“Excuse me.” My voice was rough as I wiggled free from Jax and the bar. “I have to get back to work.”
I slipped away, not hearing whatever Aimee said as I grabbed the round tray and headed out onto the floor to find empty glasses and bottles. My mind was spinning so many thoughts I couldn’t pick up just one to focus on.
Aimee was an unexpected and unwanted blast from the past. She was a part of memories that, all these years later, I hadn’t really reconciled with, and I wasn’t sure I ever would. Not only that, but she represented everything I should’ve been.
The knot was in my throat again as I grabbed empty bottles, ignoring the faint smell of beer as I dropped them on my tray. Later, I’d probably not say Aimee represented shit, but right now, if I thought of her, I thought of everything before the fire. I thought about what life would’ve been like for my family—for Mom, for Kevin and Tommy, and for Dad and me, if the fire had never happened.
I’d probably be standing right here.
I stopped, breathing heavy as my fingers curled around the neck of another empty bottle. I stared straight ahead, at the backs of those clustered around the pool tables.
It hit me, right then and there, so strong that my fingers tingled along with my toes. If that fire never happened, I would probably be standing right where I was. I would’ve been groomed to take over the bar, because it had been successful, and it had been something my parents had built to hand over to us. Kevin would be running the place. Tommy would be here. So would Mom and Dad.
I would be right where I was, and I had no idea how to wrap my head around that epiphany. Not at all. My thoughts felt razor sharp, my skin brittle.
My chest squeezed as my spine stiffened. I didn’t turn around. “I have tables to clear,” I told him. “Lots of tables.”
Jax’s hand landed on my shoulder and he turned me around. Our eyes locked, and when he spoke, I knew—I just knew—what he meant and it shattered me.
He moved in close, lowering his mouth to my ear, and said, “I know.”
I was quiet on the drive to Jax’s townhouse, spending the ride staring out the window at the dark houses and storefronts. I was tired, mentally and physically, and all I wanted to do was crawl into a bed, tug a blanket up over my head, and say good night.
Aimee had stayed to closing, not once joining Brock, who ended up leaving well before her. Roxy said he’d left with a different girl, so I had no idea what was going on between him and Aimee, but she didn’t seem fazed. And I knew why she’d hung around. She wanted to go home with Jax.
That didn’t happen.
When last call was made and Aimee was staring up at Jax, Roxy told me, he kindly and gently asked if she had a ride home, but before she answered, he told her he could call her a cab.
Roxy said Aimee had looked as if a ghost had just walked right past her, and while it would’ve been funny to see that go down, I wondered whether, if I wasn’t here, Jax would’ve taken her home. That shouldn’t matter, but it did, because I was a girl and I was feeling extra special dumb.
My breath caught as Jax turned onto the road leading to his house. I knew he was talking about the fire. Since he worked with my mom and she had told him about the grand pageant days, it didn’t take a leap of logic to figure she’d talk about the fire, but to what extent? How much did he know when his eyes landed on me for the first time when I walked back into Mona’s?
At the townhome, I carried my bag upstairs while Jax headed into the kitchen, doing what he’d done previously, kicking off his shoes and dropping his keys on the counter.
I undressed, this time wearing a tank under my thin long-sleeve shirt and my sleep shorts, and after washing my face, I pulled my hair up in a loose ponytail. When I left the bedroom, I grabbed my cell phone out of my purse and turned on the nightstand lamp. A soft glow was cast into the long room.
There was a missed text Teresa had sent me, a picture of her and Jase on the beach. She was in his arms, throwing up devil horns with her fingers, and he was smiling broadly, his gorgeous and downright unique gray eyes hidden behind the same kind of sunglasses Jax wore.
Footsteps drew my attention as I placed the cell phone back in my bag and there Jax was, walking into the bedroom. He’d lost his shirt somewhere between being downstairs and here, and I wasn’t complaining, because the rugged and flawed expanse of flesh was pretty darn nice to look upon, especially when his jeans hung low on his lean hips.
He was holding a beer in one hand and a juice box in the other.
My grin went up a notch. “For me?”
“Figured you could use a drink of the fruit punch kind.”
“Thanks.” I took the juice box and then sat Indian-style on the bed. The straw was already shoved in again. Perfect. Lifting my lashes, I saw him take a swig of beer and then he lowered the beer and shoved his other hand through his hair. I felt a shimmer of unease in my belly as I watched his chest rise and fall with a deep breath. “Is everything okay?”
Sounded like a dumb question.
His gaze slid sideways to mine as he tipped the bottle back to his lips again. He didn’t say anything as his throat worked, and damn, he’d drained that bottle and I’d only taken a small sip out of my juice box.
The unease grew until it was like a weed flourishing in a garden. Had he changed his mind about me staying with him? He didn’t look too happy. Maybe he was wishing he had taken Aimee with two e’s home. Given her perfect skin and smile, and a mom who currently wasn’t MIA and messed up with drug dealers, I could totally get why he was probably rethinking a whole lot of things. After all, he’d almost gotten run over today and that hadn’t been his fault.
I shouldn’t even be in the house, let alone sitting in his bed, because I don’t belong here.
All at once, I wanted to be back at Shepherd, sitting with Teresa and watching the Hot Guy Brigade from a safe distance. There I was safe, because no one knew anything about me, and I had my Three F’s, and that was it, what I knew and what I forced myself to be okay with.
Clenching the juice box to the point it almost exploded like a volcano, I started to slide off the bed, my belly doing this terrible twisty motion. “I can sleep downstairs tonight and then tomorrow—”
My toes were almost on the hardwood floor. “I said, I could sleep downstairs and tomorrow I can—”
“I heard you.” He put the empty beer on the top of his dresser as he faced me.
I glanced around. “I’m confused. If you heard what I was saying then why did you say what?”
