Tara rolled over and sat up. She looked at the empty space in the bed. Jax hadn’t been home last night. She grabbed her phone and took a look at the screen. There were no missed calls, no messages, no texts. There was nothing to reassure her he was okay.
She took a deep breath, and reminded herself that she shouldn’t be surprised. She had a glimpse of what this life would be like when she was just sixteen – wondering what he was doing, worrying if he was in trouble, or worse, hurt.
She should have realized it would be the same, only with higher stakes, now that he was Vice President of the club. And she had, of course. These feelings were old, familiar. She wanted so much to believe things had changed. But they hadn’t…
But was there more to his staying away now, a niggling little voice inside her head suggested? He hadn’t held her in his arms since the first morning after it happened. He would call, and was always endearingly sweet, asking how she was doing, telling her he loved her… but without his presence, it was starting to feel more solicitous than intimate. And was it her imagination, or did he seem somehow… reserved or guarded? It felt as some sort of distance was forming between them.
Had Gemma been right? Was she considered damaged goods now, and Jax wouldn’t want her? He never seemed to put much in store by what others thought, always very much his own man with his own opinions. But had that changed too, with the added expectations and responsibilities that came with being VP of SAMCRO?
Abel’s cry through the baby monitor interrupted her thoughts.
At least he still needed her, she thought as she scooped Abel out of his crib a few minutes later. He smiled and babbled, and she was certain he already seemed to recognize her from all of the other faces and people around him.
No matter what happened with his father, she resolved, pressing a kiss to the baby’s cheek, she could be there for Abel.
At the sound of his name, Jax rolled off the small bunk and came to his feet. His chin lifted in question as Hale approached.
“Weston isn’t pressing charges,” the Deputy Chief confirmed, sorting through the various keys on the ring in his hand. He’d let the League member go the night before but he’d kept Jax in the small cell overnight, hoping it would cool his head.
“You’re free to go.” Before turning the lock, Hale paused. “I know you think Weston is the one behind what happened to Tara.”
“He is,” Jax retorted brusquely, his eyes widening with emphasis.
“Tell me why.”
“He is,” he repeated firmly, but without any explanation.
“Give me something here, and maybe I can help you.”
“There’s nothing you can do, Hale.” The look in Jax’s blue eyes was challenging.
The Deputy Chief was quiet for a long moment. They had no evidence to tie Weston or any of his crew to the crime, not even enough to execute a search warrant. But his gut told him it was Weston, and Zobelle was somehow involved too. They knew too much, and were too confident.
So, as much as it pained him to admit it, the SAMCRO VP was right – there was nothing he could do. He understood now, how and why Unser let the outlaws serve up their own justice on more than one occasion.
“Jax… I don’t like Weston, or Zobelle, or any of their crew. Their kind isn’t any good for Charming,” he admitted in a low voice, finally opening the cell door. “And if you’re right, I want to see them pay for what they did to Tara.”
He considered for a minute telling Jax what Zobelle had said, that he had known what happened, and that it had been Tara, but that would only incite the biker further. There was no need to add any fuel to this fire.
“Just keep it out of Charming.”
With an affirmative nod, Jax pushed past Hale toward the door.
Returning to work at St. Thomas had been a welcome distraction from her thoughts, especially with Jax’s absence prompting a reverberating replay of Gemma’s blunt assertion in her head.
Walking at a quick pace back toward her office and looking absently down at the tiles on the floor, Tara didn’t see the man until she bumped into him.
“I’m so sor-“
The rest of the words froze in her throat when she lifted her gaze to look at the recipient of her inattention.
The man was muscular with military short, graying hair, and dressed in twill fatigues as though he had served in some branch of the armed forces, or perhaps still did. His stance was almost combative. It seemed he purposefully had stopped in the middle of the hallway, blocking the way, and intended to hold his ground. He stared down at her, his eyes cold and intense. And strangely familiar.
It unnerved her.
“Can I, uh, help you?” She forced a steady calm to her voice, though her heart had started to race. Unaware she was doing so, she took a half step back, then another.
“Or maybe I can?” McQueen asked softly from behind her.
Tara exhaled and said a small prayer of gratitude for her now ever-present shadow, and to Jax for having given her that peace of mind while she was still prone to emotional outbursts and what she would probably later consider to be an irrational fear of strangers.
