I pause outside the door asking myself for the 100th time if I should be doing this.
I haven’t exactly been invited. But you don’t have to be invited to visit someone in the hospital right? Isn’t this the kind of situation you should go and offer support without an invitation? Because it’s the right thing to do?
Probably that’s more true if you actually know the patient.
“Miss Riley? Everything okay?”
I glance at the security guard next to me. He’s under strict orders not to let anyone in but my uncle owns the company so he’s making an exception. My last name often comes with benefits.
“No, I’m fine, Peter. Thank you.” I take a deep breath and finally open the door.
The blond man inside is propped up in the hospital bed but obviously asleep. His head is slumped to the side and his breathing is slow and even, a little heavy.
Well, this is a bit anti climatic. I’ve been giving myself pep talks for hours, the least he could do was witness my courage.
Or stupidity. Jury’s still out.
As I contemplate my next move, he inhales deeply and raises his head. He blinks a few times, his eyes settling on me. His trademark smirky grin slowly appears and I just barely stop myself from laughing. Only Jax would seriously think about flirting with a strange woman who entered his hospital room unannounced and uninvited while recovering from a bullet wound and a head injury.
His eyes widen and the smile slips and I know he’s just realized who I am.
We don’t know each other. But we know of each other.
“You’re… Riley. Right?”
I nod racking my brain for what to say. Apparently I’ve spent all my mental abilities just talking myself in to getting here, I have no idea what to do now.
“I’m Jax. Nice to meet you.”
I laugh out loud before I can stop myself. Obviously, I know who he is. “You too,” I manage, still laughing.
His grin flashes for a second. Then he eyes me up both curious and skeptical.
“You want to sit?” He nods to one of the chairs by his bed.
I shake myself loose from my nerves and move away from the door. “I – ah – I brought you some contraband.” I glance over my shoulder, my rule-following heart ridiculously nervous one of the hospital staff is going to walk in and catch me. Not that I’d get in any trouble – my family donated the wing Jax is currently being treated in. But still. I usually follow rules. I’m a middle school teacher after all.
“Oh yeah? Bribe or peace offering?”
I hide my involuntary flinch by digging through my giant purse to carefully remove my… bribe.
“I think it held up okay.” I hand over the white paper bag and Jax’s eyes light up recognizing the logo.
“You brought me Duk’s?” He reaches for the hot dog but then grimaces with pain and falls back against his pillows. “Shit.”
“Are you okay? Should I call anyone?” I rush to his side, putting the bag on the hospital tray.
Breathing heavily he shakes his head. “No. I’m fine. Just need a minute.”
Silently, I take him in. Considering everything he’s been through the last week he seems to be recovering well. But he’s paler than usual, scruffier than usual, and has far too many machines attached to him to be comfortable. I busy myself unwrapping the Chicago style hot dog I smuggled in and give him a minute to compose himself. I don’t know Jax but he strikes me as the type of person who doesn’t like others to see him showing weakness.
Even someone he doesn’t like or respect. Like me.
I’m assuming he doesn’t like me based on Lucas’s general opinion of my entire family.
But, I remind myself, that’s why I’m here. Because Lucas is wrong about my family but he’s especially wrong about me. He and I have a lot more in common than he realizes, I’m convinced. And if he just gave us a chance, gave me a chance…
“Thanks,” Jax says simply when I finish and take the seat he had offered.
He picks it up with the hand that doesn’t have an IV attached and takes a giant bite, humming with pleasure. I snicker.
“This is exactly what I needed. How did you guess?” he asks around his second mouthful.
I laugh surprisingly relaxed around Lucas’s best friend. He seems more curious than hostile which was my biggest fear. Curiosity I can handle. I’m happy to answer questions if the answers get back to my estranged cousin.
I shrug. “I watch the show.”
He glances at me sharply before returning his attention to the hot dog.
I sit silently while he finishes. After he sits back with a sigh of contentment, I ask how he’s feeling.
“Bored. But now you’re here so I suspect that’s going to change.”
I look away suddenly hot under his scrutiny. There’s a little bit of the hostility I expected.
