“It was an ambush,” he added quietly, almost like an afterthought. “These things happen a lot. One minute everything is going smoothly, and then the next, the whole world is blowing up. Our group was scattered. Reece took a shot to the gut. I got him out of there.”
The next breath I took felt funny. “You got him out of there?”
And that was all he said about that, but I knew there had to be more. It wasn’t as simple as getting someone out of there when bombs were going off and people were shooting at you. “Was . . . was that something that kept you awake at night?”
He didn’t answer for a long moment. “Some nights . . . I dreamed that I didn’t get to Reece in time. Then other nights, I saw the things that went down that day. Crazy how the brain holds on to those kinds of images.”
My chest started to ache. “And whiskey helped with that?”
“Sometimes,” he murmured. “It sort of dulled everything—dulled the detail.”
I wanted to ask more, but then he asked a question that caught me off guard.
“Did you like doing the whole beauty queen thing?”
My eyes went wide. “I . . .” I didn’t want to answer the question because I didn’t like to even think about it, but I doubted Jax liked to talk about people shooting at him and bombs, so I owed him. “I liked it sometimes.”
Okay. That wasn’t a lot, but that was something.
“Sometimes?” he prodded gently.
I sucked my bottom lip between my teeth and then closed my eyes. “Sometimes it was fun. I was a little girl and I liked dressing up. I felt like a fairy princess.” I coughed out a dry laugh. “So it was like playing dress-up every week and it made . . . it made my mom happy when I had my hair done and all the makeup on and I was onstage. And it made her really happy when I’d win, especially the big titles.”
“What kind of titles?” he asked into darkness.
“Grand Supreme is one.” I had to open my eyes, because I could see myself on the stage, turning and blowing kisses and folding my hands under my chin. “When Mom was happy it was like she loved me. I know she loved me, but it was like she really loved me then.” I wiggled my h*ps again, trying to find a spot without flopping onto my back. “But there were times when I wanted to be . . . I don’t know, just be a kid. I wanted to play, but I had to practice walking, or I wanted to hang out with my dad, but he didn’t like going to those things, and sometimes I wanted to spend time with . . .” I trailed off, closing my mouth.
Sometimes I wanted to be at home, spending time chasing after Kevin. He was older than me—the big brother—and when I was home, I was his shadow. And I also liked being with Tommy, because he was so small and so cute, like a real baby doll I’d played with.
But I didn’t say that, because it had been years since I’d spoken their names out loud, and it had been years since someone else said their names, up until Clyde had over the weekend.
“It was okay,” I said, hurrying on. “It’s not something I think I’d ever do if I had a child.”
“Me neither. I think it causes little girls to focus on the wrong thing—everything being about looks. So that’s something we agree on.”
“Yeah,” I whispered, feeling my belly tighten. It was different lying in bed with Jax and talking about what we agreed on when it came to child rearing.
“What was something you liked doing as a kid that didn’t involve the beauty queen shit?” he asked.
My heart squeezed because I couldn’t answer truthfully. My favorite thing had been hanging with Kevin. I went with the next-best thing. “Playing basketball.”
“Basketball?” The surprise was evident in his voice.
“Yeah, what about you?”
There was no hesitation. None whatsoever. “Pretending like my little sister got on my every damn nerve when in reality I loved when she followed me around, because with her, we were always getting into something.”
My breath caught, and I didn’t know what to be more affected by—the fact that he had a sister or the fact that his relationship with his sister sounded a lot like Kevin and my relationship or what it could’ve been. “You have a sister?” I asked after a few moments.
A heaviness settled in my chest and not that good kind. “Had?”
“Had,” he repeated.
Oh no. I squeezed my eyes. “She’s not with . . . us anymore?”
I rolled onto my back. I didn’t even stop to think about it, and when I turned my head, Jax’s face was inches from mine. “What happened?”
His gaze was on mine. “When she was sixteen, she was in a car accident with her boyfriend. He was speeding and the truck he was driving rolled over. He was killed in the accident and my sis . . . well, she broke her leg and collarbone. So she was in a lot of pain after the accident and not just physical.”
Oh, I had a bad feeling to where this was heading.
A small, sad smile appeared on his full lips. “Jena . . . she was such a cool kid, had bigger balls than most guys I knew. Would ski and BASE jump and skydive, and was constantly giving our parents heart attacks, but after the accident, she changed.”
“How?” I whispered, but the bitter taste in the back of my mouth told me I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
Because I was staring at his face, I didn’t see his hand move in the small, dark space between us, but I felt the sweep of his thumb across my lower lip, all the way to the tips of my fingers and toes. “She was given a lot of prescriptions for pain. It started off legit, but she got addicted. I think being high helped her not deal with her grief, you know?”
Oh God, did I ever know. I stared at him, unblinking and whispered, “Yes.”
“The docs eventually cut her off, but she was hooked. She didn’t want to deal, so she moved on to other things—heroin and OxyContin.” His thumb glided over my lower lip again, causing me to shiver. “My parents tried to get her help, but there was no stopping what was coming. I was in boot camp when our mom found her in her bedroom. She’d overdosed. Died sometime during the night.” He drew in a deep breath. “For the longest time, I blamed myself.”
My brows knitted. “Why?”
“I thought maybe if I’d been home, I could’ve stopped her,” he replied. “Hell, a part of me still thinks that.”