“Sorry, ma’am. I’m looking for urgent care.” He smiled, but it was cold, almost feral.
“It’s… that way.” Tara pointed down the hallway. She watched the man warily until he disappeared around the corner. Something about him was so familiar. She knew him…
She walked on stiff legs the rest of the way to her office, stopping only when she reached her desk. She leaned over and placed her hands flat on the surface, hoping it would quell the waves of nausea that were starting to wash over her.
Behind her, McQueen closed the door. “You all right?”
“Yes… No…” She closed her eyes and gasped for air, trying not to hyperventilate. “I don’t know…”
“Want me to call Jax?”
Call Jax and tell him… what exactly? That she bumped into some man in the hallway and he scared her? That maybe the man looked familiar? She was probably just having a panic attack. It was normal, it happened, especially after what she had been through. She took another deep breath.
“No… No, don’t bother him…” Even if there was a remote possibility… no, she couldn’t put this on Jax. He’d already killed for her, now more than once. She didn’t want him to take any more risks, not for this, not for her.
She took another deep breath and opened her eyes.
Then she saw it.
The white mask, with it’s gaping, obscene smile, had been placed carefully on the center of her desk.
Clapping a hand over her mouth, Tara fled to the bathroom.
“There’s a meet with Cameron in two hours. We have another run to make,” Clay said after greetings were exchanged on Jax’s release. “Day after tomorrow.”
“Weston?” Jax asked, tugging on his gloves and swinging a leg over his bike, grateful the guys had brought the Dyna over to the Charming jail.
“We’ll deal with that problem at Church,” Clay stated firmly. He needed to stall for time, time to find another target to redirect his stepson’s anger. That’s what he had promised his old lady, so that’s what he’d do.
“We have club business to take care of right now.” Without another word or even a backward glance, Clay pulled out of the parking lot.
“Aye, we’ll handle it, Jackie boy,” Chibs confirmed, clapping Jax on the shoulder. He understood the urgent call for for revenge, and the balancing act they had to walk at times with club business over personal needs. “We need a plan.”
“He’s right,” Opie added as he secured his helmet.
“Yeah, okay,” Jax agreed reluctantly. Retaliation would be the topic tonight at Church. Until then, he’d have to wait. In the mean time, he’d take care of club business, see his son and Tara, and think about exactly how Weston would die.
He pulled out and twisted the throttle, speeding up to catch Clay.
“Where’s Jax?” Tara asked, stopping at the first desk after entering the Charming police station.
Eglee looked up. “I think-”
“Tara,” Hale interrupted, crossing the small office to join them. “We let him go a few hours ago. No charges.”
“Oh,” she sighed, relieved yet still worried. There had been bits of gossip at the hospital about a street fight yesterday in Charming near the new cigar shop, then bits more about it being one of the Sons, and finally McQueen had been able to confirm for her that yes, it had been Jax. “Is he okay?”
“He’s fine,” Hale replied, taking her lightly by the elbow and escorting her to the hallway so they could talk away from the curious eyes and ears of the others in the station. “How are you?”
“I’m… okay,” Tara answered with a constrained shrug. She gripped the strap on her bag and turned to leave.
“Tara, wait… did you happen to remember anything else, about what happened?”
“No… I told you everything.”
“Are you sure, maybe something else, some small detail, maybe something about the man…?”
Tara shook her head. “No. I told you, he wore a white mask.” It had seemed easier to say there had only been one man, not three. And also less horrible…
“Some identifying mark, like a tattoo maybe? Even the smallest detail could help,” he prompted, aware he was providing her a leading clue that he shouldn’t. Even the worse public defender would be able to throw it out as evidence, on the unlikely chance it should ever come to that.
Tara sucked in her breath and closed her eyes. The Algiz tattoo on his neck… It was the man from the hospital. She opened her eyes again and met his direct gaze. “No… I-I don’t… remember.”
The Deputy Chief studied her for a long moment before he asked quietly, “Does Jax know?”
“Does Jax know what?” Her eyes widened in alarm.
“Leave Jax out of this. This isn’t … this has nothing to do with him. I don’t know anything more than what I already told you.” Spinning on her heel, she turned and walked briskly out of the building.
Hale watched from the window as she fumbled with her keys and climbed in the Cutlass. A biker with a Sons kutte pulled up next to her and they exchanged a few words. Tara then drove away, the biker following behind.
