Tap. Tap. Exhale.
Tap. Tap. Exhale.
Tap. Tap. Exhale.
Jackson was breathing and tapping his left foot in time with Anna’s ventilator.
Tap. Tap. Exhale.
He could feel the sound. A constant weight on his shoulders, reminding him of what he’d almost lost. His whole fucking world. His entire reason for seeing the light at the end of his dark existence was lying in a hospital bed in an induced coma, and it was all his fault. He should have been honest with her. Hugged her more and told her every fucking day of his life how much he loved her. All of that didn’t matter now. What mattered was the woman lying prone on a hospital bed, hooked up to a machine, fighting for her life.
He should have explained everything. You should have come clean. Eyes closed, he continued with his routine. The smell of her room was sterile. He was breathing and drinking in the smell, and for as long as he lived, he hoped to never be in this situation again. Not with her, not ever with her.
“Annabelle Macon, you are not allowed to quit on me.” His throat was too dry to form sound. His voice could have easily come from the Grim Reaper himself.
Only, he was the opposite of those emotions. He was raw on the inside, torn up on the outside, and unraveling all around. He was sure he was falling apart. He needed to be strong for Anna. They’d put her in a coma. She suffered from edema, fluid build-up on the brain as a result of blunt force trauma to the head when she’d fallen on his kitchen floor. She was in a deep state of unconsciousness. His beautiful, beautiful Anna. That wasn’t the worst of it, though. Not even close. In the background, the dialysis machine cleaned her blood. Both kidneys had been injured due to multiple knife wounds. Pearl and The Mayor had volunteered one of theirs, but they weren’t a match. His sister and her husband were going to try and see if they could be donors, and really, that was all they had going for them. Because he wasn’t a match, and if his sister or Treat weren’t either, it’d be this damn machine for the rest of her life.
“Mr. Storme?” He opened his eyes. White spots floated into his view before a wave of unwelcomed exhaustion hit.
Jackson didn’t say a word. He continued to breathe and tap in time with the machine. If he stopped breathing, he felt as if she would, too.
“Jackson Storme?” The voice came again. It was female.
This time, he looked up and across the room at the woman attached to the voice.
“I need you to come with me, sir.”
Yeah. No. That was not happening. He wasn’t going anywhere.
“I’m not leaving her,” he croaked.
“Mr. Storme. There’s an Agent Del Zur here for you.”
For Tracey to come down from her post meant she had information.
“She can come in here.”
The nurse cleared her throat. “Sir, we can’t have anyone besides family in the room with Miss Macon. There are two officers stationed outside her room. Per your request.” She remembered him from his earlier demand. He’d had to step out to get tested, but had to make sure someone could watch over Anna.
They’d air-lifted Anna to the hospital in Houston. Methodist was the best. It had taken him over six hours to get to her because they wouldn’t let him ride in the helicopter. Something he was still pissed about, but Treat and Joey, along with half the town, had made the journey to Houston.
“I ain’t leaving her side, goddammit!” Jackson’s voice rose. He was on the verge of yelling when Anna’s heart monitor began sounding alerts. Calm. She needs you calm. Jackson slowly stood, placed his hand in Anna’s, and squeezed tightly as he bent to kiss her forehead and whisper in her ear.
“Baby, I’ll be right outside the door.”
Reluctant and pissed that he had to leave her side, Jackson made his way into the hall. Tracey Del Zur, his senior officer in command, wore a cream-colored suit with matching shoes. She was short and ballsy, and Jackson thought the world of her. Until about thirty seconds ago.
“You look like shit, Storme.”
“My woman’s lying in a hospital bed, and you want to throw fucking insults? I hope you’re here with information.”
“Yes and no.” Her eyes gave him a once-over. He knew what she saw. A man completely at wit’s end. Feral and unkempt. He didn’t give a goddamn what her assessment of his personal appearance was.
Whatever Tracey had to say was going to piss him off further. He was sure of it.
“Well, what is it?” His voice was harsh.
Tracey stepped back on her heels, did an about face, and walked away from him. It was his cue to follow. She had a way of commanding attention. It was one of the reasons he enjoyed working with her. She got to the point, didn’t fuck around, and made sure her team was taken care of. He gave the guard at Anna’s door a head nod and followed his boss.
“You’ve been reactivated. Full duty.” Before he could interrupt, she held up her hand. “Treat’s active, as well. There is a third, your new backup. Originally, I was going to use another resource to be my eyes and ears. I didn’t want to bring either of you back on. I know Treat’s about to be a father, and you’re engaged now. But I don’t have a choice; your cover’s been blown. Your location compromised. The best thing we can do now is close this case once and for all.”
