Jax rose easily and he didn’t sway. “Calla, baby, maybe you should sit down.”
Sitting down sounded smart. “What was I about to do?”
He was grinning again. “I’m not sure. You were talking about being afraid.”
I wrinkled my nose, and then it hit me. “Oh! Stay right there.” I took off before he could stop me.
Heading into the bedroom, I went to the closet and grabbed my items. Holding them close to my chest, I stumbled back into the living room. Jax was standing by the couch, both brows raised.
I walked to where he stood and placed the trophy I’d won at the Miss Sunshine Pageant, or some stupid shit name like that, on the coffee table. “That’s mine.”
Jax sat on the edge of the couch, his gaze falling onto the trophy. The metal and plastic glittered under the living room ceiling light.
“I used to be in pageants.” Part of me, the tiny slice that was stuck in the haze in my head, couldn’t believe I was telling him this. I hadn’t told anyone. “Since I was, like, a newborn. No joke. I couldn’t even sit up and Mom had me in pageants. I could’ve been on the TV show—you know, Toddlers & Tiaras? That was so me, for like years.”
His gaze finally drifted back to me, to the photo I held close to my chest. Again, there was a strange look to the way he stared at me.
So I lifted the frame and turned it around, facing him. “This is what I used to look like. I mean, yeah, I was like eight or nine in this picture or whatever, but this is what I used to look like.”
Jax’s lashes lowered for maybe a fraction of a second.
I started blabbing again. “I won trophies and crowns and sashes and money. There were more—hundreds of crowns and trophies, but I got mad once. I was fourteen or fifteen—anyway, I was in high school and threw them out the window. They broke. Mom flipped out. Went on a bender for days. It was bad. There wasn’t any food in the house or any detergent to clean my clothes.”
His brows furrowed together as he stared at me now, not the picture of me back then. “Did she do that often?”
I glanced down at my photo, all blond ringlets and big smile, with big fake white teeth—flippers, they were called flippers, and I hated the way they felt and tasted. The fake teeth had hurt my mouth, but when I wore them Mom said I was beautiful. All the judges said I was beautiful. I won awards because of the stupid teeth. Dad . . . he would just shake his head. “What?”
“Leave you for days without food and basic shit to take care of yourself.”
Shrugging, I shook my head. “Clyde would usually come over and stay with me. Or I’d stay with him. It wasn’t a big deal.”
“That’s a big deal, honey,” he said quietly.
My gaze lifted to his and there it was again, that something in his stare I didn’t understand but wanted to. I lifted the photo again, practically shoving it in his face. “I used to be really pretty,” I whispered, sharing the secret. “See? I used—”
“There is no ‘used’ to be.” He snatched the frame out of my hand, and my mouth dropped open as he tossed it. The photo whizzed through the air, bouncing off a cushion and landing harmlessly on the couch. “You’re really f**king pretty now.”
I opened my mouth and I laughed real loud. Might’ve even snorted. “You’re so . . .”
“What?” His lips turned down.
“You’re so . . . f**king nice,” I finished, raising my arms in a grand gesture. “You’re nice. And you’re a liar.”
“What?” he repeated.
I plopped down on the couch, suddenly tired and maybe a little dizzy. “I’m not really pretty.”
He stared down at me. “I just said you’re really pretty now. So you are really pretty. Fucking end of discussion on that.”
My mouth opened to point out all the reasons why that wasn’t true, but then I shrugged. It was nice of him. I’d take it. “You’re nice,” I stated again. “This was nice. Thank you for doing this with me. I mean, I’m sure you could be doing like loads more interesting stuff than babysitting me while I got drunk for my first time.”
He tilted his head to the side. “You don’t need to thank me.”
“Thank you,” I murmured.
One side of his lips kicked up. “Anytime you want to drink, I’m here for you.”
Well, that was nice, too. Out of nowhere, a knot formed in my chest. It felt wet and messy. “Really?”
He nodded. “Like I said, you’re safe with me. Whenever. Seriously. Whatever you want to explore, you’ll always be safe with me.”
Those words . . . oh gosh, those words unhinged something in me. Not that I had felt unsafe. Well, things weren’t warm and fuzzy when I lived with Mom, and shit had obviously gotten hairy a time or two.
“Actually, you know . . . I think I can help you knock off a few of those other things on your list,” he continued, and that lopsided grin spread into a full smile that could stop hearts.
I wasn’t really listening to him, because I was staring at him as that knot moved from my chest to my throat, and it was most definitely wet and messy. Jax was more than just a hottie to end all hotties. He was nice—nicer than Jase, probably even Cam and even Brandon.
He said I was safe with him.
And he said I was really f**king pretty.
I sprang up and toward him. Didn’t even stop to think about what I was doing, but I was up on my feet, and less than a second later, I was throwing my arms around Jax’s neck.
My sudden movement caught him off guard and he stumbled back a step before he steadied himself. A moment passed, and then his arms circled me, folding around my back.
“Thank you,” I said, my voice muffled against his chest—his really hard chest. “I know you said not to thank you, but thank you.”
He didn’t respond right off. Instead, one arm loosened and his hand trailed up my spine, tangling in the ends of my hair. A rush of shivers followed that hand, and those shivers spread out through my arms, to the tips of my fingers and down to my toes, and everywhere in-between, especially the in-between part.
God, his chest was really hard.
I lifted my face off said chest and then raised my lashes. Jax was staring down at me, a soft smile curved on his lips. His other hand shifted off my lower back, and smoothed its way to my hip, and great googley moogley, that felt good. So good I didn’t even take into consideration what he might’ve been able to feel through my shirt and tank top.
