My brows furrowed. “For what?”
He fished his truck keys out of his pocket. “Heading to your house, babe.”
I stared at him, thinking my ears had taken a drive into crazy town. “You’re not coming to the house.”
And that started an argument over whether he was or wasn’t coming that lasted a good thirty minutes, and I ended up giving up, because I was yawning more than I was speaking.
So Jax followed me to the house.
He’d actually brought a change of clothing with him, for crying out loud—a change of freaking clothing.
When we’d gotten to the house, I tried ignoring him as I made myself a cup of hot tea, but it had seemed rude not to at least offer him one since he’d planted himself on the couch and had become my personal security system.
“Thanks,” he’d said as I’d placed the cup on the coffee table.
Tired and nervous, I’d found it hard to look at him as I’d cradled the cup between my hands. “I didn’t know if you liked sugar or honey in it, so I didn’t add a lot of either.” Out of the corner of my eyes, I’d seen him reach for the mug and take a sip. “If you want those things, they’re in the kitchen.”
“It’s perfect.” There’d been a quick pause. “You went to the store.”
“Yeah.” I’d shifted my weight restlessly.
“Why don’t you sit with me for a little while?”
A flutter had taken up residency in my tummy. “I’m really tired.”
“Not used to those shifts, huh?”
My gaze had slowly tracked over to him, and that was when I’d seen a book tucked in his lap. He read? Oh my God, guys that read were like unicorns. They only existed in fairy tales. I wanted to ask him what he was reading, but I didn’t. All I had done was nod.
Part of me had expected him to put up a fight, to kick up the charm, but all he’d kicked back was his feet when he stretched out on the couch. “See you in the morning, babe.”
And I’d stood there for a second, weirdly disappointed until I’d forced myself into the bedroom, where the door didn’t shut all the way. After I’d cleaned up and changed, too tired to shower, I’d fallen asleep within minutes and wakened to Jax making the eggs and bacon I’d picked up at the store.
Saturday night had been a repeat of Friday, with the exception of meeting Nick for the first time. Since my earlier theory about hot guys flocking together, I hadn’t been surprised when I saw that the tall, dark hair, and green-eyed bartender could be featured in the Hottie Bartenders Calendar I so needed to create. The kind of cash I could bring in featuring just Jax and him . . .
Nick was different than Jax, much quieter, more reserved. When we first met, he stared at me for a long moment, until I felt my cheeks heat. There’d been a strange pull to his face, a recognition in his gaze I didn’t understand, and I wondered if he was from this area. But then he said hello and moved on. We might’ve exchanged a couple of words that shift. It wasn’t that he’d come across rude. More like the kind of guy who didn’t talk unless he had something he wanted to say. He was kind of broody.
Like the night before, I closed down the bar and Jax followed me to the house. It was a little creepy thinking that he or someone felt the need to be there because of what could happen, so I tried not to really focus on it.
That night when I made tea, I didn’t bolt straight into the bedroom. I’d lingered in the living room and finally I’d sat on the arm of the recliner. The book was in his lap again.
“What are you reading?” I’d asked when I hadn’t the night before.
My brows had rose. “Uh . . . ?”
He’d given me a half grin. “It’s a true story about the Navy SEAL, Marcus Luttrell and his failed mission. Not happy bedtime reading, but it’s good stuff.”
“So you only read nonfiction?” Curiosity was going to kill Calla, but I hadn’t been able to help myself.
“Nah. I like David Baldacci, John Grisham, and even some Dean Koontz and Stephen King.” He’d looked away as he’d rested his head on the back of the couch as I’d started to see a theme there. “I didn’t do a lot of reading in high school, but being overseas, there were periods of time when there wasn’t much to do. Picked up reading and it stopped me from going bat-shit crazy from boredom and . . .”
“And?” I’d asked when he didn’t finish.
Jax hadn’t responded, and I hadn’t needed my imagination to figure what reading had helped him with besides boredom. I thought about his background—a military man. That explained why he was so protective, but there had to be better things he could be doing on a Saturday night, because he wasn’t going to be doing me.
I want to f**k you.
A near-suffocating warmth infused my skin as the words had replayed through my thoughts. My gaze bounced around the scarcely decorated living room before landing on Jax. He’d been watching me with a look on his face I couldn’t decipher. There was an immediate bubbling of fear that he was finally going to address what had happened between us that morning.
I hadn’t hesitated. I’d stood. “You know, you don’t have to stay—”
“Don’t start,” he’d replied, opening his book. He was done with me.
I’d gone to bed not too long after that, resting my head on the pillow, my eyes trained to the bedroom door. I’d fallen asleep quickly and in the morning, Jax hadn’t made breakfast and had left pretty early on.
Being off Sunday, I got to chat with Teresa and that felt great. I missed her and Jase, and the way they were with each other. They were days away from leaving for the beach, and I knew Teresa was as excited as she was nervous. It was their first trip together as a couple. I’d never experienced that, but I could get why that would be nerve-racking.
“So, you’re really staying up there all summer?” Teresa asked, surprise causing her voice to pitch.
I nodded, like an idiot, since she couldn’t see me. “Yeah.”
“You’ve never talked about your family . . .” Teresa’s voice trailed off, but what was left unsaid was obvious.
I’d never talked about my family for lots of reasons, so she had to be confused by my sudden willingness to spend time with said family, which in reality was nonexistent. “Thought I’d do something different this summer.”
“But you normally take classes,” she remarked, and I heard a door shut on her end, followed by a deep, male voice. Jase. Hottie-mc-hottie-Jase.
