Jax was quiet as he brushed a few strands of my hair back. “Do you know what I see when I see your back?”

“That it kind of looks like the Appalachian Mountains on a map?” I joked, but it fell flat as an iron.

“No, honey.” He took a deep breath. “I’m going to be honest, okay? I’m not going to sit here and tell you that what I see right now is easy to look at.”

Oh God. My heart dropped and I thought I might hurl.

“But it’s not the reasons you think,” he continued, and then I felt it, his hand over the worst part of my back, and my entire body seemed to have a reflexive curl, but I couldn’t go anywhere, because he was practically lying on me. “When I see your back, what I think about is the pain you had to have experienced. I don’t personally know what it feels like, but I had hot shrapnel rip through my skin, and I’m sure that wasn’t even a ball’s hair worth of what you felt. But when the bomb went off in the desert, I saw soldiers—my friends—catch on fire.”

I squeezed my eyes shut, but his words sparked images I didn’t want to see but needed to.

“And I know that there is no amount of pain meds that really dulls these kinds of burns and you lived through that. That’s what I think about when I see them. And I also think about how these f**king scars shaped your life. How they’ve beaten you down when you still are one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen and these scars don’t even touch that. They aren’t anything compared to your smile or your pretty blue eyes or that sweet ass.”

Oh my God.

He wasn’t done. “You know what else I see? A physical reminder of how f**king strong you are, Calla, how f**king brave you are. That’s what I see when I look at your back. A map of how brave you are, your strength and your courage.”

Oh my God.

Tears pricked at my eyes. That ball of emotion was at my throat again, ready to pour forth and flood the earth.

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“And that shit isn’t ugly.” His voice dropped to a whisper.

I twisted, pushing up on my elbows, and looked over my shoulder at him again. His face blurred. “Jax . . .”

“That shit is beautiful in its own way, but still f**king beautiful.”

Some of the tears spilled over, and I knew I was really going to start sobbing, because that was the most perfect thing I’d ever heard, and all I could say was a lame “Thank you.”

One side of his lips kicked up.

I wanted to say more and I was so going to cry more, and it was a good thing that his phone started ringing, because I was seconds away from telling him that I loved him and wanted to have his babies. Not have his babies right now, but later, and I figured that might’ve been too soon to say something like that, but oh God, I did love him.

Jax ignored his phone as he rolled me onto my back. “I think you get it.” Leaning onto one arm pressed into the pillow, he brushed away the tears with his other hand. “Finally.”

A little kernel of “getting it” was there, and it was small and fragile, but it was there, pitted in my stomach like a little seed that just started to sprout. It needed love and care, but I was starting to get it.

He grinned and said, “Yeah.” Then he dipped his head, kissing my left cheek just as his phone started ringing again. He pulled back, shooting a glare in the direction of the nightstand.

“You should get that.” My voice was thick.

Jax really didn’t look like he wanted to, but with a curse, he shifted off me and snatched his phone. He answered the call with a “What?”

I’d just settled back against the pillow, about to replay his whole speech over again in a slightly obsessive way, when Jax suddenly sat up. “What?”

The tone of his voice caused a rush of unease, and I reacted to it. Sitting up, I grabbed the sheet and tugged it to my br**sts.

“Yeah, I’m Jackson James. What’s going on?” There was a stretch of silence and then he was on his feet, and I was staring at his firm ass. He glanced over his shoulder at me, his jaw hard. “Yes. Thank you. Yep.”

“What’s going on?” I asked as soon as he lowered the phone.

Jax grabbed his jeans and briefs off the floor. “You got to get up and get dressed, honey.”

The tone of his voice brooked no room for argument and I knew something was up, and I did what I was told. I tossed the covers and stood. Jax already had his jeans on when he was suddenly in front of me.

The air left me when I saw the look in his eyes. Oh no. My heart kicked up. “It’s Mom, isn’t it? They’ve found her bo—”

“No, honey, it’s not your mom.” He cupped my cheeks, his eyes searching mine. “It’s Clyde. And it’s serious. He had a heart attack.”

One of the reasons why I wanted to be a nurse was that I hated hospitals. They were a cesspool of unwelcome memories of grief, pain, and desperation, and in a way, becoming a nurse was a way to overcome that hate and that fear. But for even more obvious reasons, I wasn’t thinking of my future career and I hated them more so today than I had in a long time, because I was on the verge of having another horrific memory attached to a hospital.

We were in the waiting room outside the intensive care unit and we’d been there for at least a half an hour. We’d checked in, were told that Clyde’s doctor would be to see us soon, but no one had come.

That couldn’t be good.

The room was empty with the exception of Jax and me, and for that I was grateful, because I was barely holding it together. When Teresa had called because they were five minutes from Jax’s house, I’d totally forgotten about them. Once I explained what happened, she immediately said they were coming to Montgomery Hospital, but I’d told them not to and that I’d keep them up to date. First off, I wanted them to enjoy their day in Philly, and second, I would lose it if they were here.

I was going to lose it anyway.

Now I paced the length of the sterile white room with taupe chairs and couches. All I knew was that it was a heart attack and it was bad. Clyde was in surgery. That’s it.

“Honey, I think you should sit down,” Jax suggested.

“I can’t.” I passed by the row of chairs. “How much longer do you think it’ll be?”

He leaned forward, resting his arms on his thighs. “I don’t know. These kinds of things can take a long time.”

Nodding absently, I crossed my arms over my chest and kept walking. “I knew something was wrong with him, especially last night. He’s been rubbing his chest a lot, looking red in the face or really pale. And he was sweating—”

“Calla, you didn’t know. None of us did. You can’t blame yourself for this.”

He had a point, but I’d seen the way Clyde looked last night when he’d showed up and ran off the kidnapper. I shook my head as anger stole up on me like a shadow in the darkest night. “Damn her,” I seethed.

