Abbotts · Lucas and Ash · Riley and Jax · Vanished

Cousin Riley

I pause outside the door asking myself for the 100th time if I should be doing this.

I haven’t exactly been invited. But you don’t have to be invited to visit someone in the hospital right? Isn’t this the kind of situation you should go and offer support without an invitation? Because it’s the right thing to do?

Probably that’s more true if you actually know the patient.

“Miss Riley? Everything okay?”

I glance at the security guard next to me. He’s under strict orders not to let anyone in but my uncle owns the company so he’s making an exception. My last name often comes with benefits.

“No, I’m fine, Peter. Thank you.” I take a deep breath and finally open the door.

The blond man inside is propped up in the hospital bed but obviously asleep. His head is slumped to the side and his breathing is slow and even, a little heavy.

Well, this is a bit anti climatic. I’ve been giving myself pep talks for hours, the least he could do was witness my courage.

Or stupidity. Jury’s still out.

As I contemplate my next move, he inhales deeply and raises his head. He blinks a few times, his eyes settling on me. His trademark smirky grin slowly appears and I just barely stop myself from laughing. Only Jax would seriously think about flirting with a strange woman who entered his hospital room unannounced and uninvited while recovering from a bullet wound and a head injury.

His eyes widen and the smile slips and I know he’s just realized who I am.

We don’t know each other. But we know of each other.

“You’re… Riley. Right?”

I nod racking my brain for what to say. Apparently I’ve spent all my mental abilities just talking myself in to getting here, I have no idea what to do now.

“I’m Jax. Nice to meet you.”

I laugh out loud before I can stop myself. Obviously, I know who he is. “You too,” I manage, still laughing.

His grin flashes for a second. Then he eyes me up both curious and skeptical.

“You want to sit?” He nods to one of the chairs by his bed.

I shake myself loose from my nerves and move away from the door. “I – ah – I brought you some contraband.” I glance over my shoulder, my rule-following heart ridiculously nervous one of the hospital staff is going to walk in and catch me. Not that I’d get in any trouble – my family donated the wing Jax is currently being treated in. But still. I usually follow rules. I’m a middle school teacher after all.

“Oh yeah? Bribe or peace offering?”

I hide my involuntary flinch by digging through my giant purse to carefully remove my… bribe.

“I think it held up okay.” I hand over the white paper bag and Jax’s eyes light up recognizing the logo.

“You brought me Duk’s?” He reaches for the hot dog but then grimaces with pain and falls back against his pillows. “Shit.”

“Are you okay? Should I call anyone?” I rush to his side, putting the bag on the hospital tray.

Breathing heavily he shakes his head. “No. I’m fine. Just need a minute.”

Silently, I take him in. Considering everything he’s been through the last week he seems to be recovering well. But he’s paler than usual, scruffier than usual, and has far too many machines attached to him to be comfortable. I busy myself unwrapping the Chicago style hot dog I smuggled in and give him a minute to compose himself. I don’t know Jax but he strikes me as the type of person who doesn’t like others to see him showing weakness.

Even someone he doesn’t like or respect. Like me.

I’m assuming he doesn’t like me based on Lucas’s general opinion of my entire family.

But, I remind myself, that’s why I’m here. Because Lucas is wrong about my family but he’s especially wrong about me. He and I have a lot more in common than he realizes, I’m convinced. And if he just gave us a chance, gave me a chance…

“Thanks,” Jax says simply when I finish and take the seat he had offered.

He picks it up with the hand that doesn’t have an IV attached and takes a giant bite, humming with pleasure. I snicker.

“This is exactly what I needed. How did you guess?” he asks around his second mouthful.

I laugh surprisingly relaxed around Lucas’s best friend. He seems more curious than hostile which was my biggest fear. Curiosity I can handle. I’m happy to answer questions if the answers get back to my estranged cousin.

I shrug. “I watch the show.”

He glances at me sharply before returning his attention to the hot dog.

I sit silently while he finishes. After he sits back with a sigh of contentment, I ask how he’s feeling.

