Tears pricked at my eyes as she pulled her hand free and slowly took off her bracelet. She turned her wrist up, and I sucked in a breath I immediately wished I hadn’t. I saw the scar. I knew what it meant.
Avery smiled faintly. “That’s not the worst part. Because I didn’t press charges, the guy continued doing what he did to me.”
“Oh my God,” I breathed, wanting to hug her. “Honey, it’s not your fault. You didn’t make him do those things to you or to anyone else.”
“I know.” The smile became a little firmer. “I know, but I did carry some responsibility in that. And the reason why I’m telling you this is because I went years without telling anyone what happened to me and when I met Cam, it took a lot for me to open up and tell him the truth. I almost lost him because I didn’t.” She drew in another breath. “The point? I’m ashamed that I tried to take my own life and that I caved to my parents, but I’ve gotten to a point—with therapy—that I get why I did those things and they don’t make me a bad person or less of a friend to people if I don’t open up or whatever.”
“No,” I whispered, blinking back tears. “You’re not a bad person.”
Teresa cleared her throat and when she spoke, her voice was thick, and when I looked at her, I tensed up all over again. “When I was in high school, my boyfriend hit me. More than once. A lot of times, actually.”
I couldn’t believe it. Teresa never came across as someone who would stay in an abusive relationship, but as soon as that thought finished I realized how judgie that was.
“I was young, but that really isn’t the greatest excuse for being with a guy who hit me,” she said, following my thoughts. “I kept it to myself and I hid it. I made up stories whenever the bruises were visible, but one year, right before Thanksgiving, my mom saw me and there was no hiding what was happening any longer. The thing was, the worst part wasn’t that I was in the abusive relationship, but what it did to my brother. He lost it, Calla. He drove over to my boyfriend’s house. Cam confronted him and . . . and they got into it. Cam beat him so badly that the guy ended up in the hospital and my brother got arrested.”
“Holy crap,” I gasped, wide-eyed.
Teresa nodded. “Cam got into a lot of trouble, and I lived with the what-ifs for a long time. What if I didn’t stay with him? What if I told someone? Would Cam have ended up almost losing everything? And he did lose a lot. A semester of school. He was off the soccer team, and he also had to deal with the shit he’d done. I carried a lot of guilt because of that. Even to this day, I have regret.”
“I’m sure Cam doesn’t blame you,” I said.
“He doesn’t.” It was Avery who answered. “He never did.”
Teresa’s smile was wobbly. “That’s because my brother is pretty damn awesome.”
I reached over and squeezed her hand, feeling the tears really start to well up in my eyes.
Avery pressed in against my side. “So is Jase. He’s also pretty awesome.”
A weak laugh bubbled up.
“And he had secrets. Really big and really important ones—secrets I can’t elaborate on, because they’re his business, but I was in the dark for a long time and when he let me in, I got why he’d kept some things to himself.” Emotion poured into Teresa’s beautiful face as she went on. “The whole point of this, Calla, is all of us have things we’ve lied about and things we’re ashamed of, and things we wished we talked to someone about a long time before we did.”
“But telling someone, fessing up about everything . . .” Avery smiled again when I looked at her. She squeezed my hand back, and I realized that through me, all of us were connected in that moment. “Not to sound completely cliché and cheesy as hell, but it changes everything.”
“Especially when you tell your friends,” Teresa added softly.
Pressing my lips together, I nodded a couple of times, and I wasn’t sure exactly what I was agreeing with. Probably everything, and maybe a half a minute passed before I found whatever it was that had given me the ability to tell Jax that didn’t involve tequila.
I told them about Mom—for real. The way she was before and the way she was now and I told them what had caused the change. The fire. I told them about Kevin and Tommy, and my dad, who gave up on all of us. And I told them about the scars, all of them, and I did so weeping like a baby that just had tossed its binky to the floor and no one would pick it up for her. Actually, we all were having a major festival of the sob, but there was something cleansing in opening up and sharing with them after they’d shared private and powerful stories with me. There was also something cleansing in the tears.
