Some people believed the apple never fell too far from the tree.
And sometimes I wondered that myself.
I didn’t miss the way Clyde tensed, or how his gaze darted to Jax quickly, and then back to me. Unease cut deeper, then twisted and spread like a weed across a flower bed.
Focusing fully on Clyde, I prepared myself for whatever was about to come winging my way. “What?”
His big smile lessened and turned nervous as he dropped his arm. “Nothing, baby girl, it’s just that . . .”
I took a deep breath and waited as Jax grabbed another beer from the cooler of ice, handing it over to an older man in a red, torn flannel who didn’t even get a chance to ask for what he wanted, but shuffled off with a happy, if slightly drunk, smile.
“Is my mom here?”
Clyde shook his head.
I folded my arms around my waist. “Where is she?”
“Well, you see, baby girl, I really don’t know,” Clyde said, shifting his gaze to the scuffed-up, and badly in need of a thorough cleaning, floor.
“You don’t know where she is?” How was that possible?
“Yeah, well, Mona hasn’t been around for like . . .” He trailed off, dipping his chin against his heavy chest as he scrubbed a hand over his bald head.
Those knots were back, tightening until I pressed the heel of my palm against my stomach. “How long has she been gone?”
Jax’s gaze dipped to my hand and then flickered up to my eyes. “Your mom’s been gone for at least two weeks. No one has heard from her, or even caught sight of her. She’s skipped town.”
The floor felt like it had dropped out from underneath me. “She’s been missing for two weeks?”
Clyde didn’t answer, but Jax shifted closer to the bar top and lowered his voice. “She came in one night, upset and tearing around the office like a maniac, which, by the way, wasn’t really different from any other night.”
That sounded familiar. “And?”
“She reeked of alcohol,” he added gently, watching me intently from behind thick lashes.
Which was another common occurrence. “And?”
“And she smelled like she’d been in a sealed-off room, smoking pot and cigarettes for several hours.”
Well, the pot was something new. Mom used to be into pills, lots of pills—a smorgasbord of pills.
“And that wasn’t too uncommon, either, in the last year or so,” Jax said, still watching me, and I now learned he’d been around for some time. “So no one really paid her much attention. You see, your mom kind of . . .”
“Did nothing while she was here?” I supplied when his jaw tensed. “Yeah, that’s nothing new, either.”
Jax held my gaze for a moment, and then his chest rose with a deep breath. “She left that night around eight or so, and we haven’t heard from her since. Like Clyde said, that was about two weeks ago.”
Oh my God.
I plopped down on the bar stool.
“I didn’t call you, baby girl, because . . . well, this isn’t the first time your mom has just up and disappeared.” Clyde propped his hip against the bar as he placed a hand on my shoulder. “Every couple of months, she hits the road with Rooster and—”
“Rooster?” My brows flew up. Did Mom have a pet rooster? As bizarre as that would be, it wouldn’t surprise me. She’d grown up on a farm, and when I was little, she had a thing for oddball pets. We had a goat once named Billy.
Clyde winced. “He’s your mom’s . . . um, he’s your mom’s man.”
“His name is Rooster?” Oh dear lawd.
“That’s what he goes by,” Jax said, drawing my gaze again.
God, this was humiliating in so many ways. Mom was a drunk stoner who abused pills, never did anything with the bar she owned, and had run off with some dude, who was no doubt really classy, and went by the name Rooster.
Next, I was going to find out she was working part-time across the street at the strip club. I needed to find a comfy dark corner to rock in.
“A few months back, she was gone for about a month before she popped back up,” Clyde said. “So, it’s really nothing to worry about. Your mom, well, she’s out there, and she’ll be back. She always comes back.”
I closed my eyes. She didn’t need to be out there. She needed to be here, where I could talk to her, where I could find out if she had any of the money left that she shouldn’t have, and where I could scream and rage at her, and do something about the fact my entire life had spun out of control because of her.
Clyde squeezed my shoulder. “I can give you a call when she gets back.”
That surprised me enough that my eyes popped open just in time to see Jax exchange a hard and long look with Clyde.
“You don’t need to hang around here, baby girl. I think it’s great that you’ve come by to visit, and I’m sure she’ll be—”
“You want me to leave?” My eyes narrowed as my ears perked. Oh, there were most definitely more shenanigans than I was aware of.
“No,” Clyde assured quickly.
And at the same time Jax said, “Yes.”
I stared at him, skin prickling. “Uh, I don’t think you have a say in this, bartender guy.”
Those brown eyes seemed to turn black as coldness crept into him. A muscle popped in his jaw as I held his stare, daring him to disagree. When he didn’t say anything, I turned back to Clyde, who was watching Jax. Something was going on, and with my mom, anything was possible. But I wasn’t leaving—I couldn’t leave because I had nowhere to go. Literally. Unlike the last couple of semesters, I wasn’t taking summer courses, because this year I couldn’t afford it. Which meant I also couldn’t stay in the dorms, so when I packed up to come here, I had to seriously pack up everything. The small amount of funds I did have in my personal account had to get me through until I found Mom or got another job. Either way, I couldn’t afford an apartment or a hotel, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to intrude on Teresa for a place to stay until things got sorted out.
My gaze flickered over the worn-out bar, dancing over the old street signs and black-and-white photos framed on the wall, and, for some reason, I didn’t see it before. Probably because I was too busy focusing on the eye candy that was in front of me, but I saw it now.
Behind the bar, under the red sign that had Mona’s name in elegant cursive, was a framed photo.
Air lodged in my throat.