“Bored. But now you’re here so I suspect that’s going to change.”

I look away suddenly hot under his scrutiny. There’s a little bit of the hostility I expected.

“I – I was -”

“What are you doing here, Riley?” he interrupts. “Hoping to see Luke?”

“I wanted to see both of you. I heard about the shooting, obviously. I wanted to check on you, see if either of you needed anything.”

“Why?” He studies me so intensely it takes all my years of public appearances and Public Relations trainings not to fidget.

“Because that’s what you do for family.”

He frowns, considering my answer.

“Who’s the lucky guy?” he asks, nodding at my engagement ring.

I glance at my finger, thrown by the abrupt change in subject.

“Oh, uh, his name is Daniel.”

Nervously I play with the ring, still uncomfortable with the weight on my finger. Truthfully, I’m uncomfortable with the whole engagement. My doubts about Daniel have been growing steadily for almost a year now, even before the engagement. I’d been preparing to break things off when he proposed. Somehow we ended up engaged instead. I never even said yes, he’d just assumed my consent and slipped the ring on. He assumes a lot of things, I was coming to realize, and had for years. I’m not sure if it was getting worse or if I was just less inclined to go along with things. We’ve been together so long I can hardly remember a time I wasn’t his girlfriend. Now I’m his fiancee and I’m not sure I want to be. But I also can’t imagine cutting ties to one of the most important people in my life. I bite my lip, a nervous habit. I don’t know what to do.

So instead of trying to sort all that out I’m here. Willing to try anything to form a new connection with my cousin Luke. Hoping that maybe having other people in my life that care for me will make it easier to end things with Daniel.

I mean, that’s not the only reason. I want Luke to be part of the family. It would be good for him too to know that connection. I don’t know where I would be right now if Uncle Theo hadn’t taken me in when my parents died.

I could tell Jax was skeptical when I told him this is what you do for family. Luke is the only family he’s ever had and vice versa. But it doesn’t have to be that way any more. Now that we know about Luke, Jax would be accepted by extension.

Jax may be skeptical of me and my intentions but Lucas is downright hateful, shutting down any attempts we’ve made to reach out. I’m hoping I can be the one to get through to him. I know what it’s like to grow up without your parents. I know what it’s like to feel like an outsider in your own family – no matter how wonderful they are. And I know what it’s like to think people are using you with some ulterior motive.

I experience a pang of guilt knowing that’s dangerously close to what I’m doing right now. Using Jax to get to Lucas. I console myself that I do honestly care about Jax too. Or at least I want to care about him. If they would both just give us a chance.

As if reading my thoughts, Jax asks, “So. What do you want me to tell Luke?”

I sigh. “Nothing. Really. I just wanted to see how you were doing and hopefully cheer you up a little. I know it’s no fun to be stuck in a hospital bed.”

He frowns, eyes still studying me, and I wonder if he knows about my parents.

“Thanks for the dog.”

I smile, intensely pleased he liked it. If he knew how long I spent agonizing over what to bring I would be horrified.

He lays his head back against the pillows. “I like KitKats too. I don’t think that’s been on the show but next time, see if you can smuggle in some KitKats for me, will you, Teach?”

I laugh overjoyed by even this small entry point. “I can do that.” It registers he called me ‘Teach’ and I realize he knows what I do. That also gives me a little hope.

The door opens and Lucas stops dead spotting me in the room. His easy expression darkens. “What the hell are you doing here? How did you get in here?”

I stand ready to explain but Jax beats me to it. “I told the guard it was okay. She’s not some crazy fan.”
I shoot him a look but he’s focused on Luke.

“Did Ethan send you? I told him to stay the fuck away.”

I hear Jax sigh next to me. “Luke-”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll go. I just wanted to see if either of you needed anything.” I grab my bag and give Jax a small smile I’m sure doesn’t hide disappointment. I stop at the door, my hand on the handle and say softly, “Ethan didn’t send me. Neither did Uncle Theo. I just -” I bite my lip again, unsure what else to say. Silently I push the handle and leave.

