By the time he and the guys left it was almost an hour before we closed for the night, and all I wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. At one point during the evening Roxy mentioned I could stay with her, but I needed to be alone. I was willing to take the risk to just be alone, because whatever started bleeding out of me earlier was still doing it.

I glanced at the doors one more time that evening and my lips trembled and the icy pain in my chest filled the hollowness twisting up my insides. I could feel it building inside me. I was going to break and that would be the icing on top of the f**ked-up cake.

Whirling toward Roxy and Nick, I took a deep breath. “Will it be okay for me to go ahead and leave?”

Roxy nodded. “Yeah. We got this, but—”

“Okay. Thank you.” I rushed over to her, grabbed a quick hug, and then skirted around her and Nick. I snatched up my purse from the office and when I was heading back out, Nick was coming around the bar.

“I can give you a ride,” he suggested.

“No,” I said quickly, tipping my head to the left. “I have my car. You don’t need to do that.”

Nick glanced at Roxy, and I took that as my sign to get out before I ended up riding home with one of them, and then I’d also end up crying all over one of them. I hurried out of the bar and the smell of rain was thick in the night air.

I stopped, dug my phone out of my purse, and smacked the button. My screen popped up. No missed calls. No missed texts.

I let out a dry, harsh laugh as I lifted my head, dropping my cell back in my purse. My fingers itched to call him as I stared at the full parking lot across the street. Of course, Jax’s truck wouldn’t be there, because he’d left mere seconds before Aimee did, and he hadn’t showed at Mona’s tonight. He hadn’t tried to get in touch and he hadn’t responded to my call.

I shouldn’t have let Jax in.

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I shouldn’t have fallen for him.

No. That wasn’t true.

Wiping under my eyes, I walked across the parking lot. The Wal-Mart down the street was open. I was going to put some of the money I’d been hoarding toward one of the handheld baskets full of junk food and ice cream. Then I was going to go home and eat until I didn’t care. Then tomorrow . . . well, I didn’t know yet. I was a few feet from my car when I heard my name called.

“Calla?”

My eyes widened and my fingers jerked around the strap of my purse as I spun around, my back to the road, disbelief ringing through me as my gaze darted wildly and landed on the source.

She was standing under the flickering parking lot light. Even in the low light, I could see her washed-out, bottled-blond hair with dark, dark roots, her gaunt face and frame. Clothing was wrinkled. An old T-shirt hung from slim shoulders. Jeans were skintight but billowed out from the knees.

She took a step toward me, and I moved a step back. Her smile was tight and brittle. “Baby . . .”

I couldn’t believe it.

Mom was standing right in front of me, looking strung-out and calling me baby. I was literally rooted to where I stood, absolutely dumbfounded. I didn’t even know what to say to her, because there were a thousand things I wanted to scream at her, but none of those things came out of my mouth.

“Are you okay?” That was what I said.

She opened her mouth, but whatever she said was cut off by a roaring sound, like an engine gunning it. My head jerked and I looked behind me. A four-door car with tinted windows sped into the parking lot, stopping under the sign. A window rolled down on the driver’s side.

Tiny sparks speared into the night.

There was a popping sound.

Mom shouted, and I thought she screamed my name, but there were more popping sounds, like a dozen corks being pulled at once, and more sparks. I dimly realized it was gunfire just as glass exploded all around me. Metal pinged close to me, too close, and my purse slipped out of my fingers as a scream built in my throat.

The sound never left me, because my breath was punched out of me as a strange burn lit up my stomach, sharp and sudden, intense and stealing my breath.

I looked down as I wobbled back, bumping into a Jeep. I thought I heard shouting, but my head was spinning in a funny way. My hands shook as I pressed them against my side. I felt something warm and wet.

“Mom,” I croaked as the bones left my legs. I didn’t remember falling, but the back of my head hurt, but not as bad as my stomach. I was staring up at the sky, but the stars were moving, like they were raining. “Mom?”

There was no answer.

