Badd to the bone, p.3
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       Badd to the Bone, p.3

         Part #3 of Badd Brothers series by Jasinda Wilder
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  "You're staring at me," she remarked, still staring forward.

  "Can't help it," I said. "You're just so damn beautiful."

  "You were looking at my mouth."

  "Yeah."

  "Why?"

  "Because your mouth is...I don't know. One of my favorite features of yours."

  She glanced at me, a wry twist on her lips. "My mouth? Really?"

  I shrugged. "Yeah, really. Why, is that weird?"

  "A little." She pulled down the visor and flipped open the mirror, turning her head this way and that, making a moue with her lips, faking a cutesy smile, a pout, then baring her teeth. "Why my mouth?"

  "You have a beautiful mouth. Your lips, the way you smile...it's just...beautiful. I'm attracted to your mouth."

  "Literally speaking, you mean." She closed the visor and turned to watch my reaction.

  "And metaphorically."

  "Growing up, my--my dad used to say I packed the attitude of three people into the frame of half a person."

  I couldn't help a laugh. "Sounds about right. You're all attitude, and I like it."

  "Even when my attitude gets in the way and makes problems?"

  "You? Problematic? Never."

  She snorted. "Nice."

  "Hey, I'm a stunt pilot. I do stupid, crazy shit in an airplane for a living. Safe to say I don't like boring."

  "Well, you'll certainly never be bored when I'm around."

  "Exactly." I reached out and took her hand. "Notice how we haven't spent more than half a week apart since we met?"

  She rolled her eyes and shook her head and turned to stare out her window, brushing off my words like she always did when I said something sweet or romantic or cheesy. Yet I saw the hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth, and the pleased glint in her eyes, before she shut it down again.

  "Whatever. You're just crazy."

  "Guilty as charged. You have to be crazy to intentionally stall out a plane at two hundred feet."

  "Didn't you once lecture me about the difference between stunts and tricks, and aerobatic maneuvers? And how everything you did was carefully calculated and practiced obsessively?"

  I laughed. "And all that is still true. But in this case, I'm just proving a point."

  "And what point would that be, pray tell?" She rested her elbow on the window frame and propped her head up with three fingers to her temple, eyeing me with a half-smile.

  "That I'm not interested in boring or safe. I like things crazy and interesting."

  She stared at me hard for a long moment. "Well, you've certainly got that in me, then."

  There was more, but she wasn't going to say it. I could see her wheels turning though, see her thoughts spinning.

  "Do you even say half the things you think?" I asked.

  She frowned, as if the question was unexpected. "Half? Nah, not even. As unfiltered as I may seem, I hold back at least eighty percent of the crazy nonsense that goes through my head."

  "Why?"

  "Because I get enough shit as it is. If I vented everything I thought, I'd be locked up." She glanced sideways at me. "Why? Do you say everything you think?"

  "Not even close. But I get the feeling there's always more that you're thinking but not saying, and I always wonder what it is."

  "Hey look, we're here," she said, as I pulled into the parking area near the hospital's main entrance.

  She pointed out a parking spot a few rows from the doors.

  "Avoiding," I murmured in a singsong, under my breath.

  She laughed, but her heart obviously wasn't it in it. "I'm not avoiding, I'm putting a pin in it. For later." She jabbed the air with one hand as if driving a tack into a corkboard, making a popping sound with her lips.

  "Nice," I said, as I slid out of the Mustang.

  Claire got out and circled the back end to wait for me, and then took my hand. "Can you not, Brock?"

  "Not what?"

  "I'm stressed, okay? And it feels like you're trying to pick a fight."

  "I'm trying to distract you with conversation."

  She shook her head, irritated. "Well...don't. You're just making it worse."

  I sighed. "Sorry."

  "You wanna know what I'm really thinking?" she asked, as we entered the hospital and angled toward the check-in desk.

  "Absolutely."

