Jackson: Chapter 33

“You ever do anything like that again and I’m going to murder you myself,” Declan said to Ryker across the table.

He wasn’t even joking. He’d hunt the man down and beat his ass.

Ryker dipped his head. “Already heard the exact same from Jackson. If I ever do that again, you have my permission.”

Cole shook his head. “We missed you, man.”

“I missed you too,” Ryker said. “Hell, I missed everyone.”

Declan took a sip of his coffee, unable to take his gaze off his friend who sat across the cafeteria table. Ryker didn’t want to leave until River did, so this is where they’d all been since the previous afternoon.

“You doing okay?” he asked. “After everything that happened on that last mission?”

Ryker tried to hide the flash of pain, but Declan saw it. “No. But I’m getting there.”

He nodded. There wasn’t much he could say. What had happened shouldn’t have. None of them could bring back the families who’d died. And they didn’t have permission to find the guy who’d killed them. That mission was where it ended for them.

Declan tapped his hand on the table before standing. “Right, I need to pop back to the inn for a shower because I stink like hell. Either of you coming?”

They both shook their heads.

Before he could stand, a familiar face stepped into the cafeteria and headed their way.

Declan frowned. “Erik.”

He nodded toward them, his gaze pausing on Ryker. “Got a text from Cole saying you were still alive. Thought I’d come down and see for myself. Also check on your sister.”

Ryker stood, giving the other man a brief hug. “Good to see you again, Erik. I heard you’ve spent some time with the team.”

He dipped his head. “I did.”

Declan stayed for another ten minutes, filling Erik in on everything before he stepped away, moving out of the cafeteria and down the hall.

Ryker was alive. The words didn’t feel real in his head. Because the world had told him his friend—his brother—was dead. And he’d believed it. It was only River who had realized the truth.

Now the team was back together. Thank fuck for that, because even one of them being gone hurt like hell. Now that he knew what it felt like to lose a brother, he wasn’t willing to leave them. Staying together, staying in Lindeman, felt right.

He tugged his phone from his pocket and checked if there were any messages. His eyes were on the screen when a woman rushed around the corner, crashing right into him. A squeak flew from her mouth and a container almost fell out of her hands.

Declan grabbed the container with one hand and steadied her with the other.

A smile immediately tugged at his lips.

Michele. Her sweet scent of sugar and citrus filled his personal space. When her gaze finally lifted and met his, her eyes widened. Her mouth opened and closed but no words came out.

Declan’s smile widened. So goddamn cute, especially when she got all flustered and quiet. He’d been finding himself thinking about the pretty brunette more and more lately.

She was almost a full head shorter than him, had these cute freckles dusted across her nose and the bluest eyes he’d ever seen.

And her curves…God, they made him want to run his hands all over her.

She was the opposite of every woman he’d ever dated. She didn’t fit the MO of loud and extroverted, so his attraction to her caught him by surprise. But he sure as hell wasn’t running from it.

“Sorry, darlin’.”

Her cheeks reddened and her bottom lip disappeared between her lips. “You don’t need to apologize. It was…I mean, I walked into you.”

Ran. She ran into him. Not that he was complaining.

“Should have gotten my ass out of the way then, shouldn’t I?”

A small smile slid across her lips. A smile that had ripples of awareness trickling into his chest.

“You here to see River?”

“Yeah, I, ah…brought food. Hospital food kind of sucks.”

Declan laughed. “Kind of? I would describe it as soggy cardboard with a dusting of salt.” He nodded his head down the hall. “Come on, I’ll walk you.”

Her brows rose. “Oh, it’s okay. I know where she is.”

“I’m sure you do. I want to.” His voice deepened, intensity thrumming through his words. He wanted to explore this attraction. See where it took them.

Her throat bobbed, her lips parting. “Um, okay.”

He was still holding her container as they walked. His free hand twitched to touch the small of her back. Her elbow. Anything. He clenched his fist to stop himself.

“What did you make?” He inspected the container, needing the distraction.

“Just Moroccan chickpea stew. Nothing fancy.”

He laughed, feeling Michele’s gaze zip his way. “If the words Moroccan and chickpea are in the same sentence, then it’s fancy.”

That smile returned to her lips, and he saw the hint of a dimple in her cheek.

“Now tell me how I can get some of this,” he added.

Her brows rose again. “You want some?”

He wanted more than the stew, but that would have to wait. “I definitely do.”

“Pop by the shop anytime you’re around.”

“You do know we’ve taken over the boxing gym, don’t you? The boxing gym that’s right down the road from you. So that could be very often.”

She lifted a shoulder. “So come by often, then.”

Her quiet words took him off guard. Was the shy woman flirting with him? Parts of his body hardened that had no business doing so in a busy hospital.

As they rounded a corner, Michele’s phone dinged—and he could have sworn he saw her shoulders tense. When she pulled it out, the corners of her mouth tilted down, and she quickly clicked her phone off before shoving it back into her pocket.

Unease skirted through his gut. “Everything okay?”

They stopped outside River’s room. The door was closed, and Michele turned to face him. Her next smile didn’t come close to reaching her eyes. “Of course.”

For the first time, he saw little things he hadn’t before. Things he’d been too distracted by his attraction to notice. The way her eyes were shadowed and her lips pinched at the corners. The obvious stress. The exhaustion.

He took a small step forward, his voice lowering. “You can tell me if it isn’t. You know that, right? I might be able to help.”

She swallowed, her gaze flickering between his eyes. “I…” She paused. And for a moment, he thought she might actually tell him something important.

When the silence stretched, his hand reached out, almost as if it had a mind of its own, and cupped her cheek. “I want to help.”

The electricity that passed through the touch was like a zap of fire. What the hell was it with this woman?

Something akin to need flickered through her eyes. Need to talk to him? Or just need for him?

Then she blinked. And when she stepped back, his hand fell. The spell broke. The loss of touch was like a kick in the gut.

“Thank you, Declan.” She reached out, taking the container from his hand, her heated skin grazing his, burning him. He was certain she felt it too, because there was the smallest gasp from her before she tugged her hand back and spoke again. “And thank you for walking with me to River’s room.”

When she disappeared behind the door, Declan continued to stand there for another moment. There was just something about that woman. Something that had him feeling things he’d never felt before. And it wasn’t just attraction. It was something that nearly suffocated him with the need to get to know her. Touch her. Protect her.

The last part had him frowning. Did the woman need protecting? His gut told him yes. That there was some sort of danger in her life. He could sense it as well as he could sense anything.

And he was almost certain it had everything to do with her asshole ex.


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