It was Abel’s cry amplified through the baby monitor that roused him, and Jax came instantly awake, surprised to have slept so soundly for almost four hours. It was the first decent sleep he had managed to get in days.
Pulling on a pair of grey sweats, he went to the kitchen. On the table was a note from Tara explaining her absence was due to an early morning surgery, Abel had been changed but not fed, and Neeta was expected to arrive around eight. She’d signed it simply “Love, T” with a big “XO” at the bottom.
As he warmed Abel’s formula, Jax noticed that the .45 was gone. He knew McQueen wouldn’t have taken it since he had one – or more – weapons of his own, and he wondered then if his biker brother knew about Tara’s early schedule.
A short while later with his son settled in the crook of one arm with his bottle, Jax retrieved his phone and began dialing with one hand. He’d feel better once he made sure Tara wasn’t alone.
“Hey baby,” Gemma greeted as Jax walked across the TM parking lot toward the clubhouse from the garage. She had spent the morning with Abel and Neeta, arriving just after noon to do some work in the office.
“Hey Mom,” he replied, pausing to press a kiss to her proffered cheek.
“You working in the garage today?” she asked, falling in step beside him and taking note of the grey twill mechanics shirt he wore instead of his kutte.
“Few hours this mornin’. Needed an oil change on my bike.”
“Neeta seems good with Abel,” she commented, pleased with herself at finding someone she felt she could trust with her grandson.
“Yeah,” Jax replied agreeably, trusting his mother’s judgement on the subject. Her standards would be exceedingly high when it came to Abel’s care.
“Sweetheart,” she began somewhat hesitantly as they neared the clubhouse door, “I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
Pausing, Jax turned to look at his mother. “What’s that?”
“Why… McQueen Oodie? You could have had one of the prospects stay with Tara if you thought she needed protection.” She brushed at her bangs with her fingertips, pushing them off her forehead.
Jax shrugged. “I wanted someone I could trust. Someone already patched in. He offered some time.” Prospects earned their way into the club; they had to prove themselves for a year, sometimes more. Patched members had already shown they were willing to die for the club, for their brothers. It was a different level of commitment.
“But McQueen… He’s Nomad,” she added, as if that somehow mattered.
“So? He’s still a Son.” Taking out his cigarettes, he shook one from the box. He flicked his lighter, then stopped, noting Gemma’s concerned expression.
“What?” he asked with a lift of his chin.
“I didn’t want to say anything… but other morning when I stopped by… he and Tara…well, they looked pretty cozy over breakfast.”
“Yeah?” Jax lit his cigarette and inhaled.
“And you know, his Mom… she ran that whorehouse in Vegas.”
“What has that have to do with anything?” He chuckled. He knew Gemma had no love for McQueen’s mother, Andie, and had known since the summer JT had taken him on a road trip against his mother’s wishes when had been around twelve or maybe thirteen.
“Nothing… I guess,” she replied, tempering her annoyance. She wasn’t getting the response she had wanted from her son. “I just hope you can trust both of them as much as you think you can.”
“Yeah, all right. I gotta go,” Jax said, shaking his head as he walked away.
“We’re all so glad you’re back,” Margaret Murphy said with a sympathetic smile.
“Thank you,” Tara replied, looking up from the document she was reviewing.
“How are you feeling?” The hospital administrator’s gaze swept over Tara’s face critically, as if cataloging her remaining injuries.
“I’m… good.” Uncomfortable under the scrutiny, Tara forced a smile. She made a notation in the chart, tucked the papers neatly inside, and handed it over the counter to one of the nurses. Slipping her hands in the pockets of her white lab coat, she turned her attention to the hospital administrator.
“What happened to you… many women… they don’t report it.”
“I did report it,” the brunette doctor confirmed. “I talked to the police – Hale, Eglee. You were here that night.”
“Yes, but I understand why you might be reluctant to admit what really happened,” Margaret countered prudently.
“I told them what really happened,” Tara returned calmly, stepping away from the desk where the others might easily overhear them.
