When he lifted his mouth from mine and pressed his forehead against mine, tears had built in the back of my throat. “I don’t care about it, Calla. I don’t even think about it,” he said. “I don’t even see it.”
I squeezed my eyes shut as my heart squeezed into goo. Immediately, I didn’t believe him, because come the f**k on, but I stopped—I just stopped. Stopped telling myself I knew what was going on in Jax’s head and that I knew what he wanted and didn’t want. I stopped. Because I didn’t know—no one ever knew, scarred or not. Stopped telling myself there was no point, because I planned on leaving. And all I had was what Jax was telling me, and what he was showing me. So I stopped all the other bullshit and I shook that crap off and it was like scrubbing Dermablend off my face at night, when I finally felt like me. All of this might be dumb. It might bite me in the ass later, but I was going to be dumb. I was going to be the best dumb I could be.
I wobbled a little and I exhaled through my nose and when I spoke, my voice was unsteady and the back of my eyes burned, but I pushed on. “Okay. Let’s do this. And get this done, because I really want that nap.”
Those lips curved against mine. “That’s my girl.”
When Jax walked out of the townhouse, he was tugging the back of his shirt down as he walked down the small set of stairs on the front stoop. He was rocking a pair of mirrored sunglasses, aviator style like Jase wore, and he’d looked just as good in them.
We didn’t talk much as he drove to IHOP, which was good, because I was fixated on what might happen before or after the possible nap. More orgasms not self-induced? Count me in. I was so going to follow through with my newly desired dumbness and not worry about anything else while exploring the dumb.
Like any normal red-blooded female, I’d thought about sex a decent amount, but not as much as I had in the last hour or so. My brain was playing happily in the gutter, right up until the plate of bacon, biscuits, and something Jax had said were grits and that I needed to try.
It was hard not thinking about being out in public without makeup, but every time my mind wandered to it or I thought someone was checking it out, like when a small boy had peeked over the back of the booth or when the waitress smiled at me, I forced it out of my thoughts.
And then my thoughts went to this—this Jax and me thing. There was a thing. As he’d said earlier, he had his hand between my thighs and I’d called his name, so there was a thing. A thing I had little experience in, and I wasn’t sure how far this thing really was going to go, because if my financial aid kicked in, I’d be heading three hours down the road. What kind of future was there for our thing when I’d be at college and he’d be all sexy working the bar?
Why was I even thinking about this? Because I was dumb and I’d already decided that I was going to go with this thing, whatever it was, and whatever going with this thing meant.
I poked at the white lumpy crap with my fork. “This is grits?”
“It looks like something out of a horror movie.” I poked it again. “I’m afraid it’s going to launch itself off the plate and cover my face.”
Jax chuckled as he added some pancakes to the river of syrup.
“It’s not funny. I’ll end up birthing an alien grit baby or something,” I muttered. “And then what are we going to do?”
He peered up through his lashes, a small, amused grin playing across his lips. “Just try it.”
“What does it taste like?” I resisted.
I lowered my fork, looking at him blandly. “Details.”
He laughed as he cut through what looked like ten pancakes stacked. “One cannot simply describe grits. One must simply enjoy them.”
My eyes rolled, but I scooped up a small taste, made sure I had cheese in it, and gingerly tasted them. The whole time Jax watched and waited. I swallowed, unsure of what to think. I tried a little more.
“So?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” I shoved a mouthful in. “I haven’t decided yet. I think they taste good, but they’re called grits; therefore I’m not sure I can freely admit to liking something called grits. I have to really think about this.”
Jax laughed. “Cute.”
I grinned as I went for a slice of bacon. “So where are we going after this?”
“Inside Philly,” he said in between mouthfuls. “There’s a house she used to hang out at a lot. Maybe we’ll get lucky and she’ll be there or they’ve seen her recently.”
“Calla! And Jax!” shrieked a familiar voice. I twisted in the booth, spying Katie. She was trotting over to us. Literally trotting, and I blinked, wondering if we time-warped back to the eighties and I’d been unaware of it.
Katie was wearing hot pink spandex tights, slouchy purple socks, sneakers, and an off-the-shoulder black shirt. And a scarf—a polka-dotted red and blue scarf, and it was June.
“Hey,” I said, waving a slice of bacon around.
“Gurl.” Katie stopped at our booth, holding on to a carry-out box. “Look at you. Told you, your life was going to change.”
Jax shoved a huge slice of pancake into his mouth, and I could tell he was trying not to smile.
“What are you doing up so early?” she asked, and then went on before I could answer. “I was doing yoga. Every morning. And I get IHOP, Waffle House, or Denny’s every morning. It’s like the universal counterbalance or some shit like that. But it’s still kind of early for hot, busy bartenders to be eating breakfast. Together.”
My gaze shifted to Jax.
“We woke up together,” he said, and that was all he said.
Katie’s eyes turned into spaceships, and I almost shouted that it wasn’t what she was thinking, but then I realized that it was what she was thinking, so I forced myself not to say anything.
A big smile split across her pretty face. “Awesome sauce. Seriously. If you two stay together and end up getting married and having a kid, I think you should name your baby Katie.”
Warmth crept into my cheeks. “Whaaat?”
“I mean, you could name a boy baby Katie, but they’d probably get made fun of in school, and I don’t think you two would want that. Oh—is that grits?” She switched topics, not even taking a breath. “You need more cheese on them. One morning you need to come over to my house. I can make some mean-ass grits.”
