Happy Holidays, Everyone! I hope you enjoy this latest, bittersweet chapter. Let me know what’s on your mind at the end, Kay? 🙂
You’re the only one I wish I could forget
The only one I’d love to not forgive
And though you break my heart,
…You’re the only one
And though there are times when I hate you
‘Cause I can’t erase
The times that you hurt me and put tears on my face
And even now, while I hate you,
It pains me to say
I know I’ll be there at the end of the day…
“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.”
Tara’s final say before turning her back on him, before she continued on her path, headed towards the Stockton prison’s entrance—her exit.
Her freedom from him.
The pole Jax had nearly taken in his right eye several hours before would have been less painful. He didn’t bother calling after again, because he knew she wouldn’t turn back around. And he was at a loss for any words he could say that would make a damn bit of difference. But his eyes—every bit as glassy as they were a piercing indigo—they weren’t the only baby-blues glued to Tara Knowles’ quickly retreating figure.
Abel Teller’s eyes darted back and forth, from the angry, tortured expression on Jax’s face, to the green-eyed brunette pointing a finger at the eleven-month-old as she spoke to the female guard stopping her from walking past the desk. His tiny blonde head veered back, his little arms pushed against Opie’s neck, and the little boy craned his own neck to stare after his mother over the large biker’s shoulders.
One of the other guards manning the front desk—a short, pudgy man with the name Taylor sewn in on his uniform began walking towards them. Officer Taylor shook his head as Opie held Abel out to his father’s waiting arms. “Sorry, Teller. Your visits over,” the not-sorry-at all Correction’s officer explained, extending his own arms out to grab the child.
Jax reached out, pulling his already pouting son close to his chest before the man in uniform could. And it wasn’t so much the subtle shake of his head, but rather the deadly threat in his eyes that had the shorter man instinctively sliding one of his empty hands to the baton holstered at his waist. “Visiting hours aren’t over for another thirty minutes,” Jax answered. His blue eyes left the afrronted expression on the pint-sized officers face as he raised his chin to glare at the brunette still talking with the female prison guard by the desk.
After whatever the officer said to her last, Tara began walking back in his direction as the guard still behind the desk grabbed the receiver of the phone on the wall.
Just for a moment, Jax allowed himself to give in to hope that he’d get to finish his visit with the three of them—him, Tara and Abel. He didn’t give a shit if they had to pretend this time. Fuck it, they’d fake it until they made it. He just needed an ending that was better than her last words.
“They won’t let me leave without the keys,” Tara explained. There was a plea in both her eyes and her voice. Whether it was for mercy, understanding or both—it didn’t matter to him. Both emotions hurt as much as they angered.
“Then take them,” Jax barked, gently pulling them from Abel’s hand. Tara cringed, bracing herself for the temper tantrum that never came. Abel was quiet as a mouse, glancing back and forth between mother and father as Jax held the keys in his hands out to her. “I would let you take him with you,” He sneered, nostrils flaring. “But who knows when’s the next time you’ll let him visit? Something tells me he’s going to come down with a fever every time I want to see him.”
He was spared the verbal assault already forming in Tara’s snarling mouth when Officer Taylor stepped forward, blocking his view of the twitching hand at her side—the tightly balled fist with his name engraved across her white knuckles. “That’s not how this works, Pal.” Taylor jutted his thumb back towards the angry brunette behind him. “He was signed in as a minor visiting with his mother. When she leaves, he leaves.”
When Opie stepped closer, Piney was standing behind him. Tig, Juice and Clay weren’t far behind.
“What the Hell is this?” Officer Taylor fumed. There was no mistaking both hands that were at his sides, nor his fingers’ proximity to his baton and his firearm on the other side of his belt. “This isn’t some picnic at your clubhouse. Everybody get back to the tables they were assigned,” the little man barked, jerking his head to angrily point a finger at Tara. “And you. Get your kid and—”
“It’s fine, Sherman,” said the female guard briskly walking up to join the group. Everyone standing around him—the bikers and the doctor—breathed a sigh of relief when the correction officer’s words narrowly averted Jax’s reaction to Taylor putting his hand in Tara’s face, not even ten seconds after trying to grab his kid. “Let her go. The boss says she can wait in the lobby while little man here gets some one on one time with his father,” the kind woman in uniform instructed. Officer Eglee—according to her embroidered nametag—turned to smile at Tara. “You’re free to go, Sweetheart. You just have to sign the keys out with you.”
Jax blinked once and Tara was standing directly in front of him before his eyelids fully reopened. And just like before, her focus was solely on the little boy in his arms when she smiled, then kissed his nose. “Have fun with Daddy okay, Baby?”
Tara turned her back to them, slowly making her way towards her exit.
Abel was already whining before she took three steps.
And when she’d cleared the first picnic table—seating a family playing cards—Abel was bawling the way she’d expected him to when Jax had taken the keys from him.
“Aww, come on Monster,” Jax crooned, bouncing the shrieking child in his arms, kissing his forehead. “She’s not leaving you… she’s not going anywhere… she’s going to wait for you on the outside Okay?”
She knows how much you love her…how much you need her.
His words of assurance were no more useful than he felt when Tara finally stopped walking, turning to look back at them.
“Looks like we’ve got a momma’s boy,” Officer Eglee commented, shaking her head as she turned to smile at the mother in question. “Typical, I suppose…I guess little man’s not up for a visit without you, Mom.”
Panic flashed in Tara’s green eyes. And it was that and the warring guilt bleeding through the mask she’d failed to uphold that gutted him, straight through to his soul.
She didn’t want to be there anymore, truly.
Tara didn’t want to spend another minute, let alone thirty anywhere near him. But she could hardly stomach the thought of denying him time to spend with Abel.
Jax could see it in her eyes—that she felt trapped. The longer he stood there, failing to soothe the screaming baby in his arms, failing to find words that would convince her, not just to stay but to want to stay, the deeper the knife twisted in his gut. When Tara finally met his eyes—there were simply no words to describe the pain tightening his chest as she silently begged him. This time the mercy was unmistakable.
It was physically painful, seeing her like this.
Jax gathered all of his strength, willing himself not to emulate his eleven-month son as he held the crying child out to the wide, glassy-eyed brunette in front of him.
“Are you sure?” Tara asked gently, already hugging the sniffling child to her chest, rubbing his back while she swayed left to right. Jax didn’t trust his voice, so he nodded instead, and his jaw tightened just a little more as a smile that was one of thanks slowly spread across her face. It was gone as quickly as it came though. And Tara’s frown was deeper when she turned her head to look at Opie. Quietly she muttered, “Call me when you want to bring him up and I’ll make sure he’s ready…”
While I still have him.
They were omitted words she hadn’t spoken. She hadn’t a need to because they were still written all over her face when she quickly turned her back to him for the last time. Her stride was less hurried this time, almost as if she’d longed to savor every last second with the child staring after Jax, reaching his hand out for the man he watched over his mother’s trembling shoulder. Abel was starting to cry again, and the agonizing assault on everyone’s ears seemed imminent until Tara paused just long enough to give him the keys she’d stashed in her bag.
“We need to talk, Brother,” Opie said, breaking through the strained silence moments after they’d disappeared from sight.
Officer Taylor stepped forward yet again, chest puffed out. “Back to your assigned table.”
