Too bright. That was my first conscious thought – even with my eyes shut tight, everything was way too bright. And loud. I couldn’t make sense of what the sounds were, but they, along with the damned lights, had jolted me out of a wonderful, deep sleep. I desperately wanted to return to that warm fuzzy oblivion, but I couldn’t ignore the distractions. I lifted my lids a tiny crack. Big mistake! Laser beams seared my eyeballs and shot straight up to my brain.
“Ack,” I croaked, slamming them shut. I had been trying to curse, but that was a close as I could get, my throat absorbing sounds in the absence of moisture. I had been in a bright room like this nearly 10 years ago. The heartache that accompanied that thought was unbearable.
“Jessie?” I heard a familiar voice pierce my eardrums and scatter the fog in my head. “Jessie, baby, are you awake?”
Baby? No one had ever called me baby. I risked another peek, and this time I was gradually able to pry my eyelids apart millimeter by millimeter, and the room came into focus. Two African-American women, one young with a sleek pixie cut and one older with Shirley Temple curls, stood by my bedside. The elder was holding my hand. Agnes and Gail, I realized with surprise. What was going on? Why were they here? And where was here?
It occurred to me that I was lying down, scratchy sheets rubbing against my skin and a flat pillow supporting my aching head.
“Water,” I begged, and found a Styrofoam cup of ice chips thrust at my lips. The gloriously cold slivers slid down my parched throat and felt like salvation itself.
“What’s going on?” I managed to ask after swallowing my fill of the frozen goodness. “Where are we?”
“The hospital, baby,” Agnes answered. “Fifi was plenty worried about you, but don’t worry, you’re gonna be just fine.”
“Hospital?” I started to sit up, but found my arm tethered to an IV bag hanging from a stand on the opposite side of my bed. “What am I doing in the hospital?”
“You were shot,” Gail said, her normally soft coo sounding brittle. “Scared the living daylights out of us.”
Memory smashed into my brain, much like the bullets had smashed into my body. I recalled Milston, the bar, the gunfire.
“Milston,” I said. “Is he . . .”
“He wasn’t hit,” Gail answered. He’s the one who called it in. You’d have bled to death if he hadn’t. He saved your life.”
I wanted to think about this, to figure out what it all might mean, but my head felt like it was filled with helium and the presence of my guests made it hard to concentrate. I could feel myself drifting back into that comforting darkness when a masculine voice tinged with honey brought me back. Jason.
“How is she?” he had asked, and I realized that his drawl had been laced with something more. Something that sounded an awful lot like fear. I couldn’t resist once again opening my eyes so I could take in his handsome face. He looked tired and worried. My chest tightened with a warmth that was unfamiliar to me. It was a little like the feeling one had when gazing at napping puppies or kittens, but stronger. Weird. They must have me on some really great meds.
“She’ll be as good as new after she’s had some rest,” Agnes replied.
As good as new. The words echoed comfortingly in my head. I was alive. I hadn’t bled out on that dark, stinking street alone and helpless. But my relief was tempered by a new certainty that was creeping into my thoughts. I wouldn’t have survived if I had been on my own. I was in deep trouble, and if I kept insisting that I didn’t need help, I wasn’t going to make it. I had to trust someone with my secrets, at least some of them, and with my life.
“Jason,” I whispered as I sank into unconsciousness. “I need you.”
The next time I awoke, it was to blissful silence – or as close as it can get with various monitors beeping and buzzing every few seconds. The light had mellowed, as well. Either someone had closed the blinds or night had fallen. I could feel a cool whisper of air kiss my bare arms, and on it I caught a whiff of something deliciously spicy. My eyes flew open. I knew that scent. It belonged to Jason Anders!
I carefully turned my head to see his large frame draped over a chair by my bed. His head was leaning against the wall and his long legs were stretched out in front of him. His eyes were closed, but they snapped open when I tried to move onto my side. I fell back with a grunt as a dagger of agony tore through my hip and up into my shoulder.
He was at my side even before I was able to breathe through the pain. “Let me help,” he said as he lifted me up and laid me on my side with a move so smooth and gentle I didn’t feel a thing.
“Here,” he placed a small pump in my hand. “Morphine.”
The pain had subsided, so I ignored it.
“Do you need anything?” he asked. “Water? The nurse?”
“No,” I said, and was surprised at how strong my voice sounded, if a little scratchy. “I’m okay.”
But was I? I hadn’t forgotten what it felt like to think I was going to die in the street. Was I ready to share my entire investigation with someone? It went against every instinct I possessed; I had always known the only person I could rely on was me. Had that actually changed? And was Jason the one I could trust? What the hell. If it had to be someone, it might as well be the hottest guy on planet earth.
“We need to talk,” I said.
