Authors: Alexis Morgan
od, it hurt to breathe. Emmett’s lungs were on fire, and each new breath only fanned the flames. He shifted his position on the cold, hard surface beneath him and immediately wished he hadn’t moved. If he could have found the strength, he would have let loose with a string of curses a mile long.
A warm hand cupped the side of his face. “Easy there, Emmett. The doctor says it’s best for you to take it slowly.”
He recognized that voice. Jana. She was alive. He’d saved her from those bastards. The memories started rolling slowly like a disjointed movie. There’d been three of them. He remembered hitting one with a rock. The other two had come at him with swords, and how weird was that? All he’d had was a piece of rusty steel and his determination to buy Jana enough time to get away. Thank God, she’d made it, because if they’d gutted her the way they had him . . .
He moaned in remembered pain as one last image played out on the screen in his head. They’d charged him repeatedly, dancing in and out of reach and taking turns slicing and dicing him with their swords. The pain had nearly destroyed his courage before it finally destroyed him. Then they’d stood over him laughing as his life’s blood poured out on the ground. Emmett vaguely remembered other men coming and his killers turning to face them. That’s when the world had turned dark.
“You’re doing fine, Emmett. Don’t rush things.”
Jana sounded funny, as if she were at the far end of a tunnel. He struggled to close the distance, to follow the sound of her voice. He needed her touch and her warmth. After a few seconds, the tightness in his chest faded away as his lungs found their rhythm. He managed to lift his hand and capture Jana’s. That small connection was enough to soothe away the last bit of pain.
A deeper voice joined the discussion. “Emmett, you didn’t have to get killed just to convince yourself everything we’d told you about being a Paladin was true.”
Emmett’s foggy brain put a name to the voice: Trahern. Maybe he should have been angry, but there was too much regret in the man’s words. It was time to see if he could talk.
“Always hardheaded. Had to see for myself.”
Rough laughter came from all around them. More than Trahern and Jana were standing nearby. Even Jana managed a brief laugh, but it was shaky. Not surprising. She never asked to be drawn into this mess.
He whispered, “Those bastards?”
Trahern’s big hand settled gently on Emmett’s shoulder. “One dead. That was your doing. We shoved the other two back into their own world.”
Personally, he would have been just as happy to hear the score was three dead and zero alive to try another day. No second chances for anyone who threatened the woman he loved. He squeezed Jana’s hand, glad that she was there with him.
His eyes finally cooperated and opened. He blinked until his focus cleared enough for him to find Jana in the circle of faces looking down at him. “How long have I been . . . out?”
Jana smiled down at him, her eyes sparkling with tears. “About twenty-four hours. Twenty-four really long hours.”
He got that. “Sorry I scared you.”
“That’s all right.” She leaned down to press a soft kiss to his lips and then whispered, “I’d wait forever for you to come back to me.”
Trahern cleared his throat, reminding them that they had an audience. “Okay, everybody get back to work. Emmett needs his rest.”
A line of men filed by, each one taking the time to pat him on the arm or simply nod as they passed by. Trahern was the last to leave. “It’ll be a couple of days before you’re back to normal, or as normal as a Paladin ever gets. Once you’re up and around, which should be tomorrow, Devlin wants to talk to you.”
He looked past Emmett toward Jana. “Actually, both of you. Laurel also said to let you know that one of our doctors will continue to fill in at the clinic so you can stay here while Emmett recovers.”
“Thank everyone for me, Blake. You’ve all been great.” She held Emmett’s hand in a death grip. “I don’t know what I would have done without all of you.”
Trahern’s usual grim expression softened a bit. “Never doubt that we take care of our own. And speaking from experience, it means a lot to have the right woman standing by when one of us is on that steel table. Now, both of you should get some sleep. You need it.”
When he was gone, Jana gave Emmett a small shove. “You heard the man, Emmett. Scoot over and make room for me.”
Emmett did as she asked, sighing with pleasure as she stretched out along his side and her head came to rest on his shoulder. Two IVs poured into his arm while machines beeped and whirred all around him, but what he really needed was Jana’s healing touch.
