Author’s Note: Thank you to everyone who has reached out to subscribe. I have a fairly modest following on here, which is what I was going for. One of the cool things about one of the plugins I use is that my dashboard shows who opened their email alerts, and who clicked the links to read so I’ve notified those whose alerts may have gone to spam accidentally. Also, I noticed more than half of you hadn’t left any feedback on Chapter 3. And that’s MY (boneheaded) fault. Apologies, Y’all! I’m still getting the hang of this self-hosting gig, so I accidentally disabled the comment section feature. lmao. I’ve fixed it now though LOL. So those of you who were scratching your heads, nothing’s stopping ya from sounding off in the comment section for this update.
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I wish I could believe you
Then I’d be alright
But now everything you told me
Really don’t apply
To the way I feel inside…
Loving you was easy
… Once upon a time
But now my suspicions of you
And it’s all because you lied
I only give you a hard time
‘Cause I can’t go on and pretend like
I haven’t tried to forgive this
But I’m much too full of resentment
For every second that passed since he’d sat down, visions of a five by seven cell in a maximum security prison seemed more likely than making parole in a year. Jax didn’t think he could keep the lid on his temper for much longer. And it wasn’t just the unabashedly flamboyant man towering over him, with scissors in one hand and a fine tooth comb in the other. It wasn’t just Tig and his incessant need to make snide comments while he obeyed Clay’s orders to the letter about being Jax’s shadow. And it wasn’t because his mother loved to do the exact opposite of what the fuck he asked her to do.
It was all of the above, on top of everything else.
Tara was everything—everything that was once right, turned wrong because of one shitty decision after another.
“You never heard of a comb, Papi?” Jax raised his eyes to meet the appalled expression of the prisoner standing behind him. Eduardo “Special-ED” Alvarez raised two expertly waxed eyebrows at him through the mirror mounted above the Stockton Prison barber station. Eduardo was a large man—as wide as he was tall, and with several teardrops tattooed at the corners of both his eyes. His overall appearance held a stark contrast from the high, saccharine pitch of his voice, and the way he swayed from one hip to the other when changing his ‘Are you kidding me?’ stance. Effeminate features aside, the giant of a man shaking his head at the greasy, matted state of Jax’ hair was clearly worry-free when it came to even the most homophobic of prisoners. And it clearly had less to do with what his last name happened to be. “There’s also a little thing we call shampoo…. it’s soap for you hair. Is your commissary maxed out or something?”
“Nope,” Tig remarked, snorting. “But I think the shop ran out of tampons.”
“Just chop it all off,” Jax said, steeling his jaw as he curbed the urge to leap from the chair and pounce on the crazy-haired biker flipping through a playboy magazine on the other side of the small room.
“You sure?” Eduerdo was already dropping the scissors and comb in his hand to reach for the clippers. “I was actually going to recommend that,” He commented, wriggling his eyebrows at him. “You’d look cute with a short cut.”
Tig snickered behind the magazine in his hands. “Sorry, Ricky. He’s already taken… and he loves her with all of his heart… he can’t see his life without her because she’s too much a part of what he is.”
“Motherfucker!” Jax spun the styling chair around, leaving it still spinning behind him when he jumped up to lunged.
“Aye!” Eduardo slid between the two of them, wagging his finger at the enraged blue-eyed man fighting to get around his girth to get to the other (laughing) one behind him. “Ain’t your kid coming up here to see you today? You really want to risk your privileges on him?”
It wasn’t instantaneous, but gradually Jax calmed down enough to see reason, to turn and walk back towards the empty chair, to resume his position of reluctant patron, getting an overdue grooming so that his eleven-month old son might actually recognize him.
He’d been trying so hard to let it go, and it wasn’t an easy thing to do . Jax had to curb the urge to push Tig’s face through a wall every time he thought about the notepad tucked safely away in the back pocket of his DOC-issued pants.
It was one of the first nights he’d actually forced himself to go to sleep. He’d wanted to be as fresh-faced as possible when Opie brought Abel up to see him. Instead of waking up relaxed, he’d opened his eyes to Juice grinning like an idiot—shaking his head as he watched Tig flouncing back and forth in the middle of their prison block, citing the words he’d written for Tara’s eyes alone in the worst British accent imaginable.
“Jesus Christ, you’re touchy.” Tig was completely unfazed as he stepped backwards into the hallway. “I’m gonna go take a leak…and Hey, Jax! Remember….the more you pee the less you cry.”
Eduardo pushed both meaty hands against Jax’s shoulder, effectively stopping him from moving out of the styling chair again. “What’s the point of being in touch with your emotions if you’re ashamed of them? Eso no es Bueno…that’s probably why you’re Old Lady love—”
“You don’t know shit about me, Bro,” Jax interrupted, nostrils flaring as he glared at the man behind him through the mirror. “You’re getting paid for this right? Because you’d rather cut hair than fix lamps? Just take care of your business.”
Eduardo smirked, rolling his eyes towards the ceiling. After nearly a decade serving time in the shithole they were both trapped in, he’d learned to let most things roll off his very large back. “Okay, Handsome. I’ll save the shop talk for my next customer….Hopefully he’s a little less grumpy, Aye?”
“Yeah whatever,” Jax huffed, crossing his arms. To his benefit, the next twenty minutes had gone pass in complete silence, save for the clippers buzzing across his scalp, and then his jawline. He’d wish the jail allowed prisoners to use their own gear to shave but he tolerated it, biting his tongue when Eduardo couldn’t resist telling him how dreamy his eyes were while he was shaping him up (probably just to irritate him).
“All done, Grumpy.” Eduardo watched as Jax twisted his head left to right, absently grabbing the mirror he’d held out to him to get a better view of the back of his head—and what little remained of the long, dirty-blonde locks that used to hang down to his shoulders. “Unless you want me to take more off on the sides? I didn’t think you’d want a full military buzz cut but—”
“Nah, I’m good.” Jax squinted his eyes at his reflection, patting what was left of his hair, framing his freshly groomed jawline, and the well-trimmed beard that had resembled a tumbleweed before Marcus Alvarez’ cousin took a two-speed blade to his face. He’d successfully weed-whacked his recent homeless-hobo appearance to perfection. Jax kind of liked the new cut. He just hoped Abel recognized him. Smiling meekly at the man behind him, he nodded his head once. “It looks great. I appreciate it, Man.”
“I agree…the new haircut looks nice.”
It was the thick Russian accent that made his head snap up, meeting four equally sinister smiles in the mirror. When Jax spun around, he wasn’t empty-handed. In the few seconds it took Eduardo to utter the words, “Don’t y’all start no shit up in here,” the SAMCRO Vice President had already grabbed a dirty mop from the bucket of filmy water he’d been daydreaming of waterboarding Tig in earlier. Swiftly, he held it up high enough to slam his foot hard against the end, breaking the thick pole free. Contestant number one stepped right, and the Russian man was grunting out in pain seconds after when Jax struck him hard in the face, shattering his nose.
Somehow Eduardo managed to make his way through to the exit, throwing his hands up as if to say, “Not my problem,” while the four men attacked the one man who hadn’t yet guaranteed protection from his cousins crew.
Jax held his own for his long as he could, drawing blood from all four of them, taking a step back, sliding and maneuvering out of reach, keeping them at bay with the pole in his hands. Then he tripped, for just a second he lost his footing, barely breaking his fall as his foot skated across the playboy magazine Tig had left on the floor. Before he could brace his arms against the couch, the largest of the four men was already helping him up—yanking him up just high enough to send a round of rib-crunching punches to his chest, and a solid shot to his jaw.
