The camper was cramped and dark, a dry cave, covered in Jackson’s clothes. The hunter hurried ahead of Chelsea, grabbing shirts and pants as he went, apologizing over his shoulder. “Have a seat. Throw shit at me if it’s in your way. I’m just getting back on my feet and I wasn’t expecting company.”
Chelsea shrugged. ‘I live out of my car these days. It’s fairly gross in there when Bentley and I go on an extended trip.”
Jackson’s muffled voice came from the back of the trailer. “Bentley?”
The closed door couldn’t contain his laugh. “Where did you get him, anyway?”
Chelsea threaded her fingers in the soft fur on the dog’s back. “He wandered out of the prairie. We’ve been together ever since.”
Jackson emerged from the dusky back end of the trailer in soft black pants and a t-shirt from one of her favorite tourist traps in South Dakota. He held a hand out to Bentley. As the huge mutt sniffed at him, Chelsea fought for breath.
To her disappointment, Bentley seemed indifferent to Jack. No wagging tails nor any aggression. He consented to a few pats before scratching at the door. She let him out, wishing for some kind of idea what was about to happen.
Jack leaned against the fridge. “How have you been?”
She settled at the table. “Honestly? Depends on the day.”
He nodded. “And school?”
She shrugged. “Nightlings… attacked another friend of mine. And that was pretty much the end of school.”
A hot flash of anger crossed Jackson’s face, but he shook it away. “Color me not surprised.”
Chelsea stretched out her legs. “That’s a backhanded “I told you so.” And it’s not that I don’t deserve it, but at least be honest.”
Jackson’s laugh brought red to his face as he gasped for breath. “So, you really went full hunter, huh?”
She nodded. “Sold the house. I’m not kidding about living out of my car.”
He shook his head. “What about that old nun? She just let you leave?”
Her vision blurred and she had to wipe away tears. “Sister Mary Clarence. And yeah, she gave me her blessing. Granted, she thinks I’m doing MMA for a living, but close enough, really.”
Jack opened the fridge. “I really did leave too soon.”
Her thin edge of humor vanished. “You really did.”
He sighed as he handed her a beer and settled on the opposite bench. “Is there an apology you’ll accept?”
She shrugged. “It wasn’t the leaving, so much as the note…” Her voice came hot and rough as she continued. “And taking Amber with you.”
Jackson seemed as surprised as Chelsea. “Amber?”
“Yeah, Amber.” Chelsea swallowed. “Why did you make her leave?”
He took a long drink. “I wanted to remove as many links to hunting as I could. And you and Amber got along really well. So, I…”
“You bought her debt from hedge doctors. She told me. But, honestly, taking her away… that hurt almost as much as you leaving me for dead with a note.”
His eyes narrowed. “I didn’t leave you for dead. I didn’t go until the hedge doctors told me you were in the clear. I took on your debt for that too.”
Chelsea took a long drink. She’d never thought of that before. And Amber certainly hadn’t mentioned it. “Where is Amber? Any idea?”
Jackson shrugged. “Somewhere on the east coast. But she’s been pissed at me for a few months now. And before you ask, I don’t know why.”
The urge to ask more questions coursed through Chelsea, but she held her tongue. She didn’t know why she didn’t want to tell Jackson that she and Amber had dated, but she really, really didn’t want to. So, she took another long drink and changed the subject. “What got you holed up in here?”
Jackson rubbed at his left shoulder. “Floga demon. Not enough to kill me, but enough to get me addicted.” He shuddered. “Been detoxing here. David’s medicine helps.”
“Oh.” Chelsea swallowed. “That sounds pretty terrible.”
He snorted a laugh. “Yeah, it has been.” He met her eyes and grinned. “But the last… fifteen minutes have made it all worth it.”
She swallowed. “Jack—”
“I fucked up. I’m sorry.” His voice caught and he had to swallow. “Can’t we just… not be mad at each other.”
Irritation sparked in her. “What do you have to be mad about?”
His smile never faltered. “You do remember literally not allowing me to say that I was in love with you right?”
Her tears were instantaneous. “What—”
“I showed you that I loved you. Tried to say it, and you literally would not hear it. Refused to believe it. And all you talked about was the day you could forget me and go back to your real life. Was I not supposed to listen to you and take you seriously?”
Chelsea sighed. “I don’t know. At the time, I was protecting myself, or so I thought.”
