There was a woman in John’s bed. The room looked the same otherwise, though Nick had the distinct impression he wasn’t there, that he was transparent, invisible. The woman was a few decades older than him and must have been seriously ill. She was pale, with deep dark circles underneath her closed eyes and an oxygen tube tucked into her nostrils. Nick knew she’d been there for some time.
Was he dreaming or seeing a ghost? Sleep-caught and disorientated, he wasn’t sure, but it didn’t matter. He sensed what he saw had already happened, making it impossible for any action of his to be meaningful.
Pity welling, along with a nagging worry about John’s whereabouts, he stared at her, noting the tiniest details with a clarity of vision unusual in a dream. Her hair, dull from illness, was light brown streaked with gray, tangled in places, and her hands moved restlessly against the white bedcovers, small twitches and strokes. Not in a coma, but a natural or drug-induced sleep.
She opened her eyes when a young nurse came in, one Nick had seen earlier chatting with a doctor, a flirtatious giggle audible from yards away. He wasn’t seeing far in the past, then. Sometimes he got glimpses from centuries earlier.
“How are you feeling this morning?”
The woman wet her lips with her tongue before replying. “Better.” The thin whisper and the labored breathing contradicted her, but the nurse nodded as if she agreed.
“Keep it up, and that lovely husband of yours will be taking you home in no time.”
The longing in the word pierced Nick’s dreamy haze. He knew what it was like to miss home and a loved one. He’d gone on a book tour once, together with three other authors who wrote about psychic phenomena. He’d been away from John for two weeks, and by the end of it he’d been hungry for John’s presence, living off the scraps of brief phone calls or Skype conversations.
He sensed how desperately this woman longed for her husband. It was such a strong sensation that he rose—the bed didn’t make the faintest sound now, caught in the same fantasy he was—and went to the foot of her hospital bed. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do; he was certain she wouldn’t hear him.
“Sir? Are you all right?” It was the young nurse’s voice, uncertain and close by.
Nick blinked and discovered the part where he’d stood and walked to the foot of the bed hadn’t been a dream. Now John was in the bed again, and the surge of relief made Nick swallow past a sudden lump in his throat.
“Yeah, thanks. I’m fine. Tired, though.”
“It’s hard to sleep here, what with so much going on,” she said with sympathy. “It’ll be morning soon. Do you want to try to get a bit more rest? Or shall I bring you a nice cup of tea?”
“God, I don’t know. I guess I’ll sleep some more. Thanks.” He wasn’t convinced he’d slept at all, not that it mattered.
When she’d gone, John opened his eyes. “Maybe I’d have liked a cup of tea, but no one offered.”
He should’ve known John would wake early. The man thought rising at five was normal and lying in until the sun was fully up in the summer months a sin and a shame. In the winter, when it was daylight from nine in the morning to four in the afternoon, if that, his internal clock kept ticking.
“I can call her back or point out you need your rest.”
John struggled up to sitting, using his good hand to push the pillows behind him. He made the scoffing sound Nick could never replicate, a throaty growl. “I’ve lain here for hours, and it’s my hand that’s hurt, not the rest of me.” He studied Nick’s bed. “You stayed with me?”
“Yeah.” Nick yawned, the crack of his jaw painful. “Stayed, not slept, or at least not much. I dreamed about— Never mind. How do you feel?”
“Well enough.” John pushed the covers away. “I’ll get dressed, and we can go.”
Nick sat on John’s bed, poised to grab him if he showed any sign of getting up. “Go? Are you kidding me? You’re not going anywhere until the doctor’s seen you, and he might not discharge you.”
“For a few broken bones?” John shook his head. “They won’t keep me in for that. Truth be told, I’m surprised they didn’t kick me out as soon as I came around.”
“I wouldn’t have let them,” Nick said flatly. The hell with cutbacks and bed shortages. There’d been a room free, and John had needed it.
John cocked his head, an amused glint in his eyes. “Aye, you’re feisty when you’re worried, but there’s no need. It throbs a wee bit, but I can thole it.” Dismissing his injury, he beckoned Nick closer. “If I’m not getting tea or my trousers, give me a kiss, then.”
“That you can have,” Nick agreed. He leaned in, careful not to shift the bed any more than necessary, and pressed his mouth to John’s. John’s lips were cool and dry, and when Nick pulled back, he traced them with one finger. “You look tired.”
“I know what tired means,” John said.
“Not in this case.” They’d had this conversation before, and Nick definitely didn’t mean old
when he said tired
. John looked older than he had when they’d met, but Nick didn’t think he’d ever look elderly. He had young eyes, and when he smiled, his whole face lit up from within. “Anyway, you’re entitled under the circumstances.”
“Can’t believe I was so stupid to let that happen.”
“Right, because being able to control what ocean waves do to boats is totally possible.” Nick experienced a rush of gratitude that the accident hadn’t been worse. “You must be hungry. Do you want me to see if I can get you something?”
“I’m sure the nurses will bring me breakfast when they think I’m entitled to it,” John said, pretending to be grumpy, judging by the twinkle in his eyes. “You should be more worried about your empty stomach than mine.”
“I got some snacks last night.” Nick gestured at the windowsill. “Ginger biscuits and chocolate bars. Maybe one of the biscuits?”
It was a measure of how long he’d been here that he didn’t call them cookies even in his head.
“I can try it, but without a cup of tea to wash it down, I’ll likely choke.”
