A near-suffocating warmth infused my skin as the words had replayed through my thoughts. My gaze bounced around the scarcely decorated living room before landing on Jax. He’d been watching me with a look on his face I couldn’t decipher. There was an immediate bubbling of fear that he was finally going to address what had happened between us that morning.
I hadn’t hesitated. I’d stood. “You know, you don’t have to stay—”
“Don’t start,” he’d replied, opening his book. He was done with me.
I’d gone to bed not too long after that, resting my head on the pillow, my eyes trained to the bedroom door. I’d fallen asleep quickly and in the morning, Jax hadn’t made breakfast and had left pretty early on.
Being off Sunday, I got to chat with Teresa and that felt great. I missed her and Jase, and the way they were with each other. They were days away from leaving for the beach, and I knew Teresa was as excited as she was nervous. It was their first trip together as a couple. I’d never experienced that, but I could get why that would be nerve-racking.
“So, you’re really staying up there all summer?” Teresa asked, surprise causing her voice to pitch.
I nodded, like an idiot, since she couldn’t see me. “Yeah.”
“You’ve never talked about your family . . .” Teresa’s voice trailed off, but what was left unsaid was obvious.
I’d never talked about my family for lots of reasons, so she had to be confused by my sudden willingness to spend time with said family, which in reality was nonexistent. “Thought I’d do something different this summer.”
“But you normally take classes,” she remarked, and I heard a door shut on her end, followed by a deep, male voice. Jase. Hottie-mc-hottie-Jase.
“Yeah, I know, but I’ve been bartending and making money—”
“Bartending? I didn’t know you knew how to bartend.”
I winced. “Well . . .”
There was a scuffling over the phone and then “Hold on, Jase. Goodness, my lips will still be here in five seconds, as will the rest of my body.”
Oh dear. “Uh, I can let you go.”
“No.” Her response was immediate. “Jase can wait.” There was a husky chuckle, and my lips turned up at the corners. Then Teresa said, “I feel like my entire life has been a lie.”
“What?” I blinked as I’d peeked out the front window.
“You. Us. Our life together. There’s so much I don’t know about you.”
I laughed. “There’s not a lot to know.”
“You’re a bartender. I didn’t know that.” There was a pause. “When Jase and I get back from the beach, maybe we can come up and visit.”
My eyes widened. That hadn’t been a question, more like a statement, and I was sure that would be a bad idea, but it wasn’t like I could say no. That would’ve been rude, so I mumbled an okay and then we got off the phone since Jase apparently needed access to her mouth or other parts of her body.
I want to f**k you.
Oh man, I really needed to stop thinking about that.
I had five minutes to panic over the maybe visit from my friends at an undecided time in the future, before Uncle Clyde showed up randomly. I met him at the door.
“What’s on the list today, baby girl?” he asked, ambling into the house, wearing a Philadelphia Eagles jersey that even on his big frame seemed two sizes too big.
“Um . . .” I’d looked around. Hadn’t known there was a list.
Clyde gave me a toothy grin. “First things first, baby girl. We got to check this house out, top to bottom, and make sure there ain’t any more junk in here.”
That was an incredibly good idea. Clyde and I moseyed around the house most of Sunday. Moseying as in searching for more cubbyholes filled with drugs. It was a weird thing to do, but I loved having Clyde around and it was kind of a bonding moment. Like we were repeating history, in this together when it came to dealing with Mom. And Clyde and I had been the ones to deal with her most of my life. It was kind of sad, but it was familiar, and right now, familiar felt good.
We hadn’t found any more drugs, thank the Good Lord for that, and he’d ended up running to the store before it got dark and coming back with the goods to make tacos.
As Clyde had put the hamburger meat on the counter and found a frying pan in the cabinets, I stared at him from the doorway to the kitchen, my lips trembling and my hands pressed together against my chest.
Clyde had been married once. I barely remembered Nettie, his wife, because she had passed away unexpectedly from a brain aneurism when I was six years old and that had been many years ago. At least fifteen years and Clyde had never remarried. I wasn’t even sure if he dated. He’d loved Nettie and some nights, when I’d lived here before, he’d talk about her.
I didn’t think he’d ever gotten over her loss.
But one of the things I remembered him talking about was his and Nettie’s Sunday night ritual—making tacos from scratch. Good tacos. Red and green peppers, sautéed with onions, and smothered in melted cheese and shredded lettuce.
It had also become a Sunday night ritual for Clyde and me, and sometimes when Mom was around and had her head on straight, she’d take part.
I smiled as I watched him unload the bags. This was so familiar, and I had missed this. Missed having someone who felt like family even though they weren’t blood.
In that moment, something came unhinged in my chest. I didn’t get it, but suddenly I was uncomfortable. Not with what was happening now, but what had been happening the last couple of years.
Tears burned the back of my eyes. I didn’t know why. It was dumb. I was back to everything being dumb.
Clyde pulled out a head of lettuce. “You know what to do, baby girl, so get your ass over here and start chopping.”
I dragged myself over to the counter, swallowing back tears. I will not cry. I will not lose control. My cheeks were damp.
