CHAPTER EIGHT

-JULIANNA-

"You don't need to say word one to my husband," she said.

"But Mrs. DeLongeria, he will be very upset if we try to keep this from him." Michael Holburn was filled with the jittery energy of a man that knew he was about to face painful execution at the hands of his employer. He'd dropped the ball and knew it; she'd nearly died.

"I will tell him myself. Don't worry about it," Julianna said. It took her a moment to realize that she was compulsively wiping her hands on her slacks, fisting and wrinkling the fabric. She forced herself to stop, forced her hands to be still and stop trembling. "He's very busy right now and we handled the situation. I'll tell him myself when he comes home. There's no reason he needs to cut his trip short."

Holburn gave her a doubtful look, but there must have been something in her expression that kept him quiet. "Yes, ma'am," was all he said.

Julianna walked over to the couch and carefully lowered herself down. "Get out now. I don't want to see you for the rest of the day. Just... have someone bring me a cup of tea."

She waited until his footsteps faded away and there was the click of the door closing. Then... then she allowed herself to fall apart, just a little bit. Just enough.

She rested her hand on her baby swollen belly and lowered her chin against her chest as the first quietly desperate sob escaped her throat.

They'd almost died.

.

FLASH: She'd been contemplating putting her shoes on her feet and going out, but the idea really didn't appeal to her. It felt more like the kind of day where she could curl up on the couch and watch romcoms all day.

She didn't want to be responsible. She was pregnant. She deserved a break. There were so many excuses flowing through her brain for why she should be allowed to stay home.

There was the sound of footsteps and Holburn came into the living room. "It's time for us to go, Mrs. DeLongeria."

Julianna sighed. Leaning over her stomach to pull her shoes on her feet was getting harder and harder to do everyday.

She wished the boys were home. Nicholas took great delight in coddling her and talking to her pregnant belly. He would put the shoes on her feet and give her massages whenever she asked while Christian would bring her food and magazines. For every step of the pregnancy they had been there and she had grown accustomed to having them with her.

They'd had to go away on business, something that couldn't wait any longer, and left her in the care of Holburn. He was just a bodyguard and he could bring her things she asked for, so she could keep living her life and the boys didn't have to worry about her falling and not getting back up. He wasn't Christian or Nicholas, but he was company so she didn't have to be alone.

Climbing to her feet, she grabbed her blue cardigan off the couch back and slipped it on. "Can you hand me my purse?" She pointed to where she'd left it on the end table.

Holburn walked over to pick up her purse. There was a faint smile quirking his lips when he carried it to her. "Here you go, ma'am."

Once again she was tempted to tell him not to call her "ma'am," but she liked the sense of power it gave her. She lifted the strap over her head and wore her purse crossed over her chest. "Let's get out of here."

She walked with as much grace as she could manage. It amused her that her one hand instinctively went to her belly while her other hand waved in the air as though clinging to the idea of balance. She'd seen the pregnant woman walk before, but she'd never thought that she would do it herself. It was funny.

Julianna wore a small smile all the way down in the elevator and after she was settled in the car. She'd felt people looking at her, but it didn't mean very much because they always did, either because she was married to Christian or because she was hugely pregnant. There was just a lot of baby fascination in the world.

Clicking her seat belt, she reached into her purse and pulled out her ePad. She liked to pretend that she was catching up on the news or reading paperwork, but really she had a thing for romance novels. She wasn't embarrassed about her proclivities, but she hated that surprised raised eyebrow thing people did when they saw what kind of book she was reading. Her ePad saved her from a lot of feeling weird.

She quietly read while the car carried her across the city to her meeting and it was a moment of peace. She'd always liked the process of traveling, that sense of importance and changeability. She sometimes wondered what it would be like if she just kept going.

Julianna was concentrating on her book, her cheeks flushing warmly as she read a tale of sensual passion, and wasn't paying any attention to what was going on around her. So the only warning she got was the driver's "Oh shit!" and Holburn's "Brace yourself!"

She started to lift her head, just had time to see that a motorcycle was sliding slantwise straight toward their front left tire. The leather clad rider was dragged beneath the motorcycle for a short distance before separating off to one side in a limp roll, black helmet bouncing across the asphalt.

