She smiled at his stumbling. “And I really, truly am sorry for not trusting you from the beginning and for stealing Avalon. I’m glad she’s yours again. She’s a great ship. I mean, she doesn’t look all that impressive at first, but she got us away from the Northern Dancer, and here we are safe and comfortable for once.”
Jeth resisted the urge to beam at the compliment. “She’s the best, all right,” he said, managing a modest grin instead.
Sierra nodded, and the smile slipped from her face. “I’m not sure if you’ve thought about what you plan on doing with Vince and me, but I hope you know that Cora needs to be with me.” She cast him a defiant look. “She doesn’t know you very well, and after what happened . . .” Her voice trailed off, unpleasant memories of their last moments on the Northern Dancer filling the silence. “I can’t promise that she won’t lose control again.”
Feeling nervous, Jeth said, “I understand, and you’re right.” He paused, his throat tight. “But what if . . . what if you just stayed here. On Avalon. With me . . . and the crew.”
A shy smile rose to Sierra’s lips. “I’d like that. Very much.”
Bolstered by her admission, Jeth finally did what he’d wanted to do for a very long time. He reached out with his good hand and took one of hers in his. He stared down at her crooked, ruined fingers, ran his thumb over the misshapen knuckles. In that moment, he silently swore that no one would hurt Sierra again.
Finally he raised her hand to his lips and kissed each finger, one by one, the act like a sacred rite. Then he let go of her hand and cupped the back of her head, drawing her close.
He kissed her, and something moved between them, an unspoken bond pulling them together over what they had gone through and what they would face. But those memories and thoughts faded away until there was nothing but the sensation of his lips on hers, the exchange of breath and the soft harmony of hearts beating. For one blissful moment they were nothing but feelings and physical sensation.
The moment lasted a very long time.
* * *
Afterward, Jeth climbed out of the hospital bed, ignoring Sierra’s protests that he should stay put. Jeth felt made of air. He might be injured, but he knew his hand would be whole again. Milton would make sure of it. And for now, he wanted to see the others.
Lizzie shrieked with delight when Jeth stepped through the doorway into the common room. Everyone was there, burning off the sluggishness from the meal with games and conversation. Lizzie ran over and hugged him so fiercely she almost knocked him over.
“I’m so glad you’re up and about, Jethro.” She kissed his cheek.
“Of course he’s up and about,” Milton said from his position on the couch. “Because that’s exactly what I told him not to do.” Milton winked. “Should’ve known better than to expect you would listen.”
“That’s right,” said Shady. “You ought to take it easy on him, Liz. Seeing how he’s a cripple and all.”
Jeth rolled his eyes. “It’s my hand, Shady. Not my leg.”
“Oh, well, then I meant ‘amputee.’”
Celeste slapped Shady in the back of the head. “That’s not funny.”
Shady grinned at her. “Sure it was.”
“Who cares if he’s an amputee,” said Flynn. “He’s the captain. All he’s got to do is shout orders and sit around while we do all the work.”
Jeth sighed as he plopped down on the nearest sofa. “That sounds like the best job ever. Not that it’ll work with you bunch of lazy good-for-nothings.”
“Does this mean we can call you Stumpy?” said Shady.
Jeth grunted. “I can still shoot you with my good hand.”
The banter went on a short while longer, and when it died down, Jeth braced himself for the question he knew was coming next: What do we do now?
But to his surprise, nobody asked it.
Instead Shady said to Celeste, “So, do you want to see how bad I can kick your ass in matchmaking on Robot Revenge?”
Celeste smirked. “I could beat you one-handed.” She flashed a grin at Jeth. “No offense, Stumpy.”
Jeth scowled at her. “Next person who calls me ‘Stumpy’ is getting the boot.”
A chorus of “Stumpys” answered him.
“I get no respect,” Jeth grumbled. He tried to keep a straight face but failed.
“What’s a stumpy?” asked Cora.
Jeth had been doing his best not to look at her as she sat next to Vince with Viggo asleep in her lap. He didn’t know how she would react to seeing him again. He was afraid he would detect fear in her eyes.
“It’s just a nickname,” said Lizzie, coming over to her. “And we’re only calling Jeth that because it’s funny.”
“Why’s it funny?” said Cora.
“Because he hurt his hand,” said Sierra.
“Oh.” Cora cast Jeth a furtive look, biting her lip. “But I hurt his hand, didn’t I?”
“No,” Jeth said, unable to keep from answering. “It wasn’t your fault. You did everything right. You saved us all, Cora.”
Cora looked uncertain for a moment, and then to Jeth’s surprise, she smiled.
He smiled back.
“Go on,” Lizzie said. “Give him a hug.”
Jeth started to shake his head, but Cora was already pushing the cat aside and standing up. She dashed across the room and jumped into his lap. Jeth winced at the sudden pain in his hand, but he wrapped his arms around her automatically.