“It was a long time ago,” she said, raising her voice as a loud cheer went off toward the pool tables. “We did some of the same pageants together.”
I stiffened as I stared at her. Aimee . . . ? Aimee . . . ? “Aimee Grant?”
Her smile spread, and damn she was breathtaking. Perfect freaking teeth, like she was still wearing flippers. “Yes! You do remember. Oh my God, Jax.” Her eyes flipped to him as she reached over the bar, placing her hand on his other arm like she’d done it a million times. “Calla and I practically grew up together.”
Uh, I wouldn’t have gone that far. We’d probably run into each other every other month at the pageants and we weren’t friends. If I remembered correctly, our mothers hated each other with the passion of all stage mothers. Mom was considered lowbrow for owning a bar, and Aimee’s mom was stay-at-home, married to a doctor, or by the look of those perfect choppers, a dentist.
“Is that so?” Jax slid his hand to my lower back, and I pressed my lips together. He’d angled his body into mine, drawing back so her hand was no longer resting on his arm, and even though I hadn’t done the relationship thing, I knew what he was saying with his body. I’d seen Jase do it. I’d seen Cam do it.
I got a happy feeling inside.
Aimee either was ignoring the message or wasn’t getting it. “Yeah, it’s such a small world. I haven’t seen you in years.” Her gaze was centered on me now. “Not since you stopped doing pageants.”
A ball formed in the pit of my stomach, weighty like lead, and out of reflex, I tried to step back, but with Jax being so close, there was nowhere to go.
“She used to beat me,” Aimee went on, and the ball in my stomach started to grow icicles. “Every single pageant. I’d get grand supreme and Calla would almost always take home ultimate grand supreme.”
Jax’s lips curved up into an easy grin as he watched me, but I was crawling out of my skin to get away from him, the bar, and from Aimee.
Her head cocked to the side as she leaned against the bar. “I haven’t seen you since the fire.”
Air lodged in my throat and the tiny hairs along my back rose.
“A lot of the organizations ran fund-raisers. I remember that,” she continued blithely. “The girls who won money at the pageants for like six months turned over their winnings for you.”
Oh my God.
I also remembered that—remembered Dad saying something about it while I’d been in the hospital, and Mom had been too out of it with grief to even come into my hospital room.
“So terrible,” Aimee said, blinking large eyes. “Everything that happened to you, to your family. How long were you in the hospital?”
Who asked questions like that? But I knew the answer. Throughout my life, complete strangers shoved their noses in my business and asked questions one would think would be off the table or just not appropriate. People didn’t think or they simply didn’t care.
“Months,” I heard myself say.
Jax’s hand flattened against my back, and I felt the muscles tense in his body. The tiny hairs were prickling now.
“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?”