We are taking book requests on our companion website. You can request books here. Make sure, you are following the rules.

Bring Me Back: Chapter 9

JAMES

My phone buzzes on my nightstand, and I roll over to see my brother’s name on the screen.

This can’t be good. It’s after midnight, and Leo only calls me when he’s in trouble. I swipe my thumb across the screen. “What did you do now?”

“James, you need to come next door.”

The alarm in his voice and his use of my name has me shooting up out of bed. “What’s wrong?”

I glance at Phoenix’s bedroom window, but it’s dark.

“She’s hurt.”

I bolt into the hallway. “Did you call an ambulance?”

“No. She doesn’t want me to.”

“How bad is it?”

“Just get here.”

I’m already out the door and sprinting across the lawn. When I get to her porch, I burst through Phoenix’s front door. “Where are you?”

“Up here,” Leo’s voice calls, as light spills into the hallway from the bathroom.

I take the stairs by twos and hear Phoenix’s feeble voice say, “Why did you call him?”

I don’t know what I expected to see when I got into the bathroom, but the sight of her lying in Leo’s arms on the tile, covered in blood and bruises wasn’t it.

A strangled groan slips out of my throat, and my stomach lurches. I drop to my knees beside my brother. “Who did this to her?”

Leo swallows. “It’s my fault. I took her to the fight—”

“You what?”

“She wanted to go. We were only supposed to watch.”

“I’m okay,” she croaks out. “Just have a headache.”

My eyes roam over her injuries. Most of the blood is coming from a cut above her eyebrow, but she’s hugging her midsection, curled in a ball. She might have a broken rib, or internal bleeding.

I could kill my brother for taking her to a place so dangerous. But now’s not the time to lay into Leo about the dangers of underground fighting. I need to focus on helping Phoenix.

I cut a glare at my brother. “Go home.”

His eyes widen. “What? No. I can help.”

“You’ve done enough. She wouldn’t be in this situation if it weren’t for you.”

He drops his chin, but Phoenix slips her hand inside mine. “Let him help, James. Please.”

I stare down at her small swollen hand in mine, and it’s in this moment I realize I’ll do anything she asks me to.

“Fine.” I heave a sigh and jerk my chin at my brother. “Get ice and wrap it in a dish towel. Then find something for the pain.”

Leo jumps up and dashes into the hall.

“He needs to do this.” Phoenix’s eyelids droop closed, her split lips barely moving when she speaks. “Don’t push him away.”

I brush her hair away from her face. “I’m gonna need you to stay awake, babe.”

She blinks a few times, and then her eyes trail down my chest. “Where’s your shirt?”

I glance down at my gray sweatpants. “I came as fast as I could. I didn’t think about clothes or shoes.”

She shakes her head. “I told him not to bother you.”

Acid fills my stomach. Bother me?

I cradle her face between my palms, careful to be as gentle as I can. “Why do you keep thinking you’re bothering me, huh? Who told you that you’re a bother?”

Her eyes bounce between mine and her voice lowers to a whisper. “Everything hurts, James.”

The vulnerability in her voice cracks open my heart. She’s being strong for Leo, but with me, she’s letting her guard down.

“I’m going to take care of you, Phoenix.”

She groans. “Stop calling me that.”

My lips twitch. Got her ass beat, yet she’s still as stubborn as an ox.

Leo bursts into the room with the supplies. He presses the ice on her eye, and she hisses.

“We need to get this swelling down.” I look up at Leo. “I still think she should go to the hospital.”

“No!” Phoenix recoils, clutching her ribs. “Ow. Please, no hospital.”

Leo lifts a shoulder. “We can easily carry her to the car.”

Phoenix pushes off the floor and tries to get up, the ice scattering onto the tile around her. “I won’t go. You can’t make me.” She winces and holds her head as she sways. “Please. I can’t go.”

“Okay, okay.” I hold her steady.

Leo slips the Tylenol into her mouth and tilts her head back as she washes them down with water. He collects the ice cubes and wraps the towel around them again. “Keep this on, Nixie.”

