To my Hubby, the love of my life, who makes it possible for me to pursue my dreams. And to Sir, who’s taught me more than I ever thought possible. Cheese!
This one’s also for Scudder, who was the inspiration for Doogie. We’ll always love you, Buddy-butt. You’ll always be part of our pack. Wait for us at the Rainbow Bridge with the others and say hi to them for us. We’ll see you all again one day.
While the books in the Suncoast Society series are standalone works, the recommended reading order to avoid spoilers is as follows:
3.Domme by Default
4.The Reluctant Dom
5.The Denim Dom
Tony is also a minor character in Domme by Default and The Reluctant Dom. Tony and Shayla are featured in The Denim Dom. Tony also makes a vanilla appearance in Two Geeks and Their Girl. Sully, Mac, and Clarisse’s story is told in Safe Harbor. Seth and Leah are the focus of The Reluctant Dom. Tilly and her men are featured in Cardinal’s Rule.
Pain dragged her from the comfort of blissful, velvety dark unconsciousness. She didn’t dare move, not even to open her eyes. Muted, distorted sounds wound their way to her brain seemingly from down a long hall. Her throat hurt, inside and out, painful and scratchy.
Something moved next to her, startling her. Before she could think she turned her head. Fireworks of pain blossomed behind her eyes.
Fade to black…
“Is she awake?”
The nurse glanced up from her charts to the man who had stepped into the room. “Not yet.”
Rob looked past the monitors, the IVs, the respirator standing silent sentry next to the bed. At first, he had a hard time remembering if it was Monday or Tuesday.
He glanced at his phone.
For the first three days, Laura had been intubated, the respirator breathing for her. The neurologists thought it best to keep her in an induced coma to allow the brain swelling to subside.
“She still might not wake up for a while.” The nurse tried to sound kind, but she was a professional, had seen too much. Knew the odds. She also knew Rob could handle the truth.
Paramedics were all too familiar with the effects of trauma.
“I know.” But Laura had startled when he bent down next to her earlier. She was there. The monitors proved it. They had all gone off, recording her sudden agitation.
He leaned over the bed again and gently stroked the unconscious woman’s cheek. “Please, baby girl,” he whispered. “Come back to me. I love you.”
“I’m afraid visiting hours are well past over,” the nurse gently said. “You know I would normally let you stay, but I’m putting my foot down. You look horrible. You need to go home and get some real sleep. You’re going to collapse if you keep this up. That won’t do Laura any good. I promise we’ll call you immediately if there’s any change.”
Rob kissed Laura’s cheek and left, nodding to the deputy standing guard outside her ICU room before turning toward the elevators. It was after nine in the evening. Despite the late hour, on the way home he stopped by the sheriff’s office on the off chance Det. Thomas was in.
He wasn’t. There was nothing else Rob could do but go home and wait.
And that was all he’d done for the past four days.
He was sick of waiting. He couldn’t help Laura, and the police had yet to catch the sadistic fuck who’d attacked her last Friday.
Glimmers teased her mind—a dog’s tail impatiently flicking, a loud splash and muffled sounds like she was underwater, the gentle caress of a man’s touch and his tender words, the feel and sound of a hand smacking against bare flesh—
Her eyes snapped open and she couldn’t stop the scream. It came out sounding more like a croak. She tried to sit up, bringing new bursts of agony from all over her body as well as renewed screams, of pain instead of fear this time.
An older woman dressed in white ran in, shouting something she didn’t understand. Every movement brought new pain, and now she heard alarms going off.
A man. Where was the man who’d hurt her?
Where am I?
She should know this.
Another nurse and a man wearing blue scrubs ran in. He wasn’t the man, but she shrieked and thrashed, hitting at him, pulling away from him in instinctive, primal terror.
The first nurse wrapped an arm around her and she finally collapsed against her, crying.
She was awake, she hurt like hell, she didn’t know where she was, and worse…
She didn’t know who she was.
When Det. William Thomas’ cell phone rang at 4:00 a.m. Wednesday morning and jolted him from sleep, he suspected it wouldn’t be good news.
He grabbed it on the second ring. “Thomas.”
“Det. Thomas? This is Dr. Singh from Charlotte County Regional Medical Center. Laura Spaulding woke up twenty minutes ago. You instructed us to call you.”
Now he was more awake. It wasn’t as bad as he thought it might be. “Can she talk?”
“She’s still crying. She won’t let go of one of the nurses. Male staff can’t get within twenty feet of her. She nearly took my eye out when I tried to examine her.”
He scrubbed his face with his hand and sat up on the edge of the bed. “When can I question her?”
“You should wait a couple of hours. Maybe until later in the morning. Hopefully we can get her calm and stabilized by then. We’d rather avoid sedating her considering she just awoke from a coma.”
“Okay. I’ll be there in a little while and wait for you to clear it. Nobody, and I mean nobody, except medical staff and my deputies, gets in to see her until I get to talk to her.”
“Not even Rob?”
“Is he there?”
“No. The nurses ordered him home last night to sleep.”
“Has anyone called him yet?”
