“Will you look after Stella for me? Maybe now she’ll believe that the man she’s sleeping with is just waiting for the signal to kill her.”
“You could have gone another way. You could have talked to me, let me help you.” Simmons scrubbed the back of his neck wearily. “I’m really fucking sorry you didn’t.”
The deputy turned his back to Jim and the flanking deputies moved in.
The exhaustion Layla felt as she exited the courtroom was so profound, she felt almost as if she was drugged. Heaviness weighted her shoulders and eyelids, and her movements were sluggish enough to elicit concerned glances from the deputy beside her.
She hadn’t seen Brian in over twenty-four hours.
Her grief over that was a mixed blessing. It dulled her anxiety, which allowed her to get through the AUSA’s questioning. She faced more questions tomorrow, followed by cross-examination. She’d been dreading her court appearance for months, but now she was too consumed by fear and concern to devote any energy to nervousness.
“You did well today, Layla,” AUSA Terri LeBow said with a reassuring smile.
For a moment, the cold dark eyes of the man who’d shot her and murdered Agent Sandoval invaded Layla’s mind. As she’d relayed the events of that horrible night in Mexico to the jury, the reality of having her nightmare sitting just feet from her had brought a cold sweat to her skin. If not for the numbness brought on by Brian’s disappearance, she might have broken down into a sobbing, quivering mess.
“I want that bastard to pay,” she said with quiet grimness.
“We’ve got a strong case.” Terri slowed, then stopped before a closed door. She gestured to it. “If you could step in here for a moment, I’ll see about your escort.”
With a sigh, Layla entered the room. She paused when she found two men bent over paperwork on the table and a third one standing behind them. For a moment, she stepped back, thinking she was intruding by accident. Then the man farthest away from her straightened and looked at her.
She sucked in a ragged breath. “Brian!”
He met her halfway, crushing her to his chest. “Sweetheart. I’m sorry I wasn’t in the courtroom today; I had some things to take care of. I’ll be there with you tomorrow.”
“I don’t care about that. I was worried sick about you.” She pulled back to examine him. “Are you okay?”
“I will be.” His smile had an edge. He looked tired, but there was an air of anticipation that lent him energy.
The other men in the room departed, the smiles on their faces defusing some of her worry. Still, she had to ask, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” He looked down at her with heated eyes. “Depending on what you say next, things could be really damn right.”
A flutter tickled her tummy. “Oh?”
Brian urged her toward a chair and she sat. He inhaled a deep breath, then sank to one knee.
“Oh my God,” she breathed, feeling dizzy.
He reached into his back pocket and withdrew a ring box.
Her heart hammered in her chest. “What are you doing?”
“Getting ready to tell you I love you,” he said softly. “And then asking you to marry me.”
Her eyes fell to the ring he revealed, a large round diamond in an antique platinum setting. Her hands lifted to her mouth.
“Layla Creed. I love you and I really need you to marry me.”
She looked at him over her fingers, her breathing rough and eyes wide. “What . . . ? How ... ?”
Smiling, he explained, “I signed the contract to join you in WITSEC. The two gentlemen who left the room work for the county. One can get us squared away with a marriage license and the other can marry us in a civil ceremony. In about an hour, you can own me for life.”
“I don’t already?” she asked hoarsely, joking because her brain was unable to fully grasp the enormity of what he was offering to do for her.
“Let’s make it official. We can make it pretty in a few months with a proper ceremony, once we settle wherever we’re going to end up.”
Layla exhaled in a rush, her hand lowering to touch the gorgeous ring. “Your job ... ?”
He pulled the ring free of its velvet box and slid it onto her finger. “I’ve got money socked away from the sale of the house and the past five years of doing nothing but working. You’ll get through school, then we’ll start our own security firm. I can’t imagine anything that would make me happier.”
She cupped his cheek. Her lower lip quivered.
“Well?” he prompted. “I’m dying here.”
His brows rose.
“If you wake me up,” she warned, “I’m going to kick your ass.”
His laughter broke through the chill she’d felt all day. “No more dreaming, baby. I want the real deal.”
“What are the odds that we’d get this second chance?”
“Slim to none. Don’t blow it.”
Layla leaned forward and pressed her forehead to his. “I won’t.”
“Is that a yes?”
“That’s a hell yes.”
Brian stood and pulled her up with him, lifting her into the air.
“It won’t be easy,” she warned, remembering vividly how hard it was for her in the beginning of the program.
“I can take the heat.”
Wrapping her arms around his shoulders, Layla seized what she wanted. “Take me instead,” she purred.
“’Till death do us part,” he vowed, carrying her to the door.