“It’s cool, Dude,” Juice interjected, holding a hand up as he took a few steps backward. “I was heading back inside anyway. So he can just—”
“No, he can’t,” C.O Taylor half-yelled, shooting the young biker a warning glare. “This isn’t musical chairs! His visit is over! And if you don’t sit down and shut up yours will be, too!”
Juice shook his head, squinting his eyes. “I just told you…I’m done with my visit anyway. Why can’t he sit with him for—”
“Because I said so, shit-bird!”
“We all rode up here together,” Piney explained, stepping directly in Jax’s path. “We’re all leaving together. So why not just—”
Officer Taylor chuckled. “Yeah,” He sneered, grinning at Jax, “Not all of you.”
“Calm the fuck down,” Opie whispered harshly, gripping his arm. Jax shook loose from his grip, but thankfully made no move to swing. Instead he stood there, watching in heated silence as Officer Eglee turned her back to them, leaning her head down to whisper something to the obnoxious prison guard.
“No,” Taylor hissed, flinging his arm out to furiously point in their direction. “That’s bullshit, Stephanie. These assholes think they run shit in here! That they’re above all the rules everyone else has to follow!”
“Have a heart, Sherman,” Eglee replied, turning to smile and nod her head up at the youngest prisoner in the group. “Go ahead and head back inside, Carlos,” the female guard instructed, before turning her eyes on the taller man standing next to him. “You,” She continued, locking eyes with Opie as she waved a hand, gesturing towards the table Jax and Tara had been sitting at. “No more bouncing from table to table. You park it right there, and that’s where you’re staying until visiting hours are over. Everyone else get back to the tables they’ve been assigned—prisoners and visitors…And no more drama, understood?” Her final comment was a question she’d voiced only after her wide, brown eyes fell on the eerily quiet prisoner who’d just finished watching his son and the woman he loved leave him behind. “We clear on that, Teller?”
Jax turned his head towards the short guard standing next to her, fixing his white-hot gaze on the testy guard. “Crystal.”
Ever since Gemma’s reveal that she’d been having the club prospects follow her, Wendy Case couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder every once in a while. When anything resembling the sound of a motorcycle’s engine touched on her ears, her head would snap in that direction. If there was an unmarked van parked across the street, or easing its way through nonexistent traffic she’d squint her eyes to see through the tinted windows. And if she spotted a pickup truck, her brown eyes would quickly scan the sides for the familiar Teller-Morrow logo along the paintjob.
Wendy didn’t allow herself to relax until she’d finally reached her destination. Pulling on the handle, she slipped inside one of the double doors, stepping inside the San Joaquin County Family courthouse. She stopped walking as she reached the center of the lobby, quickly scanning the bustling crowd of men and women in various states of formal, professional dress—actively searching the wide Hall for one lawyer in particular.
Her cellphone vibrated against her thigh.
Sliding a hand into her loose-hanging, black slacks, Wendy pulled the smartphone from her pocket, scanning the caller I.D.
Gemma was calling her again. As she stood there, contemplating whether or not ignoring the matriarch’s call a third time was wise, footsteps approached her, and before she could lift her head to glance up at the figure casting a shadow over the phone in her hand, the man who’d come to a stop in front of her was already reaching inside the messenger hanging from his side.
Wendy gasped, jumping several steps back as she took in the sleeves’ worth of tattoos on both of his arms, and the teardrops inked in at the corners of his eyes. The tall, burly man merely chuckled. He shook his head at her reaction, smiling as he cocked an eyebrow at her in question. “Wendy Case?”
Wendy swallowed hard, her eyes were wide with alarm, and she’d taken two additional steps back when another deep voice behind her said, “Morning, Bradley.”
Tattoo guy nodded his head at the handsome bailiff walking past them. The heavy gym bag hanging off his shoulder made the ring of keys and handcuffs holstered at his waist jingle as it swung against them. “We still on for Friday right?”
“Yeah,” the court officer said, scratching the side of his neck as he paused. Looking down he muttered. “Hey listen, Man. Just a heads up. I invited the judge.”
“Dude!” Bradley groaned, shaking his head in disgust.
Wendy breathed a sigh of relief as the young man with his hand still sifting through the contents of his messenger bag turned back to face her as the dark-skinned man in uniform chuckled his way past them. “Wendy Case?”
“Are you the family law guy from Al—uh, Ms. Lowen’s firm?” Wendy asked, scrunching her eyebrows together. She quickly glanced down at her phone, sliding the lock screen off with her thumb to check that the missed calls on her log really were all from Gemma. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why she didn’t tell me you’d be—”
“Are you Wendy Case or not?” Bradley interrupted, sighing in frustration. “Three different women with blonde hair and brown eyes have already passed by since I asked you the question. I got other people to see, Sweetheart. Are you her or not?”
“Yes,” Wendy answered finally. “I am. Who are you?”
“Thank you,” Bradley replied, rolling his eyes. He yanked the hand from his bag, pulling a burnt-orange manila folder from inside it. “You’ve been served,” He said, holding it out to her. “Have a nice day.”
Bradley the tatooed guy was already walking away before the pads of her fingers had fully gripped the sealed, official document he’d handed her.
It was the most twisted sense of déjà vu sitting across from each other the way they were. Jax fuming mad, hands folded into a tent on the table between them, his hard blue eyes fixed on the gap between his hands.
And Opie—calm and composed, gathering his thoughts, organizing his words and contemplating their order and execution.
His shadow casted over the table as he leaned forward, lowering his voice even more than usual when he spoke out, finally breaking through the silence. “We sat down for church last night,” Opie explained. “We put Clay’s plan to a vote and—”
Jax pulled his hands apart, slamming a fist roughly against the table. “Do I look like I give a shit about club business right now? I’m not out here to talk about what Clay’s plans are. I’m waiting for you to explain to me why my ex-wife is in town harassing Tara at her job and you don’t know about it.”
“I know all about, Bro,” Opie replied, nodding solemnly. “Wendy showed up about a week ago. Her first stop in town must have been Gemma. And whatever she said to your mother must have pissed her off enough for her to tell the prospects to follow Wendy around instead of Tara… Yesterday was the first time Wendy came anywhere near her though.”
“What the Hell do you mean she went to see Gemma?” Jax growled. “For what? And when were you planning on telling me my mother’s back to her bullshit? Trying to pit the two of them against each other? She did the same thing the night Abel came home from the hospital. I don’t need this shit right now, Ope. I’ve got enough of my own fuck-ups to fix and if Gemma’s twisting her up over some bullshit power-play I’m gonna end up getting worse than a slap in the face this time. This is my family. You’re supposed to be looking out for mine the way I looked out for yours when you were stuck in this shithole,” the angry biker VP fumed. Jax speared his finger at the table between them, stabbing it hard against the surface. “I should have heard about Wendy the second y’all knew she was back in town.”
“Fuck you.” Opie snapped, nostrils flaring. “What am I—telepathic?” He sneered, spearing his own finger towards Jax’s face. “How the Hell am I supposed to tell you anything when you don’t know how to pick up the goddamn phone and call me? Call any of us? I spend two hours riding up here, putting up with these asshole patting me down only to come in here and be denied visitation because you can’t be bothered to show your face. You don’t give a shit about club business?” Opie nodded stiffly, eyes narrowing. “I’m sure Tara would be glad to hear that. But what about your brothers? You still give a shit about us? How about the fact that Phil took two in the shoulder from those Russian assholes that came after us last night? You think maybe we could stop watching your Old Lady long enough to focus on not getting killed? You think maybe you could stop crying because Tara caught you with your pants down—again—long enough for us to work out a plan that keeps all of us whole?”
