Abbotts · Jax and Riley · Lucas and Ash · Vanished

Jax

I think it’s the pain in my head that wakes me. Or maybe my chest. My leg still isn’t feeling great either.

I subconsciously remember enough not to stretch or move much, instead I just take a slow steady breath and blink my eyes open.

I fucking hate hospitals. Especially when I’m the patient.

A flash of red hair and a mint green dress catches my eye and I turn my gaze toward the door to my hospital room with a grin, ready to flirt with the new nurse on duty.

What the hell is she doing here?

By the way her smile trembles I suspect I’m not hiding my surprise very well.

Distantly, I recognize I should be angry or annoyed or hostile, but frankly I don’t have enough energy to be any of those things. Or maybe it’s the drugs I’m pumped full of right now. I just feel mellow. And maybe a little curious.

“You’re… Riley. Right?”

If I’m remembering correctly, a fairly big if at the moment, she’s a teacher. And an outsider in her own right, an orphan like us, although she was taken in and raised by Luke’s family. She had a good, cushy home.

Not the hell Luke and I were raised in.

She nods. I got her name right.

She’s clearly nervous and that combined with my natural inclination to flirt my way through awkward situations eliminates any remaining desire I have to give her a hard time.

Well, really I flirt my way through all situations. Now that I can. It works. And I’m too exhausted to fight Luke’s battles right now. Besides, she’s cute in a wholesome 50s housewife kind of way. Not my type. But she seems harmless enough.

“I’m Jax. Nice to meet you,” I offer when she remains silently shifting from foot to foot just inside the door.

She let’s out a burst of laughter she seems surprised by. “You too.”

I smirk, still mostly curious why she’s here. And a little suspicious I know why.

“You want to sit?”

Finally she moves farther into the room accepting my offer. “I – ah – I brought you some contraband.” I smirk again as she glances over her shoulder nervously. A real rule-breaker this one.

“Oh yeah? Bribe or peace offering?”

She has a gigantic purse and it takes her a second to find what she’s looking for. Triumphantly she hands me a white paper bag. I recognize the logo immediately. I may start drooling like a trained dog.

“You brought me Duk’s?” How the hell did she know about my favorite hot dog stand?

I go to grab the bag, forgetting for a minute about the whole not moving thing and immediately feel pain radiate through my chest. I fall back to my pillows with a grimace, sucking air in through my teeth. “Shit.”

“Are you okay? Should I call anyone?” She rushes over a look of concern on her face.

“No. I’m fine. Just need a minute.”

I feel her studying me, probably trying to decide whether or not to call in a nurse. She must come to the conclusion I’ll survive because she turns away and unwraps my gift. Her bribe. We both know that’s what it is. I’m just not sure what she wants for it.

I’ll still eat it. I fucking love a good Chicago dog.

“Thanks.”

She takes one of the seats next to the bed with a small smile.

She has kind eyes.

That’s the drugs. I stomp that thought and turn my attention to my meal. I take a bite and groan with pleasure. This is the stuff.

She’s giggling at my expense and I don’t even care.

“This is exactly what I needed. How did you guess?” I ask taking another bite.

“I watch the show.”

Her answer causes me to shoot her a swift glance. I’d never really thought about any of the Abbott’s watching our show. It feels weird. Like they’re spying on us, even though tens of thousands of people tune in every week. But those people had never dealt such a brutal rejection to my best friend.

I focus on my hot dog, processing this information.

Eventually she breaks the silence by asking me how I’m feeling.

Like I’ve been shot. Like my head has been cut open. Like I’ve had multiple surgeries bringing me back from death in the last week.

But that’s not what I say. She knows that.

“Bored. But now you’re here so I suspect that’s going to change.” There’s a little bite to my words. I guess I can muster a little anger for her and her family after all.

“I – I was -”

“What are you doing here, Riley?” I interrupt. “Hoping to see Luke?” I’m not sure why that annoys me as much as it does. Of course she’s here because of Luke, not because of me.

“I wanted to see both of you,” she says softly, almost as if she heard my thoughts. “I heard about the shooting, obviously. I wanted to check on you, see if either of you needed anything.”

