It had been a long winter.
A blizzard of heartbreak on all sides, preceded by confusion, betrayal and violence that had lasted for months. The victims were countless, all of them close casualties of a retribution over a decade in the making. Poor Charlotte had allowed her misery at home manifest itself into a drug addiction that had nearly killed her, Jack had suffered the loss of the only woman he'd truly loved and Daniel had been rendered helpless as his family crumbled from within.
Truly, Emily had taken no pleasure in their pain. Even before she began, Takeda had warned her that there would be others who suffered. They would be the price of her vengeance. Emily had accepted that. Not happily, but she had accepted it.
They were mere days from the end now – a life of freedom from constant deception was so close they could taste it. What they would do with this freedom, they did not yet know. Their years together had been consumed with her revenge.
Freedom seemed such a foreign thing.
Emily nested the phone between her shoulder and her ear as she unlocked the front door of the beach cottage, her words cautious and tense. The summer sun had set, though the air was still heated. A fine sheen of sweat had built on her forehead, but more from anxiety than the season.
Further evidence had come to light in Conrad's devious business dealings – he had been imprisoned for several months already, the charges laid against him promising that his years ahead would be spent behind bars.
But simply being revealed as a crook in Armani had never been Emily's intention. It was not enough for the world to know that Conrad had expanded his father's business by exploiting every dollar fed to the beast by unwitting clients. His other, more personal sins had to be unveiled: the crimes carried out by the thugs on his unofficial payroll, all of those who had been intimidated, beaten or killed by Conrad's command.
Emily would see him in prison for the rest of his life, and Victoria would not be far behind her man. Already federal agents were closing in on her past as a fraudulent art dealer and the part she'd played in several conspiracies over the years, both petty and grand, both in collusion with Conrad and without.
While Daniel had done all he could to keep his family together, even taking on the mantle of the Grayson patriarch and sacrificing his love for Emily in the process, nothing could be done to reverse the damage that had been done in revealing the truth of what his parents truly were.
"You sent them? The documents, the pictures…and what about those videos from-"
"This is me, remember? I wouldn't forget those, they're really the icing on the cake. I wish I could be a fly on the fall when it all gets to the judge."
They had come so far, but then they had thought themselves near the end before, only to have another level of the Graysons' devpravity rise to their attention. If they were to have victory pulled from their grasp yet again…he wasn't sure how much more disappointment Emily could take.
She was tired of all this, he could hear it in her voice now and he had seen it in her eyes for weeks.
"How much longer until everything's fully encrypted?"
"Oh, it's all wrapped up in a nice anonymous bundle. I hit 'send' about half an hour after my program finished the encryption."
"Why did you wait half an hour?"
He tried for a joke, "I'd just done my nails, didn't want to risk chipping the polish."
As far as his jokes went, that one didn't go far. He told himself she just hadn't heard that brilliant line.
"And everything is in place for the trial?"
On the other end of the line, Nolan ran his fingertips over the tablet screen, idly looking over the audio files, the photos and documents that had just made their way from his computer to one in the law offices of Sheffield & Hapley, which housed the prosecutors who – God willing – would put the Graysons away for the rest of their lives.
"Yes ma'am, I sent everything to our lovely prosecutor from an untraceable e-mail account. She'll have everything she needs to hang Conrad and Victoria before she finishes her first cup of coffee tomorrow morning."
"Positively positive, babe." He could hear the tension in her voice and attempted to reassure her, "Emily, this will all be over soon."
Stepping into her house, Emily allowed herself to smile. "Now there's a thought. I don't know what I'll do - ugh!"
Nolan shot out of his chair at the noise. "What was that? Emily, are you there? Emily!"
Through the phone, he could hear the sounds of a struggle.
There was no time to stop and mull over things; loyal dog that he was, Nolan grabbed his keys and booked it to Emily's.
The car, lovingly referred to as the Rossmobile by its owner, shot down the road – a gleaming silver bullet of steel at 90 miles an hour. Nolan didn't care if he attracted the attention of police, he'd gladly lead them in a chase straight to Emily's and pay whatever fine he incurred thanks to his reckless driving.
The roar of the engine and the squeal of the tires cut through the still night as the car swung hard around the curve of the street. At any other time, Nolan might have congratulated himself on his badass driving skills, but his mind was racing with real fear for his friend.
Come on, come on, I have to get there!
Nolan skidded to a hard stop before Emily's beach house and launched himself out of the car, long legs carrying him up the walkway. He'd caught the scent of fire the moment he left the car, and as he neared the house he could see flames in the windows.
"Oh my God, Emily!"