“You got a lot of fuckin nerve, throwing Donna and the kids in my face like that,” Opie accused, scowling at him.
Jax hung as the weight of his brother’s words hit him hard, knocking the anger fueling his short temper right out of him. “…I’m sorry, Bro.”
Opie snorted. “You’ve been doing a lot of apologizing lately,” He goaded, cocking his head sideways. “How’s that been working out for you so far?”
Jax’s answering smile was all bitter, nothing sweet. “Maybe you should have fucked a porn star before you took that plea deal,” He mused, staring down at the table. “Donna would have left when you wanted her to…probably still be alive somewhere… maybe in Chicago…or San Diego…fuckin some ATF asshole…”
The angry retort died on Opie’s tongue when Jax glanced up from the steel table he’d been studying his own tortured reflection in. His best friend, his brother. He was right there—right where Tara had left him. His back against the ropes, eyes swollen shut, nose and mouth crushed and dripping with blood.
Opie couldn’t do it. Even though he righteously should have, he didn’t.
Somehow the larger man knew that Jax was unlikely to get back up this time.
So Opie swallowed all of the anger, the hurt and betrayal he felt. He reached deep down for empathy instead. He thoughtof the unwavering patience and love Jax had shown him the entire time he’d naively taken Clay’s side after Donna’s murder.
“I already told you, Bro…Tara’s not going anywhere,” Opie said, shaking his head. “…Not unless you want her to leave.”
Jax’s eyebrows arched, he shook his head as his shoulders jumped. “What the Hell is that supposed to mean? Of course I don’t want her to leave.”
“Then why won’t you sign the papers?” Opie’s eyebrows rose in question when Jax scrubbed a hand across his face. “Didn’t you tell me you weren’t going to use Abel to get her back?”
“I’m not using him, Opie.” Jax raked that same hand through his freshly cropped hair. “This shit ain’t as simple as you think it is. Tara is Abel’s mother…in every way that matters to me or him. But he’s my son, too.”
“We all know he’s your son—”
“Yeah, and signing those papers negates that!” Jax blurted, widening his eyes. “You can’t adopt a child that already has parents, Opie. Believe me, Bro. I’ve been over this shit with Rowan so many times, at this point I’m just paying him to humor me. And even when I get Wendy to signs away her rights to Abel again… it won’t be enough because Tara wants me to sign my rights away, too. She wants me to sign my name on a piece of paper that says I don’t want to be his father anymore. And you better believe that shit is as good as permanent because there is no comeback story for me. I’m a convicted felon…twice now… They’ll laugh my ass out of family court if I even think about fighting her—“
“Fighting here for what, Bro?” Opie interjected, shrugging his shoulders. “What the Hell is there to fight over?”
“I’m going to have two sons,” Jax told him, twisting his jaw left to right as he looked down. “…Abel’s the only one she can’t keep from me…not unless I let her.”
“You two are so fuckin annoying,” Opie lamented, rolling his eyes. “I swear it’s like we’re eighteen again.”
“No.” Jax shook his head furiously. “It’s not…I’m not just afraid of losing her this time.”
“Yeah, Okay.” Opie’s eyes rounded, and his broad shoulders veered up towards his ears yet again when he told him, “But if you don’t do something you’re going to lose them anyway… Tara and your other son…and then what? She comes back ten years from now because she’s running from his step-Daddy?” Opie couldn’t hide his smile when his best friend’s dejected expression immediately morphed into white-hot anger. “Come on, Bro. Tara’s pregnant. She gets to blame her stupidity on her hormones. What’s your excuse, Man?”
“Aren’t you the same one asking her to trust you?” Opie pressed on, holding a hand up to his words of protest. “Last time I checked…trust is the kind of shit that goes both ways, Brutha. You gotta give a little to get some back. And with Tara, Man… you’re gonna have to give her stubborn ass a a lot more than just a little…”
Opie sighed when Jax’s only response was to shake his head and avert his gaze, fixing his blue eyes back on the table once again. Those same baby-blues were shooting upward to study the larger man suddenly chuckling in front of him, and not quite under his breath either.
“Now you think this shit is funny?”
“It’s hilarious,” Opie replied, smirking. “You’re really sitting in here, scared shitless…like there’s anywhere in the world Tara could run to that Gemma wouldn’t find her ass the second she gets that bracelet off her leg.”
Jax’s begrudging smile belied his words even as he shook his head. “That shit ain’t funny, Bro.”
“Nope.” Opie replied, laughing harder when Jax finally joined in with him. “But you know I’m right.”
“I got a feeling Gemma’s going to hold Tara up tonight,” Jax surmised, shaking his head with the ghost of a rare smile threatening to brighten his eyes. “I don’t see her making it home in time to answer my call so… Look, just tell her to come back up here on Thursday… bring Abel… and the papers… we’ll talk…then…if I have to…Look man, either way I’m signing something.”
“Thursday?” Opie squinted his eyes at him, eyebrows threading together. “Why not tomorrow? The longer you—“
“That’s the second thing I need you to do,” Jax interrupted. Any trace of his earlier smile vanished behind the tight line his mouth formed as anger bled into his features. “I’m going to put her name on the list. Make sure Wendy’s up here tomorrow morning. Visiting hours start nine. She better sitting across from me by nine-fifteen.”
“Listen, Brutha…” Jax tilted his head to one side, folded his hands into a tent again as the other man considered his thoughts. “There’s some shit going on that I don’t even think Tara knows about…Your ex-wife, Bro… she’s fuckin your lawyer.”
“What?” Jax exclaimed, grinning. “Bullshit, Man. I lost count of how many times I caught him staring Happy down like he wanted to jump him. I had to stop Hap from knocking his ass out a couple times. Rowan bats for the other team, Bro.”
Opie smirked. “Yeah, well apparently so does Wendy,” He responded. “She’s fuckin Lowen, not him…Rat caught her slipping out of some shitty motel a couple days in the row…in the same clothes from the night before.”
Jax rubbed at the shock in his expression with the palm he raked across his face. “Jesus Christ.”
“I don’t know what she said to Tara or Gemma when she saw them, but putting two and two together here, it looks like whatever she’s up to…Rowan’s partner is helping her.” Opie shook his head, raising and dropping a single shoulder. “Her new lawyer probably has her feeling invincible… especially since I think your mother is using her for something… probably to show Tara how big her stick is.”
“I don’t give a shit who’s backing her, or who she thinks she’s got in her corner,” Jax fumed, swiftly switching back into rage-mode. “She’s lucky I’m even willing to talk first…you make sure she’s up tomorrow…”
Opie nodded stiffly, and his hazel eyes briefly darted towards the observation desk across the room, making note of the guards swapping their posts in preparation for the shift change. “And if she doesn’t?”
Jax’s voice was low and deadly as he leaned across the table, forearms pressing against the cool steel. “Tell Happy I might need him to smile for me.”
Ally Lowen didn’t bother to look up from the legal pad on her desk, and she was still scribbling her notes for court in between the wide-ruled margins as she used her free hand to press the conference button on her office landline. “I asked you to hold all of my calls.”
