A ghost of a smile appeared. “Felt like it was the quickest way to prove the point.”
That it was. I didn’t know if I should feel offended that he kissed me to prove a point and that most likely meant there was nothing else driving the kiss, or if I should be flattered that by kissing me he thought I was hot as hell and beautiful.
I didn’t know what to think or say, so I just slumped back against the wall as he pushed off it. Half grin in place, he reached over and opened the door.
“Nothing like that will ever happen again in this bar,” Jax said, and then he was out the door.
He’d said that like it was a promise—a promise there was no way he could keep, but it was another . . . sweet thing to do.
I closed my eyes again, letting out a breath as I ducked my chin to my chest. Three weeks ago, I was living in Shepherdstown with my Three F’s, close to graduating, and this bar wasn’t even a forethought in my head. My life had been focused around goals—graduating, finding a job in nursing, and reaping the benefits of following through with said goal.
That was all.
Weeks later, everything had changed. Here I was, standing in Mona’s with an MIA mom, no money, my future completely up in the air, and an unofficial member of the Hot Guy Brigade had kissed me.
Nothing planned about that and none of those things fell into my carefully crafted Three F’s plan.
But that kiss . . . to prove a point or not, it had been important. Really important. After all, it had been my first real kiss.
For about a billion reasons, I was grateful when Pearl appeared in the hall, telling me she was taking me home. Although I hated being shuffled around like I had no say in what I was doing, after what had gone down with Mack and then Jax, I wasn’t against getting out of the bar and clearing my head of the nasty and the not so nasty.
I’d grabbed my purse and said my good-byes to Clyde. On the way out, I told myself not to look for Jax, and I managed to listen to that demand for about two seconds. At the door, I glanced at the busy bar. Jax was there with Roxy. Both were smiling and laughing as they were working the customers.
Roxy looked up, giving me a quick, distracted wave, which I returned.
Jax didn’t even look up.
A twinge of unease, and something far more annoying and ridiculous, lit up my chest. I stomped the feeling down as I followed Pearl outside and focused on getting my car back ASAP the next day.
Pearl chatted idly as she drove me to the house, once again without me having to give her directions. I liked her, and being that she was probably the same age as my mom, I kind of imagined that this was what my mom would look like if she hadn’t decided to go traipsing through trashville.
When Pearl arrived at the house, she stopped me before I climbed out. “Oh, I almost forget.” Stretching back against the seat of her older-model Honda, she pulled out a wad of cash. “The boys who ordered the wings left you a tip.”
Ah, the cop table. Smiling, I took the money, already knowing that it was way too much for a normal tip. “Thank you.”
“No problem. Now get your butt inside and get some rest.” She flashed a big smile.
I opened the door. “Drive safe.”
Pearl nodded and she waited until I’d unlocked the door and stepped inside. Flipping on the hallway light, I tried to ignore the nostalgic feeling washing over me. My eyes closed and I was transported back to when I was sixteen, coming home late from spending the evening with Clyde at the bar. I didn’t have to imagine the sound of Mom’s laugh. She always had a good laugh—boisterous and throaty, the kind of laugh that drew people to her, but the downside of her laugh was she didn’t do it often. And when she did, it usually meant she was flying so high she could lick the clouds.
That night had been bad.
The house had been packed with her friends, other overgrown children who probably had real kids at home and were more interested in partying than being responsible.
I walked down the hallway, seeing what had been there five years ago. Some stranger dude passed out on the living room floor. Mom on the couch, bottle in her hand; another guy I’d never seen before had his face buried in her neck and a hand between her legs.
The guy on the floor hadn’t moved.
Mom had barely been aware that I was home. It had been the guy all up on her that had noticed and they had called me to join in, to party. I’d gone upstairs and had wanted to pretend that they weren’t there.
Except that guy on the floor still hadn’t moved for an hour, and finally someone in the house had grown concerned.
He’d been dead for God knows how long.
I stared at the spot near the couch, shuddering, because I could see the guy there still. Shirtless. Dirtied jeans. He lay facedown and his arms were awkward at his sides. People had bailed out of the house faster than I could blink, leaving Mom and me alone with a dead guy on the living room floor. Police had shown. It hadn’t been pretty. Paperwork had been filed, but no one from child services showed. No one came around. Not a real big surprise there.
Mom had gotten cleaned up after that . . . well, for a few months.
That had been a good couple of months.
Shaking my head, I dropped my purse on the couch and pushed those thoughts away. I reached into my pocket, grabbing a hair tie, and pulled my hair up into a quick twist.
Not wanting to spend another night on the couch and not up to staying upstairs, I finally caved and stripped the sheets off the bed downstairs and threw them in the washer with the blanket I’d found in the upstairs linen closet, resisting the urge to Lysol the hell out of the mattress. The only thing stopping me was that the mattress seemed relatively new, and there were no suspicious stains or smells radiating from it.
Feeling antsy and full of energy instead of tired, I cleaned up Mom’s bedroom, throwing everything that looked like trash in the black garbage bags I’d found in the pantry, and then placed the bags on the back porch. There hadn’t been any clothes in the tall dresser and the vanity, something I hadn’t checked before, and there were just a few jeans and sweaters in the closet. What I found on the floor didn’t add up to a full wardrobe.
Further proof that Mom really had hit the road.
I didn’t know what to think about that or how to feel. She stole from me, throwing a major wrench into my life. She’d stolen from others. And she was out there, either freaking out or so messed up she didn’t even know what she’d done.
Digging the money out of my pocket, I counted out thirty bucks and added that to the twenty dollars the cops had left. That amount seemed excessive, and probably had more to do with pity than my service, but fifty in tips my first night wasn’t bad. I stashed the cash in my wallet after moving my purse into the downstairs bedroom.