Oh, that had to hurt, she thought. Then there was all kinds of noise and a hard jerk and her eyes flashed completely white before going dark. She thought she heard screams before everything shut down, but it had been so fast.

.

There was the sound of someone opening the door.

Julianna hastily scrubbed her eyes and schooled her expression into prim dignity. She hated the thought of anyone seeing her crying.

Holburn had sent in an aide with the tea. A brown haired woman that looked a bit older than the others; obviously someone that had changed careers or gotten a late start. Her black skirt was fine, but the ruffle front on her floral print blouse was extremely garish and loud. The dark gray blazer she wore over the top was definitely unflattering.

"I've brought your tea, Mrs. DeLongeria," the woman said politely. Julianna waved at the coffee table and the woman carefully set the mug down on a tile coaster. "Do you need anything else, ma'am?"

Julianna shook her head. "No, I'm fine." She didn't look up as the woman turned and left, just focused on the curling wisps of steam rising from the cup on the table.

She wondered if she might be in shock.

The medics on scene had checked her over and she'd been taken to the hospital for a closer examination to make sure both she and the baby were all right and she'd been given a clean bill of health. They probably would have made her stay overnight, but she'd been quick to point out that she wasn't going to be alone at any time and the concierge doctor was on call if she needed him.

Julianna had made the decision not to go back to the house, but to stay in the penthouse apartment they kept in the city. If anything happened, she was a lot closer to the hospital and she just felt safer with more people around.

She scrubbed her hand over her face. Christian was going to be upset when he found out what had happened-the car was a complete mess, and the company had already sent out investigators because an armored limo wasn't supposed to crumple like that ever-but she was alive and the baby was fine. He was away on important business that he had put off for longer than he probably should have, and there was no way he would be willing to leave her side once she hit the eighth month mark. She'd practically had to use a crowbar to get Nicholas away from her already.

Leaning forward she carefully picked up the cup of tea and brought it to her lips for a tentative sip. Herbal tea sweetened with honey and a squirt of lemon. It wasn't her favorite, but she'd been banned from caffeine and none of the staff were allowed to provide it on pain of death or never being able to get a job ever again. Nicholas hadn't made very much sense with his hyperactive threats.

She wished she could finish reading her book, but her ePad had been lost in the crash. It was probably still buried amongst the twisted wreckage of the car.

She had almost died. It was a thought that kept resounding through her mind no matter how she tried to pretend that everything was all right. She had almost died.

Julianna rubbed her upper arms through the cloth of her sweater, wincing at the ache. She had a ring of dark bruises squeezed into her skin where Holburn had grabbed her and pulled her out of the car. His breath had been hot and panicked against the side of her face and his eyes had glared around for a long time after, evaluating the danger of anyone that drew too close.

Traffic had ground to a halt around the scene of the wreck and there had been people with camera phones all around them. Police and emergency crews had appeared with amazing speed considering the time of day and the traffic they'd had to get through, but she didn't have a single doubt that if Holburn hadn't pulled her out... she would have died.

The motorcycle had hit the front end of the armored limo and they'd careened off the road to slam into a pole. Holburn had immediately gotten out of the car to check on her, and he must have seen something because he'd gripped her arms so tight that she had finger-shaped bruises on her skin. He'd hauled her out of the car with amazing strength, lifting her right off her feet as he ran, carrying her out of the way just as a taxi had slammed into the rear end of the limo.

The passenger section of the car had crumpled up like paper. She would have been killed, there wasn't a single doubt in her mind.

Michael Holburn is getting the world's biggest bonus this year, she thought, and her giggle was only a little hysterical.

. * . * . * .

-NICHOLAS & CHRISTIAN-

There was a feeling of foreboding when Julianna called that night. Nicholas had been in the other room when the phone had rung, but the second he walked into the living room and saw Christian with his hand curled so tightly around the phone that his knuckles were white, he knew that something was very wrong.

Christian was hunched forward, his elbows resting on his knees and the fabric of his suit bunched around his shoulders. His voice had dropped into that whispery rasp he only used when things were bad. There were lines on his face that Nicholas had never seen before and didn't like.

"Who is it?" Nicholas whispered at Lewis who shrugged and mouthed, "His wife, I think."

