I blinked at him.
I drew back a little. He winked, and my lady parts were like whoa, way on board with that, which was probably a good indication I needed to pay more attention to said parts, because they were getting desperate.
And I was feeling a wee bit boy crazy, but who’d blame me?
A minute later we were back on the road and I had a huge bag of food in my lap and two sweet teas jostling around in a holder. I hadn’t really paid attention to what he’d ordered, but by the weight of the warm and wonderful-smelling bag, it was half the menu.
“You look nothing like your mother,” he said unexpectedly.
That much was true. Mom dyed her hair a sunny blond, or at least she used to. I wasn’t sure since I hadn’t seen her in a while, but the last time I’d been around her, the day I’d left Plymouth Meeting to attend Shepherd, she’d been looking . . . rough.
“Her life . . . it’s been hard. She used to be really pretty,” I heard myself saying as I stared out the window, watching the strip mall of fast-food joints disappear.
“I imagine so, if she looked anything like you.”
My gaze swung to him sharply, but he wasn’t looking at me. He wasn’t grinning or smiling. Nothing about him would’ve led me to believe that hadn’t been a genuine statement, but I wasn’t pretty, and that belief had nothing to do with a low self-esteem. I had a scar cutting across my left cheek. That tended to universally ruin features.
I didn’t know what Jax was up to and I didn’t want to find out. I had bigger and more important things to focus on and worry over.
But when I saw that Jax was turning off the main roadway, hitting a back road—a shortcut—I was staring at him again. “You know where the house is?”
He grunted out what I assumed was a yes.
“You’ve been there before?”
His hand tightened on the steering wheel. “A few times.”
A horrible thought formed in my head. “Why have you been to her house?”
“Don’t you mean our house since you used to live there?”
“Uh, no. I might’ve lived there while I was in high school, but it was never my home.”
He glanced at me, and then fixed his gaze on the road. A moment passed. “The first time I had to come out to your mom’s house was with Clyde. Mona . . . she went on a bender. Got so shitfaced that we thought we were going to have to take her to the hospital.”
“Then a couple of times when she didn’t show up for a few days and we were worried about her.” His hand had loosened on the steering wheel and now he was tapping his fingers on it. “Every other day, Clyde or Pearl would check on her just to make sure she was doing okay.”
“And you? You would check on her, too?”
Biting down on my lip, I ignored the wave of muddy guilt that threatened to rise up my throat. These people, with the exception of Clyde, were virtual strangers, and here I was, family, and I wasn’t making daily, or even yearly, trips to make sure if she was alive or to find out if she’d finally overdosed. After all, I knew that was what “checking in” on her meant.
I tried to check the guilt and failed. “I’m not close with Mom. We have—”
“Calla, I figured you two weren’t close. I get it,” he cut in, tossing a reckless grin my way. And it was reckless because he had to know how powerful that half curve of his lips was and he just threw it out there, all willy-nilly. “You don’t need to explain anything to me.”
“Thanks,” I whispered before I thought about it, and then I felt stupid. All he did was nod in response.
The rest of the ride out to Mom’s house was silent, and I was surprised when he parked his truck in the driveway and followed me to the door, carrying the two sweet teas.
As I unlocked the door, I glanced up at him. “You don’t have to come in.”
“I know.” He grinned. “But I’d prefer not to eat in my truck while driving. You cool with that?”
It was on the tip of my tongue to say no, but my head had a mind of its own. I nodded as I pushed the door open.
“Great.” Jax dipped past me and entered the house before me.
“Make yourself at home,” I murmured.
He didn’t hear me because he was moving through the house stealthily, finding the switches on the wall to the lights and flipping them on. He scanned the house with an intense, wary eye, like he expected a troll to jump out from underneath the shabby couch. When he headed for the kitchen, I followed, and when he told me he needed to use the bathroom, I placed the bag on the counter and started unloading the items.
Damn, he really had been here before because he didn’t use the bathroom downstairs. I heard his feet hit the stairs, and I wondered why he’d chosen the one upstairs, but my brain was too overworked to really give it too much thought. By the time he returned, I’d found my one hamburger among the array of food he’d gotten.
Jax pulled out a chair next to me and dropped down in it with grace. He was sitting to my right. “So.” He drew the word out as he unwrapped a chicken sandwich. “How long are you planning on being here?”
I shrugged a shoulder as I plucked the pickles off my sandwich. “Don’t know yet.”
“Probably not long, right? There isn’t shit to do around here, and with your mom out doing her thing, there aren’t many reasons to hang around.” There was a pause. “You going to eat those pickles?” When I shook my head, he helped himself to them.
I didn’t respond and I got two bites in before he spoke again.
“You in college? Shepherd?”
My hands stopped halfway to my mouth. “How did you know?”
He’d moved on to his hamburger, placing the borrowed pickles under the bun. “Clyde talks about you every once in a while. So does Mona.”
