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 resembled 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 shoulders when it wasn't pulled back into a disreputable-looking 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 complained, just imagining the way Romeo would strut then.
For the moment, Romeo just kept on walking, oblivious, 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 patrolman's offer of sympathy. He wasn't ungrateful, not really, just trying as hard as he could to deny what was happening, which was hard when everybody he saw 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 rest — the females — had dated Jax himself.
So everybody knew, and he supposed they all wanted 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 moment of his birth and sworn he wouldn't be getting away with anything with her because of it. Supposedly he'd gurgled 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, despite 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 supposed 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, wraparound 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 understood, she still clung stubbornly to life.
She was one amazing woman. How could she do something 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 mother's body nothing but a faint impression under the pretty quilt stitched by his own grandma Jackson's hand, the woman whose family name he carried. William, for his father, although everybody had called his father Billy, and 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 absolutely 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 beautiful 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 toward him and managed a weak smile.
Then she caught sight of Romeo and said, "Oh, baby. You made it."