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I smiled at his forearm, tracing patterns over the lines of muscle and vein. “If you keep taking hits like that, you’ll be riding the bench for sure, Ryder.”

He snorted, like he didn’t only believe he was invincible, but he knew it. Lifting his hand to his neck, he searched for something below his gown. His expression dropped. “Where the hell is my necklace?” he said, sitting up in bed and searching the room.

“I don’t think you’ll find it glued to the ceiling,” I said when he investigated the white ceiling tiles.

“Where is it?” he asked, his voice tight.

“Jude,” I said, worried he’d been hit as hard as I’d been worried he had, “calm down. I’m sure it’s around. They probably took it off when you were in the ER and have it tucked into a drawer or something. We’ll find it.”

“Okay,” he said, exhaling, “you’re right. We’ll find it.” Collapsing back onto the bed, he looked exhausted.

“Since when did you start wearing a necklace?” I asked, hoping it wasn’t some huge gold chain with some hubcap sized eagle hanging from it.

“Since I started trying to get my act together,” he said.

“And that happened when?” I teased, narrowing my eyes at him.

He chuckled, that deep, throaty one of his that went right through me, vibrating everything in its journey. As it tapered off, his face twisted.

“What?” I asked, ready to push that red button resting on the table beside the bed.

“I was dreaming,” he said, his eyes going into that far-away place. “I remember it. That’s what woke me up.” One side of his face twisted up higher. “It was the same dream over and over again. I must have had it a thousand times and all I remember is wanting to break past that dream and wake up. But I couldn’t. Something was holding me down. Something was keeping me from waking up.”

That probably had something to do with a team of doctors forcing him into a coma. A coma that had lasted all of an hour.

“What was it about?” I asked, wanting to reach inside him and extract all the poison I could see eating him away.

His dark eyes flickered to mine. “You.”

I swallowed. “Me?” I tried to sound brave, but I’d never sounded so scared. “What was I doing?”

I already knew before he flinched out his answer.

“You were leaving,” he breathed, his arm covering his chest. “You left me. And you never came back, no matter how hard I ran after you or how loud I begged you to stop.” And it could have been the drugs, or the horrible lighting in a hospital room, but for the first time, Jude’s eyes looked like they could have spilled tears. “You left me.”

And now it was my face and my everything else that was twisting as words failed me. It wasn’t my consciousness that reacted next; it was my heart. The heart I’d been depriving for so long and had just busted free.

In one seamless movement, I was straddling his lap, covering his mouth with mine. I kissed him, God, like I’d never kissed him before. I couldn’t kiss him hard enough. I wanted his mouth to make me forget everything. I needed to forget reality for a while and pretend life was going to work out just the way I wanted it to.

His lips were quiet beneath mine for one second as he processed what the hell had just happened, but when they came to, they moved against mine like they were trying to consume me as much as mine were his.

The heart rate monitor starting keeping beat to our frantic mouths retreating and advancing on one another. Leaning back, I ripped the sweatshirt over my head and my tank was off and flying before the sweatshirt hit the floor.

Jude’s hands grabbed my face, pulling me back to him, his tongue forcing its way into my mouth. I trembled, feeling his hands and his mouth and the rest of his body wanting, taking, and having me.

One hand crawled down my back, sparing no time freeing my bra from my back. His breathing for the first time was almost as ragged as mine and that realization put a crack in this dream we were actively participating in. We shouldn’t be doing this right now, for a baker’s dozen of different reasons. And I didn’t want to care about a single one of them right now.

His mouth moving in and over me wasn’t enough to keep reality at bay.

I had to have all of him.

Leaning away for what I hoped was the last time, I worked everything that was still covering me down my legs, around my ankles, and off onto the floor.

Jude’s breathing hitched again as his eyes inspected me. Naked, tortured, and dying in my need for him.

“I’m one lucky bastard,” he breathed, managing a smile as he propped up on his elbows. “And there’s no way I’m letting anything get in the way of this,”‌—‌his hands slid down my hips, curling into the flesh of my backside‌—‌”so help me get this damn hospital dress off.”

I grinned, leaning down and letting my fingers work over the knots on the back of his gown while my mouth worked over the tendons and muscles of his neck. His heavy breath burst my body up and down in time to his heart. I rose with him, I fell with him‌—‌always together.

Pulling the last tie free, I slid the gown up and over his arms, pulling it up through my legs and over his body until it had joined my discarded clothes on the floor.

It was working. I felt nothing but the here and now. I felt nothing but Jude‌—‌his body, his love, and his need.

His hands returned to my backside, lifting it and sliding it back. I could feel him against me, just waiting for my final acceptance. Judging to see if this was really the perfect moment. The place in time where Jude and I would mark this last passage of intimacy.

