Mariella Santiago-Marshall stood in the parking lot of St. Aloysius Hospital in her hometown of Santa Barbara, and abruptly realized that nothing would ever be the same again.
Harrison, God…Harrison was in there somewhere, broken. A car accident, they said. He was in surgery, they said.
It was a plea, a curse, a demand. An appeal for mercy, a curse toward the God she wasn’t sure she believed in anymore, a demand for information.
Feeling tears burn the back of her throat, Mariella pushed her long black hair behind her ears and dropped her designer sunglasses over her eyes, sighing when the dark lenses cut through the glare. Habit had her eyes drifting over the busy parking lot, and she was relieved to see no paparazzi either sitting in cars or loitering, cameras around their necks and the thrill of the hunt in their eyes.
Mariella knew that it wouldn’t be long before the news of Harrison’s accident broke, so she’d take this time, this short period, to gather her thoughts and her composure.
Mariella’s eyes skittered to the automatic doors leading to the busy ER and touched the tip of her tongue to her top lip, tasting her expensive lipstick. Where was Harrison? What were they doing to him? Why couldn’t they tell her anything?
Frustration, anger and a need to walk had propelled her out of the ER, a part of her knowing that if she didn’t leave, she’d cause a scene of epic proportions. She was terrified, and when she got scared she lost control…
Tears burned a path from her throat to her eyes, and she quickly blinked them away, cursing herself for her weakness. Mariella Sofía Jimena Santiago-Marshall did not cry. Or, if she did, she never let anyone see her do it.
She was a Santiago, dammit, a part of a powerful, prominent family whose roots could be traced back to California’s early history and Don Juan Santiago, who saw California pass from Spain to Mexico and then into American hands. Juan’s warrior blood flowed through her veins. When their backs were to the wall, Santiagos came out swinging, and they always fought dry-eyed.
But damn, she wanted to howl, sob, fall apart. Mariella wrapped her arms around herself and fought the panic climbing up her throat. She wasn’t used to feeling helpless, out of control, useless. She’d been Harrison’s partner, his right hand, his shadow, his best friend and his wife for more than three decades, and waiting around, doing nothing, went against every instinct she had. There had to be something she could do…
Mariella had lived a life many envied and most were fascinated by; she was the wife of an immensely powerful man, the mother of three successful children—four, if she included Gabe, and she did—and the CEO of MSM Event Planning, the catering arm of Marshall International. But at this moment, everything she’d achieved, everything she was—strong, powerful, rich—meant nothing.
Her husband was teetering on the edge between life and death, and there was damn all she could do about it.
If she allowed it to, panic would bite and burn, her lungs would close, and the air would turn to soup.
If she allowed it to.
Mariella opened her mouth and sucked in a deep breath of fragrant September air and dug her pale pink fingernails into her toned bicep, the pain enabling her to push away the almost overpowering feeling of despair.
Santiagos didn’t buckle; neither did Marshalls. She was one by blood, one by marriage, and she wouldn’t embarrass either family by dropping to the grimy, greasy asphalt in a dead faint.
The first responder to the accident, a young highway patrol officer, had been waiting for her when she arrived at the hospital and had quickly, concisely recounted the morning’s events.
Mariella now had a better idea of how the accident had happened and wished she didn’t. His words played on an endless loop in her head.
“Accident investigators might prove me wrong, but it looks like Mr. Marshall lost control of the Bugatti as he navigated a particularly sharp corner. He swiped a boulder and the car lifted, the immense power flipping it over. Mr. Marshall wasn’t wearing his seat belt, and he was tossed through the windshield only seconds before the car crashed through the guardrail and tumbled down the cliff.”
Mariella heard the familiar low but powerful growl of a sports car and her head snapped up. She narrowed her eyes and saw the snazzy silver Aston Martin convertible whip into the parking lot. Even at a distance, she could see the worry on Joe’s face, could sense his despair.
Joe Reynolds, Harrison’s oldest and best friend and business partner, their rock, was finally here, and she wasn’t alone. Joe was the strong rope that connected her and Harrison to the ground, their sounding board, their confidant and adviser.
There was no one else she wanted, or needed, at her side. She needed his strength to reassure her that everything would be all right, so she could be strong for her children.
Joe roared toward her, slammed on the brakes and in one smooth movement cut the engine and hopped, with all the energy of the twenty-year-old he’d been a lifetime ago, over the door panel. He hurried around the hood of the car and opened his arms, and Mariella stumbled into them, her face buried in his neck, the familiar scent of his citrus cologne drifting up to her nose. She placed her arms around his trim waist and pushed into him, seeking comfort, reassurance, waiting for his calm strength to seep into her psyche.
She felt Joe kiss the top of her head, his broad hands warm on her back. Here was comfort, support, a lifetime of unconditional love.
Her best friend, and Harrison’s, was here. The day could only improve.
Mariella, strong, confident, proud, felt a wave of emotion crash over her, and she finally, finally allowed her control to snap. She sniffed, hiccuped and allowed one small sob to escape. She would not allow tears to run down her cheeks, drip off her chin and wet the collar of Joe’s polo shirt, his tanned skin. She was Mariella Santiago-Marshall, and she would not allow anyone but him to see her as anything other than the tough, independent, composed woman the world knew her to be.
But this man, who’d known them for so long and who had seen so much, was the one person she could allow to see her cracks and chasms. In his arms was the only place she could show such weakness, such lack of control.
She both loved and hated that Joe had that power over her.