Jack's mouth, usually so soft, was rough and chapped against my cheek, his jaw scratchy with bristle. "I'll always come back to you." His voice was hoarse.
I hid my face against his neck, breathing him in. His familiar scent had been obliterated by the antiseptic pungency of antiseptic burn dressings, and heavy saltwater brine. "Where are you hurt?" Sniffling, I reached farther over his back, investigating the extent of the bandage.
His fingers tangled in the smooth, soft locks of my hair. "Just a few burns and scrapes. Nothing to worry about." I felt his cheek tauten with a smile. "All your favorite parts are still there."
We were both quiet for a moment. I realized he was trembling, too. "I love you, Jack," I said, and that started a whole new rush of tears, because I was so unholy glad to be able to say it to him. "I thought it was too late . . . I thought you'd never know, because I was a coward, and I'm so—"
"I knew." Jack sounded shaken. He drew back to look down at me with glittering bloodshot eyes.
"You did?" I sniffled.
He nodded. "I figured I couldn't love you as much as I do, without you feeling something for me, too." He kissed me roughly, the contact between our mouths too hard for pleasure.
I put my fingers to Jack's bristled jaw and eased his face away to look at him. He was battered and scraped and sun-scorched. I couldn't begin to imagine how dehydrated he was. I pointed an unsteady finger at the waiting room. "Your family's in there. Why are you in the hallway?" My bewildered gaze swept down his body to his bare feet. "They're . . . they're letting you walk around like this?"
Jack shook his head. "They parked me in a room around the corner to wait for a couple more tests. I asked if anyone had told you I was okay, and nobody knew for sure. So I came to find you."
"You just left when you're supposed to be having more tests?"
"I had to find you." His voice was quiet but unyielding.
My hands fluttered over him. "Let's go back . . . you may have internal bleeding—"
Jack didn't budge. "I'm fine. They already did a CT, and it was clean. They want to do an MRI just to be sure."
"What about Joe?"
A shadow crossed Jack's face. Suddenly he looked young and anxious. "They won't tell me. He wasn't doing well, Ella. He could hardly breathe. He was at the wheel when the engine exploded . . . he may be really fu**ed up."
"This is a world-class hospital with the best doctors and the best equipment," I said, one of my hands settling carefully on his cheek. "They'll fix him. They'll do whatever they have to. But. . . was he burned badly?"
He shook his head. "The only reason I got singed a little was because I had to push through some burning debris to find him."
"Oh, Jack . . ." I wanted to hear everything he'd been through, every detail. I wanted to comfort him in every way possible. But there would be time for that later. "The doctor was talking to your family in the waiting room. Let's find out what he said." I gave him a threatening glance. "And then you're going back for the MRI. They're probably looking for you right now."
"They can wait." Jack slid an arm around my shoulder. "You should see the redheaded nurse who was wheeling me around. Bossiest woman I ever met."
We went into the waiting room. "Hey," I said in a wobbly voice. "Look who I found."
Jack was immediately surrounded by his family, Haven reaching him first. I stood back, still breathless, my heartbeat galvanized.
There were no wisecracks as Jack embraced his sister and Liberty. He turned to his father and hugged him, his eyes glittering as he saw the runnel of a tear down Churchill's leathery cheek.
"You okay?" Churchill asked in a rusted voice.
"Good." And Churchill touched his son's face with a sort of gentle cuffing pat.
Jack's jaw quivered, and he cleared his throat roughly. He seemed relieved to turn to Hardy, with whom he exchanged a manly half-hug back-pat.
Gage was last, taking Jack by the shoulders and surveying him intently. "You look like shit," he commented.
"Fuck you," Jack said, and they embraced each other roughly, the two dark heads close together. Jack gave him a few forceful thumps on the back, but Gage, mindful of his brother's condition, was far gentler.
Jack swayed a little and was immediately pushed in a chair.
"He's dehydrated," I said, going to the water dispenser in the corner and filling up a paper cup.
"Why aren't you on an IV?" Churchill demanded, hovering over him.
Jack showed him his hand, where an IV needle was still inserted and anchored with tape. "They used a fourteen-gauge needle, and it feels like a six-penny nail was shoved into my vein. So I asked them for something smaller."
"Pussy," Gage said affectionately, rubbing the top of Jack's rough, salt-stiffened hair.