It was time. I was going to bite the bullet – ha, ha – and let go of my fears. Sharing what I knew didn’t make me weak, and it didn’t mean I had failed. It meant I was being smart. I could accomplish so much more with the resources of the VSP at my disposal. And, bonus, maybe I would live to see my next birthday.
“No,” Jason said.
“No?” I was flummoxed.
“No,” he repeated. “Not before I tell you something.”
His face was grim and his eyes were bright with intensity. I felt a curl of panic in my belly. Whatever he wanted to say to me was bad, I could tell. All the more reason for me to speak up. If I waited, I would talk myself out of the whole thing, especially after he spoke his piece.
“I have to go first,” I insisted. “You’re just going to have wait your turn.”
I could see impatience in the set of his jaw, but he held it back. “Okay,” he said, “so go.”
Here it was. I took a deep breath, screwed up my courage, and prepared to spill my guts. “I haven’t been completely honest with you,” I began.
“I’m shocked,” he deadpanned.
“Yeah, well, I had my reasons.”
“Sure, you did . . .,” he started, but I didn’t let him finish.
“I’m ready to come clean, tell you everything.” Almost everything, I silently amended.
Now it was surprise that I could read on his face, as he stared at me, eyes wide. “I’m listening.”
“A couple of days ago, I received a death threat.”
“What?” Jason thundered.
“I didn’t think it was serious so I . . .”
“So, you went ahead and made yourself a nice big target. I can’t believe you’d be so stupid!”
“I’m not stupid,” I flared. “I wanted the truth and I took a calculated risk.”
“And wound up in the hospital.”
“Do you want the truth or not?” I said. “Because I’m going to stop right now and have the nurse throw you out if you don’t calm down.”
“Fine,” he said. “Go ahead.”
I hesitated, knowing that if he hadn’t liked what I had to say before, he was really going to hate the next part. “I met with someone last night. Someone who used to work for my father.”
“What?” he bellowed again. “You met with someone you suspected of killing the governor? Alone?”
“Yes, alone,” I said. “I don’t need a babysitter.”
“Your current predicament says otherwise.”
I couldn’t argue with that, so I ignored it.
“It’s a good thing I did; he saved my life.”
“It wouldn’t have needed saving if you had just told me everything in the first place,” he said, eyes flashing green fire.
This conversation was not going the way I had envisioned at all, so I took a mental step back.
“I don’t want to argue about this,” I said, voice low and in what I hoped was a conciliatory tone. “I want us to start over, only this time as partners rather than adversaries.”
He ran his hand over his hair, which I now knew he did when he was stressed. I reached out and lay my hand over his, surprised that it only hurt a little.
“That’s the closest I’ve ever come to death,” I said, surprised at how easily the words came. “I was terrified.”
He whispered my name like a plea. For mercy? For the truth? For me to stop? I didn’t know which, but I’d come too far to quit now.
This next part was going to be harder. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever faced anything so difficult in my life. I was a loner, a confident, kick-ass ballbuster who didn’t need or want anything beyond the physical. At least that’s how I had always seen myself, until I lie bleeding on the street. Now I knew I wanted – needed – more, and I needed to tell him.
“I know that I can be a bit . . .”
“Bull-headed?” he suggested with a twitch of his full lips.
“I was going to say independent,” I said, “but maybe a little bull-headed, too.” I smiled back at him. “The truth is, when I thought I was going to die, I figured out some things. I don’t want to be alone anymore.” I was ashamed of the way my voice shook on that last sentence. Had I really let one near-death experience turn me into a bowl of mush?
“Jessie,” he repeated, and this time the word was a caress across skin that was both flushed and covered with goose bumps.
He turned his hand over so that his fingers laced with mine. I was relatively tall with long arms and long fingers, but his large, rough hand dwarfed mine, made me feel delicate.
“I don’t want to be alone, either,” he said, gazing at me with eyes so dark and earnest I had to fight the urge to squirm. This much emotion was new to me, and I felt both embarrassed as hell and thrilled to my toes.
“This isn’t just some weird sexual tension thing, is it?” I asked, not at all sure what I hoped his answer would be.
“Nope,” he replied.
A wave of relief washed over me. Then the panic bubbled up. I wasn’t cut out for this kind of thing, or it would have happened a long time ago. I didn’t know how to do serious relationships, and I wasn’t altogether sure I wanted to. I liked my life the way it had always been – uncomplicated, free . . . lonely.
Too many feelings were overwhelming me right now, getting me all tied up in knots. Someone had just tried to kill me. It was no wonder I was at such loose ends. I had shared my feelings, now I needed to set this aside. Concentrate on the most pressing issue right now, which was finding a killer. Once that was accomplished, I could focus on what I wanted my future with Jason to look like. I gave his hand a squeeze before carefully pulling my own free.
“We need to draw out our killer,” I said.