Thirty-one

When I opened my eyes again, I wasn’t staring at stars or even a bright light. It was a ceiling, a white drop ceiling with a soft, dim light fixture. The rest was shadowy and as my gaze tracked to the opposite wall, I saw a pale blue curtain. My thoughts were slushy and I felt funny, like I was floating, but I knew I was in a hospital. There was a dull sensation of something in my right hand and as my gaze slowly trekked to where it rested on the bed, I could see an IV.

Definitely a hospital.

Oh yeah, that was right, I’d been shot. Actually shot with a gun. Seriously.

God, my luck sucked.

I started to sit up, but the dull ache turned sharper, piercing across my belly, and the air punched out of my lungs at the suddenness of it. The walls spun like a bad acid trip.

Movement from the left of my bed stirred the air around me and a gentle hand landed on my shoulder. I blinked the room back into focus as my head was guided back against the surprising stack of pillows.

“Awake for a couple of seconds and you’re already trying to sit up.”

The heart monitor registered the sudden increase in my heart rate as I turned my head to the left. My beat skipped unsteadily.

Jax was sitting in a chair next to the bed and he looked . . . he looked like crap. Dark smudges bloomed under eyes that were normally the color of warm whiskey. The shadow of stubble along his jaw was thicker than normal.

But he smiled when my eyes met his and he said in a gruff voice that was thick, “There you are.”

“I took your shirt.”

His brows furrowed together. “What?”

I don’t know why I said that. I could tell there were some really sweet drugs rolling through my system right now. So I was going to blame them. “I took your shirt when I left your house, because I wanted a part of you if you decided you didn’t want to see me anymore.”

He straightened in his chair and his lips parted as he stared at me.

“I feel funny,” I admitted. “I think I’ve been shot.”

His expression tensed. “You were shot, honey. In the stomach.”

I wetted my dry lips. “That sounds bad.” I knew that could be bad, come to think of it. We had, like, an entire week or something dedicated to gunshot wounds in one of my classes.

“You were actually lucky. The doctor said the bullet missed all major vital organs. Clean in and out,” he explained, voice low. “There was some internal bleeding.”

“Oh. That’s definitely bad.”

He tilted his head to the side and closed his eyes. “Yeah, hon, that’s bad.”

Jax sounded so worried, so . . . I don’t know, out of it, that I felt the need to reassure him. “It doesn’t really hurt.”

“I know,” he murmured. “They said they were giving you pain meds. I . . . damnit. Calla.” He leaned forward, getting so close to my face with his that I caught the faint scent of cologne. “Oh, honey . . .” He shook his head and the darkness in his eyes bordered on a tortured intensity. He placed his hand on my left cheek and I felt the tremor that coursed through it. “I know you probably have questions, but there’s something I gotta say, okay?”

“Okay.”

“When you woke up yesterday and I was gone, it wasn’t what you thought.”

The last twenty-four hours started to replay in my head, coming together like a slow-moving picture book.

Yesterday had sucked ass.

“I had to go downtown for a fitting for the wedding and I had to leave early. I should’ve left a note, but I was still pissed-off about that night before. I left thinking you’d be there when I got back and we’d talk, but Roxy called me.”

I frowned up at him. “She . . . she called you?”

“Yeah.” His gaze moved over my face and then down, and I swore he was watching my chest move, as if he was reassuring himself that I was breathing. “She called me on the way to your house, because she was worried about your safety. I knew you left, and yeah, I was angry about that. I thought we were on the same page.” He coughed out a dry, harsh laugh. “I’d called Reece, letting them know you were at your house. They had a car on you.”

I hadn’t even noticed that. Granted I wasn’t the most observant person apparently; so maybe I should rethink that career in nursing.

His thumb smoothed over my jaw as his gaze settled on mine again. “I spent all day yesterday mad at you, at us, at myself.”

Well, these were things I really didn’t want to hear right now, but I sensed that whatever he needed to say, he had to get it out of him, so I remained quiet as I watched him.

