“Well, that’s a little creepy,” Cam murmured under his breath as he extended an arm, helping Avery to her feet.

Jax’s shoulders were thrown back, tensed. “I know.”

I blinked. “Maybe we should—”

“I’m sure they already know, too, because you went to them and didn’t come to me, so they’re going to hear this, too.”

Oh double wow.

Cam and Avery stopped where they stood by their suite door, caught sneaking out of the room. A quick glance at Jase and Teresa told me they were wishing they had popcorn to share.

“Jax, we can go outside.”

“I came home and you weren’t there,” he said, and then he went on. “Considering everything that has been going on, that really f**ked with me. Yeah, I know we’re all cool, but still a text message or something giving me a heads-up would be appreciated.”

“Now. Wait,” I said. “I did tell you I was with my friends.”

“After I came home and I saw those papers on the coffee table,” he corrected, eyes flashing almost black. Damnit he had a point, so I kept my mouth shut, and he continued. “You saw your mom. So right off the bat, I know that’s got to have f**ked with your head and I also see that she left you the house. That’s good. I’m happy to see that.”

I glanced around the room, feeling my cheeks heat as my friends watched with avid interest, including Cam and Avery.

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“But I know that’s not why you’re sitting in this hotel room instead of in my bed right now.”

Oh. My. God. My face went completely red.

Teresa pressed her lips together as her eyes lit up.

Time to nip that direction of conversation in the bud. He wanted to have this out in front of my friends, we were going to have this out. “You own Mona’s. You’ve owned Mona’s for over a year, and you never thought you should tell me this?”

His chest rose. “I planned on telling you. I was going to—”

“Is that what you were saying while I was in the hospital, about needing to talk to me about something? You’ve had time to tell me. Tons of time before that, like when I first showed up and was rummaging through the office!”

Jase’s head swung back to Jax, as in, the ball was now in his court.

He didn’t respond immediately, which was okay, because now I was gearing up for a whole onslaught of words and questions and maybe a little bit of cursing, but when he spoke, for the second time in one night my entire world was rocked.

“I’ve known you for over a year,” he said, and the tension drained out of his shoulders, as if some kind of weight were lifting off him. “I’m not talking about knowing you through what Clyde or your mom has told me. I knew you. I’d seen you before you even knew I existed.”

I opened my mouth as confusion poured into me. “What?”

“The first time I saw you was last spring, over a year ago. You were outside of your dorm, walking to class,” he said, and I suddenly felt like I needed to sit down. Everyone in the room had faded to the background. It was just him and me. “I was there with your mom. It wasn’t the last time. Every couple of months, when Mona would be sober for a day or two, she wanted to see you. So I would drive her down to see you, because I know . . . I know what it’s like to not get that second chance. You know that. So I’d bring her down. Once you were outside of another building talking to her.” He jerked his chin at Teresa. “You were there with another guy. The three of you until Jase showed up.”

Oh my goodness, my legs felt weak. My thoughts cycled back and there was a good chance he was talking about Brandon.

“The last time was in the spring. You were sitting on a bench by yourself outside what I think was the library. You were reading. And each time I brought your mother down there, she never followed through. She didn’t have the courage to try to make amends for any of the shit she pulled, but she wanted to. It just never panned out, because you always looked so happy.” He exhaled slowly. “You always looked so damn happy. Smiling. Laughing. Your mom didn’t want to mess with that.”

I took a step back, finding it hard to stand still.

“Each trip, she talked about you and it was real, you know? She wasn’t high or messed up. It’s how I knew about everything. It wasn’t Clyde and it wasn’t when she was drunk, even though sometimes she would talk about you then, too, but she really talked about you when she was sober. She found out you were majoring in nursing and she wasn’t surprised by that. She told me once that you’d grown close to the nurses when you were in the hospital.”

I closed my eyes against the unsteady rush. That was true, what Mom had said. I had grown close to the nurses, and now I knew how Mom had known about my major. She’d been to Shepherd, with Jax.

“All those times she came, she came to talk to me?” I asked, and my voice sounded incredibly small.

“Yeah, she did. She recognized her faults and f**kups more than I think anyone gets,” he said, and when I opened my eyes, he was still watching me. “She never wanted the bar life for you. She knew that the likelihood of her being around for a while wasn’t good. When she knew I’d take the bar off her hands, would make it good, she sold it to me. She didn’t want you to even have it as an option.”

I really needed to sit down.

He wasn’t done. “I didn’t tell you about this, because I didn’t know how you’d feel knowing your mom had come to see you. You two weren’t on great terms, and explaining this makes me come off as a creep, so it wasn’t something I was really looking forward to doing, but I was.”

“Totally not a creep,” whispered an awed Teresa.

His lips twitched for a moment and then he refocused on me. “Each time I saw you, I felt like . . . I felt like I knew you a little bit better. I never talked to you but seeing you always smiling or laughing . . . or being peaceful . . .” He shook his head, and my heart spasmed. “There’s something about that . . . it drew me in, Calla. Fuck. I fell for you before you even knew my name.”

Oh, holey moley. Tears rushed my eyes and his face blurred.

“And I should’ve told you about Mona’s. I was going to that day in the office, but when you’d said you’d sell it, I didn’t think you’d care. And then when I realized that even though you never said it, I knew the bar meant a lot to you.” He took a step forward, his progress tracked by everyone in the room. “I didn’t know how to break that to you. I’ve honestly been struggling with the idea of keeping it. The place gave me purpose when I got back home after drifting, but it didn’t feel right. Not with you here. Not with me really knowing you.”

I swallowed, but the lump was stuck in my throat.

His eyes searched mine. “I love you, Calla. Me owning the bar doesn’t change that. If it did, then I don’t want a f**king part of it. All I want is you.”

