Minutes passed before Clyde spoke again. “This is the last thing I wanted you to do.”
I didn’t open my eyes.
“Coming back here? Well, I’ve always been real with you, baby girl, and I’m gonna keep being real with you.”
My heart lurched into my throat, and all I could think about was what Jax had said to me. That there was nothing but trouble here.
“This is the last place I wanted you to be and, well, there are things you don’t need to know about. You don’t ever need to know about, but one thing ain’t changed, and that’s you, baby girl.”
My eyes popped open.
“You’re good to the core. Always have been, no matter what shit Mona put you through, even before the fire.”
A pang lit up my chest, licking through my body, and it spread across the scar on my cheek, and washed over the other scars—the worse ones. It was like it had just been yesterday. The fire.
“But you know there ain’t no helping your mother.”
“I know that,” I whispered around a sudden knot in my throat. “That’s not why I’m here. She did me wrong, Clyde. I’m not lying.”
He spared me a quick, knowing glance. “I know that and I believe that, but I also know that you’re here, and now that you know your mom has got herself in a mess, you’re going to want to help her somehow.”
I sucked in a sharp breath.
“But it’s worth repeating,” he continued. “There ain’t no helping Mona. Not this time. The best you can do is get back to that school and don’t look back.”
A bowl of corn nuts sat on a scuffed-up oak table in the office situated at the end of the hall leading to the restrooms. There were two file cabinets behind the desk, and butted up against the wall was a couch that was made of leather and looked surprisingly new—a lot newer than the one I’d slept on last night.
I hadn’t been able to bring myself to sleep in the loft upstairs.
I’d never run a bar before and I wasn’t perfect when it came to numbers, but after poring over the statements, receipts, and bills I’d found neatly organized, I knew two things.
First up, there was no way Mom had been keeping track of any of this during the last year. If you looked up the opposite of organized, there’d be a picture of Mom smiling happily. Someone else was keeping track of the books, and I seriously doubted it was Clyde. God love him, he was good at keeping things real, great at being practically the only positive role model around, and awesome in the kitchen, but running the financial side of a bar? Uh. No.
Second thing I learned was that the bar wasn’t bleeding money like it had been stabbed repeatedly with a wicked hunter’s knife. This piece of news confounded me. If Mom had blown through my money and potentially hers, I’d imagined the bar would be next on her list. Plus, it wasn’t in the greatest condition.
Well, on second thought . . .
I’d checked out the bar since I was alone when Clyde had headed into the kitchen to do some cleaning after explaining that my car, which was no longer in the parking lot, was down the street at a garage getting the windshield replaced.
No way did I even want to think about that bill.
Back in the day, before I’d left for college, Mona’s had been a mess. Bar top always sticky and so was the floor, but the origin of that stickiness was always questionable. Taps were broken. Kegs should’ve been eighty-sixed ages ago. Days-old lemons being used, fruit juice beyond the expiration dates, and a whole slew of other grossness went on. Mom had always hired her friends to bartend. Her friends basically being middle-aged men and women who hadn’t grown up and thought working behind a bar meant they got free booze. So cleaning was never high on the priority list.
Although the bar wasn’t looking like it was in its prime any longer; more like it was in its geriatric stage, it was cleaner than I gave it credit for yesterday. Behind the bar, the ice had recently been dumped and the ice well flushed out with hot water, preventing a slew of gunky bacteria growth to grow. I hadn’t seen fruit flies or small critter droppings, which were unfortunately commonplace in bars. The bar tops were freshly wiped down and the floor was also clean behind the bar; the bottles were stacked and organized.
Even the tables out on the floor had been cleaned, as were the ashtrays. So, while the bar might need a renovation, someone definitely cared about it, and I knew that wasn’t Mom.
My gaze flicked to the printed-out spreadsheet for last month—the spreadsheet stapled to a gazillion receipts—and I scanned the lines. Like the dozen spreadsheets before it that I’d found, all the way up to March of last year, everything was tracked—monthly bills, like electricity and other utilities, income coming in, food and beverage costs and breakdowns, and, most surprising, payroll.
The reason why Mom always had friends working for her who were interested only in free drinks was that she could never make payroll. The idea of Mona’s making enough money to pay its employees on a regular basis had been laughable. Not funny laughable, but maniacal, slightly crazed laughable.
But Mona’s had been making payroll for about a year now and had employee names I didn’t recognize with the exception of Jax and Clyde. There was even some dude who worked in the kitchen on weekend nights, helping Clyde out.
Mona’s was turning a profit for the last four months. Nothing major, or to get overly excited about, but a profit was a profit.
Leaning back in the chair, I slowly shook my head. How was this possible? If Mona’s was making money, why was she stealing—
“What in the hell are you doing in here?”
Emitting a low shriek, I jumped in the chair as my chin jerked out. All the air whooshed out of my lungs. Jax stood in the doorway, and he must’ve been part ghost and part ninja, because I hadn’t even heard him approach. The floors creaked about every other step when I’d walked down the hall to the office.
It had only been a handful of hours since I’d last seen Jax, and it wasn’t like I’d forgotten how hot he was in those hours, but geez, all I could do was stare at him for a moment.
Freshly showered, his hair was slightly darker as it curled against his forehead. The black shirt he wore appeared tighter than the one he wore last night, which I’m pretty sure the female population was thankful for.
But he didn’t look happy at all to see me.
