“There is no money here, honey. Nothing that she can give you.” His eyes searched mine. “I’m not bullshitting you. It sucks. Fucking really sucks, but there’s nothing. Not a drop outside of what this bar is just starting to make and that isn’t much.”
I sat back as I let out a shaky breath. No. No. No. That one word was on repeat.
“If she took your money, she doesn’t have it. And if she had any money herself, it’s also long gone, too. Trust me.” His voice dropped lower. “A week doesn’t go by that there isn’t someone sniffing around this bar looking for her because she owes them money.”
Shifting my gaze away, I drew in another deep breath. “Okay. I need to accept that there is no money and I won’t get a red penny back.” He didn’t respond to that, which was okay, because I was mostly talking to myself. “That’s it. I’m broke. All I can do is pray that financial aid comes through.”
Bile rose in my throat as what I was saying really sank in. I was seriously broke. My life was seriously on hold. I also might seriously be sick.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly.
Jax had moved around the desk and he was closer. I didn’t want him closer. Nervous, I smoothed my hands over my denim-clad thighs. “Plan B,” I whispered.
My voice shook as I spoke. “Plan B. I need to get a job and make as much money as I can this summer.” I glanced around the office and I suddenly knew what I needed to do, to get the control back. There was a knot in my chest, and I wanted to cut it out, but there would be no cutting it out. “I can work here.”
He started, and then he frowned. “Work here? Honey, this is not your kind of place.”
I spared him a look. “It doesn’t look like it’s your kind of place, either.”
“Why is that?” he fired back.
“Look at you.” I gestured in a wide circle in front of him. “You don’t look like you should be working in a dive bar.”
An eyebrow rose. “I like to think it’s one step up from a dive bar.”
“A little step,” I muttered.
One side of his lips kicked up. “Where do you think I should be working at?”
“I don’t know.” Sitting back, I brushed my hair off my forehead and sighed. “Maybe at Hot Guys R Us.”
His brows flew up. “So, you think I’m hot.”
I rolled my eyes. “I can see quite fine, Jax.”
“If you think I’m hot, then why were you so resistant to going out with me when you first came into the bar?”
I stared at him, wondering how the conversation veered off to this. “Does that really matter?”
“No, it doesn’t.”
His eyes glimmered with amusement. “We’ll agree to disagree.”
“We aren’t agreeing on anything.” I pushed up and stopped. He hadn’t moved, and the space was cramped. I couldn’t walk around him. “I can work here.”
“A rough crowd comes in on the weekends. Maybe you should try the Outback down the street or something.”
“I’m not afraid of any rednecks,” I grumbled.
Jax narrowed his eyes at me.
“What?” I threw up my hands. “Not like the bar can’t use my help. And I need money. Obviously. And maybe by working here I can make some tips and maybe get back some of the money, even if it’s a small percentage.”
“Making tips?” He took another step forward, and I was stuck between him and the chair. “What do you think you’d be doing here?”
I shrugged a shoulder. “I can bartend.”
“Have you ever done that before?” When I shrugged again, he laughed outright. Now my eyes were narrowing on him. “Honey, it’s not that easy.”
“Can’t be that hard.”
Jax stared at me for a long moment, and then probably one of the most fascinating things to watch happened. Each tensed muscle relaxed, and a slow, knowing grin appeared on his lips.
My tummy did a cartwheel.
“Well, we can’t have this, now can we?”
“Have what?” My tumbling tummy? There was no way he knew about that.
“You not having any place to go.” When I didn’t answer, he cocked his head to the side. “Okay, honey, you want this . . . you got it.”
For some inane reason, it felt like he was talking about something else, and tiny, tight coils formed in my belly. “Good.”
His grin spread until a flash of straight white teeth appeared. “Great.”
The bar opened at one in the afternoon, and since no one had moseyed on in, Jax set me up behind the bar slicing fresh lemons and limes, with one warning.
“Please don’t cut your fingers off. That would suck.”
I’d rolled my eyes and hadn’t bothered to respond, working quietly until I had all of them cut and ready to roll. For the most part, I was comfortable behind the bar as long as I didn’t pay attention to the framed photo I wanted to rip down and toss across it.
But I did have better things to look at.
Every so often, I stole a quick glance at Jax. He was leaning against the far corner of the bar, ankles crossed and arms folded across his chest, and his head was tilted toward the TV screen hanging from the ceiling.
When we’d left the office, he explained that I’d be on his schedule, which apparently started at four in the afternoon and ran to closing. Why he’d been in the bar this early today, I had no idea. He worked the busiest nights—Wednesday through Saturday night, ten-hour shifts.
Way past my normal, boring bedtime of like, eleven, but I could do it. I had to do it. I didn’t have time to waste trying to get a job at Outback like he suggested.
As I kept stealing quick peeks, I tried once again to figure out his age. I could’ve just asked him, but I wasn’t sure if that was my business. He couldn’t be much older than me, but there was something about him that screamed maturity. Most twenty-one or so year-olds I knew could barely make it out of bed in the morning, including myself, but he had this air of confidence and know-how that I thought would come with someone older—someone with a lot of responsibilities.
I glanced around the bar, seeing that it was still empty, and it struck me then, something that was right in my face. My gaze flickered back to Jax, his hair now dried and not styled, and the deep-bronzed brown waves fell this way and that all around the crown of his head.
He was running the bar.
It had to be him.
