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Jackson: Chapter 32

“You ever do that again and I’ll kill you myself.”

River heard Jackson’s voice. It was quiet, like it came to her through a tunnel. She wanted to reach out and touch him. Tug him closer. But exhaustion and a murkiness in her head kept her still.

“I’m sorry.” Her heart gave a giant thud at the sound of her brother’s voice. “I wanted to reach out, I really did, but Widow and Todd insisted it was safer that no one knew until after the arrests.”

Her chest ached. Alive. Ryker was alive. And he was here. She needed to wake up. See him with her own eyes.

“Theoretically, it was probably the right call,” Jackson said quietly. “But you haven’t been here. You didn’t see what it did to her when they told her you were dead. She refused to believe it for so long.”

There was a moment of silence, and even though her eyes were closed, she could feel its heaviness.

“I hate that,” Ryker said softly. “I hate that her, my parents, and you guys all had to attend my funeral. They said it was the only way.”

“Tell me about that night,” Jackson said.

Again, River tried to open her eyes. She tried to lift her arm. But the exhaustion was insurmountable. In the back of her mind, she knew she was in the hospital. Knew that she must have drugs in her system to help her rest. And those drugs were trying to tug her under again. Trying to pull her away from the voices of the two men she loved most in the world. She hung on to those voices by a tiny thread.

Ryker sighed. “I knew something was wrong the second I stepped inside the club that night. There was this heavy energy. Elijah and his guys kept looking at me, and their stares were…intense. I had a rock in my stomach the entire time.”

“They knew,” Jackson said.

“It wasn’t surprising. I’d gotten too close, and DHS were putting together their sting. I even had the opportunity to see the guns in the kegs and take pictures when no one was watching. Or at least, I thought no one was watching. That’s why I went back to my room at River’s the night I was declared dead. The phone I’d taken the photos on was in there. I never took it back to the club in case they checked me.”

There was a brief pause before Ryker spoke again.

“So, I won my fight, got in my car and left straight away. I’d almost reached the bridge when a guy rose from the back seat. I assume his plan was to hit me over the head and jump out before the car went over the bridge.”

“But you saw him…” Jackson said.

“Ducked just before the hit came and grabbed the guy. I barely got out before he went over the bridge in my car. I called Todd. That’s when they told me they needed to seize this opportunity, and I needed to be dead. For my safety, and the safety of River and my parents. And so the operation wasn’t blown.”

The fog started to pull her back under.

No. She tried to stop it but couldn’t.

River didn’t know how long she slept, but when she started coming around again, the light behind her lids wasn’t quite so bright, and the room was silent.

Slowly, she opened her eyes. And that’s when she saw him. The man she’d been told over and over again was dead. The man she’d been told she’d never see again.

Tears flooded her eyes. “Ryker…”

His steely brown eyes shot open, boring into her.

Tears spilled over, tumbling down her cheeks. “Everyone told me you were gone.”

Her brother took her hand in his, his face pained, eyes darkening. “I’m sorry. So damn sorry.”

“I didn’t want to believe it,” she said quietly. “And even when those men from Homeland Security came to my house and insisted you were gone, I still struggled to accept it.”

His hand tightened around hers. “I wish I could have told you. You have no idea how much.”

She swallowed the lump in her throat. “I know. I heard you talking to Jackson while I was barely conscious.”

He gave a slow nod, and for a moment, they were both silent. Taking each other in, appreciating that the other person was really there.

“It was you, wasn’t it?” she asked quietly. “Outside the gym that day?”

Anger flared in his eyes as he nodded again. “They told me to stay away, but I knew you were looking into things. I needed to make sure you were safe. When I saw that asshole attack you…” His jaw clenched.

“Thank you.” She squeezed his hand. “Have you spoken to Mom and Dad?”

Another flash of pain. He nodded. “Yeah. It was…emotional. Even Dad struggled to hold it together. I’ve been banned from ever working with law enforcement again.”

A laugh bubbled to the surface. Laughing with her brother felt good. “I am in full support of that ban.”

“They’ll be back soon,” he said. “I forced them to go home and rest. Seeing you in bed with a bullet wound, and me alive…it was a lot for them.”

She swallowed the lump in her throat. “But they know that I’ll be okay, and that you’re back for good? That everything will be okay now?”

“They know.”

“And it will be, won’t it? Okay I mean? Because you are actually back this time?”

They both knew that even though he’d returned from his final mission physically, he’d never returned in any other way.

Ryker sucked in a sharp breath. “It’s over. Mickey’s dead and his club will likely shut down. And Elijah and his men are dead.”

A small pause.

“And, yeah…I’m back. Jackson mentioned he told you what happened in the Middle East.”

River swallowed, giving him a small nod. “I’m sorry you lost people you cared about.”

“The pain and guilt will be with me forever. But I need to learn to live with it, to not let the emotions affect me so much.”

“I’ll be here for you the entire time.” He’d know that already, but it was worth saying.

“Thank you.” Then he shook his head. “I can’t leave you, anyway. You find trouble the second I do.”