  "I'm fucking terrified right now. I haven't seen my dad in over six years. The last time I saw my mom, I screamed at her for being a pussy and a pushover and giving in to whatever Dad wanted. And now my dad's dying, and I don't want to be here, but I know deep down you're right, that I have to at least make the effort, because this is probably the last time I'll ever see him, and even though I fucking hate him, he's still my father." She let out a shaky breath, shook her hands as if to dispel their trembling, and stepped up to the reception desk. "Hi, I'm here to see Connor Collins."

  "And you are?" The woman behind the desk was middle-aged, harried looking and severe, but her voice was solicitous and kind.

  "Claire Collins. His daughter."

  The woman tapped at a keyboard and then glanced up with a smile, but not a bright one, considering where we were, and where she was about to send us. "Oncology, fifth floor. You'll both need to sign in and wear visitor's badges."

  We signed in, stuck the bright neon stickers to our shirts, and followed the signs to the elevator bank. The elevator was crowded, so Claire burrowed in against my side, standing stiff and tense under my arm. It took us a full five minutes of walking to reach the correct part of the hospital, and then we had to check in at another desk, where Claire identified herself once again as his daughter, and was then directed to a specific room.

  The hallway was wide and smelled of antiseptic, our footsteps echoing loudly. Miscellaneous hospital equipment lined the hallways here and there, and the occasional barely intelligible announcement came over the PA system. We found the room Claire's dad was in and found the door closed. I heard the low murmur of voices on the other side.

  Claire stood in front of the door, chewing on her lower lip. Her fingers were tangled together in a knot, squeezing until her knuckles went white. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, and she was blinking hard.

  I tucked her against my side, lowered my mouth near her ear. "You can do this, Claire. I'll be with the whole time, no matter what."

  "I can't," she breathed. "I can't."

  "Yes, you can."

  She shook her head. "I can't go in there. He doesn't want to see me, and I don't want to see him." Her voice was barely audible, and shaky.

  I'd never seen Claire like this, not even remotely. She was rarely emotional about anything. Excitable, manic, crazy, wild, fun, weird, sarcastic, quirky...but never emotional.

  I felt her trying to pull away, and I held on to her waist. "Deep breath, honey. You can do this. It's going to be okay."

  She twisted to look up at me, and didn't even call me on my use of the cliche endearment--which was how I knew she was really and truly freaking the hell out. "You won't leave my side?"

  "Not for a single second," I promised, trying to keep a serene and comforting smile on my face.

  "Swear to me." She gripped my shirtfront in trembling hands. "Swear, Brock."

  I took her hands in mine, cupped her tiny, shaking hands in my palms. "I swear to you I won't leave your side."

  She nodded. She let go of my hands, stepped back away from me, and shook hers out again. Then she rubbed her face with her palms, rolled her shoulders, and let out another harsh breath. "Okay. Okay. I can do this." This wasn't meant for me, though, but for herself.

  Another moment's hesitation, and then Claire knocked on the door. The voices quieted, and I heard a reedy male voice. "I wonder who that could be?" He had a hint of an Irish accent. "Moira, would you see who that is, please."

  A ghost of a squeaky footstep, and then the door swung inward. A sharp intake of breath. "Claire, my goodness. You're here?" She said this quietly, in a near-whisper.

  The woma
n was around Claire's height, and it was obvious that Claire got most of her looks from this woman, her mother. Thin, straight blonde hair, slim figure, striking features. She was exhausted looking, with bags under her eyes and pain in her expression, now mingled with surprise.

  "Uh...hi, Mom." Claire shifted from foot to foot, clutching the strap of her purse with one hand and my hand in a death grip with the other.

  The woman, Moira, stared at Claire, and then at me. "Who's this, then?" Moira, too, had a faint Irish accent.

  Claire glanced up at me, then at her mom. "This is...um...my boyfriend, Brock. Brock, this is my mom, Moira."

  I let go of Claire's hand long enough to shake Moira's hand. "Hi, Moira. Nice to meet you, although I'm sorry it's happening under these circumstances."