A muscle twitched at the corner of his eye. “All day,” he said, shaking his head again. “A whole f**king day wasted on stupid shit and I should know better. I tasted that kind of regret, you know, with my sister. Spending so much time being angry with Jena that when she was gone, I couldn’t even begin to tally up all those missed hours I could’ve spent being there for her.”

“Jax,” I whispered, my heart squeezing.

He rested his weight on his other arm, careful not to disturb the bed or me, though I wasn’t sure how much I’d feel at this point. “The point is, I was angry, but it didn’t change how I felt about you or what I want from you. I’m not perfect. Far from it, and I was just being a dick. I could’ve called you and made sure you understood that. I could’ve returned your text. I didn’t. I thought maybe we both needed some space to cool down so that when we did talk, we could do so. And last night, when I went to the club, Aimee showed up.”

Now I remembered that, too, and that sick feeling rose, more muted than before, and for that I was grateful.

“That pissed me off even more. I left. She followed me outside. We had it out in the middle of a f**king parking lot. And I swear, even the messiest breakup with someone I was in an actual relationship with was easier than talking to her. She won’t be a problem anymore, but damnit, it was more wasted time. After that, I went back to my place. I planned on coming back to the bar to get you before closing. I didn’t think you were going to leave early, but I was coming for you. I just never made it.”

When he spoke next, the hoarseness to his voice, the very real pain in it, got to me. “I was getting ready to leave. I had my keys in my f**king hand, Calla. I was almost out the door. I was thinking about texting you and my phone rang. It was Colton. I almost didn’t answer, because I knew they still could be partying and I wasn’t in the mood for the shit, but I did answer. And he told me that he’d just been called by one of the deputies, that there had been a shooting at the bar and someone was injured. That was all he knew, and f**k, babe, my heart . . . it did what it did when I got the call from my parents. It was a sick as f**k feeling, like I wasn’t standing but I was. I tried calling you and when you didn’t answer, I knew—I just knew, because if there had been a shooting at the bar, you would’ve answered the phone if you could.”

“I’m okay,” I whispered fervently, because I thought he needed to hear that, but it went largely ignored.

“When I got to the bar I saw your car shot the f**k up and you weren’t there. Neither was Roxy . . .” He seemed to gather himself as his hand shook against my cheek. “It was Nick who told me it was you. He’d been outside. Got to me before the police did. All he knew was that you’d been shot and that you hadn’t been awake when the paramedics arrived. Calla, I . . . I can’t even put into words what I felt in that moment or what I felt getting my ass to this hospital. All I knew was that I f**ked up yesterday.” His chest rose with a deep breath. “I could’ve lost you. Fuck, I could’ve really lost you. And if I didn’t get this chance to be talking to you right now and if you were taken from me and I lost the opportunity to spend yesterday with you, being with you, loving you, I’d never forgive myself for that. So you know what, Calla, I’m going to forgo any bullshit right now. And I hope you’re with me on this, but even if you aren’t, I gotta get it out there and I’m not going to regret saying this to you.”

I was starting to breathe heavy, not in a taxing way, but I knew something was coming, and my throat was burning and not because it was dry. So were my eyes. They felt wet, because two words really stood out among all the powerful words he spoke. Loving you.

“I gotta tell you that I love you, Calla,” he said, and I was surprised the heart monitor didn’t catch the fact it felt like my heart had stopped for a moment. “No bullshit. I do. I love the way you think, even if it’s annoying as f**k at times and even then it’s still cute. I love that there’s a shit ton of things you’ve never gotten to experience and that you’re going to get to experience them with me. That I have that honor. I love your strength and everything you’ve survived. I love your courage and I love that you make shit drinks, but no one cares, because you’re so damn nice.”

A soft surprised laugh burst from me and my words were wobbly when I spoke. “I do make some shit drinks.”

“You do. It’s true. I’m pretty sure your Long Island iced teas could kill people, but that’s okay.” His lips curved up on one side as his gaze held mine steadily. “I love your sense of humor and the fact you never ate grits before. There’s so much I love about you that I know I’m in love with you. So, honey, you can have all my shirts you want.”