Heart pounding, Nolan ran harder than he ever had in his life, but stopped short as a figure came into view on the curve of the walk.
He moved closer and found that, no, it was not Emily standing in the darkness before him.
It was Victoria, simply standing, watching as the fire spread throughout the house.
Nolan pulled her arm, turning her to face him. "What happened? Victoria, where's Emily? Is Emily still in there? Tell me!"
She looked away from the flames, but her eyes weren't meeting his, she was looking straight through the man. "It was her – all the trouble started when that girl came here…now she's gone and everything will be the way it was…"
Nolan saw then, what she had done, how far Victoria was willing to go and how broken she'd become.
Not that he was in any way sympathetic.
He lashed out, long fingers curling into a hard bony fist aimed with a decade's worth of anger straight for Victoria Grayson's frozen face. She went down hard, and he didn't waste any more time with her. She was finished.
The man was scared as he ran toward the house, truly terrified, but more afraid to give in to his own cowardice. He'd failed Emily in the past, he'd be damned if he failed her now. The heat of the fire roared even from the yard, radiating out to him, pulsing with each step his took toward the house. Sweat beaded on his skin and his hair whipped in the wind.
Nolan reached the deck and took a deep breath of air, then rallied himself and kicked open the front door. There was no hesitation as the man plunged into the heat.
His eyes flooded as a wave of smoke and drifting embers hit his face but Nolan blinked away the tears. The house was swarmed with flames, the greedy fire feasting on the walls, the pillar, the stairs, the curtains and the furniture. His heart pounded in his chest – he had to find her.
Nolan coughed but forced his voice through the smoky catch in his throat, "Emily! Damn it, Emily, answer me!"
He moved about the flames in his desperate search through the first floor of the house but he saw her then, the length of the woman sprawled across the living room floor, behind the sofa. Nolan shoved the couch out of his way and knelt beside her, silently praying that she was still alive.
He touched her head, turning her face toward him but his hand came away from her with blood smeared over his palm. Emily did not open her eyes. He couldn't tell if she was breathing.
"Oh, God – Emily, wake up, please wake up!"
The fire was growing with each second, the smoke outside rising in a great black geyser. Flames were licking about them, creeping ever closer; the house was being devoured. He could hear the sound of cracking wood coming from above – soon the roof would cave in fully upon them.
There was no time. If he couldn't get them out of the house, then they would die together in the fire.
Nolan wasn't ready to die – and he wanted Emily to have the chance to do more with her life than obsess over those who'd wronged her family.
We are not dying here.
Nolan stripped off his blazer and put it over Emily, then lifted her into his arms and carried her toward the door. He was stronger than even he knew. Stinging sweat dripped into his eyes, but Nolan surged forward, determined that, even if Emily was already dead, he wouldn't let her be buried in the burning rubble of her father's house – the unknown girl that the world forgot.
No. She deserved better than that, damn it, and so did he.
The man grit his teeth against the stench of his own burning skin and hair as he shoved his way past the twisted debris blocking the doorway.
Fresh air swept over them as he crossed the threshold – the summer air seeming arctic compared to the furious, smothering heat within the house.
Nolan hustled away from the fire and knelt on the grass, laying Emily down on the lawn before him. The crackling burn of the house was too loud for the man to tell if she was breathing; he took two deep breaths for himself before he tilted Emily's head back, covered her mouth with his own and breathed life back into her body. He pressed his hands to her chest and pumped, then gave her breath once more.
Nolan cried out and nearly wept in relief when Emily coughed and began gasping for air on her own, taking great gulps of fresh air. She rolled to her side, coughing painfully, spitting and groaning. She looked like hell but the woman was alive – beautifully, vividly alive!
He rose over her and cupped her face in his hands, pressing his forehead against hers. "You're alive, I knew it, I knew it – Ems, you're too damn stubborn to die!" He laughed, joy swelling in his chest and erupting in his wide smile and tears.
Emily continued her hacking cough and turned away from him, groaning at the pain of each breath her lungs struggled to take. Nolan knelt beside her as she rolled onto her side once more, her body fighting, lurching in its furious demand to survive. He put his hand on her, alternately rubbing her back and shoulders as she fought to breathe.
Nolan watched her through watery eyes and felt the hammering of his heart begin to slow. Emily was alive, that was what mattered, but she was hurt. Blood was still oozing from the wound on her head. They needed help and so did the house. His earlier panic slid away in the tide of his relief, and the man was once again able to think.
He took a deep breath and reached for his cell phone.
All he could do was wait for the police to arrive and watch as Emily's house burned into the night.