Brian applied another towel to Lila’s side, and bound it the best he could. Her breathing was more ragged now, and she had started sweating a little. He reached over and poked A.J., and pointed to her.
“I think she’s going into shock,” he said in a low voice so she wouldn’t hear.
A.J. took a look at her face, and sighed. “You’re awfully pale, hun. Don’t go passing out on us, got it?”
“I’ll do my best, but you’re not exactly Mr. Tan yourself, white boy.”
A.J. was startled at her remark, and Brian laughed quietly, surprised by her wit when he was sure she would be more than happy to conk out.
“She’s right, you know,” Brian said with grin, trying to keep the mood light.
“I’ll remember that,” A.J. informed him.
Lila noticed Brian move a bloodied towel out of the way, and choked back a sob.
“It’s really bad, isn’t it?” she whispered.
The mixture of fear and strength in her eyes confused him. She looked terrified and not terrified at the same time. It was strange, and he didn’t know what to make of it. There was definitely more to her than met the eye.
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll get you taken care of long before it’s too late, I promise,” Brian assured her. He patted her hand.
She pushed back a little of the pain she was feeling and cleared her head. She couldn’t kid herself. There was no guarantee that she would get out of this. Her voice became quiet and serious, losing all of the playfulness she had tried to maintain to pretend it was all going to be all right. She had always been a firm believer that everything would always work out in the end, but it looked like her theory was about to be proved wrong, and there were things she had to take care of.
“I need you to do something for me.”
Brian was taken aback at the sudden change in her. A.J. saw it too, and raised an eyebrow. A little of the haze that surrounded her was gone, and her eyes were clear and focused. For some reason, it alarmed him.
“Don’t go there, chica. You’re going to be fine,” A.J. told her
“You don’t understand, you have to listen to me. You don’t have to pretend, I’m not stupid. This does not look good for me, and I have to tell you or someone else this before it’s too late. It’s too important.”
The urgency in her voice called to Brian, and the clarity she spoke with convinced him that this was truly a matter of life and death for her, in every sense of the phrase.
“Okay, take it easy,” he said gently. “Tell me what I need to do. But I still say I won’t have to do it.”
“This may sound strange to you, but believe me when I say that it critical that you do this if you can’t keep that promise.”
“Consider it done.”
“In my purse, you’ll find a piece of paper with an address on it for Twin Branch Farm.”
Brian dug through her purse curiously. What could she possibly be asking him to do? He glanced quickly up at A.J., who’s face spouted a question mark.
“Got it,” he said after a moment.
“Good. If something happens to me, you have to contact them. There’s a number on there too.”
Brian nodded. “Yes, I see it. What do you want me to tell them?”
“I have a feeling they’ll know what happened,” she said with a small smile. “My parents will talk to them, I’m sure. That’s where you come in.”
“I don’t understand.”
She inhaled a deep breath, as if she was trying with all of her strength to hold on to her control. Brian knew she couldn’t do it much longer. Whatever this “task” was, it was very important to her, and it was taking all of her courage to talk about it.
“I have a horse there. He’s going to try and get her, and you cannot let that happen. You can’t let them sell her.”
It took all of his concentration to stifle the laugh he felt coming and to keep the skeptical look he knew was lurking behind his face to keep from expressing itself. A horse? She was edging her way closer and closer to death’s door, and she was worried about a horse?
He heard her sigh with frustration.
“I told you that you wouldn’t understand,” she said angrily.
“No, no, no. I’m just a little confused.”
“She cannot be sold. Do not let them sell her. He’ll find some way to get her, I know it.”
His question seemed to agitate her, and the expression that passed quickly across her features was one that made him recoil. Whoever “he” was, it was not a friendly subject.
“Shhhh,” he quieted her. “It’s ok. If it is so important to you, of course I’ll do it.” He wanted to kick himself for letting her get so upset.
“There are only three people I trust her to, and she has to go to one of them. Directly to one of them, whether they pay for her or not. I don’t care. She cannot be sold to anyone else.”