“Yes, well you actually have a walk-in,” Her secretary explained. “Ms. Case is here to see you…again.”
The fountain pen froze in Ally’s hand as something occurred to her. “Shit.”
“…I’ve checked twice already and I don’t see an appointment on the books for this afternoon but according to her you’re expecting her…”
Ally leaned back in her chair, pinched at the bridge of her nose and sighed. “Just send her in…Thanks, Martin.”
Wendy was pushing the glass doors to her corner office open before she’d had a chance to gather her thoughts. “What?” The blonde exclaimed, walking towards her as the doors clinked shut behind her. “Is the honeymoon phase over already, Honey?”
“I told you that your court date was postponed,” Ally explained, holding up two fingers. “I told you twice before I hung up but you weren’t paying attention. You’re too busy focused on convincing me—”
“Why did you hang up?” Wendy interrupted, crossing her arms as she came to a stop at the side of her desk.
Ally spun her chair around to fully face her. Annoyance flashed in her eyes when she said, “Because you’re talking like a crazy person.”
“I’m just being practical.”
“No, you’re being an idiot!” Ally hissed, slapping her hand against her desk. “You want to know what my definition of crazy is? It’s when you do the same stupid shit over and over again and you actually expect a different result.”
Wendy cocked an eyebrow, smirking wryly. “So that’s what I’m doing, Huh?”
“We can’t trust Gemma,” Ally argued, her voice dripping with exasperation. “And seeing as you’re not actually crazy, there’s no beating her at her own twisted games either. One phone call and she’s got you scared straight. You’re ready to work with her when that woman doesn’t trust either one of us as far as she can walk outside her front door without her ankle monitor going off! It’s not smart, Wendy. You need to let me finish this brief and prep for court. We’ll handle this the legal way. What you want to do…it’s playing with fire….we’re not outlaws.”
“You want to talk about handling things the legal way?” Wendy fumed, shoving a hand into the large purse hanging by the single strap still on her shoulder. Ally watched as she pulled a thick, manila envelope from inside it. She tossed it down hard, against the desk, pointing at it as several of the pages neatly stacked inside the envelope cascaded out from the open top. “Turns out Tara is all about handling her shit the legal way,” the irate blonde explained. “But then I guess the biggest part of using the law is lying through your teeth to get results.”
Ally sat up straight in her chair, and she was already reaching for the documents as she asked, “What is this?”
“It’s a restraining order.” Wendy nodded stiffly, one hand slid up to rest on her hip, her foot tapped against the hardwood floor. “Tara took out an emergency order of protection that prohibits me from coming within one hundred yards of her…her job…Jackson’s house… or Abel.”
Ally stopped reading, glancing up from the top page. “She can’t do that,” The seasoned attorney declared, shaking her head. “She can’t keep you away from her and maybe even Jax’s property but Abel is biologically and legally your son. And—“
“I almost killed him,” Wendy snapped, glaring. “I tried to kill myself and my baby to hurt my lying, cheating, piece of shit husband. I wanted to hurt him the way he hurt me and when we both survived, my drug dealer sent one of his guys to shut me up because according to him there’s nothing worse than a junkie-rat and they didn’t want me to talk… I left Abel with Jax because I wasn’t ready to be a mother. I tried to sign away my rights but Jax wanted to give me time to get clean, get my life together, maybe change my mind about raising our child together…but I was on my own, and it wasn’t as easy as I thought…especially when I was out of sight, out of mind to him…he never even called to check on me…came to see how I was doing…and then I found out why…I found out that Abel’s doctor was my ex-husband’s high school sweetheart…that she came back just in time to steal the happy home Jax couldn’t be bothered to try and give me…so I snapped…I showed up at her office…high as shit…and I told her all of the above… making threats against her and Abel…and Jax for hurting me…her supervisor and another surgeon were witnesses to my meltdown…security was called.”
Ally tossed the stack of pages in her hand and the envelope underneath them back onto the desk. “It doesn’t matter how many lies she comes up with,” the shocked attorney said, looking down at the floor as she braced herself for the rebuttal she knew to be imminent. “I’m good at what I do, Baby…I can disprove all of it in court…you need to leave all of this Machiavellian shit to them,” Ally lifted her head to meet the defiance burning in Wendy’s eyes. “I need you to trust that I can do my job.”
“Doing your job isn’t going to be enough,” Wendy told her, frowning. “I’m sorry, Babe, but it’s not. I’m not the same woman I was a year ago, but neither is Tara…she’s different, Aleah…she’s going to handle this the way her future mother-in-law would…and when Jax finds out…” Wendy’s eyes flitted towards the ceiling, a bitter chuckle slipped through the cracks of the tight line her mouth formed when she sighed. “…if he doesn’t already know—”
“Of course he knows, Wendy!” Ally stood up then. “I’d be willing to bet every dollar in my bank account that you were the first subject that came up the last time he called—Gemma or Tara. And it doesn’t matter which one. You can’t trust either one of them. And now that they all know what you’re planning—what we’re planning…that you’re trying to get your son back. It’s too late to play nice.”
“And I’m not walking away either!” Wendy growled, her voice rising. “This? What we have right now? It’s a fuckin solar eclipse, Ally. I’ve got a limited window where Gemma and Jackson’s reach can only stretch so far. You say the club is at war with some Russian gang? Well it’ll probably be the Irish or the Mayan or the purple miners—whatever the fuck their called next week! I need to get Abel away from all of this before he ends up dead the next time Jax and his live-in doctor are caught in the middle of SAMCRO’s bullshit!”
“I’m with you, Wendy.” Ally slapped a hand to her chest, shaking her head. “Me and the law. We’re on notice now. We can be smarter because we know what to look out for. She can’t come after you herself right now. You don’t need her—”
“Yes, we DO!” Wendy shrieked. “I can’t fight them both! Not at the same time! Not if Gemma decides to switch teams again—”
“—and we both know she will—“
“Not unless she’s on the losing side!” Wendy’s brown eyes were wide and wild as she snatched the restraining order she’d been served off the desk. The papers flapped between them as she waved them in the anxious lawyers face.
The breeze from the dancing pages did very little to cool the heat emitting from her face. When she spoke her voice was soft, and her words severe. “I know the definition of crazy, Ally. And I’m glad you know it, too. But what you need to learn and understand is the concept of the lesser evil…right now Gemma’s it….and we need to work with everything we’ve got.”
Margaret Murphy tapped her knuckles against closed office door, waiting several seconds before moving to curl her fingers around the handle. The thin metal was cool against her palm as she twisted it, slowly pushing the door open, stepping inside.
The room was dark, eerily quiet. And when Tara briefly glanced up from her lap, the silhouette of her head danced along the tightly drawn blinds keeping the mid-evening light from seeping through the windows behind her.
“You cancelled your surgery,” Margaret said, slowly walking closer to the young woman staring down at her stomach. “Are you nervous about working solo? I spoke with Doctor Namid and Doctor Chambers. They both are of the impression that you’re more than capable. I know you’ve got a lot going on in your um…in your personal life but…but you shouldn’t…you……Tara, are you alright?”
Tara slowly lifted her head, tearing her gaze away from the spot on her stomach that her palm was still rubbing circles across.
