Eloise held up a hand, stopping me from crossing the loft. Her gaze darted between me and my target.
“Don’t you dare.”
“I’m fine.” I took a step, ready to rumple the covers she’d so crisply made while I’d been in the shower.
“Jasper,” she warned. “You’re not fine. You got shot.”
“Two weeks ago.”
Her mouth pursed in a thin line.
I took another step.
“I mean it. I’m not having sex with you. You’re hurt.”
“I’m not hurt.”
Our glares locked in the same standoff we’d been having for the past two days.
At my checkup earlier this week, Talia had given me the all clear for light activity. But apparently, Eloise considered sex too strenuous.
So far, I’d let her thwart my advances. But enough was enough. My body ached and it had nothing to do with my shoulder.
With two long strides, I closed the distance between us, wrapping my good arm around her shoulders, trapping her before she could get away.
Her mouth was open, her protest ready.
I stopped it by slamming my lips on hers, sliding my tongue inside. One lick and she melted.
She sank into the kiss, fluttering her tongue against my own before her arms wrapped around my waist.
Fucking finally. I kissed her until her lips were swollen. Until she had that pretty flush to her cheeks. Then I let her go, dropping my forehead to hers.
“See? I’m okay.”
“You got shot.”
“But you didn’t.”
She sagged against me, burrowing into my chest as she drew in a long inhale.
“I miss fucking my wife.”
“I miss you too. But . . . we’ll be late.”
I growled. “We’ll be fast.” After two weeks of not having her, there was no chance I’d last.
“Tonight,” she promised. “When we get back, you can have your way with me. As long as you promise to take it easy.”
“Fine by me. You can do all the work.”
It had been two excruciating weeks, and I was desperate for sex with Eloise. I needed that physical connection. A reminder that we were good. Alive.
I dropped my forehead to hers, the image of Blaze flashing in my mind. His face was one I’d never forget. I’d been seeing him in my nightmares for two weeks. In those dreams, I hadn’t made it in time. I’d wake up, panicked. Then I’d feel her against me, sleeping soundly, cuddled close.
Maybe one of these days I’d tell Foster about the dreams. Confess them to someone. As much as Eloise had become my safe haven, this was one story I’d keep from her. She had her own demons to fight from the shooting.
“I love you,” she murmured.
“Love you too.”
It was still new, hearing it. Saying it. But every time, those words sank a little deeper. Lingered a little longer. By the time we were old and gray, they’d be tattooed on my bones.
We stood together in the middle of the loft, holding tight for a few moments. Then she eased away. “We’d better go.”
“All right.” I kissed her hair, then followed her downstairs.
Eloise snagged her keys and the veggie tray we’d made earlier from the kitchen, then we headed outside, climbing in her car.
In the past two weeks, she hadn’t been out of my sight for more than minutes at a time. Otherwise, we’d been inseparable.
And since she wanted to go to dinner at the ranch tonight, I was riding shotgun. Not that I minded.
Over the past two weeks, the Edens had closed ranks.
Talia had required I stay at the hospital for a few days after the shooting, giving my wound a jumpstart on healing and to monitor it for any sign of infection. Eloise had stayed the entire time, setting up camp in my room. Her parents had been the ones to bring us clean clothes, food and whatever else we’d needed.
Since we’d come home to the A-frame, Anne had visited every day. She’d assigned herself chores, laundry, cleaning and cooking. Eloise had insisted her mom hadn’t needed to help, but Anne hadn’t listened. Personally, I was grateful for the cooking. No way Eloise would have let me in the kitchen and I’d never liked peanut butter and jelly.
Harrison had tagged along with Anne yesterday, bringing along enough split firewood to last us five years. Then he’d stacked it outside by the shop.
Eloise’s siblings had, well . . . bombarded us.
I’d thought their steady stream of visits would stop once we left the hospital. If anything, it had gotten worse.
Today was the first time we hadn’t had a guest. And that was just because we were all congregating at the ranch.
Knox and Lyla had brought us enough food to last a month. Talia and Foster came at least twice a day. Griffin stopped by each morning and Winn swung over each evening. Mateo had been our least frequent visitor, but that was because he’d taken over at the hotel. Instead of stopping by, he called Eloise every two hours, asking questions and keeping her involved.
We hadn’t been to the hotel since the shooting.
That would come. Later.
Eloise wasn’t ready. Neither was I.
For now, it was in good hands and when Eloise was ready to return, I’d be right by her side.
If she decided to return.
There was a chance that Blaze had stolen her happiness from that building. He’d fired off three shots that day. Two had missed wide. The third had gone through my shoulder.
The fourth and fifth shots I’d heard had been Winn. She’d shot Blaze straight through the heart.
Not a day would go by that I wasn’t grateful for Winslow Eden. She’d saved lives. She’d saved Eloise. Had she not been there, well . . . there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that Blaze had come with the intention to murder.
The week after the shooting, Winn had come over to tell us about what had happened that day. The whole story.