Within minutes, the towel is soaked with blood.

“You guys can go now. I’ll be fine. I just need to sleep it off.”

My grip on her tightens. “You can’t sleep yet. Not like this. I need to get you cleaned up so I can see what’s going on under all that blood.”

Leo and I wrap each of her arms around our shoulders as we stand. Phoenix grits her teeth, breathing hard through her nostrils. She has a bruised rib, at the very least.

“A hot bath will be good for your muscles.” I reach down and twist the lever on the faucet in the tub. “Leo, I’m going to take it from here.”

He looks from the tub to Phoenix.

She rests her head on his shoulder. “As much as you want to see my tits, I can’t allow it.”

He cracks a sad smile. “You’ll call me if you need me though, right?”

“I always need you, little bro.”

Something settles in his worried eyes. It amazes me how she knows exactly what he needs to hear when she’s only known him for a short while.

“She’s gonna be okay.” I offer Leo a tight nod. “You did good calling me.”

He ducks out of the bathroom and closes the door quietly behind him.

Phoenix props herself against the sink and starts to unbutton her jeans. I turn away to give her privacy and dip my hand into the water to feel the temperature before putting the plug into place. But her grunts as she struggles pull my attention back to her.

I tip her chin and look into her deep-brown eyes. “I’m going to help you. If you feel uncomfortable at any point, you tell me to stop. Okay?”

She nods.

I kneel in front of her and drag her jeans down over her ass and hips, going as slow and as careful as I can. I cup her calf and lift her leg, pulling it out of the pant leg before switching to the other.

I avert my eyes from her black lace thong and try to think of anything but the fact that I’m on my knees in front of her beautiful body, stripping off her clothes.

I return to standing and suck in a deep breath. “This next part is going to hurt. I’m gonna need you to lift your arms so I can get you out of this shirt.”

She picks up her arms, and her whimpers of pain are like knife pricks to my heart. I pull off the shirt and tank top underneath in one swift movement so I don’t have to do it twice, leaving her in a black sports bra.

I suppress a frustrated growl when I spot the reddish-purple splotch along her ribs. “I’m going to yell at you properly when you’re feeling better.”

A smirk twists her lips. “Too bad you don’t scare me.”

“Apparently nothing scares you, because you got the shit kicked out of you and you’re over here cracking jokes.”

I wrap my arm around her waist and guide her over to the tub. She holds on to me while she lifts each leg and steps into the water, and I take all her weight as she lowers herself down.

“Ow, fuck. I don’t think I can lean back.” A tear escapes and rolls down her cheek, and she covers her face with her hands. “I’m so stupid. Why did I get myself into this mess?”

Fuck no. I tear off my sweatpants, toss them to the floor, and step into the tub. I lower myself behind Phoenix, my legs on either side of her, and settle her back against my chest as I wrap her in my arms.

“You’re not stupid.”

She sniffles. “I haven’t looked in the mirror. Is it bad?”

“I’ve seen worse. Did you at least get any hits in?”

“A few.”

“Good.” I reach for the washcloth and lather it with the soap that’s sitting on the ledge against the wall. Then I tip her head back, resting it on my shoulder, and begin washing the blood off her face. I drag it over her cheek, pressing as light as I can.

She’s quiet as I continue to scrub her skin clean. “Stay awake, Phoenix. You can’t go to sleep yet.”

She stifles a yawn. “I’m just so sleepy.”

“Yeah, that’s part of a concussion. Which is why I wanted to take you to the hospital.”

“I don’t like hospitals.”

“No one does.”

“This is different.”

I dip the washcloth under the water and wring it out before smoothing it over her other cheek. “Bad memories?”

She nods.

“Will you tell me about it?”

“Maybe one day.”

It’s better than a no, so I take it. She doesn’t owe me anything.

We all have secrets.

“Lucky for you, the cut over your eyebrow doesn’t look like it needs stitches. But you’ll have a decent scar there for sure.”

