She wished it were possible to spare Annie, but the only way to get through something like this was to keep going. There weren’t any shortcuts.
“It’s okay,” she kept whispering to Annie, holding her trembling hand. “It’ll be okay.”
And then they were parked in front of the McCallister mansion, and Annie opened her eyes and said, “I know. I’m safe with you.”
And Bryn’s heart broke, just a little bit more, because Annie wasn’t safe anywhere anymore. She knew better than anyone that the drugs would have made Annie susceptible to all kinds of orders, made her capable of terrible things that the regular woman never would have considered. Mercer had invoked Protocols on Annie, and there was no telling how much she’d been compromised.
But just for now, at least, she was too weak to do much damage.
Annie stayed oddly passive as she healed up.
Bryn stayed with her, helped her shakily undress (those clothes would have to be incinerated), and helped her scrub down in the big claw-foot tub in the guest room next to Bryn’s. This one was called the Harvest Room, and it was decorated in muted autumnal colors, with reds and greens and yellows. Soothing and rich, as all the rooms in this ancestral pile of stone were. Annie didn’t even notice. She ran the shower for nearly an hour, until her skin was once again pink and clear and healthy. Her hair was thinner, but that would take time to regrow. At least she’d had plenty to work with in the first place.
Bryn dressed her in a pale pink robe, gown, and slippers, and tucked her into bed before asking Liam for some clear soup. He had it up to them in minutes, as if he had been waiting for the call. Annie didn’t speak, didn’t make a sound, but she obediently spooned up the chicken broth, and her hand trembled only a little.
Her eyes were clear now, but very distant.
“Sweetie?” Bryn said, and took the empty bowl and spoon to put aside. She put a hand on her sister’s forehead. “Hey. Do you feel okay now?”
“Fine,” Annie said. Her voice, like the frozen stare, was dim and far away. “Thanks for coming for me. I was…I was afraid.”
“Of course you were,” Bryn whispered, and smoothed the rich brown curls. “I’m so sorry, baby. I’m so sorry you got caught up in this. It’s my fault. I should have made you turn around and go home first thing. I should never have let you stay with me, not even for a minute. But I wanted you here. I wanted to feel…alive. You helped me to do that. It was selfish, and I am so sorry.”
Annie’s gaze moved to focus on her, and her sister raised a pale hand to touch Bryn’s face. “Not your fault,” she said. “I shouldn’t have fallen for it. But he was so cute.”
She must have meant Fast Freddy. Annalie had been on her way to the airport, headed home, when she’d disappeared; nobody had been able to pinpoint how that had happened, but now Bryn understood. Somewhere along the way, maybe even at the airport, her sister had run into Fast Freddy, and he’d sweet-talked her into a drink before her flight. Or something more intimate; there were hotels you could get to without even leaving the terminal. But instead of getting a free margarita, or a cheerfully sexual good time, Annie had gotten something else entirely.
Because Freddy liked killing women. He was good at it. And Mercer would have allowed that to happen, then administered the shots to bring Annie back, simply because she was someone he could use against Bryn.
I’m not going to cry, Bryn ordered herself fiercely. I can’t. Her sister needed her strength, not her self-pity. She could let that out later, in private, where only the dog could hear and sympathize, but now she had to be the older sister, and hold it together.
“You’re going to be fine now. I promise,” Bryn said. “You’re safe. Freddy’s not coming near you again. Neither of them is.” She swallowed hard. “Annie, I’m sorry to have to do this, but I need you to listen. I’m invoking Condition Sapphire.”
Annie’s gaze snapped to hers, suddenly and intensely unnerving. That wasn’t Annie looking at her. That was the nanites, waiting for a command.
“Cancel all previously invoked Protocols,” Bryn said. “Confirm Condition Sapphire.” These were Pharmadene codes, built for military operations; Mercer had developed them, and he would have used them on Annie. He’d tried to use them on Bryn, before Patrick had helped her find Manny Glickman and develop the blocking agents.
“Confirmed,” Annie’s voice said, but again, it wasn’t Annie’s at all. There was a cool, mechanical tone to it. “Protocols canceled.”
And then the shine in her sister’s eyes faded, and it was just Annie, shivering. Bryn adjusted the blanket around her. “It’s okay,” she told her. “You’re okay now.”
