My breath caught. “How are you feeling?”
“Ready to . . . run a marathon.”
I laughed and my smile became wobbly. Several seconds passed as we stared at each other, and I had to swallow hard again. “I want you to get better.”
The weak smile fluttered. “On it.”
“I want you to get better so that when school starts back up and I come home on the weekends, you’ll make me tacos,” I told him. “Okay?”
His brows lifted a fraction of an inch and he murmured, “Home?”
Worried that the heart attack had messed with more than his heart, I nodded. “Yeah, when I come home, I want you . . .” I trailed off as the sharp slice of understanding cut through me.
I’d called here home.
And I hadn’t called here home in years, because it hadn’t felt that way since Mom went downhill and Dad left. My mouth opened wordlessly, but I didn’t know what to say. The strangest thing was I had no inclination to correct what I had said, because here . . . here was home again.
I had no idea what to do with all that.
That exhausted smile showed off a toothy grin that faded quickly. “Baby girl, I never . . . thought I’d hear . . . that again.”
“I . . . I never thought I’d say that again.” Damnit. Tears made it to my eyes, and I wondered if this was the summer I went on Prozac. “But it’s . . .”
“It’s true.” He took a deep breath and winced. “It’s good, baby girl. It’s . . . real good.”
I squeezed his fingers gently and leaned forward, whispering, “It is.”
And I wasn’t lying. It really was. My heart kicked around in my chest as I wiped the back of my other hand across my cheek.
“You feel that?” he asked quietly.
“What?” I croaked out.
“The weight lifting a little . . . off you,” he said. “You feel it?”
My lips trembled as I nodded. “Yeah, Uncle Clyde, I feel that.”
Another deep breath passed and it took a lot for him to get his hand turned around. He squeezed my fingers back with the pressure of a toddler, and that was hard to see. “Your momma . . . she loved you, baby girl. She still does. You . . . know that, right?”
Smashing my lips together, I nodded. I did know that. In spite of all the terrible stuff she did, I knew she still loved me. She just needed the high more than she needed my love or me. It was just a sad truth about someone addicted to drugs.
His grip relaxed and he closed his eyes. I sat there for a couple more moments. “You need to rest. I’ll come back later.”
He nodded slowly, but as I started to pull away, his eyes opened and his hand flexed around mine. “That boy . . . he’s cared about you for a . . .” He faded out, and I froze, half sitting, half standing. Then he spoke again. “He’s a good boy, baby girl. Jackson’s always been perfect for you.”
“Always been?” I asked.
But there was no answer. Uncle Clyde was out, and his words left me confused. The way he spoke was like Jax had been in my life for a long time and he hadn’t. Then again, Clyde was on some pretty damn good painkillers. I stayed for a few more minutes, watching his chest rise and fall, reassuring myself that he was very much alive and that he was going to get better. I pressed a kiss to his cheek and then left the room.
I turned down the hall, passed the busy nurse station, and headed toward the waiting room.
Detective Anders was leaning against the wall, waiting for me. I couldn’t stop the tension that crept up over me when I saw him.
“Hey,” I said, slowing my step. I glanced at the windows of the waiting room. It was empty.
“Jax ran down a floor to get a drink out of one of the vending machines,” Detective Anders explained. “He should be back in a few. I told him I’d wait for you. I’d called your cell and when there was no answer, I called Jax.”
“Oh.” I folded my arms as I stared up at him, thankful I wasn’t thinking about how good-looking he was like last time. Crap. Now I was thinking that. The man could work a suit. Looking away, I wanted to kick myself in the teeth. “I left my phone in his truck.”
“How’s he doing?” he asked.
Taking a deep breath, I refocused. “He was awake for a little while, so I got to talk to him.” I hated what I said next. “He’s really weak, though, and I know he’s in pain, but he’ll . . . he’ll pull through.”
“He’s a tough guy. I’ve got to believe he’ll get through this, too.”
I nodded, folding my arms against the hospital chill. “Detective Anders—”
“Call me Colton.”
Colton? His name was Colton? I’d gone all my life not knowing someone named that, and I thought it fit him, a rugged and sexy name. “Colton, were you just checking on Clyde or . . .”
“A little of that, and I wanted to check in with you and let you know that we’re still working hard on everything.”
“So there’s no bad news?”
A sympathetic look crossed his face. “No, Calla, there’s really no news at this point. We haven’t been able to locate anyone who matches the description you provided us in criminal records and Mack is still lying low, but that’s a good thing. That last part, that is.”
I frowned. “How so?”
He looked around, then motioned to the waiting room with a jerk of his chin. “Let’s take this in there.”
I walked through the door he held open and sat in the first chair. As he unbuttoned his suit jacket, he sat across from me. “We’ve been putting in a lot of visits to Isaiah. We’ve got nothing leading back to him, no surprise there, and even though he keeps his hands clean, we know those hands are all over this shit, you follow me?”
