Roxy opened her mouth, but it was clear that she wasn’t sure what to say, so I rushed on. “I don’t have a lot of experience with guys, so I think we’re dating, and I think I . . . I like that.”
“You like him,” she corrected softly.
Sighing, I nodded. “I do. I do like him. And I know it’s dumb.”
“It’s not dumb.”
I carried on as if I hadn’t heard her. “I mean, he’s hot, like so hot and so nice, he’s the perfect combo, and with everything going on with my mom, now probably isn’t the smartest time to get involved with anyone.”
“Yeah, the stuff with your mom does suck.” She shifted her slight weight from one foot to the next. “Sucks big-time, but also doesn’t really have anything to do with Jax, you know? They are two separate things.”
I could see that. “But I plan on heading back to school in August.”
“So?” she said. “Shepherd is like three hours from here. Big whoop. You guys can still date. Not only can you drive, there are these neat things called trains.”
I laughed. “I’ve heard of those things a time or two before.”
“He likes you,” Roxy said, and then nodded to drive the statement home. “Jax likes you, Calla. Trust me, I know.”
Her chin jerked up and down again, but before she could continue, the door opened and Nick stuck his head in. “If you two are done doing whatever you’re doing in here, we really could use your help.”
I glanced at Roxy, and she rolled her eyes. “Boys,” she said, spinning around. “What would they do without us?”
I didn’t answer, but I wanted to giggle at the look Nick shot her way. We headed back out and the bar was packed. Jax stopped me, tied on my apron, gave me a not so secretive tap on the behind, and sent me on the floor.
“Girl, I don’t know what’s going on tonight, but it’s a madhouse,” Pearl said as I picked up the notebook to write orders.
The crowd was a mixture of the young and old, and the moment Melvin caught sight of me, he motioned me over to the table with one crooked finger. He wasn’t alone. Tonight he was joined by an equally old-looking dude.
“What’s this I hear about you and Jackson almost getting run over by a car today?” Melvin asked, and I was reminded, once again, how fast news traveled.
I glanced at his buddy, and was unsure of what to say.
“That’s Arthur.” Melvin nodded at his friend. “This is Mona’s daughter.”
Arthur’s heavily lined face crinkled as dark eyes centered on me. “Good to meet you, darlin’.”
Giving him a short, somewhat awkward, wave, I admitted to being almost run over, but downplayed it to a run-in with a really bad driver since I didn’t want to worry either of them. Melvin didn’t look too convinced when he patted my arm and told me to be careful.
The crowd didn’t thin as the night wore on, and when I replaced Nick for break, I was happy to be behind the bar and not out running the floor like a madwoman.
I was making two Jäger bombs when I looked up and saw them. Well, I saw him first and almost dropped the smaller glass in a way one was not supposed to drop it in a Jäger bomb.
The guy was huge—like bigger and broader than Jax, even taller. He wore a black shirt that stretched taut over a defined chest and arms. His brown hair was buzzed on the sides, a little longer on the top, and it stood straight up, a little longer than Jax’s, which looked like it would be curly if it grew out. This guy had an angular face with definite Hispanic descent. Smooth brown skin covered high cheekbones and thick brown lashes framed dark eyes. There was a crescent-shaped scar under his left eye and another under the center of his lip, cutting into it.
He looked bad—like bad in a very good way.
The girl trailing behind him seriously could’ve been Britney Spears in the flesh—Catholic-schoolgirl Britney. Her blond hair was wavy and cut perfectly to frame a heart-shaped face. She had full lips and big brown eyes and a nice body. How did I know she had a nice body? Because most of it was on display.
She was wearing a strappy tank top that showed her trim midriff and a short jean skirt that revealed awesome tan legs. The chick had to-die-for boobs, and she was universally hot.
And she wasn’t paying attention to the big, handsome guy next to her. She was staring straight at the bar. Not at me. Not at Roxy. Her brown gaze was fixed on the side of the bar farthest from Roxy and me.
Aaand she wasn’t just looking at him.
“Do you know who that is?” Roxy asked, shoveling up a buttload of ice. “That hot as hell guy right over there?”
My gaze shifted from the girl to him. “How could I not notice?” I handed over the Jäger bombs with a smile and took the money. “Who is he?” I asked when I really wanted to know who was she and why was she staring at Jax like he was for dinner.
“Brock,” Roxy answered, and started fanning herself. “The Brock.”
“Um? Who?” I asked as I turned to a college-age guy. “What can I get you?”
“That’s Brock ‘the Beast’ Mitchell,” the guy said instead of answering, and I blinked. “You don’t know who he is?”
I glanced over at “the Beast” and shook my head. “Should I?”
The guy snorted as he shook his head. “He does MMA—a pretty big deal. Or about to become a big deal.” He looked over, an expression of awe creeping into his face. “Man, he is not a dude I’d want to piss off. Didn’t know he was in town. Anyway, I’ll take a Bud.”
Grabbing the beer, I peeked over at Brock. I knew what MMA was—mixed martial arts, and I was guessing a pretty big deal meant he was fighting pro on one of those circuits that Cam and Jase were obsessed with. I knew for a fact that the guy wasn’t local. I would’ve remembered a face like that even if he’d been a whole lot smaller in our high school days.
“Cool,” I murmured, handing over the beer.
The guy forgot my existence as he took his drink and started toward Brock like he was drawn to the guy.
“Oh shit.” Roxy straightened, and I saw she was staring at the girl now. She spun, and her gaze landed on Jax. “Oh shit.”
“What?” My heart did a jump in my chest.