A jolt of nerves went through Nicholas and he rushed across the room to plop down on the couch next to Christian. "Is she okay?" he asked worriedly. "The baby?"

Christian shook his head. "Nicholas is here," he said into the phone, then looked at Nicholas with tragic eyes. "There was a car accident. Julianna and the baby are all right though. She says she wasn't hurt."

Nicholas breathed out in relief and leaned his forehead against Christian's shoulder. His stomach still felt tight and he really didn't want to imagine what could have happened. "Let me talk to her when you're done."

"Okay." Christian went back to his quiet murmur of a conversation with Julianna, but he seemed to have relaxed a little, some of the tension draining out of him as Nicholas leaned more of his weight on him. There were times when Christian needed the comfort of other people, but he refused to ask for what he needed.

It was a good thing that Nicholas liked to see himself as a force of nature and never stopped to say "Please." He didn't hesitate to wrap his arms around Christian and lean against him, listening in on what he could hear through the phone.

The thought that Julianna or the baby could have been hurt... it made Nicholas' heart pound fast and his mouth go dry. The baby may not have been born yet, but she was already so loved that it would destroy them all if something happened to her.

Nicholas closed his eyes as he listened to Christian speak. He knew that he would get his turn with Julianna; Christian needed the reassurance of her voice more.

Reaching out, he snagged Christian's ePad off the table and used one hand to connect to the Internet and do a search on "DeLongeria car accident."

His breath caught when the first link that opened showed the crumpled shell of their armored limo. He skimmed through more pictures, some obviously from camera phones and taken by witnesses on the scene. It was absolutely horrifying, metal bent and twisted in ways it wasn't supposed to.

"How could this have happened?" he muttered. When Christian had ordered the armored limo, it had been with the assurance that it could take on a tank and win. "Oh, we are so suing the manufacturers."

The touch of Christian's fingers on the back of his hand kept him from swiping to the next image. He glanced at Christian and was worried by the darkening of his expression, his brown eyes hard.

Nicholas had the feeling that someone out there was about to get the wake up call of a lifetime. The kind that no one ever wanted to have.

Christian could hold a grudge like no other. There were people out there whose worst fear was pissing him off.

And he was definitely pissed off right now.

. * . * . * .

-NICHOLAS & CHRISTIAN-

Nicholas was walking softly around him. It made Christian feel self-conscious, like he was some kind of abuser or something. He hated when Nicholas went all passive and quiet; it freaked him out.

The phone call from Julianna had been upsetting, but there was no reason for Nicholas to act as though Christian was about to blow up at any moment.

"You don't have to treat me like I'm dangerous," Christian said two days after the call while they were sitting on the couch watching some science fiction movie. Christian had tried to get interested in it, but his mind didn't want to settle down and be entertained. "I'm fine."

Nicholas had been sitting stiffly beside him, but after a surprised look, it seemed as though his whole body relaxed. He smiled and gave a huffing laugh. "You got me, huh?" He flopped sideways to rest his head in Christian's lap and stretched out as much as he could on the couch, ending up with his body folded in an "S" with his socked feet dug into the cushions.

Christian hadn't realized how much he'd missed his usually snuggly best friend and how it had affected him. Invisible tension left him and he couldn't resist a smile as he began to comb his fingers through Nicholas' hair.

"What have you done to me?" he asked softly.

"What do you mean?" Nicholas shifted his head so he could stare straight up at Christian. "I haven't done anything."

Christian smiled at him fondly. "That's what makes it so powerful, darling. All without trying, you completely wrapped me around your finger. I would happily follow you everywhere."

There was a faint pink tinge to Nicholas' cheeks and he tapped the back of his knuckles against Christian's chest. "Shut up, you're making me blush. Why don't you save all the emotional crap for our next slumber party?"

"Asshole." Christian shook his head. "Why don't you watch your damn movie?"

"Maybe I will." Nicholas resolutely turned his face away and went back to watching the movie. After a few seconds, he sighed and reached forward for the remote control to reverse the film. "You always make me miss the best parts," he grumbled.

Christian propped his ePad against the end of the couch and continued reading his email messages. He was expecting something from the company's security department since he'd asked them to investigate what had happened with the limo. There was no way it should have just fallen apart like that.