“Hey, baby,” Gemma rushed over to meet Jax when he came through the door of the clubhouse along with the others. She pulled him in her arms for a hug.
“You okay?” Taking his chin between her fingers like a child, she tilted his head to examine the bruise under his eye and the split lip he received courtesy of his fight with Weston.
“I’m fine, Mom,” Jax replied, tolerating her scrutiny before kissing her cheek.
Relieved he was out of jail, and satisfied that he was largely unharmed, Gemma turned her attention to Clay. She welcomed her husband back with a thorough kiss before rushing away to check on some presumably urgent detail, ever the hostess at the club.
“What’s all this?” Jax asked as they made their way through the crowd to the bar. The run to Galt had taken all day. Clay had insisted they stop several times but hadn’t said why. They all suspected he was unwilling to admit that his hands were giving him trouble but they all noticed he seemed preoccupied, and made several calls during their various stops.
Jax tried several times to reach Tara, but luck hadn’t been with him. He ended up leaving messages on her voice mail, and only once talking to McQueen.
Opie scanned the crowd. “Your release.”
Jax scoffed. “For one night in the Charming jail?”
“Hey, any excuse for a party,” Tig added with a laugh, twisting the cap off a beer and handing the bottle to Jax. He grabbed two more, handing one to Opie then holding his up, as if in toast.
Jax sighed and took a drink of his beer. He had planned on staying only for Church, wanting to get home to Tara and his son. Now he was obligated to stay for a while or he’d never hear the end of it since he had no doubt his mother was behind this.
Even for a Friday night, the club seemed unusually crowded to Tara. She had only just stepped through the door when she saw Ima, but then the blonde porn star would have been impossible to miss. The slinky grey thin jersey dress was eye-catching, and did nothing to conceal the fact that the woman was naked underneath.
Tara hated the porn star hanging around the clubhouse, almost as much as she despised her blatant and obvious interest in Jax. She thought she had made it clear to the blonde when she walked in on them in the Cara Cara bathroom that he was very much unavailable, but given the porn star’s unmistakeable stare and focus of attention, she had not gotten the message.
Tara hadn’t even taken another step before Ima sauntered across the room, setting off a chain reaction of swiveling heads, all taking note of the porn star, her flagrant sexuality, and the confident, inviting smile on her face. She seemed to bask in the attention, however she made a beeline straight through the crowd to Jax.
He stood against the wall closest to the bar with Opie and Tig, one shoulder resting against the polished redwood paneling and a beer in his hand. He was listening to their conversation, his attention on Tig. His head turned when Ima stopped very close to him and ran one finger slowly down the front seam of his kutte.
It wasn’t possible for Tara to hear any of what was said, but she saw Jax smile and say something in response to the blonde, then she watched as Ima’s hands slid up his chest to rest on his shoulders.
Well, at least he seemed fine, she thought abstractedly. A few new bruises, but otherwise unharmed after the fight and night in jail. It was probably just her own anxious and jittery nerves that made her want to rush over here to see him and assure herself that he was okay.
Then the porn star rose up on her tiptoes, wrapped her arms around his neck, and pressed her lips to his.
Tara sucked in her breath. Part of her wanted to race across the room, grab the woman by the hair and rip her away from Jax. Had she been eighteen, she probably would have. She snorted softly, and mentally correctly herself. During their teen years together, she had done that, and more than once.
If it would guarantee that Jax still wanted her, if it would make him faithful, if it would make him absolutely, exclusively, and forever hers… she’d rush over there and tear the porn star, and any other woman who so much as looked at him, limb from limb.
But it wouldn’t.
Because with Jackson Teller there would always be women.
And she needed him to be able to walk away from temptation all on his own.
He would have to choose, and she would have to trust him.
But she didn’t have to watch.
She turned so quickly she bumped into McQueen, and had to wiggle her way past him, and through the crowd out the door. She didn’t stop when he called her name, she didn’t wait once she got to the Cutlass, and she didn’t look back to see if he followed when she pulled out of the parking lot.
She was halfway through Charming when she realized she had no idea where she was going. Forcing herself to breathe, Tara slowed the car, and pulled to the side of the road.