  Moira's hand was cold and clammy and she barely shook mine before letting go. "This is a surprise." She eyed me up and down, scrutinizing me. "Nice to meet you, Brock." She said the words as an automatic reply, but I could tell she was stunned by my presence, or by Claire's use of the word boyfriend when introducing me, which had, honestly, taken me by surprise, too.

  "Who is it, Moira?" called out the male voice, which I assumed belonged to Connor, Claire's dad.

  Moira sucked in a deep, fortifying breath, held it, and let it out again. "Come on in, then, the both of you."

  She turned and led the way into the room, which was a private room like any other, white walls with a floral-print border halfway up, a TV in one corner hanging from the ceiling, a bathroom, a tan rolling adjustable tray over the bed with the detritus of breakfast still on it. Imitation leather chairs stood on either side of the bed, and there was a nightstand and a remote control/speaker attached to the bed. A medicinal smell mingled with the scent of sickness, and it was obvious from the odor alone that Claire's father was very ill.

  I held Claire's hand but trailed a step behind her as we entered the room. The man on the bed was...well, sick. Obviously dying. Thin, pale, haggard. Unnaturally bald, with sunken cheeks, yet his eyes were a bold vivid blue, sharp, fiercely intelligent, proclaiming an undaunted spirit despite the weakness of his body. Hooked to an IV and a myriad of wires, he was barely a lump beneath the sheet and the thin white blanket. I guessed he would stand a few inches taller than his wife and daughter, but not by much, and I guessed that he had probably never struck a large figure, physically. His gaze was fearsome, though, as it landed on me, searching, judging, examining, and dismissing before skipping to Claire.

  His gaze wavered on Claire for a long, long time, a living, roiling silence enveloping the room. I was aware of two other people in the room, two more women, both younger than Claire. One was a girl barely out of her teens, if that, and the other a few years older, maybe twenty-one or twenty-two. They both strongly resembled Moira, as Claire did, although the younger had brown hair, and Connor's blue eyes, while the older one had Claire's green eyes and hair somewhere between Moira's blonde and what I assumed was Connor's brown--Tabitha, I knew, was the older of the girls, while Hayley was the younger. Tabitha and Hayley both looked like a mixture between Connor and Moira, while Claire resembled only Moira; I saw nothing of Connor in her features at all, except perhaps her slightness of build, which was also true of Moira.

  Claire stood stock-still in the middle of the room, clutching her purse and my hand as tightly as she could, barely breathing, staring at her father.

  "Dad." It was all she managed, and even that was a broken sound.

  "Claire?" Connor blinked. And then his jaw set and his head lifted. "Didn't expect to see you."

  "I--I know."

  He eyed his wife, then his other two daughters. "Who was it that told her?"

  Hayley's jaw set, just like her father's had. "I did, Daddy."

  "Why? I said not to."

  "She deserved to know."

  "That wasn't yours to decide, Hayley." He glanced at me, then at Claire again. "And this is your latest fling, I assume? What is it I've heard the kids say...? The flavor of the month?" He said the last word moooo-nth, a sharp ascension on the first syllable.

  Claire let out a hurt breath. "Jesus, Dad."

  "Do not mock the name of the Lord in my presence, girl."

  I stepped forward, extending my hand. "My name is Brock Badd. I'm Claire's boyfriend."

  He stared at my hand as if it were a snake, and then took it. He squeezed hard, probably as hard as he could, which...wasn't very hard. "Connor Collins."

  I wasn't pleased to meet him, not after what he'd done to Claire, and I saw no point in faking the phrase. "Sir." It was all I said, taking my hand back and dipping my chin at him.

  Connor flattened his hand on the blanket at his side, and then plucked at the loose threads. "Well, since you're here, I'm assuming Hayley filled you in."

  "Only that you were sick."

  A scoffing breath. "Sick, she says. Oh yeah, I'm sick all right. I'm dying, is what I am."

  Claire blinked hard. "Dad--"

  "Terminal cancer. Started in my left leg, in the bone. Spread from there." He flipped away the blanket to reveal that his left leg had been amputated at mid-thigh. "It took my leg, and now it's pretty much everywhere."

