This time the sound wasn’t a memory. And it wasn’t just the thumping I’d started to hear, not the real, raw sound of my blood pumping through my heart on its own.
I was back. Somehow, I was back in the hospital. The place I absolutely hated.
The pace of it quickened, and I tried my best to breathe in and breathe out, to slow my racing heart. I heard my mother talking. I heard Harvey.
I needed to be okay.
Okay with whatever the doctors were going to say was wrong with me. Okay that I wasn’t as healthy as I wanted to be. Okay that I was a girl in her twenties contemplating the fact that death might be closer for her than for an eighty-year-old.
I was sick, unhealthy, broken, damaged.
My happily ever after was just an end without flowers and fairy tales and kids laughing and life bursting through.
A strong hand, one I’d memorized and obsessed over, squeezed mine. I felt the callouses, the strength of it. How it swallowed my hand and how it held on as if it wasn’t letting go.
I turned toward that hand and cracked my eyes open just a bit.
“Hi,” I mouthed to him.
Jett Stonewood sat there with a white hospital room as his backdrop. It faded away when I focused on him though.
The thumping of my heart came back loud, louder than the beeping in my mind.
He was here.
Maybe as just my boss, maybe as a concerned citizen. Maybe more, maybe less. It didn’t matter.
I needed his unshakeable matter-of-fact attitude in that moment.
His other hand smoothed the skin of my forearm and he mouthed back, “Hi.” His blue, blue eyes gazed at me with something new in them.
“Oh my God,” my mother gasped from the other side of the bed. She turned to my father as she laid a hand on my arm. “Get a doctor! She’s awake! Oh, honey, we’re here. We’re going to figure this out.”
She leaned over, and her head fell on my shoulder. She squeezed my arm, and I hit her with the same comment I made to her all the time. “I’m fine, Mom. It’s all going to be fine.”
The canned response barely registered. She nodded her head vigorously and waved Harvey over. “Harvey, she’s okay. God, she’s going to be okay. You look like your color’s returning, honey. The doctors said your blood levels are all great. You’re just fine. This car accident was a blessing in disguise … We’ll just change up your heart meds, okay?”
Her voice shook, and tears shimmered in her eyes. She looked like a mother about to lose her child. Desperate, fearful, clinging to a thread of hope and staking everything on it.
I’d caused that pain. My sickness took the badass businesswoman and diluted her down to this. She used to walk into a room and heads would turn, people would whisper in awe, and I would smile with pride. She’d been stripped of all that to take care of me.
The promises I made weren’t good enough, but I tried my best. “We’ll do what we need to, Mom. It’ll all be okay.”
She clung to my every word, like a starved being snatching up any scrap she could. “Harvey has ideas too. He thinks there might be other medications that could—”
“Stop.” Jett’s voice shot through the room like an arrow released from a powerful crossbow. Fast, succinct, almost deadly.
My mother and Harvey jumped.
Jax and Brey had waited at the foot of my bed but Jax strode to his brother’s side. “Bro, it’s her family.”
“I don’t give a fuck.” Jett cut him off. He glared at my mother and Harvey. Then he glowered at Jax. “I’m her family now. I’m the one. Her man. Her everything. What I say goes. Everyone stops. Now.”
My mother’s eyes widened along with Harvey’s.
Jett stood and my hand slipped from his as he leaned over me and put his hands on the opposite side of the bed. He caged me in and looked like an animal protecting his territory. “Get out.” The sound was low and vicious.
My mother straightened, and I saw the woman in her who I’d admired before all my ailments took their toll. She wore a black Armani blazer with satin peak lapels that were held together with one button. The white blouse beneath matched her fitted pants. I got my style from her and splashed color in. She didn’t need the color. Her presence was enough. “I’m not going anywhere. You pushed us out of the room yesterday, and I shouldn’t have gone then. I’m definitely not going now. She needs me. She practically had a heart attack. We need to figure out why and how to avoid that in the future.”
“Great. Have a field day with the doctors outside her room. She needs a minute.”
“A minute? From what?” My mom looked affronted.