“Okay. Maybe I should’ve expanded on that statement,” he corrected, and with wide eyes, I watched him bend over, and then I sucked in a short breath as he gripped my hips. An acute quiver radiated down my thighs, because wow-wee, this man knew how to grab hips. “Why in the f**k would you be sleeping downstairs?”
Slowly, I lifted my fruit punch and took a huge gulp. “I just thought that after . . . um, everything . . .” I trailed off as he lifted me back so that my feet weren’t on the floor.
“You thought what? That I didn’t want you up here with me?” He prowled onto the bed. There was no other word for what he was doing. One leg was on one side of mine, and the other on the other side. His hands were still on my hips. “That I didn’t notice how great you looked today? And not once did you turn your cheek to the left to hide?”
Oh my God.
Fruit punch forgotten.
“You thought I didn’t want to sleep beside you again? You guessed that wrong if that’s the case.” His fingers curled into my hips, sending a rush of warmth through my veins. “I really f**king enjoyed going to sleep next to you and waking up next to you. Which is new to me. I’m not usually a big fan of that, but you . . . yeah, you’re different.”
I never wanted to be more different in my life.
His hands dragged up my sides. “Or you thought I didn’t notice that you were doing good all day, in spite of the shit we dealt with in the morning? We went to a shit hole and we almost got run over, but you still smiled afterward. You handled it, went to work. Then Aimee showed up.”
Jax dipped his head and brushed his lips across mine. “Aimee and I never dated.”
My muscles locked up as my brain called bull crap on that. “I don’t think that’s really any of my business.”
He made a deep sound of disapproval. “You’re in my bed right now, right?”
“And my mouth was just on you, correct?”
“My hand has been between those pretty legs, too?”
Oh wow. That warmth turned to a molten heat that centered between said legs.
His forehead pressed against mine. “And I’m taking you out to dinner later. So tell me, how in the f**k does some chick showing up tonight, hanging all over me, and insinuating that we’ve got a past, have nothing to do with you?”
“Okay,” I whispered. “When you put it that way, I guess it does.”
“Guess?” He drew back, shaking his head. And then he sat back, his legs on either side of mine, his hands resting on my waist. “I get that you haven’t done this before.”
I raised my fruit punch and took another drink while there was a flutter in my stomach.
“But you need to understand where this is heading. I’ve already told you that I like you. I think I’ve made that pretty damn obvious. And when we get done with this conversation, I’m going to make it even more obvious for you.”
Not going to lie. Big parts of me liked the sound of this.
“Aimee and I hooked up a couple of times,” he went on, and an ugly feeling lit up my chest even though I’d already figured it out. “She normally stays in Philly and I guess she’s still going to college up north. I don’t know, and honestly, I don’t care. Things were casual between us. She’s been to my place. Never stayed the night here. Not once. And she sure as hell never got to drink fruit punch in my bed.”
“I’m happy to hear that last part,” I admitted.
A grin flashed across his face. “Aimee is a beautiful girl. She knows how to have fun, but she isn’t the girl for me. Never has been.”
That flutter was in my chest again.
He shifted his hands as he tilted his head to the side. “And I know that what’s going on in your head is more than just some chick I’d slept with in the past popping up. It’s what she said tonight.”
I tensed all over again. “Jax—”
He placed his forefinger over my lips, silencing me. Normally, if anyone did that to me, I’d be inclined to bite their finger off, but the subject matter was too intense for that.
“I know,” he said quietly. “I know all about the fire.”
Air lodged in my throat. I planted one hand in the bed as I leaned back from him, but his hands tightened around my waist. I didn’t get very far. I couldn’t do this. I could feel the slight grip on my control slipping.
“Mona talked about it every once in a while and Clyde filled in what she didn’t go into,” he continued in that low, patient voice. “I know how it happened.”
My heart started pounding in my chest, and when I spoke, my voice was hoarse. “I don’t want to do this.”
“I know.” Jax scooted closer somehow, his pelvis above mine, but his weight was supported by his legs. He was close, too close for this. “The bar was a hit in town. Always busy. Making a ton of money. Your parents decided to build their dream home.”
I looked away from his brown eyes, my free hand digging into the comforter. “I don’t want to do this,” I repeated in a whisper.
He lowered his head, pressing a quick kiss against the center of my left cheek, and my breath hiccupped. “It was the kind of house your parents dreamed of raising a family in, enough room for all of you to grow, especially Kevin and Tommy.”
Cold air sliced through my chest, and I shook my head. “I can’t do this.”
Jax didn’t let up. “What your parents didn’t realize is that they’d hired an electrician who wasn’t on the up-and-up. Who cut corners on the job sites so he could pocket more money. His license was under investigation for a bang-up job on the previous house he worked on. What your parents didn’t know when they moved you all in and were happy and celebrating, was that the electrician hadn’t followed the installation codes on the dimmer switch in the hallway on the second floor—the floor with all the kids’ bedrooms.”
Dipping my chin, I squeezed my eyes shut. It was a bad idea because I could see that night clearly. To the day I died, I’d be able to see that night, to waking up with my brand-new room, with its pink walls and my name spelled out in block letters attached to the wall, filled with smoke. I’d never forget that the first big breath I dragged in had scorched the very inside of my throat and chest. Panic poured into me as I’d stumbled off the bed and saw the pink paint peeling from the walls, the terror when I opened the bathroom door and the entire world exploded. Smoke had turned yellow and brown—I remembered that—a moment before it all happened. Glass shards had been flung through the air, slicing into my skin. Flames were everywhere, seeming to crawl across the floor and lick over the ceilings and walls. It was like a giant flash. And there had been screams. Horrific screams that no horror movie could even really replicate and some of them had been mine. Some of them had been Kevin’s.