I was so ready for this moment in time I could feel it throbbing my every nerve to life. “You know, your doctor said you were supposed to stay relaxed and rest,” I said, smiling down on him where his face was as excited as it was tortured. “I wouldn’t say this counts as rest and relaxation.”

His hands slid up my body, skimming up my br**sts and molding beneath my jaw. Holding my face in his gentle hands, the lines and muscles of his face smoothed. “Luce. I love you. This is exactly what I need right now. Doctor’s orders be damned.”

My heart was pounding so hard in my chest, my sternum was starting to ache. This was it. The green light. Yet I also knew in this moment that a red light was on the horizon and it was because of that glimpse at cruel realty I lifted myself above him.

“This?” I implied, bracing my hands on his chest. His heart thrust against them.

He nodded, running his thumbs down my jaw. “This.”

And then I lowered myself onto him, letting him consume me every way he could.

He groaned below me as his hands fell back to my hips.

“This?” I breathed, not able to catch it as I moved above him again.

We both winced from the separation.

His fingers curled into my hips, sliding them back down over him. The heart rate monitor was really screaming now, barely able to keep up with Jude.

“Damn this thing,” he breathed, his forehead lining as I moved above him again. Tearing at his chest, he ripped the wires from his chest, chucking them to the floor. He did the same with his IV.

“There,” he said, twisting below me, rocking me over until I was on my back beside him. “Nothing is coming between us,” he said, nuzzling into my neck as he rocked over me. I was vaguely aware the heart rate monitor was now screaming some sort of warning, but when Jude’s h*ps rocked into mine, his moan getting lost inside me as he kissed me to the beat our h*ps were creating, there was nothing else but him.

His tongue rocked into me, followed by his hips, while he fitted his entire body against mine. He wasn’t only making love to me‌—‌he was possessing me.

There was nothing I wanted more than him, nothing I wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice. Nothing my life felt more dependent upon than this man moving inside of me in every way a person could enter another.

Separating his mouth from mine, his heavy breath came just outside my ear. I could feel the sheen of sweat covering his face, mixing with mine.

Moving inside me again, deeper this time, I almost screamed. I was so close I doubted I would last one more. “I’m not letting you go, Luce,” he whispered, his voice tight. “I won’t let you leave. You’re mine,” he breathed, sinking his teeth into my ear as his h*ps flinched against mine once more.

And that was it. My body trembled against his, my hand reaching for the metal bedrail to brace myself. He continued moving inside of me, his beat quickening as my body clenched around him. His hand joined mine braced over the bedrail and, as he followed me down the forgetting reality path, his fingers wove through mine, squeezing them before his body collapsed against mine.

“Damn, Luce,” he said, his head rising and falling against my chest.

My thoughts exactly. “How do you feel?” I asked, trying to bring my heart rate down. It wasn’t having any of it. “How’s your head?”

“My head’s fine,” he said, winding his arms around my back. “It’s my goddamn heart that’s about ready to bust something.”

I started laughing, feeling as close to euphoric as a snarky, natural pessimist could be. He joined in, his laughter vibrating against me.

And then the door exploded open as the same kind-faced nurse rushed in, her expression lined with concern.

Her eyes landed on the flat-lining machine first, then on where Jude rested bare ass nak*d over me. The worry lines faded from her face as she blessed us with a very parental expression. Walking over to the monitor, she shut the screaming thing off before turning and heading out of the room.

“At least you died and went to heaven,” she said in an amused tone before closing us back inside the room.

“Yes,” Jude said into my chest, his laughter dimming. “I most certainly did.”

“Too bad our celestial vacay didn’t last a little longer,” I said, running my fingers over his shaved head.

His body tensed in my hold as I felt that smile curve into the side of my breast. “Who says we can’t make a return trip?” he said, lifting himself over me again.

I didn’t have a chance to reply with my answer‌—‌reality‌—‌before his mouth and body moved into mine again.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Jude was sleeping the slumber of a happy man beside me. His crooked smile was still a ghost on his face as his arms held me like vices. Even after a second handrail bracing, body trembling, grit your teeth around a scream, roll in a hospital bed, I hadn’t been able to fall asleep.

Jude had no trouble. In fact, my heart beat hadn’t recovered fully before he’d fallen asleep. So I’d been awake for six hours, staring at the man curled around me, more confused than I’d ever been before. How could we be wrong for each other after one more very big part of a relationship just proved how very right we were for one another? And why, no matter what we seemed to do, did things not want to work out for us?

My flight was leaving in less than two hours. I didn’t have my bag with me, and there would be no way I’d be able to drive to my dorm to get it and make it back before my plane had already landed in sunny south Arizona where my family was spending Christmas with my grandparents.

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