"How's Joe?" Jack asked, taking the water from me and drinking it in a few gulps.
They all exchanged glances—not a good sign—and Gage answered carefully. "The doctor said Joe has a concussion and a mild case of blast lung injury. It may take a while for the lungs to get back to speed, maybe up to a year. But it could have been a lot worse. Joe's in respiratory distress and has borderline hypoxia—so they're treating him with supplemental high-flow oxygen. He'll be spending some serious time in ICU. And he can hear out of one ear, but not the other. At some point a specialist will tell us if the hearing loss is permanent."
"That's okay," Jack said. "Joe never listens anyway."
Gage grinned briefly, but sobered as he stared at his younger brother. "He's going in for surgery right now, for internal bleeding."
Jack swallowed hard. "How bad?"
''We don't know."
"Shit." Wearily Jack rubbed his face with both hands. "I was afraid of that."
"Before they corral you again," Liberty said, "can you tell us what happened,Jack?"
Jack gestured for me to come to him, and he pulled me into his warm side as he spoke. It had been a clear morning, he said. Fishing had been decent, and they had gotten an early start back to the marina. But on the way they'd seen a huge brown seaweed mat, about an acre in size. The mat had formed its own ecosystem with algae, barnacles, and small fish, all living amid the accumulated driftwood and mermaid purses.
Figuring there was good fishing around or under the mat, the brothers had killed the engine and glided up to the seaweed. In just a few minutes Jack had hooked a Dorado, the rod nearly doubling and the reel screaming off a bunch of line as the acrobatic fish took off. It leapt from the water, revealing itself to be a five-footer, a monster, and Jack had followed around the boat to keep the line from catching. He had shouted to Joe to start the boat and go toward the fish, otherwise it would gain too much line. And just as he started to reel it in, Joe had started the engine and there had been an explosion.
Jack fell silent at that point, blinking as he struggled to recall what had happened next.
Hardy murmured, "Sounds like a buildup of fumes."
Jack nodded slowly. "Maybe the bilge blower cut out? Hell knows with all that electronic crap . . . anyway, I don't remember anything about the explosion. All of a sudden I was in the water, and there was debris everywhere, and the boat had turned into a fireball. I started looking for Joe." He looked agitated, his words coming in choppy bursts. "He'd grabbed on to a floating cooler—remember the orange one you got me, Gage—so I looked over him. I was afraid he'd gotten a leg blown off or something—and he was all in one piece, thank God. But he'd gotten one hell of a knock on his head, and he was struggling. I got hold of him and told him to relax, and I towed him to a safer distance from the boat."
"And the weather came in," Churchill prompted.
Jack nodded. "Wind picked up, water got rough, and we were getting pushed away from the boat. I tried to stay with it, but it took too much energy. So I just held on to Joe, and the cooler, and I swore I wouldn't let go no matter how long it took for someone to find us."
"Was Joe conscious?" I asked.
"Yeah, but we didn't talk much. The waves were too rough, and Joe was having a hard time breathing." Jack worked up a rueful smile. "The first thing he said to me was, 'Guess we lost that Dorado?' " He paused as everyone chuckled. "And later on he asked if we should worry about sharks and I said I didn't think so, since it was still shrimp season and most of the sharks go offshore to pick off throwbacks." A stark, endless hesitation. He swallowed hard. "After we'd waited a while, I could tell Joe was getting worse. He told me he didn't think he was going to make it. And I said—" His voice broke, and he dropped his head, unable to finish.
"You can tell us later," I whispered, putting my hand on his back, while Haven handed him a wad of Kleenex. It was too much, making him relive it so soon.
"Thanks," Jack said gruffly after a minute, blowing his nose and letting out a sigh.
"Here you are." A strident, accusatory voice came from the doorway, and we all looked up to behold a stout, redhaired nurse with a ruddy complexion, pushing an empty wheelchair into the waiting room. "Mr. Travis, why did you run off like that? I've been looking for you.'
"I took a break," Jack said sheepishly.
The nurse scowled. "That's the last break you'll get for a while— you're getting a new IV needle put in, and you're going for your MRI, and I may think up some extra tests to pay you back for scaring me half to death. Disappearing like that. . ."
"I completely agree," I said, urging Jack to stand. "Take him. And keep an eye on him."