“Why?” Luke has rebuked every effort the Abbott’s have made the last couple years. Too little, too late. And he’s my best friend, the closest thing I have to family in this fucked up world so of course I’ve backed him up.

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

I study her. Trying to figure out what, if anything, is her angle. But she just raises her little chin and looks back at me with those wide gray eyes.

Suddenly uncomfortable under her calm scrutiny I change the subject.

“Who’s the lucky guy?” I nod at the engagement ring on her finger.

She looks down, finally breaking eye contact and starts to fidget with, what I’m sure, is an impressive rock.

“Oh, uh, his name is Daniel.”

She bites her lip and her eyes seems to shutter. I don’t have a lot of experience with engagements, weddings, happy marriages but I know women pretty well. And I have to think I wouldn’t want the woman I planned to marry to have that particular look on her face when talking about it.

And now I feel like an asshole for giving her a hard time.

“So. What do you want me to tell Luke?” I offer in an attempt to assuage my guilt.

She sighs returning her attention to me. But she seems a bit defeated now and I hate that something I said made her feel that way. Even if she is just trying to get to Luke through me.

“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.”

I try to remember the details of how she lost her parents. They died in a car accident. Was she with them at the time? The only survivor? That’s rough, especially for a kid.

“Thanks for the dog,” I offer, breaking the silence.

Her wide smile is so simple and so pure it almost knocks the breath out of me. Fuck.

I break our eye contact by closing my eyes and laying my 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?”

She laughs and unbelievably considering everything happening in my body right now I feel my dick twitch in response. Fuck. This is the last thing I need.

“I can do that.”

I hear the door opening once again but keep my eyes closed. I don’t think looking at her creamy skin and innocent gray eyes are going to help my current… situation.

“What the hell are you doing here? How did you get in here?”

Well. Lucas is pissed. Maybe she should have brought him a dog too.

She stands ready to bolt in the face of the six-feet-two tattooed and pissed-off male that is my best friend.

I interject to try to diffuse the situation. “I told the guard it was okay. She’s not some crazy fan,” I lie. The guard is there to protect my privacy not keep actual friends or family out.

But Luke hates his family sooooo…

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

“Luke-”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll go. I just wanted to see if either of you needed anything.” Riley grabs her giant purse and gives me a wobbly smile. If I see tears in her eyes I’m going to punch my friend in the gut. After I’ve recovered from my injuries.

She pauses at the door and tells him, “Ethan didn’t send me. Neither did Uncle Theo. I just -” she leaves before finishing her thought.

I yell after her, “KitKats!”

Lucas is looking at me with an expression of disbelief on his face.

You didn’t have to be such an asshole to her. She brought me Duk’s.

You can see this meeting from Riley’s perspective here.

Curious about why Lucas hates his family? A little of his story is here.

Macy and Hunter · Vanished

Hunter

I’m not sure what wakes me but I roll to my back, slowly stretching. I feel twinges in parts of my body I haven’t used in far too long. I’m sure the smile on my face borders on smug. I’ll pay this price for repeats of last night. Sighing, I realize the space next to me in bed is empty around the same time my eyes slowly blink open.

He’s already half dressed.

I sit up silently, disappointment heavy in my chest.

His eyes meet mine briefly as he finishes pulling on his t-shirt. His body is insane and another, different kind of disappointment spears through me as all that ink and muscle is covered.

He comes around to my side of the bed and crouches so we’re at the same level. Tenderly he tucks my mussed hair behind my ear, fingers lingering along my neck. I shiver.

“I didn’t mean to wake you. I know you have to be up early.”

“Not tomorrow. We’re closed on Monday.” My mouth is dry with sleep, my voice raspy. I lick my lips unconsciously and see his eyes darken.

The silence hangs fragile and heavy between us. I know I shouldn’t expect anything from last night. That most likely I was a way for him to forget for a short time the grief still crowding him. I know his life has gotten infinitely more complicated in the last week and I don’t want to be another complication he has to manage. I want so badly to ease his pain even for a short time.

