"It's a risk. But it's a bigger risk to lose you. You're my inspiration. You're all I think about. I . . ." he paused, seemingly steeling himself. "I love you, Riley."
Time stopped. Suddenly, I felt like I could hear every noise in the room: the blades of the ceiling fan circling through the air. The street vendors three stories below taking orders. My own beating heart.
In all the time I'd known Jax, that was a word I'd never heard pass his lips. Not even when I'd said it to him.
It was the biggest little word that had ever come between us. I stood there, speechless.
"I love you," he said, reaching for my cheek. "I don't know how long I've loved you, but I know that when you're gone, it's like the music goes out of my bones. I acted like a complete idiot to make you leave, and I refuse to make the same mistake twice. I love you."
I squeezed his hand instinctively even as what-ifs swirled around in my mind. While I was sure Jax would get better than he'd been at the end of the tour, there was no guarantee he'd ever fully recover from his trauma. But he was taking responsibility, admitting he was wrong . . . and showing that he was going to make it different this time around.
But it was more than that, I knew, feeling warmth suffuse through me. I'd never felt as at home with anyone. I'd never known someone who could make my heart beat faster like he did, just from being in the same room. I'd never known anyone who made me laugh so hard.
I searched for words, trying to figure out how to tell him what I was feeling. "I've been wanting to hear that for a while," I said slowly.
"I know. And I understand if you can't take me back, or won't. I fucked things up. I did things I can't take back."
He looked miserable, but I wasn't finished yet. "I've been thinking about love a lot since you made me leave," I said, keeping my voice even, though my heart was pounding wildly. "Because falling in love with you was easy. Too easy."
"Easy doesn't begin to describe it," Jax admitted. "I don't think I could have helped it if I'd tried."
"But people say love is hard work for a reason. It's hard work because it means you have to choose to keep it up, even when things are hard."
"I know. And I let you down." His face twisted with disappointment.
I shook my head and looked up at him. "That kind of trying takes two people. If I'm going to do this again, I can't be the only one who's willing to keep going when things are hard."
"You won't be." His hand reached out toward my face, but instead brushed against the "It's a Boy" banner hanging on the cabinet next to me.
Suddenly, he paused with a quizzical look, seeming to notice the apartment for the first time, and let go of my arms. His brow furrowed as he took in the disaster area of the baby shower's aftermath. He gently lifted a corner of the banner, blinking incredulously. "Is this . . . Riley, are you having a baby?"
We'd always used protection, and anyhow, even if somehow I'd gotten pregnant with Jax, it would have been way too early for me to have had a baby shower. Then again, as a rock star, I doubted Jax had been to many baby showers. I couldn't resist a moment of teasing.
"So what if I am?" I said, flicking one eyebrow up.
His face contorted, expressions flickering across his eyes that I couldn't understand. "Oh my God, Riley. I'm so sorry you didn't feel like you could tell me . . ." He took a deep breath. "It's going to be okay. If we can get through that night at Darrel's, we can get through this, too. Together."
I burst out into a laugh. "Jax! I wasn't serious!"
He squinted at me, looking utterly baffled. I'd only meant to tease him a little. Instead, he was telling me that he was willing to try parenting with me—I couldn't help but feel secretly a little bit happy, even though the rational side of me said one step at a time.
"There's no baby," I said. "Well, there is a baby. But it's not mine. This party was for my best friend, Kristen."
Relief flooded his face, and his arms enclosed around me again.
"Riley, I want to make this work, whatever it takes. You're my inspiration," he said, caressing the small of my back. "Your song brought me back from the brink. Until I heard it, it was like I couldn't write anything. I couldn't sing anything."
I blushed. "It wasn't much of a song."
"It was yours. And that's all that mattered." His eyes shone into me like a fire, warming me from the inside out. "You're worth holding onto, whatever it takes. I'm never going to push you away again. Just . . . tell me you'll let me try to make this work."
His words struck me to my core, and my soul thrilled with the conviction that he'd meant every one of them."If we're going to do this, it's going to take both of us," I said, my heart beating wildly. "It's going to be a lot of hard work."
His hard features suddenly seemed softer, more hopeful. "Are you saying you still want to try?"
"I'm saying that I love you, Jax." I wrapped my arms around him. "And if we love each other, then there's only one way we can do it."
His scarred brow raised, a silent question mark.
"Fearlessly," I said, standing on tiptoes to touch my lips to his.
In an instant, I felt his mouth pressing against mine as he pinned me back against the wall. My lips parted, and I felt his tongue slide in, sensuous and warm, sending a thrill into me that went all the way to my fingertips.
My head spun with desire as we clutched each other close. He moved his lips away, then brought them back to mine for another kiss, even more passionate than the last.
My fingers moved to the hem of his t-shirt, lifting it up over his taut muscles, and I stared with naked, unabashed lust at the golden skin of his chest. Before I could say anything more, his hands had started to strip my clothes away, and I felt my bra unhooking behind me as my top came off. Strong hands lifted me upward, and my legs wrapped instinctively around Jax's waist. Devouring one another's mouths hungrily, we shed pieces of clothing one at a time.
When we got to my bed, he laid me down in it gently, staring down at me with a tenderness I'd never seen in him before. But there was something else, too, something new and possessive and primal. I couldn't wait to see where our bodies would take us next.
"I love you, Jax," I said, quivering with anticipation as he stood naked at the bed's edge, lit by the afternoon sun.
He teased my legs apart with gentle hands. "I love you, too, Riley," he said, kissing the inside of my thighs.
We didn't get out of bed until the next morning.