He touched me first, a soft sweep of his finger and I willed my body to stay still, but there was a slight jerk of my h*ps that did nothing to my stomach. His finger moved again, circling and then slipping in.

I moaned as I clenched the sheet underneath, but he wasn’t done as he slowly moved in and out. My breathing quickened when I felt his mouth against my inner thigh, then his tongue. He was slow—so damn slow that every caress of his lips and flick of his tongue claimed me.

A strangled sound escaped me when his tongue dipped in, replacing his finger, and my h*ps kicked once more. Before I met Jax, I never thought I’d be into something like that. It just seemed too foreign to me, so intimate, but good God, I’d been wrong. This was amazing. Maybe it was because it was Jax. Maybe all men had a tongue that was literally a mass weapon of assured seduction. Either way, he drew out every gasp, every throaty moan and broken whimper until I was beyond making sounds and breathing in general.

He shifted, tossing an arm over my hips, holding me in place. He seemed to sense that I was close. Tension and heat built in my core, then exploded in a flash, a burst of rioting sensations that frayed every nerve ending with a hot rush of pleasure. Aftershocks of the tight tremors rocked me as he slowed and then lifted his head, kissing my inner thigh and then just below my navel. As he rose, I reached for the band on the old shorts he wore. He sucked in a breath as my fingers brushed the hard ridge of him through the nylon.

“Calla,” he warned.

I wetted my lips. “I can return the favor.”

“That’s not why I did that.”

“I know.” I rolled carefully onto my uninjured side and found him there, his body braced on one arm. His mouth was so close that I went ahead and kissed it, and was quickly caught up in the taste of him and of me mingled together.

Jax was a kisser. That was something I’d learned right off the bat. He liked doing it, thoroughly enjoyed it, and was damn good at it. And as he got into it, I reached between us again. Sex might be out of the question for the next couple of days, just to be safe, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t use my hand. Or my mouth.

I tugged on his shorts again, but he caught my wrist and he growled against my lips. “Calla, hon . . .”

“I’m not an invalid, Jax. I want to do this.”

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He didn’t move for what felt like an eternity and then he took my hand and slipped it under the band of his shorts. Well, good to see he was definitely on board.

His body shuddered as my hand wrapped around his thickness and he let go of my wrist, hooking his fingers on his shorts. He got them down his thighs as I kissed his neck.

Easing up, I pushed him down with my other hand and he stared up at me from where he was sprawled on his back. My gaze tracked over him as I slowly moved my hand. God, he was gorgeous. Every stretch of rough skin, every tightly rolled muscle, and every imperfection.

His h*ps jerked as my thumb smoothed over his tip, and I smiled, remembering him showing me that and how much he liked it.

“God, Calla,” he groaned as he reached up, tangling his fingers in the ends of my hair. “You’re driving me crazy.”

I grinned. “I haven’t even done anything.”

“Oh, you’re doing plenty enough. You’re—” His words ended in a deep groan, because I’d slid down and lowered my mouth over him. “Fuck, Calla . . .”

There’d been a slight twinge of discomfort from the sliding part but nothing major and it sure as hell didn’t deter me from what I wanted to do for him. My mouth slid over him, and the hand in my hair clamped down on the back of my neck. His thumb moved along the base of my skull as I lifted my head, licking and sucking until his h*ps were moving in small, barely controlled thrusts. His hand tightened on my neck and I could feel the flutters in his base, the slight pulses. His breathing turned ragged, and as I went as deep as I could, which probably wasn’t very much, he let out a hoarse shout.

At the last moment, he dragged me off him and up. The stitches in my side protested only a little. My hand was still around him and I felt his release as his back bowed and his hands tightened on my arms. I watched his muscles flex and roll, the cords stand out in his neck, and the tension flicker across his striking face as his h*ps slowed and then he settled, breathing heavily.

“Damn, Calla.” He pulled me up and laid that mouth on mine, kissing me so deeply I felt the warmth between my thighs and in my veins increasing as he eased me onto my back. The kiss slowed and he rested his forehead against mine. “You’re perfect, you know that?”