The timing is off, I get that. I won’t be another burden for him. Last night was already more than I ever expected us to have.

So I smile softly and press my fingertips gently against his lips. “Thanks for last night,” I whisper, my voice huskier than normal.

His eyes crinkle as he grins, grabbing my wrist and pressing a firm kiss to my palm. “I should be thanking you, sweetness.”

“My pleasure.” I giggle, somehow feeling lighter.

I run my fingers through his beard, appreciating how powerfully beautiful he is. His dark hair hangs loose around his shoulders for once. There’s a long faded scar along his eyebrow and without thinking I lean forward placing a soft kiss over it. He makes a sound similar to a groan and buries his lips in the curve of my neck, my hands going to that glorious hair. Then he’s kissing me again and I forget everything else.

Him

Hunter.

She’s so fucking sweet.

At first, you wouldn’t think her name fits her.

She’s sweet and soft. I want to wrap her around me and cushion myself from the realities outside this room. But she’s also got some Chicago steel in her bones that sneaks up on you.

I’ve never kissed anyone that seduces all of my senses the way she does. Soft skin. Sexy sounds. She smells like the desserts she spends all day baking. And tastes just as sweet. Gorgeous curves. I’ve suspected for a while things would be good between us, but last night surpassed all my expectations.

I can’t imagine never being with her again. But knowing the changes and challenges I have ahead of me right now, I also can’t imagine how to hold on to this. She deserves more than I’m prepared to offer right now.

She whispers my name and I practically launch myself at her, deepening our kiss as I guide her to her back and cover her with my frame.

I have to leave.

I will leave.

But I want one more memory to take with me.

Hunter also appears briefly in Macy.

Abbotts · Gabby · Lucas and Ash · Vanished

Gabby

The low buzzing of the tattoo pen pauses and Lucas Abbott the owner of the shop I’m currently sitting in pushes back on his stool.

“Sorry, I have to take this,” he’s referring to the phone call he was just told he had. “I’ll just be a minute.”

Lucas apologizes again with a grimace as he steps away.

I breath out heavily, relived to have a slight reprieve. This is my first tattoo. It hurts.

“How you holding up?” Ash asks me.

“I’m good. Thanks for sitting with me.”

“Of course! It’s actually been really cool even if I didn’t have any idea about this place.”

“Lucas is nice,” I offer, studying her reaction.

Her cheeks turn a light pink and I dance a little gig inside.

She agrees, “He is.”

“You should invite him to come join us after this.”

“What? Why?”

I roll my eyes at her deliberate blindness. “You are so clueless. He can hardly take his eyes off you. If my tattoo is messed up because the tattoo artist was making googly eyes at you the whole time, I’m going to be totally pissed, bitch.”

Ash laughs.

I continue, “You deserve to have some hot stranger sex. And with a celebrity! That’s even hotter. You should totally invite him. I bet he’s a really good dirty talker. He seems like he’d be really vocal.”

Honestly, I have no idea what I’m talking about other than the fact that Lucas Abbott is insanely hot and my best friend deserve to have some fun. They’re both single, consenting adults and the way he’s been looking at her the last hour seems to indicate he’d be open to spending some time alone with her. Naked time.

“Gabriella! How could you possibly know that?” Ash laughs.

“You don’t think so?” I bluff.

I giggle as her blush deepens. “I have no idea,” she informs me.

“Invite him.”

“I’m not going to invite him to join your Bachelorette party!”

“Then I will.” I will. It’s my party after all. And watching Ash squirm will be super entertaining. She hates being the center of attention and considering the amount of attention he’s given her while still working on my tattoo I can only imagine how intense he’d be without the distraction.

“No, you won’t!”

“If you don’t I totally will. You need to get laid. And not in a boring way like you usually do.” As her oldest friend I feel I can speak to this with some authority. Ash has always dated boring men. In my experience boring men, means a boring relationship, which means boring sex. Ash is gorgeous and brilliant and kind and deserves some mind-blowing orgasms. In my opinion.

“I’ve had good sex,” she protests. “I mean, it’s not always boring.”

