Max's brow furrowed. "Even if she could, surely that would kill her."
"Exactly," said Tao. "Not that she'd heal someone who's suspected of several murders. You could say he's dug his own grave, in a roundabout way." Needing to speak to Trey, Tao dug out his cell and dialed the Alpha's number.
After just two rings, Trey answered. "Yep?"
"Did you call Ramón?"
Trey hesitated, as if surprised by the question. "Yeah. I explained that Taryn wouldn't be able to help and wished him luck finding a healer who could. Not that he listened. He's called several times since then. We ignored the calls and let them go to voice mail. Each message is an offer of yet more money. The last offer exceeded a quarter of a million."
"Shit." Tao scrubbed a hand down his face. "Well, he's not fucking happy that you aren't accepting his offers, and he's pissed at me for not impressing upon you just how serious he is. The son of a bitch not only somehow got my number and called me; he had someone follow us here."
"Yeah. And that someone just fucking shot at Riley."
"The bullet grazed her arm, but it hit her uncle's shoulder. Luckily, he's going to be fine."
"What, what's going on?" asked Taryn in the background.
"Don't lose your shit, baby," said Trey, "but Riley was shot at."
"Are you kidding me?" Taryn fairly shrieked. Tao and Riley both winced.
"His uncle took the bullet, not her," Trey told his mate. "Hang on, I'll put Tao on speakerphone. Tao, tell us exactly what happened."
Tao relayed his conversation with Ramón and then gave them a rundown of what had happened after the call.
Trey swore again. "You're sure Ramón's behind it?"
"It's too much of a coincidence that the shooting happened right after the call." The bastard would pay for it. His wolf, pacing angrily, growled his agreement. He wanted to taste Ramón's blood, to rip him apart limb from fucking limb.
"I don't think he meant for her to be killed, Tao. I think it was just a warning. The kind of guys who work for people like Ramón Veloz don't miss."
Fair point, but it didn't make Tao feel any better. "We'll be back tomorrow morning-"
"It might be best if you stay there a little longer. If any of his people are lurking around Exodus territory, they might make a grab for you as you leave. Then we really would be fucked, because the guy would no doubt threaten to kill both of you unless Taryn heals his brother-and that would likely kill her. None of us want to be put in that kind of position."
Riley folded her arms and declared, "I'm not leaving until Ethan's fully recovered, Tao."
"His wound will be almost fully healed by tomorrow," Tao told her.
"Shifters heal fast, sure, but ravens sleep deeply when they're injured," she said. "They can be weak for a few days afterward. I'm not leaving until he's one hundred percent fine."
Seeing the stubborn set of her jaw, Tao spoke to Trey. "We'll stay awhile. What are you going to do about Ramón?"
"Call him back," said Trey. "Impress upon him just how pissed I am and make him hear me loud and clear when I say that Taryn can't help his brother. We'll also tighten security in case the persistent bastard tries taking a shot at anyone on our territory. I'll keep you updated. Watch your back and take care of Riley." The line went dead, and Tao slid his phone back into his pocket.
"Tao," called Max, "help me get him upstairs."
With a nod Tao went to Ethan's side and helped Max support his weight as they ascended the stairs. "Why hasn't anyone responded to the shots?" Tao asked.
"A lot of humans go hunting around these parts," said Max
. "Gunshots don't raise any alarm bells. I'll call Sage in a minute. If there's a human loitering around the perimeter, they'll be found."
Following them into the bedroom, Riley watched as Tao and Max eased Ethan onto the bed. She'd never once seen Ethan hurt or weak. It chilled her to see him so pasty and . . . vulnerable. The wound might be closed, but it still made her stomach roll.
He'd be okay, he would.
She was hit with a sudden memory of telling herself the same thing as she'd seen her father lying in his own bed, weak and pale. She'd assured herself that he'd be fine, that he was just tired, that her mom would be back soon. Only he wasn't fine, and her mom didn't come back.
And suddenly she wasn't looking at her uncle anymore. She was looking at her father. She was four years old, standing by his bed and grabbing his big hand with hers. Ethan and Sage were arguing. Ethan said this wasn't the place for her; that she shouldn't have to watch her dad fade away. Sage had argued that she might be enough to make her father hold on and stay. But she hadn't been enough; he hadn't held on. He'd let go. She'd thought that maybe he'd come back and bring her mom with him. But he hadn't, he'd left her, and she'd hated him for it.
Swamped by the overwhelming despair she hadn't felt in a long while, Riley wanted to turn and flee, but she felt rooted to the spot. Her muscles were sore and stiff from standing so still, but she genuinely couldn't move. And as the memories slapped her one after the other, a heavy weight descended on her.
As it had long ago, it pulled her under until she felt numb and completely disconnected from what was happening right in front of her. Sound seemed to disappear from the room, and she felt alone. Empty. Cold. She'd been in this dark place before, a place where no one could reach her. Maybe it was better that way, because what kind of person hated their father for dying?
As Max left the room to call Sage, Tao glanced at Riley. She was unnaturally still, her shoulders tight and her stare vacant. Something about the sight made the hair on his nape and arms stand on end.
Crossing to her, Tao turned her to face him. Her eyes met his, but there was nothing there. He could almost see her retreating into herself, closing herself off from everything around her. He knew exactly what he was looking at. He remembered his orphaned cousin doing the same thing smack-dab in the middle of a street as an ambulance went by.
Seeing Ethan hurt had acted as a grief trigger.
Cursing himself for not having considered what the situation might do to her, Tao cupped her cheeks. "Riley? Riley, look at me." She didn't respond. Hell, she didn't even seem to see him. His wolf raked at Tao, wanting him to do something. "Ethan's fine, baby, he's just sleeping." Still she didn't respond.
Panicking a little now, Tao lightly slapped her cheek. "Riley, come back to me." It was a whisper, but it held a command. "He's going to be fine, I swear that to you." When she still gave no reaction, his wolf almost lost his fucking mind.
Wondering if prodding her temper might work, Tao collared her throat in a move that was both dominant and possessive-a move that would make any dominant female bristle. Her eyes sparked with anger and he almost fucking sighed with relief. "That's it; good girl."
She licked her lips, back with him now. But her breathing was shallow and barely audible. Tao put her hand on his chest. "I need you to breathe with me. Deep breaths, okay? In and out, come on." She breathed with him over and over, never once breaking eye contact. "You good now?"