“From you. From all of you.” He motioned at the whole room. “She’s trying to make everyone in this goddamn room feel better. You’re not giving her a second to even digest what’s happened. So. Get. Out.”
My mom stared at him. Drilled holes in his eyes, dug away at the man he was. I saw the fight in both of them and was surprised to find I wasn’t sure who would come out on top.
I said the words I knew she needed to hear. “Mom,” I sighed. “I’m a Blakely. I got this.”
One movement from my mother, a small step back, showed me the truth in her soul: she wanted what was best for me. She touched a hand to my shoulder and whispered, “I’ll be outside.”
Then she motioned for everyone to follow her. And Harvey, Brey, and Jax didn’t argue.
Jett sighed and hung his head, still encircling me with his body. Then he sat back down and took my hand in his.
“No, Pix.” He squeezed his eyes shut like my voice physically caused him pain. “Don’t say a damn word. Just be, woman. Just be.”
I shut my mouth. An ocean of fear rolled in and swept me into the anguish and helplessness of lying there listening. The waves washed up memories of other hospitals, of waking up to loved ones beside me and not knowing how to soothe them when all I wanted was to be alone and soothe myself.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
The sound I never wanted to hear again but the sound I couldn’t escape. It was the sound I covered up with awe-inspiring experiences so as not to remember the miserable ones.
My first tear dropped. And the ocean, dark and deep with all my anxieties and pain, dragged out every tear out thereafter. I gasped for air, trying to center myself, trying to stop the tears.
I glanced at Jett who still held my hand. His face hadn’t changed; he looked unmoved, unshaken. Like a lighthouse. Strong enough to withstand the most violent storm and still guide me, be there for me, stand tall for me.
“Let it all out, Victory. They’re going to come back in here and you’re going to want to make them all happy again. I’ll probably have to leave. I’m not sure I have the patience for any more of it today.”
I laughed and it turned into a hiccup and then a cry again. He squeezed my hand and nodded as more sobs racked my body. I was down in the depths of a sea so cold and black with the misery I’d pushed down there for years that I don’t know how long I cried.
He sat there with me the whole time, his hair mussed, his blue eyes steady, and his broad chest hunched over my bedside. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up and I saw that watch ticking away in sync with the beeping in the room. The sound faded as I stared at my Phantom, the man who’d finally set my voice free. His thumb tapped the back of my hand in time to the beep and his stare switched between me and the door, as if to watch for any unauthorized entry.
I squeezed his hand as my crying subsided. “Thank you for letting me fall apart.”
“Hm. Still fucking beautiful in the hospital light, even after crying for what must have been at least an hour,” he stated, like he was reading the news.
I smiled because I loved his compliments even if they were shrouded in insults. “Thank you, Phantom.”
He smiled back. “Thank you for letting me see you fall apart for once. Your enthusiasm for life is draining.”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s either love life or fear it.”
Those words sunk in, penetrating my soul, taking root and growing quickly into the mantra I knew I would live by. I’d just seen my parents, the man I loved, and my best friend here to stand with me. I could fight whatever the doctors said, I could move another mountain of sickness if I needed to, because I had people that cared about me, that would fight with me.
Life was worth the struggle, worth the pain, worth the anguish when you shared it with others, when you saw fear and stared it down before barreling forward. Fear was a ferocious monster, meant to tower over you, drain you of your courage, and rob you of your life. You had to meet fear with your own ruthless vigor to live, stand taller, and beat it into submission.
I was a Blakely, and as I laid there listening to the beeping, encountering the fear again, I knew I was stronger.
I squeezed Jett’s hand. “I’m choosing to love life.”
“You don’t just love life, you tempt death and stare it in the face, woman.” He grunted. “I still think you have a death wish, and I’m not looking forward to protecting you from it.”
His words alluded to a future for us, one I wasn’t sure he wanted even if he was here. My heartbeat picked up, my palms started to sweat. I pulled my hand from him and folded it into my other hand to hide my worry.
“Look,” I began. “All cards on the table?”
The smirk that flickered across his face didn’t help my anxiety. “Sure, Pix. Hit me.”
I let out a shaky breath. “We’re probably over.” I glanced at him, and he didn’t deny it. My heart plummeted but I kept on. “I can’t give anyone an amazing relationship or a great love story with my health issues.”