“My mother was a single parent,” the withdrawn surgeon blurted. Tara shifted in the rolling chair beneath her, tilting her head to one side as her emerald gaze once again abandoned the concern in her supervisor’s eyes—this time to fixate on the doctorate degree mounted on the wall above Margaret’s right shoulder. “I spent half my childhood convincing people she wasn’t though…my father was the best daddy in the world until my mommy died and made him sad…it was the alcohol…and he only drank it because it made him feel better…”
Margaret took several steps back, quickly shuffling forward to take a seat in one of the two chairs across from Tara’s desk once she’d flipped the switch by the closed office door. Tara’s eyes barely reacted to the sudden burst of light flooding the room, and she hadn’t yet looked away from the spot where the M.D she’d worked so hard hung, not even during the brief seconds that the elder woman’s head had blocked it from view. “You need to tell me what’s going on with you, Tara. Why were you and that Wendy woman really arguing in your office? And why do you need me and Doctor Chambers as witnesses for something we didn’t even, well…I’m not even sure what we witnessed.”
Tara shook her head, green eyes bouncing to take in her concern, then flitting back up to the wall above her head. Her voice was dry, monotone even when she shook her head, quietly muttering, “It doesn’t matter now…”
“Of course it doesn’t matter,” Margaret responded, needlessly adjusting the glasses sliding down the bridge of her nose. “I’m already prepared to give my statement. And when I spoke with Doctor Chambers he said the same. But Tara, if you’re in some kind of trouble again, you need to tell me. A piece of paper is nothing but a temporary fix if there’s something serious going on.”
“…My father was a miserable son of a bitch before my mother died,” Tara said, averting her gaze to the center of her desk this time. “…Frank loved his Bourbon way before her final diagnosis…He was supposed to be a Pro-Athlete…signing multi-million dollar contracts…but then he shattered his knee and his dream career over…fast forward eight years and now he’s working a construction job that he hates, he’s married to the high school sweetheart who always had way more ambition than he ever did…and then they have a kid…a daughter he couldn’t give two shits about until I was old enough for him to send me to the store to buy him a pack of smokes.”
Margaret took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. “Tara,” the St. Thomas supervisor said, speaking in the gentlest of tones. “What’s wrong?”
Tara’s eyes shifted from the smooth surface of her desk, down to the top drawer built into it. Slowly, robotically almost, Tara pulled the drawer open. The hinges whirred, clinking to a sudden stop when she stuck her hand inside, pulling a tall, glass bottle of amber liquid, placing it in the middle of the desk. “Old Crowe,” the emotionless doctor voiced, nodding to the shiny black label framing the liquor bottle. “That was Frank’s favorite…his poison of choice…he used to go through a six pack of Colt 45…then wash them down with as much of his favorite drink as he could before he passed out…but that was just his my wife and kid make me miserable diet…when mom died, from that point on every night he’d get the party started early… he didn’t bother with beer…he’d skipped straight to the good stuff…”
Margaret curled her hand around the neck of the bottle, tightening her grip when Tara reached to put the bottle back in the drawer. “Why are you telling me this, Tara?”
“I always figured he just didn’t want to face it all, ya know?” Tara squinted her eyes, blinking away the first signs of the mask keeping her face neutral melting away. “…Whiskey was his security blanket…it was what got him through all the anger…and the pain, and the guilt…it helped him push it down…it kept it a bay until he sobered up…and then he’d start the burying all over again.”
Tara shook her head slowly, and the first teardrop sprang free from her lashes. The pads of her fingers caught it at the bridge of her nose, swiping it into nonexistence as she swallowed against the lump in her throat. “I was just…God, I was so fuckin angry all the time,” Tara admitted. “Angry with myself because I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think, I could barely breathe until he came back…and he always came back… with the same empty promises….and the pain…it almost killed me…every time the phone rang and he just wasn’t getting it, or maybe he did get it but it still wasn’t enough for him to care…he didn’t care enough to do anything change it…all he had were more promises and I couldn’t let myself believe in them anymore…”
Tara shut her eyes, the tight corners of her mouth twisted up into a strained smile. “I lost count of how many times I tried to leave, but didn’t…and then one day I realized I couldn’t do it all alone….it was the one time my father ever came through for me.”
Margaret settled deeper into her chair, folding her hands into a tent on her lap. “What happened?”
“The guilt came next,” Tara answered. Her eyes were fixed on the bottle she’d placed on the desk between them. “Knowing what I had to do…knowing how much it was going to hurt him…that it might destroy us both…I just needed one night…after seven years of cleaning up my father’s vomit…picking him off the bar floor on Saturday nights…I needed him to stay sober…so I didn’t have to be…whistling…singing, dancing to loud music…it wouldn’t work…it hadn’t worked before…I’d unpack my things every single time…No, I needed something to push it down…I need a little…liquid courage…and I needed someone to remember to call me a cab and give the driver the correct address…”
“When you left him…” Margaret mused, nodding her head as understanding slowly set in. “…You’re talking about when you left Charming all those years ago…when you left him.”
Tara answer came in the form of laughter, and the bitter sound was so abrupt it startled even her as it rumbled deep in her chest. “I don’t even remember how I did it,” She said, her dark laughter fading. Her head shook left to right over and over. “One second I was kissing him goodbye before he rode off…knowing that it would be the last time… and then I was alone in my bedroom…crying and knocking back shots…one more for every box I sealed shut…for every bag I manage to pack…the last thing I remember is puking all over my cousin’s front steps…”
Margaret didn’t know what to say, or how to say it—and as she fumbled for words Tara quelled her need of an immediate response when the green-eyed brunette leaned forward in her chair, with both her palms threaded together, over her stomach. “You really want to help me, Margaret?” Tara asked, no longer bothered with wiping the tears streaming down her face. “Tell me how you turned it off…I need to know how you did it because I can’t move…I can’t leave…I don’t remember how and I just…I just can’t…I can’t, so I need you tell me how to turn it off.”
“I still love him.” Her voice sliced straight through, sharper and swifter than the ten-blade scalpel she used in the operating room. It was amazing, hauntingly so, how something so small could cause so much pain when it tickled the drums of her ears as she spoke in a voice thickened from her tears, and barely above a whisper. “I love Jackson so much,” Tara sobbed. “But I can’t do this…I don’t want to feel like this…and right now it’s just like before…he can’t come after me…he can’t change my mind. So I need to leave, I have to get the Hell out of here but I can’t turn it off…I don’t remember how I did it…and that’s probably because I never really turned it off. But you did…You turned it off—”
“I didn’t have a choice, Tara.” Margaret’s expression was grave, equal bursts of phantom pain unearthed and empathy for the new company of her past’s misery. “Peter died… and the drugs we took…I nearly died with him…you talk about a night of getting blackout drunk so you didn’t have to think about the man you love…about what you were doing…I spent six months lying in a hospital bed…I’m the one that could barely breath. All I did was sleep and all I could do was think…I thought about the life we should have lived…and every day after I woke up I vowed to live that life, even if I had to do it without him.”
“I could have left when he told me to,” Tara confessed, shaking her head. “I could have walked away and never looked back when he tried to push me away the way he always did…even when we were nineteen…when bad shit would happen and he didn’t trust me not to run if he told me what was going on inside his head…what how he spent his weekend runs was doing to his heart…it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference because it was too late…I’ve loved him since I was sixteen years old and it’s never going to change…but I still loved him when I left eleven years ago…and if I could just…figure it out…but I can’t…and I’m not in a coma…my brain is functioning just fine…it’s my heart that’s the problem. And I don’t know what to do…”
Tara was staring at the wall again. Her glassy eyes bounced from one fancy frame to the next—blankly studying all of her many academic accomplishments.