Then the Russian man who’d spoken out, the obvious leader of the group nodded his head up at the two men holding Jax up by his arms while the biggest Russian continued the assault on Jax’s abdomen. “Hold him down.”
Jax fought hard against the grip on his arms, the knees digging into his stomach as they pinned him down to floor—but it was no use. “We’ve got a message from Putlova,” said the leader. He stepped closer, wielding the pole they’d taken from the fallen biker, positioning the sharp end above his face. “He wants you to see how badly you fucked up.”
“Alexei!” growled the man with an iron-tight grip on Jax’s left arm and shoulder.
But he was too late.
Bobby Munson was already swinging the radio he’d yanked from the wall at the back of Alexei’s head. The Russian keeled sideways, but he couldn’t fall fast enough because Juice and Clay were already trampling over him to lunge at the three Russians remaining—Juice with the screw locks he’d swiped from shop class slid onto his fingers like rings when he formed them into fists, and Clay with both the pole Alexei dropped.
Lenny “the Pimp” Janowitz twisted the toothpick dangling from the side of mouth, lazily adjusting his glasses as he leaned in the doorway—watching them with amusement twitching the corners of his mouth.
Jax was back on his feet, ignoring the pain shooting through his chest as he kicked and stomped his feet against the groaning Russian who’d failed to cry out in warning to his boss in time.
The footsteps pounding down the hallway, and then directly outside the door went unnoticed until the seven guards—plus a heavily breathing Eduardo—that the footsteps belonged to rushed into the room, promptly separating the SAMCRO patches from the Russian Mafia men who were getting the blood, spit and shit kicked out of them.
“Thanks for the heads up,” Clay said, nodding his head up at the half-Russian inmate still chewing on his toothpick.
Lenny Janowitz made a show of raising a hand, rubbing his thumb against his other four fingers. “Thanks for the re-up on my commissary funds,” He said, turning to walk out. “Don’t mention it, Clay. And besides,” Lenny turned his head to nod towards the eight Hispanic men in uniform, standing in the room with them. “All I did was give you a heads up. I didn’t lift a finger to help. I’m just a man who trades information…you make sure you remember it that way when Putlova comes calling.”
“You sure Marcus is cool with this?” One of the guard asked, eyeing his cousin.
Eduardo shrugged. “There’s a deal on the table,” He answered. “Nothing’s been set in stone yet, but I’m making a judgement call… protecting our possible investment. And it’s not like I didn’t ask those assholes nicely not to fuck up my shop!”
Nodding, the guards both turned their heads towards the SAMCRO members watching them anxiously. “Consider this a show of good faith,” said the C.O with the name Torres embroidered on his uniform. “…an example of the protection you’ll have if your club signs off on our deal.”
“No more free rides, Clay,” one of the other guards chimed. “I don’t care how big of a crush Romeo here has on your pretty boy VP….there will be no favors until our new alliance is official…Entiendes?”
“And you can stick around to clean up this mess,” Eduardo instructed, rolling his eyes as he turned on his heel to follow behind the guards already leaving the room. “Don’t worry handsome,” He added, briefly turning his head to glance back at Jax. “That bruise on your face adds character… maybe win you some sympathy with your Old Lady,” Eduardo teased, winking at him.
“What part of NO ONE moves alone don’t you shitheads understand?” Clay barked, the second they were left alone. “Where the fuck is Tig?”
“….Umm…yeahhh…my bad boss,” Tig answered, suddenly appearing, sticking his head into the room to take in the mess. “Whatever Bobby and his kitchen crew put in them eggs this morning didn’t agree with me…So what did I miss?”
If Jax didn’t have Abel’s visit to look forward to he might have snapped his brother’s neck right then and there.
Death row be damned.
“I think I might start looking into getting an apartment outside of town,” Wendy shouted, flipping through the pages of the newspaper spread opened across her lap. “Something decent…with at least two bedrooms…maybe a townhouse with a backyard…some place close to a good daycare nearby… a nice neighborhood. Not too close to Charming, but close enough that it won’t be a headache commuting to and from my new job.”
Ally Lowen turned her head, her brown eyes brightening with excitement as she swiveled the vibrating toothbrush foaming up the corners of her mouth. Leaning forward she spit into the basin of the weathered sink in front of her. “They accepted your transfer?”
Wendy smiled. “I got the call while you were in the shower,” She answered, folding her legs into a pretzel underneath her. “They’re going to put me on the schedule starting next week. One of the assistant managers had a son that did his recovery at Promises a few years back. I guess when I told her my story it resonated with her or something. So, that’s one thing I can scratch off the list, Huh?”
Ally patted the washcloth in her hand to her smiling face, dabbing at the toothpaste remaining as she reached for the travel-size bottle of Listerine in her makeup bag. “This is great, Baby. A steady job with flexible hours, a nice, kid-friendly apartment, and—“
“The money you’re loaning me to write Tara a nice big check so she can’t hold my lack of financial contribution over my head?” Wendy winked at her. “Thanks again for that…I just can’t believe I’m doing this…that I’m not feeling as hopeless as I thought I would…I don’t know…I feel like theirs an actual shot at me getting my son back.”
Ally shook her head, rushing into the room to plop down on her side of the lumpy bed. “It’s more than just a chance,” She explained. “You never relinquished your parental rights and as far as family court is concerned Jackson never asked you to. And those guardianship papers I drew up for Tara on his behalf were never officially approved by you. You never gave up your rights. Legally you’re still his mother, Wendy. Tara’s not even a real factor in this. Abel’s father and his crazy ass grandmother are the ones you’re fighting against. And I can handle Jackson on the legal side of things. He doesn’t stand a chance in court.”
Wendy’s smile faltered. “Yeah,” She replied, sighing. “It’s not the legal side of things I’m worried about…it’s the outlaw side of this whole shit storm… Jackson is…I mean I almost killed his son and he was still right at my bedside, holding my hand…bringing me roses…and he never even loved me… He’s always had a big heart…never seemed to let the club completely change who was when he came home to his family…when he came home to what we pretended was a family… but Tara’s the real thing for him. And if there’s one thing I learned being married to Jax Teller, it’s that he hates even deeper than he loves…when it comes to everyone but Tara. I can’t predict how he’ll react to this. Even if deep down he knows I’m what’s best for Abel—that getting him away from the chaos of SAMCRO is the best thing for him… I don’t know, Ally… I don’t want to keep him out of Abel’s life completely… we could work out a plan outside the courts or make it official in court if that’s what he wants…but I do want full custody….”
“And you’ll get it,” Ally assured, grabbing her hand, squeezing it firmly. “I’m actually headed to the office now to finalize some paperwork so I can file with the courts tomorrow on my way to my client’s arraignment hearing. “You’re right. The legal side of this isn’t your problem. It’s the other side of Abel’s family… we both need to be smart… protect ourselves because between Unser and whoever else Clay might have on the payroll? We can’t count on law enforcement to protect us. If you really wanna do this—“
“I do,” Wendy gushed, reaching for Ally’s other hand, squeezing both of them as tears glittered her eyes. “I really do… I want my son back.”
Ally nodded, gently pulling a hand away to brush Wendy’s hair back. “Then I’ve got this,” She promised. “All we have to do is keep Gemma Teller in the dark for as long as we can. If luck is on our side? It’ll be too late by the time her and Tara stop fighting each other long enough to realize what’s happening. And I’m thinking maybe we should see less of each other… at least for now.”
