundation. Without that evidence, the grand jury wouldn’t have handed down an indictment. You wouldn’t have taken the defendant to court, and you wouldn’t have been able to obtain a conviction.”
A.J. had no idea what was going on.
“Mr. Buckley, please stand.”
Rising slowly, A.J. kept his gaze on the judge. Ryan bumped his shoulder, a light brush. The grounding of pack helped him to keep the fraying threads of his straying attention from wandering. Vivian’s scent hung in the air, an elusive reminder of the forbidden.
“Mr. Buckley, it is the decision of this court to overturn the lower court’s decision due to the lack of uncontaminated evidence. While I do not believe that means you are not guilty of the crime, I do believe you should not have been found guilty in this matter. I am ordering your immediate release from Fannon Prison.”
The prosecutor rose and said something, but A.J. couldn’t make out the words through the roaring in his ears. Ryan spoke up immediately and the other man shouted. The judge slammed his gavel down and silence fell.
“Motion for a new trial denied, Mr. Langfield. Sheriff, please release Mr. Buckley. Sir, you are free to go.”
A.J. barely reacted as they removed the shackles from his ankles and the handcuffs from his wrists. The officer said something and, when A.J. stared at him blankly, not entirely certain of what he’d said, Ryan answered in his stead. The judge left the bench and the courtroom began to empty.
Placing a hand on his shoulder, Ryan studied him. “Breathe. We’re going out to the car and then we’re going home.”
Home. He wasn’t even sure where that was. Maybe this was his reward, he would go home to Toman. The Alpha would snap his neck, and it would be over. Glancing to the corner where he’d thought Vivian had sat, A.J. shook off Ryan’s hold and paced to the spot.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. Cool, sweet strawberries.
Had she really been there?
An arm around his shoulders distracted him, and he looked at the older wolf. “Come on.” Though his voice was gentle, Ryan’s tone was unyielding. The command shivered through A.J. and he nodded.
The sun was too bright outside. Too much noise. Cars roared past, their engines growling and knocking.
“Are you hungry?”
“What?” A.J.’s voice sounded rough, raw, and guttural.
“I asked if you were hungry, but I think we’ll just stop and grab some food on the way. I sent a message. Your brothers are waiting for you, so let’s get you home…” Ryan held a flat data device in his hand. Cell phones changed a lot over the last few years.
Brothers. Linc and Tyler. Younger than him by two and four minutes respectively, they were the missing parts of his soul. Triplets, they’d done everything together, but he’d always taken the lead. Always looked out for them. Never had they been separated.
Yes, he would like to see his brothers. Perhaps Toman would allow him the reunion as a last wish. “All right.” He followed Ryan like an obedient pup. Six years of backbreaking, heartless, soulless captivity didn’t leave him with the energy or the desire to do anything else.
At the vehicle, he touched the sun-warmed metal and the scent of strawberries wrapped around him. Tracking the scent with only his gaze, he spotted her across the street. Raising her hand, she curled her fingers in a half wave. Her mouth turned up in a soft, almost sad smile and she whispered, “You’re free.”
Yes. Free. Lifting his hand, he tried to wave back, but she’d disappeared again. She must be free as well, and she’d found her voice. The last time he’d seen her, she’d been shocked mute by trauma and he’d told her—ordered her—to keep her silence.
“A.J.?” Ryan’s patient voice reached out from inside the car. “C’mon, man. I know you’ve had a rough go of it. Get in. Let me take you home.”
Comforted by the knowledge of Vivian’s freedom, he allowed himself to be coaxed.
Obeying, he settled back and let his lungs fill with the scent of wolf and wild pervading the car. Ryan’s scent and his mate’s. His children. A.J. could identify the nuances, just barely. The combination overwhelmed his system and he closed his eyes, suddenly exhausted. For the first time in years, he fell into sleep easily, surrounded by the sense of pack.