“He’s my next call.”
“Hold off. I’ll call him myself in a few minutes. I’ll make sure a female deputy gets sent over.”
“He won’t like it, but okay.”
Thomas hung up and dialed dispatch to get a female deputy sent over to the hospital. His second call was to Rob Carlton, Laura’s fiancé.
“I’ll be right over.”
“No, you won’t. She’s upset and combative and they don’t want to sedate her again. Meet me there at six.”
An ominous moment of silence followed. “She’s my fiancée.”
“Yes, and she’s also the victim of a violent crime. You want us to catch the animal who did this to her, then you need to not go barreling in there and scaring her.”
“I can talk to her, calm her.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But if you love her, you’ll wait. And if you don’t wait, I’ll call over and make sure they take you into custody if you try to get into that room.” He felt for the guy, he really did. However, Rob had to get it through his head that being emotional right now wasn’t in Laura’s best interest.
He waited for Rob to speak next.
“All right. Fine. I’ll be in the ICU waiting room.” Rob hung up on him.
As Thomas got up and headed for the shower, he knew he needed to get over to the hospital even sooner. Rob wasn’t the kind of guy who would tolerate being kept from the woman he loved very long. The last thing he wanted was to have the guy arrested.
When she finally calmed down, the nurse asked her if she wanted a drink of water. She nodded, and another nurse brought it. Her throat still hurt, the cold water setting off a coughing spell that made her ribs and stomach explode with agony.
She felt like passing out, but held on until the pain abated a little.
The second nurse took the cup from her while the first propped her up with some pillows. It took her three tries to get her swollen tongue to actually form coherent words.
The woman smiled. “I’m Nancy Russell. I’m the ICU nursing supervisor tonight.”
She shook her head.
Nancy Russell looked at the other woman. “That’s Linda Kelly. She’s your other nurse.”
She shook her head again, licked her lips, and tried again. It hurt so much to talk, she had to make it count this time. “My name.”
Nancy and Linda looked at each other. Nancy nodded toward the door. “Tell Dr. Singh we probably need someone from neuro. Stat.”
Thomas looked over the report one more time before leaving for the hospital.
Laura Spaulding, thirty-two, single but engaged. Last Friday evening, March third, the neighbor couple next to her condo heard something around 11:00 p.m. and the wife called 911.
The husband went over and knocked, then rushed in through the unlocked door when he heard the struggle, scaring the attacker off. The attacker—presumably a male based on the neighbor’s description, even though he didn’t see his face—ran through the back door. All they knew was an approximate height, and that the man’s hair was a lighter shade than her fiancé’s, and his build slimmer.
When the responding officers arrived they found Laura on the living room floor, unconscious. The neighbor had removed a rope that the attacker had wrapped around her neck. She’d been beaten nearly unrecognizable, choked, kicked, but not raped.
Probably only because her neighbor, Tom Edwards, had intervened. Very brutal. Potentially fatal, if not for the interruption.
She remained unconscious over four days. Mild cranial swelling, but it subsided on its own without surgery and it was too soon to tell how much, if any, brain damage had occurred. Cracked ribs. Lacerations, severe bruising. Whoever did this had it in for her in a bad way. It appeared to be more than just a random attack.
This looked like a rage-filled vendetta.
Her fiancé, Rob Carlton, had immediately been ruled out as a suspect. A county paramedic, at the time of the attack he’d been working a bad multi-car wreck on I-75, on the other side of the county, with at least ten other firemen and three Florida state troopers, not to mention several deputies, as witnesses. He’d also been caught in videos made by three cruiser dash cams on the scene, so there was no possibility anyone had lied to cover for him.
He was innocent.
Rob had spent the first forty-eight hours camped out either at her bedside in the ICU, or in the nurse’s lounge, curled up in a chair.
Thomas never met Rob before this, but deputies who had all universally said he seemed to be a nice guy, devoted to Laura. They’d been together for two years, engaged for six months.
The condo on her other side was vacant, the snowbird owners already back in Ohio for the summer. Two of the condos in the other building were also vacated by their snowbird owners, and the third was occupied by an elderly couple in their eighties, who’d been awakened by a deputy knocking on their door that night.
They were immediately ruled out as suspects, considering the husband needed a walker to get around and the wife had bad arthritis.
He’d also ruled out her coworkers and employees. No one had motive to hurt her, and everyone had alibis. The universal reaction to the attack was shock and anger, with more than one person expressing an interest in helping to save the state of Florida the expense of a trial when the perpetrator was caught.
One man, Steve Moss, an old family friend of Laura’s as well as a coworker, had offered Thomas the use of a wood chipper to take care of the attacker.
Thomas wondered if he’d be forced to deal with prosecuting a vigilante by the time this case was over.
Searches of her laptop, phone, iPad, and office computers also revealed nothing that would lead to a suspect.
Rob was already pacing in the ICU waiting room when Thomas arrived. In silence, they made their way past carts of breakfast trays to the ICU unit main desk. Laura’s door was closed, the shades drawn. A female deputy sat outside in a chair by the door.