“Yeah, I know, but I’ve been bartending and making money—”
“Bartending? I didn’t know you knew how to bartend.”
I winced. “Well . . .”
There was a scuffling over the phone and then “Hold on, Jase. Goodness, my lips will still be here in five seconds, as will the rest of my body.”
Oh dear. “Uh, I can let you go.”
“No.” Her response was immediate. “Jase can wait.” There was a husky chuckle, and my lips turned up at the corners. Then Teresa said, “I feel like my entire life has been a lie.”
“What?” I blinked as I’d peeked out the front window.
“You. Us. Our life together. There’s so much I don’t know about you.”
I laughed. “There’s not a lot to know.”
“You’re a bartender. I didn’t know that.” There was a pause. “When Jase and I get back from the beach, maybe we can come up and visit.”
My eyes widened. That hadn’t been a question, more like a statement, and I was sure that would be a bad idea, but it wasn’t like I could say no. That would’ve been rude, so I mumbled an okay and then we got off the phone since Jase apparently needed access to her mouth or other parts of her body.
I want to f**k you.
Oh man, I really needed to stop thinking about that.
I had five minutes to panic over the maybe visit from my friends at an undecided time in the future, before Uncle Clyde showed up randomly. I met him at the door.
“What’s on the list today, baby girl?” he asked, ambling into the house, wearing a Philadelphia Eagles jersey that even on his big frame seemed two sizes too big.
“Um . . .” I’d looked around. Hadn’t known there was a list.
Clyde gave me a toothy grin. “First things first, baby girl. We got to check this house out, top to bottom, and make sure there ain’t any more junk in here.”
That was an incredibly good idea. Clyde and I moseyed around the house most of Sunday. Moseying as in searching for more cubbyholes filled with drugs. It was a weird thing to do, but I loved having Clyde around and it was kind of a bonding moment. Like we were repeating history, in this together when it came to dealing with Mom. And Clyde and I had been the ones to deal with her most of my life. It was kind of sad, but it was familiar, and right now, familiar felt good.
We hadn’t found any more drugs, thank the Good Lord for that, and he’d ended up running to the store before it got dark and coming back with the goods to make tacos.
As Clyde had put the hamburger meat on the counter and found a frying pan in the cabinets, I stared at him from the doorway to the kitchen, my lips trembling and my hands pressed together against my chest.
Clyde had been married once. I barely remembered Nettie, his wife, because she had passed away unexpectedly from a brain aneurism when I was six years old and that had been many years ago. At least fifteen years and Clyde had never remarried. I wasn’t even sure if he dated. He’d loved Nettie and some nights, when I’d lived here before, he’d talk about her.
I didn’t think he’d ever gotten over her loss.
But one of the things I remembered him talking about was his and Nettie’s Sunday night ritual—making tacos from scratch. Good tacos. Red and green peppers, sautéed with onions, and smothered in melted cheese and shredded lettuce.
It had also become a Sunday night ritual for Clyde and me, and sometimes when Mom was around and had her head on straight, she’d take part.
I smiled as I watched him unload the bags. This was so familiar, and I had missed this. Missed having someone who felt like family even though they weren’t blood.
In that moment, something came unhinged in my chest. I didn’t get it, but suddenly I was uncomfortable. Not with what was happening now, but what had been happening the last couple of years.
Tears burned the back of my eyes. I didn’t know why. It was dumb. I was back to everything being dumb.
Clyde pulled out a head of lettuce. “You know what to do, baby girl, so get your ass over here and start chopping.”
I dragged myself over to the counter, swallowing back tears. I will not cry. I will not lose control. My cheeks were damp.
“I didn’t pick up that Mexican cheese blend. We are gonna do this from . . . Aw, baby girl.” Clyde put down the block of cheese and twisted his big body toward me. “What are those tears for?” he asked.
Lifting my shoulder, I wiped at my cheeks as I whispered, “I don’t know.”
“Is it your mother?” Those large hands were gentle against my face, his fingers calloused from years of work as they chased after the tears. “Or is it the boys? Kevin and Tommy?”
I sucked in a rattled breath. I never thought about them or that night when the entire world burned in bright oranges and red. Not to be cold or uncaring, but it was too hard to think about them, because I could barely remember what they looked like, but I remembered their coffins, especially Tommy’s. So I refused to even think their names, but their names were cycling over and over again.
“Or is it everything?” he prodded gently.
God, Clyde knew me. Squeezing my eyes shut, I nodded. “Everything.”
“Baby girl,” he’d murmured against the top of my head after he pulled me to him, enveloping me in one of his big bear hugs. “Everything might seem like it’s too big, but it ain’t. You’ve seen and been through worse, baby girl.”
“I know,” I agreed. My breath hiccupped as I struggled to rein my emotions back in. “It’s just that . . . this is so familiar. We did this for years, and I never thought we’d do it again. Or that I’d be standing here and working at Mona’s. I was going to be a nurse. I had it all figured out.” And none of it included a guy like Jax or making tacos with Uncle Clyde, but I didn’t share that. “I don’t have it all figured out anymore.”
Clyde patted my back like a baby that needed to be burped, but I loved it. “Calla-girl, you’re a lot of things, a lot of beautiful things rolled up into one. You’re strong. You got a good head on your shoulders. You’re still gonna be a nurse. This ain’t going to be your life. You still got it figured out.”
I nodded, but he’d gotten it wrong. The hysteria wasn’t because I was disappointed at the way my life had veered waaay off course or because of that nightmarish night. Not that I wouldn’t prefer some aspects, namely the he**in and Mom being in trouble, to be different, but I wasn’t crying because of that.