“You can’t help people unless they want to be helped,” I told him. “Trust me. I know.”
“I know you do,” came his quiet response. “But that’s some guilt I’ll probably carry with me for a while, if not forever. She was . . . she was my little sister. It was my job to keep her safe.”
“Oh Jax,” I whispered. The knot was bigger in my throat. “I’m so sorry,” I said, and I knew it sounded lame, but I didn’t know what else to say.
His thumb did another pass and then his hand moved away. “There’s nothing you need to apologize for.”
“I know.” A moment passed as I dragged in a deep breath, and then I rolled back onto my other side, facing the closet door again. My heart ached for him and his family and a sister that never had a chance to become anything. We didn’t have the same past. No way. But there was a similarity there. Mom was who she was today because she couldn’t get past the grief and heartache, and I wondered, if Jax knew about the pageants, then did he know about the fire and about Kevin and Tommy? “I’m sorry you lost your sister and what you experienced overseas. You . . . you must be very brave.”
“I think it was more of not wanting to die or to see my friends die than it was being brave.”
That was a very modest thing to say. Since he shared so much with me, I felt like I needed to share something really unknown about me, but it was hard. It took a bit to get my tongue to form the words. “I’m a liar.”
There was a pause and then, “What?”
Even though it was dark, my face filled with blood. “I’m a liar. My friends back home—Teresa and her boyfriend Jase, and Avery and Cam. Cam’s Teresa’s older brother, and him and Avery are like the cutest couple in the world,” I rambled on, nervous. “Cam has a pet tortoise and he got Avery one.”
His body shook with a quiet laugh. “Their turtles are in love?”
“Yep. You can’t help but feel the love when you’re around them; not even the turtles are immune to it.” And I kept going. “Teresa and Jase are like the hottest couple in the world. Seriously. Then there’s Brandon.”
Another moment passed. “Brandon?”
Probably shouldn’t have brought him up. “He’s another friend. He has a girlfriend,” I added quickly and then moved right along. “Anyway, they’re great. They really are, and I love them, but I’ve lied to them. They know nothing about me and I’ve told them so many lies.”
“Babe . . .”
“No. Seriously. I’ve told them that Mom was dead.” When there was silence, I made a face at myself in the dark. “See? That’s a horrible lie. But there was never any chance that they were going to meet her and in a way, she is kind of dead, you know? The drinking and the drugs killed my mom years ago.”
“I see,” he murmured.
I wasn’t sure if he did. “And they think I’m visiting extended family right now.”
“That’s not a lie. Clyde is like family.”
My mouth opened to correct him, but he was right. Huh. “Last semester, I told Teresa I was going home for break and you know what I did, Jax?”
“What?” was his soft reply.
“I stayed in a hotel and ate room service.” When he didn’t respond, I added, “The room service was really good, though.”
“You’re not a liar,” he said after a few moments.
“Um, what part of this convo did you miss? I’ve lied to them. On purpose.” And now that I really talked about it, I felt like a total tool for it.
“You had your reasons, Calla. You weren’t lying to be a bitch or whatever. You didn’t have a great childhood and your relationship with your mom is nonexistent at best. I’m sure your friends would understand if they knew the truth.” He paused. “And everyone has secrets, babe. Not one person is always a hundred percent honest in every single situation. And that goes for your friends.”
I closed my eyes as his words sank in and there was no denying that they helped make me feel a little better about all I’d kept from my friends. “Thank you.”
He didn’t say anything for a few and then he shifted again. His legs were most definitely touching mine. “Calla?”
My breath caught once more. “Yeah?”
After a beat of silence, he asked, “So you think I have great lips?”
“Oh my God,” I groaned, forgetting I’d said that earlier. Jax’s laugh danced over my skin, and just like that, everything felt okay. “I hate you.”
He chuckled again. “No, you don’t.”
The room was dark, so I smiled, and I knew he didn’t see it, but I had a feeling he knew I was smiling and he was right. I didn’t hate him.
“Jax?” I had no idea what he was going to say next.
He touched my hair, or I thought he had. It was so light and so brief, I wasn’t sure, and then he said, “You have to be very brave, too.”
I drew in a soft breath. “About what?”
Jax didn’t answer, and I didn’t push it, because I was afraid he would expand on that statement, and I wasn’t even sure why I was afraid. After a while, I heard his breathing deepen and I knew he was asleep, and I lay beside him, feeling the knot in my chest now. It was a long time before my thoughts settled from what he’d told me, what he’d shared and said. And from everything else I hadn’t told him.
Waking up the second time next to Jax James was like waking up the first time. He was most definitely a cuddler while he slept.
When I finally fell asleep, his thighs were against the back of mine, but it hadn’t been like this. His entire front was flush with my back, and not only that, one of his legs was thrust between mine, and his arm was curled around my waist. Our heads had to be sharing the same pillow because his warm breath stirred the hair along my temple and danced across my cheek.
We were spooning again.
And it felt just as good and as dumb as the last time, but a good kind of dumb. A dumb I wanted to play around in, because his body heat had created this snuggly cocoon I didn’t want to part with, but I remembered what happened last time.
Drawing in a deep breath, I started to basically throw myself away from Jax and off the bed, but that didn’t happen. The moment I moved, the arm on my waist tightened, and suddenly I was rolled onto my back.