“I – I was -”
“What are you doing here, Riley?” he interrupts. “Hoping to see Luke?”
“I wanted to see both of you. I heard about the shooting, obviously. I wanted to check on you, see if either of you needed anything.”
“Why?” He studies me so intensely it takes all my years of public appearances and Public Relations trainings not to fidget.
“Because that’s what you do for family.”
He frowns, considering my answer.
“Who’s the lucky guy?” he asks, nodding at my engagement ring.
I glance at my finger, thrown by the abrupt change in subject.
“Oh, uh, his name is Daniel.”
Nervously I play with the ring, still uncomfortable with the weight on my finger. Truthfully, I’m uncomfortable with the whole engagement. My doubts about Daniel have been growing steadily for almost a year now, even before the engagement. I’d been preparing to break things off when he proposed. Somehow we ended up engaged instead. I never even said yes, he’d just assumed my consent and slipped the ring on. He assumes a lot of things, I was coming to realize, and had for years. I’m not sure if it was getting worse or if I was just less inclined to go along with things. We’ve been together so long I can hardly remember a time I wasn’t his girlfriend. Now I’m his fiancee and I’m not sure I want to be. But I also can’t imagine cutting ties to one of the most important people in my life. I bite my lip, a nervous habit. I don’t know what to do.
So instead of trying to sort all that out I’m here. Willing to try anything to form a new connection with my cousin Luke. Hoping that maybe having other people in my life that care for me will make it easier to end things with Daniel.
I mean, that’s not the only reason. I want Luke to be part of the family. It would be good for him too to know that connection. I don’t know where I would be right now if Uncle Theo hadn’t taken me in when my parents died.
I could tell Jax was skeptical when I told him this is what you do for family. Luke is the only family he’s ever had and vice versa. But it doesn’t have to be that way any more. Now that we know about Luke, Jax would be accepted by extension.
Jax may be skeptical of me and my intentions but Lucas is downright hateful, shutting down any attempts we’ve made to reach out. I’m hoping I can be the one to get through to him. I know what it’s like to grow up without your parents. I know what it’s like to feel like an outsider in your own family – no matter how wonderful they are. And I know what it’s like to think people are using you with some ulterior motive.
I experience a pang of guilt knowing that’s dangerously close to what I’m doing right now. Using Jax to get to Lucas. I console myself that I do honestly care about Jax too. Or at least I want to care about him. If they would both just give us a chance.
As if reading my thoughts, Jax asks, “So. What do you want me to tell Luke?”
I sigh. “Nothing. Really. I just wanted to see how you were doing and hopefully cheer you up a little. I know it’s no fun to be stuck in a hospital bed.”
He frowns, eyes still studying me, and I wonder if he knows about my parents.
“Thanks for the dog.”
I smile, intensely pleased he liked it. If he knew how long I spent agonizing over what to bring I would be horrified.
He lays his head back against the pillows. “I like KitKats too. I don’t think that’s been on the show but next time, see if you can smuggle in some KitKats for me, will you, Teach?”
I laugh overjoyed by even this small entry point. “I can do that.” It registers he called me ‘Teach’ and I realize he knows what I do. That also gives me a little hope.
The door opens and Lucas stops dead spotting me in the room. His easy expression darkens. “What the hell are you doing here? How did you get in here?”
I stand ready to explain but Jax beats me to it. “I told the guard it was okay. She’s not some crazy fan.”
I shoot him a look but he’s focused on Luke.
“Did Ethan send you? I told him to stay the hell away.”
I hear Jax sigh next to me. “Luke-”
“No, it’s okay. I’ll go. I just wanted to see if either of you needed anything.” I grab my bag and give Jax a small smile I’m sure doesn’t hide my disappointment. I stop at the door, my hand on the handle and say softly, “Ethan didn’t send me. Neither did Uncle Theo. I just -” I bite my lip again, unsure what else to say. Silently I push the handle and leave.
Well. That could have gone better.
“KitKats!” I hear Jax yell as the door closes behind me.
I guess that means I have an invitation for next time.
If interested, you can read Jax’s perspective here.