Clutching the steering wheel, she searched for control of her churning stomach and her turbulent emotions. It was all well and good to want something, but it was another thing entirely to know if you’d ever be able to have it.
Fidelity was a foreign concept to Jackson Teller, she had been foolish to assume otherwise.
She had known about crow eaters, sweet butts, and the plethora of other women who simply hung around the MC, along with the casual attitude the club members had about sharing and passing them around almost from the very beginning.
Life in SAMCRO meant a loose interpretation of ethics; it was often a matter of survival. There was a very thin line between right and wrong, and pragmatism would prevail. She knew that very well after what happened with Kohn.
But that also included notions such as infidelity… sex with some nameless woman on the road or a blowjob by a crow eater wasn’t considered cheating. Not that cheating was even much of a concern to most of the guys anyway; they simply kept it out of sight from their old lady.
And she knew in the years they had spent apart Jax had lived an unrestrained, self-indulgent life with women always available, wanting his attention, anxious to please him, willing to do anything he asked.
“Do you want to know how many women I’ve slept with?
Hundreds, maybe more, I don’t know.”
He told her that so she would know they hadn’t mattered, that he had thought of her…
“Because when I’m inside someone, there’s only one face I see.”
but it also meant that sex and love were separate concepts to him. And in all probability would continue to be.
Tara sighed. Could she turn a blind eye like she knew the other wives and old ladies in the club did? Even Gemma accepted Clay’s faithlessness as long as it was kept out of sight.
Or did any of this even matter anymore? Maybe Gemma was right, and Jax would find someone else, and all these worries and fears she had now were for nothing.
Twin headlights from another vehicle flashed in the rearview mirror. She glanced at them then at her own reflection.
She abandoned her heart when she left Jax years ago; she had struggled and put herself through medical school alone; and she had survived Kohn, though admittedly with Jax’s help.
She had endured a brutal rape; eventually she would be able to put it behind her. She was strong, she could survive another broken heart, though right now she wasn’t at all sure how.
Putting her foot on the brake, she shifted the car into gear just as the green Ford Bronco stopped next to her, blocking her in.
“Did you need some help, ma’am?”
At the sound of the familiar voice, Tara froze, her heart squeezing in her chest.
“Shut up,” Ima snapped preemptively. She glared at the biker on the barstool next to her friend so he would move, giving her his seat. She demanded vodka on ice from the prospect tending bar, then fished in her bag for her lipstick and dotted the misty pink shade across her lips.
“What happened?” Lyla asked with forced sympathy, glancing at Ima out of the corner of her eye. Tilting her head back, she took a drink of her beer.
“What do you think happened?” Ima sipped her vodka and wrinkled her nose. “Big fat nothing. He turned me down.” She could say he’d even been polite about it – at first. When she repeated her offer, asking him to show her his room or suggesting a quick fuck in the bathroom, he gave her that same cold and scary look she saw from him the other night… the look that chased her away. When she didn’t move fast enough for his liking, he set her aside physically and walked off.
“You need to work on your timing.“
Ima jumped, startled to find the club matriarch leaning across the bar in front of her. She blinked. Gemma Teller-Morrow was more than a little intimidating. “Wh-what? I didn’t- I mean, I just thought- I..“
“When they have business to attend to, you don’t exist,” Gemma interrupted, effectively shutting down Ima’s nonsensical babble. “You need to let him know you’re… interested after, when they’re here to socialize.”
Ima stared, her mouth open. His mother was offering her pointers?
“Baby, my Jax hasn’t been without…” Gemma’s gaze raked over the blonde. “…company since he lost his virginity at fourteen. I know how he is. But his club comes first. Now, they’re celebrating tonight, so hang out a bit, and wait until he’s had a drink or two after with the guys.”
She patted Ima lightly on the hand and walked away, leaving the blonde porn star wide-eyed and speechless.
“Hey,” Jax said quietly, closing the door behind him and stepping into the kitchen. It was just nearing two am. He set his keys and phone on the counter. “Everything okay?”
“That answer is going to take awhile,” McQueen answered, a faint smile lifting the corners of his mouth.
Recognizing the .45 on the table as one of his, Jax lifted his chin in question.
“She pulled it on some guy,” McQueen explained through clenched teeth, lighting the joint he had just rolled.
“Jesus Christ.” Jax pulled out a chair and sat down.