Every muscle locked up and my stomach soured. Anything that my mother had to say about me could not be good.
Silence fell between us while he removed one of the buns and folded his sandwich into a one-bun burrito. “So, what you studying?”
I dropped my half-eaten burger on its wrapper. “Nursing.”
His brows rose as he let out a low whistle. “Well, my fantasies involving nurses in little white skirts just got a whole lot richer.”
My eyes narrowed at him.
He grinned. “What made you pick nursing?”
Focusing on rolling up my discarded burger in its wrapper, I shrugged again. I knew exactly why, but the answer wasn’t easy to admit, so I changed the subject. “What about you?”
“You mean, what do I do besides bartending?” He finished off the hamburger and grabbed for the fries.
“Yeah.” I watched him. “Besides that and eating a lot.”
Jax laughed that deep, sexy laugh again. “Right now, I’m just bartending. Got my fingers in a few other things.”
He didn’t elaborate, like me, and so I didn’t push it, but that also left very little to talk about.
I shook my head.
“Come on. It’s the best part of eating fast food. You can’t turn down a fry.” Those eyes of his warmed even more. “It’s pure grease, carbs, and salt. Heaven.”
My lips twitched. “You don’t look like you eat a lot of carbs.”
One broad shoulder rose. “I run every day. Hit the gym before I hit the bar. Means I eat what I want, when I want. Otherwise, life would suck if you spent half your time begrudging yourself of shit you want.”
God, did I know how super-true that was.
So I took a fry. And then two. Okay, maybe five fries before I got up to throw away our trash in a little bin that surprisingly had a fresh trash bag in it. As I washed off my hands, Jax stood and made his way over to the fridge, letting out another low whistle as he opened it up. I had no idea what he was doing. The fridge was empty with the exception of condiments.
He shut the door and propped his hip against the countertop. Taking in the buttercup-colored walls—walls that Clyde had painted before we moved in—and the scratched surface of the small round table we ate at, he drew in a deep breath and his striking face got all serious. Jaw set. Full lips thinned. Eyes deepened to a dark brown, almost mahogany.
“You’re not staying here,” he announced.
I blinked as I shifted so my right side was visible to him. “Thought we already had this conversation.”
“There’s no food in the fridge.”
“Yeah, I kind of noticed that.” I paused, crossing my arms. “There also wouldn’t be food at a hotel—a hotel I’d have to pay for.”
Jax angled his body toward mine, and my gaze dropped. Narrow waist and hips. Definitely a runner. “Hotels aren’t that expensive around here.”
Irritation pricked along my skin. I knew I was going to have to go to the grocery store at some point, because I did plan on staying, which meant I needed food. I also needed my car to be functional, so that was God knows how much money I’d have to spend. I knew that the longer I stayed here, the quicker I’d blow through my funds, but it was seriously my only option. I had no other place to go, at least not until school started back up in late August.
That was if I got approved for higher financial aid.
And if I didn’t?
Maybe I could get a corner in a padded room to rock in.
These were things Jax really didn’t need to know. “Thanks for taking me here and getting food. I really appreciate it, and if you could let me know who I need to contact about my windshield, that would be great. But I’m kind of tired and—”
Suddenly Jax was directly in front of me. Like one second he was by the fridge, and then the next he was right there. I sucked in a startled breath as I pressed back against the counter.
“I don’t think you’re getting what I’m saying, honey.”
“Your mom is cracked. You know that.”
Okay. It was one thing for me to say my mom was screwed up. Totally another thing coming from his mouth. “Look, my mom is—”
“Not going to win any mother of the year awards? Yeah, I know that,” he said, and my fingers curled against my palms. “She’s also not going to win any boss of the year awards, either. But you probably know that already.”
“What does any of that have to do with me staying here or not?” I snapped.
“You actually don’t need to be in this town, let alone at this house.”
My mouth dropped since I wasn’t expecting that statement. “What?”
“You need to go stay in a hotel for tonight, and then as soon as your car is ready, you need to get your sweet ass on the road, which will hopefully be tomorrow afternoon, and you really don’t need to come back.”
Okay. That did it. I’d had it up to here with everything, and I didn’t care that Hot Bartender Dude was probably the sexiest guy I’d ever seen or that he was nice enough to drive me here and buy me food. Or that he thought my ass was sweet and liked my legs.
I squared off with him, forgetting everything else. “Answer me one question.”
His brown eyes locked with mine. “Done.”
My voice dripped sugary sweetness when I spoke. “Who in the f**k do you think you are to tell me what to do?”
He blinked once, and then he tipped his head back and laughed. “You got attitude. You really do. I kind of like that.”
That pissed me off even more, and besides, that was also kind of twisted. “You can leave now.”
“Not until you get what’s going on here.” Jax planted two hands on the counter, one on either side of my hips, and then he leaned in, caging me. “I need you to listen to me.”
I locked up and was unable to remember the last time a guy got this close to me.