The car gave a little jerk and as he drifted off, he heard Ryan’s voice. “Yeah, I have him. We’re on our way.”
Home. Yes, A.J. was ready to go home.
Ready to die.
Vivian Knox leaned against the stone building and watched the Lexus disappear into traffic. Tears burned in her eyes, yet she refused to shed them. Elation and sadness swirled together, a potent cocktail, leaving her nauseated. Seven agonizing years since one horrible night destroyed their lives, yet she’d found a way to make it right—finally. A.J. Buckley never deserved to go to prison. He’d never deserved anything that happened to him.
“You ready?” Dr. Nathanial Hawthorne had waited for her while she’d crept into the courtroom. She hadn’t planned to go inside, she’d told herself it was the last place she needed to be, but she had to see. She had to know.
“Yes,” she said. Ready to put the past behind her, to get on with her life. “But I still need a minute.” Refusing to look at the doctor, she stared after the car she couldn’t possibly still see. Her heart had twisted when he’d turned to look at her in the courtroom. A.J. had become a shell of his former self. The glorious, robust man had lost weight; his face was haggard and gaunt. A scar bisected his lower lip and the suit he wore fit him badly.
That hadn’t been the worst of it. No, the worst had been his eyes—hollow, empty, and lifeless. Pale chips of ice where once they had been burning orbs of blue, more vivid and startling than a summer sky. She’d wanted to lay down and die. Curling her fingers into her palms, she clenched her fists. If only she’d been able to free him sooner. It had taken her hundreds of hours—pouring through information, files, and reports. She’d talked to every single person involved in the case, from the original prosecutor, to the cops who’d investigated, to the technicians in the labs.
She’d unraveled his freedom only after she’d found the right string to pull, then she’d tugged, yanked, and jerked until it came loose. Bundling the information together, she’d sent it to the only address she could think of—his brothers. After that, Vivian had prayed. She hadn’t seen either Tyler or Linc since her stint in jail.
“Vivian.” Nathanial edged closer to her. The doctor had been her therapist for three years. He’d walked her step-by-step from the brink—saving her life after she’d nearly killed herself with an overdose. After the hospital pumped her stomach, he’d kept her in a seventy-two hour lockdown, then gave her meds to make her sleep.
She hadn’t slept a full night since the attack until those three days. If she had any sanity left, it had been thanks to him. “I know,” she said, still unwilling to leave. Autumn had arrived, still waving the blistering flag of a hot summer. Sweat slid down her neck. “I just…” What? How could she put it into words?
“Remember what we discussed,” his gentle reminder boosted her.
“When I walk away, it really is over. I won’t see him again. I can’t ever tell him how sorry I am or how much I wish it had been different.”
“True.” Another great point about her therapist—he didn’t sugarcoat his responses or feed her platitudes. “You don’t need to see him, however. You made it right for him. You overturned injustice. This was your goal. This is what the finish line looks like.”
Really? This emptiness is what the finish line looks like? Why had she expected so much more? The drive to free him had come from so far inside her soul, she couldn’t define the source. Beyond the desire to repay his actions, beyond the simple truth of true justice—and yet over meant she faced a long dark road.
“You’ve been battling for so long, struggled so much, you don’t recognize winning when you see it. You’re too used to fighting, Vivian. You set out to free the man, and if not for you, he would still be languishing in a prison cell. It’s over. You did it.” Maybe if the doc repeated the sentiment, the reality would sink in.
“I guess,” she said, facing him finally. “I thought it would feel different.”
“It will,” he said, his smile gentle and encouraging. “In a few days, a few weeks, maybe a few months. You have to focus on you now. It’s time to let yourself heal. I’ve made all the arrangements. You leave for Flagstaff on Friday. I’ll drive you to the airport, if you like.”