“He stopped to see if she needed help. She answered with the .45.” At least he guessed that’s what had happened. Tara hadn’t offered any further explanation. “I caught up just as the guy took off.”
“Car’s fine. She stopped for… other reasons,” he continued thoughtfully, the air between them hazy with exhaled smoke.
Jax considered that for a minute before he asked, ”What happened?”
If Tara had been hurt, McQueen would have already told him. That thought, at least, kept him in his seat.
“She saw you with the porn chick at the clubhouse,” he said with a wry smile. “Took off like a bat out of hell.”
“What?” Jax’s eyes widened with surprise. “When?”
McQueen quirked an eyebrow. “It’s multiple choice?”
“Shit,” Jax sighed, taking the offered joint. “I didn’t know she was there.”
McQueen snorted. That had been obvious.
“Why didn’t you call?”
The Nomad biker picked up the smashed cellphone at his elbow and held it out. “She turned the gun on me. Took the phone. Gave me the gun after we got here and only when I swore I wouldn’t call you.” He rolled it around it, examining it. “Not sure what she used on it.”
“Jesus Christ.” Jax shook his head, holding in his breath for a moment before exhaling a puff of smoke. “She all right?”
Stroking his beard thoughtfully, McQueen sighed and met his biker brother’s gaze directly. “Hard to say. On the outside, she’s fine. She’s a tough chick.” He paused, twisting around to grab two beers out of the fridge. He flipped the cap off one, and handed it to Jax, then twisted the cap off the other, and took a long drink.
“She played with Abel, fed him, took a shower, went to bed.”
Taking another hit on the joint, Jax inhaled deeply. He absently studied the label on his beer bottle, his concern for Tara ratcheting up. They had exchanged only a few words on the phone in the last few days, and he hadn’t seen her at all since his arrest. He’d been focused on his anger and on revenge, as well as preoccupied with club business. With all the shit that had happened, he should have made time for her.
“Some guy stopped by the hospital today, scared the shit out of her,” McQueen disclosed. “Says she didn’t know him. Pretty sure she did, just didn’t want you to know.”
Jax’s gaze came up, his brows drawing together in a frown. He jerked his chin up in question.
McQueen pushed a brown paper bag containing a white mask across the table. “I’m guessing he was the one who left this on her desk.”
Glancing at the contents of the bag, the blonde biker’s eyes narrowed and his expression turned cold.
“White, buzz cut, military look, few tats. League probably,” McQueen offered, taking another drink of his beer.
“Weston. Fuck!” Jax slammed his hand on the table, causing the items on the table to shake and rattle. “I knew it. He’s dead.”
“What was the vote?” McQueen knew they would have talked about it at Church; retaliation was a club decision.
The muscles clenching in his jaw were the only sign Jax had heard.
McQueen waited patiently, sliding the ash tray, the .45, and the beer bottles on the table between them into the semblance of a line.
“Not enough for Clay to vote retaliation,” Jax finally said with a shake of his head. “Said it could Mayan, or Niner revenge – like Donna.”
Despite Weston’s own words, despite the wound on his arm, and despite his own gut feel and hint of recognition that Weston had been the man in his house, the man he had shot, Clay had said it wasn’t enough. He insisted they continue to look at alternatives for reasons Jax couldn’t understand.
“It’s not. I know it’s not,” Jax declared adamantly. He rose, and retrieved a bottle of Jack Daniels from the cabinet along with two glasses. Pouring two shots, he downed one quickly. “It’s Weston.”
“What are you gonna do?” McQueen picked up his glass and tossed back the whiskey before refilling both glasses.
“Kill the son of a bitch.”
They both knew to do so under the circumstances without a club vote had potential, serious ramifications with the MC.
“Me going Nomad. What’s your hit on that?” Jax asked, searching his mind for solutions that wouldn’t put him outside of the boundaries of the club he loved but would also meet his need for revenge. As Nomad he could seek retribution on his own, or find another charter that would be willing to back him.
McQueen picked up the joint and relit it, his expression contemplative. They sat in silence for several minutes before he spoke. “You need to get your old lady through it.”
Leaning back, his gaze met Jax’s. “You have Weston at the hospital. You have this.” He nodded toward the mask on the table. “Call another vote.”