Tequila was f**king awesome.
His warm chocolate gaze drifted over my face as his hand tightened on my hip, which caused lots of my muscles to go squishy. “I’m glad you came home, Calla.”
My heart stopped. The freaking world stopped. “Really?” I heard myself say.
“Really,” he replied.
Okay. I didn’t care if it was the tequila making me hear things, and I didn’t care that my entire chest was turning to mush, and if that made me dumb or not, and I didn’t care that I was about to do something I’d never done before, or that the room was spinning slowly like we were on a merry-go-round.
I stretched up on my toes as I lowered my hands to his shoulders and I went for his mouth. I was going to kiss him. I’d never tried to kiss a guy before, but I was going to do it now. I was going for a home run of my lips against his wonderful lips, because he said I was safe, and that he was glad I came home, and that I was really f**king—
Jax jerked his head back. Actually his entire body jerked back, and my mouth didn’t land on his, but more or less skated off his chin and down his neck. Since my mouth was open, I got a good taste of his skin.
Wowzers, his skin tasted good.
He sidestepped the coffee table, putting space between us. Without him being there, I toppled forward. His hands curled around my upper arms, stopping my fall and . . . and keeping me an arm’s length away.
Confused, I stared at him. His eyes were wide again, all laziness and warmth gone from them. Uh oh. This wasn’t good.
“Calla,” he began softly, too gently. Like way too gently.
Oh no. This was so bad.
“Honey, that’s . . .”
My heart started pounding violently, drowning out whatever Jax was saying. This was like f**ked-up bad. As in the kind of bad one did not live down. I tried to kiss Jax, beautiful and charming and so f**king nice Jax.
I actually tried to kiss him?
Oh my God . . . tequila sucked butt.
“. . . I said you were safe with me.” His voice was deeper, lower when I tuned back in to whatever the hell he was talking about. “I wasn’t lying.”
What the hell did that have to do with the price of tea in China? Or the tequila that had suddenly turned on me like a crackhead with a rusty spork? I tried to kiss him and he had jerked back from me, physically removed himself from my mouth.
Holy shit balls.
The messy and wet ball was back, this time in my stomach and my chest, but it was mingling with something else that was vile, and quickly rising.
I lurched back, tearing myself from his grasp. “Oh my God,” I gasped out. “I can’t believe I tried . . .” I swallowed a hiccup, a bad hiccup. “Oh wow.”
“It’s okay. Why don’t we sit down?” he offered, taking a step toward me.
Another hiccup. “Tequila is a dirty whore.”
Jax frowned, brows coming down. “Calla—”
Spinning around, I darted for the bedroom. I could feel it. The mess was almost there. I stumbled around the bed, my feet slipping as I hit the bathroom door, slamming my hands into it. The door cracked off the wall, no doubt denting the plaster.
I hit the floor on my knees in front of the toilet—oh God, was this toilet even clean? Too late. I grasped the sides as my stomach heaved and rolled, bringing up everything and anything.
Tequila f**king sucked.
Tequila was the wild juice of the devil and I’d never partake in it again.
The most messed-up thing was that people always claimed that they didn’t remember what they did when they were drunk. I call bull poop on that, because I remembered—oh God, I could recall it all—in painstaking, humiliating detail.
I’d told Jax all the things I hadn’t done, and some of that crap was just ridiculous. Like things that probably made him think I grew up in a bomb shelter or something.
Then I’d cuddled the bottle. Cuddled it. Like it was a puppy. Or a kitten. Whatever. Something furry that was not a f**king bottle of liquor.
I’d also shown him a trophy and a picture of me all gussied up like a baby doll and told him I used to be pretty. That alone made me want to shove my head in an oven, but oh, there’d been more.
I’d also told him about the Mom stuff, which was too horrifying to even repeat.
And I’d also tried to kiss him.
Aaand then I puked my guts up while Jax held my hair and rubbed my back. He’d actually rubbed—wow—my back, and I think he’d talked me through it. I don’t know what he said, but I remembered his voice, low and soothing as my stomach cramped and heaved. But he had to have felt the scars. My skin wasn’t exactly even on my back. It was rough and raised in some areas, and I knew it could be felt through my shirt.
Once I was done hurling up all the tequila and what was left of my pride, I’d lain on the bathroom floor, because it was cool, smooth, and perfect. He let me stay there while he snatched a damp towel and then—oh God, even more embarrassing—he wiped down my face. To top it all off, he’d picked me up once he’d been sure I wasn’t going to vomit on him and carried me to bed, where he forced water and two ibuprofens down my throat.
I’d passed out on my side with Jax sitting next to me, his leg pressing into my hip, and when I woke up at some point during the morning, feeling like I’d been hit by a fire truck full of hot, muscular firemen, Jax was still there.
He’d been stretched out behind me, the front of his body pressed to the back of mine, and his arm had been a heavy weight on my hip. If I hadn’t felt like my head was going to split open, I might’ve enjoyed waking up like that. Instead, I panicked like I’d just been busted in the wrong person’s bed.
I’d jumped from the bed, literally, and nearly ate the floor. I had no idea how I grabbed fresh clothes and made it through the shower, washing away the grossness of the tequila yuck that seemed to have bled through my skin, without sitting down in the tub and crying over the pain behind my eyes and all the dumb, dumb things I’d done and said the night before.
Jax was awake when I shuffled out of the bathroom, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he walked into the bathroom with his own toothbrush, which he’d stashed there after the second night of staying in this house.
When he’d come out, his hair damp from obviously splashing water over his face and head, I was sitting on the couch and quickly averted my gaze, staring at the spot on the floor where I’d cuddled the bottle of tequila.