A small smile stretched her lips. “How else was I going to get you back?”

There was a deep growl from his chest. “You put yourself in danger.”

“So did you.”

“That’s different.”

She raised a brow. “Just because I’m not a trained soldier, doesn’t mean I’m going to sit by and do nothing when my brother gets himself almost killed.”

Another shake of his head. “For every second that Jackson’s not there, I will be.”

That was the big brother she remembered. “And you don’t mind? Me and Jackson?”

A short laugh sounded. “You guys have been a sure thing since we were teenagers. I was just waiting for his stubborn ass to realize.”

She smirked. “You and me both.”

At the door to the room opening, they both looked up to see the man himself step inside. He held two coffees and was wearing the same clothes as yesterday. Or at least, she assumed it had been yesterday.

Her heart sped up. He looked huge and dangerous, and when his eyes met hers, they were possessive.

Ryker rose from his chair. “I’m gonna go see Cole and Dec for a bit. Erik might have stopped by, too.”

Jackson tilted his head toward the hall. “They’re in the cafeteria.”

“Call if you need anything.”

Before he could walk away, she touched his arm. “Don’t go far.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Jackson took slow steps toward the bed. Her skin wasn’t quite so pale, and her breaths were even.

Good. Seeing her shot and unconscious…God, it had torn him in two and almost destroyed him.

He gave Ryker one of the coffees as the man passed. When the door closed, Jackson sat on the edge of the bed, placing the second coffee down and taking her hand.

“How are you feeling?” he asked quietly.

Her warmth seeped into his hand, up his arm, and into his chest. Jesus, touching her was everything. Seeing her awake, alive… Hell, the only reason he’d left the room to get coffee was because being with her, while she’d been so still, had been killing him. Ryker had noticed, and had kicked his ass out of the room to get them some caffeine and stretch his legs.

“I don’t feel any pain,” she said quietly. “I think whatever drugs they have me on are strong.”

He nodded, words not coming very easily to him right now. Eventually, he sucked in a deep breath. “You scared me.” And that was an emotion he wasn’t used to. He rarely felt fear. And he’d hated every second of it.

Her eyes softened. “I’m sorry. If I’d jumped out of the truck, I would have gotten caught in the gunfire. I had nowhere to go.”

He stroked the back of her hand. “I know.”

Her gaze shot to the spot beside her. “Lie with me?”

The woman didn’t need to ask him twice. He climbed onto the bed, being careful not to jolt her or touch her injury. His arm went around her, and she nuzzled into him.

This was exactly what he needed after the hellish twenty-four hours they’d had.

“How are you feeling about Ryker?” she asked quietly.

“I can’t believe he’s alive. Best damn surprise of my life.” He glanced down, pushing a lock of hair behind her ear. “You knew all along.”

She gave him a small smile. “I’m just stubborn and can’t accept that anything isn’t exactly as I need it to be.”

“You don’t give up on the people you love.” He pressed a kiss to her temple. “I like that.”

“I don’t. So if you ever try to disappear like Ryker, I’ll hunt your ass down, too.”

He chuckled. “I don’t doubt it.”

She snuggled closer. “So…you still set on staying in Lindeman?”

“Yes.” He paused, his thumb stroking a circle around her shoulder. “In fact, I spoke to Larry’s wife. She’s getting the papers ready for us to buy her husband’s gym, and then we’ll reopen.”

Her head shot up. “Really?”

“Yeah. Declan, Cole, and now Ryker…they’re all keen to do it with me. We’re hoping it’ll be sort of a refuge for people who need an outlet for their anger. Like Larry gave me. We’re going to call the place Mercy Ring.”

A slow smile stretched her lips. “After Larry Mercy.”

He gave a short nod. “Exactly.”

“Does this mean you’ll let me go a round with you in the ring?”

He knew she was joking, but he couldn’t even crack a smile. “Let’s wait for the bullet wound to heal before we talk about you fighting anyone.”

Her smile lessened. “I can’t believe I was shot.”

Jackson’s eyes narrowed. The rookie cop who had shot her should have known better than to open fire. It had been Ryker’s shot from the front and Jackson’s from behind that had been Elijah’s kill shots.

She looked up, eyes pained. “I’m sorry about your father.”

He gave a short nod. He wasn’t happy about his father’s death, but he wasn’t sad, either. “He made his bed.”

She snuggled closer.

“Now that I’m staying though, I’d like you to do something for me.”

She looked up. “And what’s that?”

“Have another go at making money from taking pictures of the things you love.” She frowned as he continued. “I may even have done some research and found the names of some companies and magazines who are accepting nature photography shots right now.”

Her eyes softened. “You didn’t.”

“I did. Give it a go, River. I want you to do what you love.”

She sighed. “Okay. I guess I have nothing to lose.”

“Absolutely nothing.” His hand went to her cheek. “I love you.”

“I love you so much that too often I swear I’m going to lose my mind.”

He chuckled. “We’ll lose our minds together.”

Then they were kissing, as if they needed each other more than they needed air. Like any separation at all was too painful to even consider.


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