“One time,” Jax warned.
Ritchey didn’t answer, and then Jax sprang forward, grasping the front of Ritchey’s shirt and lifting him onto the tips of his bare feet.
Holy crap, this was going to get physical.
My mouth dropped and then I moved forward, keeping my voice low as I reached their side. “There’s a kid on the couch sleeping, Jax.”
“Shit,” muttered Jax, but his hands didn’t come off the guy. “You got Shia here, in this rat hole?”
“His damn mother skipped out. I’m doing the best I can.”
His biceps flexed. “Let’s take this into the kitchen and you’re going to play nice. For Shia, okay?”
We took it into the kitchen, or what might have been the kitchen. It didn’t have a sink, just a gaping hole where one should be. Out of the corner of my eyes, I thought I saw something brown and disgustingly large scurry over the wall near the fridge.
“Mona ain’t here,” Ritchey said finally.
“You mind if I check that out?”
“Have at it.” Ritchey stepped to the side and leaned against the counter. “But I’m telling you. She ain’t here and you ain’t the first person to come looking for her.”
I stilled. “We’re not?”
“Who else has been looking for her?” Jax asked, not moving.
Ritchey’s watery eyes narrowed on me. “There’s something about—”
“Eyes on me, Ritchey.” When he obeyed the demand, Jax didn’t look any more relaxed. Unease formed in my belly. “Who came looking for Mona?”
“Some dudes. Some bad f**king dudes,” he replied, folding his scrawny arms across his frail-looking chest. I thought this probably wasn’t the best conversation to have in a room that a small child was sleeping in, but he went on. “Guys who work for Isaiah.”
Oh. Bad news.
“We already know that,” Jax replied calmly.
“There’s some talk,” he said after a few moments. “Mona’s in deep.”
“Another thing we already know.”
Ritchey grimaced. “Yeah, but do you know she was the go-between to what was close to three million in he**in for Isaiah? And she was supposed to turn that stuff over a week ago?”
I almost groaned. My worst suspicions were confirmed. The drugs belonged to the uber drug lord and not Greasy Guy.
“Word on the street is that someone else has got the shit and Isaiah wants to hear it from the horse’s mouth that she ain’t got the shit no more.” Ritchey hacked out a dry laugh. “Man, if I knew that stuff was at the house and she wasn’t there, I’d have been all over that myself.”
And he kept going. “She’s a dead bitch walking. You know that, Jax. Good thing she gave—”
“That’s enough,” he cut in harshly while my stomach ended up somewhere on the gross as hell floor. “Do you have any idea of where she is? Or Rooster?”
“Rooster?” Ritchey laughed again. “Man, he’s holed up wherever Mona is, or if he’s smart, he’s gotten far away from where she is. Man, Jax, you know how Mona was. She’d get high, get to talking and acting like she was big shit because she was running mule for Isaiah and the shit got out. Mona ain’t smart. She should’ve handed over that dope instead of sitting on it.”
“Why didn’t she?” I asked, and I could feel Jax’s eyes on me. “Did you hear anything about that?”
He nodded. “Stupid-ass Rooster was talking about trying to run some game over Isaiah. Instead of taking the cut they got for going and picking the dope up, he wanted more before they handed it over. So they were sitting on it. And that put the ass**le Mack in a bad position, because he was supposed to get that shit from them and hand it over. ’Cuz you know, Isaiah, he don’t want to get his hands dirty.”
Oh God, that was just worse in five hundred different ways. I didn’t know what to say.
“And knowing Mona and Rooster, they probably got themselves a bit of it, got messed up, and then freaked, knowing they’ve pissed off Isaiah. Shit ain’t looking good for them.” He paused, spreading his arms. “And now, here we are, and all that shit rolls downhill, right through Mack, Rooster, and Mona.”
A muscle thrummed along Jax’s jaw. “Damn.”
“Yep. You know who might have a clue to where they are?” Ritchey tilted his head to the side. Jax’s chin went up a notch. “You know Ike?”
“Met him a time or two.”
Ritchey nodded. “Track him down—he’s been living north of Plymouth, in the camp called Happy Trails. Can’t miss him. Got one of those souped-up trucks.” He glanced over at me again. “We’ve met, haven’t we? Man, ’cuz you look familiar. I can’t put it. Wait . . .” His pale eyes widened. “Holy shit, it’s true.”
“Ritchey,” warned Jax in a low voice as he reached into his pocket. “Don’t piss me off.”
“Whoa, man, I’m not trying. I like you. Always have, being we both have seen battle.” He raised his hands, and I saw it then, the vicious red track marks on his arms. “But you got to know, there’s more word on the street, talking about how Mona’s daughter is here. I just didn’t believe it. You better hope Isaiah doesn’t catch wind of that shit.”
Well, a little late on hoping for that.
“Stop looking at her,” Jax ordered, and Ritchey stopped looking at me as Jax pulled a wad of cash out of his pocket and dropped it on the counter. “Use that to get your boy some food. If I even f**king catch wind of you spending it on dope, I’m going to revisit and it isn’t going to be pretty.”