By the time I was finished, the three of us had our arms around each other and I finally felt like what Jax had believed—that I was brave, because that took a lot for me to tell them. It didn’t matter that Jax knew, and these girls understood that it didn’t matter how many times you told someone: It might get a little easier, but it is still hard.
And as we held each other, I realized something so important then. It was kind of sad that it took twenty-one years to really realize it, but family wasn’t just blood and DNA. Family went way beyond that. Just like with Clyde, even though I wasn’t related to Teresa or Avery, they were my family.
And just as important, even with my eyes all puffy and tears streaming down my face, I felt what Jax had said about me, something I’d felt when I’d stripped down for Jax.
I felt brave.
Sniffling, Teresa pulled back and she wiped under her eyes with the sides of her forefingers. “Now that we got all that covered, whose ass do we got to kick to keep you out of your mom’s mess?”
Dawn was roughly an hour or so away when everyone cleared out of Jax’s townhome. Teresa and crew were still planning to tour Philly tomorrow, but as much as I wanted to spend time with them, it wasn’t smart and Detective Anders had looked like he’d lose his shit if I did go traipsing through the city.
Which really sucked, because I missed my friends, and there was more than one moment when I wondered if this would be my life now, not doing things because of this threat that really was hanging over my head.
Something had to give. I didn’t know what, but I wasn’t sure how much longer I could continue like this without losing my shit.
However, Jax had come up with a great idea—a late breakfast or early lunch at the townhouse with everyone before they headed into the city and then most likely headed back to West Virginia. So I would get to see them . . . from behind four walls.
It was better than nothing.
I’d just changed into my usual sleepwear when I was finally, after hours, alone with Jax. He stood just inside the bedroom door and his expression was on lockdown, jaw tense and lips pressed into a firm line.
A sudden nervousness rose inside me, mixing with tendrils of unease. With everything that had happened, I hadn’t forgotten that we’d kind of gotten into an argument that was unresolved, but it hadn’t been on the forefront of my thoughts.
It now raced there, elbowing all the other stuff out of the way. It didn’t matter that the stuff with Aimee was no way near as important as everything else.
The intensity carved into Jax’s striking face held me immobile as he all but stalked forward, stopping directly in front of me. Our gazes locked, and I swallowed hard as he lifted a hand. Instead of touching my left cheek, something I’d been slowly getting used to, the very tips of his fingers brushed over my lower right jaw and then to the corner of my cut lip.
“Does it hurt?” he asked.
I gave a little shake of my head. “No. Not really.”
The hue of his eyes darkened as he dropped his hand. “It shouldn’t have happened.”
Well, I wasn’t going to argue with that.
He thrust his hand through his hair. “I didn’t even notice that you’d left. You’d had a gun to your back and I was right there, not that far away, and didn’t even notice. I should’ve known.”
“Whoa. Wait a second. This—none of this—is your fault, Jax. You were busy at the bar and I’m glad you didn’t see it happening,” I told him. “You could’ve gotten hurt.”
Disbelief clouded his expression. “I could’ve gotten hurt? You got hurt, Calla. The f**ker hit you, and you’re worried about me?”
“Well, yeah . . . that and an entire bar full of people he’d threatened to shoot.” As soon as I said those words I could tell it didn’t matter. If anything, it ticked him off more. Moving away, I plopped down on the bed. “I’m okay, Jax. Seriously.”
“You had to bite a person. You had your mouth on some f**ker’s skin and bit down to defend yourself. How in the f**k does that make you okay?”
“When you put it that way? I’m not sure.”
His jaw worked as he walked forward and knelt in front of me. “I promised you that you wouldn’t get hurt.”