Wendy hung her head, brown eyes flitting down to their hands still joined on the bed. “I really wish Tara was willing to see reason. The way I felt when I walked into that office…the way Abel looked at me—the woman who gave him his name…who gave him life, and he didn’t even have a clue who I was… I never wanted her to feel that pain.”
Wendy nodded her head. “I noticed,” She replied, and then when she looked up she was shaking it instead. “That doesn’t change anything…you can’t just have a new child to replace the one you lost…or the one you gave up…if it was that simple…maybe I wouldn’t be doing all of this.”
“She’ll use that against you, you know.” Ally stood up from the bed, then squatted down, reaching for something hidden underneath. Wendy’s eyes widened as she watched her pull a metal case the size of a shoebox from under the bed. “All of that guilt you’re carrying? That urge you feel to be loyal to Tara because of everything she’d done for you? Tara and whatever lawyer she hires—and if I know that woman like I think I do, she already has a new one—she’ll use it against you when you’re on the stand… all they have right now is threats,” Ally told her, successfully typing the correct passcode along the keypad after her second attempt. “And we’d be stupid not to take them seriously, but they can’t use threats in court and they have no case. So please don’t give them one.”
“When the Hell did you get that?” Wendy asked, balking at the shiny new Smith & Wesson revolver framed inside of the case’s grey foam insulation.
“I’ve been putting in hours at the gun range for a little while now,” Ally admitted, smirking at the blonde’s shocked expression. “I work for SAMCRO. That was enough of a reason to get licensed. And that was before I got involved with you and decided to help you get your son away from all of this… this mayhem. My aunt was the only reason I did something with my life…she took me in when her big sister thought helping her boyfriend run his drug business was more important than keeping me safe. And yeah, I know—the irony of my career…working to get criminals off…I’ve been putting myself right back in the line of fire for a bigger paycheck…I just happen to be on the legal side of things this time around…the shit is twisted…but I don’t have children depending on me…or at least I didn’t…not until now… not until what happened with those Irishmen… I know it hurts like Hell to do this to another woman…especially a woman who supported you at your worse… but I think you’re doing the right thing.”
Wendy’s smile was mirthless, bitter even as she shook her head, staring at the gun on the bed between them. “Why does the right thing always feel so shitty?”
Ally didn’t provide her with an answer. Instead she steered the yearning mother clear of deep-thinking, opting to focus on the ever-present obstacle ahead of them. “Once we set this shit in motion, Gemma’s going to have eyes everywhere. Clay and his V.P might be stuck behind the four walls of Stockton prison but that bitch is resourceful…and there’s nothing Jackson’s brothers won’t do for him or his mother… We have to be careful…our biggest problem isn’t SAMCRO…it’s their matriarch.”
Wendy snorted at that. “Gemma is SAMCRO,” She retorted, rolling her eyes incredulously. Before she could drive her point home with a multitude of reasons why, she was turning her head to peer at the cellphone buzzing against the wobbly nightstand on her side of the bed. “Speaking of the Devil.”
The word Momzilla faded from the left side of the phone’s touch screen as she swiped her thumb across the green button. “Gemma.”
Ally tapped her shoulder, mouthing the words, “Put it on speakerphone.”
Wendy hit the appropriate button just as the SAMCRO Matriarch’s sneering voice filtered through the room. “You know…normally I hate a rat but turns out Happy’s new prospect is actually pretty useful… Ratboy’s been telling me some really interesting things about who you’ve been spending your nights with…”
“Shit!” Ally hissed, reaching for the silver steel tread-plated case lying open in the center of the mattress. She made a show of pointing the unloaded gun she pulled from inside it at the phone Wendy had rested in the space between them. “I know where I’ll be this evening,” the rattled lawyer whispered, scurrying off the bed to retrieve the pack of bullets she’d added to her recent purchase. Wendy had a feeling the correct answer was ‘gun range’ as she watched her girlfriend rush to finish getting dress, shoving her feet into her heels, and hastily fastening the belt around her dress suit—swiftly kissing her goodbye before making a beeline for the front door.
“What?” Gemma sneered through the phone. “Jax and Tara turned you down for a ménage a trois so you thought jumping in bed with their lawyer was the next best thing?”
Wendy raked a shaky hand through her hair, from root to ends. “As usual, I have no idea what the Hell you’re talking about, Gemma,” the blonde bluffed, clicking the speaker off as she picked the phone up to press it to her ear.
“Yeah, you might wanna take a look outside the window of that shitty motel you’re holed up in.”
“Ally, wait!” Wendy whispered fiercely, snapping her fingers at the woman reaching for the briefcase on the round table by the motel’s door. Her voice might have been low enough for her words of warning to go undetected—if the cellphone had still been on the bed.
Gemma’s laughter crackled through the phone. “I was kidding,” the smug woman goaded. “Even the prospects have better shit to do than clock your every move… I sent them home hours ago.”
Wendy sighed, waving an anxious Ally Lowen off, rising to stand and pace the room as the motel door opened and snapped shut behind the lawyer bolting down the steps towards her luxury car in the parking lot.
“You can relax, Sweetheart,” Gemma told her. “I’m actually calling to make nice. I was wrong about Tara… turns out she’s got more problems than I thought…everything that’s gone down these past couple months…it’s been a lot harder on her than Jackson realizes…he hasn’t seen her since he went inside but I have…she’s got no business looking after Abel in her state of mind… but my son’s so goddamn pussy-whipped he won’t listen to me… he’s refusing to go against the guardianship arrangement your new squeeze drew up for them… and there’s not much I can do while I’m still on lock down myself… I could use your help… and this could a long way with getting Jax to trust you with his son…Abel needs you.”
Wendy shook her head, pinched at the bridge of her nose, squeezed her eyes shut tightly as she processed the earnest conviction in Gemma’s words—struggling to decipher their authenticity or the absence of it. “I saw Tara yesterday afternoon, Gem…I can’t say she hasn’t changed…I mean, shit… seems like you’re finally rubbing off on her… better than you ever rubbed off on me anyway… but she seemed just fine to me…Bitter as Hell after everything Jax and the club put her through, but still fine.”
“She’s not sleeping,” Gemma responded, the tone in her voice growing more urgent. “I had Unser swipe her files at the hospital… she stopped seeing the therapist her supervisor referred her to. You know what happened with her and old Red don’t you? Kidnapped…strung up and assaulted…held hostage… She’s still having nightmares about it… paranoia… night terrors and if that wasn’t bad enough…she’s been overdoing it will the pills… at first it was just Oxy…claims she’s been having these migraines from when that Mexi-asshole cold-cocked her with the butt of his gun…but now it’s Xanax…one of the nurses swears they caught her snorting something in her office…I got eyes everywhere, and not just on you… I’ve been keeping tabs on Tara, too… I’m worried about both of my grandsons, Wendy—“
“Yeah, well you should be,” Wendy interjected. “Drug abuse and pregnancy don’t mix well…sadly, I know that better than anyone.”
There was a brief silence on the other end of the phone, a gap in their conversation that momentarily made Wendy wonder if her self-deprecating comment had suddenly reminded the outlaw mother of who she was asking for help with her grandchild. “I know, Sweetheart…but there’s nothing I can do about that. Abel is the only one I can protect. I need you to step up…be there the way you should have been there from the beginning…your son needs you…you couldn’t come through for him before, but now’s your chance.”
