Read an Excerpt
William Jackson Cassidy had escorted this particular reprobate before, and it never failed. The two of them walking down the street side by side drew every female eye for a half a mile.
Heads turned. Slow, admiring smiles spread across faces of women young and old. A pretty, little curly-headed thing beamed at them from across the parking lot, and Romeo perked right up.
"Don't even think about it," Jax warned, giving a little tug on the line that held them together.
More than one woman had commented that they resem-bled one another, although Jax just didn't see it.
Oh, they both had hair that was a little longer and blonder than most. Jax's used to drag the top of his shoul-ders when it wasn't pulled back into a disreputable-look-ing ponytail that more than one woman had claimed made him look dangerous in a very interesting way. He now had what was, for him, a fairly short, neat trim, the ends barely brushing his collar in the back. Romeo, too, had gotten a trim, since spring was coming on strong already in north Georgia, even though it was only March. Both he and Romeo were full through the shoulders and lean in the hips, and Jax wouldn't deny that they both probably had a little swagger to their walk.
But Jax wasn't nearly as conceited or as much of a flirt as Romeo, who was probably the most pathetic thing Jax had ever encountered. Jax chased criminals for a living. He'd seen "pathetic" before.
Romeo was a police academy dropout and now, a kept man. Kept, unfortunately, by Jax's softhearted, dying mother, who was completely blind to every fault Romeo had.
"She probably left you every dime she's got," Jax com-plained, justimagining the way Romeo would strut then.
For the moment, Romeo just kept on walking, oblivi-ous, as ever, to any insult Jax slung his way.
The security guard at the hospital's employee entrance was an off-duty cop and a friend, who let them slip in the back way and up the stairs. Jax thanked the man and tried not to sound ungrateful for the patrol-man's offer of sympathy. He wasn't ungrateful, not really, just trying as hard as he could to deny what was kept wanting to talk about it.
He knew they meant well, but it didn't help to know everyone else felt lousy about what was happening. He felt lousy, too. That bit about misery loving company just wasn't working for him. He thought he'd be better off if everyone in town would just let him wallow in his misery and pretended to be oblivious to the whole situation.
But they all knew his mother, and they all loved her. Most of them either had known his father or had fathers who'd known his father, through the job. A good number of them had dated one or more of his sisters, and the restthe femaleshad dated Jax himself.
to help, but the hard truth was, his mother was dying.
Nothing made that better, and he wasn't sure how much more he could stand, watching her suffer this way.
They got to the third floor, and Jax held up a hand to signal Romeo to stop.
"Remember, be quiet," he warned as he eased open the door, which led directly onto the hospice ward. "All right. Coast is clear."
The three nurses at the nurses' station obligingly looked the other way, feigning a sudden and unfailing interest in a splotch of paint on the ceiling of the hall. They were sweethearts. All of them. Any other time, and he would have been as charming to them as humanly possible, giving them one of the legendary smiles for which the Cassidy men were known.
He wasn't being conceited. His mother had told him all about the power of a Cassidy male's charm from the mo-ment of his birth and sworn he wouldn't be getting away with anything with her because of it. Supposedly he'd gur-gled and slobbered on her, waved his fists madly and smiled with every bit of the charm she feared a male child of Billy Cassidy's would have.
As his grandma Cassidy had told the story, his mother had promptly started praying that God would send her nothing but female children from then on, and she'd gotten her wish. Three times. Then she'd proceeded to try as hard as she could to raise her only son to think the ability to charm women was something of a burden, dangerous, unpredictable and a completely unfair advantage to wage against the women of this world.
It was the one thing she'd never convinced him of, de-spite the fact that they loved each other dearly.
Jax slipped out the door and into the hall. Romeo perked up as he spotted the women at the desk.
"You say a word to them, and you'll sleep outside for a week," Jax threatened.
He got nothing but a low growl in return.
Romeo had never met a woman he didn't like. He saw a pretty one and everything else went straight out of his head.
"Just remember where we are, and that you're not sup-posed to be here," Jax reminded him.
As hospitals went, this wasn't bad. It was in a nice, old, whitewashed stone building with a wide, elegant, wrap-around porch and tall, white columns, which used to be the main hospital seventy years ago. Now, the real hospital lay off to the right, attached to the hospice unit by a pretty atrium.
They kept things quieter over here. It was dark and peaceful. The patients slept as long as they could in the morning and throughout the day, had as much medication as their systems could stand and as little pain as was humanly possible, although it was still too much.
Jax hated the place.
But his mother was in the room down the hall, and there was nothing on this earth that would keep him away from her now or at any other time in her life when she needed him.
His three little sisters were all exhausted from the battle they'd fought to keep their mother at home, where she'd asked to stay until the end. But in the middle of the night, forty-eight hours ago, her breathing had gotten so labored and the pain so bad and his sisters had cried so many tears and hurt so badly themselves, that maybe he'd just gotten too scared to let it end like that. Because he'd called 911, and they'd carted his mother off here, where, with the kind of strength she'd always possessed and he'd never under-stood, she still clung stubbornly to life.
She was one amazing woman. How could she do some-thing as ordinary as die?