“Add it to the collection,” she murmurs.

My eyes flick to the thin line of raised skin along the inside of her forearm. It boils my blood to think about someone hurting her.

Her eyes droop closed again, so I think of something to keep her awake. “How’s the adoption event coming along?”

“I booked the venue. It’ll be the week before Christmas.”

“That’s good. Lots of people will be looking to surprise their loved ones with a new puppy for the holidays.”

“That’s what I’m hoping for.” She pauses for a moment, her eyes searching the ceiling. “Do you think they’ll all get adopted?”

“I don’t know. But we’ll make sure everyone knows about the event.”

“We?” Her eyes flick to mine.

“Yeah. The guys at the station and I can leave flyers around the neighborhood. That should help spread the word.”

The corners of her lips turn downward.

“What’s wrong?”

She sighs. “I just… I can’t figure you out.”

“What do you mean?”

“You keep helping me, and I don’t know why.”

“Is it so strange for someone to want to help a person who needs it?”

“It is for me.”

My stomach sours at the thought of Phoenix being all alone at a time when she needed someone the most and having no one. “Remember what I said last night? I’ve got your six now. And so does Leo—even if I’m going to have to rip him a new asshole for taking you to the fight.”

She chuckles and then coughs, gripping her ribs.

I scrub the bloodstains from her face and run the cloth over her neck and chest.

Her voice echoes off the tile. “Can I ask you something?”

“Shoot.”

“Why did you text me last night?”

My hand freezes with the washcloth on her shoulder. “Uh, I couldn’t sleep.”

She hums. “It was pretty late. My friend thinks you were looking for a booty call.”

My chin jerks back. “What?”

“Don’t look so disgusted. I told him you’re not into me like that.”

“I’m not disgusted. I…” Surprise wraps itself around my throat. “I don’t do booty calls. Did I say something to make you think that’s what I was insinuating?”

“No.”

“I know it was late.” I try to think of a plausible reason to give her, but her friend is right. It was late. And I can’t lie to her. I pinch the bridge of my nose, and blurt out, “I saw you crying through your window, and I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Her eyebrows knit together. “You were looking through my window?”

I let out a frustrated sigh. “Our bedrooms face each other. I was about to go to sleep, and I glanced up and saw you. You looked upset.”

Her eyes narrow. “What else have you seen through my window?”

“Nothing.” I squeeze her hand under the water. “I promise, I’m not some Peeping Tom. If I saw you were getting undressed, I’d have looked away.”

She lifts an eyebrow as if she doesn’t believe me.

Fuck. How am I going to explain this? What am I supposed to say? Because I can’t go with the truth, since the truth is me telling her, Phoenix, I swear I’m not looking through your window because I’m some kind of voyeuristic pervert. It’s because I can’t not look at you. I can’t stop myself from checking in on you and making sure you’re okay. There’s something about you that draws me in and makes me want to protect you, the same way you want to protect those puppies from life in the shelter, because you’re too good and too innocent to deserve a life like this, and something tells me you haven’t been protected by anyone your whole life. I couldn’t save my mom, and I can’t stop my brother from hurting himself, and for once I just want to be enough to make somebody feel like everything’s going to be okay because I’m here.

No, I can’t say that.

“I’m sorry, Phoenix. I—”

She squeezes her eyes shut and reaches up to press her palm to her forehead. “It’s throbbing so bad.”

“Come on, let’s get you dried off. I want to keep icing your head to keep the swelling down.” I help her stand and wrap a towel around her, easing her legs over the edge of the tub.

She blinks up at me while I squeeze the water out of the ends of her hair. “You’re a caretaker.”

“I am.”

“That’s a learned behavior, you know.”

I roll my lips together and work the towel down her arms. “What does that mean?”

“It means you grew up thinking you had to take care of your family, instead of them taking care of you.”

I drop my arms and let the towel hang at my side. Memories of my mother flash through my mind.

Phoenix lifts her hand to my face, grazing her fingertips against my jaw. “You save everyone, but who saves you?”