Annie, for the first time, seemed to take an interest in where she was. “This is—where is it? Not your apartment.” She almost laughed, but it was more of a rasping sound. “I’ve been to your apartment. It’s not this fancy.”
“No. I don’t have that place anymore. I gave it up.”
“Well…” Bryn gestured around vaguely. “This was kind of…available. And it’s safer. And nicer.”
“Huh,” Annie said. She blinked. “It’s his house, isn’t it?”
“His family is. I don’t know that he’s personally dripping with it.”
Annie smiled a little. It was newborn and fragile, that expression, but at least it was an attempt. “Wow. Who knew you’d be the one to snag a billionaire? And I was really trying. I read books about it. I was thinking about going on one of those reality shows.”
“He’s not a billionaire,” Bryn insisted, and felt her cheeks heating up. “And you need to rest. Your body’s exhausted from the repairs. I’d give you something to help you sleep, but it doesn’t really work; the nanites burn it off fast.”
“Nanites,” Annie said. “There are times when I think this is all just a crazy drug trip. You know that, don’t you? We’re talking about tiny little machines. In my blood.” She was definitely much better, but she seemed drowsy. Exhausted. Maybe that was a good thing.
“I know it’s crazy.” Bryn kissed her forehead. She smelled like Annie now—clean, scrubbed, flowery as spring. But there was still something wintry in her expression, as if she’d never really let go of the fear again. “Please, try to sleep. I’ll check on you in the morning. I’ll be right next door.”
“Okay.” Annie kissed her when Bryn leaned down, then turned on her side. “Bryn?”
“Thank you,” Annie whispered, drugged by exhaustion. “Thank you for coming to get me.”
Bryn pulled the heavy tapestry coverlet up and over her, turned out the lamp, and left her bathed in the dim glow of the night-light. She didn’t want to leave her, but Bryn was exhausted herself, and full of a sharp, cutting tangle of emotions. She needed to talk, and she couldn’t with Annie.
She locked Annie’s door from the outside. Just in case. She changed out of her battle gear into a soft pair of pajamas and a thick robe, and then took Annie’s soup bowl and spoon downstairs to Liam.
He was in the kitchen, tidying up—there was never a spot, a crumb, or a thing out of place in this temple of culinary arts. He took the empties from her and rinsed them, then added them to the dishwasher racks. “You look tired,” he said. “I assume that Annie’s all right?”
“Better,” Bryn said. She wouldn’t go so far as to say all right, not without a full hearing of what Annie had been through. “Thanks. She needed something to eat.”
“Quite all right. If she’s hungry later, there are some premade things in the refrigerator you can heat up, or you can ring me.” Liam finished wiping down the sink and folded the rag before putting it in the laundry basket beneath the counter. “Are you in search of cocoa?”
“I could murder one,” she admitted. “Would you mind…? I know you’re probably off duty.”
“I live here, too,” Liam said, and sent her a sharp, kind smile as he got out four cups, cocoa, sugar, milk, and marshmallows. “And I make myself snacks from time to time. I expect we’ll have company as soon as they smell things heating.”
He was right about that. As he mixed and stirred the cocoa in a copper-bottom pot, Pat and Joe came in and took seats at the round kitchen table. Joe had a neatly applied bandage on the side of his head.
“I forgot to ask,” Bryn said. “Joe, how are you?”
“Flesh wound,” he said. “But Fast Freddy got me with a Taser from behind. My own fault. I should have known that little fucker is sneaky.”
She pointed at the bandage. “That’s from a Taser?”
“Nope, that’s from the gratuitous boot to the head after the Taser. Your friend Freddy’s a real piece of work.” Joe popped his jaw and winced. “Should have sawed his damn head off when we had the chance.”
“There were other problems at the time,” Pat said. “How’s Annie?”
“The shots are working. She seems better. Just tired. I’m letting her sleep.” She cleared her throat. “I canceled the Protocols. And just in case, I locked her door.”
He nodded, gaze lingering on her as if he was trying to tell without asking how she was. For her part, she wondered about him. He’d taken an awful risk, dropping Freddy like that with Joe’s life at stake. Even Joe had been rattled, and he didn’t spook easily.
Ice water in his veins. When Patrick had spotted the grenade, he hadn’t hit the deck; he’d calmly, methodically taken it away.
There were times when Bryn would swear Patrick, rather than she, was part machine. He could just…switch things off. She envied that a little.