Granted, I hadn’t met anyone else besides Pearl. I had seen the schedule in the office and there were two more bartenders, a Roxy and a guy named Nick. Another server who worked only Friday and Saturday nights named Gloria, and then there was a Sherwood who worked in the kitchen with Clyde.
Maybe I was wrong and it was one of them, but I had a feeling I wasn’t, and I had no idea what to think about it. But I was curious. Why would he invest so much into Mona’s?
Out of my control, my gaze drifted from where his hair was trimmed neatly above the back collar of his shirt, down the length of his back, and then lingered on the well-worn, faded jeans.
God, he had a nice ass. A freaking work of art. Even though his jeans were nowhere near tight, but the general form—
Jax unexpectedly twisted his neck, glancing over his shoulder at me, and I was staring at him. Like totally staring at him.
One side of his lips curled up.
He’d caught me.
Heat swept over my face as I hastily looked away, stringing together a buttload of curse words. I wasn’t checking him out. I didn’t need to be checking him out. I mean, I spent a lot of time checking out guys, because checking them out never led to anything.
It never could.
“What’s next?” I asked, clearing my throat as I washed my hands before I ended up with lemon-juice-covered fingers all up in my eyeballs.
“We don’t have a bar back, so every day we’ve got to make sure the bar’s stocked. We also need to do a stock count. That’s already been taken care of today, but I can show you where it’s at. I’m sure it’s changed since you’ve been around.”
A lot of things here had changed since I’d been around. As I dried my hands off, I wondered if Mom had ever done a real stock count. “Who’s been running the bar?”
The line of his back stiffened, and then he turned fully toward me. “I need to show you where we keep everything. Beer is kept chilled, off the kitchen. Liquor is back in the stockroom.” He pushed off the bar top and headed out, leaving me no choice but to follow him down the hall.
As he stopped in front of the door near the office, I flipped the heavy length of hair over my left shoulder. “I know it’s not Clyde.”
He fished out a key ring. “Not sure what you’re talking about, hon.”
I frowned as he unlocked the door. “Who’s been running the bar? Keeping track of everything?”
The door swung open. “See this clipboard?” He jerked his chin at where it hung next to the stocked shelves. “Anything that gets taken out of here, gets marked. Anything. This is also the same sheet we do inventory on.”
I quickly glanced over it. Seemed pretty self-explanatory.
“The same with the walk-in. Everything is in good order in here, so it’ll be easy to find.” He turned then, ushering me out of the room, but when he started past me, I got in his way.
“Who is running the bar, Jax?” I asked again, and when his gaze shifted behind me, eyes narrowing slightly, my suspicions were confirmed. “It’s you, isn’t it?”
He didn’t say anything.
“You’ve been running the bar and that’s why it’s not a complete crap hole.”
“Complete?” Brown eyes landed on mine.
I ducked my chin to the left. “It’s nothing like it used to be. Things are organized and clean. Mona’s is making money.”
“Not a lot of money.”
“But it’s doing a hell of a lot better in just a year than it had for years,” I pointed out. “That’s because of—” My words got stuck in my throat as his hands landed on my shoulders. I swallowed.
He dipped his head, his gaze following mine as he spoke quietly. “It’s not just because of me. We have a staff that gives a shit, and Clyde has always given a shit. That’s why we’re doing better. It’s been a group effort. Still is a group effort.”
Our gazes were locked head-on, and like last night in my mother’s kitchen, I was stunned into silence at his proximity. I didn’t like anyone getting this close, enabling them to see beyond the makeup.
“We’ve got better crowds coming in now,” he continued, and his stare alone refused to allow me to look away or hide. And damn, that was majorly uncomfortable considering I was the bomb diggity when it came to hiding. His voice dropped even lower. “Off-duty cops. Some students from the local community college. Even the bikers who do come in don’t cause problems. Without the shitty people Mona had in here, even though the crowd can get a little sketchy at times, it has gotten better.”
“Obviously,” I murmured.
His impossibly thick lashes lowered, and then so did my gaze—lowered right about to his full lips. God, how did he get a mouth like that? That half grin appeared, causing my entire face to warm. “Interesting,” he said.
I blinked. “What’s interesting?”
“Me?” I tried to step back, but the hands on my shoulders tightened. “I’m not interesting at all.”
His head tilted to the side. “I know that’s untrue.”
Why did it feel like the weight of his hands on my shoulders was possibly the most pleasant thing I’d ever felt? Although he was only touching me there, I felt the exquisite heaviness all the way through my body.
Oh whoa, this was bad.
“It’s not,” I whispered finally, and then the verbal diarrhea was back like Montezuma’s revenge. “I’m the most boring person to ever live. I haven’t even been to a beach or to New York City. Never taken a plane ride or even been to an amusement park. I don’t do anything when I’m at school and I . . .” I trailed off, blowing out a breath. “Anyway, I’m boring.”
One brow arched up. “Okay.”
God, I needed to find a needle and some thread for my mouth.
“But we’re going to have to agree to disagree on that, too.” Humor shone through his warm eyes, and as close as we were, I noticed the darker flecks of brown near his pupils.
I tried to step away again, but didn’t get anywhere. My chest rose sharply on a deep inhale. “Why do you care so much about this bar?”
It was his turn to blink. “What do you mean?”
“Why have you put so much effort into it? You could be working at a better place, probably dealing with less stress than running a bar you don’t own.”