Staring back at him, I couldn’t get any words out of my mouth. Everything he said whirled around in my head. I was overwhelmed.

“Calla,” he whispered.

I shook my head, at a loss for what to say.

“Say something, honey. I don’t want to give up on you, but you’ve got to say something to stop me from walking out that door.”

So many things I wanted and needed to say rose in my throat, but nothing came out. It was like having performance anxiety. I was frozen where I stood and it was so quiet in the room I swore everyone could hear my heart pound.

Jax expelled a rough breath as he held my gaze and then he turned and walked away. He walked right out that door, and I stood there, staring at his retreating form, watching the door swing shut.

I didn’t say anything.

I seriously stood there.

And I watched him walk away.

Thirty-four

“Oh God,” Avery said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. She stared up at me. “He fell for you before you even knew his name?”

Teresa was also staring at me with wide, watery eyes. “Calla . . .”

I still couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think of anything to say. I was a statue.

Jase turned his head to me, brows raised. “If I liked guys—you know, swung that way, I’d get na**d after that.”

I blinked. Um.

“And I’d put a ring on that,” Cam added, moving to where Avery sat.

I blinked again. Uh.

Teresa snorted. “I’m in a happy, love-of-my-life relationship, so Jase, take no offense to what I’m about to say, but I’m about to do all those things. My God, girl, that was beautiful. That was real. And that hurt to hear and you just let him walk right out of here.”

I did.

I let him walk right out of here.

“Calla,” Teresa called softly.

Shaking my head, I looked at her. “What am I doing?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But I think you know what you need to be doing.”

I did. Oh God, I really did know what I needed to be doing. The bar. The secrets. The whatever. It didn’t matter. “I’m so f**king dumb,” I said.

Cam’s brows flew up.

Then I took off, clenching my cell phone like it gave me extra ability to run as if a T. rex were chasing after me. I threw open the door without looking back and tore out into the hallway. Of course, Jax wasn’t there. I ran down the hall, passing the elevator, and hit the stairwell. They were on the third floor and I’d never run down steps as fast as I did at that moment and not break my neck.

By the time I hit the lobby and ran past a startled-looking hotel clerk, the stitch in my side was spreading across my whole stomach. I barreled through the doors like something straight out of a cheesy Hallmark movie and sucked in oxygen.

“Jax!” I shouted, shooting out from underneath the hotel awning. My eyes scanned the parking lot, not seeing his truck. The place was packed in the front. “Jax!”

There was no answer from the ground or from the stars. I slowed at the edge of the lot, breathing deeply as I turned and jogged down the aisle, my gaze darting over the cars. Had he left? My heart sank as I stopped again, bending over and pressing my hand against my side.

Well, pressing my cell phone against my side.

I’d call him. God, I was so dumb. I could’ve just called him. Straightening, I went to tap on the screen when my heart stuttered to a stop.

“Calla.”

Wheeling around, I almost dropped my phone when I saw Jax standing several feet away from me. I didn’t stop to think about doing anything or turning into another dumbass statue.

My sandals almost flew off my feet as I took off again, running straight toward him and I didn’t stop. Nope. I smacked right into his hard body and threw my arms around his shoulders, holding on so tight I could’ve doubled as a Snuggie.

Jax didn’t move for a second and then his arms swept around me as I said, “I love you. Keep Mona’s. It’s yours. And yeah, you should’ve told me, but I still love you. I do.”

He drew back so I could see his shadowed face. When he didn’t say anything, I started rambling. “I’m dumb. Okay? I have this history of doing dumb things, so I just stood there. But in my defense, a lot of crazy shit has happened lately and you just admitted to seeing me way before I even knew you existed. That alone is a lot to process. And you said that you fell for me before you even met me, and now things kind of make sense to me, because I just couldn’t figure out how you could be so accepting of me when you just met me, but you—”

He cut off my stream of words with his mouth and there was nothing gentle about this kiss. It was rich and deep, all-consuming, and it wasn’t a slow seduction. The kiss seared me, claimed me, and as his tongue swept over mine, I moaned into his mouth.

When he did break the kiss, his lips brushed mine as spoke. “All you needed to say was that you loved me. That was all.”

A laugh choked out of me. “I love you, Jackson James. I love you. I love—”

His arms tightened again and his deep growl rumbling out of his chest silenced me. Our gazes locked. “I need to be in you. Now.”

My eyes widened.

“No time to go home.” Then he took one of my hands and started walking back toward the hotel entrance.

“Jax?”

He looked down at me, his eyes full of hunger. “No time.”

Well then. I was all aquiver.

We ended up back in the hotel, standing in front of a wide-eyed hotel clerk. “I need a room,” Jax said, smacking down his wallet. “Now.”

Maybe tomorrow I might be embarrassed, because the clerk’s eyes swept from me to Jax and then to the arm cinched tight around my waist. All the older man did was smile and nod.

We got a room.

On the first floor.

As soon as he kicked the door shut behind us, Jax was on me. His hands spread across my cheeks, tilting my head back, and he kissed me deeply. When we broke apart, I reached for his shirt, but he caught my wrists.

“Before this goes any further, we need to be clear on a few things.”

I nodded. “Okay. Name them.”

“I’m sorry for not telling you. I’ve messed up. You deserve to be angry with me.”

I heard that. Got it. “You’re right, but I’ve told a worse lie to my friends for a lot longer time. You’re not the pot and I’m not the kettle. I wish you did tell me and seriously, I do care about Mona’s and you were right, more than I thought, but it’s yours, Jax. It’s not mine. It’s never really been mine, but in a way . . . it still kind of is, because of you. It is.”

The hardness in his jaw softened. “You really mean that, because if you—”