“….I don’t know, Gemma…this is a complete one-eighty from the other day when you were pointing a…..Look, I just…I think I should talk to Jax. You should have him put me on his visitor’s list the next time he calls you so I can—”
“I’m sorry,” Gemma growled, interrupting her rambling. “Did I give you the impression that I was asking you? You and Lowen better fall in line, Bitch. Because if I have to handle Tara on my own you’re next on my list of problems that need club solutions.”
Wendy’s answer came after a pregnant pause, several moments of the sweetest mental image—the anklet on Gemma’s leg being an explosive device she could detonate instead of just a shackle. “When and where, Gemma?” She asked, sighing.
“You trying to be cute?” The sharp edge to Gemma’s voice had increased, swiftly reminding her that the device was meant to enforce the stir-crazy woman’s house arrest, and nothing more. “That’s right,” Gemma sneered when her outburst was meant with silence. “We wouldn’t even be having this conversation over the phone if I could pick the where…you just make sure you’re at my house tonight. You and your new lawyer… I’ll call you when I’m ready.”
Jackson Teller had very little respect for government property, it seemed. No matter how many warnings he’d been given, he couldn’t seem to resist taking his rage out on the nearest inanimate object when something or someone triggered his temper. He’d lost count of how many shots he’d been written, but clearly he’d been issued enough of them to warrant punishment.
The mess hall had been left more disgusting than usual, completely rendering the shower he’d taken after breakfast pointless by the time he’d finished cleaning it up single-handedly. Still, Janitor duty was a sweet deal considering the fact that the warden could have easily revoked his visitation privileges instead. Jax had an inkling it was the two pint-sized soccer players in the picture frame on the elder man’s desk that worked in his hotheaded favor. And for that he was grateful. Twenty minutes after he’d fulfilled his cleanup duties, he’d had an extra ten minutes to change his soiled clothes and wash most of the grime and sweat off before one of the guards approached him in his sleeping quarters to inform him that he had visitors.
With one final stroke of the brush in his hand along his fresh cut, Jax tucked the notepad he’d be writing in into the deep, back pocket of his pants, and then he swaggered his way down the narrow corridor leading out to the Stockton Visitor’s Hall.
His eyes locked with Opie’s first.
And then Piney’s.
Both men were inscrutable in their expressions, both men lacking any semblance of pace as they slowly walked further into the spacious room, from the other side. Jax stopped short, tripping up two other prisoners walking out behind him. He didn’t even notice the pain shooting through his fingers as he white-knuckled the observation desk at the entryway, steeling his hard blue eyes on the scuffed linoleum floor as he processed the absence of the only reason he’d bothered getting out of bed that day.
He was so tired of being angry—tired of yelling and choking back the urge to swing his fist at whatever or whoever was close enough until he ruined his ability to ever grip the clutch on his Harley again.
Jax thought he’d reached his maximum level of dejection when Opie had to volunteer to bring his son up to see him because Tara refused to. But the feeling tightening his chest now felt so much fuckin worse because as the days passed it was getting harder to ignore the part of his brain screaming that Tara was doing the right thing keeping both herself and Abel as far away from him as possible. Even still, Jax lacked the strength or desire to hear his best friend’s latest excuse.
That’s why he was already turning on his heel, to leave the room when a familiar squeal of joy kept him rooted to the spot where he stood. The two prisoners he’d stopped short in front of were still standing behind him when he’d turned. Clay, Tig—and behind them Juice—were both grinning at the hope slowly brightening their Vice President’s eyes. And it was more than enough for Jax to affirm that when he turned back around he would be fighting an entirely different battle in a room full of both his brothers and strangers.
And he was right.
But Jax didn’t bother wasting the energy it would have taken to keep the moisture out of his eyes when he turned to see his two favorite people headed towards the steel picnic table he’d been assigned. Tara was smothering a giggling Abel’s face with kisses. She laughed with him, and it was a welcome sound—watching them two together was a welcome sight that had temporarily short-circuited his brain. It had taken several nudges against his shoulder, and one of the prison guards barking the words, “In or out, Inmate,” for him to remember how to walk.
It may as well have been brain surgery, because that was how difficult it was to tear his eyes away from them long enough to see the mischievous grins spread across both Junior and Senior Winston’s face as they took in his reaction. Piney saluted his Godson, lightly clapping a hand to his shoulder as he made his way past, towards the table Tig and Clay were settling into. Opie nodded his head in Juice’s direction, acknowledging the bench waiting for him, but he made no move to join the Puerto Rican biker at the table adjacent to the one their President was sitting at. Instead he watched his best friend closely, seemingly waiting for him to remember he also knew how to talk.
Tara still hadn’t spared more than a second’s glance in his direction. Her emerald eyes were, instead, fixed on the baby boy who seemed to be as conflicted as his father was catatonic. Abel held on tight to Tara, squeezing one arm around her neck, his chubby little hand pressing against the nape of it. But his free arm was extended as far as he could manage, his hand wriggling from his wrist to the tips of his fingers, and the eleven-month-old grunted out in frustration as he struggled to reach for his father without letting go of his mother. “You see your Daddy, Abel? Say I missed you…”
Jesus Christ. Even her voice, live and in person instead of through the static of a phone line with gut-wrenching limitations. It was enough to trigger a glitch in the part of his brain that reminded his lungs to function on their own, leaving him near-breathless.
And yet somehow he’d managed the words he’d been saying over the phone for the past ten days. “Hey, Buddy.”
Abel squealed, and seemingly couldn’t resist pulling his arm from around his mother’s neck. All the better to clap his hands and giggle, and all the easier to maneuver when a smiling Tara slowly held the animated little boy out to his father’s waiting arms. “Say Hello to Daddy!”
The first thing Abel did was reach for what was left of his beard, tugging at it as Jax shut his eyes against the sensation warming him up, mind, body and soul when he was able to press a kiss to the top of his son’s forehead instead of imagining the last time he’d done it over and over again. His chin rested at Abel’s crown, and for just a moment he stood there, the inner-peace he’d done without for months blocking out the collective laughter of both his best friend and his soulmate when Abel’s facial expression made it clear he was less than impressed with Jax’s new beard (because yanking the Hell out Opie’s was way more fun).
“Alright, Mom.” Jax opened his eyes just in time to see Opie push Tara forward. “Your turn,” the meddling biker demanded, smirking at the death glare she shot him. “Say Hello to Daa-ddy,” He teased, mocking the singsong voice she’d used on Abel.
Tara turned her head then, finally meeting his eyes.
Jax was already bracing himself for rejection. Or for how worthless he’d feel when she opted against and all-out dismissal, placating the child them with a reluctant hug—a forced smile meant to put on a show for the little boy watching them closely. But the look in her eyes, or more precisely the captivating smile that reached all the way up to the corners of them wasn’t fabricated.
It couldn’t be.
Not with the way Tara stepped forward, into his arms, directly into the embrace he’d had to swallow his fear of her rejection long enough to extend towards her. Like always, her hair smelled of Vanilla-Honey, the shampoo she’d been using ever since he’d told her how much he liked it when they were teenagers—that first night she’d let him hold her in his arms. Jax fought his hardest to ignore the signs of stress sinking the bottom lids of her pretty eyes. But it was only possible for anyone who wasn’t him to find the exhaustion threatening to mar her features too subtle.
And then his mind was empty of any thought that didn’t revolve around the lips curving upwards, taunting him when Tara pulled back to meet his unwavering, penetrating gaze again. He wasn’t almost certain he’d heard her breath hitch as the raw emotion in his blue eyes slammed into her, no longer kept at bay by the safety—the shelter all of those collect calls had provided her.