My breath caught as I stared at the money. It wasn’t a whole ton of it, but it was a decent-size wad. Then I stared at Jax. He was giving money to Ritchey for his kid. I think in that moment, I definitely went from liking Jax straight into crush territory.
After Jax dropped the money on the counter, he said something to Ritchey about us not being there, and then he took my hand and led me out of the house. I wanted to grab the child and make a run for it, but considering how everything was going for me, I doubted he’d be better off with me.
“Should we have checked upstairs?” I asked as the door closed behind us.
Jax shook his head. “Ritchey isn’t lying. Mona isn’t there. We’ll check out Ike and see if he has any idea.”
I headed down the stairs, my mind caught up in everything. I’d come home thinking I could get my money back from Mom, or at least have it out with her; realized neither of those two things were going to happen; and tried to make some much-needed money, but in the end, found myself in the middle of a million-dollar drug dispute.
“You okay?” he asked quietly, squeezing my hand as we hit the sidewalk.
Glancing up at him, I realized something else, something that was probably the most unexpected part in all of this. I’d found Jax. I nodded, and then I said, “No. I mean, it’s been so long since I’ve been around any of this stuff. I forgot what it was like.”
Jax tugged me closer until I was walking with my body pressed against his side and, letting go of my hand, he dropped his arm over my shoulders. This was nice. Brandon would do this sometimes, but it never felt like this.
“Not cool that you have to remember what this was like,” he said. “That you couldn’t just forget. I didn’t want that—”
Tires squealed, shrieking, and the smell of burnt rubber filled the air. The sound raised the hairs all over my body as Jax’s arm tightened on my shoulders. He spun around, keeping me tucked close, just in time to see a black SUV cut between two parked cars, smacking into one. Metal crunched and grinded, giving way as the SUV jumped the sidewalk.
My heart stopped and then sped up.
The SUV was coming straight for us.
Holy crap on a cracker, we were going to be run down in the middle of the crappiest part of Philly, looking for my jerk of a Mom.
The SUV was so close I could make out the damn emblem and smell the engine fumes. Air lodged in my throat as my heart threw itself against my ribs.
Jax sprang into action.
One second he had his arm around my shoulders and the next, he had an arm around my waist and my feet were off the ground. We were flying, or at least it felt that way, because I was up in the air and we were moving fast.
We crashed through a dried bush. Tiny, scratchy branches dragged over my arms and snagged in the hair tucked up in a bun at the back of my neck. Jax rolled at the last minute, and when we hit the ground, I landed on top of him. The impact was jarring and the air was knocked out of my lungs, pushing my eyes wide.
Jax rolled as he shoved me onto my back and reached behind him. He flipped up into a sitting position, his body shielding mine as he extended his right arm. Something black and slim was in his hand.
The SUV spun out over the sidewalk, bouncing back into the road and peeling off, sending puffs of white smoke into the air as the tires squealed again. Rising fluidly, Jax kept his arm trained on the quickly retreating SUV.
I lay there, half on the bush and half on a patch of yellow, burnt grass, absolutely stunned. Unless the driving ability of those who lived in Philadelphia had significantly gone down the pooper, someone had tried to run us over. And Jax was holding a gun. Not only was he holding a gun, but he had to have had the gun the entire time, and I remembered him coming out of the townhouse, tugging the back of his shirt down. And not only that, if that wasn’t enough reason to be totally mind blown, he’d tucked and rolled like a pro and he handled that gun like he knew what he was doing.
Jax faced me and was suddenly kneeling beside me, placing his hands on my shoulders. They were shaking. “Are you okay?”
His face was pale, strained. “Are you sure?”
I nodded as my heart pounded for a different reason. There was panic in his face—a stark fear. “I’m really okay.”
He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. “When I saw that car coming, I thought . . .” He shook his head. “The roadside bomb—we never saw it.”
“Oh God,” I whispered.
His eyes were dark when they reopened. “Just f**ked with my head for a second.”
“Understandable. You okay now?”
He nodded, and the color was back in his face. Cursing under his breath, Jax jerked around as one of the doors down the street opened and someone shouted something. It sounded like Ritchey, and it also sounded like he was yelling something about bringing bad shit to his doorstep, but my attention was focused on Jax.
He looked down at me.
“Do I even know you?” I asked.
One eyebrow rose as he reached around to his back, and when his hands returned to where I could see them, he wasn’t holding the gun anymore. “You know me.”
I blinked up at him as I sat up. “That . . . that was pretty impressive. You know, the whole thing.”
“Had a lot of practice dodging shit in the past, honey.”
That’s right. Military training. Duh. “And the gun?”
“Working at Mona’s, I’ve ended up face-to-face with people that make me feel a bit better chatting with knowing I’m holding a gun.” He reached down, took my hands in his, and hauled me onto my feet. “Plus, holding and firing a gun aren’t anything strange to me.”
Double duh. Military training. “What . . . what do you think that was all about?”
A door—most likely Ritchey’s—slammed shut. “Probably not something good.” He gripped the sides of my face, tilting my head back. “You really okay?” he asked once more.
Breathing heavy, I nodded. Other than a little sore and scared out of my mind, I was okay. “Someone tried to run us over.”