The investigation was technically ongoing, but Winn had shared it was only documentation at this point. They’d searched Blaze’s computer to find some hidden video accounts. He’d recorded himself killing animals. His neighbor’s puppy. His own cat.
Winn had told us there’d been countless videos on his phone with rants about how he hated his mother. How he blamed her for divorcing his father. How his father should have hit her harder.
None of us had realized that Lydia had been abused by her ex. But I suspected that abuse had also translated to Blaze. Maybe physically. Definitely mentally and emotionally.
Combined with that at home, he’d been bullied at his old school in Missoula. In other videos, he’d made lists of people he’d be killing one day. He’d talked about how he’d take guns into the school. Which kids he’d shoot first.
Then there’d been the videos from Quincy. There was one of the A-frame dated the day before the shooting. Another of Eloise and me in the hotel lobby. Three of Eloise walking into work and one of me taking her a coffee. I hadn’t needed to see them. Just the mention had made my blood run cold.
No one would ever know exactly what had transpired, but that day two weeks ago, Blaze had killed his mother. They’d found Lydia in her kitchen, shot in the back of the head. From there, it was assumed that Blaze had come to the hotel.
I shuddered, knowing just how close I’d been to losing Eloise.
“Hey.” She reached her hand across the console.
I took it, lacing our fingers together. “Hey.”
Her thumb touched my ring, then she focused on the road.
We’d found this uncanny ability to know when the other person was thinking about that day. So we’d touch each other, remind each other that we were here. Together. Living.
It was a strange feeling, being grateful that a troubled kid was dead. Even stranger, I was grateful that he’d come into The Eloise. That he’d shot me instead of a school full of children in Missoula.
I still wasn’t sure how to line up those emotions. Yesterday, when Eloise had lain down for a nap, I’d started researching therapists.
We hadn’t talked much about the shooting either. Another conversation shelved for later. But when we were ready, we’d need help. I wouldn’t let this fester. I wouldn’t let this trauma come between us.
“Do you think Winn is okay?” I asked as we hit the highway, heading for the ranch.
“I think this will weigh on her.” Eloise gave me a sad smile. “But she knows she didn’t have another choice. And she has Griffin.”
She had me too. If she needed anything, I’d be there in a heartbeat.
I owed Winn my life. Eloise’s life.
They were one and the same.
While everyone had come together after the shooting, crowding around us at the A-frame, the ordeal had rattled the Edens. Tonight’s dinner was just another excuse to pull together.
It was still strange, being a part of their family.
But they were growing on me.
The drive to the ranch was quiet, but the moment we parked, her parents flew out of the house.
Harrison opened my car door before I could even touch the handle. “Hey, Jasper. Thanks for coming out.”
“Glad to be here.” It was the truth.
I looked past his shoulder to see Griffin and Winn on the porch. Winn was holding their daughter on her hip while Griff carried their son.
Closing ranks. Sticking close.
The Edens waded through thick and thin together, didn’t they?
I liked that.
Anne collected the veggie tray from the back seat, tucking it in one arm while the other tugged Eloise into a hug. As she pulled away, Anne had tears in her eyes. So did Eloise.
“Come on inside,” Anne said, leading the way to the wraparound porch.
I was about to follow when Harrison stepped in front of me.
He extended his hand, but when I shook it, he pulled me into a hug. A hug so fierce it pinched my shoulder, but I didn’t let the pain show. “Thank you. Realized today I hadn’t said that yet.”
Today. He hadn’t said that to me yet, today.
It was the hundredth time he’d thanked me in the past two weeks. I suspected it wouldn’t be the last either.
But for his daughter, for my wife, I’d take every bullet in the world.
He let me go, taking me in head to toe. His eyes were misty, much like his wife’s. He swallowed hard, then nodded for me to follow him inside, where everyone had already congregated in the kitchen and dining room.
Foster and Talia were at the island, sharing their list of baby names.
Knox was in the kitchen with Drake seated on the counter as his helper while Memphis paced the room, rocking their baby, who slept in her arms.
Griffin and Harrison launched into a discussion about the ranch—something about the corral design.
Mateo stole Emma from Winn, tossing his niece in the air. Her giggle carried above the rest of the conversation.
The house was insanity. Seven different conversations were happening at once. It had been like this the first time I’d come out here too, the noise shocking, but to everyone else, it just seemed . . . normal.
Anne and Eloise huddled around the fridge, pulling out drinks and offering beers and glasses of wine.
Lyla appeared at my side, standing with me in the periphery to take everyone in. “Think you can handle this family?”
“Honestly? No.” I chuckled. This was a far cry from the household where I’d been raised.
But as I looked to Eloise, as I saw the kids, the growing family, I wouldn’t want anything else for her.
For whatever family we might have one day.
“You’ll figure it out,” Lyla said. “You’re stuck with us now.”
“I am. You good with that?”
“Definitely. I think it was divine intervention that I never worked up the courage to ask you on a date.”
“Why do you say that?”
She smirked. “You would have always fallen in love with my sister. And I hate love triangles.”
I laughed, my own noise mixing with the rest. Oddly enough, it fit, didn’t it?