So either someone had sold him a defective armored limo, or someone had done it purposely so there could be some kind of fatal accident or something. He'd put his security on finding any information, though so far he'd been disappointed in their lack of progress.

Not finding anything from the head of security in his Inbox once again, Christian couldn't help the paranoid thought that maybe his own people were going to betray him. He couldn't think who would have done it, but maybe there was a hit out on him and someone wanted to cash in. The thought was a disturbing one.

"What's with that giant line you've got going?" Nicholas suddenly asked, hitting pause on the TV.

"What?" Christian asked in not very convincing annoyance. Nicholas had mentioned before that Christian was getting a worry line between his brows, but Christian had refused to acknowledge its existence.

"You know what I'm talking about," Nicholas sounded annoyed, "and you're just making an ass of yourself now. Seriously, what's wrong? Maybe I can help."

Christian cradled the top of Nicholas' head with his hand. "There's nothing you can do. I asked the security department to find out why the limo broke apart like that, but so far there's been nothing out of them. Bodin even sent me an email telling me to stop asking; they would tell me when they tell me."

"There's no way he said it like that," Nicholas said. "He's such a sweetheart."

"To you!" Christian jabbed a finger at Nicholas. "To everyone else he's absolutely terrible. I'm his boss and he still treats me like a second class citizen. You're the only one he's ever nice too."

Nicholas didn't look like he believed Christian, but he still managed a smarmy smile. It made him look surprisingly like Francis. "He must realize how awesome I am. Someday we're going to get married and have grumpy babies together."

"You go ahead and be funny," Christian said, "but you're the only one that doesn't realize Bodin treats you special. If he wasn't such a talented fuck, I would have already kicked him out on the street. He's just too high maintenance."

"I thought I was high maintenance?" Nicholas asked.

Christian laughed. "You definitely are," he said, "but you also happen to be my best friend. Bodin Crane is just the asshole I pay money to. If he was one ounce less skilled at his job, he wouldn't have it."

"So cruel," Nicholas lamented, then grinned. "Maybe he does treat me a tad bit better than the rest of you schlubs."

"A tad bit? The man practically licks the ground you walk on," Christian said.

"That's certainly very disgusting." Nicholas clicked the Play button for his movie, though he seemed to only want the background noise because he kept right on talking. "The guy has to be nine hundred years older than me."

"I love the grasp you have on numbers and how long a human can live. It's a testament to the wonderful education you received," Christian said.

Nicholas snorted. "Considering we went to the same school... Well, you know."

Christian rolled his eyes. "Sometimes you're more trouble than you're worth."

"You do say the sweetest things," Nicholas cooed, and it was like the distance between them fell away as if it had never been. Christian had the room he needed to breathe. "Now, what were you looking at on your ePad?"

"Nothing much. Just some news reports, that's all." Christian didn't want to show him; Nicholas would become upset if he saw how close Julianna and the baby had come to dying. Christian was very upset. "I think I'm going to have someone go through my news feeds for me. I just can't handle the stress."

Nicholas gave him a doubtful look, but didn't seem about to push things. "We've got that Lewis kid. Have him handle it."

Christian laughed. "I love how easily you've gotten with the idea of ordering someone else to do all your scut work."

"If you give a mouse a personal assistant, he's somehow going to become someone's boss," Nicholas said.

"And you're the mouse in that scenario, right?"

"Exactly." Nicholas' hand patted around until it found Christian's, then he lifted Christian's hand back to the top of his head. "Rub my head," he pleaded.

Christian smiled and began rubbing. "As my master commands."

"Damn right," Nicholas' voice came out as a pleased hum as he pressed the crown of his head closer against Christian's fingers.

It was incredibly peaceful to take care of Nicholas and know that the rest of the world was worried about their problems and wouldn't interrupt these peaceful moments.

"You know I love you, don't you?" Christian dug his fingers into Nicholas' thick hair, reveling at the silky softness.

Nicholas tipped his head so his smile was visible. "Of course you do. That's why I'm your darling, and you're my little wifey."

Christian couldn't help his snort of laughter. Being around Nicholas always made him feel better.