I swallow around the ball of emotion in my throat. “Maybe I don’t need saving.”

“We all need saving every once in a while.”

Her big brown eyes stare into mine with such sincerity, I lose all sense for a moment. My fingers move of their own volition, trailing along the hollow of her neck and tracing the curve of her bare shoulder. She sways closer, her lips parting and drawing every ounce of my attention.

But she’s taken more than a few hits to the head, and the last thing I want is her to make a decision like this when she’s not in the right frame of mind.

So I bend down and lift her, cradling her bruised body in my arms. “Right now, it’s you who needs saving.”

She directs me to her bedroom, and I help her into her pajamas. Then I make her another ice pack for her head.

When she’s settled in bed, she presses the ice against her eye. “How much longer until I can fall asleep?”

“Give me another thirty minutes, and I think you should be okay. You haven’t thrown up, and your pupils don’t look dilated.”

“Yes, Dr. Russo.” She smiles, but it fades just as fast. “You don’t have to stay. I promise I’ll follow your orders and stay up for another half hour.”

I climb onto the mattress beside her, propping myself against the headboard, and fold my hands over my stomach.

“James.”

“Phoenix.”

An irritated sound leaves her throat. “Why won’t you stop calling me that?”

“Why won’t you tell me the reason you don’t like it when I call you that?”

“Will you stop if I tell you?”

I shrug. “Maybe.”

She lets out a bitter laugh. “That’s what I thought.”

“You can tell me, you know. You can talk to me.”

It’s quiet for a few minutes, and just when I think she’s falling asleep again, her voice fills the quiet room. “A phoenix rises from the ashes. It’s a symbol of strength.”

“So, what’s wrong with that?”

“I’m not strong.”

Ah, there’s the truth. “Most strong people don’t actually feel like they’re strong. Doesn’t make it any less true.”

“Trust me, I’m not. I don’t know what my father was thinking when he picked this name. It’s just a constant reminder of how un-phoenixlike I am.”

I roll onto my side to face her. “That’s not what I see.”

She peeks at me from under the ice pack. “And what do you see?”

“I see someone who’s still here. Someone who makes the choice to wake up and live every single morning. You’re working on the house to make it better. You run to keep yourself healthy. You want to learn new things, like how to cook. You help people, and you help animals. Regardless of what you’ve been through, you’re still standing. That seems pretty damn strong to me.”

Her eyes glisten as she blinks up at the ceiling, her chest heaving with shallow breaths.

Is this what she thinks about when she’s alone in her room?

I lower my voice to a whisper. “Why do you cry every night?”

She turns her head and sets her questioning gaze on me.

“What’s making you so sad, Phoenix?”

Her bottom lip trembles. “Do you ever wish you were someone else? Like not anybody specific, but that you could be… different. A better version of yourself.”

My chest aches. “I’ve felt like that before.”

“When?”

“When my mom died.”

Phoenix sets down the ice pack and winces as she shifts onto her side to face me.

We’re so close, I can feel her warm breath against my lips when she says, “I wouldn’t want you to be anyone else.”

Heat crawls over my skin, a mixture of calm and comfort, seeping into my pores and settling deep into my bones. “You want to know what I think? I think you call yourself Nix because you don’t accept the power in your name. You don’t think you deserve it. And I can’t for the life of me figure out why.” I press my index finger into her chest. “You don’t recognize the strength you possess. But I see it. It’s who you are. Your soul is a phoenix, whether you believe it or not. And one day, you’re going to burn your demons to the ground and rise above it all.” Tears stream down her cheeks, and I thumb them away as they fall. “If you want to be a better version of yourself, then be it. Nothing wrong with that. But maybe you already are the best version of yourself, and you just don’t see it yet.”

A quiet sob racks her body, and we lie like this in silence until her lids close. I let her drift off to sleep, but right before she’s out cold, she whispers one more thing into the darkness.

“I’m glad you broke into my house that night, James.”

I smile and press my lips to her forehead.

So am I.


Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset