“ALL I HAVE”
All my pride is all I have…
(Pride is what you had, Baby girl, I’m what you have)
You’ll be needing me, but too bad…
(Be easy, don’t make decisions when you’re mad)
The path you chose to run alone…
(I know you’re independent, you can make it on your own—)
Here with me you had a home…
(But time is of the essence…Why spend it alone?)
“You have reached the automated voicemail box of…Doctor Tara Knowles—”
Gemma Teller jammed her thumb hard against the number one key. Glaring at the kitchen wall, she wedged the cellphone in her hand between her ear and shoulder as she fished for the lighter in the front pocket of her skin-tight, black jeans. “You must think this monitor around my ankle is permanent,” the house-bound matriarch hissed, flicking the lighter open against the tip of the cigarette caught between her fingers. “My son is in pain….Jax needs you now more than ever and just like before, you’re nowhere to be found. Once again, it’s all about you and your feelings. You think he doesn’t know how badly he fucked up? You don’t think that porn bitch was a wakeup call? I can’t even go see him right now, and you know that. There’s only so much a couple five minute phone calls can do to make him feel like he’s got something to come home to…He needs you….and goddamn it, he needs to see his son! He needs Abel! Abel’s not just yours! Just because Jackson let you take him on doesn’t give you the right to keep him from his father…Damn it, He needs his family—all of his family behind him if he’s going to get through this. But you’re way too busy nursing your pride.”
Smoke blew through her already flaring nostrils. It saturated the air, mixing in with the spicy, sweet aroma exuding from the fresh pot of oatmeal she’d be eating alone for the third time that week. Restless, frustrated and bitter, Gemma paced back and forth, concentrating hard, and yet still failing to ignore the way the blinking electronic monitor tethered around her ankle chafed against her skin. “….My door has always been open,” the shackled biker Queen continued, briefly exchanging the lit cigarette in her hand for the ladle on the counter. “But this silent treatment and dodging my phone calls isn’t going to work anymore. Enough is enough.”
Gemma cocked her hip, and speared the metal serving spoon in the air, as if the brunette she was leaving a message for was standing where she could angrily point it in her face. “You’re sending me text messages now? The fuck you mean, I’ll probably see Abel a little later? You must have forgot who you’re dealing with. Maybe those couple months when you helped me….maybe you might think I’m weak, that I’m some—Abel stays with me!” Gemma screeched. The ladle clanged into the potful of breakfast she’d likely just pick at the way she’d done every other morning she’d had to sit at her oversized dining room table alone.
Gemma’s face contorted, and her voice shook with an anger that was not unlike a caged animal, chomping at the metal bars she couldn’t escape. She’d been reduced to leaving messages and waiting by the phone. She’d worn out a brand new pair of boots she’d ordered online just from the pacing alone. “Abel stays with grandma while his mommy is at work. That was the deal. So I don’t give a shit about your attitude, or your hurt feelings because right now you’re fuckin with the time I should be spending with my grandson,” Gemma barked. Her temper rose steadily as the deafening silence on the other end, Tara’s recurring dismissal, the indifference echoed in her pounding eardrums. “You better be by here today, not probably—you bring my grandson here, and you’re not dropping him off at the door either. We’re gonna settle this shit because if we don’t….if you don’t play this right…..I’m gonna….I’m….” Gemma’s voice quaked, the phone trembled within her fingers, and slowly, her eyes snapped shut as she swallowed the idle threat on the tip of her tongue. “….Call me back, Tara.”
Gemma flipped the prepaid cellphone shut, gripping it within her fist until her knuckles screamed with the strain of forcing her hand into a tighter ball. Launching the phone at the wall seconds later proved to be the relief she needed, but the tension released was only momentary as reality set in once again.
Her eyes were narrowed to slits as she took a long, hard look at her Present situation—her future for the next four months.
It was a shattered, plastic, Chinese-manufactured mess in the middle of her kitchen floor. And it was the cold, undeniable truth that ate at her the most. It was knowing that Tara would have never been able to pull this shit, that the young, neurotic surgeon would have never even tried it if she wasn’t so goddamn far out of reach.
A phone ringing cut through the silence, and for a moment Gemma continued staring, almost quizzically at the hopeless remains of the brand new cellphone one of the prospects had just bought for her. Her heels tapped against the hardwood floor as she rushed to pull her house phone off the wall when yet another automated voice—one she’d become pathetically dependent on—blared through the speaker.
Tsk. Gemma rolled her eyes, but the hiss past her lips was the only lingering sign of annoyance from her fingernail breaking off when she’d slammed it against the cordless phone in her hand in an effort to answer the collect call from, “It’s me, Baby. Pick up,” before it was too late.
“Hey, Baby.” Gemma’s smile was a curious mix of strained and delighted. “…I thought maybe you waited too late to get on the line and you missed the morning call time.”
“I was in the dining hall a little longer than usual…the eggs still taste like scrambled shit, but the pancakes were actually okay today,” Clay drawled, smirking in her ear. “I think things might be a little better…well not better, but at least edible now that they’ve got Bobby Elvis working kitchen crew…and you gotta relax, Baby….You don’t ever have to worry about me missing a call, Gem. If there’s a phone I can get to, I’ll be dialing it….You just make sure you always stay close to yours so I can get through.”
“You say that like I can grab my purse and go shopping with this fuckin ankle bracelet,” Gemma remarked, smiling brighter. Twisted as it was, the constant reminder that she wasn’t the only one on lock down made her feel a little less miserable. “How’s Jackson doing? Did he show up for breakfast today?”
Clay let out a deep sigh, the sharp sound vibrating through the phone. “Jesus Christ, Gem. I’m not looking for phone sex. But can I at least get five minutes to talk to my Old lady before I’m recounting how many pushups Jax did to his mommy?”
“That’s not fair, Clay,” Gemma argued, rubbing at the heat spreading through her cheeks. “You got me, Baby—you know you got me…but right now Jackson has no one—”
“He has you, too—”
“Of course he does!” Gemma shrieked. “But if he would pick up the goddamn phone and call me I’d remind anyway! I know he still has me—he’ll always have me. I know that and you know that, and deep down he does, too but sometimes knowing ain’t enough….sometimes it’s the shit you don’t know that weighs you down. You know him just like I do, Baby. Jackson doesn’t do well in the vague. He’s no better than that gash he’s in love with.”
Clay chuckled in her ear. “So she’s that gash again, Huh?”
Gemma shook her head, clenched her jaw tight to keep from ranting and raving like she had the night she found out Tara hadn’t allowed Lyla and Opie to take Abel with them to see Jax because she claimed he had a fever. “I thought it’d be different this time…when Wendy split like she did….Tara really stepped up…and she was there for me through all that shit I went through after those Neo-Nazi pricks”—yet another fingernail snapped off from the iron-grip consuming the phone she held to her ear, and it went unnoticed as she focused her efforts on ridding her mind of the painful memory. “….I thought she’d finally changed….when that Irish asshole took Abel, she was so strong….no matter how hard Jax pushed her she stood tall….she owned her place—”
“Yeah,” Clay retorted, smirking. “And then your son thanked her by banging a porn star.”
“This shit ain’t funny, Clay,” Gemma replied. “She knows what the life is…she’s known it since they were sixteen, and if running—if club business was the issue, I wouldn’t have shit else to say… but she’s ready to walk away from her family over some porn pussy? Tara knows that girl doesn’t mean shit to him. She didn’t mean shit when he fucked her.”
“Maybe you should let her borrow your skateboard,” Clay remarked, chuckling. The amused SAMCRO President must have sensed the death glare his Old Lady was shooting him through the phone because he sobered up quickly. “It’s the life,” He chimed in, agreeing with her. “Pussy’s a part of it…she knew that, too.”
Gemma shook her head. “But he was never like that,” She admitted, even if only to herself. “Not with her….when he was with Tara there was no one else…not if he wanted her to stick her around.”
“Then why the Hell are you two so surprised she’s bailing now?” Clay asked. “You and Jax are both walking around scratching your heads like you didn’t see this shit coming. You knew that chick was a flight risk. The Doc’ ain’t ever been cut out for this life.”
“I agree,” Gemma fumed. “But that doesn’t change the fact that Jackson’s wants her to be a part of his life.”
Clay was shrugging his shoulders. Of that, Gemma was sure as the indifference in his tone breezed through the phone. “Sometimes the Prince doesn’t get what he wants, Gemma. Look, Baby…I don’t know how many times we can talk about the same shit over and over again. If she stays, they’ll work through it until she’s ready to bail again. If she leaves…he’ll get over it just like he did before.”
Once again, Gemma found herself shaking her head. Clay simply didn’t understand. None of the other guys—not even Opie, who’d come pretty close, could understand. Tara was gone—she’d left him, and yet she was still here. This wasn’t the weekend Jax stood outside her bedroom, in the pouring rain until he finally gave up on getting her to open her window. She couldn’t towel her son dry and ease the chill making his shoulders tremble with hot chocolate and homemade baked goods.
But it wasn’t San Diego either.
This wasn’t the night she’d tasked Unser and Opie, his best friend, his brother, with tracking him down—cutting him off right at the Welcome to Charming sign before her belligerently drunk, heartbroken son died the same way his father had. Jax was stone-cold sober, and he had neither a window to stand outside of, nor a direction to ride his Harley because Tara was just as present in his life as she was absent.
Their relationship—any chance of future happiness with the girl Jackson had fallen in love with at sixteen was the juicy worm Tara dangled in front of her son now, and not for the first time.
Jax was on the hook.
And the only true question lied in, not if, but when Tara gutted him next.
Tara Knowles hadn’t changed a bit.
“I know one thing for damn sure,” Gemma sneered, rekindling the smoking end of the cigarette she’d abandoned in the ashtray on her Island counter. “If Tara leaves him again, she’ll be packing real light. Abel is staying right here in Charming with his father….with his family.”
But Gemma Teller hadn’t either.
The nodding of his head was affirmed with the steely resolution in Clay’s tone when he barked back, “…and what about our other grandchild?”
“Chugga, chugga, chugga, chugga, choo-choo!” Oatmeal sprayed from his mouth as the giggling eleven month old in the highchair next to her squealed and clapped his hands in excitement. “All done!” Tara exclaimed. After dropping the tiny, plastic bowl down on the kitchen table, the glowing doctor joined little Abel Teller in celebrating the most strenuous part of both their days: Getting Abel to eat oatmeal from a box after being spoiled to death by his grandmother’s homemade recipe.
Lord help her when the food train stopped working.
“Oh!” Tara stopped short of standing up, pressing a palm to her stomach. If possible, her green eyes brightened even more than the smile of pure joy already etched across her face as she felt the tiny human growing inside of her kick for the very first time. “I think your little sister is a future soccer star,” Tara remarked, finally getting up to add Abel’s empty bowl in with the other dishes in the sink. The tickled doctor snickered to herself at the running joke that only the babbling kid behind her was in on. Initially, she hadn’t give much thought at all to her baby’s gender. But knowing both Gemma and Jax wanted it to be a boy made it fun to hope for a daughter.
The house phone began ringing just as she reached to squeeze the dish washing liquid onto the sponge in her hand. On her way over towards the fridge, she stuck her hand inside the box of whole grain cheerios still opened on the counter, and made sure to spread a tiny-fist’s full of them across the surface of Abel’s high chair before answering the call. Cheerios were her go-to for keeping a fussy Abel busy when she was trying to get through her daily morning tasks. Smiling over at the gabby, squealing mini-Jax, Tara pressed the green, phone-shaped button, and held the receiver to her ear as she reached for the pile of mail she’d abandoned on the counter top the night before.
“Hey, Alita,” Tara spoke into the phone, shuffling through the stacks-worth of envelopes in her hand.
“Good morning…Listen…I really hope this isn’t too last minute but I was hoping I could get the weekend off…”
“Sure.” Tara’s eyes briefly left the latest letter addressed to her from Stockton Correctional facility to glance back at the babbling baby boy with a cheerios stuck to his face, and oatmeal still framing his mouth while he played. “I’ve been meaning to take Abel to that park they just built a couple blocks up anyway….is everything okay?”
Tara paused, and Alita’s elaborate story about her cousin’s wedding faded in and out as she considered the two envelopes still in her right hand. That she was holding them wasn’t a surprise. She’d just picked them up from the same place she’d tossed them aside weeks ago—the same place she’d put them back every time she shuffled through a pile of the day’s mail and contemplated whether or not to open one or both of them.
“…Tara…you still there?”
“Yeah, Sorry…I’m listening…” Tara sat the rest of the stack down before heading back towards the kitchen table. Intuition told her that sitting down was probably best for whatever Wendy Case had to say to her or Jax after almost a year of no contact. “If you need the weekend, it’s fine. I was actually going to call you later on today anyway. I enrolled Abel into daycare. His first day is today, so….”
“Oh that’s awesome! Well then I guess you won’t be needing me until the other little one comes…..OH! But what about your overnights?”
“My supervisor’s been a Godsend lately,” Tara admitted. Her words were accompanied by a wry smile, and slight shaking of her head as it had never occurred to her that she’d ascribe the word Godsend to anyone in her life lately, let alone Margaret Murphy. “Chief loves her, so aside from any emergencies, I’m only on-call on weekends now. You know…while I’m on my own.”
“I know fourteen months seems like a lot,” Alita encouraged. “When my brother Luis was inside it was real tough on Yaya but hang in there, Mom…before you know it, it’ll just fly by.”
“Yeah,” Tara replied, hastily dipping her finger into a corner of the envelope in her hand. It wasn’t enthusiasm, but actually the need to focus on something other than the prospect of what her life could be a year from now that had her tearing Wendy’s letter open. And it was pure coincide that she had ended up opening the envelope addressed to Jackson first, instead of the one with her names scrawled across the middle. After weeks of putting it off, Tara finally held open in her hand, the contents of one of the two envelopes she’d cast aside: Wendy’s neatly folded, handwritten letter was in her hands.
Those same hands were shaking seconds later, trembling along with the rest of her body as she ended the conversation still going on, on the other end of the phone pressed to her ear with a clipped, “I’ll call you later,” pressing the end button before Alita could even finish her sentence. The contents of the unopened letter addressed to her was inconsequential, if for no other reason than the words written expressly to Jax.
Abel’s babbling cut through the silence, and cereal pitter-pattered onto the tiled kitchen floor, from Abel’s highchair as Tara sat there, watching the real-life animation of Jackson Teller’s baby picture swish his hands back and forth like a DJ mixing on a turntable. Cereal time was officially over, but unlike every other morning Tara had yet to complete any of the task she usually breezed through during the thorough, albeit short-lived distraction. Abel was impersonating a judge now. His tiny, ineffectual fists clobbered against the plastic highchair’s surface, and the no-nonsense pout settling into the bow of his lip made it clear that nothing less than freedom would keep him quiet.
Who the fuck does did this crank whore think she is? It was a question pounding away at the door in her brain that had been sealed shut for the past few months. Every day brought something new for Tara to question, for her to agonize and stress over, for her to scream and cry tears of anger—and every day she found herself closer to edge. Now? She was choosing right now to do this?
Abel was crying.
His little lungs were singing the same song pent up in her chest—forced down by the anger she clung onto instead. “Aww, cut it out,” Tara cooed. And her smile wasn’t entirely forced when Abel’s waterworks dried up the second his bare, chubby feet touched the floor. Hand on her stomach, Tara watched Abel hobble his way towards the living room, and it wasn’t long before she found her voice shaking with an emotion that deeply contrasted the one she’d felt seconds before. She laughed as she watched Abel shoving his busy little hands into her purse, sifting through the contents until he found the multi-colored, plastic keys she’d had to buy in order to end the recurring fight of wrestling hers back from him when she needed them to drive home from the grocery store.
When Abel looked up at her, Tara’s breath hitched with a sudden, all too startling realization. Jackson Teller was no longer one of a kind. His young son, too, had a smile that could warm her heart and break it at the same time. Only, the heartache she felt now wasn’t one she was sure he could recover from. She’d gone ten years without seeing Jax’s smile. She wasn’t sure she could go a single day without Abel’s.
Tara walked briskly towards the front door, checking both the knob and the recently installed deadbolt lock before moving the blinds aside to check the front windows, too. It was a temporary fix, a comfort to the lingering paranoia that sometimes made her jump when Abel banged his toy into the counter while she was alone in kitchen, cooking. Outrage fueled her every step as she strolled passed the mini-Teller contently playing with his keys in the middle of the living room. “I’ll be right back baby,” Tara muttered, heading down the hall. Walking past the master bedroom, she pushed the door open to the guest bedroom that had served as her home office for the past month. It wasn’t much of an office. An old, ratty desk Frank Knowles had refused to repair or get rid of was slanted against the wall, barely balancing the all-in-one printer and the phone resting on top of it. Tara pressed the power button, tapping her foot impatiently as the machine whirred to life. Tearing away at the unopened envelope in her hand, she snatched the folded yellow paper inside of it, reaching to slam it down against the glass scanner. Tara was already snatching the original away, replacing it with Jax’s letter before the crisp, white copy fell from the printer. And as the scanner whirred to life once more, she finally gave into a feeling that was more masochism than curiosity as she turned the paper to read the words Wendy had addressed to her.
I hope you’ll forgive me for writing to you instead of calling….There are a lot of things I need to say to you, Tara. But first and foremost I want to start by thanking you from the deepest, purest part of my heart. What you’ve done for my—
The paper crinkled in her hand, chafing against the skin of her fingers as it formed a ball within her fist. She’d have to make another copy, but it was one she wouldn’t bother attempting to read the second time around. Reading anything beyond the first few lines would prove more futile than trying to convince Gemma to stop threatening her via-voicemail.
Wendy had written her a letter chuck full of praises and pledges of appreciation, she was sure. And had she not read Jax’s first she would have been inclined to read further into her bullshit. But she had, and so she knew the letter Wendy had written her was nothing more than an afterthought. Tara’s letter was the singsong voice doctors used to soothe a squirming baby right before jabbing a needle in its thigh. “Who the fuck does she think she is?” Tara asked, aloud this time. Who the Hell asked for her appreciation? Who asked for anything from her?
Jax for damn sure hadn’t ask for a three page letter full of condescension and high-handed judgement based on half-truths and second hand stories. Wendy had no fuckin idea what those racist assholes did to Jackson’s mother. So, where the Hell did she get off forming an opinion on just how dangerous he was? Where was her concern for Abel when she was shooting crank into her veins? She didn’t know what Stahl had done either. And thanks to Unser, the authorities couldn’t prove shit anyway. A couple newspaper clippings didn’t even begin to tell the whole story. She had no idea what Jax went through to get Abel back—or better yet, what Tara went through the entire time they were both away from her.
Wendy Case didn’t know a goddam thing.
What right did she have to judge?
What right did she have to elect herself as the best thing for Abel’s safety and well-being?
I’m his mother, Jackson…and mothers always try to do what’s best for their children… I know in my heart, walking away was the best thing for both of us at the time. But I’m better now. I’m really starting to make a life for myself and Abel needs stability…he needs his mother…his real mother—
Tossing the paper-ball towards the trashcan, Tara blinked back the tears she refused to shed and reached for the two copies, and original letter written to Jax. Her jaw was clenched tight with the strain of keeping her composure as she pulled the bottom drawer to the desk open. It was right there, at the top—a neatly stapled packet of information, a compilation of everything prospective parents needed to know before attempting an adoption. The crisp pages still remained unread, abandoned in the drawer ever since she’d tossed them inside the first night Jax laid down his bike on the front lawn, and stumbled his way up the front steps after a failed attempt at rescuing his son.
While she’d been at home, printing the subject of their pillow talk later that night, Jax was sitting at a full table of angry bikers, making his own plans. And while he was riding through the streets of Charming, chasing his and Clay’s vendetta, Tara had been standing helpless in the middle of his kitchen, watching the club’s Prospect Half-sack take a knife in his chest.
Tara flinched at the light tap against the threshold, turning towards the open door. Relief washed over as she spotted Abel in the doorway, banging the latest treasure he’d pulled from her bag against the wall. “I see you got bored with your keys,” Tara said, grinning at the little boy walking towards her on wobbly legs, with her cellphone in his hand. “I’m gonna have to buy you your own phone, too….you’d like that wouldn’t you?”
Just like magic, all the pain and anger ebbed—momentarily stoppered by the happiness that always seemed to consume her when Abel smiled in her direction.
His father’s smile had the same effect.
And it was just one, on a very long list of reasons she didn’t yet feel strong enough to face him in person. Jax couldn’t pin her with his gaze on the phone, but he could still whisper all the things she hated herself for wanting to hear. He couldn’t reach for her hand and squeeze it gently the way she’d done for him so many times so long as she steered clear of the Stockton visitor’s room.
Jax was an airborne virus.
And he was her very own strain, not unlike the common cold. There was no vaccination in existence that could protect her, leaving her no other choice but to fight it. And Tara surely would have, but for the fact that her immune system had all but physically abandoned her body the first time he kissed her. All she could do now was take her medicine, take it every single day and pray that one day soon it might lighten the symptoms.
Bending towards the bottom drawer, Tara brushed aside the adoption info-packet inside to slip both of Wendy’s letters underneath it. Wendy Case’s copied letters had now joined the pile of Xeroxed letters from Maureen Ashby. “Come on, Baby,” Tara crooned, tucking the yellow originals in the pocket of her scrubs. “You ready for your first day? Come, let’s go get dressed… then we can make our lunches…and pick out our snacks….then we’re gonna go make new friends, okay? Mommy could use a friend right now, Baby. What about you? You know what?….if you keep smiling like your big-head daddy you’re going to make a lot of friends….break some hearts, too…”
Gemma blindly reached for the phone next to her coffee mug, clicking it on and pressing it to her ear with one hand, while she continue scanning through Google’s never ending results for the search of a GPS tracker she could coax one of the prospects into placing on Tara’s car. “Hello?”
“Hi, Mrs. Morrow—”
“I hope you’re calling because you finally figured out a way to get this shackle off my ankle so I can go see my son,” Gemma barked, interrupting the junior law associate who’s voice she’d recognized.
“I’m working on it,” Ally Lowen answered quickly. Then, before the grumpy matriarch could respond beyond the cynical, “mhmmm,” she’d given the laywer’s bluff, the determined attorney quickly blurted out. “I’m actually calling because I’ve been trying to get a hold of Tara. She called my office a few days ago—”
“For what?” Gemma asked, interrupting once again.
“I was kind of hoping you could shed some light on that,” Lowen mused. “Her phone keeps going straight to voicemail—”
“Tell me about it,” Gemma mumbled, clicking the wireless mouse in her palm a lot harder than necessary. “I don’t know what the Hell she wanted, but I doubt it has anything to do with Jax or the any of the guys—and that means any billable hours she plans on racking up better be charged to her cards, we clear?”
“Of course,” Lowen replied. The uncertainty in her voice was enough to give Gemma pause.
“What?” Gemma demanded.
“It’s nothing, it’ just…I already explained to her how difficult the adoption process would be without them getting married first, but Tara wants it done before Jackson—”
Gemma shoved the computer aside, offering the phone glued to her ear her undivided attention. “Adoption?”
“Shit,” Ally Lowen hissed. “I thought you knew…this is the problem with…Jesus Christ, this is why I told Rowan…Look, Gemma, I’m sorry for bothering you with this.”
“The only thing bothering me is you helping Tara with an adoption my son knows nothing about,” Gemma barked. “When did all of this start? And who the Hell do you think you are, helping her—”
“It’s not like that at all, Mrs Mor—listen I would never doing anything without Jackson’s consent. Not only would it be illegal, it’s also unethic—”
“So now you’re saying Jax knows about all of this?” Gemma challenged. “Sounded to me like you were about tell a different version of the story a few seconds ago. What the Hell are you and that scheming bitch up to?”
“I wish I could explain it to you,” Ally Lowen replied. “It’s not at all what you think but, listen, Gem—Mrs. Morrow. I’ve already said more than I should have.”
“You’re my lawyer, too, you little gash!” Gemma hissed. “I’m the one signing the checks. You work for me first and foremost so you had better start talking before—wait, hold on a sec…” The doorbell sounding from the front room saved Ally Lowen the verbal smack down she was seconds away from as the annoyed matriarch rose from her chair to answer her front door. Gemma blinked hard twice before pulling back the blinds to confirm what she was seeing—who she was seeing, standing out on her front steps.
“I’ll deal with you later,” Gemma warned, turning the lock off her door, pulling it open. “And the next time you talk to Tara you tell her I said she better pick up the goddamn phone and call me…before I have to come looking for her ass. Bye.”
“So…I guess the new daughter-in-law isn’t working out as well as you hoped.”
Gemma’s olive eyes were reduced to slits, her mouth formed a hard line, and the grip on her right hip was a conscious effort to keep from reaching out with both hands to strangle the meekly smiling blonde standing on her front porch.
“You gonna let me in?” Wendy Case asked, cocking one finely waxed eyebrow as her brown eyes traveled down to the monitor around Gemma’s ankle. “I would ask you to come outside so we can talk but…”
Gemma shoved the door all the way open, stomped aside, and angrily waved the smirking blonde into her house—right before slamming and locking it shut behind her. “I knew it,” Gemma seethed, immediately advancing on her ex-daughter in-law. Wendy flinched at the sharp fingernail speared towards her face. “I knew this was about more than her feelings being hurt over some porn slut. I’ve been holed up in this house plotting murder and you’re the one fuckin with my family!”
“Jesus, Gemma.” Wendy eyebrows rose. “Can I at least get a Hello or How are you before you start attacking me? I don’t even know what—”
“You’re goddamn right,” Gemma screeched. “You don’t know shit—and you don’t need to know because it no longer concerns you.”
Gemma could see the realization dawn on Wendy’s face, immediately softening her features as the pretty blonde nodded her head. “They knew I was coming back,” Wendy argued gently. “I wrote to them both. I wrote a letter for Jax explaining everything, and I wrote to Tara,too. I asked her to give him the letter because I didn’t want to just show up unannounced, but I couldn’t get it to him while he’s in Stockton. And I can already tell what you’re thinking. I know how you like to react first, and that’s why I didn’t write you a letter. That’s why I’m coming to speak with you face to face. I really need you to believe me when I say that I’m not trying to uproot Abel’s life. I meant what I said in my letter to Jax. All I’ve ever wanted is what’s best for my son and right now—”
“Your son?” Gemma barked, olive eyes widening. “You wrote to Tara about your son? WHAT son do you have, you stupid, junkie Bitch?! You bailed on him! You bailed on that little boy when you jammed a needle in your arm while he was still inside you. And now you have the nerve to write a letter to the woman who stepped up when you walked out—the doctor who put him back together after you almost killed him? Are you out of your goddamn mind?! No wonder Tara’s off the fuckin rails. You threatened her. With a bunch of legal babble bullshit, I bet you!”
Wendy took a deep breath, and a moment of pause to brush aside the thick, dirty blonde waves tickling her face when she exhaled. “I didn’t threaten anyone, Gemma. I was simply stating—”
“I’ve got my own goddamn statement, How about that?” Gemma interjected, snatching the messenger bag from Wendy’s shoulders before she could react beyond flinching. “Here,” Gemma directed, pulling the legal pad and a pen from the bag she’d carelessly torn the zipper off of. She tossed the paper and pen at her feet. “I know just how fuckin simple you are so I’m gonna make it real easy for you to understand.”
Wendy folded her arms across her chest. The strength of her voice wavered, but only slightly as she muttered a snarky, “…Let’s hear it, Gemma.”
“Abel is not your son,” Gemma seethed. “My grandson will never call you Mommy. And if you don’t steer clear of his real mother….”
“You’ll what?” Wendy challenged, instinctively sliding closer to the front door as Gemma circled her. “You gonna kill me, Gemma? Because that’s what it’s gonna take,” Wendy declared. “I’m not walking away from my son. Not again. Not when I’m the only one who wants better for him than dying or getting hurt because of SAMCRO.”
“You heard about what happened with the Irish and that ATF bitch, Huh.”
Wendy swallowed hard. “I read about it in the paper,” She admitted. “She was leading the investigation into Abel’s disappearance….after the club got him kidnapped. SAMCRO’s been into all sorts of shit…and I know all about it.”
Gemma’s answering smirk served as the only acknowledgement of the Intel Wendy had failed to frighten her with. “It won’t matter,” the matriarch warned. “You’ll never get a chance to use it in court. You did the right thing walk away like you did. My son thought it was because you didn’t have any fight left in you, but I knew the truth. You left because you were smart. You knew that Abel would be better off.”
“I THOUGHT he was!” Wendy fumed. As she shook her head, the tears welling in her eyes fell, plummeted towards the ground, right along with her spirit. “Tara was supposed to…to… but I was wrong, Gemma….I should have never left my baby boy…I was just trying to do right by him, and…and now I’m in a position to do that…And…and I know you don’t want to hear this, Gem…but I can do better than your son can for him right now. Even if Jax wasn’t inside…he’ll never put him first…the club is his family…the club was his family when I was at home waiting for him to finish fuckin whatever croweater had him for the night…there’s no room for Abel in his life…only his patch…And Tara…I know she’s different…and she might not be just another old lady…but she’s not his mother either…He’s mine.”
Gemma’s rage subsided, but the pity that manifested in its place would bring her no comfort. “Jax and Tara have enough on their plate without you adding to it,” the matriarch explained gently. “It’s just not a good time right now….You gotta think about why you walked away the first time. You did what you thought was best…and so I’m telling you….you being here right now isn’t what’s best. You need to keep your distance. No phone calls…No letters….no showing up here like you have rights. You need to work to earn Tara’s trust, Sweetheart. She’ll let you see him…There’s no way Tara will keep you away from her son if you can prove yourself. Jackson won’t let her, and neither will I. So just…keep doing what you’ve been doing to better yourself, Sweetheart. And wait for my call. But until then…No contact.”
Seconds felt like hours passing by until Wendy finally looked up from the floor, until her brown eyes locked with the olive pair waiting for some sign of her obedience. And for just a fraction of a second, Gemma was certain of her compliance. But for the first time in all the years they’d known each other, Wendy Case found herself unmoved by the matriarch latest sermon.
“All I wanted was to see him,” Wendy stated flatly. Her watery glare intensified with every word that blew past her lips until there were no tears left to blink away. “I wanted to spend time with him—get to know him…every other weekend, maybe once a week….fill in for whoever babysits for her while she’s at work—”
“Abel stays with me when Tara’s at work,” Gemma told her.
“I never threatened legal action,” Wendy pressed on. “I just made it clear that I wasn’t going to let anyone box me out. I never wanted to confuse him…when the time was right…then I’d tell Abel the truth, but until then…the ball would have still been in your court the same as it’s always been, Gemma. But I refuse to let you or anyone else manipulate me anymore. You want it to be All or nothing? That’s how I’ll play it. But I’m the one with the winning hand this time, Gem… I don’t give a shit how many threats you make. You can’t murder legal precedent, and right now Clay and his pitbull are on a short leash. You’re not the only one with friends now, and if I have to? I will take your jailbird son to court and make this shit real loud…You think I’m still some junkie biker whore you can push around but I’m not. That shit is in my past,” Wendy smiled, tilted her head to one side, and there was even a slight rise of her left shoulder. “And you know how it is….judges love a good comeback story.”
Gemma smirked as she slowly walked towards her. She was closing the gap, invading her space, breathing hard in her face as she reached around her to open the drawer to the end table behind her, right by the front door. Wendy gasped at the .38 Beretta pistol, her heart thudded hard in her chest as she heard the soft click of the safety off, the sharp crack of a bullet being lodged into the gun’s chamber.
Gemma grabbed at Wendy’s wrist, yanked her arm upward, and pried her fingers open to accept the cold steel she pressed into her palm. The matriarch laughed at the anger and fear warring within the young woman’s chocolate-brown eyes. “You gonna kill me, Junkie?” the matriarch challenged, echoing the scared blondes words. It was a challenge expressed with more bite in her tone than even the sneer of amusement her olive eyes held. “Because if you don’t…there is no comeback for you…Not here…and not with my grandson.”
Wendy flinched one final time, the backs of her jeans scuffing against the end table behind her when Gemma snatched the gun back, aiming the barrel at her front door, gesturing towards it. “You stay the Hell away from my family, We clear? That means all of us….especially Tara.”
Tara Knowles was the perfect doctor—professionalism and natural, kindhearted people skills rolled into one extremely effective surgeon. But the admirable aspects of the thirty-something year old neonatal specialist went beyond her charm. Tara was as beautiful as she was brilliant and gifted. She had a smile that could light up any room she entered, and an agile approach that made it almost impossible to look away whenever she did. And her eyes were emerald gems that could taunt any man to coax out any extra lumen of sparkle he could whenever possible.
Doctor Alex Chambers watched intently, listening to the gentle cadence in her voice, a natural sense of reassurance that couldn’t be taught no matter how Ivy league the medical school. Tara went through the entire list of possible post-operative complications, smoothly refuting the likelihood of each and every one with ease, until all that was left to interject into their Post-Op rounds with their latest patient was his recurrent closing statement. “Well alright,” Dr. Chambers chimed in. “If there are no other questions—”
Vanessa Little raised her I.V plastered hand in the air, grinning sheepishly as her eyes landed on the brunette standing at the foot of her bed with a clipboard pressed to her chest. “I do have one actually,” said the curious, six month’s pregnant mother of two. “I was wondering how far along Doctor Knowles is—”
“I’m sorry Mrs. Little but—” Dr. Chambers was quick to jump in, but the alarm registering in his warm, golden-brown eyes melted away, and a potent mixture of surprise and relief took place of the forgotten emotion the second he saw the look on Tara’s face. She smiled at him, and the ascension from the corners of her mouth all the way up to her sparkling eyes was instantaneous—and followed by a firm nod of assurance. Apparently, Tara’s pregnancy was only a sore, stressful subject when he made the dually personal and professional faux pas of bringing it up.
“Its fine…Sir.” Tara’s wry smirk went unnoticed to the curious couple waiting for her response, but in all the years that had passed since he’d seen her last, Alex at least knew her well enough to be able to tell when she was mocking him. He tucked the silent exchange away for later, watching as Tara swallowed the amused glint to her smile, leaving on the undiluted joy of giving their nosy patient an answer to her question. “I actually have an appointment with my doctor tomorrow morning. But I’m about eighteen weeks more or less…I’m finally far along enough to get a good look at what the gender is without an amnio.” Tara leaned forward, and it was a conscious effort on both Dr. Chambers’ and Mr. Little’s part not to feast their eyes on her breasts, the ample cleavage that couldn’t be helped until she finally made the big change from her regular work clothes to the formal-wear waiting for her on a rack in the maternity section. “And just between me and you?” Tara held a hand in front of her mouth, winking at the pregnant woman sitting up in the bed between them before mock-whispering, “I know my colleagues are full of you-know-what every time they tell me I don’t look it.”
“But you don’t,” Mrs. Little explaining, beaming at her. “The reason I asked is because every so often I noticed you holding a palm to her stomach…and I remember how I was when I was pregnant with my daughter. I just couldn’t stop checking that it was real…that I was finally going to be a mother….is this your first child? Oh, I bet it is! What are you hoping for? A girl or a boy? I always wanted a boy, because even though I come from a family full of beautician I hate doing hair…so naturally God saw fit to bless me with two daughters, soooon-to-be three if I can stand clear of all those scary complications you just—”
“Honey, how about saving a little air in the room for the rest of us?” Mr. Little teased, grabbing at the hand she’d been about to swat him with. Laughing with her, He kissed the top of her head before glancing towards the eerily silent doctor standing at the foot of her bed. “Don’t mind her, Doc. Being nosey is practically a Rosemond tradition. I don’t see that changing just because she’s a Little now.”
“Ha ha ha… you think you’re so…”
And there it was—painting a shadow over the joy and excitement that had colored her flawless features mere seconds before. It was so startlingly noticable that even the perfect stranger that was their patient’s husband picked up on it.
It was the pain Tara refused to talk about, the source of stress and frustration that had led to a regrettably early end to an elaborate dinner he’d coaxed her into attending at his hotel. All the effort he’d put into insisting he needed a second opinion on the proposal he’d drawn up for the surgical program of St. Thomas was for naught at the very second their fervent discussion of medicine had switched to the subject of her personal life.
It was one offhanded attempt to segue way into her Present day situation, a chance to acknowledge the elephant in the room—the small town curse of the gossip circuit that had left Alex far more curious than the average spectator. His gentle attempt to switch the subject to her had resulted in a hurried dabbing of the napkin crumpled balled within Tara’s fist, across her mouth. She’d pushed her chair back from the table, dropping the napkin over her half-eaten dinner right before those same lips formed an excuse to leave before he’d even had the chance to camouflage his personal curiosity with the only slightly motiveless professional interest.
“Are you alright, Tara?”
Tara nodded quickly, snapping out of her private moment of agony the second she felt his hand on her shoulder. “I’m fine,” Dr. Knowles insisted. It wasn’t clear who the assurance was more for—her frequently boundary overstepping boss or the mother watching her with guilty eyes as the reality of the inadvertent damage her harmless rambling had done. “I was just having a senior moment….trying to remember if I put the apple slices I cut up for Abel in his lunch bag this morning.”
“Oh!” Vanessa Little’s gasp of relief went well with her smile, and the accusatory eyebrow raise she shot her husband for suggesting she’d suffered a case of foot-in-mouth syndrome on top of everything else currently wrong with her. “So this isn’t your first rodeo! How old is the little guy? And you say his name’s Abel? Niceee…Abel’s a good name…a strong name…Who picked that out? You or your husband?”
There was no question of the pain burning in her eyes this time, and more still, Tara’s lack of verbal filter coincided abundantly with the anger in her overall expression as she was forced to recall a painful part of the life Alex desperately want to learn all about. “Any further questions you have…please refer them to Dr. Chambers.” It wasn’t quite the sound of a microphone dropping, but instead the steady click-clack of the heels squeezing the life out of her swollen feet that seemed to echo throughout the single-patient hospital room as she made way to her exit.
Once again, Alex filed yet another topic away for later as it occurred to him, that in spite of the four intimate years he’d spent with one of his most revered and accomplished Medical students, in all their time together he’d never quite gotten to know the young woman he’d fallen in love with. He knew her favorite wine, and he could even imitate the scrunched-nose expression she always made when contemplating a difficult question during an exam. He remember her favorite color, her favorite book, and he wasn’t likely to forget her shellfish allergy after the “Jumbalaya incident”.
But then he could also recall, all too vividly, the memory of Tara viciously demanding he leave her home after he’d dared asking what was so special about some smelly old, grease-stained T-Shirt with a faded scythe printed across the front. He never found out, and all he had to go on as her front door slammed in his face was that he should think about picking out an any old clothing stuffed in the back of her linen closet to add to any box marked for the university clothing drive. Alex couldn’t think of a single instance Tara had ever talked with him about her past. He’d always been nothing more than a source of knowledge and a mild-mannered acquaintance that never objected to being thrown out of her bed when she was finished with him. Or completely out of her life when she graduated. For the longest time after she’d left him, Alex resented her for it. But right then, as he watched her walk away without even a backward glance, he longed for the days when she had no qualms about using him.
“Tara, Do you have a minute?” Alex reached out to place a hand on her shoulder. But then he drew his hand back as he thought better of it when the Doctor scribbling away at the chart in her lap glanced up at him. “There’s something I wanted to talk to you about. Frankly, I’ve been dragging my feet since I got here.”
Tara sighed, averting his gaze to fix her eyes on fresh page she’d flipped to on the chart balanced on her knee. “If this is about what I think it’s about—”
“It’s not that,” Alex stammered quickly. He tried his best to stifle the laughter bubbling in his chest when Tara stopped writing mid-stroke to cock one Hell of an incredulous eyebrow in his direction. “Okay, it is that but that’s an entirely different conversation. What I want to talk with you about isn’t personal at all. Well it’s…it is personal in nature—personal to me given how much I’ve in—but it’s not about us—not that I’m looking for another us!—I’m just…Jesus Christ, this has got to be the worst business proposal I’ve ever presented.”
Tara uncrossed her legs, sat the clipboard in her hand beside her to give him the full, undivided attention he could only hope she’d offer him in another medium sometime in the near future. “Business proposal, Huh?” The sardonic brunette smirked. “That’s a new one.”
“I wanna talk about your future,” Alex explained, easing down onto the surgical couch beside her. “I want to talk about your career Tara. I’m starting my own practice, back in Chicago. We need of a neonatal specialist. You can be your own boss, the head of your own department, choose your own employees, and you’re guarantee virtually unlimited funding for research should you ever decide to—”
“You want me to come back to Chicago?” Tara’s eyes widened. “I thought you were signing on to be the head of Ped’s here—”
“At St. Redneck?” Alex wrinkled his nose. “Come on, Tara. I was only here a week before I realized this place has changed much since you left when you were nineteen. You remember what you told me? I do. I can give you an exact quote. Dr. Namid’s already signed on to be my head of cardio. He was ready to sign two weeks after I got here. You’re the one I’ve been dancing around. I needed to make sure that despite out history we’d still be able to work together, and yeah, maybe I’m not completely over the way you left things but”
“Tara, listen to me.” Alex shifted his body to face her completely. “I already know what you’re about to say. Telling people No is your default answer for anything that’s outside whatever your plans are but this isn’t Mass-Gen. This is the place you never wanted to be, and as much as I’d love for you tell me how you even ended up back here, it doesn’t matter. It won’t change the truth. You and me both…We were always better than the towns we grew up in…You’re better than this, Baby—”
Alex flinched at his own slip of tongue, squinting his eyes to near-slits as he held a hand up in defense. “I’m sorry…I know that was out of line.”
Tara’s smile reeked of cynicism and bitterness as she shook her head at him. “Actually,” the green-eyed brunette mused, “….Baby sounds just about right. Because you see, about five months from now—I’ll be having a baby. And then I’ll have two children to take care of all by myself while….while…”
Alex followed the lump in her throat, all the way from formation to nonexistence as she swallowed it down—as she took her medicine like a champ, the way she’d always been able to no matter how bitter the pill. Most days he admired her strength, but on a day like today it frustrated him beyond anything he’d ever experienced.
“I got enough planning to do as it is,” Tara admitted. She sighed deeply as she stood up from the couch, taking her unfinished paperwork with her. “I appreciate the offer, Alex, I really do…but I can’t…turns out packing up everything and leaving ain’t so easy the second time around.”
“…I wish you would let me in…You never have…never…”
Tara paused in the doorway, and her brief contemplation of his poorly-veiled invitation was the spoonful of sugar he’d have to make do with as she offered him a dose of his own bitter prescription. “If I thought you…if I thought it would make a difference…maybe I would…maybe…But you can’t help me…and it wouldn’t change anything…I’m sorry I took so long to realize that…I’m sorry it took long enough for you to get hurt…but I can’t…we can’t, and even if I could…I can’t leave him.”
As the Residents lounge door snapped shut behind her, Alexander Chambers sat alone, both mentally and physically consumed with the prospect of Tara Knowles ever loving him the way she loved the unnamed man she spoke of. But it was a pipe dream with no chance of transcending beyond the imagery in his mind—and not unlike the similar longing a certain blue-eyed biker used to ease the struggle of falling asleep in his jail cell every night. Neither man could ever hope to measure up to the heart-consuming, soul-encompassing love between a mother and her son.
Put simply, Doctor Alex Chambers didn’t have a snow ball’s chance in Hell.
“Tara, I know what’s been going on….the junkie showed up here a little while ago, throwing around a bunch of bullshit about taking Jax to court…that stupid whore must still be on something if she thinks she can go up against us… and why the Hell didn’t you just tell me that bitch was twisting you up? I was ready to kill your stubborn ass when Lowen called me today. When were you and Jax planning on telling me about this adoption shit? And why can’t it wait until he’s out? Why even bother with all that legal bullshit. It’ll be official once y’all get married anyway. That crank whore ain’t saying nothing but whatever some jew-brain told her while he was collecting her money. Did you really think I’d let Wendy just walk in and uproot everything you’ve done for Abel? I’ll always have your back, Sweetheart. I just need you stay close—now more than ever, Tara. You got no goddamn idea how crazy this house arrest shit is…I’m crawling the walls in here and I got no way of knowing what’s going on on the outside if you shut me out….I’m sorry about the way I—”
The rest of Gemma’s latest voicemail message died on her lips as the sound of a car pulling into her driveway crackled outside. Peeking out through the blinds again, Gemma smiled as she pressed the end button on the house phone, tossing it aside before unlocking and opening her front door to greet the young brunette reaching towards the backseat of her truck. She watched as Tara handed Abel the toy keys dangling from her finger. Gemma laughed with him, and even though she couldn’t quite hear him, her grandson’s squeal of delight resonated through her, further fueling the good-natured, open-armed spirit with which she fully intended to embrace his cooing mother when she reached for the handle to climb out of the truck.
“He starting to look more and more like Jax when he was a kid,” Gemma boasted. Raising her arm, she wriggled her ring-covered fingers at the little boy watching for both of his mothers—the grand who always snuck him pieces of cinnamon roll that Tara didn’t want him to have, and the loving doctor who helped fixed his tummy.
“What are you doing?” Gemma exclaimed, waving a hand towards the truck far beyond her all-too eager reach. “Bring him inside. Can’t crack open the Jameson but I’ll put on a fresh pot. Then we can sit down and talk. I actually just finished leaving you a message—”
“Just more of the same, I’m guessing,” Tara interrupted, rolling her eyes.
Gemma paused, taking a moment to study the lack of interest in the arm-crossing doctor’s expression before refuting her assumption. “No, it was actually….it was….well? Are you going to bring Abel inside? Or are you waiting for Wendy to jump out of the bushes and swipe him while you finish trying to kill me your good looks?”
“I see you discovered my secret weapon,” Tara mused, smiling despite her mood. “Dora the explorer.”
Gemma’s smile matched hers, and for just a moment they’d found a common ground. “Lyla told me Alita’s been teaching the kids Spanish. I guess she’s starting in on Abel early.”
“Abel’s getting an early start on a lot of things, Gemma,” Tara said, smoothly seguing into the reason the Teller-tot in question was still strapped into his car seat instead of in his grandmother’s arms to kick off his mid-week sleepover. “I enrolled him into daycare at the hospital. His first day was today and he loves it. He’s already making friends and learning to finger paint. This is the best thing for him, now and moving forward….and Jax agrees with me.”
It wasn’t surprising at all to see that the closing statement of her unexpected announcement had zero impact on the equally expected anger bleeding into Gemma’s expression.
Zero to sixty.
Cherished family member to sworn enemy.
No one flipped the switch better than Gemma Teller. And it was the Morrow attached to her tragically late spouse’s last name that made the deadliest attribute of her personality as fretfully clear as it was unnerving. Her hair-trigger temper, and the rapid speed with which her dormant animosity flared was enough to set off a lightbulb in Tara’s brain—shedding light on the compartment of her mind that she’d stashed away the knowledge she’d happened upon on one of her final nights of fulfilling her role as Prince Teller’s Old Lady. She’d unearthed solid proof to the one of the first truths she’d personally reminded the matriarch of, her very first week back in had advised that no one, not even Gemma Teller, was untouchable.
And she’d found the fact to support her conjecture in the contents of Maureen Ashby’s secret packaged just before she’d decided to show everyone around her, not even Piney, her size eight—and growing—ass to kiss.
“When did he have time to agree with you?” Gemma sneered. “You don’t even know how to pick up your goddamn phone. How’d he even get a chance to sign off on this when you won’t take any of his calls?”
“I answered the other day when he called,” Tara replied.
“Yeah. Only because you wanted something,” Gemma accused. “Because you knew he’d go along with anything you say just to get a chance to talk with you.”
“Opie’s taking Abel to see him next week,” Tara told her, smiling. “I spoke with Jackson just before I came here actually,” the sly doctor lied. “And he wants me to send Abel’s first painting from daycare so he can hang it in his cell.”
“I see Doctor Funny is back,” Gemma quipped, sliding a hand up to her hip. “Well I ain’t laughing this time, Doc. Abel doesn’t need daycare. We don’t need other people taking care of our kids. And if Jax was really okay with this he would have told me the last time he called—”
“And when was that?” Tara challenged, cocking her head to one side. It was a gamble that paid off, and succeeded in granting Tara the first moment of triumph since she’d had to endure standing in the middle of a crowded clubhouse while Luanne Delaney’s most popular porn star spitefully announced for everyone to hear that SAMCRO’s Vice President had been the lucky dick—out of thousands—to get her pregnant.
Gemma was angry about more than just daycare. Could it be that Jackie-boy had finally stopped relying on his mother to nurse his pride? That had to be it. Gemma wasn’t just suffering withdrawals from being out and about on her own timetable. She was also craving the presently unavailable connection she’d fostered from the moment she’d pulled that tiny, SAMCRO beanie over her eldest son’s head.
“When was the last time you heard from Jax?” Tara taunted, riding the high of finally striking a nerve for as long as she could. “The last time I spoke with him he told me he was happy that both his sons would be with their mother all day. Maybe he forgot to tell you…..Or maybe I’m not the only one tired of hearing your voice on the other end of the phone line.”
Gemma’s face didn’t change a tick, and yet she managed to look twice as dangerous when she took a step closer—and even deadlier still when the light beep sounding from around her ankle warned her that she’d been about to step outside the perimeters of her homemade prison cell. “You listen to me you little—”
“NO, I’m done listening, Gemma,” Tara snapped, cutting her off. “Jackson is your son, not mine. You’re his mother and that makes you the only one that still has to love and support him through all his bullshit. And while he might be your one redeeming quality, he also happens to be the asshole that fucked a porn star while I was at home waiting for him…praying he’d make it back to me in one piece instead of with a chest full of bullet-holes because he couldn’t stop grieving the son he took from me long enough to dodge the next unmarked van that pulled up next to him!”
Gemma’s nose wrinkled, and her mouth was a crooked line of scorn as she sneered at her from the doorway of her home. “What? Side pussy ain’t a good enough excuse to bail on him again? Now you’re twisting what really happened to suit this bullshit grudge you’re holding? Jackson didn’t take Abel from you. He’s the one that brought him back and he did it the same way he kept you whole after that crazy ATF asshole you used to fuck followed you back to Charming to stir up trouble on his front steps!”
“He told me he wasn’t mine!” Tara screeched.
Gemma clamped four fingers up and down, over and over, against her thumb. “Oh, Boo—fuckin—who, Bitch! You’re really going to stand there and pretend you never said something you didn’t mean? I can make a list for you, Sweetheart. Its starts with I love you, Jackson and it ends with that tattoo on your fat ass. You wouldn’t know loyalty if it stabbed you in the head!“
“Your son doesn’t even know how to be loyal.” Tara shrugged, smiling wryly as her own nostrils begin to flare. “Oh, no, wait. He does actually. He just can’t commit to anything that doesn’t involve a club vote. Fuck you, Gemma. Fuck you and anyone who has the audacity to guilt me into staying out of obligation. Loyalty? Is that really what you’re hanging your hat on? Well it’s nice to meet you Mrs. Pot—you can call me Doctor Kettle. Or Tara Knowles, because you’ll be holding your breath a long time, waiting for me to answer to the title of Jax Teller’s Old Lady again!”
“You were never Old lady material to begin with,” Gemma seethed. “You never could be.”
Tara snickered at that, waving a hand in her direction for good measure. “That might be the first real compliment you’ve ever given me.”
“Mark my words, Tara,” Gemma warned, spearing a finger towards her smiling face. “If you leave my son twisting in the wind like you did when you were kids it’s over. You don’t get to leave him while his wounded and then swoop back in when I get him whole again. This is ain’t criminal court, you little gash. You don’t get three strikes.”
Tara’s shoulders were jumping again. She’d even paused briefly to smile and wave over her shoulder at the gleeful expression on Abel’s face as he slammed the keys in his hands against his car seat over and over again. Bang. Bang. Bang. Not unlike the verbal shots being fired off on Gemma Teller’s front steps. “Jackson can do the years, Gemma—or better yet the year he has left on his sentence.” Tara turned to face her, finally giving up on catching Abel’s attention. “He doesn’t need me. He doesn’t need anyone. He can handle it. He told me himself right before he kissed away any chance of us having a future goodbye. But as it turns out…” Tara tilted her head to one side, and at once, the gloating smile on her face was displaced by the bitterness coloring both her expression and the edge in her voice. “Prince Teller’s not the only one serving time. I’ve got my very own set of handcuffs this time around. And my bid is a lot steeper than his—it runs much deeper than a monitor around my ankle. I’ve been sentenced to twenty-five to life with the backwoods, misogynistic, incestuous family I should have never come back to….He’s the father of my children, Gemma. I’ll never be free of him now…..and I won’t be free of you either.”
Tara blinked hard, her head shifted again, and her light green irises were wedged between narrowed almond-shaped lids as she focused her hearing. “Excuse me?”
Gemma’s stiff nod confirmed that the brunette’s ears had been in perfect, working condition the first time around. But just for the sake of clarity, the angry matriarch elaborated. “He’s the father of your child,” Gemma corrected, sneering at the gasping woman standing outside her door. She wasn’t close enough to reach without alarms going off but the sting of her words was every bit as effective as the gun calling out to her from the end table by the door. “Abel is my flesh and blood—my grandson—”
“And he’s MY SON!” Tara shrieked.
Gemma’s head veered left to right, back and forth, perfectly timed with the wagging of her finger. “No more half in, half out, Tara. Either you’re with my son or you’re not. You either stand by his side or you’re against me and I won’t ever let you anywhere near him again. Same goes for Abel. I might not have any say over the spawn you’re carrying right now but legally? You’re just a babysitter. I don’t even have to lift to finger. All I have to do is phone my lawyer and tell him to put that good ole’ jew-brain to work. Right now you have no rights to my grandson, and you never will unless—”
“Unless I stay with him?” Tara interjected. “Are you really trying to give me an ultimatum? Either I stay with Jax or I give up Abel?”
“There’s no use in you sticking around if you’re just going to twist him up,” Gemma answered, nodding. “Giving him false hope? No, no—I’m done listening to this record. It’s time to play a different one. You need to decide—”
Tara stepped forward, no longer toeing the line, but instead openly stepping inside the kill-zone. She needed assurance that Gemma heard every word she said clear as bell—and that the smug biker Queen could glimpse every ounce of resolution in her expression when she said them. “You’re nothing but an Old lady to a SAMCRO President with half–dead hands. You’ll be headed straight out the door with Clay the second he loses his grip, and when that happens…you better pray that your son doesn’t love you the same way you loved his father.”
And Tara jumped back, not out of fear, but to enjoy the aftermath. The rage that consumed the caged lioness as she watched Tara laugh at her. Just as expected, Gemma stopped dead in her tracks, doubling backwards when the alarm tethered to her leg sounded loudly the second her boots were planted—mid-air—outside the threshold of her front door. For years, Tara had been hard-pressed to find a single thing Gemma Teller feared beyond losing her only surviving child to town drunk’s daughter. Given a million guesses, Tara still wouldn’t have ever stumbled upon the shocking truth—that the toughest biker bitch to ever rock the color black was terrified of going to prison.
“You’re in my clubhouse now, Gemma.” Tara stepped backwards. Then again. Then three more times until she’d finally stepped down from her front porch. “And just like the Old Ladies of SAMCRO, you don’t get a vote. Not if I can help it. And you’re wrong… I know exactly what loyalty is. And I’m sick of giving it all away to people that don’t deserve it. Right now Abel is the only one thatdeserves it…that deserves me. And I’m staying. I’m staying for him.”
“I hope that fancy degree you ran off and got is enough for you,” Gemma growled at her retreating figure. “Because there’s no more work for you in the babysitting industry. You’re done here. You hear me, Bitch? You’re DONE!”
“I am.” Tara nodded, raising her keys to click the locks off her truck. “But I’ll be back by tomorrow to drop Abel off to see you. He’ll be spending his weekends with grandma from now on. I would let him stay tonight but I won’t have to come back and pick him up in the morning and still be on time for rounds. I hope you’re finally getting the hang of that new laptop Juice recommended for you. Hey, maybe you and Abel can skype on computer when I’m at work! Enjoy your house arrest!”
Gemma watched in steely silence as her son’s high school sweetheart backed out of the driveway with her grandson. It would have too easy to pull the drawer open, reach for the gun inside and aim at the woman still gloating through her windshield. But instead, and perhaps for the first time in all her adult years, Gemma decided against shooting to kill. For now at least, she’d chose shooting to wound.
The cordless phone she’d rested on top of the end table rattled on the surface from the violent bang when Gemma slammed her front door shut. It was with anger-fueled precision that Gemma caught her new, default weapon of choice in her palm just before it cascaded to the floor. Her middle fingernail took one for the team instead. And as another one bit the dust, Gemma slapped the phone against her ear—barely waiting for the ringing to stop before barking out her latest demands for the man on the other end of the call.
Jax glanced up from the center of the table between them for the first time since he’d swaggered into the Stockton correctional facility visitor’s room, only to see that Tara Knowles wasn’t really the guest visiting him. It was a cruel trick, and one that he might have expected, maybe even embraced if his unabashedly scheming mother had been the one sitting across from him. Instead he fixed his cold, hardened blue eyes on his best friend, the brother he’d never hesitate to go to Hell and back for if he needed him.
“It was a dick move, I know.” Opie absently tugged at the beanie on his head, he traced his fingers along the scraggly beard framing his jaw, and then he was scratching the side of his neck—anything to keep from reflexively taking a fighter’s stance to defend himself against the bone-crushing beat down that the glare Jackson Teller was shooting in his direction all but promised was coming at any moment. “I’ve been trying to make it up here to see you for weeks,” Opie explained. “Chibs, too…and Piney…and Happy. Hell, even the prospects gave it a shot. You’re boxing us out, and Clay says you’re doing the same shit inside. Going off on your own with all the enemies we got? You gotta do better, Brutha. You’re not gonna get her back by getting yourself killed. Not the way you want to, Man.”
“Big brother Opie,” Jax sneered, flaring his nostrils. “The Buddha of SAMCRO…always with the fuckin words of wisdom.” Jax slammed his palms down hard on table as he leaned forward. “You want to help me, Brutha? The next time I walk out here I want to see the real Tara waiting on me.”
Opie swallowed the urge to snicker, choosing instead to acknowledge the irony of his words without hinting at the morbid humor he’d found in them. It was a reality rooted deep within every relationship that had ever gone sour over an outlaw patch’s commitment to his club. And even on a good day, it was a truth that he could barely swallow hard enough to keep from choking on it every time he thought about Donna. “Tara’s done waiting on you, Bro.”
That Jax knew the answer was clear as ever on his face. The stone cold reality was etched in all the fine lines of the bags sunk in under his eyes, the frailness of his cheekbones from not eating, and the pale, almost lifeless tint to his skin, a gruesome image that was not to be obscured by the mountain of facial hair framing his face. But still, he asked. “What the Hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Your Old Lady’s got a lot going on right now,” Opie explained, subtly moving his hands from the table on which Jax’s hands had suddenly balled into tight fists. “Gemma and her are at each other’s throats again. You’re not the only one that can’t get a hold to her right now. Lyla says she heard Gemma screaming at the new prospect. You know Filthy fil right? He used to be a hang around, the one who….”
Opie rolled his eyes, swiftly moving on from the small-talk shit Jax’s rage-contorted face had yet to react to. “…Anyway, Gemma had the prospects trailing Tara, doing some front and follow shit. Fil driving the van and Ratboy riding in behind her. I guess she must have figured it out ’cause when they made their way back out of the hospital cafeteria the tires were busted on Rat’s Harley and the van got toed for being illegally parked in a handicap spot. Fil swears he didn’t park nowhere near one. I guess they don’t know your girl used to have a stalker.”
Opie chuckled, but his amusement was once again pathetically short-lived when Jax denied him even a hint of the smile he knew would have lit up his best friend’s face had he relayed the Tara VS Prospects story at any other time. “Gemma’s not happy about Abel going to daycare. But Tara told her you signed off on it. I know your mom’s been waiting to hear from you but if I were you I would hold off on calling her right now. You’re going to get an earful for sure. I mean, shit...You might get one from Tara too,” Opie pressed on, eager to fill the strained silence. “She stopped by to see Pop the other day. Piney’s refusing to get into the specifics—as usual—but he says Tara—”
“Tara said this,” Jax interrupted, shifting his hairy jaw left to right. “Tara feels this….Tara says she wants this and she wants that….Tara’s fighting with Gemma…Tara’s confiding in Piney, Tara might be fuckin her boss, Tara and Lyla are thinking about taking the kids to Disneyland, Tara says Abel couldn’t come today because he’s running a fever…Tara said, Tara did, Tara thinks—Goddamn it!”
“WATCH IT, INMATE!”
Jax paused just shy of slamming his fists against the rattling table again. He unfolded his fingers, only to fold them again, this time lacing his hands together—wringing them back and forth to keep from strangling the one person outside the four walls of Stockton Prison that he could reach out and touch if he wanted to.
“You want to know why I don’t call anymore?” Jax barked. “You want to know why I refuse to accept visits from you…and Piney…and Happy? Because I’m sick of this second hand bullshit! I don’t want you to come up here and tell me about Tara. And I don’t want to call my mom so she can bitch about her either! I want to hear Tara’s side. I want it to hear it from the fuckin horse’s mouth! But she won’t talk to me. I want her to talk to me. And I want to see my fuckin kid. Where’s Abel? When is Abel’s name gonna appear on the visitors list, Huh? You’re so fuckin wise and all-knowing. I’ve got an eleventh month old son and the last time I saw him was the night before they locked me up. You think maybe I’ll see him before his birthday? Maybe on his birthday? Go on, step outside and check with Tara, I’ll wait…Or should I just wait a whole goddamn year later when I’m finally out of this shit hole!”
Opie sighed. “Tara said to tell—”
“FUCK what Tara said,” Jax growled, shaking his head. “I’m done catering to the gossip. I’m through with hearsay. If she’s not the one up here telling me I don’t wanna fuckin hear it.”
“She said,” Opie stressed, holding his hands up to stop the next wave of his best friend’s meltdown. “That Abel’s up to date with all his shots, and she checked with Lowen and the guardianship agreement you signed for her gives her permission to give me written consent.”
Jax crossed his arms. “All that talking you’re doing and you still ain’t saying shit I want to hear.”
“You’re going to see Abel next week!” Opie half-shouted, finally skipping over the preamble. “Jesus Christ…. We’ve got a run to do, leaving later on tonight, but we’ll be back in a few days. As soon as I come back I’ll bring him up to see you.”
“I don’t want you to bring Abel to see to me,” Jax raged. “I want Tara to bring him. I want her to bring her ass up here so I can hear how both of my kids are doing.”‘
“What the fuck is wrong with you, Man?” Opie snapped.
It was such a rare moment, seeing Opie Winston lose his temper. Level-headed was what he did best. Listen, observe, then speak his piece—that was Opie’s style. He never lost his cool, and save for a few, no one could ever even begin to scratch the surface of what Opie was feeling, exactly what he was thinking if he didn’t say so outright.
Jackson Teller had been one of the few since the days of them pouring sand down the back of David Hale’s shorts on the playground. But he was also one of the few who barely blinked at the sight of Opie angry, nor the imminent threat that anger posed. “The fuck you want me to do?” Opie fumed. “You want me to drug her and drag her up here to see you? You think that’ll be good for the baby? Or how about I give her a message for a change? Maybe me and the guys should ride over to your house and tell the mother of your kids she either comes up here to listen you beg or we’ll be back to help pack all Abel’s shit so he can move in with his grandma.”
Jax sat back in his chair, crossing his arms once again—this time on top of his head. The SAMCRO tattoo blurred in and out of visibility the more his body began to shake. With a sobs’ worth of unshed tears, or pent up rage that his desire to make parole for good behavior had disallowed him a release—Opie wasn’t quite sure which, or perhaps, if just like the last time, over a decade ago, it was a soul-poisoning combination of the two. “You really want to help me, Ope? Then give me something I can use. Something that I’m willing to use because Abel’s not it….tell me what to do, Man….I’m all out of ideas.”
Opie shook his head slowly. His mouth formed a grim line with no traces of past humor, not even an inkling of any future amusement in his words. “Tara’s gotta get right with you, Brutha. And this ain’t just a few rounds in the ring with me or Hap’. She’s not like us….she never was…I don’t know how you get right with her again, Man. All I know is that she’s trying…Tara can mouth off all she wants, but she has got to be trying to find a way to get right with you….because if she’s not…then what the Hell is she still doing here?”
Jax knew the answer to that question, too.
It brought about more pain and anguish than, perhaps, even his widowed best friend and brother could even begin to understand. It was knowledge that made him selfish, too self-preserved to admit his own truth—the answer Tara was looking for, the one that would shatter his world forever should he give into it.
“Abel.” Jax met his brother’s eyes again, and somehow the moisture threatening to end its desperate ebb and flow freely, his blue eyes still lacked even a modicum of shine in them. “…She’s here for Abel. That’s why she’s still here, Ope…If I told her she could take him and leave, she would…And this time she wouldn’t look back.”
Opie nodded once, drawing in the words that painstakingly echoed the bitter retort he’d heard from the other half of Jackson’s soul—his better half, not too long ago. And right there, in the middle of a busy jailhouse visitor’s room, Opie asked the one question that held an answer that would frighten Gemma Teller-Morrow beyond anything she’d ever experience throughout her life. “If she really does want out, are you going to let her take Abel with her?”
“What the Hell do you think, Man?” Jax swallowed hard, averting his quietly glittering eyes towards the table as he leaned his elbows against it, bracing himself for the truth he’d sooner kill then admit until he absolutely had to. “…She’s his mother.”
I thought my tender touch could lock you down
I knew I had you…as cocky as it sounds
The way you used to giggle right before i put it down…
It’s better when you’re angry, come here, I’ll prove it now…
(I gotta leave you alone)
…All my pride is all I have