The full moon through the skylight left the room illuminated, but cold. Chelsea lay in the bright, silvery light, wondering what had woken her.
Warm hands brushed her bare back, and Jackson murmured, “Shh. It’s okay, go back to sleep.”
She rolled over, sprawled across his body, and rested her head on his chest. The damp chest hair that greeted her face was unpleasant for several reasons. Cold and clammy against her cheek, it meant night sweats. But Jackson never stressed out.
He barely works up a sweat during our training sessions.
His arms wrapped around her. “Nothing, my little nun. Just one of my nightmares.”
She tightened her limbs, squeezing as much of him as she could. “You okay?”
His chin tapped the top of her head as he nodded. “I’m used to them.”
“Used to them?” her voice came out more annoyed than she intended. “We’ve been together for almost two months. How the hell did you keep something like this from me for two months?”
His low chuckle raised goosebumps along her skin as fingers trailed up her bare ribs towards her breasts.
She smacked his chest. “Seriously, Jack!”
He sighed. “You’ve been a little preoccupied, and like I said, I’m used to them. Generally, I wake up in a cold sweat and head to the bathroom. Once I’m calm, I come back to bed. You didn’t notice, because I didn’t want to bother you.”
He snugged her closer. “It’s okay. I’m okay.”
She twirled his chest hair. “Obviously, it’s not. My therapist says regular nightmares that interrupt your sleep—”
He laughed. “Yeah, my caseworkers sent me to lots of therapists over the years. Nothing to be done about my nightmares. They just are.”
“Caseworkers?” Chelsea listened to his still-pounding heart through his ribs.
There was no answer for a long moment, then he sat up, pulling her along. “I was… the thing is, Chelsea, most monster hunters are fucked up people. There’s a few hunting families that go back generations, but mostly, we get into this game for the same reason you did: somebody you know and love gets killed, and nobody is going to believe that it’s a vampire or whatever. So, you have to take care of it yourself. And you keep going after monsters until you have a bad night. Then the fight is all over.”
His hand traveled down her back, returning to her shoulders as he talked. The gesture seemed more about taking comfort than giving any.
“But me… I was six, and my brother was ten. Our mom had lots of problems.” He huffed a laugh. “Well, really, she had two problems, booze and men, but they brought on the rest. And when she was in full swing, when the house was full of strung out and drunk strangers, Chuck and I took off. We didn’t have a dad, and if none of our friends could take us, we’d spend the night at the local park.”
She gave him another full body squeeze. Pampered and loved all her life, she couldn’t imagine not trusting her parents or them abandoning her.
His hands gripped her hips for a moment before he continued. “Well, one night, we ran into a reaver.”
“What’s a reaver?”
Jackson let out a rough breath, almost, but not quite a laugh. “A type of vampire. Think the exact opposite of a nightling. Instead of being inhumanly pretty and intelligent, they are saw-toothed, red-eyed, hairless, brainless, killing machines. One bite and you turn or you die.”
He shrugged. “We ran, of course. Chuck boosted me over the fence, but he scraped his knee getting over the top. Reavers go nuts at the scent of fresh blood.” He swallowed, his throat twitching along the side of her head. “It tore him apart in front of me.”
Tears welled up in her eyes.
Jack’s voice took on a determinedly cheerful quality. “And so began my stint in foster care. I was pulled from the neglectful arms of my drunk mother and passed from family to family until my sixteenth birthday. On that day, I walked out of my latest home and started hunting.”
“Why did you wait so long?”
For the first time since she awoke, Jackson truly sounded like himself as a huge laugh bubbled out of him. “I thought I was fucking crazy. I was six, remember? I told everybody about what I’d seen. Which meant a good decade of therapists explaining to me about how I made up a monster so I had something tangible to be mad at, instead of the ‘obvious’ abduction gone wrong that ripped my brother to pieces.”
“What changed your mind?”
Jackson quieted. “A friend got attacked by a reaver.”
“And you had to watch, again?”
He nodded against her hair, once more. “Yeah, but at least I knew I wasn’t crazy. So I took off, hunting monsters.”
She sat up in the weak light, unsure of what, if anything to say. The moon washed out all the color. His black hair lacked its reddish highlights, and his brilliant green eyes were a pale imitation of themselves.
A forced smile stretched across his face. “It’s all right, Chelsea.”
“You still have nightmares.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know a monster hunter without them, including you.”
“A monster hunter,” he finished with her. “You just have a mean left hook, nightmares, and want to revenge-kill nightlings.”
“The nightmares started before Dink was killed.” Her voice wobbled into the pale light. “It was my parents’ murder.”
His fingers dug into her hips again, pulling her closer. Despite their lack of clothes, there was nothing sexual in the gesture, a first from Jackson Hawk.
She found herself talking about her dreams. “I’m in a clear box, looking out at a storm. The pouring rain is deafening in there, and slowly, the air is being sucked out. I can’t breathe, and I can’t hear anything except the rain, but I can see the water covering the box.” Just talking about it made her heart slam against her ribs.
Jackson’s hand slid up her back, pulling her gently against him. She leaned in, soaking up his closeness. Soft, warm skin over hard muscles and scars. More and more Jackson felt like home.
Don’t believe that.
She had to remember that Jackson lacked any desire to stick around, and she couldn’t leave, yet. But she had a life beyond killing monsters to go back to. And Jackson Hawk couldn’t say “no” to a woman if his life were on the line.
“So,” he said after a long silence, “you and Dink ever hook up?”
She shook her head and sat up again. “No. He—after my parents died, I went self-destructive, lots of drinking. Dink took it upon himself to keep an eye on me, make sure I didn’t drink too much, stumble into traffic, or get raped.”
“You two seemed chummy that night.”
Chelsea shrugged. “I wasn’t interested, and he knew it. He heard me bitch about pushy guys often enough.” Tears welled up and spilled over. “Maybe— ”
Jack shook his head. “No ‘maybes’, my little nun. Going over the past won’t prevent it from having happened.”
She studied him in the moonlight. Dark shadows painted the skin under his high cheekbones, and the sheen of humor he usually sported was absent. For the first time in two months, she finally began to feel like she knew him.
Chelsea slid her hands up his arms. “Only one shot, Jackson?”
“Monsters aren’t known for their mercy.” He snuggled into their bed, taking her with him. They shuffled and maneuvered, trying for the best way to lie together. Between one breath and the next, the balance was found. Warm and protected once more, Chelsea fell back asleep.
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