BARRACUDA’S HEART

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Crimson and blue lights flashed maniacally in the rearview mirror of Carver Levon’s gleaming orange Plymouth Road Runner, which was no stranger to Middletown’s police force.

That would usually have him raining F-bombs around the custom interior of his sweet ride. His license couldn’t withstand the weight of any more points. Hell, his insurance had threatened to drop him the last two times he’d gotten pulled over. Skyrocketing rates were the only thing keeping them doing business with him at this point.

Today, Carver didn’t give a damn.

Nor did he slow a single mile an hour.

In fact, he gripped the wheel tighter and pressed the pedal to the floor as wailing sirens inadvertently ushered slow-moving vehicles out of the way so that he could race toward the emergency room. He’d heard people describe tunnel vision before. In this life-or-death moment, all his senses were affected. Although he registered his friend and fellow Hot Rods mechanic Kaige Davis shouting something from the far side of the bench seat they occupied, the message didn’t penetrate his ultimate concentration.

He refused to accept that Super Nova might be informing him their reckless sprint was unnecessary. Impossible. Hang on, Barracuda. We’re almost there. Don’t you fucking leave me now.

Downshifting, Carver resisted the urge to put his hand on the limp man beside him. Then he gunned it around a corner at a speed easily three times the legal limit. Sparks shot from the undercarriage as they rocketed into the hospital parking lot before screeching to a stop that tested the high performance porcelain brakes he and Roman had installed last summer.

He kicked open his door, not even wincing when it bounced against the hinges, then hauled his unconscious roommate over his shoulder before bolting into the one place Roman would hate waking up in. The cast stabilizing the guy’s arm from his recent accident slammed a morbid beat into Meep’s spine as if he were trying to object to a return visit.

I’m sorry, Cuda. They’re going to help you. I promise. They have to!

A nurse skittered around the desk. She didn’t bother to shout at Carver to stop or lecture him about protocol. Instead, she ushered him through a bright white mess of beeping machines. The smell of disinfectant seared his flaring nostrils while people bustled around them in what seemed like barely restrained chaos.

“What’re we dealing with?” the nurse asked.

“Overdose.” He winced even as he wanted to shake his precious cargo for being so damn selfish. Stupid…and in unfathomable pain.

“What substance?” the woman asked without judgment. Plenty of time for that later.

“Painkillers—oxycontin—and alcohol.” Carver groaned. “Lots of booze, I think.”

“Set him here.” She patted a gurney before spinning away for supplies from a nearby cabinet while shouting some kind of code that drew a team of medical personnel toward them like a swarm of agitated bees. “Go. Let us work.”

Carver couldn’t bring himself to forsake Roman’s uninjured hand. No matter how hard he tried, unfurling his fingers seemed impossible when it might be the last time he got to touch his best friend and lover.

“Sir.” The nurse repeated herself a few times, not unkindly, though stern. “We’re going to need you to wait outside.”

He shook his head vehemently.

“I’ll be quiet. Stay out of the way. Just…don’t make me abandon him,” he begged.

“Trust me. This isn’t going to be pretty.” She reached out as if she would brush the tears from his cheek, but he stumbled backwards.

Jesus, they were so fucked up, the pair of them. It could just as easily have been him on that table—seizing, limbs flopping, white foam building on lips he knew so well. Except he wasn’t a quitter and he’d never choose to leave Roman.

“Go,” the nurse urged again, respecting his aversion to the touch of a stranger. “They’re going to need information from you. Quickly. His name, patient records, stuff like that so we can be most effective.”

When Meep could only stare in shock and horror, she said the one thing that could budge his leaden feet.

“I’m no help to your friend if I’m sitting here babysitting you.”

Putting himself in reverse, Carver refused to whisper goodbye, not even when the swinging door he backed through cut off his line of sight.

His knees buckled and he would have crashed to the over-waxed linoleum if Kaige hadn’t been right there to grab him. Plucking him from midair, the man wrapped his arm around Meep’s waist and lent him every bit of the considerable strength in his bulging biceps.

“Hey now,” Nova grunted beneath Meep’s dead weight. “I’ve got you. Over here, come on.”

Kaige led him to the desk where the nurse gathered the required data. Rote answers slipped from Carver, who was dazed, unable later to recall a single thing she’d asked him.

After she released him, Carver couldn’t sit, despite the heaviness in his gut that made him feel like he’d swallowed a few dozen ball bearings. Restless, he wished he could run. Like he had in his younger days when things had gotten too hard to handle. This time he had to stick around. For Roman.