John in a grumpy mood was strangely adorable, fake or real. Nick kissed him again, the scrape of bristles against his skin triggering a need to feel that roughness somewhere else on his body, low down against his stomach or thigh, with John mouthing his cock, knowing how to rouse and satisfy.
“You’re flushed,” John commented when Nick broke the kiss. “They keep it too warm in here. It’s not healthy.”
“That’s not why I’m flushed.” Nick shook his head. “I’m a bad man.”
John tilted his head, studying him with a knowing glint, clearly picking up on what had to be some obvious signals. “Are you, now.”
“Behave,” Nick said as sternly, as if John had been the one thinking inappropriate thoughts, before breaking into a grin. “God, could there be a worse place to feel like this? I blame you.”
“A kirk, a funeral home, at tea with my Aunt Flora… And I’m lying here in striped pajamas two sizes too big, for heaven’s sake.”
“Not tired at all,” Nick said firmly.
His dream receded, brushed aside by the normality of their conversation. The woman forgotten, Nick concentrated on keeping John occupied until the doctor on duty examined him and pronounced him well able to go home.
Of course, that was followed by hours of waiting around for all the proper paperwork to be produced, and before that had happened, Dr. Cameron turned up with the duffel bag Sheila had packed.
“You’re going to hate me,” Nick said, flushed with guilt that he hadn’t thought to call the doctor as soon as they’d been told John wouldn’t have to stay another night.
“Don’t be silly,” Lucy said. “I rang this morning, but I wouldn’t leave you wondering how to get home, and Sheila had already tucked this into the back of my car in the wee hours. There are always supplies and things I can use, and it’s easier to get some of them here than to mail-order them. I’ve plenty to keep me busy until they release you, so don’t fret about how long it takes; that would be wasted effort, trust me.” She glanced at John when she finished. “At least you’ll have a change of clothes.”
“Aye, and I’m grateful for it.” John shifted on the bed and winced when the movement tweaked his hand. “Don’t worry about us. Do what you need to, and I’m sure when you’re done, we’ll still be here waiting for one more signature.” He sounded more tired than annoyed.
“Well, I’ll leave this with you.” Lucy handed the bag to Nick, who didn’t realize until that moment he ought to have offered to take it from her sooner.
“Thank you. You’ve been great. I don’t know what we would have done without you.” He set the bag down on top of the small cupboard next to the window where John’s keys and the clutter from his pockets were haphazardly piled.
“Oh, soldiered on with the help of friends, I’m sure. Don’t forget this is my job.” She patted Nick’s shoulder. “Have them page me if I haven’t turned up again by the time you’re ready to go.”
“We’re lucky in that one,” John said when she’d left. “The doctor we had when I was a boy, och, he’d use a blunt needle out of spite, and the old ways were the best as far as he was concerned. I’m not sure he believed antibiotics worked, and as for a balanced diet, well, he took that to mean an even number of drams a night.”
“Sounds like the kind of man you want to trust your health to,” Nick said drily.
“Aye, well, he retired to live with his daughter in Glasgow, rest his soul.”
Nick snorted with laughter. “I’m assuming he died there? Glasgow’s not that bad.”
“Three years later,” John confirmed. “Mean old bugger probably tried to prescribe Death a dose of calomel because he was looking peaky, and got taken to the other place.”
A nurse popped her head around the door. “You’re all set, Mr. McIntyre. Stop by the desk on your way out, and we’ll page Dr. Cameron for you.”
“Thank the Lord,” John said, his relief vivid and real, judging by the broad grin on his face. He glanced at Nick. “Well? Don’t stand there. Let’s be going.”
“In a hurry?” Nick was amused, but it wasn’t as if he wanted to hang around any longer than necessary. “Hold on. Let me get you your clothes. Unless you want to walk out of here in those pajamas.”
“Knowing hospitals, they won’t let me walk out at all. It’ll be a ride in a wheelchair.” John had swung his legs down off the bed and was waiting expectantly for Nick to dig his clean clothes from the bag.
Nick swore under his breath as he knocked John’s keys behind the cupboard in his haste to find the clothes. “Ugh. Here we go. Jeans, shirt. No underwear.”
“Think I can manage without them. Might need your help doing up the front of the jeans, though.” John grinned as he took the clothes and stood cautiously.
“You might need my help walking to the bathroom,” Nick said, watching him.
“I’m being careful. Something you ought to appreciate.”
“Oh, I do.” Nick waited until John had gone into the bathroom to change, then stuck his hand into the small space to try for the keys. Nope, too narrow. He had to settle for shifting the cupboard, which didn’t weigh much, away from the wall. There was a metallic clatter as the keys fell the rest of the way to the floor, but when Nick picked them up, they were tangled with something else, some kind of fine gold chain.
“Love?” John called, and Nick, fearing John was finding being upright more challenging than he’d realized, shoved the jumble of keys and chain into the duffel bag and went to check on him.
John grimaced. “Dizzy. Too long spent in bed. It’s passing now.” He cradled his injured hand to his chest.
Suspicion flared when Nick moved to support John, whose cheeks were colorless, his breathing ragged. “Did you knock it?”
Lips compressed, John shook his head. “It’s fine. I maybe jarred it against the sink, nothing more. There isnae room to move in here. Get on with the packing.”
Nick raised his hand to forestall any protests. “You’re letting me help you, and that’s not up for debate. And when we get home, you’re lying down. It can be on the couch, not the bed, but you’re resting.”
It was a measure of John’s discomfort that he didn’t argue.
Jane Davitt & Alexa Snow