“And you did.” His hands curled around the back of my knees and he tugged them apart as he leaned in. He was staring at my arm, and my gaze followed his. There was a bruise there, too. “I’m not okay with that. Fucks with my head—just the thought of what if. I’ve been down that road before.”
I didn’t get what he was saying at first, and when I did, I shook my head. “This isn’t like with your sister.”
Jax said nothing.
“You know that, right? I’m not your responsibility. Not like that,” I insisted. “And neither was Jena.”
He looked away, jaw clenched.
“Even if you were—”
“Calla,” he warned.
I ignored him. “Even if you were home, Jax, there would’ve been no what-ifs involved.”
“Just . . . just drop it.”
“No.” I was not backing down from this. “She would’ve overdosed if you were in the room next to her. You being there wouldn’t have changed the outcome. One way or another, she would’ve found a way.”
His gaze swung back to mine. “How do you know that?”
“Because I lived through it, too.” I held his gaze. “There was nothing I could do to alter Mom’s path and I tried. I tried a million times. You know deep down it would’ve been the same with your sister.”
Several moments passed, and then a deep sigh shuddered out of him. “I don’t know. Calla. That’s . . . yeah, that’s hard to really accept.”
“I know.” Oh God, did I ever know, and I also knew there wasn’t much I could say to really change whatever guilt Jax harbored. That was something that would take a lot of time, and he’d have to find that in himself.
“I think you need to stay here for a few days,” he said after a moment.
My brows pinched. “I’m already staying here, aren’t I?”
“That’s not what I meant, babe.” His fingers brushed over the finger marks above my elbow. “Stay out of the bar until . . . well, until this dies down.”
“What?” I pulled my arm away, and his chin lifted, eyes back to mine. “I’m not hiding in this townhouse or anywhere. And it’s not because I don’t realize what’s going on, but I need the money.”
His hands curled around the back of my knees again. “Calla . . .”
“I seriously need the money. Over a hundred thousand in debt, Jax. I’m not making a crap ton of money, but I’m making something. I can’t afford to chill out in the Jax Relocation Program.”
His lips twitched “Jax Relocation Program?”
My eyes narrowed.
He chuckled and some, not all, of the anger eased out of his expression. “I like the sound of this program.”
“I’m sure you do,” I retorted dryly. “I just . . . I need to be more careful, more aware of my surroundings and stuff. I mean, I’m sure Mo didn’t look too harmless in the bar. I need to pay more attention.”
“So did I,” he agreed firmly.
I started to deny it but figured there was no point. Some of the hardness was still in his face and I remembered the near-murderous fury in his eyes when we’d been at the bar.
As I watched him, something shifted in his eyes. The color was still dark, but it was warmer, hotter. It was late. Or early. Depending on how one looked at it. And there was a lot we needed to talk about, namely Aimee with an i and two e’s and his “you got to trust me” solution to her feeling him up like he was tenderized meat.
Yeah, we really needed to talk about that.
But as he stared up at me I could tell what he was thinking—I could feel what he was thinking. And after almost being kidnapped and after finally opening up to Teresa and Avery, the very last thing I wanted to do at four something in the morning was talk about Aimee, her wandering hands, and how that made me want to turn into a rabid kangaroo and kick her head off her shoulders.
I did need to talk to him. It was serious, and he was right, there would be some miles between us in the fall, and I needed to trust him.
And I did.
My brain sighed, literally sighed.
But then my body did a happy sigh when Jax’s hands moved up my thighs, reaching the hem of my shorts. One side of his lips quirked up in that sexy half grin.
We could talk later.
Not giving my brain a chance to argue that that was a bad idea and I was tossing girl power or whatever crap to the side for some bow-chick-a-wow, I grabbed the sides of his shirt and tugged up. Wordlessly, Jax backed off and lifted his arms. In no time, he was shirtless and my hands were on his hard, rough chest, and once again I wondered how I’d gone so long without knowing what a man’s chest—Jax’s chest—felt like under my fingers.