Dropping his gaze, Jax stared at the amber liquid in his glass. This new information confirmed it was Weston. McQueen could put him at the hospital even if Tara wouldn’t. Any day now Trammel would have the i.d. on the prints he knew would connect this more tightly to the League. Clay couldn’t vote against retaliation with all of that.
Jax was silent for so long McQueen wasn’t sure he was going to answer. Finally the SAMCRO VP gave a short nod. He could see merit in taking it back to the table.
“Yeah, all right.” He tilted his glass in mock salute and finished his whiskey. The events and decisions of the day weighed heavily on him, and he suddenly realized how tired he was. Jax sighed heavily. “All right man, I’m gonna call it a night.”
“Listen, it’s not my business…” McQueen said, scratching absently at his beard. “And I don’t know what you’re going through, because if this happened to Kat…“ he paused, his eyes turning cold and hard, his expression foreboding. He didn’t even want to consider the possibility of anything bad happening to the wife he adored. “But if you care about your old lady, you should let her know.”
Jax’s gaze lifted. If? Of course he still cared about Tara. He loved her, that hadn’t changed. Why would the one man who knew him almost as well as Opie, even question that? Did Tara doubt it too for some reason?
“Gemma said some shit,” McQueen replied to the unasked question, “About you wanting new pussy. One that hadn’t been… violated.”
At the blunt declaration, Jax’s eyes widened in surprise. “My mom said that? She wouldn’t-“ He stopped at the cynical look on his friend’s face.
“Shit. She would,” he corrected, running one hand over his face. Jesus Christ, how had things gone so sideways in just a few days? “Tara heard her?”
“Bad timing, seeing you with another chick, and that in her head.” McQueen said in way of confirmation, stubbing out the now spent joint as he rose to his feet. He finished off his whiskey and collected the glasses from the table.
Jax shook his head slowly. He hadn’t wanted Ima or anyone else. He wanted Tara, but he wanted her healthy and whole. If she had seen Ima kiss him, then had she stayed she would have seen him bodily remove the woman from around his neck.
“Talk to her,” McQueen added, saving Jax from any need to explain. If the SAMCRO VP had in any way enjoyed what the porn star had clearly been offering, that was his business. No questions would be asked, no judgements made.
Flexing his fingers, Jax toyed with the rings on his hand. He told Tara he loved her, but the problem was he didn’t know how to help her right now. Outside of vengeance on her attackers, the only thing he knew to do was to hold her and try to comfort her… but he didn’t know if she wanted that, or if it would even help.
With a tilt of his head, McQueen pointed toward the door. “Go. I’ll clean up.”
It was a really nice dream, Tara thought, when she felt the first touch of fingers on her hair, threading through the dark tresses and sweeping the strands into one long mass away from her neck. Something soft and bristly tickled her neck, and she felt goose bumps rise along her arms.
She had taken some Tylenol with codeine, wanting to lose herself in sleep, and to put the day behind her; as a consequence, it left her feeling groggy, and not able to come fully awake. But no matter, she didn’t want to wake from this dream. It was much better than anything she could remember from the last several days.
The bed dipped behind her, and she felt a warm heat surround her, sliding under the pillow beneath her head and curling under her legs against her thighs as a strong arm circled her waist, urging her back, closer to the source of the heat. Something warm nuzzled her neck as long fingers lightly traced the curve of her jaw, her cheek.
Warm lips pressed soft kisses along her nape, her ear, down the smooth column of her throat and drifted slowly over her cheek, tracing a path toward her lips. Tara turned her head slowly toward the source of pleasure, afraid to move too quickly, afraid if she did the delicious kisses would disappear.
She waited anxiously for what seemed like forever, until finally, warm lips met hers in a sweet, lingering kiss. When he pulled away, her lashes fluttered and she slowly opened her eyes. Dark green met brilliant blue for the briefest second before they both closed their eyes again, their lips meeting in yet another soft kiss.
“Jax?” Tara sighed dreamily, her breath melting into his, as his mouth left hers to briefly nibble at her lower lip.
“I’m here, babe,” he whispered, rolling on his back and settling her in his arms. He pulled the blankets over her protectively and brushed a kiss against her hair. “Go back to sleep.”
“Love you,” Tara murmured and snuggled closer, her head on his shoulder, one hand coming to rest on his abs, and her bent knee draped over his leg. She sighed contently and slept.