Sighing wearily, I made up the bed and put away the clothes I’d brought with me. I took a quick shower and dried off in what Mom used to call her “cozy” bathroom. Cozy, because if you spread your legs and stretched out your arms, you could pretty much touch the sink, bathtub, and toilet.
As I turned to head out into the bedroom, the fogged-over mirror caught my attention. I don’t know why I did what I did next. It had been years since I even briefly entertained the idea, but I leaned forward, swiping my hand across the mirror, clearing it.
Maybe it was the stress of everything going on. Maybe it was what the guy—Mack—had said at the bar. Maybe it was Jax and his kiss. Probably the kiss, but it didn’t matter, because I was doing what I was doing.
I’d always avoided looking at myself, especially immediately afterward, and then through the many skin grafts that came afterward. Like I said—years since I looked at my body in the mirror. It was just something that I didn’t allow myself to do.
I bit down on my lower lip as I forced myself to really look. Not a glimpse, and my next breath lodged somewhere between my sternum and my throat.
My collarbone was okay, a peachy cream complexion. I had a great skin tone, perfect for piling on makeup and showing it off. My upper chest was smooth. Then my gaze dipped.
Everything looked like a f**ked-up Picasso painting from there.
The same kind of scar that screwed up my face had gotten a hold of my left breast, slicing right over the top of the swell, across the areola, narrowly missing my nipple. I was lucky. Having only one nipple would suck. Not that anyone saw either of my ni**les, but still, I didn’t want to think of myself as One Nipple Calla. My other breast was fine. Both were decent sized, I thought, but the skin between them was discolored, a lighter color. Second-degree burns. Scarring was just pigment changes, but then there was my stomach.
I looked like an old couch that someone had used different flesh tone fabrics to piece together. Seriously. Third-degree burns were no joke. None whatsoever.
Patches of the skin were a deep pink, other parts faded to a rose color, and otherwise smooth, but the edges of the scars along my side were raised. I could see that in the mirror. Kind of looked like a birthmark, but when I twisted around and craned my neck, I saw my back. From just above my rump and all the way across my shoulder blades, it matched my front, except the scars were worse, rugged and puckered skin, almost wrinkled in some areas, and a much deeper color, almost brown.
There had been no skin grafts there.
Dad had left by that point, disappearing into the drama- and grief-free great unknown. When I graduated from high school, with the help from Clyde, I’d managed to track down my father.
He was living in Florida.
He didn’t have any kids.
And after one phone call with him, I knew he didn’t want to rekindle any father/daughter bond.
So he’d been gone when it came time to do the skin grafts on my back, and Mom . . . well, I guessed she’d forgotten about the doctor appointments or stopped caring or something.
The back of my eyes stung as I forced the air to become unstuck. The pain from the burns had been the worst thing I’d ever experienced in my life, at least physically. Many times, even as young as I had been, I had wanted death in those hours and days afterward. The scars didn’t hurt now. They just looked like crap.
I closed my eyes as I turned back around, but I could still see myself. That hadn’t been pretty. Could’ve been worse. When I’d been on the burn floor, I’d seen worse. Little kids that played with fire. Adults in fiery car accidents. Skin literally melted. And then there were the people—the kids—who didn’t survive fires, be it the heat or the smoke. So I knew it could’ve been worse, but no matter what I did, no matter how far I traveled or how long I stayed away, the night of the fire had left its mark on me, physically and emotionally.
And it had done a number on Mom.
I bit down on my lip until I tasted blood.
Kissing was stupid. Crushing on Brandon had been dumb. Kissing Jax Johnson was even dumber. Everything was dumb.
Hurrying away from the mirror, I changed into a pair of cotton sleep shorts with a long-sleeve thin shirt. For some reason, no matter the time of year, this house always stayed cool and could get downright chilly at night, so I pulled on a pair of long socks to keep my toesies warm.
I headed into the kitchen, tummy grumbling, but the trip was pretty pointless because all there was in the pantry was saltine crackers. Grabbing the box, I promised myself that no matter what condition my car was in, I was going to the grocery store and spending some of that fifty dollars on oodles and noodles.
Taking a packet of what I hoped wasn’t stale crackers and the leftover tea I’d had last night into the living room, I came to a startled stop when I heard a knock on the front door.
I dropped the packet of crackers on the couch cushion and turned to look at the clock on the wall. If the time was accurate, it was almost one in the morning, so what the hell?
Standing still, I winced when I heard the knock come again. Nervous, I spun and hurried quietly to the narrow and short hallway. Stretching up, I peered through the peephole.
From what I could see, no one was there. Pressing my hands against the door, I stared through the peephole. The porch was empty.
“What the hell?” I muttered.
Thinking I might be going crazy, I rocked back and unlocked the door. Opening it up about a foot, I immediately recognized my mistake. The porch hadn’t been empty. The guy had been sitting down and he rose suddenly, causing my heart to throw itself against my ribs painfully.
What I could see of the guy in the dim light wasn’t good. Tall and really skinny, he had shoulder-length blond hair that was stringy and greasy. His face was gaunt and lips chapped. Yuck. I didn’t want to see anything else. I inched back, clutching the doorknob, about to shut it when he slammed a large hand into the door.
“I need to see Mona,” he rasped in a scratchy, dry voice.
“She’s n-not here. Sorry.” I started to shut the door again, but he got one leg in and then pushed—pushed harder than I thought he could, flinging me back. I bounced into the wall, cracking the back of my head. There was a flare of pain that quickly spiked when the door flew at me, smacking into my forehead.