“You put one foot in front of the other,” Margaret answered. Her delayed response made the pregnant doctor flinch. Tara turned her head, glancing up to acknowledge her supervisor’s sudden proximity just as the redheaded woman gently laid a hand on her shoulder. “…You start with one step and you just…you just keep stepping forward until you get where you need to be…you’re an amazing mother, Tara…you’re a beautiful, loyal, kindhearted woman and a brilliant surgeon…you have to do what’s best for you and your child.”
“Children.” Tara’s smile was dark. That and the defeat in her eyes nearly swallowed up the brightness still shining in the room from the light above their heads. “What about Abel?”
Margaret sighed, raking a hand through her auburn hair. “Tara, he’s not—”
Tara’s arm flew out suddenly, startling the woman standing next to her, effectively knocking the hand from her shoulder as she violently swiped the bottle of Bourbon off of her desk. Glass shattered, echoing the tragic state of her spirit when all her lashing out did was make the pity in Margaret Murphy’s expression grow more pronounced.
“I’m so sorry, Tara…you know I’m not saying it to hurt you, but it’s the truth.” Margaret raised her hand again, this time slower. When her palm the angry doctor’s shoulder this time, it was trembling beneath her fingers. “…You raised that little boy…you took care of him better than anyone else has… probably better than anyone else ever will but he’s not yours…not in any way that counts to his real mother or the court system…not in the way that will allow you to shelter him from the people you’re running away from…you have to let him go…you have to let them go…save yourself and the child that no one can ever take away from you.”
Jax couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t eat or drink, he couldn’t speak, and he couldn’t find the strength or desire to even cast a glare in Clay, Tig, or Bobby’s directions when his patch brothers commented on any of the above. The brief moments they’d caught a glimpse of him throughout the rest of the day had been when he forced himself out of bed to fulfill his janitorial duties in the bathrooms and cafeteria.
If not for the meeting Opie had promised to set up with Wendy for the next morning, or even the slightest chance that his best friend would successfully convince Tara to come back up to see him—if not for the need to keep his privileges Jax would have been happy to show the warden his ass to kiss where his wrist-slapping punishment was concerned. Fuck biting the hand nursing his shattered pride. What did he care if the next write-up he got landed him in solitary for a couple weeks? At least then he would be free of all of the people who insisted on convincing him that he wasn’t as alone as he felt when he dialed her number and she didn’t answer.
For all of their tough-guy declarations, one of the prison guards that had turned a blind eye to their fight with the Russians had chosen to extend him yet another act of generosity.
Jax was standing at a phone booth—one of the only lines still functioning in the dark, empty hallway. He was listening to the phone ringing for the tenth time, and then he was shutting his eyes to sound of her voice—struggling to smile instead of cry at the voicemail message he used to tease her about in those rare moments when he actually dialed her cellphone number or the home landline instead of the latest burner he’d given her.
He’d always imagine her scrambling to answer the phone in time, before the voicemail system picked it up, and when she’d snatch the phone from the receiver just before the beep he’d ask her what she was wearing in a husky voice—one that wasn’t nearly as sultry as the way hers sounded on the recording.
“Hi…you’ve reached Doctor Knowles…I’m not available to take your call right now…but if you leave your name and number…I will get back to you as soon as possible…thank you.”
By the time he’d finished teasing her about sounding like a phone-sex operator Jax usually forgot the reason he’d originally called. Sometimes he’d even coerced her into to pretending she really was one. He’d tell her all the things he wished he could do to her right then, and as he pictured how red her face was, how often she’d glanced up at her locked office door as if she feared someone could still catch her—she’d make his dick hard as steel with her own breathlessly whispered confessions. And they’d both hang up the phone hot and bothered, miserable with waiting for him to make it back from the club’s run or for her to finish the post-op on her last surgery of the day.
Tara’s voicemail recording had lost its humor.
Every time he heard it now was just another moment of torture because he wanted to hear her real, live voice on the other end of line, but silence is all there was. That and the—
“I’m going to put the phone down now,” Opie announced, breaking through the silence that followed the signal for him to leave whatever message he wanted her to hear on her voicemail.
If it were Tig, or anyone else doing this for him Jax would have never taken the man at his word. He wouldn’t have trusted anyone else to allow him the privacy he needed as he struggled with how to say the words that had been lodged in his throat for weeks now.
“Yeah, I’m here, Bro…”
He could sense Opie nodding. “When you’re done just hang up,” His best friend told him. “I’m not going to pick the phone back up so…”
With all the club drama on the outside, and Tara dodging his calls, Opie hadn’t been able to get a hold of her after she left before visiting hours ended. Asking the guard charged with overseeing his clean up detail if he could give him five minutes to make one phone call was a moment of desperation that hadn’t quite paid off.
Jax scrubbed a hand across his face when he heard to the light conk of the clubhouse phone’s receiver hitting the counter-top of the bar.
“….Babe…I need you to come back up here…I don’t want to end it like this…I don’t want it to end at all, but I can’t keep…I just…I’m not him, Tara…I’m not the asshole that holds hostage when you want to leave…and I don’t wanna take anything from you…I’ve never wanted to take anything you aren’t willing to give me…and there’s nothing…”
Jax winced at the pain tightening his chest, the sting burning in his eyes when he shut them tight—bracing himself, pushing all of the anguish deep down before it could choke off his words.
“…and now you’ll see that there’s nothing that I’m not willing to give you…even if it means giving it up…giving him up…giving them up…I just need you to promise me, Tara… and not like all the times I promised you and didn’t follow through…I need you to promise me that they’ll know the truth…I need them to know that I love them…I love them just as much as I love you…but I can’t do…damn it, Tara, I can’t do shit for them while I’m in here…and even when I get out…It’s only a matter of time before I’m right back inside…or dead… And listen to me…you don’t have to worry about Wendy…I’m going to take care of everything…all I need you to do…the only thing I need from you…just take care of our boys.”
The monotone voice of the operator was actually a welcome sound for a change.
Jax wiped at the moisture streaming down his face with his free hand, raising his other to place the phone’s receiver back on the hook—leaving the two minutes remaining on the call in the wind. He didn’t think he could stomach telling her loved her, or how much he loved her another time. The answering silence that always followed was palpable in the pain it inflicted on his soul, and what little remained of his spirit.
Jax slumped his way down the hallway, with his blue eyes fixed on every faded skid-mark across the linoleum tile he’d step on next.
He was slow to acknowledge the grunt of pain from several feet up ahead. And he’d lazily lifted his head in time to watch as three familiar men subdued the Hispanic prison guard that had gifted him with the curse of unofficially saying goodbye to only family he never wanted to do without.
Jax was running down the hall, stopping short at the end of the corner wall faster than he’d realized.
Alexei was first to turn a head in his direction, and for that he was rewarded a solid shot to the face. Jax’s fist crunched against the angry Russian’s nose. Blood sprayed across his knuckles, dripping through the cracks between his fingers.
Red stained Alexei’s taller partner’s cheek when Jax grabbed him by the sides of his face, bringing his knee up hard to slam it against his chin.