Well. That could have gone better.

“KitKats!” I hear Jax yell as the door closes behind me.

I giggle.

I guess that means I have an invitation for next time.

If interested, you can read Jax’s perspective here.

Abbotts · Lucas and Ash · Vanished

Ash

“Gabby!”

I wince at Raquel’s high pitched squeal. Technically the party is just getting started but Raquel has been pretty aggressively pre-gaming most the afternoon. She was tipsy when she met us to check in to the hotel and I don’t think she has paused. That was four hours ago. I’m worried if she keeps going at this pace she’s not going to make it back to her room without spraining an ankle. The girl likes her stilettos.

She’s currently leaning over the front counter of Vanished on Halsted attempting to flirt with the rough giant standing behind it. He’s being gracious and engaging with her but I can tell he’s not really that in to it. I’m sure he’s gotten used to drunken bridesmaids attempting to add him to the bachelorette party favors on a fairly regular basis. At least I’m assuming that’s the case based on what I’ve learned about this place.

Shockingly this is the first time I’ve ever been in a tattoo shop. It’s almost what I expected. I mean, considering I really had no idea what to expect. They’ve rehabbed one of the old industrial warehouses in the neighborhood. The space also includes a brewery, coffee shop and a couple cute indie stores. It’s spotless with enormous windows and explosions of color everywhere. It’s a space for people far cooler than I am but I still like it. I like color. When it’s done well. And everything here is done well.

“Gabby,” Raquel doesn’t even turn as she calls out, keeping her blurry eyes and exposed cleavage firmly focused on her target. “You need to check in with the guy… Jax.” She touches his chest, covering the Vanished logo on his shirt and purrs, “Hi, Jax.”

I glance around the lobby. They’ve closed shop for the night, staying open just for our party so I quickly realize Gabby, my best friend and the guest of honor is not here. I roll my eyes slightly but can’t help my smile knowing damn well she’s slipped out to call her fiance Tim.

“I’m on it.” I step up to the counter and hold out my hand for the clipboard Jax just grabbed. He smiles at me and winks playfully. I return the grin and then laugh out loud as he inhales sharply and dodges Raquel’s wandering fingers. Jessi comes over to join her and I see a tiny flare of panic in Jax’s eyes as he’s surrounded. I focus on filling out the intake form with Gabby’s vital information relieved to have a task to occupy me for a few minutes.

I love Gabby but this whole night is not really my scene and – I’d never admit this to her – I’m feeling a little awkward and disoriented. Gabby and I have been friends forever but half of these women I hardly know and the other half I inevitably lost touch with after college graduation – first with med school and then being out of the country the last three years. Gabby was the one I’d held onto, keeping me connected and grounded.

And laughing. Gabby is goddamn hysterical.

I’ve been back in Chicago, back in the States, for only a week. I’m still crashing at Gabby’s and Tim’s apartment. The most exciting part about this Bachlorette Party for me was the hotel rooms we rented for the weekend. Two whole nights on a real bed in a room that doesn’t double as Tim’s home office. Luxury.

I might even take a bubble bath. I’m definitely ordering room service. I haven’t taken a relaxing bath in years. Or ordered room service. Neither had been available where I’ve spent the last few years. I was lucky to have a luke-warm sponge bath or cold shower on a daily basis.

Adjusting back to life in Chicago is trickier than I expected but it’s only been a few days. I do love this city and I’ve missed it. I’m excited to be back. Really I am. Besides, if everything goes to plan this won’t be permanent. A year tops.

If everything goes according to plan.

I shake my head and refocus. Tonight is about Gabby and having some fun. Or at least pretending to have fun until I can get in to that bathtub.

The bell above the door tinkles and I turn smiling at Gabby as she re-enters.

“About time! I need your help with some of these questions. And how is Tim?” I tease.

Her eyes are legit twinkling as she accepts the clipboard and pen. “Practically perfect, thank you.”

“Well no more sneaking off for calls with your groom! You’re ours for the rest of the night.” This from Gabby’s little sister Camilla.