Roxy whirled toward me, her lips puckered like she tasted something bad. “That’s Aimee—Aimee with two e’s and an i.”
“Okay.” It was official. I was confused.
“I have no idea what she’s doing with Brock. Well, okay, I have a couple of ideas, but I have no idea why she is here with Brock.”
And now I was starting to get a real bad feeling about this, especially because several guys crowded Brock, and Aimee with two e’s wasn’t even paying attention to him. She was starting around the huddle.
Roxy looked like she’d just walked into a spiderweb and was about to start flailing, and there were people who needed to be served, but my gaze was tracking Aimee, and as she made it halfway across the length of the bar, I looked at Jax.
Leaning against the counter, he was handing over two mixed drinks to a group of giggling girls, and as he straightened and looked over, his gaze moved past Aimee with an i and then bounced back. He blinked, straightened as if someone had grabbed his ass, and my stomach sank a little.
“Oh no,” echoed Roxy.
Aimee with two e’s squeezed in between the giggling girls and an older guy, planted her hands on the bar top, and stretched up, which made her boobalicious boobs strain against the tank top.
Then she spoke in a deep, throaty way. “Jax, baby, I’ve missed you.”
Jax baby stared at Aimee for a moment and then he gave her a half smile—not the half smile, but a lopsided grin that twisted up my insides. He said something and she tossed her head back and laughed huskily.
I turned away and focused on the people waiting for drinks. I wasn’t sure how many minutes went by, and I didn’t even try to stop myself from glancing over at them, but they were still chatting.
No big deal.
When I looked up for Brock, the guy she had walked in with, I didn’t see him anywhere, but there was a huge group surrounding the pool tables, and I figured that was where he was.
Feeling weird and like I had swallowed a bunch of energy pills, I was overly smiley and happy while I helped out the customers until Nick returned. By then, I was ready to get out on the floor and I eased past Roxy, who was shooting me “we need to talk” looks and to which I shot back a “we don’t need to talk” look.
I was hurrying out from behind the bar, eyes focused on Pearl, whose blond hair was escaping the twist, when I was snagged from around the waist and pulled to the side. Swallowing a squeal as I was spun around, I found myself between Jax and the end of the bar, facing Aimee.
Aimee looked as confused as I felt as she glanced between Jax and me, and then her gaze dropped to the arm around my waist.
“Aimee, I’m not sure if you’ve had a chance to meet Calla,” Jax said, and his arm was like a brand around my waist. “She’s from here, but has been gone at college. She’s back for—”
“I know who she is,” she replied, and her tone wasn’t cold or snotty or anything really.
My brows rose. I had no idea who she was, and I had a feeling I would know her if I did.
Aimee smiled as she brushed her hair over one shoulder. “You obviously don’t remember me. It was ages ago when we knew each other.”
Jax shifted and his entire side pressed against mine. “How do you know her? You grew up like a county over.”
I so did not care that he knew that Aimee with two e’s grew up a county away.
“It was a long time ago,” she said, raising her voice as a loud cheer went off toward the pool tables. “We did some of the same pageants together.”
I stiffened as I stared at her. Aimee . . . ? Aimee . . . ? “Aimee Grant?”
Her smile spread, and damn she was breathtaking. Perfect freaking teeth, like she was still wearing flippers. “Yes! You do remember. Oh my God, Jax.” Her eyes flipped to him as she reached over the bar, placing her hand on his other arm like she’d done it a million times. “Calla and I practically grew up together.”
Uh, I wouldn’t have gone that far. We’d probably run into each other every other month at the pageants and we weren’t friends. If I remembered correctly, our mothers hated each other with the passion of all stage mothers. Mom was considered lowbrow for owning a bar, and Aimee’s mom was stay-at-home, married to a doctor, or by the look of those perfect choppers, a dentist.
“Is that so?” Jax slid his hand to my lower back, and I pressed my lips together. He’d angled his body into mine, drawing back so her hand was no longer resting on his arm, and even though I hadn’t done the relationship thing, I knew what he was saying with his body. I’d seen Jase do it. I’d seen Cam do it.
I got a happy feeling inside.
Aimee either was ignoring the message or wasn’t getting it. “Yeah, it’s such a small world. I haven’t seen you in years.” Her gaze was centered on me now. “Not since you stopped doing pageants.”
A ball formed in the pit of my stomach, weighty like lead, and out of reflex, I tried to step back, but with Jax being so close, there was nowhere to go.
“She used to beat me,” Aimee went on, and the ball in my stomach started to grow icicles. “Every single pageant. I’d get grand supreme and Calla would almost always take home ultimate grand supreme.”
Jax’s lips curved up into an easy grin as he watched me, but I was crawling out of my skin to get away from him, the bar, and from Aimee.
Her head cocked to the side as she leaned against the bar. “I haven’t seen you since the fire.”
Air lodged in my throat and the tiny hairs along my back rose.
“A lot of the organizations ran fund-raisers. I remember that,” she continued blithely. “The girls who won money at the pageants for like six months turned over their winnings for you.”
Oh my God.
I also remembered that—remembered Dad saying something about it while I’d been in the hospital, and Mom had been too out of it with grief to even come into my hospital room.
“So terrible,” Aimee said, blinking large eyes. “Everything that happened to you, to your family. How long were you in the hospital?”
Who asked questions like that? But I knew the answer. Throughout my life, complete strangers shoved their noses in my business and asked questions one would think would be off the table or just not appropriate. People didn’t think or they simply didn’t care.
“Months,” I heard myself say.
Jax’s hand flattened against my back, and I felt the muscles tense in his body. The tiny hairs were prickling now.