“No I’m not.” I smiled, though, because I liked that he thought that.

“Whatever. If I say it, it’s true.” I laughed softly as he drew away. “Be right back,” he said, and he was only gone for a moment, returning with a damp cloth. He cleaned us both up, and when he finished, he curved his body around mine.

“Sleepy time?” I asked.

His chuckle shook me. “Uh-huh.”

I smiled into the darkness. “What time is it anyway?”

“Don’t know,” he replied, kissing my shoulder. “Don’t care.”

“So you woke me up in the middle of the night just to . . . ?”

“Damn skippy.”

Laughing again, I snuggled into his warmth. “I love you.”

His chest rose sharply against my back and then he pressed languid kisses against my throat and cheek. “I love you, too.”

“Are you sure you’re going to be okay here?” Teresa asked as she pulled back from giving me a hug. “We can hang out. Jase is cool with that.”

I glanced over at where Jase was leaning against the wall just inside the townhouse. For the last hour, he’d been eyeing Teresa like he wanted to have her for dessert. So I doubted he was cool with that. I smiled at her. “I’m fine. I’m just going to chill out and watch TV the rest of the night and I don’t think Jax is going to work an entire shift. I think he said he’d be back around midnight.”

“We’ll be up late,” Jase replied. “So if you need anything, just call.”

“I bet you will be,” I replied dryly.

Grinning, he pushed off the wall and circled around Teresa’s waist from behind. He winked at me as he dipped his head, kissing her temple. “Come on, sweetheart, let’s hit the road.”

Teresa folded her hands over his arms as he started to walk backward, toward the door. “Don’t forget about tomorrow! If you and Jax are up for it, we all can go out to eat before we head back. All right?”

“I won’t forget.” I followed a rather desperate-looking Jase to the door. They’d been here for hours after Cam and Avery had left to go do whatever adorable couples do on their down time. “It should be fine. You guys have fun.”

Jase’s grin turned downright wicked. “We will.”

Teresa’s eyes rolled as he all but dragged her out of the door, but at the last moment she sprang free, ran back to where I stood at the threshold, and hugged me again. “I’m glad everything is going to be okay,” she whispered, and then she whirled around on her good leg.

Teresa took off and jumped from the top of the short set of cement steps. Jase, who was at the bottom, cursed as he caught her and staggered back a step. “Jesus, you’re going to give me a heart attack.”

She giggled as she wrapped her legs around his waist. When he turned to head to their car, she waved at me over his shoulder. I wiggled my fingers back, thinking they were going to give Cam and Avery a run for their money.

I closed the door and made my way back over to the couch. Kind of tired from spending most of the day with my friends and Jax, I yanked the blanket around me and curled up on the end of the couch. It didn’t take me long to drift off to sleep and I did so, as cheesy as this sounds, on a cloud of happy thoughts.

Today had been good, great even. It had been normal—my new kind of normal—full of laughs, smiles, conversation, and kisses, lots of sweet kisses and then not so sweet. I could get used to this and I would. It would be hard when I went back to Shepherd, but we’d make it work. That cloud of happiness would keep on being all fluffy and awesome.

I didn’t know how long I slept, but I came to, lured out of sleep by the soft sweep of cool fingers along my cheek. Blinking open my eyes, I expected to see Jax beside me, thinking I’d slept longer than I had.

But it wasn’t Jax sitting next to me.

Heart leaping into my throat, I sat up so fast I pulled at the tender skin on the side of my stomach and winced. “Oh my God.”

Mom was here.

Thirty-three

I stared at her for what had to be a freaking hour before I found my ability to speak. “How did you get in here?” I asked, craning my neck to see if Jax was anywhere, but we appeared to be the only two people in the house. Maybe that wasn’t the best question to start with but I was caught off guard, absolutely floored.