No one knew Tara Knowles better than Jackson Teller.
And if he would have looked deeper, perhaps Jax could have spotted the pivotal emotion she’d hidden behind all of the undeniable love and longing she still felt. But after too many consecutive days wondering if it was even still there, her love for him was what he chose to focus on—it was what blinded him to the bitter resolution in her gaze when she tilted her head back, raising her hand to gently press a palm to her face.
Without warning, and not even the slightest sign of hesitation, Tara kissed him.
It was his turn to gasp, and even as the euphoria shooting up from his toes set off a primal hunger that demanded more, their mouths were unmoving. There were no lips smacking, no tongues dancing, no angling their heads left and right—just stillness. And when her lips finally parted from his, they stood there—foreheads pressed together, the pocket of his elbow glued to her waist, his trembling palm pressed to the small of her back.
They remained that way several moments after the prison guard nearest to them yelled for the two of them to, “Wrap it up.”
Eli Roosevelt swiveled absently, from side to side in the brand new leather chair his wife had gifted him with for his new office. Plaque after plaque lined the walls of the spacious room, and the pattern of accolades was only disrupted by the large, gorgeous frame with a picture of him and his wife that he’d mounted on the wall.
Most Sheriff’s limited the personal, family photos for the space on their cluttered desks, but Eli wasn’t most Sheriffs. There was only one thing he championed more than his successful career in law enforcement. It was the rare accomplishment that very few officers, or the criminals they chased after for that matter, had ever managed to achieve.
Eli kept his family whole, and he always worked actively, not just during extended shifts at the office—but overtime to nurture and protect the love he had waiting for him at home. It was something he felt should be celebrated, a quality worthy of the same silent boastings of the awards, degrees, and high profile case memorabilia crowding the four corners of the room where he sat.
“Now, why do I get the feeling I’m going to regret buying you that chair?” Eli spun around, meeting the teasing glint in his wife, Rita Roosevelt eyes with a heartwarming smile that rivaled the one spread across her matte-stained lips. “How’s your first official day on the job going? No reason to get out of your big fancy chair I hope.”
“Slow day,” Eli answered, smirking. There wasn’t a trace of regret in his tone when he’d said either. “Looks like Charming, California really is…quite Charming.”
“You know, that wasn’t funny the first time you said it,” Rita replied, belying her words with the amusement twinkling in her eyes. “And no matter how many times you say it, it’ll never convince me to relax. Of all the places we could have relocated…you just had to choose a small town run by a bunch of ruthless bikers.”
“I’m the most qualified for the position,” Eli argued gently, grinning sheepishly at her.
Rita cocked an eyebrow at him, pursed her lips as she dropped the greasy brown paper bag in her hand onto his desk. “I’m the one who’s most qualified to make your lunch for you because any food I cook isn’t going to clog your arteries like your doctor’s been warning you about. But that sure didn’t seem to stop me from bringing you the Philly cheesesteak sub with extra onions and a side of fries from that diner like you asked.”
Eli blew her kiss, quickly snatching the bag up before the taunting woman standing in front of him could change her mind and take it back. He didn’t bother addressing the points of the argument they’d already had more times than he could count on one hand. When it all came down to it, he’d asked earnestly, putting the choice to a three-way vote—his, his wife’s, and the child they were expecting months from now. Rita had an extra half of a vote, an easy sway in her favor. But in the end both her and her one and a half votes had chosen to support her husband’s career aspirations, his drive to pick the location where he felt he could benefit the most people.
“You’re the best, Babe.” Eli was practically drooling as he shoved a hand inside to grab a hand full of french-fries. He chuckled when she snatched the bag, stealing a few for herself as she sat on the edge of his desk. “And here I was just sitting here… trying to remember why exactly I married you,” the teasing officer joked.
“You should really try to eat better,” Rita scolded, her voice soft. “We both should take better care of ourselves. And not just because we might be parents soon.”
Eli dropped the half of the hero he’d been raising towards his mouth. A tissue rustled and crumpled within his right hand, and while he cleaned the grease from his fingers, he gently pressed the palm of his left hand to her stomach. There weren’t many things that could rob him of his appetite where good ole’ greasy food was concerned. But the memories flooding his brain had done the trick. The painful memories of the loss they’d suffered ten years ago still squeezed at his heart, and constricted his throat as they incited a struggle to keep his facial features soft with the love and faith she needed instead of hard with the rage he still felt for the men responsible, and the disappointment and guilt he could only ascribe as his own fault.
He’d underestimated just how ruthless Devonte Pope was. He’d been too shortsighted to see that there was a reason Devonte’s own father, Oakland’s most notorious drug Kingpin kept him at arm’s length. Devonte had been so set on gunning for the cop running point on the case that was going to put him and his crew away for years. And in the end it hadn’t mattered that his younger sister could have—and ultimately was caught in the crossfire.
Eli, the man with the badge, a guy who’d devoted most of his tenure as a Detective trying to collar Damon Pope ended up falling in love with one of his daughters. And he’d come home after a rare night at a bar with his 301 Precinct guys to discover her bleeding on his living room floor.
Devonte and his crew had broken in to attack him, not counting on her still being there at all, let alone by herself—and with the gun Eli had taught her how to use when her father had refused. She’d gotten a shot off in the chest of only one of the masked men before she’d been knocked down, her stomach shattering the glass of his coffee table when her body slammed against it.
Rita lost their baby that night, and the six years that followed had been one disappointment after another as they tried getting pregnant again. The day she’d gotten the news from her doctor had been one of the best of his life. He hung on to that, he chose to focus on that moment alone instead of the fear he shared with her. And for as long and as many talks as it would take, he vowed to do his best to chip away at her fear. “This one’s going to make it, Baby. I know it.”
Rita nodded, moving to fold her hand over the one still pressed against her stomach. “I know,” She responded, braving a smile as she met his eyes. “But it wouldn’t hurt to see a specialist…quiet the voice in my head telling me not to get attached…again.”
“Whatever you need,” Eli declared, pulling her into his lap, kissing her cheek as the chair swayed underneath them. “We can look into together…try to find someone local when I get home tonight.”
He glanced up at the sound of her quiet laughter. “I was actually thinking about making an appointment with your new favorite doctor… Miss Tara Knowles.”
Eli chuckled with her then. “When did she become my favorite?”
Instead of immediately responding, Rita slid off his lap, planting a longing kiss on his lips before stealing a handful of his fries on her way around his desk. “She became your favorite when you chose spending all night pulling her records over popcorn and a movie with your wife.”
“She doesn’t fit in with the rest of the puzzle,” Eli admitted, shrugging at the valid accusation his wife posed. “The only piece—or the only side of her piece that matches with…with SAMCRO and everything I’ve heard…and read about them…the look in her eyes when we saw her at the store…She—”
“You do realize I was a one-off, don’t you?” Rita sighed, pausing in the doorway to peer at the pensive expression on her by-the-book husband’s face. “Eli, I swear…the only differences between you and that surgeon are your badge and her scalpel. I wonder if she’s got a God complex as bad as yours…this need to fix everybody’s problems because you think that’s what you’re meant to do.”
Eli scrunched his eyebrows together. “I’m sorry. Hun. But you lost me at the word scalpel.”
“I already wanted out when you met me… I wanted to get away from my father’s life…I stopped wanting to be Oakland’s first lady like my big sister a long time ago. ‘Vonte and Veronica worship at my father’s feet…she loves how powerful he is and what being his daughter means to everyone who recognizes her when she walks into a room. I hated him for what he put my mother through. You didn’t have to convince me to leave…all I needed was a push to switch from mentally to physically packing my things.”