Jax straightened.

I stared at him for a moment and then looked away. “I know a lot of stress has to be on him from the bar and her being gone. Hell, a lot of stress is on you! You’ve been running the bar for her and for what? Tips and minimum wage?”

A strange look pinched his features as he rubbed a hand along his stubbled jaw.

“I almost got kidnapped last night because of her and Clyde was out there. He doesn’t need this kind of stress. Look at what it’s done to him?” I stopped, unfolding my arms and squeezing my hands into fists. The anger turned into venom in my blood as I said, “I hate her.”

Jax blinked. “Babe . . .”

My breath caught. “I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. Look at what she’s done to everyone. And for what? I know her life has been hard, because I lived it! I was right there with her, Jax! I lived it, too, but I—”

“We probably wouldn’t be where we are today. You know that, right?” he said quietly. “She gave us that.”

She gave us that.

I clamped my mouth shut, shoulders tight. I stared into his eyes and then I looked away. The burn in my chest ached. And then as quickly as the poisonous bite had entered my veins, it eased away and I whispered, “Yeah, she gave us that.”

“You don’t hate her.”

My eyes closed against the rush of frustrated tears. “I know.”

The truth was that sometimes I wanted to hate her, because then I wouldn’t care about what was happening to her and what she’d done to her life. I wouldn’t worry about what the drugs were doing to her. I wouldn’t care if she had a roof over her head or clean clothes on her back. I wouldn’t care, and damnit, caring hurt.

As raw emotion that had been there long before today, this week, or even this year started to swell inside me, I started pacing again to burn it off. I focused on something else. “Why did they call you?”

“I’m his emergency contact, I guess.”

Meaning I wasn’t. I wasn’t the contact for a man who’d virtually helped raise me. It was stupid to feel guilty about not being Clyde’s emergency contact, but I knew that if I’d been around more, I would’ve been in the position to be contacted. It terrified me knowing that this could’ve happened and no one would’ve notified me.

And it hit me with the force of a speeding semitruck.

I’d been doing this wrong. My life. Completely wrong, because it had been my choices that led to me leaving this town and it had been my choices that had practically ended a relationship with a man who’d been the only good role model in my whole freaking life. I still could’ve kept in touch. I still could’ve come around. Fuck. Maybe if I had, Mom would’ve found it harder to wipe me out. Who knew? But I had run at the first chance I got, and I knew Clyde didn’t blame me for it, but still. I’d told myself that I hated the bar, but my happiest memories had been there. I lied to myself. A lot.

If I wore a map of courage, bravery, and strength on my back, I sure as hell hadn’t behaved that way in a long time. Not since Mom took my money and I met Jax.

My knees went weak, and I had no idea how I didn’t plant my ass on the floor. “Oh my God.”

Jax glanced at me. “Honey, he’s going to be okay.”

“If I hadn’t come back here this summer and if he still had a heart attack, I wouldn’t have known.” I stopped in front of him. “Jax, I would’ve never known, and what if he dies? What if this would’ve been my last chance to see him?”

His features tensed and then he snagged an arm around my waist and pulled me into his lap. His other hand cupped my cheek. “Honey, if something happened to Clyde I would’ve gotten in contact with you.”

Fresh tears rose. “But how? You didn’t know me or really how to find me. You knew of me, but that’s different.”

That look crossed his face again, but his hand slid around the nape of my neck and he guided my cheek to his chest. “I would’ve found you, honey, but you’re here and that’s all that matters.”

Snuggling deep, I wrapped my arms around him loosely and did something I hadn’t done in years. I prayed, seriously prayed that Clyde would be okay. And I kind of felt like a poser for praying, but I did it.

I stayed there until the door opened and I pulled away, expecting to see the doctor, but it was Reece who walked in, wearing his uniform. He was on duty. I tensed up, and he must’ve seen the look on my face and immediately reassured me. “I heard about Clyde. Just wanted to check in.”

“He’s in surgery,” I told him. “I don’t know anything else.”

“Known Clyde for a couple of years,” Reece said after he sat in the seat next to us. “He’s a strong man. He’ll pull through.”

I took an unsteady breath and Jax ran his hand up my spine. “Thank you.”

Reece didn’t say much, but he sat like he planned on staying for a while, and that left me warm and fuzzy. When the door opened again some ten minutes later, I saw Teresa coming through the door, followed by my friends, and my heart clenched.

I stared at them as they made their way over to where we sat. “What are you guys doing here?”

“We had to come,” Teresa said, sitting on the other side of us. She reached out and squeezed my arm. “We wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Cam and Avery took up the same kind of position across from us, her in his lap and resting her head against his chest. “None of us felt right.”

“We wanted to be here with you,” Jase tossed in, sitting in the seat beside Teresa.

I opened my mouth, blubbered up some kind of thank-you, and then I turned, burying my face in Jax’s throat. His arms tightened around me, and I told myself not to cry, because it was dumb, but I was rocking the overly emotional thing then, and I stayed that way until my eyes felt somewhat dry, and then I thanked them again. I pulled myself together and managed to hold and follow the conversation around me.

Over the next couple of hours, Roxy and Nick showed up at different times, staying until they had to get back to the bar. Roxy had steered clear of Reece, but when she left, he’d mysteriously gotten up and walked out, too. I wondered about that. Everyone who worked at the bar showed at some point, and it did good things for my soul to see so many people care about Clyde.

When I whispered that to Jax, he whispered back, “They also care about you.”

And he was right. As usual. It was getting kind of annoying.

The door opened again shortly after that and my stomach dropped when I saw that it was the doctor. I started to pull myself free, but Jax tightened his hold on me, and all I was able to do was face the doctor.