Her eyes rolled. “June—one of the girls—is trying out a new routine. Belly dancing. The girl can’t even grind to hip-hop without sending men running through the door like their wives just showed up.”
“Then how does she strip?” Roxy asked.
Even Nick appeared to be listening from where he stood a few feet over, on the other side of the ice well.
“Who knows? She’s got great tits and a nice ass. Anyway, I just can’t deal with it.”
I grinned as I poured her the shot and then slid the glass toward her. Not a drop spilled.
“Aw, look, you’re like a real bartender now,” Roxy remarked.
I shot them both a look and then the door opened. My head swiveled toward it so fast I was surprised I didn’t get whiplash. My breath caught and I almost dropped the whiskey bottle.
Reece was the first one in, wearing worn jeans and a button-down shirt, looking fine.
“Damnit,” groaned Roxy. “Seriously. I thought for sure that tonight I wouldn’t have to deal with looking at him.”
I glanced at her.
Katie snorted as she raised her glass. “I’d take several long nights with him.” Then she downed the whiskey in one gulp. “Holy guacamole,” she gasped.
A couple of other guys strolled in. I saw his older brother, and I was surprised to see Colton with them, but it made sense. The husband-to-be was a cop. My heart was really dancing now, because Jax had to be with him.
Katie looked over her shoulder. “See! Even June ran them out!” She threw up her hands.
The door swung closed and the laughing group of men moved to an open table near the pool tables. My heart sank to my stomach.
Jax wasn’t with them.
“They were at the club, right?” I heard myself ask.
“Yep. Didn’t get out of hand.” Katie inspected her nails for a moment and then she looked up, her blue eyes filled with sympathy.
I took a step back, bumping into Sherwood, who, like a damn ghost, had gotten behind the bar and was doing something with the glasses.
Roxy watched me, brows knitted. “Calla . . .”
I seriously doubted that Katie had fallen from the pole and developed super-stripper abilities, but she was staring at me like she knew exactly what I was stressing over.
“Jax was with them,” she said.
Not a surprise. I knew he would be.
Roxy moved closer as she scanned the bar. Her gaze caught Nick’s and he moved to help a customer.
“Okay,” I whispered, and I wasn’t sure how she heard me over the noise.
Katie sucked her glossy pink lip in. “The guys were having a good time, but Jax didn’t look too happy and then maybe a half an hour before I came over, Aimee showed up.”
The worst kind of feeling erupted in my chest.
“It was really different, because Aimee has never stepped foot in the club.”
Of course not, because Aimee was there, because Jax was there.
“About ten minutes after she showed up, Jax left.” Katie’s eyes met mine. “And Aimee left, too, right behind him. I’m not saying they were together. But she was literally right behind him.”
Oh my God.
“Calla.” Roxy touched my arm. “Aimee is like a step up from a stalker. You know Jax didn’t ask for her to show up there.”
I looked at her, but I wasn’t sure I saw her. The hollowness from earlier was back. “He hasn’t returned my text I sent him before we came to work. I sent him a text. He hasn’t responded.”
“Okay. This doesn’t mean anything,” Roxy said quickly.
Really? Aimee showed up last night. He ran her off, but the conversation was questionable. We got into a huge fight. He didn’t sleep with me, was gone when I woke, and he hadn’t tried to contact me all day and he didn’t respond to me. None of this was looking good.
My throat burned.
Something powerful bled out of me as I stood there, like bleeding out from a well-placed stab wound that was meant to kill you slowly.
“You two are more than friends. You haven’t said that to me, but I know,” Katie said as she tapped her finger on the side of her head. “I know.”
“Katie,” Roxy sighed.
“I told you that your life was going to change,” she went on. “Remember? I told you. I didn’t say it would be easy.”
I stared at her.
Luckily, a whole crew of people rolled in, rushing the bar, so I didn’t get a chance to respond to Katie, and I threw myself into filling orders in a way that bordered on obsessive. I didn’t even notice when Katie left.
Roxy tried to talk to me several times, but I avoided her, because I knew she wanted to talk about Jax and I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do it.
I made three Long Island iced teas and I smiled. I laughed. I took money. I made tips. And then I made a ton of Jäger bombs for Reece’s table since Roxy was suddenly helping Gloria.
He didn’t mention Jax.
I didn’t, either.
By the time he and the guys left it was almost an hour before we closed for the night, and all I wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. At one point during the evening Roxy mentioned I could stay with her, but I needed to be alone. I was willing to take the risk to just be alone, because whatever started bleeding out of me earlier was still doing it.
I glanced at the doors one more time that evening and my lips trembled and the icy pain in my chest filled the hollowness twisting up my insides. I could feel it building inside me. I was going to break and that would be the icing on top of the f**ked-up cake.
Whirling toward Roxy and Nick, I took a deep breath. “Will it be okay for me to go ahead and leave?”
Roxy nodded. “Yeah. We got this, but—”
“Okay. Thank you.” I rushed over to her, grabbed a quick hug, and then skirted around her and Nick. I snatched up my purse from the office and when I was heading back out, Nick was coming around the bar.
“I can give you a ride,” he suggested.
“No,” I said quickly, tipping my head to the left. “I have my car. You don’t need to do that.”
Nick glanced at Roxy, and I took that as my sign to get out before I ended up riding home with one of them, and then I’d also end up crying all over one of them. I hurried out of the bar and the smell of rain was thick in the night air.
I stopped, dug my phone out of my purse, and smacked the button. My screen popped up. No missed calls. No missed texts.