Jack shot me a narrow-eyed glance over his shoulder as he shuffled to the wheelchair.
The nurse stared incredulously at his scrub pants and T-shirt. "Where did you get those?" she demanded.
"Not telling," he muttered.
"Mr. Travis, you need to stay in your hospital gown until we're finished with all your tests."
"Bet you'd like that," Jack retorted, "me wandering bare-assed around the hospital."
"With all the backsides I've seen, Mr. Travis, I doubt I'd be impressed."
"I don't know," he said reflectively, easing into the wheelchair. "Mine's pretty good."
The nurse wheeled him around and pushed him through the doorway while they began to trade insults.
After jack's tests were finished, the hospital kept him for six hours of observation. After that, the nurse promised, he could go home. They let him shower and wait in a private suite, one of their VIP rooms. It was decorated with maroon wallpaper and a mirror with an ornate gold frame, and a TV housed in a Victorian armoire.
"This looks like a bordello," I said.
Jack irritably flipped his IV lines so they didn't catch on the bed rail. One of the nurses had detached him from the IV long enough to let him take a shower, and then she'd hooked him up again despite his protests. "I want this needle out of my hand. And I want to know what the hell's going on with Joe. And I've got a bitch of a headache, and my arm hurts."
"Why don't you take one of those pain pills they keep trying to give you?" I asked gently.
"I don't want to be out of it, in case there's news about Joe." He flipped through the TV channels. "Don't let me fall asleep."
"Okay," I murmured, standing beside him. I reached out to stroke his clean, damp hair, letting my fingernails lightly scratch his scalp.
Jack sighed and blinked. "That feels good."
I continued to sift through his hair, scratching gently as if he were a big cat. Not two minutes later, Jack was completely out.
He didn't move for four hours, not even when I periodically smoothed more salve onto his lips, or when the nurse came in to change the IV bag and to check the monitor readouts. And I sat and watched him the entire time, half-afraid I was dreaming. I wondered how I had fallen so deeply in love with a man I had known for such a short time. It seemed my heart had been set on full throttle.
By the time Jack finally woke, I was able to tell him that his brother was out of surgery, and was in stable condition. In light of Joe's age and health, the doctor said, he had a good chance of recovery without complications.
Overcome with relief, Jack was unusually quiet as we went through the discharge process, signing a stack of forms and receiving a folder filled with burn-care instructions and prescriptions. He had dressed in a pair of jeans and shirt Gage had gotten for him, and then Hardy drove us to 1800 Main. After dropping us off there, Hardy would return to Garner to wait with Haven, who wanted to stay in the ICU with Joe for a while.
Jack's quietness persisted as we went up to his apartment. Despite the rest he'd gotten at the hospital, I knew he was still exhausted. It was half-past midnight, the building hushed, the elevator beep piercing the stillness.
We entered the apartment, and I closed the door. Jack seemed dazed as he glanced at his surroundings, as if he'd never been there before. Feeling the need to comfort him, I went up behind him and slid my arms around his waist. "What can I do?" I asked softly. I felt the rhythm of his breathing, faster than I'd expected. His body was tense, every muscle knotted.
He turned and stared into my eyes. Until then I'd never seen Jack, so eternally self-assured, look so lost and uncertain. Wanting to comfort him, I stood on my toes and brought my mouth to his. The kiss was off-center at first, but he gripped the back of my neck in one hand, and slid the other low on my hips, pressing me against him. His mouth was hot, urgent, tasting of salt and need.
Breaking off the kiss, Jack took my hand and pulled me to the dark bedroom. Panting, he tugged at my clothes with a frenzy he had never shown before.
"Jack," I said in concern, "we can wait until—"
"Now." His voice was strained. "I need you now." He tore at his own shirt, flinching as it caught at the burn wrap.
"Yes. All right." I was afraid he might hurt himself. "Go slowly, Jack. Please—"
"Can't," he muttered, reaching for the waist of my jeans, fumbling in his roughness.
"Let me help," I whispered, but he shoved my hands aside and dragged me to the bed. His self-control had vanished, eroded by exhaustion and emotion. My jeans and panties were stripped away and tossed to the floor. Kneeing my thighs apart, Jack lowered between them. I lifted willingly, opening to him, both of us intent on one goal.