Just With You

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CHAPTER 42

Lying in bed, Jace’s head rests on my chest, his right hand absentmindedly rubbing my stomach, every so often placing a kiss to it. Running my fingers through his hair, I try to keep my focus on the baseball game we’re watching, but I’m working up the courage to ask what happened today. I know Drew gave me the rundown, but I want to hear it from Jace.

I stayed on the deck with him while he cried, and then I led him into the shower to warm him up. He held on to me as I shampooed his hair and washed his body. We both chuckled when I couldn’t go farther than his waist because I couldn’t bend over, and then he kissed me. The passion and love in that one kiss told me everything is going to be okay.

That Jace will be okay.

“Stella?”

“Yeah.”

“Can I show you the letter?” he asks gently, turning his body to look up at me.

Cupping his jaw, I give him a soft smile. “Of course.”

He climbs off the bed and goes to the jeans he was wearing earlier, still lying on the floor. He comes back over to the bed with a small worn envelope. Lying down next to me, he rests his head on my shoulder as I carefully open it. Pulling out the single piece of paper, I unfold it and notice the date at the top before reading the words under it.

April 12, 2006.

Jace,

I have written this letter a dozen times, but I never know how to word it.

I want you to know how sorry I am for that night. I shouldn’t have been drinking, and I never should have gotten behind the wheel.

I’m sorry for what I took from you.

I’m sorry for what I almost took from your family.

Twenty-five years doesn’t seem long enough, but it’s just enough time to miss out on my daughter’s childhood. Seeing her graduate, walking her down the aisle. But I made that decision the second I got behind the wheel.

I’m not asking for your forgiveness, because I don’t deserve it.

Just know how incredibly sorry I am.

I want you to know I won’t be asking for parole.

I plan to do the twenty-five.

Especially when the two men I killed never even saw that number.

-Barret Jones.

Blinking away my tears, I look at Jace, who is staring right at me.

“Wow.” Now I understand why Jace was so shaken up and upset. “Wasn’t April when he was sentenced?”

“Yeah, that date was a couple days after the hearing.”

“How do you feel?” I ask tentatively, careful to keep my words soft.

“Angry. He more or less went to bed and never woke up. Bryan and Casey, pain and fear were their final thoughts, and that’s something I can’t push past. It tears at me. I’m sad for Jones’s family, of course. They were innocent to his crimes as well. And—” He breaks off, clearing his throat free of emotion.

“What else?”

“I miss them, Stell.” His eyes mist over again, and my heart clenches.

“Come here.”

Switching off the television, I roll over to Jace, and he moves in close, burying his face in my neck. He presses a soft kiss to my shoulder, and we both lie in silence, no other words needing to be shared as I fall asleep securely in Jace’s arms.

Stepping from the shower, I briskly towel-dry my hair and then wrap another around my body. When I go into the bedroom, Jace is still asleep in the bed, so as carefully as I can manage, I grab the clothes I left sitting on the bed and tiptoe back to the bathroom. Getting dressed, I toss the towels in the hamper and shut the light off.

Before leaving the bedroom, I snatch my cell from the end table and gently shut the bedroom door behind me. Jace was completely worn out last night, and I want him to sleep as long as he needs. Deciding to have my one cup of caffeine, I brew a full pot of coffee and scroll through my phone.

“Oh shit,” I mumble, realizing I have half a dozen texts from Drew. I never messaged last night to let him know how Jace was. I don’t even bother texting, just call his number and listen to it ring.

“Stella, hey.”

“I am so sorry I didn’t text you,” I rush out, slapping myself on the forehead. “We fell asleep early, and I forgot.”

“It’s okay, seriously. Don’t stress it. How is he?”

“Better, I think. He let me read the letter, and Jesus, Drew.”

“That bad, huh?” He sounds upset.

“No, not bad. Just… I don’t know how to describe it. It forced Jace to face his loss all over again, brought Casey and Bryan right to the forefront and broke his heart into a million pieces. But in some sort of way, I think it will heal him too. I could see it in his face last night before he went to sleep. He looked peaceful.”

“Thank Christ,” he responds, and I smile at his words.

“Are you okay, Drew? I mean, I know you weren’t in the accident, but you and Jace are incredibly close.”

“I’m doing okay now that I know he is. Watching your older brother suffer the way he has, hurt the way he still does, it’s hard. Not gonna lie. We all just wanted to help him, and seeing a therapist worked for a while, especially after the accident, but he’s a grown man. Nobody can make him stop feeling guilty, especially when there isn’t a single person who blames him for their deaths. But Jace holds himself responsible, and that’s the strongest kind of guilt.”

Drew’s words penetrate my heart, and despite the mess of last night, I grin.

“Jace is lucky to have you,” I quietly muse, and he chuckles.

“No, Stella. He’s lucky to have you. Listen, do you think it would be okay if I came over? I guess I just want to see for myself how he is.”

“Do you like your eggs scrambled or runny?”

“Scrambled. I’ll see you in a bit.”