• • •
Early the next morning, Jana watched Emmett as he slowly lowered himself into a chair in Devlin Bane’s office. He still wasn’t one hundred percent, but that he was walking around at all was nothing less than a miracle. The image of him lying dead in that alley was never far from her mind. From what she’d learned from Laurel, the miracle was due to his amazing Paladin physiology. It explained a lot of what he’d been living with his whole life.
Emmett glanced in her direction and smiled. It didn’t quite reach his eyes, which meant she wasn’t the only one with misgivings about this meeting with the leader of the Paladins. Still, if Devlin Bane was the man with the answers, she wanted to hear what he had to say.
She scooted her own chair closer to Emmett’s so that she could hold his hand. He might not need that small connection, but she did.
“You seem to be handling all of this amazingly well, Jana. Better than I am, I think.”
“Don’t forget that I had the whole time you were unconscious”—dead, actually—“to get used to the idea of men who can heal even mortal wounds.”
The lines bracketing his mouth looked deeper than they had only a few days ago. He might have come back from death, but the experience had changed him. He offered her a small smile. “And that doesn’t freak you out? Because I’m telling you right now, I’m still struggling to get my head around the concept.”
“Personally, I’m having a harder time accepting that there’s only a thin barrier separating our world from another one, and the fact that we already have aliens living among us. Did you know Trahern and some of the other guys have actually spent time in that world? How weird is that?”
“Wow, he hadn’t told me that part.”
Before Emmett said more, the door opened, and Devlin walked in. All of the Paladins Jana had met so far were big men, but Devlin stood out even in that crowd.
“Ms. York, Emmett, thanks for meeting with me.”
He sat down at his desk and gave each of them a long look. “Let me start by saying how sorry I am that your introduction to our world was such a rough one, Ms. York. There’s a reason that we try to operate under the radar of the civilians out there.”
She got that. However, if Emmett was going to be part of Devlin’s world, it would need to be her world, too. At least she hoped so. She and Emmett hadn’t yet talked about where they stood when it came to their relationship now. Considering everything he’d been through, she hadn’t wanted to press him.
“Please call me Jana, and none of this was your fault. If Trahern and the others hadn’t come running, Emmett wouldn’t have been the only one killed in that alley.”
“I’d like to say that wasn’t true, but I try not to lie to friends.” Devlin leaned back in his chair and turned his attention to Emmett. “So, now we come to what happens next. Trahern tells me you’ve been having some problems lately.”
Emmett nodded. “It’s been like the night you guys came into the bar. I get this restless feeling and an ache in my chest that I can’t explain. I’m guessing it’s that Paladin affinity for the barrier you warned me about. It’s also getting worse, just like you said it would.”
Earlier, Emmett had shared what had been going on with him lately. It was as if they were both living in a science fiction movie, but there was no denying the truth of what the Paladin leader had told him. They’d both seen the effects firsthand.
“You know that doesn’t leave you much in the way of choices, Emmett, because it’s only going to continue to get worse. If you were to lose control . . . well, let’s not let that happen. Understand that I’m not saying you have to immediately pick up a sword and start fighting. I am saying that you need the discipline that our training will give you. For now, you can keep your job at Dan’s if that’s what you want, or even finish that college degree I noticed you’d started working on in prison. Regardless, you’ll be on our payroll, and you’ll have all the time you need to figure things out.”
Emmett looked more relaxed than he had a few minutes earlier. “I appreciate it. I’ve already asked Trahern to set me up with a training schedule starting as soon as your wife releases me from her care.”
Devlin’s smile brightened at the mention of Laurel. “She said you came through your first death with flying colors. She also agreed with not rushing things. We’ll start off with basic training and go from there. So are we good?”
Emmett nodded. “We’re good.”
Jana started to stand up, figuring the meeting was over, but Devlin stopped her. “Jana, I have something for you as well.”
