Both brows rose, but instead of backing off, he did that thing with his eyes again, slowly tracking over my face, lingering on my lips, before locking with my own blue peepers. “Yeah, honey, I’m real.”
“You don’t even know me.”
“Isn’t that what getting drinks together usually takes care of? The getting to know each other part.”
I was floored. “We literally just met a handful of minutes ago.”
“Already explained that, but I’ll explain something else to you. When I want something, I go for it. Life is way too damn short to live any other way. And I want to get to know you better.” Those lashes lowered one more time, his gaze tracking to my lips like they were some kind of mecca. “Yeah, I definitely want to get to know you better.”
I opened my mouth, but I had no idea how to respond to that, and before I could even come up with a coherent and worthy response, I jumped at the sound of my name.
“Calla?” boomed a deep, gravelly voice. “Calla, is that you?”
My attention swung toward the Dutch doors, and my mouth dropped as I put the familiar voice to the big, bulky, bald guy.
Uncle Clyde, who wasn’t my uncle, but had been around since, well, forever, barreled his way toward us. A big, toothy smile broke out across his ruddy face. “Holy shit for Saturday dinner, it is you!”
I wiggled my fingers in his direction, and my lips split in a smile. Uncle Clyde hadn’t changed one bit in the three years I’d been gone.
Hot Bartender Dude was quiet as he drew back, but I knew what he had to be thinking if he realized I was Mona’s daughter.
Then Uncle Clyde was on me. The big old bear got his massive arms around me and lifted me clear out of the bar stool. My feet dangled in the air as he hugged me, forcing me to squeeze my toes around the thin strap of my flip-flops.
But I didn’t mind if I lost my shoes or was currently having a hard time breathing. Uncle Clyde . . . God, had been there since the beginning, cooking in the kitchen when Dad and Mom first opened Mona’s, and he’d hung around long after everything had gone to crap and then some. And he was still here.
Tears pricked my eyes as I managed to get my arms around his huge shoulders, inhaling the faint scent of fried food and his Old Spice cologne. I’d missed Clyde. He was the only thing I missed about this town.
“Good God, girl, it is so good to see you.” He squeezed me until I let out a little squeal like a squeak toy. “So damn good.”
“I think she can tell,” Hot Bartender Dude said dryly. “Because you’re suffocating her by squeezing her to death.”
“Shut your trap, boy.” Clyde lowered me to my feet, but kept one arm around my shoulders. His height and width dwarfed me, always had. “You do realize who this is, Jax?”
“I’m going to go with a yes,” came another dry, low response, laced with an edge of humor.
“Wait.” I wiggled to the side, turning to Hot Bartender Dude. “Your name is Jax?”
“Jackson James is actually my name, but everyone calls me Jax.”
I mentally repeated his name. Admittedly, Jax was one sexy as hell nickname and made me think of a certain fictional biker babe. “You sound like you belong in a boy band.”
A low laugh rumbled out from under his breath. “I guess I missed my calling then.”
“Hell.” Clyde’s arm tightened on my shoulder. “Jax can actually sing, even strum a few chords on the guitar, if you get enough whiskey in him.”
“Really?” My interest was piqued, mainly because there was nothing hotter than a guy with a guitar.
Jax leaned against the sink behind the bar, folding his arms across his chest. “I’ve been known to play a time or two.”
“So, what brings you back here, baby girl?” Clyde asked, and there was no missing the heavy meaning in his words. As in, what in the hell are you doing back in this dump?
I turned toward him slowly. When I’d left for college, Clyde had been sad to see me go, but he’d been the driving force behind getting me out of this town and away from . . . well, everything. He probably would’ve been happier if I’d picked a school clear across the country, but I’d chosen one that was still sort of close by just in case . . . just in case something like this happened.
“I’m looking for Mom.” And that was all I said. Right now, I didn’t want to get into what was going on in front of Jax. The fact that he was now looking at me like he was truly seeing me as more than just some chick who had roamed into the bar was bad enough.
Some people believed the apple never fell too far from the tree.
And sometimes I wondered that myself.
I didn’t miss the way Clyde tensed, or how his gaze darted to Jax quickly, and then back to me. Unease cut deeper, then twisted and spread like a weed across a flower bed.
Focusing fully on Clyde, I prepared myself for whatever was about to come winging my way. “What?”
His big smile lessened and turned nervous as he dropped his arm. “Nothing, baby girl, it’s just that . . .”
I took a deep breath and waited as Jax grabbed another beer from the cooler of ice, handing it over to an older man in a red, torn flannel who didn’t even get a chance to ask for what he wanted, but shuffled off with a happy, if slightly drunk, smile.
“Is my mom here?”
Clyde shook his head.
I folded my arms around my waist. “Where is she?”
“Well, you see, baby girl, I really don’t know,” Clyde said, shifting his gaze to the scuffed-up, and badly in need of a thorough cleaning, floor.
“You don’t know where she is?” How was that possible?
“Yeah, well, Mona hasn’t been around for like . . .” He trailed off, dipping his chin against his heavy chest as he scrubbed a hand over his bald head.