He frowned at her. “Protecting yourself from what?”
“From you.” She studied a scar on the back on her hand. “You’re Jackson “I really meant to call you” Hawk. And I was still a wreck over my parents and Dink dying.”
A huge sigh answered her. She waited for a few moments, but he said nothing. Chelsea found herself talking. “Amber… she told me that you might really be in love with me. But again, might. And it’s not like you and every other hunter I talked to then tried to hide your habits from me. What should I have believed? That somehow I was different and special?”
A hand slapped the table. “I got an apartment. I actually talked about staying with you. You kept putting me off.”
Tears, hot and fast wet her cheeks. “Guess we fucked this up pretty good.”
Gentle fingers wiped at her face. “And we can still fix it, if you want to.”
She leaned into his hand. “And if I don’t know if I want to?”
Jack chuckled. “Don’t start on the ifs already. I will say though, if you were really unsure then you would have left already.”
Her ragged whisper barely stirred the air, but her throat burned. “You have more faith than I do.”
He leaned back, stretching his legs out, leaning them against hers. “Hunters don’t fuck around. If we’re uncertain, we investigate or we run.”
She sniffed. “So maybe I’m investigating.”
He leaned forward. “Then I’m going to take full advantage. Ask me anything.”
Green eyes, bright and intense pinned Chelsea from across the table. She had no questions left to ask Jackson Hawk. She knew why he had left. She knew that he really had been in love. She knew he regretted leaving.
Bentley broke the tension by scratching at the door. Chelsea hurried over to let him in. The big mutt looked around the tiny camper, gave a huff, and climbed on the bench Chelsea had just vacated. There was barely enough room for her to join him.
Jackson leaned back, studying the two of them with grin of genuine delight. “Was it just me, or did he complain about the lack of space in here?”
Chelsea slung an arm around Bentley’s sturdy neck. “He makes his opinions known and I swear he understands what we say.”
Jack reached across the table to scratch at Bentley’s ear. “So, do you have anything left to ask me?”
She licked her lips. “I… I don’t.”
“So, what now?”
She shrugged. “Why… I don’t know.”
“Then let me ask you. What do you want from me?”
She shrugged once more. “I never expected to see you again. I never gave any thought to the idea. I don’t want anything from you.”
He closed his eyes and sat back. “You just gave me up?”
Anger flashed through her anxiety. “No, Jack. You gave up on me and I accepted that it was over.”
Arms with familiar freckles and new scars crossed over his chest. “So once I left, you never gave me another thought.”
“God dammit.” She chugged her beer. “I was pissed and depressed about it, even while I dated other people, but… Fuck it. What did we have? A few months together while you lied to me, railroaded me, and then took off while I was injured, and you took away my friend to boot. You didn’t even leave me a way to get a hold of you if I changed my mind. What the fuck was I supposed to feel about that?”
He scowled at the floor. “I didn’t lie to you.”
“Oh, really?” She leaned forward. “So when were you going to tell me that the nightling we were hunting probably wasn’t the one who killed Dink?”
“Fine. Maybe you’re right and there isn’t anything here.” He shook his head. “Thanks for bringing my medicine.”
Chelsea stood. “I— I’m sorry. I’m just not… that Chelsea anymore.”
He dragged himself to his feet. “I think I get it. I’m not that Jackson, either.”
She nodded, relief coursing through her. “So how about this time, we get each other’s numbers?”
A sorry laugh came from him. “I’d like that. Thanks.”
She reached in her pocket for her phone. As she stepped toward Jackson, he leaned forward, his own phone out. The tiny camper brought them closer than Chelsea intended. Behind her Bentley gave a whine and scrambled down. His bulk hit Chelsea’s legs, knocking her off balance and right into Jackson.
Warm hands slid around her waist keeping her on her feet. The smell of the hunter, his warmth, the familiarity of being pressed up against him, the steel in her soul melted.
She wrapped her arms around him, all ropey muscle and bone. Her hands crept up his back.
She buried her face in the crook of his neck. “I’m aware that this is a terrible idea. But it Bentley’s idea, so I’m going with it.”
Jackson pulled her tighter, laugher shaking his chest. “Bentley?”
“He doesn’t do anything accidentally. Seriously.”
Lips traveled up her neck towards her ear. “What a great dog.
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