“Are you going to apologize for telling Bastian about your cancer before you told me?”
“What?” I stuttered.
“It’s really all I want.” He glanced at the clock. “I missed my flight to New York for you today.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t expect—”
“I’ll probably be missing a million more flights for you over the years.”
I looked at him, confused. He wasn’t making sense at all. He was jumping around, and I couldn’t keep up.
“I once almost fired a guy for putting his wife before my business.”
“Okay?” I dragged out the question.
“I’m happy I didn’t. I now see why people put the ones they love before work. I’m going to miss a lot of flights for you, and I’m going to expect a damn apology for you confiding in a stranger before you confided in me. I’m going to expect a lot from you.”
He stood up and started pacing at the foot of my bed.
“Jett, I don’t expect anything from you. You don’t even have to be here.”
“Oh, I will always be by your side from now on. Make no mistake.”
“What are you talking about?” I narrowed my eyes at him, wanting to believe but not sure I could. “I might be sick, Jett. I had cancer. I just got sideswiped in traffic probably because, in all honesty, I haven’t been taking my vitamins or my heart meds. I’m a mess!”
He chuckled and shook his head as he continued to pace. “Yeah, you really are. Well, we will see what the doctors have to say.”
I glared at his assessment of me. Sure, I could say it, but I didn’t need him to confirm I was a mess. “Well, thank you but you can go. I’ll see what the doctors have to say and I’ll take care of myself. I’ve done it this long. I don’t need my boss helping me out. Thank you very much. I get that we had a thing, and that we screwed it all up. I don’t need you swooping in. I have it under control.”
He stopped and pinned me with his intense gaze. He scanned me from the tips of my toes all the way up to the crown of my head. When our gazes met, his was filled with anguish. “I actually believe that you do have it under control. For some reason, you could tempt the grim reaper and he’d probably walk away from you smiling. You’re a walking beacon of life. Still, you need me to be there when that beacon needs a recharge, Vick, and I’m going to be. For me, it’s you before everything else from now on. When I thought for a second your flame might have been extinguished, mine was too. The business, the life I lived, nothing mattered. You’ve been the damn sun I’ve been orbiting for a while now, and I just didn’t see it.”
The words I tried to form wouldn’t come. His confession rendered me speechless.
“I just agreed to a partnership with Bastian.”
“You what?” I gasped.
“You need more from me. I’m putting my girlfriend first. He’ll help.”
“He’s the freaking mob!” I yelled.
“Jesus. Do you have to be so damn loud?”
“Okay, this was a verbal agreement, right? He can’t hold you to—”
“Don’t rack your brain, woman. I don’t want you to lawyer me out of my decision. Plus, like you said once before, the mob doesn’t care about legalities.”
“So, you’re in the mob now?” The question sounded ridiculous, and yet, I was absolutely serious.
“I’m thinking if you’re dating me, you probably are too.”
The thumping of my heart drowned out the beeping.
He leaned on the foot of my bed. “I’m serious when I say I need to trust that you’re going to put me before everyone and everything like I’m going to do for you. My business will come after you. I will be there for you. I’ll shield you from brightening everyone’s day when you’re having a shitty one. You get to cry with me and sometimes I hope you laugh with me too. We’re going to be a family, Victory Blakely, and my family doesn’t have the sky as the limit.”
“You know I want to be married with 2.5 kids and a white picket fence in a few years, right?” I threw back at him, testing how serious he really wanted this to be. “Even if I’m in the mob …”
“You want a proposal now?”
A laugh bubbled out of me. “You better not, Phantom. I hate hospitals.”
He smiled and rounded the bed to sit beside me. “If you want all that, we’ll get all that.”
“I can’t have kids.” The confession flew out of me before I could stop it. The one secret I’d hidden from everyone, the bone-crushing burden, the empty void that seemed to stop my fairy tale before it had even begun. I shrugged when he raised his eyebrows. “All cards on the table, right? The cancer took that from me.”
“If you want them, then we adopt them. Sky’s the limit for some, Pix. Not us. You get me?”
“I get you.”