Jaw set and lips pressed together, he glared at me as I stupidly gazed back at him like a fawn. “What are you doing in here, Calla?”
At the sound of my name, I snapped out of it. Placing the spreadsheet and receipts on the desk, I narrowed my eyes at him. “Well, considering this bar is my mom’s, I have every right to be in the office.”
“That’s some dumb rationale considering I’ve been at this bar for about two years and last night was the first time I’d seen your sweet ass.”
Heat flashed across my cheeks as I tilted my chair to the left. “Can you stop referring to my ass as sweet?”
His eyes deepened to dark chocolate. “Would you prefer I refer to it as hot?”
I inhaled through my nose. “No.”
“How about heart shaped and thick?”
My hands curled into fists. “How about not at all?”
His lips twitched and then the humor fled from him as his gaze dipped to the stack of papers. He stalked over to the desk. “You were going through the files?”
I shrugged forced casualness. “Wanted to see how the bar was doing.”
“I’m sure that’s really not your business.”
What the hell? “I’m pretty sure that it is.”
He planted one hand on the desk, right on top of the spreadsheets. “Do tell.”
Swiveling the chair, I angled the right side of my body toward his. “Well, considering that this bar is the only thing my mom will leave me one day, I have every right to look at those papers.”
Something flashed over his face as he tilted his head to the side. “Leave you this bar?”
“Mom has a will. Has had one for years. So unless she’s changed it recently, which I doubt has been high on her to-do list, if something happened to her, God forbid, the bar is mine.”
Again, there was a strange tightening to the skin around his eyes I didn’t understand. A moment passed. “Is that what you want? The bar?”
Hell to the no. I didn’t say that.
“What would you do with this bar if you did unexpectedly end up with it?” he demanded.
I said the first thing that popped in my head. “I’d probably sell it.”
Jax drew back from the desk, straightening to his full height. His eyes were like shards of glass as he stared down at me. Gone was the teasing, flirting bartender. “If you don’t care about this bar—”
“I never said that.” Not exactly.
He ignored that. “Then why are you here? For your mom? That’s a lost cause and you damn well know that. And you didn’t stay at a hotel last night, did you?”
His rapid change of subject left my head wheeling. There were days when I thought she was a lost cause and then others where I couldn’t allow myself to think that. “Thanks for sending the cab, but—”
“God, you’re going to be a pain in my ass.” He moved away from the desk, scrubbing his fingers through his damp hair. The muscles in his back tensed under his shirt.
I drew in a sharp breath, feeling my cheeks redden once more. “I’m not a pain in any part of your body, buddy.”
He barked out a laugh as he faced me. “You’re not? I told you what kind of crap your mom is messed up in, and the fact that a lot of nasty folks want a piece of her, and you’re still here. On top of your window being busted out—”
“Look, I get that my mom is in trouble and all that. Newsbreak, but that’s nothing that new to me.” Well, she did seem to be in a lot more trouble than normal, but at this point, whatever. “And the stuff with my car? I was in that house for a handful of minutes. There is no way someone saw me that quickly. Not to mention, my car was parked in a bar parking lot with a strip club across the street. These things happen.”
“Do they?” He folded his arms across his chest again. “Are you frequently around stripper bars.”
“No,” I hissed.
A muscle fluttered along his jaw. We were engaged in an epic stare-down for what felt like an eternity before he spoke again. “Why are you here, Calla? Seriously? There’s nothing here for you. Your mom’s not. You don’t have family here. And from what I know of you, you’ve spent the last couple of years at college, not even making brief visits. Not judging, but you haven’t really cared this entire time. So, why now?”
Whoa. His words slipped through me like a sheet of ice.
Jax started backing up toward the door, his eyes never leaving my face. “Just go home, Calla. You’re not—”
“My entire life is on hold!” The moment those words left my mouth . . . holy crap, I realized how true they were. And that sucked like I’d swallowed a vial of acid. I didn’t even know what made me say it. Maybe it was the softness in his voice that reminded me of pity. I don’t know.
Swallowing hard, I watched him stop and stare at me. “My entire life is on hold,” I said again, much lower, and then everything just came out in the worst case of diarrhea of the mouth. “Mom cleaned me out. She took my entire savings account, which held all my money—my tuition money and what I planned on using for emergencies and for when I searched for a job. Not only that, she took out a loan and credit cards in my name and didn’t make a single payment. She tanked my credit, and I’m not even sure I’ll qualify for any student loan now.”
His eyes widened slightly as he lifted an arm, running his palm over his chest, above his heart.
“I don’t have any place else to go to,” I continued, feeling an odd lump in my throat and a stinging in my eyes. “I can’t stay in the dorms because I couldn’t enroll in summer classes. She left me with nothing except the little money I have in my checking account and a house that apparently is a crack house. On top of that, she’s run off doing God knows what with a dude named Rooster. And my only hope—my only prayer at this point, is that she has some kind of money, something to pay me back with. So, yeah, I get that there’s nothing really here for me and that I’m a giant pain in your ass, but I seriously don’t have any other place to go.”
“Shit.” He looked away, jaw tight.
Then it hit me. Humiliating. I squeezed my eyes shut. Where were the staples? I needed them for my mouth.
“Shit,” he said again. “Calla, I don’t know what to tell you.”
I forced my eyes open and found him staring at me. There wasn’t pity in his gaze, but his eyes were lighter again. “There’s nothing you can say.”