And how could I tell Teresa, or worse yet, Brandon? Oh hey, I got to go home, and you know, commit an act of homicide and strangle my mother—yeah, the one you thought was dead, because I’m also a horrible liar—to death for dicking me over. Can we hang out at your place and have drinks when I get back? That convo was way too humiliating to even think about, because then I’d have to tell them about the drugs, the alcohol, the absolute fail at life, and then the weird separation between Mom and Dad, which really was just Dad freaking disappearing, and then that convo would ultimately lead to the grief and the fire that had destroyed my entire family and almost destroyed me.
I wasn’t going there.
So I told them I was spending the summer with extended family, and hopefully, they didn’t end up reading about me in the news after I murdered someone.
No one questioned those plans, because just last year I had pretended to go home over break when in reality I had checked into a hotel in Martinsburg, had splurged on room service . . . like a loser.
A total loser.
Anyway . . .
I was putting the Three F’s on hold and I was going home. And hopefully, praying to every god out there, Mom still had some of the money that had been awarded to her, and that money had been substantial. There was no way she could’ve blown through all of her money and mine. I just needed to get her to—I don’t know—get her to fix this somehow.
That was Plan A.
Plan B consisted only of the realization that if she didn’t have a dime to her name, then at least—again hopefully—I had free housing for the summer, a summer where I’d be praying that my financial aid would go through. I was also praying that I managed to make it through the summer in a nowhere town and not murder my mother, so I could put use to the financial aid if I got it.
My hands had shaken as I clenched the steering wheel and hit the exit that led to Plymouth Meeting, a town just a few miles out of Philadelphia. I’d thought I might vomit all over myself as the thick oaks and walnut trees crowding the two-lane highway had thinned out and the hills stopped climbing. The trip hadn’t been long, a little under four hours from Shepherdstown, but it had felt like forever.
Now I was stopped at the red light across the street from a dollar store, in a town I never ever—ever—wanted to go back to, and I rested my forehead against the steering wheel.
I’d gone home first. No cars. No lights on.
Lifting my head an inch or two, I dropped it back onto the steering wheel.
I’d pulled out a house key I’d never ever—ever—wanted to use again, and had let myself in. The house had been virtually empty. A couch and an old flat screen in the living room. The small dining room had been vacant with the exception of a few unopened boxes. Barely anything in the fridge. The bedroom downstairs had a bed in it, but no sheets. Mom’s clothes had been piled on the floor and it had been a mess, scattered with papers and stuff I hadn’t wanted to take too close a look at. Upstairs, the loft bedroom that had been mine for a few years was completely changed. The bed was gone, as were the dresser and the little desk my grandmother had bought me before she passed away. There was a futon that looked a little clean, and I didn’t even want to know who was sleeping up there. The house hadn’t looked lived in. Like someone, namely my mother, had dropped off the face of the earth.
This had not boded well.
There also hadn’t been a single photo in the house. No picture frames on the walls. No memories. That hadn’t surprised me.
I lifted my head and dropped it on the steering wheel again. “Ugh.”
At least the electricity had still been turned on in the house. That was one good thing, right? That meant Mom had some kind of money.
I winced on my third steering wheel head bang.
A horn blew behind me, and I immediately straightened and peered out the windshield. Green light. Whoops. My hands tightened on the steering wheel as I blew out a determined breath and continued on. There was only one other place she could be.
Yet another place I never ever—ever—wanted to see again. Forcing myself to take several long and deep breaths, I coasted along the main road, probably driving under the speed limit and annoying every car behind me, but I couldn’t help it.
My heart banged around in my chest as I hung a right and hit what was considered the main drag in town, only because it was where all the fast-food joints and chain restaurants surrounded the mall and shopping centers. About ten miles down the road was where Mona’s sat, across from what looked like a pretty dicey strip club that was lined with rough-and-ready-looking motorcycles.
The streets were congested, but as I cut across the lane and pulled into the all too familiar parking lot littered with potholes and God knows what else, there weren’t a lot of vehicles there.
Then again, it was Monday night.
Parking the car under the flickering neon sign at the back of the parking lot that was currently missing an a in the name Mona’s, I took several more deep breaths and repeated, “I will not kill her. I will not kill her.”
Once I was sure I wouldn’t break down and go all redneck on her ass when I saw her, I climbed out of my Ford Focus and tugged on the hem of my denim cutoffs, then readjusted the soft and flowing cream long-sleeve blouse that would’ve been longer than my shorts if I hadn’t tucked the front of it into them.
My flip-flops echoed off the pavement as I crossed the parking lot, clutching the strap of my bag in a way that meant I could wing this thing around like a deadly weapon.
As I neared the entrance, I shored up my shoulders and let out a low breath. The square window in the door was clean, but cracked. The white and red paint that used to be so vibrant and eye-catching was peeling off like someone had splashed acid across the walls. The big window, tinted black and with a flashy OPEN sign, was also cracked in the corner, forming tiny spiderweb fissures across the center of the glass.
If the outside looked like this . . .
“Oh God.” I so did not want to do this.