She shot Emmett a questioning look, but he only shrugged. Evidently, he didn’t know what Devlin was up to, either.
“I understand that your clinic is struggling financially, even though it provides badly needed services for the people in the surrounding area.”
“That’s true. We don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to keep the doors open.”
He pulled an envelope out of his desk drawer and held it out toward her. “I apologize for having a couple of my guys hack into your records, but I needed some numbers to work with. The Regents will fund your clinic in that amount this year. After this, we’ll revisit the situation annually and adjust our support as needed.”
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing, or the number of zeroes in the amount written on the check. What could she say?
“I don’t know why you’re doing this, but thank you, Devlin. Please tell the Regents that their generosity will make an enormous difference in people’s lives.”
“Don’t forget that I’m married to a healer myself.” Devlin stared at her with those green eyes that seemed to see straight through her. “It’s you who makes the difference in your patients’ lives. All we’ll be doing is paying for the tools you need to do the job.”
“Well, I’m still grateful.” She wanted to hug him, but she wasn’t sure how he’d react.
“So, I think we’re done here for now.” Devlin started for the door. “If you need anything else, my number is in the envelope, too. One last thing—if you ever want to change jobs, Laurel said to let you know she can always use another pair of hands in her lab.”
Emmett stood back to let Jana go ahead of him as they left the office. “I’ll drive you home, Jana. After that, I’ve got a few errands to run, and I need to stop by the bar and let Dan know I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth.”
She’d been hoping for a little alone time with him, but she understood that Emmett needed to make sure he still had a job. She suspected it wouldn’t be long before he went to work for the Paladins full-time, but she was glad they were allowing him time to make that transition. It was a scary thought that he’d be fighting alongside all those other men, but she also understood how he felt about finally finding out where he belonged. She’d felt the same way when she started working at the clinic.
When they reached her house, Emmett kissed her slow and easy. He held her close as he asked, “Can you meet me for dinner at the bar tonight? We’ll talk then.”
Anything, as long as he wasn’t trying to shove her out of his life again. “I’ll be there.”
mmett was tied up in knots. Facing his true nature as a Paladin was a slam dunk compared to what he had in mind for the evening. He’d spent the rest of the day making plans and then doing everything he could to ensure it all played out the right way. Dan had reluctantly accepted Emmett’s resignation, but he’d made it clear that he’d hire him back in a heartbeat if Emmett’s new job didn’t pan out.
Dan’s offer meant a lot to him, but Emmett knew there wasn’t much chance of that happening. Having met the Others up close and personal, Emmett couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t do everything to stop them from killing someone else, someone who didn’t have Paladin genes and would stay dead. He suspected that Jana could accept his decision. She understood all about not taking the easy road when it came to taking care of those who needed help.
Maybe he could have picked a more romantic spot to take Jana for dinner, but the comfortable familiarity of the bar would reinforce his courage. He wasn’t exactly going into battle, but he had a tough mission ahead of him. He’d staked out the table in the back corner of the bar, put in his order for their dinner, and settled back to wait for Jana to arrive.
The door opened, letting in a blast of rainy, cool weather. Dan jerked his head in a quick nod, letting him know that Jana had arrived. Emmett stood up and wiped his sweaty hands on his jeans before heading up front to greet her. She said something to Dan before turning to face Emmett, her eyes lighting up as soon as she spotted him. He hurried to take her coat and hung it on a hook before giving her a quick kiss.
Putting his arm around her shoulders, he led her back to their table. “I already put in an order for double cheeseburgers and sweet potato fries. I hope that’s okay.”
Her smile was impish. “Have you ever known me to turn down Dan’s cooking?”
He pulled out her chair for her, dusting off yet more of his almost forgotten good manners. When she was settled, he took the chair next to hers. “Did you get some rest today?”
“Some. I had a few chores to catch up on, but then I took a long nap. It did feel good to sleep in my own bed.” She used her fingertip to trace a pattern along his forearm. “I would have slept better with you there beside me.”