The violent brawl of two against three went on for as long it possibly could have, and with a rage-fueled Jax and moderately trained correctional officer on the winning side.
The two Russians Jax stabbed with the shiv of the largest one’s own making were keeled over on the dark, narrow hallway floor, clutching their hands against their injuries.
But while his men were taken down, Alexei had managed tackling Officer Guerra to the floor. Then he’d spun around too quickly for Jax to lodge the weapon in his grip into the back of his neck like he’d planned. And Alexei Putlova had a weapon of his own, stolen from the fallen officer’s leather holster. The heavily breathing Russian’s smile was bright and stained red as he looked up at the shock flashing in Jackson Teller’s eyes when he raised the gun in his hand.
A single shot rang out.
It was shortly followed by a loud thud, the sound of a body dropping.
It echoed off the walls as heavy footsteps pounded down the narrow corridor—from both ends of the poorly-lit hallway.
“mhmm…oh yeah, Baby….you know I like it that, Girl…call me Papi again…fuck…oh sh—OWW! What the fuck?!” Juice raised a hand to rub at the throbbing pain in his left eyeball from the cassette player sliding from his face, down his chest and onto the stiff bed where he laid. “What the Hell is wrong with you, Man?”
Instead of cracking an eye open like he’d done when he’d aimed the ancient weapon, Tig Trager saluted the man sitting up in the bottom bunk across the room from him with his middle finger. “Jerk off in the shower, Asshole,” Tig grumbled against his pillow. “Shut the fuck up before I come down there and dunk my balls in your mouth.”
“I’m trying to sleep too, asshole!” Juice scowled, knocking the cassette player to the floor. “And I was having a good dream…it was about that C.O Eglee…the one with the nice tits. Damn it, I’m gonna have a black eye tomorrow.”
“You’re gonna have two if you don’t shut the fuck up.”
“Where the Hell did Jax go?”
“What?” Tig opened his eyes, leaning over the railing to check the empty bed below the bunk he was lying in. “What the Hell do you mean—where’s Jax? You had first watch, Shithead.”
“I know,” Juice lamented, shaking his head. Tig threw his legs over the sides, jumping down from the top bunk as the Puerto Rican biker gestured towards Jax’s empty bed. “He said he would switch shifts with me—OUCH!”
Tig rolled his eyes when Juice swerved to avoid the second hard smack he’d aimed at his face—only to hit the top of his head on the railing when he stood up straight too soon. “We’re supposed to be watching him you fuckin retard. Now come on…before he gets himself killed because he’s too busy crying over—“
Both SAMCRO members jerked towards each other, eyes locking at the same time when the first gunshot crackled through the air. Two more followed before the prison alarm system blared loudly above everyone’s heads. But unlike most of their fellow prisoners, Juice and Tig didn’t bother with the rule that every inmate lie down flat on their stomachs with their hands clasped behind their necks.
They weren’t alone in their pursuit to find out what was going on either. But even as they ran the fastest, every forward step they took weighed that much heavier until they met their other brothers at the end of the hall. Clay and Bobby were already standing on the front line, in a crowd of others watching them.
Watching in horror as the poor excuse for a medical staff of Stockton’s correction facility struggled to stabilize Jax enough to move him from the puddle of blood he was lying in, to the stretcher next to his unnmoving body.
“Everybody down on the floor! NOW!” several guards yelled in unison. “On your stomachs! And interlock your fingers! LET’S GO!”
Clay turned his head, his chin scraped across the floor they’d been simultaneously forced down to as he glared at the man lying flat on his stomach beside him.
There were no words Bobby Munson could muster that could ever possibly refute the angry SAMCRO President’s words when he muttered, “Gemma’s going to fuckin kill me...she’s gonna kill us all.”
Jax was only seventeen the first time he went to jail.
It was juvenile hall—nothing to even sneeze at, according to him.
But it didn’t matter how often Tara dipped into her savings bank for bus money to ride out to see him. The countless moments where he promised her the other guy looked ten times worse when he sat across from her and she noticed the latest bruise on his face, or the raw skin of his knuckles. It didn’t matter that it was ‘baby-jail’ to her badass biker boyfriend.
Because no matter how many times she’d glanced over at him through the glass lining the wall that divided the hallway from the visitor’s lounge—no matter how bright his smile was when he caught her eyes through the glass the very moment he’d noticed her arrival.
Those two months were torture for her.
And every time she had to walk alone, down that narrow corridor, Tara had spent the distance praying that he’d once again be sitting in that same ugly, pea-green chair, waiting for her—and not in the infirmary.
Or at the morgue because no one, not even Jackson Teller was invincible.
Tonight was like the all of the days she waited for him to get out of juvie combined. It was like the anguish compounded with the pain of leaving Jax behind when she was nineteen and decided that she couldn’t take the chance of spending any more time waiting. Tonight was a lot like the labor pains she had to look forward to some months down the line. It was like all the anger and resentment that threatened to choke the life out of her and that bleach-blonde skank when she walked into that dorm room to see Ima the porn star wearing her T-shirt. Tonight was like colliding head-on with a MAC-truck, being dragged across the white lines as the driver failed to regain control—it was a lot like the way John Teller died. Tonight was like just about any pain the human mind could imagine, the agony that not even the most talented of horror writers could fathom.
Tonight was all of the above—and yet…unlike any of it.
There was simply nothing that could ever truly compare to the pain Tara felt while she stood out in the hallway, wiping at the tears burning in her eyes as she watched him through the glass.
Abel wasn’t smiling like his father had been all those times.
The little boy hadn’t even noticed her presence yet. And as Tara forced her legs to move, slowly taking one step forward, and then another—she squeezed her eyes tight, and shook her head to clear her mind of the prospect of that beautiful little boy being much too young to acknowledge her absence when the time came.
I’m going to miss you…so much.
“Ah! Doctor Knowles!” Tara forced her head to turn, glancing in the direction of the daycare aide walking towards her. “It looks like you’re one of the first pickups for the evening in the scalpel-squad. I hope it’s a good sign that your surgery ended a little earlier than expected.”
Kathy Harper hardly even noticed Tara’s failed attempt at a smile. She’d merely waved the stress creasing the corners of the grieving doctor’s eyes off as the expected exhaustion after a long, hard day of saving lives.
“I was just about to head out,” Kathy explained, jutting a thumb towards the pretty blonde nurse helping a toddler zip up his sweater behind her. “Lisa’s usually the last one here, but I’m glad I caught you. You never did get back to me about Abel’s birthday. It’s two weeks from now, isn’t it? Are you thinking of maybe throwing him a little birthday party here at the daycare?”
“Actually, Ms. Harper, I’m not sure Abel’s going to be able to stay in the program.”
Kathy Harper frowned, shaking her head. “It’s that damn Doctor Chambers, isn’t it? First Doctor Namid, then Sloan, and now he’s stealing you, too, isn’t he? Do you guys even realize how cold it is in Chicago?”
The smile suppressed by her heartbreaking resolve almost broke throught to the surface, nearly threatening to twitch the corners of her mouth. Without even being aware of it, Tara had taken several steps closer to him. “I’ve felt colder,” the tormented doctor muttered in response. What she’d said had been nothing less than honest. The truth was the chill slowly freezing the heart thumping in her chest when the little boy banging away at the floor finally raised his tiny blonde head at the sound of her voice.