“No.” The doctor had saved her, listened to her, encouraged her, and supported her throughout her quest. But that was done now, too. “Nathanial, you’ve been amazing. I know I couldn’t have survived the last few years without you. Literally.” After she’d swallowed those pills, she’d waited for peace to sweep over her and instead, she’d panicked. Wild fury had left her shaking and desperate. Survival, Nathanial had told her later, came in many forms. The night she’d tried to kill herself, she’d finally found the courage to keep living.
By the time she’d called him, she’d trashed her apartment, desperate to find something. When she found his card, she’d stared at the numbers blurring on the thin stock of paper and fought—with herself—against calling. In truth, she still had no memory of dialing the number or saying the words.
I tried to kill myself. I took pills. Help me.
Later, in the hospital, he’d repeated what she said back to her. Whatever drove her to call him, she was grateful for it.
“You’re my friend. I know, you’re my patient, and it flies in the face of ethics, but I was and am happy to help.” He shook his head. “Flagstaff is a good start. The Sunrise Legacy Facility has a place where you can work, rest, and get the best possible treatment.”
Leaving the city had been her plan. She’d wanted to go after the attack—but a year in jail for contempt when she’d refused to testify and then A.J.’s conviction kept her bound to St. Louis. “I know. I think I’ll look forward and not back. I’m going to pack the car this week and drive.”
The moment she said the words, a feeling of rightness settled in her gut. It was time. She had a plan. Sliding her hands into her pockets, she headed away from the courthouse. Nathanial fell into step beside her. “You don’t need to be on the road…”
“I know I don’t have to, but I want to. I’ve spent all my time trying to achieve one thing. It became my reason for existence. Now I want to stop. I want to breathe. Driving—driving is freeing.” Take her destiny in her hands, live again. The more she considered the idea, the more she embraced it. “I’ll call you,” she promised. “On the road, when I get to Flagstaff. I’ll spend a few weeks at Sunrise, as we agreed, resting and taking the time I need for me, but I’m also going to look for a job.”
“Good girl.” Arriving at the lot where they’d parked, Nathanial walked her to her car. His handshake was firm, warm and encouraging. “I’m proud of you, Vivian.”
She smiled, and the act stretched muscles in her face that felt frozen. Had smiling become alien to her? Wow, she needed to work on herself more than she thought. “Thank you for saving my life.”
“My pleasure. You hang onto that card. Call me whenever you need, for whatever you need.”
“You know if I hadn’t been such a screwed up mess and if you weren’t so happily married to a wonderful woman…”
Nathanial laughed. “Avery says that to me all the time.” His wife had become a friend every bit as much as Nathaniel. Few women would tolerate their husband bringing a project home to sleep in the guest bedroom or the calls in the middle of the night when the nightmares drove her out of her bed.
He kissed her cheek. “Be safe.”
It wasn’t until she’d parked at her apartment that the reality of her situation truly sank in. Three years of having Nathanial to lean on and she’d walked away without a second thought.
Well that’s not true. I’ll miss him and Avery, but… The idea of leaving the safety net didn’t paralyze her. After her stint in lockdown, she’d been a guest in their home for six months—a roommate, patient, and project all rolled into one. When she’d finally gone apartment hunting, the need to be close to them drove her to choose a place only a few blocks away.
Now she planned to relocate hundreds of miles away. Talk about your big steps. It was time, though. Time to go, time to—
Why is my front door open? The walk from her parking spot to her apartment was short, but she’d damn well locked the door when she left that morning.
She’d tripled checked. Paranoia was a survival instinct. She drove around the block and by her apartment at least twice when leaving to make sure the door was shut. Gripping the handle and checking the lock when she came home was another habit.
Adrenaline flooded her system and she pivoted, heading back to her car at a dead run. A man blocked her access to the vehicle—a very familiar one, Lincoln Buckley. Though A.J. and his brothers were triplets, seemingly identical in all ways, she’d never had an iota of trouble telling the three apart.