“That sounds good,” Jax replied smoothly, his dark eyes twinkling in the lights. “And we’ll take the name thing into consideration.”
I turned my “what the f**k” stare on him.
Katie giggled. “Awesome. Well, I need to get home with my muffins and waffles. See you guys later.”
Watching her spin on her heel and flounce out of the restaurant, I had nothing of any value to say, so I went with the next-best thing. “Did you know she fell off a pole, hit her head, and is now psychic?”
“That’s what I hear.”
I bit down on my lower lip. “Roxy says she’s been pretty on point before.”
“Katie,” drawled Jax, and I looked over the table at him. He was smiling. “I wouldn’t be opposed to naming a baby girl Katie.”
“Oh my God,” I said.
Jax tipped his head back and laughed that deep sexy laugh, and I couldn’t help but smile.
I wasn’t smiling when we entered the part of town one did not willing venture into forty minutes later. The street wasn’t very active, as it wasn’t even noon yet.
Jax found a parking spot in front of the worn-down brownstones across from a city park that looked like it belonged in a postapocalypse movie.
My gaze skipped over the boarded-up windows and doors on some of the units. “I’m not sure about this.”
“This is the last shit hole I want to bring you to, but the last I checked, you served me with a dose of attitude about this being your problem and shit.” He killed the engine and turned what was probably a very smug look on me. “So that’s why we’re here.”
He had a good point, but it wasn’t like I was going to admit to that. “Whatever.”
His lips twitched. “Stick close to me. Okay? And let me do the talking—no, don’t look at me like you just sucked on something sour. Let me do the talking. If you can’t agree to that, then we’re going to drive off, I’m going to lock you up with Clyde or Reece, and then I’ll come back here on my own.”
My eyes narrowed on him. “You don’t have to be so damn bossy.”
“Yes, I do.” He leaned forward and kissed the tip of my nose. It was quick, but it still startled me. When he pulled back, he was grinning. “Do you agree?”
I hesitated and then sighed. Wasn’t like I was Rambo and was going to run into the brownstones by myself, demanding to have them hand over my mother or else. “Oh, all right. Yes. I agree.”
Jax nodded and then he climbed out. I sat there for a second, said a little prayer, and then got out. I did stick close to him as we walked down the block and then headed up the crumbling set of steps to a brownstone that had two windows boarded up on the second floor.
“Mom used to come here?” I asked, folding my arms around my waist.
He nodded as he glanced down at me. “Yeah.”
Pressing my lips together, I knew I shouldn’t be surprised. Wasn’t like this was anything new, but seeing this and picturing my mom hanging out in a place like this just didn’t set well, no matter how many trailers I’d pulled her out of when I was a teenager.
Jax rapped his knuckles on the door. A few moments passed and when no one answered, I figured this was going to be a no go, but then Jax pounded his fist on it.
“Whoa,” I murmured, glancing around. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”
He ignored me as he leaned in. “Open up the door, Ritchey. I know you’re in there. Your piece-of-shit car is out front.”
My eyes widened as my stomach dipped.
There was a beat of silence and then the front door opened to a crack. I couldn’t see anyone, but I heard in a scratchy voice, “What the f**k do you want, Jackson?”
Jax placed his hand on the center of the faded red door. “We need to talk.”
“Talk” was the response.
“Not on the front doorstep of your damn house, Ritchey. Let us in.”
There was a pause. “Us?” Then the door opened to about a foot and a man’s head appeared. I took an involuntary step back from the sight of the unshaven face, bloodshot eyes, and bulbous nose covered in broken blood vessels. “Who the f**k are you?”
I recognized the man even though he stared at me like he’d never seen me before. Holy shit, there was no way I’d forget those watery eyes and nose. He used to come over to the house and party with Mom.
“Really none of your business, Ritchey, and I’m not here to make introductions,” Jax cut in, and his tone . . . wow, it was all kinds of badass. I was actually staring up at him, kind of shocked. “Open the door.”
Ritchey didn’t open the door.
There was a low curse and then Jax moved. Planting his foot into the door, he pushed with his boot and hand. The door opened and Ritchey went wheeling backward.
“Um . . .”
Jax took my hand, tugging me inside, and the smell—God, the smell was the first thing I noticed as he shut the door behind us. The room, which consisted of a blaring TV and two couches that had seen better days, smelled like a mixture of cat piss and booze.
Please do not let my mom be in here.
I know that I was wrong for thinking that. Finding her would ease my problems quickly, but I didn’t want to think of her in a place like this.
“Not cool, man.” Ritchey backed away, scratching at his throat with dirty nails. The skin of his neck was red. “Pushing the door open like you’re a damn cop or something.”
“You didn’t open the door,” Jax returned.
I had to wonder how much practice he had busting up into houses with um . . . questionable residents, because he was completely at ease doing so. I took a step to the side, because I realized there was a hole in the floorboard in front of me, and I could see over the back of a couch.
My chest squeezed.
There was a small child, maybe five or six, curled up on the couch, lying under a thin quilt. A cat was tucked in the little’s boy lap. I stared at the kid, sickened.
“What’s up?” Ritchey asked.
Jax kept his arms loose at his sides. “We’re looking for Mona.”
“Like there’s another Mona I’d come here looking for. And this isn’t the first time I’ve come here looking for Mona,” Jax said, surprising me. But then I remembered him saying he and Clyde had done this before. “Don’t pull crap. You know how this works.”