“I know your guy is part of the biker gang,” Margaret stated, unable to hide the disdain in her voice.
“Club. It’s a motorcycle club,” Tara corrected stiffly. “But that has nothing to do with what happened.”
“Domestic violence is a very serious problem. You shouldn’t let it go unreported,“ the administrator paused, glancing away to smile at several hospital staff members passing by.
“You think this… it was Jax?” Tara asked, incredulous. She knew the hospital administrator didn’t like her boyfriend or the club, but that she thought he would have been the one who had raped and beat her… because yes, Margaret would have read those details in her chart… that was a leap to a conclusion she hadn’t quite expected.
Margaret sighed heavily. It always surprised her when women who were so smart, not to mention strong and capable, refused to admit to abuse at home. Perhaps it was fear of further retribution, or often, a misguided sense of love or loyalty. She smiled patronizingly, “If you’re afraid, we can help you.”
“Thank you, but I don’t need help,” Tara returned, tempering the anger in her tone. “This… what happened to me… had nothing to do with Jax.”
Margaret stiffened suddenly, her eyes darting away from Tara to someone or something over her shoulder.
Curious, Tara turned to see the subject of their conversation coming toward them.
“Hey,” Jax said softly, his gaze on Tara’s face.
“Hey. What are you doing here?” she asked, her brows drawing together in surprise at seeing him.
“I have an appointment,” he answered with a smile. It was a rare, mischievous smile, one she hadn’t seen since the first few weeks of her return to Charming.
“You what?” Tara questioned, returning his smile with a bemused one of her own.
“Check with the nurse at the desk, she’ll tell you. Teller. One pm.”
He nodded at the hospital administrator, who was watching them with avid interest and arch disapproval. If he was aware of the tension between the two women, he gave no sign.
“I’m sure you do,” she replied teasingly, his playful humor contagious. She was well aware that Jackson Teller could very effectively charm some of the nurses on staff into putting him on her schedule.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Margaret interjected stiffly, her lips pressed together in a frown of displeasure. “Do remember you need to complete your charts before the end of the day, Dr. Knowles.”
Unconcerned with whatever stick was up the hospital administrator’s ass, Jax didn’t even pay attention to her as she walked away.
Impulsively taking both of Tara’s hands in his, he tugged her along, moving backwards toward the exit. “Come on, Doc. You have an hour and half, I checked.”
“Where are we going?” she asked curiously when they reached the elevator.
“I have something for you,” he said, pressing the button for the first floor. Without thought, he winked at her as he lifted her hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “But I can’t give it to you here.”
“Really? You grew up in Sapphire? The Sapphire?” Tig asked incredulously.
“Shit, his mom owns them,” Happy confirmed. Sapphire was a well known strip club just outside of Vegas, with sister clubs in Los Angeles, and Miami and a new one recently opened in Punta Canta. The clubs were known for beautiful, sophisticated dancers, and topnotch, discreet entertainment. They had private rooms, Tuesday poker nights, and the bar was always stocked with a wide range of liquors, poured generously by the bartenders. The Sons were always welcome, alongside Sapphire’s more typical clientele of sports athletes, celebrities, Silicon Valley millionaires and well-known political figures.
McQueen only smiled in response. He was used to the comments and often expressions of shock and awe that came along with questions about his background. His mother had gone to Vegas with dreams of being a showgirl, but when her plans were altered by an unexpected pregnancy, she adapted her ambitions to include a degree in business from UNLV. She still became a showgirl and dancer, eventually opening her own club when he was almost five. The early years had been bumpy, and they lived in the club for several years until things really took off.
“That would be like my dream, man.” Tig added with a shake of his head. “I remember the girls there… mmm….ahhhh…man.”
“Yeah? When were you ever there?” Happy asked skeptically.
“Hey, we used to go there…back in the day… JT, Piney, Clay, Otto, Bobby, me… it was a pretty regular stop on Vegas runs,” Tig explained indignantly.
“We’re long overdue another visit I think,” Bobby suggested with a grin.
“Hey, wasn’t it JT, he knew your Mom? I think I remember her…” Tig asked, turning to look at the Nomad biker.
McQueen’s gaze came up and he looked at the man across from him speculatively.
“Where’s Jax?” Gemma asked, interrupting the conversation. She heard the laughter on the patio from the clubhouse kitchen where she had been making coffee and had ventured out to see what the guys were talking about so animatedly.
“Hospital. Checking on Tara,” Chibs answered, leaning back and glancing at her over his shoulder. “Did you need him for something?”
“No… uh, I just thought I heard him out here,” Gemma offered as an excuse, crossing her arms over her chest.
“I’m sure he’ll be back in an hour or so,” Chibs replied. “Or I can call him if it’s important?”
“No, no, it’s ok. I’ll uh, catch him later. Just wanted to ask about Abel,” Gemma replied, her hands on her hips. She looked around the table. The guys sat in silence, their earlier camaraderie and topic of conversation curtailed under her discerning stare.
“Okay. Thanks,” she said finally, walking back to the office in the garage.
“Why are we here?” Tara asked stiffly, her good humor inspired by Jax’s surprise visit at risk of evaporating when they turned into the Cara Cara parking lot.
“Because if you’re going to carry, you need to know how to use it,” Jax returned matter-of-factly, parking the grey Dodge Ram at the far end of the former warehouse. He’d picked her up in the truck, not knowing how she’d feel about being close to him or on the bike just yet.
“C’mon,” Jax said as he got out and crossed in front of the hood. He opened her door and gestured for her to get out. “The .45 will have too much kick.”
“How did you…” her lips twisted into a fleeing smile. “McQueen.”
“You did…” He gave her an amused smile, but finished diplomatically, “…take his phone.”
Tara flushed slightly. She may have turned the gun on the Nomad biker, but she wouldn’t have pulled the trigger. In all honesty, she was pretty sure the .45 hadn’t even been loaded.
Following Jax, she crossed the parking lot and went behind the building where targets that SAMCRO members used time to time had been set up.
“Here, it’s a Sig 9 mil.”
Taking the handgun from him, she examined it, testing the weight in her hands.
He showed her how to turn the safety on and off, how to grip the slide to cock it, how to put the clip in, and then pointed out the site. He aimed and fired several times, wanting her to hear the sound so she’d know what to expect.
Handing it back, he instructed, “Your turn. Here, aim and shoot.”
Tara held up the gun and was surprised to feel her hand shaking when she tried to aim her first shot. She’d fired a gun before when she had shot Kohn, but that had been an opportunistic act that hadn’t involved any thought, any deliberate intent. This was different, somehow.
She pointed the gun in the direction of the paper target; the one that now had several holes close to center from Jax’s nearly perfect shots. At the first pull of the trigger Tara jumped slightly, startled by the unfamiliar feeling of the recoil. Taking a deep breath, she steadied herself and aimed again, pulling the trigger a second time. She just grazed the outside of the target. She tried again and missed. With an exasperated sigh, she looked at Jax.
Stepping behind her, he put his arms around her. His hands curved around hers to help her line up the target and steady her aim.
As he bent to help her site the target, Tara felt the warmth of his breath on her ear. She was suddenly aware of him, the warmth of his body, the brush of his whiskers against her cheek, and the scent that was pure Jax – smoke, and mint, and something wonderfully earthly and elementally male. It reminded her of her dream last night, and she closed her eyes, savoring the sensations.
At the sound of his voice, she opened her eyes, and sighed softly. Tara forced her thoughts back to the task at hand, and pulled the trigger. She was surprised when she hit the target, though wide of center. She squeezed the trigger again, hitting almost the same spot.
“Relax your grip a little, and line up the sight just a little under where you want to hit,” he murmured, his voice close to her ear. He dropped his hands, settling the palm of one on the low curve of her back.
“Like this?” she asked unevenly, his closeness making her feel light-headed. Her lips were parted slightly in concentration as she aimed the next shot completely on her own. She aimed and pulled the trigger again, this time hitting closer to center.
She made a soft sound of delight, her aim improving as the bullets hit the target closer to center. She shot two more times, finally hitting the bullseye. She lowered the gun and turned, her smile wide.
At such close proximity, Jax was aware of her every move and luscious curve. With his hands now resting lightly on her hips he didn’t even dare to breathe, afraid he might frighten her. She had seemed to appreciate his embrace in the night, but she had been in a drugged sleep and he was still very cognizant of Gemma’s words of warning.
Tara looked up at him, aware of the tension in his body but not the reasons for his restraint. She tensed and waited, expecting him to wrap his arms around her, or pull her to him for a kiss. She was a bit skittish about the familiar intimacy in ways she hadn’t been before, but Jax had proved to her years ago he was very adept at soothing away any such fears.
Jax dropped his hands.
“I guess I should get back,” she murmured, searching for something to say to break the silence growing between them.
He sighed, “Yeah, all right.”
“Cameron Hayes. Edmond Hayes,” Weston said, laying the photos out on the desk in front of Zobelle.
Ethan Zobelle looked at the images carefully. In addition to the two named men there were several SAMCRO members.
“Pickup is at an army surplus store over in Galt.”
The cigar shop owner removed his glasses, and looked up at Weston. “Good. And?”
“I left the mask on her desk, followed her like you said. Made sure she saw me,” Weston stated flatly. “Guess she must not have told Teller or we should’ve seen him by now.”
“They do have a history,” Zobelle murmured thoughtfully. “The good doctor could be trying to protect her high school sweetheart, much as he wants vengeance for her. It’s rather poetic in a Shakespearean tragedy kind of way. Nevertheless, I’ve already called in a few favors, reported the rumored gang rape to the San Joaquin Sheriff. Roosevelt’s Gang Task force will be in Charming presently to investigate.”
“What good will that do?” Weston asked, his brows drawing together curiously.
“Under pressure, the doctor may admit that the … event was a warning to the MC, which will prompt further interest from the task force about their activities.”
“And if she doesn’t?”
“It will still make the IRA nervous about their distributor, SAMCRO’s members and close associates being under the scrutiny of yet another law enforcement agency besides the ATF. They will start to consider other alternatives, and we will be able to offer a solution. You did arrange for a meet with Mr. Hayes, yes?”
AJ nodded. “Tomorrow afternoon.”
“Good.” Picking up an envelope, the cigar shop owner slipped the photos inside and tucked it in a drawer.
AJ gave a short snort. It seemed overly convoluted of a plan to him, but then his job was just to follow orders and support whatever the League commander had planned.
Tara sighed and picked up the joint she had lit moments earlier. After taking another hit, she glanced at the almost empty whiskey glass near her elbow. She rarely drank anything stronger than beer, but the potent liquor had been welcome.
McQueen handed her the shot of whiskey and offered to make dinner when they had arrived back at the house. She gratefully accepted both, her nerves on edge after spending over three hours closeted in a room with Sheriff Roosevelt and one of his female lieutenants.
They had been polite, overly courteous even, in asking her about the events the night of the rape and the act itself, but after the first twenty minutes it felt more like an exercise in wordplay, if not quite an inquisition. Their questions were cleverly phrased, as they seemed determined to find inconsistencies in her story or to twist her answers in such a way that it supported what they wanted to hear. They repeatedly asked differently worded questions about her relationship with Jax and SAMCRO, in what she thought was an attempt to implicate him, the club, or both. She finally had enough, and with a few choice words told them so. They couldn’t make her stay, but they did watch her attentively as she left the building.
Drawing up her legs and bending her knees, Tara propped her feet up on the chair. Wrapping her arms around her shins, she looked at the clock. It was just past midnight.
She sighed. She wanted Jax. She wanted to burrow in his arms and not come out – not for a while anyway. She was even starting to dream about him holding her in his arms, have being denied that source of comfort for almost two weeks now. With club business, he’d probably be late again tonight. If he came back at all, she mused, giving in to a moment of self-pity.
She prided herself on being strong, independent. She didn’t need anyone to handle her business… she could only attribute these needy feelings and the emotional rollercoaster as of late to what had happened. In time she’d be herself again. Until then though… if she couldn’t have Jax, this wasn’t an entirely unpleasant way to calm her skittish nerves. She swirled the liquid in the glass, then drank the remainder of what she thought was probably her third glass now down.
A movement caught her eye and she glanced up. McQueen came down the hall from Abel’s room and was out the door before the sound of a motorcycle in the driveway even registered in her slightly buzzed mind. She heard the murmur of voices for what seemed like an inordinately long time, but since she couldn’t make out any of the words she didn’t bother to try. She studied her toenails, and absently wondered why she had chosen that particular shade of pink. Or was it a purple?
The front door opened and closed at almost the same time a motorcycle roared to life once again in the driveway. She was mesmerized by the sound, listening attentively as it gradually began to diminish, the bike moving away from the house.
“Hey, babe,” Jax said from the doorway. He been watching her quietly.
“Hey,” Tara murmured, her eyes widening slightly in surprise as if she hadn’t been expecting someone to be standing there, or if she had, she hadn’t been expecting it to be him.
As if afraid he might startle her further, Jax moved slowly, pulling out a chair and moving it to the end of the table so he could sit next to her.
She watched him through her lashes as she held the joint up to her lips and inhaled. When he shook his head to decline the offered smoke, she shrugged and set it carefully on the ashtray.
“Tell me what I can do for you,” Jax asked softly, reaching for her hand, his fingers closing around hers. He’d heard from McQueen about her visit with the Sanwa Sheriff, but more than worrying about their presence he was concerned for Tara and trying to figure out what he could do to help her get through this.
With a long sigh, Tara reached up and ran her fingers along his cheek, stroking his beard as she studied his face. Her eyes traced the lines of his face – the arch of his brow, the fading discoloration of a bruise on his cheek, the perfect curve of his lips, the almost unkempt whiskers, coming to rest finally on the dazzling blue of his eyes. He was beautiful and sweet and charming and so damned irresistible… And she loved him. But so did so many other women.
“You know, it would kill me if I knew you were sleeping with other women.”
The statement came out both resolute and filled with emotion, surprising them both.
“What?” Startled, he drew back slightly.
“Cheating, that’s a deal breaker for me,” she continued. With her inhibitions relaxed by the alcohol and weed, and the volatile, unstable emotions of the last few days close to the surface, she couldn’t seem to control her words.
“And I’m going to want a baby, or two,” she continued as if he hadn’t spoken.
She dropped her gaze to his lips and traced them firmly with one fingertip. She gave a resigned sigh as her eyes met his again. “So if you want another… someone. Or if I’m ruined for you…. then please tell me.”
She watched him expectantly, waiting for him to say something more in answer.
When she left Charming all those years ago, it had taken time but he had convinced himself it was for the best, that she deserved more than what he would ever be able to offer her. And now, with all that had happened to her, because of him and because of the life he led, he was reminded of that again. Yet, he needed her in a way he had never needed anyone else in his life. It was a feeling so fierce and powerful – he knew she belonged with him, she was completely and intimately intertwined in everything he was. She was a part of him – that was never going to change.
“Tara, I haven’t been with anyone else since this became… whatever this is,” he answered resolutely. He reached up and brushed her hair off her face. Cupping the back of her head in his hand, he tilted her face up toward him. “And I wouldn’t have told you all the shit that I have if I didn’t think this was moving toward something more.”
Tara squeezed her eyes closed, a single tear escaping her lashes.
Jax stood and pulled her up and into his arms. “Come here.” He stroked her back, kissing the top of her head.
Tara sniffed, her arms going around his waist as she pressed her face into his shoulder.
“I love you,” he hugged her tightly as his hands continued their soothing motions along her back, over her hair. “Babe, tell me what I can do, how I can help you.”
“Just hold me,” she finally replied, her voice muffled against his chest.