I let out a dry, harsh laugh as I lifted my head, dropping my cell back in my purse. My fingers itched to call him as I stared at the full parking lot across the street. Of course, Jax’s truck wouldn’t be there, because he’d left mere seconds before Aimee did, and he hadn’t showed at Mona’s tonight. He hadn’t tried to get in touch and he hadn’t responded to my call.
I shouldn’t have let Jax in.
I shouldn’t have fallen for him.
No. That wasn’t true.
Wiping under my eyes, I walked across the parking lot. The Wal-Mart down the street was open. I was going to put some of the money I’d been hoarding toward one of the handheld baskets full of junk food and ice cream. Then I was going to go home and eat until I didn’t care. Then tomorrow . . . well, I didn’t know yet. I was a few feet from my car when I heard my name called.
My eyes widened and my fingers jerked around the strap of my purse as I spun around, my back to the road, disbelief ringing through me as my gaze darted wildly and landed on the source.
She was standing under the flickering parking lot light. Even in the low light, I could see her washed-out, bottled-blond hair with dark, dark roots, her gaunt face and frame. Clothing was wrinkled. An old T-shirt hung from slim shoulders. Jeans were skintight but billowed out from the knees.
She took a step toward me, and I moved a step back. Her smile was tight and brittle. “Baby . . .”
I couldn’t believe it.
Mom was standing right in front of me, looking strung-out and calling me baby. I was literally rooted to where I stood, absolutely dumbfounded. I didn’t even know what to say to her, because there were a thousand things I wanted to scream at her, but none of those things came out of my mouth.
“Are you okay?” That was what I said.
She opened her mouth, but whatever she said was cut off by a roaring sound, like an engine gunning it. My head jerked and I looked behind me. A four-door car with tinted windows sped into the parking lot, stopping under the sign. A window rolled down on the driver’s side.
Tiny sparks speared into the night.
There was a popping sound.
Mom shouted, and I thought she screamed my name, but there were more popping sounds, like a dozen corks being pulled at once, and more sparks. I dimly realized it was gunfire just as glass exploded all around me. Metal pinged close to me, too close, and my purse slipped out of my fingers as a scream built in my throat.
The sound never left me, because my breath was punched out of me as a strange burn lit up my stomach, sharp and sudden, intense and stealing my breath.
I looked down as I wobbled back, bumping into a Jeep. I thought I heard shouting, but my head was spinning in a funny way. My hands shook as I pressed them against my side. I felt something warm and wet.
“Mom,” I croaked as the bones left my legs. I didn’t remember falling, but the back of my head hurt, but not as bad as my stomach. I was staring up at the sky, but the stars were moving, like they were raining. “Mom?”
There was no answer.
When I opened my eyes again, I wasn’t staring at stars or even a bright light. It was a ceiling, a white drop ceiling with a soft, dim light fixture. The rest was shadowy and as my gaze tracked to the opposite wall, I saw a pale blue curtain. My thoughts were slushy and I felt funny, like I was floating, but I knew I was in a hospital. There was a dull sensation of something in my right hand and as my gaze slowly trekked to where it rested on the bed, I could see an IV.
Definitely a hospital.
Oh yeah, that was right, I’d been shot. Actually shot with a gun. Seriously.
God, my luck sucked.
I started to sit up, but the dull ache turned sharper, piercing across my belly, and the air punched out of my lungs at the suddenness of it. The walls spun like a bad acid trip.
Movement from the left of my bed stirred the air around me and a gentle hand landed on my shoulder. I blinked the room back into focus as my head was guided back against the surprising stack of pillows.
“Awake for a couple of seconds and you’re already trying to sit up.”
The heart monitor registered the sudden increase in my heart rate as I turned my head to the left. My beat skipped unsteadily.
Jax was sitting in a chair next to the bed and he looked . . . he looked like crap. Dark smudges bloomed under eyes that were normally the color of warm whiskey. The shadow of stubble along his jaw was thicker than normal.
But he smiled when my eyes met his and he said in a gruff voice that was thick, “There you are.”
“I took your shirt.”
His brows furrowed together. “What?”
I don’t know why I said that. I could tell there were some really sweet drugs rolling through my system right now. So I was going to blame them. “I took your shirt when I left your house, because I wanted a part of you if you decided you didn’t want to see me anymore.”
He straightened in his chair and his lips parted as he stared at me.
“I feel funny,” I admitted. “I think I’ve been shot.”
His expression tensed. “You were shot, honey. In the stomach.”
I wetted my dry lips. “That sounds bad.” I knew that could be bad, come to think of it. We had, like, an entire week or something dedicated to gunshot wounds in one of my classes.
“You were actually lucky. The doctor said the bullet missed all major vital organs. Clean in and out,” he explained, voice low. “There was some internal bleeding.”
“Oh. That’s definitely bad.”
He tilted his head to the side and closed his eyes. “Yeah, hon, that’s bad.”
Jax sounded so worried, so . . . I don’t know, out of it, that I felt the need to reassure him. “It doesn’t really hurt.”
“I know,” he murmured. “They said they were giving you pain meds. I . . . damnit. Calla.” He leaned forward, getting so close to my face with his that I caught the faint scent of cologne. “Oh, honey . . .” He shook his head and the darkness in his eyes bordered on a tortured intensity. He placed his hand on my left cheek and I felt the tremor that coursed through it. “I know you probably have questions, but there’s something I gotta say, okay?”
“When you woke up yesterday and I was gone, it wasn’t what you thought.”
The last twenty-four hours started to replay in my head, coming together like a slow-moving picture book.
Yesterday had sucked ass.
“I had to go downtown for a fitting for the wedding and I had to leave early. I should’ve left a note, but I was still pissed-off about that night before. I left thinking you’d be there when I got back and we’d talk, but Roxy called me.”