Carbon monoxide poisoning was known as a silent, viciously fast killer, and he got cold to the bone. “Leah?”
Luke shook his head. “Haven’t seen her, but you’re literally only two minutes behind us. Still clearing the building.”
Hunter and Cindy were rolling the gurney toward the ambulance, where an agitated Elsie struggled with Hunter, who was trying to fit her with an oxygen mask. Her hands were fluttering, her eyes wide with confusion and shock.
“Shortness of breath and chest pains,” Hunter told Jack.
Jack leaned over a confused Elsie, taking her hands in his. “You’re safe, Elsie.” Gently he placed the oxygen mask over her nose and mouth. “Lie still a minute. Just breathe.”
Her hand came up, clutching at his wrist. She tried to say something, striking terror into his heart with one word.
“Leah,” she whispered.
He gripped her hand. “Is she inside?”
Elsie’s head lolled, and her eyes drifted shut.
“Elsie,” Jack said firmly, watching her try to snap back into focus. “Elsie, is Leah still in the building?”
“Leah. Get Leah.”
Jack whipped around and bumped directly into Luke. “Leah’s here,” Jack said. And then he ran toward the building, heading around the back via the alley. He got to the porch in time to see the back door crash open and Tim step out, Leah in his arms.
At the low but commanding male voice, Leah startled. Jack. She tried to look at him, but it was dark. Very dark.
“Leah, stay with us. Don’t you dare leave me.”
Oh, how she loved that tone, the way he could be demanding and so alpha she just wanted to eat him up.
His familiar grip settled around her hand and held on like a lifeline. “Open your eyes, Leah.”
Oh yeah, she liked that tone too, the one he used when he was letting his emotions get the best of him. Like when he was buried deep inside her, telling her all the things he planned to do to her.
But she wanted to see his face, so in spite of a bitch of a headache, she struggled to open her eyes.
That’s when she realized she was flat on her back. Jack stood by her side, his expression grim as he clutched her hand. She was on a gurney, with an oxygen mask on her face, but she did her best to give him a faint smile.
It was enough to bring some light to his gaze. “You’re okay,” he said.
“Possible CO2 poisoning.”
She struggled to sit up. Jack wasn’t alone. Tim and Ben and Luke were right there too, and a sea of others. Behind them, there were flashing lights and a crowd gathering.
And it started to come back to her. Being in the bakery, feeling sick, so sick— “Grandma,” she managed. “Where’s—”
“Being transported to the hospital,” Jack said. “She was coming to as they pulled away. She’s okay, Leah. Stay still.”
She pulled off the mask, shaking her head as Jack started to object. “I’m fine. I…” Whoa. Her world swam, and there was a little man with an icepick behind her eyes, hacking away. An inch from throwing up, she decided maybe Jack had a point and went very still. “I want to go see her.”
“Take another minute,” Jack said firmly, holding her down when she would have hopped off the gurney. “Dammit, Leah. Give yourself a minute.”
“How did I get out of the bakery?”
“Me.” On the other side of the gurney, Tim smiled grimly. “I found you unconscious in the kitchen. You were crumpled right at the door on the floor, like maybe you’d crawled there to get out but hadn’t made it. I had to break the door down.”
“The power went out,” Leah murmured, struggling to remember. Everything felt so confusing and fuzzy. “And I got tired…” She trailed off, images coming back to her. Jack’s face when Tim had brought her to him—not his usual calm, nothing even remotely close.
He’d been afraid. For her.
“If I hadn’t driven by,” Tim said, “God knows what would have happened.”
Leah shuddered, and Jack squeezed her hand. She met his gaze, the both of them knowing exactly what would have happened. She and her grandma would’ve gone to sleep and never woken up. She sucked in some oxygen, and after a few minutes, she retained all her faculties. She insisted on being released at the scene, promising everyone she’d go straight to the hospital and get herself checked after seeing Elsie.
“Hell no,” Jack said, taking her arm when she turned to her car. “I’m driving you.”
“I’m driving you to the damn hospital, Leah.”
They didn’t speak on the ride over. Jack was in his zone, and Leah’s ice picker had graduated to using a jackhammer inside her head, rattling her brain. She drifted off a little bit, not stirring again until she felt a warm hand cup her face.