Pausing outside the door, he looked over to Romeo and shook his head in disgust. "Don't jump on her or hang all over her. She hurts just about everywhere," Jax said, then thought of one more thing. "And don't you dare cry."
Jax pushed open the door. The room was dim. His pretty quilt stitched by his own grandma Jackson's hand, the woman whose family name he carried. William, for his Jackson, for his mother's family. William Jackson Cassidy.
His mother had realized right away what a mouthful it was. She was the one who'd given him the nickname Jax when he was still tiny, when she'd been young and abso-lutely stunning, from the pictures he'd seen, and had what everyone must have thought was a long, happy life ahead of her. A husband she loved dearly, one who clearly adored her, a son who adored her just as much, and three beauti-ful daughters.
"Didn't quite work out that way, did it, Mom?" he whispered.
Her pretty, honey-colored hair was long gone, her eyes sunk down into her face, dark circles under them, no color at all in her cheeks. She turned her head ever so slowly to-ward him and managed a weak smile.
Then she caught sight of Romeo and said, "Oh, baby. You made it."
Romeo stood there and grinned like a fool. His tail swished back and forth in a move that he seemed to think made women swoon. Of course, he thought everything he did made women swoon, and Jax couldn't deny it was pretty much true.
The dog had a way with women.
Especially Jax's mother. "Come here, sweet thing," his mother said. "I take it you mean the dog, and not me?" Jax said, tak-ing the chair by her bedside and sitting down.
"You know I love you," she murmured weakly, turning her cheek for his kiss.
He gave her one, trying to make it seem like any other greeting he'd given her over the years. Casual and easy, as if he had ages to say hello to her this way. As if this might not be the last time.
How could that be? The last time?
What were they going to do without her? "You love the dog more than any of us," he said, because it was a familiar argument, and he couldn't stand to talk about her dying.
"You're just jealous, because he's prettier than you, women like him better," his mother said, actually managing to make him grin when he wouldn't have thought anything could. She was one of those who claimed he and the dog were way too much alike. Another subject he was happy to talk about, instead of what was going on here.
Romeo whined and put his front paws up on the bed, then stuck his cold nose against his mother's cheek. She smiled and turned her face to him. "Come here, baby."
The dog leaped up onto the bed. "Romeo, what did I just tell you?" Jax reminded him. The dog gave him a look that he could swear said, She does love me more than you, and I am prettier than you. So there.
"It's all right," his mother said, the words coming slowly, her breathing labored. ", been at this for a long time. He knows, to be careful. Come right up here beside me, baby."
Her fifty-five-pound baby crept up very slowly, feeling his way, until he was as close to her as he could get, pressed against her side, all stretched out on the bed, his head on her right arm, his nose against her cheek. He whimpered softly.
"Yes. That's my good boy." His mother leaned her head against the dog's and gave a contented sigh, then turned back to Jax. "Thank you for bringing him."
"You know I'd do anything for you," he said and worried he might be the one to start to cry.
"Yes, I know."
"Sorry about bringing you here."
"It's fine, . Doesn't hurt much now. The medication is, They keep the really good stuff here. I needed it."
"If you want, we'll take you back home." And somehow they'd find the strength to see this through to the end. If she could do it, so could the rest of them.
"No, . Better this way," she said, lightly caressing the dog who'd been her pride and joy for the last year and a half. Romeo had flunked out of K-9 school and Jax had brought him to his mother after someone had broken into old Mrs. Watkins's house, three blocks down from his mother's place. Romeo was supposed to protect her, although if anyone ever broke in, the worthless dog would probably try to charm them to death.
Romeo was practically purring now. Female attention of any kind did that to him. He was the most ridiculous excuse for a dog Jax had ever seen.
"Don't worry," his mother said. "Won't be long now." Jax stiffened. How did she know that? How could she sound so calm about it? How could he want so badly to get up and run away? She was his mother, and she was the one who was dying. If she could handle it with such dignity and grace, surely he could find a fraction of her courage and strength.
"Did you run the girls off?" she asked, about to drift off. It didn't take long to wear her out these days.
Jax nodded. "I told them you didn't want anyone but your two favorite boys tonight."
"Good. Done all they can. I know that. Make sure they do, too."
She lifted her right hand off the blanket, a sign that he knew meant she wanted him to hold it. He did, wrapping both of his around hers, which was like ice. He thought it got colder every day.
"I know you'll take good care of them," she said. "You always have."
"No, you have. You've taken care of all of us."
He'd done what he could after his father died. Jax had been eleven, the girls eight, five and almost two. His mother hadn't had a paying job since before Jax was born. Raising four kids, his parents hadn't had any real savings to fall back on. Just living had taken everything his father made and then some. He'd moonlighted from his job as a policeman by working security at a furniture warehouse, and had been shot and killed after stopping late one night at a convenience store on his way home from his second job, killed by a stupid kid trying to clean out the till.
Just like that. Boom. No more dad.
Jax still remembered the way he'd screamed when they'd told him. Just for a minute. Then he'd pulled himself together for his sisters, who'd come running into the room to see what was wrong.
Life had changed in an instant.
It was like that.