“I didn’t pick up that Mexican cheese blend. We are gonna do this from . . . Aw, baby girl.” Clyde put down the block of cheese and twisted his big body toward me. “What are those tears for?” he asked.
Lifting my shoulder, I wiped at my cheeks as I whispered, “I don’t know.”
“Is it your mother?” Those large hands were gentle against my face, his fingers calloused from years of work as they chased after the tears. “Or is it the boys? Kevin and Tommy?”
I sucked in a rattled breath. I never thought about them or that night when the entire world burned in bright oranges and red. Not to be cold or uncaring, but it was too hard to think about them, because I could barely remember what they looked like, but I remembered their coffins, especially Tommy’s. So I refused to even think their names, but their names were cycling over and over again.
“Or is it everything?” he prodded gently.
God, Clyde knew me. Squeezing my eyes shut, I nodded. “Everything.”
“Baby girl,” he’d murmured against the top of my head after he pulled me to him, enveloping me in one of his big bear hugs. “Everything might seem like it’s too big, but it ain’t. You’ve seen and been through worse, baby girl.”
“I know,” I agreed. My breath hiccupped as I struggled to rein my emotions back in. “It’s just that . . . this is so familiar. We did this for years, and I never thought we’d do it again. Or that I’d be standing here and working at Mona’s. I was going to be a nurse. I had it all figured out.” And none of it included a guy like Jax or making tacos with Uncle Clyde, but I didn’t share that. “I don’t have it all figured out anymore.”
Clyde patted my back like a baby that needed to be burped, but I loved it. “Calla-girl, you’re a lot of things, a lot of beautiful things rolled up into one. You’re strong. You got a good head on your shoulders. You’re still gonna be a nurse. This ain’t going to be your life. You still got it figured out.”
I nodded, but he’d gotten it wrong. The hysteria wasn’t because I was disappointed at the way my life had veered waaay off course or because of that nightmarish night. Not that I wouldn’t prefer some aspects, namely the he**in and Mom being in trouble, to be different, but I wasn’t crying because of that.
That wasn’t the reason for the tears. I was crying because all of this was familiar and the familiarity had made me happy.
It had been a week since the night Greasy Guy had shown up at my mom’s house and left with a fortune’s worth of heroin. There hadn’t been any more visits like that and that could be because there was always some random dude at my house. Okay. The guys weren’t random. It was either Clyde or Jax.
On my days off, it was Clyde duty and when I went back to work on Wednesday, it was Jax who followed me home, which had surprised me a little. During my time off, I hadn’t heard from him. Not once. I knew he had access to my cell number, because I had to list mine in the office, next to everyone’s phone numbers in case of emergencies.
Granted, I hadn’t tried to get in touch with him, either, because I told myself that would’ve been pointless and dumb. And I was trying to avoid all things dumb, but I’d actually looked forward to returning to Mona’s on Wednesday, and that was kind of dumb.
So I failed like a giant whale at avoiding dumb.
On my days off, Jax didn’t exist, but on Wednesday when I’d come in and he’d already been there, inspecting receipts at the desk when I entered the office to stow my purse, he’d looked up, grinned, and called me honey.
And then he’d acted like he had Saturday when we last worked together, flirty and charming . . . and touchy. But he still acted like he hadn’t told me he wanted to get to know me in the inappropriate biblical sense.
Maybe he’d changed his mind since then, had woken up that day with a good old-fashioned case of morning wood and wanted to get laid.
And I was okay with him changing his mind.
That wasn’t why I’d put effort into my hair and makeup and clothing again today. It was for the tips.
Jax was here now, but he was back in the office doing God knows what, and I felt like I should be back there because this was my mom’s bar, but before I could act on that, Reece approached the bar. Sometimes when I saw Reece, I thought about my brother Kevin. He’d been fascinated with firemen and police officers. There’d been a good chance that if he’d been allowed to grow up, if heaven hadn’t needed angels, he would’ve been a cop or a fireman.
No more than a second after Reece reached the bar, Roxy spun on her heel and pretended to be dusting bottles or some crap. This wasn’t the first time she’d done that.
Every time Reece was in the bar, which seemed to be whenever he wasn’t working, which also seemed often, Roxy bounced like a rubber ball. And it was obvious.
“Hey,” Reece said to me, but his eyes were on Roxy’s back. “Can I get two Buds?”
“Yeppers.” I tilted my head to the left as I grabbed the chilled bottles. Popping off the caps, I handed them over. “On a tab?”
“Works for me.” His gaze finally shifted back to me. He had pretty blue eyes—vibrant and almost startling in depth. “So, you’re really sticking around?”
Since Reece didn’t look at me like he looked at Roxy, who still had her back to him, I wasn’t self-conscious. Well, not really. It was like talking to Cam, Jase, or Ollie. In other words, hot guys who had eyes for only one female and didn’t care if I looked like the cousin of the Joker.
Worked for me.
“Yeah, at least until the end of the summer.” The words sounded weird to my ears, and I wasn’t sure why.
“Cool.” He leaned against the bar, head cocked to the side. He had a wonderful jaw and bone structure. And I was easily distracted. “This bar has really changed since Jax stepped in.”