Ending the call, I pull the refrigerator open and get started on breakfast. Soon the room is filled with the smell of coffee and bacon, a loud knock sounding on the front door just as I’m dumping the scrambled eggs onto a serving plate. Wiping my hands, I go to the front door, pulling it open to allow Drew inside. He drops a kiss to my cheek and pulls his coat off as we go.

“Do you want to sit in here or the dining room?” I ask him, and he answers with a shrug. “Dining room it is. Help me carry these, will you?”

Motioning to the plates and utensils, I pick up the eggs and bacon and he follows me. We both take a seat, and I offer him the plate of bacon.

“Where is he?” Drew asks, taking a bite of food.

“Still sleeping, I think. I wasn’t sure if I should wake him up.”

“No need.” Jace’s voice sounds behind us, and I turn toward the kitchen, where he’s standing in the doorway. His hair is damp from a shower, and he’s dressed in a pair of jeans and a worn T-shirt. He bends over to kiss me, sneaking a piece of bacon as he does.

“Hey, man,” Drew greets and stands to hug his brother, who returns it hard.

“Drew. What are you doing here so early?”

“Wanted to check on you,” Drew states simply, eating a forkful of eggs.

“Thanks.” Jace slaps him on the back before sliding into the seat next to me, reaching for his own plate of food.

“So?” Drew questions, grasping for his cup of coffee.

“I’m all right, brother. Yesterday was rough, and I’ll be honest, the last thing I expected was a letter filled with remorse and regret. I’m gonna be a dad in only a couple of months, and my two best friends aren’t here to share in it with me. They didn’t get to become dads themselves. It’s always gonna hurt, Drew.”

“I just want you to be okay.” Drew looks misty-eyed for a second but brushes it off.

“Hey, listen to me. I know I was in a dark place for a long time after. I’m not going there again, I promise. Have I ever lied to you?” he asks, and Drew shakes his head. Jace leans over so he can grab the back of his brother’s head and turn his eyes to him. “I promise, Drew.”

“Okay.”

“I talked to their parents this morning, before I hopped in the shower. They’re good, but it’s like ripping the scab off a wound. Makes it fresh for them, but they’ll get through it.”

“I can’t imagine,” I respond, my mind heavy at the thought of losing my own child.

Standing from my seat, I move back into the kitchen to grab the orange juice for us. I pour Jace a glass, who takes it from me with a wink, and then hand Drew one as well.

“So what are you two crazy kids up to today?” Drew asks.

“Well, I’m supposed to go with your mom to pick out supplies for the baby shower, but I can absolutely postpone it if I need to.”

Jace shakes his head. “No, you go, baby. Drew and I can go grab some food and hit the batting cages.”

“You’re sure?”

“Positive. Are you meeting Mom at the house?”

“No, she’s gonna come pick me up.” Finishing my orange juice, I cringe when I feel heartburn starting and rub my hand over my chest.

“Do you need a Tums?” Jace rubs his hand up and down my back. I nod at him and he’s gone in a flash, coming back in a moment later with the bottle. Gratefully, I take it from him and chew a couple, the burning sensation fading not long after.

“Thank you.”

Kissing the top of my head, Jace takes his seat again, pouring himself and Drew another cup of coffee.

I glance at the clock hanging in the kitchen. “If I’m going, I need to get changed. You sure it’s okay?”

“Absolutely, babe.”

“Would you guys mind taking care of these dishes for me?” I ask, and they both wave me off.

Padding into the bedroom to get dressed, I decide on comfort for today. Pulling on thick socks over my leggings, I yank on my boots, glad we’re finally moving toward warmer weather. I hate the cold, and this winter has been extra brutal it seems.

Hitting my hair with the blow-dryer, I plait it into a long braid and toss it over my shoulder. I’m on my way to the living room when I almost bump into Jace, his hands coming out to steady me.

“Shit, baby. I’m sorry, wasn’t even paying attention. Mom is here.”

“Perfect, I’m ready to go.”

Jace guides me out to the living room and helps get me into my coat. “I’ll call you later to check in, all right?”

“Yeah. Have fun with Drew.”

“Always do.”

Careful not to squish my belly, I give him a hug and breathe him in. “I love you.”

“Love you too, Stell. Now go, buy lots of balloons and glitter.”

“Balloons and glitter?” I laugh.

“Whatever it is you buy for baby showers.” He grins, giving my ass a slap.

I shake my head at him and grab my purse, blowing him a kiss as I walk out the front door. Anna is waiting in her white SUV, and I climb in, a fresh smile on my face.

“Stella, you look beautiful, honey.”

Before I buckle up, I lean over the console to hug her tight, and she kisses my cheek.

“Thank you. I feel ginormous.”

“No, you’re positively glowing.”

I reach for my seat belt as she begins backing out of the driveway, and I catch sight of Jace and Drew standing on the porch, both of them waving. Anna honks the horn, and I blow them a kiss.

Jace seems genuinely okay, and I thank the Lord above that he is.

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