Eli wriggled his eyebrows at her, smiling. “So you’re saying my charm had nothing to do with it?”
“I’m saying you can’t save everyone,” Rita told him, with only the hint of a smile twitching at the tight line her mouth formed. “And you can’t help someone that doesn’t want to be helped. When you look at her, you see me, don’t you?” When he made no response, Rita nodded her head still. “We’re not the same, Elijah. After I lost my mother there was nothing left for me to hold onto… I have a feeling she has more ties to the life than that little boy in her shopping cart. And children are more than enough on their own. My mom learned that the hard way. So please… Don’t poke the bear. Just do whatever your job requires and then come home to me…come home to us.”
“Okay, Babe.” Eli smiled at the palm her wife pressed against her stomach. “I will…I promise.”
The female prison guard working the metal detector checkpoint had been nice enough to let Abel keep Tara’s keys after counting out each one, logging a note of how many there were and sternly reminding Tara they’d check again before she was allowed to leave the building. It was a small gesture that meant a lot to the couple struggling to figure out what they should say to each other first—while the eleven-month-old bouncing on his father’s lap banged his mother’s house keys against the picnic table.
Every so often Abel would stop banging, turning his head around to smile at the familiar face, the identical blue eyes locked on the green pair that were usually the last thing he saw before he drifted off to sleep at night.
Tara had a plan.
It was a plan with layers, one with a multitude of phases and angles she could play, and she’d worked most, if not all of it out before she’d even entered the iron gates of Stockton Correctional Facility.
But for several minutes now she’d sat there with him—on the same side of the table instead of the opposite bench like she’d planned to when she first psyched herself into coming to visit him.
Tara hadn’t been wrong about their proximity, nor the effect it would have on her either. And she’d gravely underestimated what the yearning, vulnerable look in his eyes would do to her resolve. The longer she sat there in silence, with her fingers trapped within the warmth of his hand’s embrace, the harder the strings weaved into her heart fought to dismantle the rational part of her brain.
“You changed your hair,” Jax said, finally breaking the silence. His hand twitched around hers, almost as if he was tempted to let go in order to run his fingers through it.
Tara didn’t think she could handle any more contact, not another tortuous caress, and she’d allowed him touch her far too much already. She could have blamed it on her elevated hormones, but she knew better. Being pregnant (and with his child) had nothing to do with it. It was simply the way things were, the way they always had been from their very first kiss.
Gently, Tara pulled her hand away from his, promptly making the excuse of running her fingers through the thick, lustrous locks framing her timidly smiling face. “Yeah,” She replied, briefly turning her head to cast another glare in Opie’s oblivious direction. “Lyla got held up during her…shift. And she’d already promise she would take Ellie to get her hair done before her school recital. Opie refused to take her because according to him that’s chick shit…and Abel was with Gemma for the day anyway so I offered to take her…decided I might as well do something with mine while I was waiting. And I’m a doctor, remember?” Jesus Christ. She was getting ready to babble worse than Abel and she couldn’t stop. “That whole warning about dying your hair when you’re pregnant is just a myth, trust me. And it’s just some highlights. The beautician didn’t even have to use much dye at all. And it’s not harmful for the baby at all. My new hairstyle is just as harmless as yours so you don’t have to worry at—”
Jax reached that newly freed hand up, brushing her hair behind her ear, effectively rendering her speechless as that same hand floated its way down to her stomach, gently circling the palm along the bump underneath the teal sundress she was wearing.
Tara didn’t miss the way his eyes pupils dilated when the light movement of his hand on her pregnant belly was enough to send the pleated ends of the dress fluttering back and forth across her thighs, inviting his mind to wander more than it already had been when she’d first sat down with both her legs on either side of the bench.
“I’m not worried,” Jax told her, blue eyes flitting back and forth, from her emerald gaze and the subtle tint to her mouth from the lipstick she was wearing. “I believe you…and you look beautiful…I’ve missed you so much, Babe. I swear you have no fu”—at the last minute, his eyes snapped down to the gurgling child in his arms before he amended his heartfelt admission. “…you have no idea how much,” He said. And then, because he couldn’t seem to keep it PG, not even for his son’s sake, those piercing blue eyes worked their way down to the cleavage peeking out of the V-neckline of her dress. “…just like I had no idea how much your pregnancy would agree with me.”
“Class act as always, Teller.”
Tara barely heard her own voice as she muttered the words. Jax was sitting in the same position she was. And it was for that reason alone that Tara was grateful telepathy wasn’t one of Jackson Teller’s many talents. His eyes hadn’t left her since they sat down so she was certain he hadn’t missed it when her eyes drifted towards the denim crotch of his jeans, staring at the dick caused her both pain and pleasure.
They were in the best position to communicate and keep their focus on Abel, who was quite enjoying being wedged between them. But damn it if it didn’t remind her the Jax wasn’t the only one suffering from the disconnect between them. And that the distance between them went far beyond the emotional, because the four walls of the Stockton prison made any chance of either one of them ignoring their problems long enough to scratch the itch impossible.
“Thank you,” Tara answered, shaking her head as if the motion would clear her mind of dangerously inappropriate thoughts. Quickly, before he could say something else to thwart her efforts to remain in control, Tara averted her eyes, forcing her focus towards the row of vending machines and microwave stations lining the wall over his shoulder. “Are you hungry?” She blurted suddenly.
Jax blinked twice. “What?”
Tara laughed at how quickly his eyes shifted from her breasts. “I remembered to get change for the machines before I came. I’ve got at least fifty in singles,” She explained, reaching for the over-sized messenger bag styled purse she’d brought with her. Once again she found her hand trapped within his when he reached for it before she could sift through the handbag for her wallet.
Tara nodded, looking down at their joined hands. Yet another brief moment of silence settled between them before Jax’s quiet laughter broke through, forcing her to look up, with a question in her eyes that matched the word coming out of her mouth. “What?”
“It’s nothing,” Jax answered, shaking his head as he smiled at her. “I’m just happy you decided to go with highlights instead dying your hair blonde again. I never told you because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings but I hated it when you dyed your hair blonde when we first started dating. You can pull off just about anything, Babe. But blonde?” Jax shook his head, grin widening as he let her hand go to run his fingers through her hair again. “I fell in love with a brunette.”
It was just one word sandwiched between a dozen others, and with all of them completing the most innocent admission he’d ever made to her.
It was a benign truth that could have paved the way for her to shock him with a bitter dose of her own, if she’d been in the mood to share hard truth from her past days as a clueless, knock-kneed teenager. Tara didn’t say a mumbling word about it. The frown turning the corners of her mouth downward would be the only indication of the memory stabbing into her brain. The foolish, sixteen-year-old girl with very little self-esteem—the girl who’d dyed her hair blonde because the boy who’d convinced her to skip school, vandalize the Charming County police station and fall in love with him all in one night seemed to like the Emily Duncan’s and Aubrey Hamilton’s of the town a lot better. She couldn’t make her breasts bigger. And her mom wasn’t around to show her how to put on makeup without making herself look like a clown. But she could follow all the steps on the box of dye she’d bought at the corner store two blocks up from her house. Jax had no idea, and when she’d finally allowed her teenage-self to believe that what she meant to him had nothing to do with how she looked…even then she knew the day they could rock back and forth, hand in hand on their front porch and laugh about how silly she’d been was a long way off.