Laughing Gabby agrees. Despite me being the Maid of Honor, the others have done most the planning for the weekend. I have only a vague sense of our agenda partly because Skype calls to Cameroon aren’t incredibly reliable but mostly because Camilla didn’t trust me not to spill the secrets to Gabby. Which – fair.

Vanished is one of the few events everyone knew about well in advance – a special request from the bride herself. A tattoo celebrating her love. Apparently the owner is a crazy talented artist and won some reality television tattoo competition a couple of years ago that he managed to parlay into his own reality show and now he’s a celebrity that puts his art on other celebrities. And bridal parties if they pay enough. Which Gabby’s family is happy to do.

According to the other girls he’s also insanely gorgeous. I have dozens of emails in my inbox right now from the others gushing about how hot all the artists here are and gossiping about what’s happening on the show that now focuses on Lucas Abbott post his Top Ink championship but I hadn’t bothered to Google any of it. I figured I’d find out eventually and since I wasn’t planning on getting a tattoo myself it didn’t seem necessary to look at their designs. Besides, there’s an insane amount of pop culture to absorb after three years and I’m still getting my time zones adjusted after my 30 hour journey home. This week I slept. Next week I’ll catch up on my celebrity gossip.

I’ll be honest, if Jax is any indication of what to expect they weren’t exaggerating. He’s rough around the edges not polished like most of the men I work with at the hospital but the man is gorgeous. And pretty adorable when he’s flirting but trying to keep a distance at the same time. Watching him walk that line with Raquel has certainly been entertaining.

Suddenly he straightens, all teasing gone as he looks at something over my shoulder.

“Luke. This is Gabby, the bride to be. Camilla, Jessi and,” he checks the papers in front of him, “Sofie are also getting tattoos.”

“Awesome.”

Luke, Lucas Abbott is The Guy. The reason we’re all here tonight. I can tell he’s already gotten the attention of all the other women in the room and I feel myself getting excited right along with them. I turn to face the voice behind me and meet the man everyone has been not-so-secretly fantasizing about over our group email chain.

Holy shit.

His dark blue gaze meets mine for a hot second before he focuses on Gabby, giving his congratulations and discussing his sketches for her design. I stand there immediately debating if I should get a tattoo after all.

Because fucking hell that man is gorgeous. No wonder he was able to pivot a reality competition win into his own reality show spin-off. I can’t imagine any straight woman in America turning off their TV set if he was on it.

“Hi. Lucas.” He holds out his hand, introducing himself. Those blue eyes are back focused on me.

Determined to play it cool and not fan girl out – considering I’ve never seen his show this seems doubly inappropriate for me to do – I clasp his hand. “Ash.”

He holds my hand a beat longer than is polite. Or is that just my wishful thinking? “Are you interested in getting a tattoo?”

“No. I’m just here for moral support.”

“Ash is going to let me hold her hand,” Gabby interjects and Lucas finally releases our handshake.

He grins at me. “Let me know if you change your mind. I’m pretty good.”

I laugh. “That’s the rumor anyway.”

His smile deepens and one eyebrow quirks. My stomach flips and I realize I am interested in this man in a way I haven’t been interested in years – maybe ever. Jax is attractive, any idiot would notice that and I’m pretty smart, but I hadn’t really cared he was attractive just acknowledged it the way I would note a patients symptoms. Factually. Impartially. Indifferently.

But my body’s reaction to Lucas is the opposite of indifferent.

“Ladies.” His voice raises as he takes in the full group. “You all want a quick tour before you get some ink?”

Cheers go up from around me and we all follow Lucas and Jax through the shop.

Two hours later I’m back in the lobby of Vanished pressed tightly against a well muscled body.

It would be a better kind of exciting if there wasn’t a gun to my head.

I hate it when people pull guns on me.

Ugh.

If interested in Gabby’s perspective you can find that here.

If you want to learn more about Lucas click here.

If you’re interested in more of Lucas and Ash’s story you can find that here.