She drew away from the couch and stood. That’s when I noticed she was wearing the same clothing I’d last seen her in, and when I inhaled deeply, my heart . . . God, it ached like someone had reached inside and wrapped their fist around it. She smelled like someone who hadn’t seen the inside of a shower in days.

God.

Rubbing her left hand down her right arm, she glanced around. “I let myself in.”

“How?”

“The back door. It has one of those old locks. No dead bolts. I picked it.”

“You . . . you picked a lock?” When she nodded, I just stared at her. “You know how to pick a lock?”

She nodded again as she stopped rubbing her arm. Her hand stayed around the inside of her elbow, though. “Baby, I don’t have—”

“You left me.” Snapping out of my stupor, I rose to my feet as her gaze swung back to me sharply.

Mom blinked rapidly. “I need to tell—”

“I don’t care what you have to tell me.” And that was true. As terrible as it was, it was completely true. “I got shot. Did you realize that?”

“Baby—”

“Stop calling me that!” I shrieked, my hands balling tight. “Answer my question, Mom. Did you realize I’d been shot?”

Her cracked lips opened, but she didn’t speak. Instead she ducked her chin as she started scratching her right arm.

Hurt swelled in my throat like I’d swallowed a bitter pill. I stared at her, my mother, and it was like seeing a ghost. “You knew I’d been shot and you left me in the parking lot, bleeding. I was in the hospital for two days. I had internal bleeding. Do you even care?”

Chin jutting up, her watery gaze met mine for a fraction of a second and then her gaze darted away. “I care about you, Calla. I love you. You’re my daughter. I just . . . I . . .”

“Love getting high more?” A fissured laugh broke out of me. “Story of my life and your life. Drugs have always been more important.”

She didn’t say anything at first and then she said what I knew deep down in my heart she would say. “My babies are gone, Calla. Kevin and Tommy, they—”

“They’re dead!” I shouted as tears pricked at my eyes. Air rattled in my lungs as everything . . . everything came out. “They are dead, Mom. They have been dead for a long time. And you know what else, Dad has been gone for a f**king long time, too. You’re not the only person in this whole damn world who lost them. And no amount of shit you put in your body is going to bring them back.”

Her legs backpedaled like she could escape what I was saying, but this wasn’t the first time I’d said this to her. But I knew it was going to be the last.

And I was on a roll. Years and years of frustration, disappointment, and hurt balled up inside me, exploding over like a shaken bottle. “You stole from me, Mom. Do you even remember that? You drained my account, racked up over a hundred thousand dollars in debt in my name, and now I have to take out financial aid to finish school!”

Mom flinched.

“Not only that, but you almost got me killed. Like really dead—dead as in I’m totally f**king dead, Mom.” She recoiled again, but it couldn’t be like this was the first time this crossed her mind. “Clyde had a heart attack because of the people pissed at you who were messing with me. He almost died.”

She moved her mouth, but I didn’t hear her.

“My entire life has been turned upside down. Again.”

Shaking her head, she looked around Jax’s living room as stringy, ratted strands of hair knocked off her gaunt, sallow cheeks. “I thought . . . I thought I could get the money back.”

“Yeah, by stealing he**in from Isaiah. Well, that didn’t work out, did it?” I was breathing heavy, my heart pounding with fury and a ripe kind of sadness. “You know, he was here. He said you can’t even be in this state. Do you know what that means, Mom?”

“I’m leaving,” she rasped, her gaze flickering away from me, over the walls. She was as twitchy as a cornered mouse. “I got some friends in New Mexico I’m hooking up with. I wanted to see you before I leave.”

She was leaving, like really leaving.

Okay.

Wow. That wigged me out more than I thought it would, which was stupid.

I figured this would have to happen. The only other option was her staying, which equaled certain death, Mack-style. I watched her move in a slow, random circle in front of me, digging at her arm with her dirty nails. I pressed my lips together, cutting off what would’ve been a sob.

“You’re high right now, aren’t you?”

She picked up her pace in the little circle she was making. “I’m not high. I just needed something, baby. Things aren’t good.”