It was a photo, bright and colorful, of a family—a real family. Two smiling parents, attractive and happy. The mother held a baby boy, no older than one year and three months. Another little boy in a blue sweater, aged ten years and five months, stood next to a little girl, who had just turned eight, and she was dressed in a poofy blue princess-style dress, and she was beautiful, like a little doll, beaming at the camera.
My stomach roiled.
I had to get out of here.
Sliding off the stool, I grabbed my purse off the top of the bar. “I’ll be back.”
Jax frowned as he watched me back up, but he also . . . he looked relieved. The muscle had stopped spasming in his jaw, his shoulders had relaxed, and it was obvious he was happy to see me go whereas a handful of minutes earlier he was trying to get me to share drinks with him.
Yep. Like I’d thought, the guy wasn’t for real.
Clyde reached for me, but I easily stepped out of his space. “Baby girl, why don’t you come back to the office and sit—?”
“No. It’s okay.” I pivoted around and hurried out of the bar, into the warm night air before Clyde could continue.
Pressure clamped down on my chest as the door swung shut behind me and my feet hit the pavement. There were a few more cars in the parking lot, so I cut between them as I headed for the back.
Focus, I told myself. Focus on fixing the problem at hand.
I’d go back to Mom’s house, sort through the crap in her bedroom, and maybe I’d find some clue to where her ass had disappeared. It was the only thing I could do.
Pushing the image of the family photo out of my head, I rounded an older-model truck that had been in the parking lot when I’d arrived and walked toward my parked car.
It was dark in the parking lot and the overhead lighting wasn’t working, so my poor car was cloaked in creepy shadows. I ignored the cold chill snaking down my spine. I reached for the handle on my door when I saw something that didn’t look right.
My fingers curled around empty air as I backed off the door and twisted toward the front. A strangled, surprised cry escaped me.
The windshield was gone.
Gone except for jagged chunks clinging to the frame, and even though it was dark, I could see a brick lying on the dashboard.
Someone had thrown a brick through my windshield.
“You drive a Ford Fuckus?”
Squeezing my eyes shut, I blew out a deep, frustrated breath. After I’d discovered that my windshield had done a meet-and-greet with a brick, I’d walked my butt back into the bar. In a daze, I found myself standing before Jax and telling him what had happened.
Even though I’d been in a state of shock, I had recognized that he hadn’t looked surprised. Anger had flashed across his striking face, deepening his eyes, yes, but surprised? No. Almost like he’d expected this.
And that was weird, but not really important right now. I had a windshield I couldn’t afford to fix.
Opening my eyes, I turned to him. I hadn’t noticed how tall he was while he’d been behind the bar, but standing next to him now, he was a good foot or so taller than me, pushing six feet and some odd inches. His waist was trim and it was obvious the guy took care of himself. “It’s a Focus.”
“Also known as a Fuckus,” he replied, eyes narrowing as he leaned over the hood. “Damn.”
He reached in through the glass, causing me to tense up. “Be careful!” I all but shouted, and maybe a wee bit dramatically, because he cut me a look over his shoulder, his brows raised. I stepped back. “Glass is sharp,” I added dumbly.
One side of his lips kicked up. “Yeah, I know. I’ll be careful.” He picked up the brick and turned it over in his large hand. “Shit.”
I couldn’t even let myself think about how expensive fixing my windshield would be, because if I did, I probably wouldn’t even wait to find a corner to start rocking in.
Jax tossed the brick to the ground and spun. Taking my hand in his large, warm one, he started hauling me toward the bar. My stomach ended up somewhere in my throat at the contact. A step or two behind now, I got a good eyeful of his rump.
Damn. He even had a nice ass.
I so needed to prioritize.
“I’ll get someone out here to take a look at your car,” he said, and I had to walk fast to keep up with his long-legged pace.
I blinked rapidly. “You don’t—”
“Got a friend at a body garage a few miles back toward the mall. He owes me a favor,” he went on as if I hadn’t spoken. Ripping the door so open and so fast I thought it would fly off the hinges, he stormed inside, tugging me along,
“Stay right here,” he said, sending me a look of warning.
Letting go of my hand, he turned to me fully and got right up in my personal space. His boots to my toes, his scent surrounded me, and then he dipped his chin. Out of habit, I turned my cheek to the left, and then gasped when I felt his fingers curl around my chin, coaxing my face back to his.
“Stay right here,” he said again, his gaze locking with mine. “I’ll only be a minute. Tops.”
Minute for what?
Knocked off kilter again, I found myself whispering, “Okay.”
His gaze held mine for an instant longer, and then he wheeled around, and all I could think about was what he said. I definitely want to get to know you better. With long, graceful steps, he disappeared back by the pool tables, heading into the kitchen area.
I stood there.
No less than a minute later, he reappeared with car keys dangling from his fingers. Stopping near the waitress I’d seen carrying baskets earlier, he caught her gently by the elbow. “Can you handle the bar until Roxy gets in?”
The woman glanced at me and then back at Jax. “Sure, but is everything okay?”
Jax guided her over to where I stood rooted to the floor. Up close, she was really pretty, and while I thought she was maybe in her thirties, I didn’t see a wrinkle on her face. “This is Pearl Sanders.” Then he extended a hand toward me. “And this is Calla—Mona’s daughter.”
Pearl’s jaw dropped.
And then the woman snapped forward. With one arm, she gave me a quick and tight hug that left me being the one standing there with my mouth hanging open.
“It’s real good to finally meet you, Calla.” She turned to Jax, pulling the pen out from behind her ear. “You take care of her, okay?”
“Of course,” muttered Jax, like it was the last thing he wanted to do, which was stupid, because I didn’t need to be taken care of, and I sure as hell didn’t ask him to do it. And what the hell happened to him wanting to get to know me better?