“Ashland Grace, I have known you since we were thirteen and for every one of your boyfriends. You have not had good sex. Lucas would definitely be gooooood sex.” I draw out the word and wiggle my eyebrows suggestively.

“I’m good, Gabby. Really.”

“Just because Will ended up being a dud doesn’t mean you’re doomed for mediocrity for the rest of your life, you know. Lucas Abbott would know what to do with a naked Ash.”

“Gabby!” she hisses, totally mortified. “Be quiet!”

“Well he would,” I grumble, backing off.

Maybe it’s true that people in love just want everyone else to pair off because now I’ve totally latched on to this idea and practically have Ash and Lucas getting engaged at my wedding next month.

Lucas returns and pulls a fresh pair of gloves on while sliding onto the stool next to me. “Okay. Sorry about that, ladies. Ready to finish this?”

“Let’s do it,” I agree.

He returns his attention to my hip. I meet Ash’s eyes over his bent head. Ask him, I mouth dramatically.

Stubbornly, she shakes her head.

Ask him, I silently repeat.

“So what else do you all have planned for the night?” Luke asks. I suspect he’s just making small talk but I narrow my eyes at Ash all the same. This would be the perfect opportunity for her to make a move.

Before she can respond, or not, Camilla pokes her head into our room. “Hey Gabs! The others are all finished so we’re going to head over to the hotel and make sure everything is ready for the evenings entertainment.” She grins at me.

“You need anything? Want any of us to wait for you?”

“No, we’re good. You guys go ahead. I don’t think we’ll be much longer. Luke?”

“Twenty minutes. Unless Ash changes her mind.”

I catch him grinning flirtatiously at Ash and barely contain my own grin.

“Perfect! That’ll give us plenty of time to set up the games.” She winks and then ducks back out.

I turn to Ash, raising my eyebrows expectantly. “Games?”

Shaking her head, Ash admits, “They didn’t trust me not to tell you.”

“So you don’t know either?” My sisters are going to delight in embarrassing me. I’m the first one to get engaged and they’ve been plotting for months. Surprisingly they’ve managed to keep the weekend’s agenda pretty hush hush, other than the specific things I requested like my tattoo at Vanished.

Luckily they also love my boyfriend, Tim so I’m not expecting anything too raunchy.

No, my fiance, I correct myself. I sigh happily glancing at the design taking shape on my hip.

“No. Although I did veto the private showing of an all male revue. You know how obsessed Jessi is with Magic Mike.”

I hear Lucas make a sound that sounds suspiciously like a snort although he stays focused on his work.

“Well. Thanks for that anyway.” The last thing I need is a stripper’s ass in my face. Or anyone’s ass for that matter. Except maybe Tim’s.

Jax enters a few minutes later, studying my tattoo over Luke’s shoulder. “Beautiful,” he smiles at me. “I think your man will love it.”

“Yeah?” I ask, grinning.

“Hell yeah. It’s hot when a woman is that sure of you, you know?”

I think I know what he means. It makes me happy that Tim is that sure of me too. That we’re in this together, no reservations.

“Macey and Logan packed up and headed home. I’m going to take the trash out back and start to lock up. You good?” he asks Lucas.

“Just finishing up. Go for it.”

Lucas rubs some gel over my finished tattoo. “What do you think?”

“It’s perfect! I love it. Thank you.” I’d sent over images of our wedding rings earlier in the week, they’re sterling silver with elaborate Celtic designs. Lucas managed to capture the designs and entwine our initials with different floral elements to soften the overall look.

He smiles at me and bandages the area. “Glad you like it.”

Luke helps me up and then turns away while I pull my jeans gently up and fasten them.

“Let me clean up a couple things and then I’ll meet you guys up front.”

We, Ash and I, head back to the lobby. I nudge her with my elbow. “Last chance. Are you sure you want to spend the rest of the night playing games and answering quizzes about what Tim and I fight about, or what was our first date, or who’s the better cook, when you could be spending some quality time with Lucas Abbott?”

She bites her lip trying to suppress a smile and I realize she’s seriously considering it.

Yes! This is awesome.