Unlike A.J., Linc looked exactly as he had the last time she’d seen him. Tall, broad-shouldered, square jawed with a firm, even mouth. Rugged, in an outdoorsy kind of way, with hair the color of sun ripened wheat—dark and shot through with strands of gold. The brothers had the prettiest hair and, where A.J.’s had been shorn close to his skull, Linc’s remained long.
“You need to go,” he said, not waiting for her to respond to the sight of him. He held a hand out for her keys. “Come, I’m going to get you out of here.”
“What’s going on?” Her fingers curled around the keys, not willing to give them up. Six years without a word, while his brother had rotted in prison, and Linc showed up only after she’d done everything she could to free A.J.?
“I will explain, but get in the car. We need to—” He didn’t finish the sentence. His gaze traveled past her and he moved. One minute he stood between her and the car, the next he was on the other side of her. Twisting, she couldn’t see past him, but she didn’t have to.
“You’re not supposed to be here, Lincoln.” The woman’s voice was unfamiliar, but her tone sent a chill chasing down Vivian’s spine.
“I’m where I need to be.” Linc’s voice deepened to a growl. “The woman has nothing to do with this.”
“That’s not your decision.” The arrival of a man directly behind her sent Vivian’s pulse skyrocketing. She jerked and backed away, colliding with Linc. He twisted, steadying her and then adjusted his stance. How he was supposed to deal with two of them, she had no idea.
“I didn’t think this was your style, Owen.” The verbal jab landed, or maybe Vivian only imagined “Owen’s” face tightening at Linc’s response.
“Be quiet, Linc. You’re violating an order and you know it.” The artic chill in his voice sent a shiver over Vivian and awoke a very real, visceral fear. Danger roiled around the man and she suddenly wanted to look away when he rested his gaze on her. “Miss Knox, we’re here to escort you to Willow Bend. I apologize for the drama. This will go smoothly for everyone if you simply cooperate.”
“Leave her alone.” But Linc went from being next to her to being on the ground. Owen had him by his throat and the growl vibrating in the air snapped what was left of her will.
Whirling, she ran—away from Linc, away from Owen, away from her car. She had to get away.
Behind her, the woman made a rude noise and Vivian could have sworn she heard her say, “Men.” The thought sparked a note of hysterical laughter, but she didn’t slow down. Shadows twisted in her mind and one moment she raced up the sidewalk toward—where she had no idea—and the next she was on a dark street, struggling on bruised feet to flee from the house she’d woken up in.
It had been dark then, and rain had fallen. The streets were wet and air damp. Blood oozed from her lip, and every muscle in her body hurt. She could barely see out of one eye. Today, the sun was still in the clear sky, though the humidity blanketed the air with dampness. The sick feeling cresting in her stomach threatened to hurtle her back to that horror—because today, as then, someone chased her.
I didn’t escape then… How the hell would she manage it now? A hand grabbed her and she fought. Whirling, she struck out with her purse and her nails, but she hit nothing. Instead, both of her arms were wrenched behind her. Fighting the hold twisted her muscles and pain screamed through her.
“Stop, I don’t want to hurt you.” The cold snap in the woman’s voice slapped her out of the past.
Staring into her eyes, she couldn’t read her, didn’t have any idea why she was there and couldn’t think of any reason to believe her. Run, dammit. The surge came from that primal part of her brain, the animal hindbrain as one of her professors had called it jokingly. Higher functions like reason and logic helped people govern and make decisions, but the hindbrain? It kept them alive.
Vivian opened her mouth and screamed. The woman shifted her grip, scowled and then shoved a hand over her mouth.
“Dammit,” her captor growled. “We don’t want to hurt you.”
Not wanting to hurt someone and not hurting them were two incredibly separate things. She couldn’t breathe. The force covering her mouth and nose cut off her air. Spots danced in front of her eyes. Nothing she did broke the woman’s hold.
In the distance, Linc fought with the other man. He was trying to help her. Drowning in déjà vu, she fought harder and her lungs burned. The spots became darkness and the world blinked out.
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