“You can let go now.” He dusted Kaige’s hand off when he caught the interested glances they were garnering from some of the other patients in the lobby.

“Sure about that?” Super Nova wasn’t fooled. “I don’t give a shit about anyone but you. And Cuda.”

“I got this.” He nodded, attempting to convince himself.

“I’ll be right here.” Kaige relinquished his grip with a sigh before raking his hand through his blond dreads. He didn’t waste another second before slipping his phone from his pocket and texting fast enough to make a teenaged girl envious.

Carver’s knees knocked together. He braced his hands on his thighs then drew up, coaching himself mentally to take deeper breaths before he passed out cold. He paced, unable to simply sit by while his fate was decided.

As he made another circuit past the automatic door, his friends barreled inside.

Eli London’s wrinkled brow, his father Tom’s matching frown and Bryce’s white-knuckled grip on his girlfriend Kaelyn’s hand were bad enough. But the puffy redness marring Mustang Sally’s pretty eyes stabbed him in the heart.

She wasn’t the kind of girl to cry easily. Certainly not in front of strangers. Her agony confirmed his instinctive fears and eroded the hope he kept trying to manufacture.

Numb and utterly wrecked inside, he wobbled.

As he’d sworn, Kaige was there.

Carver leaned on Super Nova—the hell with anyone who didn’t approve of their bond.

Nova didn’t hesitate. He wrapped one tattooed arm around Carver’s waist and acted like he had slung it there casually while he supported nearly all of Meep’s weight. Too bad the guy couldn’t breathe for him too. It felt like a semi—or five—had parked on Carver’s chest and the lack of oxygen making it to his brain had everything spinning a million miles an hour around him.

All he knew for sure was that before long, he was surrounded in the embrace of his best friends, his family. Eli, Sally, Alanso, Bryce, Kaige and Holden. The misfit mechanics from the garage and the women they’d brought into their gang positioned themselves beside him. With them there, he was able to stand on his own. Nola, Kaige’s pregnant woman, kissed Carver’s cheek before rushing into her fiancé’s now open arms. Sabra, Kaelyn and Nola’s mom, Ms. Brown, took a turn surrounding Meep with their warmth and concern.

Still, none of their hugs felt like the one he wanted most.

He didn’t dare try to speak, sure his voice would crack.

If he lost it, he wouldn’t be able to put himself together again.

“I’m going to go take care of the paperwork.” Ms. Brown hurried over to the nurse who waved a clipboard with a zillion additional forms fluttering from it in their direction.

With as much love surrounding him as he could hope for, Carver settled in.

It was a long wait, one that seemed endless.

He was sure he’d be bald from tugging on his own hair, and his stomach had started to growl like it was trying to eat itself, while shitty coffee corroded his guts. The other members of their gang took turns cursing, crying or holding his hand through the interminable hours.

But it was worth every horrific instant when a haggard looking doctor finally made it out to them and gave them guarded reassurance.

Roman was going to make it. Physically, he’d survived.

How pissed would he be about that?

Pretty irate if the next words out of the doctor’s mouth were any indication. “I would normally let you pop in for a minute, but…”

He stared straight at Carver, probably because he’d already begun to edge toward the patient rooms.

“I’m sorry. Mr. Daily doesn’t want visitors at this time.”

“Fuck that! I’m not some kind of guest. I’m his—” Well, shit. When it came right down to it, Carver supposed he wasn’t officially much of anything to the guy fighting for his life. Or trying to surrender it, maybe.

“Again, I’m sorry. Truly.” The doctor attempted to squeeze Carver’s shoulder, but he shrugged away from the unfamiliar contact.

He would have torn through the ward like the Tasmanian Devil instead of the Road Runner he was nicknamed for if it weren’t for the man who intervened. Tom. The head mechanic’s dad—surrogate father to all the Hot Rods—crossed his arms and stood with his feet spread, blocking a hell of a lot of the swinging door with his impressive frame.

“You can’t be his medicine, son. Not this time. Roman’s right. He’s got to do this on his own.”

Before he could stop himself, Carver whipped his phone from his pocket. Patients weren’t supposed to have cells, but Hot Rods made their own rules. Cuda would get the message, when he felt like it.

I’ll be here, whenever you’re ready.

As if watching himself on TV, Carver dropped his hands and stared at his friends. “Someone drive me home?”

Everyone volunteered at once.

Why couldn’t Roman ask them for help? Or simply accept it.