Before I can encourage this along I feel a tight grip on my arm and I stumble as I’m pulled forward. A hand covers my mouth and I stiffen trying to pull it away. I stop struggling when I feel a gun dig into my ribs. Ash’s eyes are wide as she looks beyond me and I realize whoever grabbed me isn’t alone. I see her lips moving as she holds her hands out slightly to her sides but the blood pumping through my brain is the only thing I really hear. I see a hand snatch her wrist and pull her forward out of my line of sight. This only increases my terror. The gun jabs sharply into my side as the arm over my chest tightens. Distantly I realize he’s demanding to know how many other people are still in the building.

I struggle to take a breath in through my nose and get a grip on myself.

I so wish I was playing stupid party games right now.

Read more about this from Ash’s perspective.

Abbotts · Dylan and Blake · Lucas and Ash · Vanished

Dylan

This is going to be a cluster fuck I can tell already.

Lucas is practically vibrating with tension waiting for the light to change so we can cross the street. His eyes are scanning the windows of the coffee shop on the other side, I’m sure trying to spot Ash. She stopped answering her cell twenty minutes ago and if she’s not in this cafe I’m going to have 200 lbs of tattooed male rage to try to diffuse.

I eye my … friend… warily. I guess we’re friends. I have a lot of respect for Luke and the bastard is pretty funny when he wants to be but there’s a mountain of unspoken suspicion between us which makes it challenging to form much of a friendship. He calls me when there’s trouble because he trusts me to handle it, blur rules for the right reasons, keep my mouth shut when necessary and not throw him attitude based on his past unlike a lot of guys in the department.

There’s less of the attitude since he’s become a local celebrity but we go back to long before his Top Ink win.

And I’ve got my own reasons for wanting to keep close.

Of course this situation could complicate everything.

Finally the light changes and forces traffic to stop so we can cross and enter the coffee shop. Lucas pulls the door open so aggressively I think he may pull it off the hinges and explodes through the entryway. I see him visibly relax as he crosses the room and grabs a pretty brunette, pulling her against him. She’s clearly confused by his behavior and I know she has no idea why we’re here.

Yet. Damn. I hang back, waiting for Luke to take the lead.

“The battery died. I tried to tell you it was going to but you hung up too fast. My work cell was on.”

Lucas gives a rough chuckle. “I guess I need to get that number, huh?”

The smile she gives him makes me feel like I’m intruding.

Finally, Luke pulls away and introduces us. “Ash this is Dylan Melrose.” I give her a practiced smile, one designed to inspire confidence but not overly friendly. I come in to people’s lives when bad things are happening to them. They need to like me but also know I’m not happy to be there. I’m there because I have a job to do and they can trust me to get it done.

I shake her hand and answer the first question in her eyes. “Ash. I’m a Detective with the Chicago PD.”

She frowns looking between me and Lucas. “What – what’s going on?”

I nod to one of the back tables. “Let’s sit.”

Ash glances again at Lucas. He grabs her hand and moves to the table I indicated. He guides her in first so she’s in the corner seat then takes the chair next to her, pulling her in close. I sit across the table my back against the wall.

“Lucas, you’re really freaking me out. What is going on? Are you okay?”

I note that her first concern is for him.

He exhales heavily. “I got some threatening text messages today.”

“Threatening how?” She rests her hand on his forearm, squeezing gently. “Are you okay?” She asks softly.

“They weren’t threatening me, Ash. They threatened you.”

“Me? I don’t understand.”

“Show her,” I urge, when he seems to hesitate. He scowls at me but does as I suggest.

She scrolls through quickly, face paling. “That’s from my lunch break today. I ran to the farmers market. And that’s as I was leaving the hospital.”

“I don’t understand,” she repeats.

“This happens sometimes. I mean, I’ve gotten weird fan mail, threats before. Not much but some. But this is different. This is someone who was able to get my personal cell. And knows about you.”

I lean forward. “It might be nothing. Just some crazy fan and this is the end of it. But I think we should take it seriously until we know for sure. That’s why Luke called me.”

She nods. “Right. Of course.”

“Do you feel up for answering some questions for me?”