He swallowed hard when her dark eyes lifted to meet his gaze. The heat in their chocolate depths about fried his brain. She knew it, too. Well, two could play at that game.
“If I had been there, you wouldn’t have been sleeping very much—or maybe at all.”
He captured her hand and brought it up to his mouth to press a kiss on her palm, smiling when her breath caught in her throat. They’d get to where her mind was taking her soon enough, if his plans worked out the way he hoped. He released her hand when Dan arrived with their dinner and a couple of beers. Dan set down their food and walked away without a word.
They postponed any more conversation until after they ate. Jana would never insult Dan’s cooking by letting it get cold. Luckily, it didn’t take long to eat a burger and fries. Emmett wasn’t sure how long he could sit there and pretend this wasn’t the most important night of his life. Finally, Jana pushed her empty basket away with a satisfied smile. “Whew, I needed that.”
Emmett set his own aside and took a slow breath. Now that the moment was upon them, he couldn’t remember a single thing he’d planned to say to her despite having rehearsed the words over and over again.
Finally, he blurted out the first thing that came to him. “I gave Dan my two-week notice. Though Devlin said I could ease into becoming a full-fledged Paladin, I think it’s already too late for that.”
Jana didn’t look surprised. “That makes sense, after everything that’s happened.”
Good, she wasn’t trying to talk him out of it. Maybe she did understand that he’d already been dragged into their world too deeply to hit the brakes now. “From what Trahern told me, it used to be unusual for Paladins to have women in their lives. Too many secrets to be kept; too many lies to cover up what was going on.”
She sat up a little taller. “Used to be? Does that mean things have changed for them?”
Her expression was carefully neutral, making it impossible for him to guess her thoughts. He stuck his hand in his pants pocket and held on to the small box there, hoping it would give him the courage to keep plowing on. “Yes. Evidently Devlin caused quite a stir a few years ago when he and Laurel hooked up. I can only imagine what the Regents thought of a Paladin falling for the doctor who would make the final decision on when he’s too far gone and is a danger to everyone around him.”
Jana winced. “But they seem happy together.”
“Yeah, they do. And that opened the floodgates for the rest of the Paladins.” He leaned in close. “There are even a couple of Paladins married to women from Kalithia, that alien world. And one guy’s sister is married to one of the Kalith warriors I met.”
“Really? That’s amazing.”
It was time to lay it all out there. He pulled the box out of his pocket and slid it across the table in front of Jana. She hesitated for the longest time before reaching down to lift the lid to stare at the simple ring nestled in velvet. “So I’m thinking if the organization can survive all of that, then a Paladin marrying his nurse practitioner shouldn’t be a problem for them. That is, if she loves him enough to take on the job.”
Jana didn’t immediately answer him, and her eyes filled up with tears. Coming back from fatal wounds had been easier to handle than watching her try to find a way to let him down easy. He grabbed a napkin and stuffed it in her hand. “Don’t cry, Jana. I’ll understand if it’s all too much for you.”
She dabbed at her eyes and laughed. “I’m not crying because of that, Emmett. I spent much of the afternoon writing a long list of reasons why you’d be a fool to walk away from what we have together. All that work for nothing.”
Emmett leaned close enough to kiss her. “Not if it helped convince you that we belong together.” He took the ring out of the box and slipped it on her finger. It wasn’t easy, not with both of them shaking like leaves. “I love you, Jana, and I’m taking that as a yes.”
“It is a yes, and I do love you, Emmett.”
Once the ring was safely on her finger, marking her as his, he kissed her. Evidently Dan correctly interpreted what that meant, because he started shouting, “Champagne for everyone! She said yes!”
So much for a private moment, but Emmett didn’t care. There’d be plenty of time to show Jana how much he loved her later, when they were alone. He stood and tugged her up for a bone-crunching hug. She laughed as he twirled them around. By the time he set her back down, Dan was there holding out two glasses of champagne.
Emmett took his and held it up to make a toast. “To you, Jana York.”
Jana clinked her glass against his. “No, Emmett Sloan: to