As it turned out, Jax had a knack for using Blondes to hurt her, whether it was unintentional in his mindless flirting or (Ima) not (tight). Ten years later he hadn’t change one bit. But this time Ima the porn star couldn’t compare to the pain another blonde was threatening to cause her.
“Babe, what’s wrong?”
Tara laughter bitter laughter swiftly shattered any semblance of peace and contentment between them. “What isn’t wrong, Jackson?”
“Wendy wants custody of Abel,” Tara announced, shoving a hand inside her bag. “She wrote you a letter,” She explained, pulling the two envelopes addressed to them both. “She sent them about a month ago…and then she showed up at my office yesterday.”
“Spare me your outrage, Jackson,” Tara growled, her temper abruptly flaring even worse than his. “All you outlaw rage won’t do shit for me or Abel.”
Her voice was hard as granite, and her expression so dark and unfamiliar that the child momentarily forgotten between them dropped the keys in his hand when he looked up at her face. The ring of metal clattered against the bench, slipping along the steel before jangling across the floor like ten dollars’ worth of loose change scattering along the linoleum. The sound was nearly drowned out by Abel’s high-pitched wail, and the heels of his toddler-size white Nikes stomping against the bench when Tara took five seconds too long picking the keys up after she’d startled them from his grip.
Abel’s tantrum had drawn the attention of more than a few pairs eyes—including the 6’4 biker suddenly towering over them. Piney grabbed the keys from Tara’s hand, and swiftly lifted Abel out of Jax’s arms, chuckling when the little boy quieted his cries just enough to allocate his energy towards his two favorite things—Tara’s keys and pulling the beard of whatever biker volunteered to hold the spoiled-rotten kid. “Mom and Pop need to talk shop,” Piney grunted out, walking the sniffling child back towards the table he’d been sitting at.
And then there were two.
Tara stood up, half-stomping around the table to sit on the opposite bench the way she should have done from the beginning. Any trace of happiness over their brief reunion was gone, leaving only the anger and resentment he’d expected from the moment she walked in. Yanking her bag in front of her, Tara pulled a thick manila folder from inside of it, flipping it open, and swiftly spreading the two separate documents on either side of the yellow-orange flaps. “You don’t even need to read the letters,” Tara told him. “Mine was a bunch of a bullshit about how much she appreciates me looking after him…because apparently all I am to Abel is a glorified babysitter to her—and your mother, too by the way.”
“The letter she wrote to you on the other hand,” Tara pressed on, holding her hand up to silence. “It was actually a really entertaining story…I was almost tempted to read it to Abel before I put him to bed. Every child loves a good fairytale.”
“Tara, listen to—”
“She’s going to take him, Jackson.” Tara’s voice lost its bark faster than she could blink away the tears threatening to spill over her bottom lashes. “You can’t fight her in court…not while you’re in handcuffs…you never filed those papers like she asked you to…I should have never convinced you not to do it because now she’s back and when she files for custody it’ll be like she never left…it’s not fair…I was here through all of it while she checked out on him…I’m his….I’m his—”
“You’re his mother,” Jax declared, reaching across the table to grab both of her hands. Only one was available as the other remained underneath the table, gripping the pen trapped within her palm like a lifeline. Jax reached his free hand up to brush his knuckles across the tears sliding down her cheeks instead. “I’m going to take care of this, Babe. I promise… Wendy will never get anywhere near Abel…because I don’t want our son calling anyone mommy but you.”
Tara’s answering smile was every bit as watery, trembling as the twitching along the corners of her eyes as she nodded her head at him.
That night, when they were sixteen, when she told him they had to be exclusive for her to continue to be with him was the night Tara had learned that watching her cry was the one thing her bad-ass biker couldn’t stomach. Jax could kick some drunk asshole’s teeth in for smacking her ass the first time he walked her into the Reaper Clubhouse. He could tolerate his mother Gemma’s meddling and all the shitstorms it caused. He could handle Tara’s short temper and all of the cat-fights and (sometimes) false accusations, and even those rare moments when she’d been drunk enough to try her hand at beating the shit out of him instead of whoever the boundary overstepping bimbo of the night was. But one little teardrop from her eyes, or even the slightest signs of her bottom lip trembling and Jax was completely powerless.
Because Tara had seized all the power from him.
“I hired a new lawyer,” Tara explained, gently pulling her hand out of his to reach for the stack of papers on the left side of the folder—sliding them over to his side of the table, and then finally placing the pen she’d been holding on top of it. “Wendy’s going to file for custody any day now if she hasn’t already. We can’t wait until you get out, Jackson. I need you to sign these so I can file them with the courts and then I need you to—”
Tara blinked hard, her mouth opened and closed as she tried and failed to decipher the impassive expression on his face when he nodded his head at her from across the table. “Okay?”
Jax smiled at her, nodding still. “I’ll sign whatever you need me to sign, Babe. Just give it Rowan…or Lowen and have either one of them look over it to make sure everything is straight.”
“Why wouldn’t it be straight?” Tara squinted her eyes as her head veered left to right. “I just told you I had my lawyer—“
“Your lawyer,” Jax answered. “Not mine….not ours,” He emphasized, waving two fingers between the two of them.
“We can’t trust Ally,” Tara explained. Her newly cropped bangs bounced along her forehead as she shook her head. “Gemma doesn’t want me around anymore. She doesn’t trust me and I know Lowen’s working for her, which means she’s working against me—which means she’s working against us.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jax replied, crossing his arms. “She was never really my lawyer to begin with. Lowen is Clay’s attorney. Rowan was just delegating some of his work to his partner. I’ll make sure I put an end to that shit the next time I see him. You don’t have to worry about it, Babe. Trust me, just give all the paperwork to Rowan so he can look it over. If he says everything is good, I’ll sign it.”
“You don’t trust me….” Tara’s voice didn’t go up at the end of her statement, solemnly affirming that what she’d said wasn’t a question. “I can’t believe you don’t trust me…”
Jax uncrossed his arms, once again reaching across the table, this time swiftly curling his fingers around her wrists when she’d moved to pull her hands out of reach. “Tara, I love you so much… But I made a mistake…it was dick move that I thought I needed to make because I thought I could handle you walking away from me… because I knew you’d be better off… and part of me still believes that but I don’t want to lose you… and with the way I fucked things up I know it’s hard for you to believe me in—to believe in us but I swear to God, Babe—”
“You always have a song and a dance for everything,” Tara hissed, snatching her arms out of his grasp. The bitter, barking laughter tickling her throat as shock registered on his face—it exacerbated the sudden reappearance of the scornful look she’d tucked away when the waterworks she’d turned on with ease had first started. All of her crocodile tears were gone, leaving barely a smudge on her face from the dried salt spread along her cheeks. “How about you skip the sermon and get the point. What’s your excuse this time, Jackson?”
“I don’t need an excuse,” Jax bit back. The glare he leveled at her lacked the heat it normally packed when it came to anyone else who made him angry. “This has to do with Abel. I want to make sure everything is in order.”
“You think I’d trick you into signing something that’s out of order?” Tara’s eyes widened, her mouth formed an ‘O’ of indignation that swiftly switched back to her earlier scowl when all Jax did was laugh at her.
“I think you’re pissed because I hurt you,” Jax responded. “I think you still love me and that’s what’s pissing you off the most. I think you still loved me when you left me eleven years ago and I think that if it wasn’t for Abel you wouldn’t even be sitting here with me now because you would have left me again. You would have given me exactly what I asked for when I pushed you away. And I don’t think this part Tara—because I know I’m not number one anymore. You learned how to live without me a long time ago. But our son?” Jax shook his head. “That’s not an option. And you’ll do whatever it takes to keep him safe, and part of you would probably enjoy fucking me over in the process.”