She nods again. Lucas leans back in his chair, clearly giving me the lead. He rests one arm along the back of her chair.

“Did you notice anyone out of the ordinary today around the time these were taken?”

She shakes her head. “No. It was a perfectly normal day.”

“How many people know about your relationship with Luke?”

“Not many. Hospital staff know I was on Jax’s case while he was there but only my roommates know we’ve seen each other outside of the hospital. And the staff at Vanished.”

“Any idea who could be doing this? Has anyone been giving you a hard time?”

“No. No one.”

“Any ex-boyfriends?”

“No.” She sounds frustrated. “I was in Africa for almost three years. I’ve only been back about two months and haven’t dated anyone. I mean. Until, Lucas. I mean, not that we’re dating exactly. We’ve just been hanging out. But there hasn’t been anyone else dating or hanging out,” Ash rushes to explain.

I hear Luke grunt and he folds his arms across his chest staring at her. “We’re not ‘just hanging out’. Words aren’t going to scare me, Ash.” He looks at me. “We’re together. She’s my girlfriend.”

I nod. And there it is. I really hope this is just some over zealous stalker fan.

I continue with my questions. “No one who might want to rekindle something from before you left?”

She shakes her head, “No. There wasn’t anyone serious enough they’d still be pining after me three years later.”

Luke’s expression changes briefly but he remains silent.

“What about at the hospital? Could there be anyone who resents your position? Someone denied a promotion because you got the job or thinks they deserve the spot more than you?”

Shrugging, she informs me, “Maybe, but I doubt it. The position only exists because of a grant the hospital got based on the work I was doing in Africa. If it wasn’t me doing it, the position probably wouldn’t exist at all.”

“Okay.” I nod and pull one of my cards out of my pocket for her. “Here is all my contact information. Put it in your phone and memorize it. I’ll want you to come in to the station in the next few days to make a formal report. In the meantime, safety in numbers okay? Don’t go anywhere alone. I’ll see about tracing the texts. If you see anything or think of anything else call me. Even if it seems silly. I’m here to help.”

Ash nods. “Thank you.”

I make contact with Lucas and subtly incline my head.

“You be okay here for a second, babe? I’m going to walk Dylan out.”

“Yeah, of course.”

We step outside into the cooling night air. “You think you’ll get anything from the texts?”

Deciding to level with him I shake my head, “Doubt it. Anyone savvy enough to pull this off is going to know enough to use a burner. We’ll try, but…” I leave it hanging with a shrug.

“Right.”

“Want to tell me what’s bugging you?”

“Besides my girlfriend being stalked?”

“Besides that.”

He takes a deep breath and looks away. I wait patiently while he decides what he wants to tell me.

“There’s a guy at the hospital. Dr. William Parker. I don’t know why she didn’t mention him. I’m pretty sure they used to date.”

When I don’t respond he continues. “We haven’t really gotten to the ‘tell me about your exes’ phase but I overheard a couple conversations. I don’t know how serious it was. But they still work together and he didn’t seem pleased when he walked in on us kissing once.”

“I’ll look in to it,” I promise.

“Thanks, man.” Lucas clasps my left hand, pulling me in slightly to pat me on the back with his right. “I appreciate it.”

“I’ll keep you posted.”

He thanks me again and goes back inside to Ash.

Fucking hell.

I watch them through the window briefly before heading back to my car. It’s pretty obvious to me they’ve gotten deep fast. Lucas falling in love is… an unforeseen complication. I like her though and I’m pretty good at reading people. She could be good for him if these texts are just a small flicker and not the beginning of the raging assault I’m supposed to be preventing.

Although if it’s love and this isn’t the threat we’ve been waiting for then Ash will just be around when it does eventually come. Another person to keep safe.

My source is sure he’ll come back eventually. I’m not as convinced but I let her take the lead. I curse under my breath. It’s not like I had enough to deal with when Lucas decided to become famous and change his last name.

I slam my car door shut and pull out my cell.

Ethan and Sloane are going to be fucking livid.

There’s more on Lucas and Ash’s story available here, here, and here.

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.