She opened her eyes to Jack’s concerned ones. He was crouched low at her side in the opened door of his truck. She sat up. “I’m fine.”
Reaching in, he clicked open her seat belt and then held her in place a moment. “You know, for a minute back there, I thought—” He broke off and closed his eyes, dropping his forehead to hers.
It was one thing to think the worst, another entirely to have the nightmare come true. He’d had that happen too many times in his life. “I’m okay,” she murmured, cupping his stubbled jaw. “Really.”
“I’m not.” He drew in a long, unsteady breath, his eyes shadowed. “I’m not ready to lose you, Leah. Even when you’re pissing me off.”
She gave a little laugh and pressed her face against his throat. His arms immediately came around her, pulling her in. “We’re still friends, right?” she whispered, needing to hear it. “You still love me, forever?”
He let out a barely there sigh. “Forever.”
Her eyes burned. “I’m sorry I’m such a pain in the ass,” she said against his warm skin, squeezing him tighter.
“You are a pain in my ass,” he agreed. “I just want you breathing, Leah. For a damn long time.”
He helped her out of the car, then tightened the grip he’d retained on her when she wobbled. Just outside Elsie’s hospital room he stopped her, waiting for her to catch her breath. She could hear his phone vibrating, but he gave no sign that he cared about anything other than being here with her. He had her back. Always. No matter how much either of them screwed things up, they’d still have this. Each other. It was enough, she told herself. It was.
All she had to do was learn to believe it.
“Don’t expect much,” Jack said to Leah before letting her go into Elsie’s room. “She’s sedated and drowsy.”
Leah nodded her understanding. Even with his warning, he could tell it was a shock to see her grandma prone on the bed, still as stone, eyes closed, skin waxy and pale. Elsie looked tiny and entirely too vulnerable, and Leah put a hand to her mouth.
Jack slipped an arm around her waist and nudged her in.
Tim was taking a chair bedside, clearly having just arrived. He was looking quite serious but also still in cocky hero mode. Next to him was Max. And next to Max was Mr. Lyons.
Leah let out a breath and a reluctant smile. “I hope she knows you’re all here because she’d love this, three men at her beck and call.”
Elsie’s eyes fluttered open and they landed first on her audience, then on Jack. She struggled to say something to him, but Leah rushed to her side. “Shh, Grandma,” she murmured softly. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
Jack pulled out a chair for Leah and gently pushed her into it. Then, feeling the tiny tremors wracking her, he pulled off his sweatshirt and wrapped it around her. Delayed shock. He wanted to get her warm and looked at, and then he wanted to pull her in and hold on.
And never let go.
Leah picked up Elsie’s hand. “That was way too close of a call, Grandma.”
Elsie let out one light chuckle but her eyes drifted shut.
“I love you,” Leah whispered to her, her voice soft. “I love you so much.”
Elsie’s other hand came up and pulled the oxygen mask from her face. “Ah, honey, and you didn’t even choke on it.”
Leah let out a half sob, half laugh and dropped her head to her grandma’s bed.
“No worries, it gets easier each time now,” Elsie said, and over Leah’s head she gave Jack a look that had him moving to her side.
“You’re going to be okay,” he said. “They want you to stay quiet for a little while and rest—”
“Yeah, yeah.” She stared up at him. “I hear you, but…sometimes you can’t stay quiet. Sometimes…” Her expression was pained, and her eyebrows kept waggling, as if she were having a seizure.
“Are you okay?” Leah asked, straightening to call for help. “Hang on—”
“Oh good Lord,” Elsie muttered. “I’m fine. I’m trying to tell Jack something here. I’m saying that sometimes things aren’t as they seem. Sometimes people, they act irrationally.” She paused, her eyes not moving from Jack. “Do you know what I’m trying to tell you?”
“Oh, Grandma,” Leah said, sounding exasperated now. “Just concentrate on getting better. You can go back to meddling into our lives later—”
Jack put a hand on Leah, quieting her. Because he knew exactly what Elsie was saying. He’d put it together the minute he’d seen who’d been waiting at her bedside with anxiety and adrenaline rolling off them in waves.
It made sense, horrible, sickening sense, but he kept his gaze on Elsie. “I do understand,” he said, and because the entire energy in the room had changed, he had no choice but to act now. Pulling out his phone, he made a call. “Need backup,” he said, and slipped the phone away again.