“Tell me who, and I’ll see to it… if it comes to that, even though it won’t” He still didn’t understand why this of all things was causing her so much stress.
She gave him three names, and he scribbled them onto the paper. She seemed to relax immediately, and her strength fled her. The clarity that had found her eyes and allowed her to be so forceful wandered away, and was replaced by the cloud of pain that had inhabited them before. She could not suppress the small moan that escaped her. Brian jerked to attention at the sound. He maneuvered himself so that he was sitting behind her, and gently moved her head so that it rested in his lap.
“Better? That has to more comfortable than the floor.”
“Mmmm,” she mumbled. “What girl wouldn’t be comfortable lying in Brian Littrell’s lap?”
A.J. chuckled a little. Normally that statement would have made Brian want to roll his eyes, but for some reason the tone she said it in made him smile. She wasn’t one of the totally star-struck admirers he’d had in the past. Of course, he thought, that could have something to do with the fact that she has a bullet wound in her side.
Brian himself was unsure of the sudden change in her. She had gone from intensely serious, to what he could only describe as desperate and hate-filled, to making wisecracks. He wondered what could have possibly inspired her reaction a moment ago.
“How long have you been a fan?” A.J. asked her. He could tell she wanted to fall asleep, and was determined to keep her talking.
“I was nuts over y’all a couple of years ago. I did the posters thing, I had them all over my room, I went through all that stuff.” She smiled at the memory. “I was known as the Backstreet Freak in my dorm my freshman year at college.”
“And now?” he asked, looking wounded by the fact she had expressed her interest the past tense.
Lila noticed this, and was greatly amused by it. “I still buy all your music, and listen to you all the time, don’t worry,” she said with a tight smile. “I just grew out of the obsession thing.” She shivered violently. Brian immediately checked her bandage, and to his dismay, saw the red seeping through everywhere. Bandage number two was almost ready to be changed. A.J.’s face turned to stone, and he turned to their captors, who were watching them closely from several feet away.
“Why don’t you cut the bullshit and make that call?” he growled. “It’s been almost 15 minutes since they got here. She doesn’t have all day!”
Thief Number 2 lunged towards him, startling all of them to death. A.J. tried to scramble out of the way, realizing too late that he had pushed him too far. The criminal grabbed him by the front of his t-shirt, and slammed him against the wall. A.J.’s head crashed into it, and stars exploded in front of his vision. It took all of Brian’s self control to keep from dumping Lila off his lap and leaping to his friend’s defense.
“Now you listen and you listen good,” he breathed hideously, his nose inches away from A.J.’s. For added measure, he shoved the barrel of his pistol into the side of his temple, and gave a sick smile of satisfaction when he flinched. “We are running this show, and if you want to come out of it alive, you will sit down, shut up, and do exactly what we tell you. Got it?”
A.J. swallowed nervously, for a brief moment surrendering the hatred that was etched on his face allowing fear to replace it. He nodded. The gun was removed from his head and he was shoved to the floor.
“A.J.!” Brian cried. He was sure that his heart had stopped for a moment, as he sat helpless to come to the aid of his friend. Lila could feel his body tense underneath her, and she forced herself away from him, giving him the freedom of movement he sought. She planted herself against the wall, refusing to give in to the burning that threatened to engulf her midsection. She watched wide-eyed as Brian leapt to his feet and raced to A.J.’s side.
A.J. slowly and painfully picked himself up off the floor. Brian reached him in a flash, and extended his arm, which his dazed friend accepted gratefully. He hauled him to his feet, his blue eyes ablaze with concern, fear, and irritation.
“Are you ok?”
“Peachy,” A.J. muttered, still looking shaken.
“Well, despite the fact that you are a moronic fool for doing that, at least you accomplished something.”
A.J. looked confused.
“Look, he’s using your phone.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank God.”
“Now we just have to hope that Howie actually got the idea,” Brian said with a sigh.
“Well, it could be worse.”
“How’s that?” he asked skeptically.
“I could have called Nick.”
“I’m going to tell him you said that,” Brian warned.
“I’ll deny it.”
Secretly they were praying that they got the chance.