My gaze drifted back to the dark square window in the door, and my blue eyes looked way too wide and my face too pale in the reflection, which also made the superhot scar cutting down my left cheek, starting just below the corner of my eye to the corner of my lip, more visible.
I’d been lucky. That’s what the doctors and the firemen and everyone in the world who had an opinion had declared. Less than an inch higher, I would’ve lost my left eye.
But standing where I was now, I didn’t feel so lucky. Actually, I was pretty sure Lady Luck was a coldhearted bitch who needed to die.
Telling myself I could do this, I grabbed the rough handle and yanked the door open. And I immediately stumbled to an awkward stop just inside the bar, losing one of my flip-flops as the familiar scent of beer, cheap perfume, and fried food washed over me.
My free hand closed into a fist. This bar was not home to me. Or should not be home to me. It didn’t matter that I’d spent almost every day after high school holed up in one of the back rooms here or that I snuck out to the main floor to watch Mom because this was the only place where she smiled. Probably because she was usually drunk when she was here, but whatever.
Things looked the same. Kind of.
Square and high round tables with rough and worn tops. Bar stools with backs and tall chairs. The clang of billiard balls snapping off one another drew my attention to the back of the bar, beyond an empty raised dance floor, to the pool tables.
A jukebox in the corner played some kind of tear-in-my-beer country music as a middle-aged woman I’d never seen before barreled out of the Dutch doors across from the dance floor. Her bright blond hair, obviously not natural, was piled atop her head. A pen was shoved behind one ear. Dressed in blue jeans and a white T-shirt, she looked like a customer, but then again, Mona’s had never been a uniform-wearing kind of bar. She carried two red baskets stacked high with fried chicken wings as she sashayed over to one of the booths lining the wall near the jukebox.
Balled-up napkins were under tables and there were patches of the floor that looked sticky. Other sections looked like they simply needed to be replaced. With the dim bar lighting, I knew I wasn’t even seeing half of it.
Mona’s looked like a woman who’d been ridden hard and left out to dry. It wasn’t dirty, but more like almost clean. As if someone desperately tried to stay on top of the losing battle and was doing the best they could.
Which could not be Mom. She had never been into cleaning, but she used to be better. There were distant, blurry memories of her being better.
Since I was standing at the door long enough to look like an idiot, and as I scanned the floor, I didn’t see Mom, I decided it would be a good idea to, I don’t know, move. I took a step forward, then realized I’d left one of my flip-flops by the door.
“Damnit.” I turned, dipping my chin as I wiggled my toes back into the shoe.
“You look like you could use a drink.”
I twisted toward the sound of a surprisingly deep male voice, a voice so deep and smooth, it rolled over my skin like I’d been draped in satin. I started to point out that, duh, since I was standing in a bar, I probably did look like I needed a drink, but the snappy words died on my tongue as I faced the horseshoe-shaped bar.
At first, the guy behind the bar seemed to have straightened, as if he was drawing back. It was a strange reaction. In this low lighting and the way I was standing, there was no way he saw the scar, but then I got a real good look at him, and I wasn’t paying attention to that anymore.
Oh my, my, my . . .
There was a man behind the bar, the kind of guy I would not ever in the history of ever expect to see behind Mona’s bar.
Whoa, hot-bartender alert to the max.
Goodness, he was gorgeous, stunning in the way Jase Winstead was, maybe even more so, because I couldn’t quite remember seeing someone who looked as good as he did in real life, and I was only seeing Hot Bartender Dude from the waist up.
He had brown hair that looked like a rich, warm color under the brighter lights of the bar area. It was cut close to the skull on the sides and a little longer on the top. Wavy, it was styled back off his forehead in an artfully messy look, showing off his broad and high cheekbones. His skin was tan, hinting at some kind of foreign and exotic ancestry. With a strong and sculpted jaw that could cut rock, he could be the poster boy for shaving ads. Under a straight nose that had a slight hook in it were the fullest, most downright sinful, pair of lips I’d ever seen on a guy.
Good lawd, I could stare at those lips for hours, like way beyond the acceptable time limit and right into creeperville, population Calla. I forced my gaze back up.
His brows appeared to be naturally arched over the corners of his eyes, which drew the attention right to his eyes.
Brown eyes that were currently slowly and casually drifting over me in a way that felt like a warm caress. My lips parted on an inhale.
He was wearing a worn gray shirt that clung to broad shoulders and an unbelievably defined chest. I mean, I could actually see the cut of his chest through the shirt. Holy crap, who knew that was even possible? From what I could see down to where the bar top cut him off was an equally hard, and probably equally dazzling, stomach.
If this dude went to Shepherd, he would’ve dethroned Jase for lieutenant of the Hot Guy Brigade. And the sigh associated with Hot Bartender Dude would most definitely be felt around the world and in the lady parts.
Probably in some boy parts, too.
Those delicious lips curved up on one side. Yep, he even had a panty-dropping hot smile. “You okay, honey?”
He used the term honey like it was natural to him. Not cheesy or slimy, but a sexy endearment that had my belly warming.
And I was staring at him like an idiot.
“Yeah.” I found my voice to say one word, and it had croaked out of me. God, I wanted to body-slam myself through the floor as heat zinged across my cheeks.