  "Dad, I'm...I--shit." She rubbed at one eye with the underside of her wrist.

  "Even now you can't be respectful, can you?" Connor bit out.

  "Sorry for cursing, I just--when Hayley said you were sick, I know she said cancer, but..."

  "Not the man you remember, eh?"

  Claire scoffed, much as he had moments ago. "Oh no, you're still very much the man I remember."

  Connor's eyes narrowed. "And what's that supposed to mean, then?"

  "Just that you're still you, that's all."

  "And who else should I be? You think just because the Lord has seen fit to take my life like this that I'm suddenly going to just...forget everything? That you can just waltz in here unannounced and that you would just be forgiven?"

  Claire laughed openly, mockingly. "Forgiven? I would be forgiven?" She shook her head in disbelief. "I don't know what I thought."

  "I'm sorry to say, Claire, if it's a reconciliation you're looking for, you won't find it here simply because I'm on my deathbed."

  "I don't know what I thought I was looking for," Claire admitted. "But you're right, I should have known nothing could ever soften you. Why should you apologize, or learn compassion, or understanding? Even now, why would you show any of that to me? Stupid of me, as usual."

  "I should apologize? I should learn compassion and understanding?"

  "YES!" Claire shouted, a sudden, startling, deafening bellow too big to have come from her tiny frame. "I did think maybe you could just...let it all go. I thought maybe staring death in the face might teach you a little fucking humanity for once!"

  "Claire Brigid Collins--"

  "Oh come off it, Dad! Like a couple of F-bombs are going to change anything at this point? It doesn't matter what I say or what I do, you won't ever--" She cut off and shook her head. "Never mind. There's no point."

  Hayley and Tabitha were watching this exchange with wide, frightened eyes, and Moira looked as if she was in too much pain to even speak.

  "Ever what, Claire?" Connor's voice was low, quiet. "I won't ever what?"

  "Nothing." She turned away and tugged at my hand. "Let's go, Brock."

  I remained where I was, and she caught up short as I held on to her hand, stopping her. "Not yet."

  She stared at me as if I'd betrayed her. "Not yet? You see what I'm dealing with, and you think I should just stick around beating my head against the same wall I've been banging it against my whole life? Why, Brock? For what? I told you this was a stupid, futile idea. I'm leaving." She yanked away forcefully.

  I hauled her back to me, pulling her in close until I could cup her face in both hands. Normally she hated any kind of lovey-dovey touching, but for some reason she allowed this. "Say it, Claire. Tell him." I lowered my voice so only she could hear me. "You won't ever get another chance. Ju
st...say it. Any of it--all of it."

  "Why?" she breathed, eyes misting. "It won't change him."

  "Maybe not, but it'll be off your chest, out of your soul. You've got a lot of shit buried real deep, Claire. I see it. I'm not ever going try and pull it out of you, but I see it." I brushed her cheekbone with my thumb. "Just...say what you came here to say, no matter how hard it may be."

  "I fucking hate you."

  "I know."

  She shook her head. "No, for real, we're fighting."

  "Okay. I can accept that. But you're here, so you may as well get it all out there."

  "Yes, by all means," Connor said, obviously listening in. "Get it all out there."

  Claire hesitated, looking from me to her dad. Then she straightened her spine, lifted her head, and hardened her jaw, a gesture clearly inherited from Connor. "Fine."

  She pulled a chair up to the side of the bed, sat down, and crossed one knee over the other, settling her purse on her lap. I stood behind her, my hands in my hip pockets. "Fine. But no bullshit, and I'm not censoring myself."

  "As if you ever have," Connor muttered.

  "Oh, I have. You have no idea how much I've censored myself around you." She sucked in a breath, held it, and let out slowly. "Okay, well, the first thing I'd like to say is fuck you. You're an arrogant, controlling, heartless bastard, and I hate you." She laughed shakily. "Wow, I've been wanting to say that for years."

  Connor seemed stunned speechless. "I knew you harbored some hard feelings, but--"

 
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