Mysterious Isaiah strikes again. “Okay.”
“He doesn’t like screwups or loose ends. Mack right now is both of those things and he’s bringing the heat down on Isaiah, plus Isaiah can’t be too happy about the drugs going missing,” he explained, eyes fixed on me. “Mack’s got it coming from both ends with Isaiah. He’s in the same boat as . . .”
“As my mother?”
He didn’t break eye contact. “Yes. I hate saying that to you, but yes.”
Running my hands over my jeans, I sighed. There was nothing I could say to that. Nothing at all.
“If you hear from your mom, you need to let us know,” he continued. “I know that’ll be hard, but it’s not safe for her. We are literally the lesser of two evils. You get what I’m saying?”
Unsure if I could do that, turn my mom over to the police, I shifted my gaze away. I knew it would be the right thing to do if Mom happened to pop back up and even though I wanted to say I could, it would be different if that situation arose.
Detective Anders stood, and I figured the conversation was over. He stopped at the door, head tilted. “You have a good thing going here, right?”
Thinking that was an odd thing to say, all I did was nod.
“Then take to heart what I said about your mother, Calla. I know she’s blood. I know you love her. And I know these things are hard, but don’t let her take these good things away from you.”
Detective Anders’s words lingered with me the rest of the afternoon and into the evening. I tried not to think about it when Jax and I left to grab a late lunch at a small diner in town or as we spent the evening chilling in his living room. It was a lot to deal with—everything—and it was exhausting, both mentally and emotionally.
It was near eight in the evening and I’d just gorged myself on a pack of Twizzlers. On the way back from tossing the package in the trash, I smoothed my hand through my hair even though it probably still looked like a hot mess and then headed around the couch.
From where Jax sat, he leaned forward and settled his hands on my h*ps as I went to walk past him, to take the seat next to him. Apparently that wasn’t happening. “I think I’m going to pull out of Dennis’s bachelor party.”
God, I’d totally forgotten that was tomorrow night. “Why?”
One shoulder rose as he rubbed his hands up and down my hips. “With everything going on with Clyde and with you, I think the last thing I need to be doing is sitting in a strip club.”
“I’m pretty sure with everything that’s been going on, you could use the break. Just don’t go into any of the private rooms,” I joked.
“Thursday nights are kind of busy, hon, and I don’t feel—”
“We have the bar and the kitchen handled. And I promise not to get kidnapped or anything crazy.”
An eyebrow arched. “You promise?”
He smirked. “I don’t think that’s something you necessarily have control over.”
“If I stay behind the bar, I think I’ll be fine. Plus Nick will be there. And you already have him coming in on Thursday to cover you. We’ll be fine.”
“You sure are fine.”
I sighed. “Jax.”
With a wicked grin on his lips, he pulled me into his lap and I went to him, straddling his thighs. I liked this. A lot. But he wasn’t going to distract me. “Go. Okay. I’ll be at the bar and you’ll come get me before we close. I’ll be fine.”
He leaned back against the couch cushion. “But what if I want to take a girl home with me?”
“I don’t know about that. The way Katie talks, those girls oil themselves up. You might have a hard time holding on to one of them.”
Jax tipped his head back and laughed. “Nice.”
Then something occurred to me. “What if Katie’s dancing?”
He shook his head. “That will be a bathroom break for me.”
“She’s really hot.”
Hooking his arms around my hips, he spread his legs and I slipped farther onto him. “It’s not that. It’s just that she’s Katie . . . and I don’t want to see her like that.”
I grinned and hoped that she was dressed as a fairy again. “So you’re going?”
One hand slid up the line of my spine, tangled in my hair, and then he tugged my head down to his lips. “I’m going.”
He nipped at my lower lip. “You’re probably the only girl in the world who would just say good to the fact her man is going to a strip club.”
My man? I got a little caught up in that phrase so I didn’t point out that I thought a lot of girls really didn’t care about strip clubs, because then he was kissing me, slow and sweet.
When his mouth left mine, his lips brushed over the curve of my jaw. The bruise from the botched kidnapping had already began to fade, but he placed a kiss there, and my heart did a little dance.
I settled in his arms as he idly flipped through the stations on the TV and it wasn’t long before my eyes drifted shut. I was lulled away by the steady sweeping motion of his hand along the line of my spine. It was strange. I never thought I could ever allow someone to touch me there, even if I was wearing clothes, and here I was, comforted by a caress that would’ve made me cringe not too long ago.
So much had changed.
Once he’d settled on a baseball game, he dropped the remote and his hand ended up in my hair. “Reece called earlier, when you were on the computer doing your school stuff.”
My eyes opened, but I didn’t move. I was feeling way too lazy for that level of effort. “What did he want?”
“Just keeping us updated on Mack. Reece and Colton really think he’s gone to ground, especially since they’ve been riding Isaiah hard, which won’t bode well for Mack, either,” he said as he twisted my hair around his fingers.