“Abel is your son, not mine,” Tara barked, snatching the papers he’d completely disregarded, slamming them back on top of the open folder. “That’s what you told me…you and your mother…and that Junkie bitch you married won’t ever let me forget it.”
“Goddamn it, Tara.” Jax raked a hand through the blonde locks cropped closer to his scalp than he was used to. “I already told you. I didn’t fuckin mean it!”
“And what happens when you mean it again?” Tara challenged, raising her voice. “We’re not talking about an engagement ring. If I’m his mother you don’t get to take him back when you decided you’re done.”
“If I’m his mother that means you can’t take him away from me just because I don’t want to be with YOU!”
Jax swallowed hard, his blue eyes drifting down towards the table—and the couple dozen sheets of papers between them. “You’re right…I can’t.”
Tara slid the document she’d taken back across the table again. She nudged his hand with the pen in hers until he met her gaze. “That’s what this does, Jackson. This will make it legal… this will make it so that no one can take Abel away from me… not even the woman who gave birth to him… not even your mother…Sign the papers, Jax. Then sign the papers you should have filed when Wendy gave them to you a year ago…”
“You don’t think I’ve been trying to find another way?” Jax’s blue eyes were pleading, his voice urgent and fueled by the stress creasing the corners of them. “Did you find another way?” Her silence told him everything he needed to know. “I can’t do it, Tara…I already promised him I’d never do it again…after that Irish asshole handed him back to me, I promised him…I vowed to never…”
“Let anyone take Abel from you?” Tara finished for him when his sentence trailed off. “Is that what you think I want? To take him? No, Jax. I don’t want to take him from you. I want to stop him being taken from me…my God, Jackson…I cannot believe you…”
The tears shining in her eyes weren’t forced this time, they weren’t a clever tool to manipulate. They were earnest, and as desperate as they both felt. “After all the promises you’ve broken…You expect me to rely on what you tell me? I’m supposed to just cross my fingers that you’ll come through this time instead falling short of what Abel needs? Of what I need from you? Why the Hell should I trust you? Because you promise? All you ever did was make me promises you didn’t keep… all of your pretty words……whispering them in my ear…. right before I let you bend me over your bike…right before you made me forget I had my own name because I was too busy screaming yours… I had to grow up some time Jax. This is me now…new and improved. I’m not the seventeen-year-old girl afraid of losing the boy she loves to his father’s legacy… I’m a woman who’s terrified of losing her child. Why won’t you help me?”
“Babe…” Jax steeled his jaw, he was wringing his hands as he shook his head at her. “It doesn’t have to be like this. We can handle it another way—together…I just need you to trust me.”
“You know I used to think I sacrificed you,” Tara admitted, smiling. The upturn of her mouth was forced, and clearly more painful than the words floating across the table, towards the blue-eyed man struggling not to choke on the tears he barely kept at bay. “I never gave anything up for you…everything I’ve ever wanted to accomplish, I did it. I left you behind even though I loved you with all my heart… I let you go because at the time I needed to love myself more…or at least enough to get through college and then med school…and then the emptiness I still felt with every guy I’ve ever tried to replace you with…I thought I’d given you up in exchange for a better future. But you weren’t the sacrifice, Jackson…I was…You loved me…You loved me so much but you let me go…and then you let me go again when you slept that porn slut,” Tara whispered, gritting her teeth as she closed her eyes to keep more tears from falling. “…You chose your family…the same family that got your mother raped…the family that got Donna killed…and Abel kidnapped…the family that killed your……”
“You don’t have to stay here,” Jax told her, shaking his head. “You can go anywhere you want…pack a bag and leave tomorrow…take Abel with you…get settled…and—”
“What happens when you get out?” Tara challenged. “Or when Gemma gets off house arrest? What happens if Wendy—”
“Wendy is never getting anywhere near A—”
“How the fuck do you know that?” Tara growled. Several heads turned, and she hadn’t noticed a single curious stare because the anger flashing in her eyes for was for one person only. “Are you the Vice President of family court, too? You think I stayed out of foster care because Frank was father of the year? The system fucks up all the time. And normally there are no guarantees. But this?” Tara tapped her fingers furiously against the stack of neatly binded papers in front of him. “This is a guarantee! For your son…that he’ll always be safe….protected…loved. I swear on my life I’m going to give him all the love you took for granted….you chose your family before right? Abel needs you to do it again….Sacrifice for him…for your baby boy. Put him first.”
“If this was my only option, I would do it, Babe,” Jax lamented. He scrubbed a hand across his face, subtly swiping away the tears threatening to fall. “But it’s not…there’s another way…I just need you say yes.”
“You’re talking about us,” Tara argued, shaking her head. “When all I want to talk about is Abel.”
“Because there is no Us anymore?” Jax grilled, twisting his jaw side to side as he forced his chin to stay up. “Is that what you’re telling me?”
“I don’t want to talk about us right now—“
“Well I DO!” Jax bellowed, slamming his palm against the table. “I want to talk about the four of us. You, me and our children. You are my family and you’re asking me to sign it all away. I can’t do it…A sacrifice is something you make when you’re giving one thing up for something better…There’s nothing in my life worth sacrificing you or—”
“Your boys….” Tara’s smile answered the question in his eyes even before she nodded her head, or pressed a palm to her stomach as she slowly stood up. “The doctor confirmed it yesterday….it’s a boy….another son…and you better believe that not even you can take this one from me.”
His words of protest halted as first waves of her sob broke free from Tara’s chest. “You told me you could do the time,” the crying doctor croaked. “And I tried so hard to prove to you and to myself that I could do it, too…that I could handle this, but I can’t…I can’t do it anymore… I don’t know how to do this…how to fix it, or if it can even be fixed…and I can’t pretend…not even for Abel.” Tara swiped the back of her hand across the steady flow of tears before adjusting the straps of the bag on her shoulder. “Your new haircut looks nice…I like it,” She admitted, offering him a half-hearted smile as she turned to walk away. “…it brings out your eyes.”
“Tara!” Jax jumped up from the bench. “Tara!” He called again, this time fighting the urge to disregard the prison guard’s warning not to step out of bounds. All the while she kept moving, leaving Opie to handle his and Abel’s goodbyes. “TARA!”
She’d just reached the corner wall, and her fingers curled along the same hard surface he’d gripped for support when he’d first walked out into the visitor’s room. Slowly, Tara turned her head back, glancing away from the guard ready to check for the number of keys on the chain that were still with Abel. Silence fell, leaving them both exposed to the large room full of curious strangers, and anxious SAMCRO members.
Jax didn’t give a shit. He was way too angry, much too bitter, and too far beyond seeing the downside of viciously blurting the familiar words he threw back in her face. “I thought you said the noise didn’t matter?” He accused.
But then that same ghost of a smile was back on her face, and it barely reached her cheeks, let alone the sadness in her eyes as Tara lightly shook her head at him. “That’s the problem, Jackson. I want to believe you…I want to believe in you…But lately everything you say to me…all I hear is noise.”
I’ll always remember feelin’
Like I was no good
Like I couldn’t do it for you
Like your mistress could
And it’s all because you lied
Loved you more than ever
More than my own life
The best part of me I gave you
It was sacrificed
And it’s all because you lied
I only give you a hard time
‘Cause I can’t go on and pretend like
I haven’t tried to forgive this
But I’m much too full of resentment