Jackson heard what she said, but his mind was elsewhere. Who the fuck was this new person?
“Are Treat and Joey in danger?”
She shook her head.
“What about Treat?”
“That’s the good news,” Tracey said over her shoulder. “Your brother-in-law came back as a match. He can give one of his kidneys to Anna. He’s being prepped for surgery, and they will operate tomorrow. Turns out, Treat and Anna are brother and sister. Half–siblings.” No shit. What else would they be? Fuck, brother and sister? Jackson had not seen that coming. He almost ran into Tracey at the news of Anna and Treat being siblings. That meant the entire town was wrong. Treat’s father, William Cavanaugh, was Anna’s father.
Treat was Anna’s half-brother. Did he know?
“Does Treat know?”
Tracey smiled. Yeah, Treat knew.
“He does now. You missed one hell of an argument. Pearl Macon is a lioness. When the doctor came back with the results, the entire room went into a Jerry Springer episode to rival all Jerry Springer episodes.”
He could only imagine.
“Lola happened. She went off on your partner, who had no idea Anna was even his sister. The twins played backup, and some huge beast of a man called Pooh Bear was the referee. It was Pearl who got everyone under control.”
Figures. Pearl Macon could tame the loudest of quarrels, and Lola was crazy. Twenty cans short of a twenty-four pack. But she always had Anna’s back.
“Are Treat and Joey good?”
“Right as rain.”
“ls that all?” He really wanted to get back to Anna. He was thrilled that Treat was a match, but now he just wanted it all over.
Tracey tilted her head to the side, eyeing Jackson.
”Go, be there for your woman. When she wakes up, you have two weeks of downtime, and then you’re back in my office.”
Jackson’s head snapped up. Two weeks? Was that all? He needed a lot longer than that to care for Anna. She’d have appointments, and some sort of rehab. But he knew that was Tracey. She wanted the case closed. There was no point in arguing; he just hoped Anna would understand his reasoning for having to leave her in her family’s care.
“I don’t have any time off for her aftercare? What about this third person you want me to work with?”
“You two will meet soon enough. As for Anna’s aftercare, well, it’s not the agency’s problem. You just make sure you show up in my office in two weeks.
I can feel softness. Warmth. Everything around me is calm. I think I can even hear music, but I’m not sure. There is some sort of wild cry in the background. I want to open my eyes and see what’s making those noises, but my eyes are heavy. Too heavy. The sound gets louder, closer. I’m not scared. Somehow, I know I’m safe. Something feather-soft tickles my face, then down my arm and over my leg. This happens several times. Each stroke lulls me. Pulls me toward a place I know I need to go, but am too afraid to go back to. What if everything changes? What if they’ve all moved on? What if he’s moved on? Who is he, and why can’t I remember his name? How long have I been here?
My body is being repositioned. Lifted. And someone is telling me to fight. I know the words are coming from him. But who is he? He’s important, special. I love his voice. It’s smooth, but rough, deep, yet tempered at just the right pitch. The sound of the timbre surrounds me. It makes my insides warm. But I can’t remember his name. It’s on the tip of my tongue, but my mouth is dry.
I can feel the feathers again, and this time, I do open my eyes. But I can’t focus. Blurry blues, greens, and a flash of something I think is pink or purple. But before I can truly make out the feathers, I’m pulled into a place void of sound. There’s a bright flash of light at the end of a never-ending vortex. His voice is calling me home, I heard it seconds ago, and now it’s muffled again. It’s as if I’m the knob on a stereo and the speakers in my ears are muted then switched back on. As comforted as I feel, my body knows I need to go towards his voice. I know the voice. The voice is home.
There is always a light at the end of every dark tunnel. But who ever analyzes the journey to get there? There are doors leading to different outcomes, Windows slightly ajar, offering other paths, and cracks in the wall alluding to the outer arena called life.
Jackson’s been through it all.
But he’ll always remember her.
He’ll fight for her.
Almost die for her.
Walk through hell and back for her.
Because until her, there was no him.
Betrayal and new faces all come together as Jackson Storme and Annabelle Macon’s story concludes in Until Her, a southern contemporary filled with ups and downs, rights and wrongs, and finally, their happily ever after. (With an extra helping of Lola Danvers.)
**Multicultural Romance/IR Southern Contemporary +18 Mature Readers**