Abel squealed in delight, wobbling on dancing legs as he rushed to stand up and sprint over to her. The smile on his face—it was enough to melt all the ice away in an instant. Her heart beat stronger then, almost as strong as the resolve threatening to shatter the rest of her when she tried to imagine how in the Hell she was ever going to say goodbye to her baby boy.
Twenty minutes earlier, she’d accepted her former teacher and Old flame’s job offer.
She’d taken Margaret Murphy’s painful, but well-meaning advice like a boxing champ who hadn’t fully realized his reign was over until after the final blow he couldn’t get back up from.
Somehow she’d gotten up though.
She’d marched to the labored beat of her heavy heart as she made her way to St. Thomas’ daycare to pick Abel up for the last time.
“Hi, Baby…” Tara’s eyes were shining—but not nearly as bright as the little boy’s smile when she squatted down to hug him as close to her chest as she could manage at four months pregnant. “Mommy’s”—Tara squeezed her eyes tight, pushing it down, shoving as hard as she could until she could chance opening them again to amend her statement. “…I missed you so much, Baby. Did you have fun with your friends today? Hmm?”
“I’m glad you said that,” Ms. Harper interjected, stepping closer. She was inadvertent in her interruption of a tender moment Tara considered one of their final.
The woman in pink scrubs was so fuckin glad about everything.
She had the luxury of being glad, while Tara suffered in silence.
“I’m not exactly sure when you’re leaving or when his last day will be,” Kathy stated. “But my staff and I would really appreciate it if you didn’t let Abel bring any toys to daycare with him. At least, not until he learns how to share. We had to sit him by himself for a little while when he hit one of the other kids for trying to play with his keys.”
“He did?!” Tara gasped in feigned surprise, and the smile she’d been struggling to spread, broke free on her face. “Abel, Baby…that’s bad! You can’t hit people! And you have to share, okay?”
Abel’s answer was to snatch the plastic, rainbow colored keys Kathy Harper held out for either son or mom to take from her. Tara must have been too preoccupied when they’d gotten back from her disastrous morning visit with Jax to remember to sneak them away from him.
Or maybe she hadn’t been.
Maybe she’d done just as she should have, on autopilot, without thinking about it.
Maybe Jackson Teller’s mini-me was just as sneaky and clever as both of his parents.
Both women smiled, watching as Abel dropped the keys in his hand into the large purse Tara had sat down on the miniature table when she’d bent down to hug him.
“I thought I saw you take them from him,” Ms. Harper mused, pursing her lips as they watched him rummage through the bag. “I think I’m beginning to get a fuller picture now. Maybe you—“
The hitch in Tara’s breathing was real then. She’d completely missed the end of Kathy Harper’s sentence, and everything and everyone in the room was nonexistent as her eyes locked on Abel’s face—her peripheral vision mildly registering the jingling chain of metal dangling from his right hand. Tara shook her head in disbelief, refusing to allow herself to believe it.
Then he said it again, just a little bit clearer this time.
“…Maaa-me keez,” Abel babbled, smiling even wider than before. The ring slid around his wrist, and down his arm. The keys clashed and jangled along his elbow when the little boy extended both of his arms, reaching up towards his silently crying mother.
Abel was ready to go home.
“Oh my God,” Tara croaked, slapping a hand over her mouth. In the short time it took for her drop down to her knees, curling her arms around the child eagerly rushing into them—Doctor Tara Knowles was a sobbing, shaking, laughing mess in the middle of the hospital daycare.
Her tears pattered against the downy locks of Abel’s blonde hair as she showered him with kisses all over every inch of his head and face. And in between them all, she mumbled the same words over and over on a never-ending loop. “Mommy’s keys,” Tara chimed for the last time, forcing herself to pull back and take in the proud, excited smile on her little boy’s face. “These are mommy’s keys? Yeah? They’re mine?”
“Umm…Doctor Knowles..” Ms Harper cocked an eyebrow in question, leaning forward to peer more closely at the steady stream of tears and random sobs mixed with laughter erupting from the crying—snickering—brunette’s chest. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine!” Tara shrieked, practically yelling. She glanced up at her as she scooped Abel in her arms, hugging him to her hip when she stood upright. “I’m fine,” Tara insisted, waving her free hand to gesture towards her stomach. “It’s just these hormones,” the joyous mother lied, smiling harder as she shook her head. “This morning, I swear to you, I started crying when I burnt the toast.”
“Oh!” Kathy joined her in laughing then, waving a hand in his direction. “Well we’ve all been there, Darling. You just gotta make sure you stay hydrated,” the daycare aid teased.
Tara was beyond listening to anything the smiling woman had to say. “Say bye-bye, Ms. Harper,” She crooned, kissing Abel’s cheek as she walked past her, heading out into the hallway. “Say we’re gonna use mommy’s keys to go home…right? right, mommy’s Baby?”
Margaret Murphy heard the babbling and giggling, the baby-talk and all the squeals of joy several moments before they came into view. She’d known what she would find when she looked up before a widely smiling Tara came to a stop in front of the Nurse’s station where she sat, sifting through a stack of Doctor Tara Knowles’ potential replacements on the desk.
And the look on Tara’s face when she met her gaze said it all—even before either woman opened their mouth in protest.
Margaret shook her head. “Tara—“
“He’s my son, Margaret.” Tara shook her head, too. But even though her smile faltered, it hadn’t left her face completely. It was in her eyes twice as bright when the corners of her mouth went lax. “I don’t care what’s legal…or what counts to anyone who isn’t me…or his father. He’s mine…biology doesn’t matter…I didn’t have to build him from scratch…because I’m the one who put him back together…and he’s the only one that can keep me together when nothing else works…I can’t give him up…God, help me, I won’t…not willingly…not without doing everything in my power to keep from letting go of him.”
Margaret’s sigh was deep. However briefly, her eyes flitted towards the official paperwork Doctor Alexander Chambers had been quick to procure when she’d asked to look over the deal he’d gotten Tara to accept—vowing to read through every line to make ensure that the heartbroken mother got her due, and then some.
After a long, hard moment of regret, Margaret stood up from the chair she’d been sitting in, folded her arms across her chest, and cleared her throat loudly before responding with the question she’d come accustomed to asking where the woman mirroring her tragic youth was concerned. “What do you need from me?”
“I need you to hold him for an hour or two,” Tara answered, smiling at full-mast again. “I wasn’t thinking when I signed him out, but there’s something I need to do…someone I need to talk to…I have to make it right so I can get my family whole again.”
“Sure,” Margaret replied, walking around the large, semi-circular desk to meet her at one corner of it. The redhead narrowed her eyes in confusion as Tara handed, first Abel, and immediately after, the keys she’d pulled from around his arm. “Isn’t it a little late for a visit at…umm…up at the prison?”
Tara might have laughed at the aghast expression on her supervisor’s face, if not for her answer. “I’m going to see Gemma,” She admitted, rubbing at the stress already knotting in her shoulders. And then, because the word music was putting it far too mildly, the determined doctor replaced it when she told her, “…it’s time to face the noise.”
I don’t wanna be without you, Babe
I don’t want a broken heart
Don’t wanna take a breath without you, Babe
I don’t wanna play that part
I know that I love you, but let me just say
I don’t wanna love you in no kind of way…