Those knots were back, tightening until I pressed the heel of my palm against my stomach. “How long has she been gone?”
Jax’s gaze dipped to my hand and then flickered up to my eyes. “Your mom’s been gone for at least two weeks. No one has heard from her, or even caught sight of her. She’s skipped town.”
The floor felt like it had dropped out from underneath me. “She’s been missing for two weeks?”
Clyde didn’t answer, but Jax shifted closer to the bar top and lowered his voice. “She came in one night, upset and tearing around the office like a maniac, which, by the way, wasn’t really different from any other night.”
That sounded familiar. “And?”
“She reeked of alcohol,” he added gently, watching me intently from behind thick lashes.
Which was another common occurrence. “And?”
“And she smelled like she’d been in a sealed-off room, smoking pot and cigarettes for several hours.”
Well, the pot was something new. Mom used to be into pills, lots of pills—a smorgasbord of pills.
“And that wasn’t too uncommon, either, in the last year or so,” Jax said, still watching me, and I now learned he’d been around for some time. “So no one really paid her much attention. You see, your mom kind of . . .”
“Did nothing while she was here?” I supplied when his jaw tensed. “Yeah, that’s nothing new, either.”
Jax held my gaze for a moment, and then his chest rose with a deep breath. “She left that night around eight or so, and we haven’t heard from her since. Like Clyde said, that was about two weeks ago.”
Oh my God.
I plopped down on the bar stool.
“I didn’t call you, baby girl, because . . . well, this isn’t the first time your mom has just up and disappeared.” Clyde propped his hip against the bar as he placed a hand on my shoulder. “Every couple of months, she hits the road with Rooster and—”
“Rooster?” My brows flew up. Did Mom have a pet rooster? As bizarre as that would be, it wouldn’t surprise me. She’d grown up on a farm, and when I was little, she had a thing for oddball pets. We had a goat once named Billy.
Clyde winced. “He’s your mom’s . . . um, he’s your mom’s man.”
“His name is Rooster?” Oh dear lawd.
“That’s what he goes by,” Jax said, drawing my gaze again.
God, this was humiliating in so many ways. Mom was a drunk stoner who abused pills, never did anything with the bar she owned, and had run off with some dude, who was no doubt really classy, and went by the name Rooster.
Next, I was going to find out she was working part-time across the street at the strip club. I needed to find a comfy dark corner to rock in.
“A few months back, she was gone for about a month before she popped back up,” Clyde said. “So, it’s really nothing to worry about. Your mom, well, she’s out there, and she’ll be back. She always comes back.”
I closed my eyes. She didn’t need to be out there. She needed to be here, where I could talk to her, where I could find out if she had any of the money left that she shouldn’t have, and where I could scream and rage at her, and do something about the fact my entire life had spun out of control because of her.
Clyde squeezed my shoulder. “I can give you a call when she gets back.”
That surprised me enough that my eyes popped open just in time to see Jax exchange a hard and long look with Clyde.
“You don’t need to hang around here, baby girl. I think it’s great that you’ve come by to visit, and I’m sure she’ll be—”
“You want me to leave?” My eyes narrowed as my ears perked. Oh, there were most definitely more shenanigans than I was aware of.
“No,” Clyde assured quickly.
And at the same time Jax said, “Yes.”
I stared at him, skin prickling. “Uh, I don’t think you have a say in this, bartender guy.”
Those brown eyes seemed to turn black as coldness crept into him. A muscle popped in his jaw as I held his stare, daring him to disagree. When he didn’t say anything, I turned back to Clyde, who was watching Jax. Something was going on, and with my mom, anything was possible. But I wasn’t leaving—I couldn’t leave because I had nowhere to go. Literally. Unlike the last couple of semesters, I wasn’t taking summer courses, because this year I couldn’t afford it. Which meant I also couldn’t stay in the dorms, so when I packed up to come here, I had to seriously pack up everything. The small amount of funds I did have in my personal account had to get me through until I found Mom or got another job. Either way, I couldn’t afford an apartment or a hotel, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to intrude on Teresa for a place to stay until things got sorted out.
My gaze flickered over the worn-out bar, dancing over the old street signs and black-and-white photos framed on the wall, and, for some reason, I didn’t see it before. Probably because I was too busy focusing on the eye candy that was in front of me, but I saw it now.
Behind the bar, under the red sign that had Mona’s name in elegant cursive, was a framed photo.
Air lodged in my throat.
It was a photo, bright and colorful, of a family—a real family. Two smiling parents, attractive and happy. The mother held a baby boy, no older than one year and three months. Another little boy in a blue sweater, aged ten years and five months, stood next to a little girl, who had just turned eight, and she was dressed in a poofy blue princess-style dress, and she was beautiful, like a little doll, beaming at the camera.
My stomach roiled.
I had to get out of here.
Sliding off the stool, I grabbed my purse off the top of the bar. “I’ll be back.”
Jax frowned as he watched me back up, but he also . . . he looked relieved. The muscle had stopped spasming in his jaw, his shoulders had relaxed, and it was obvious he was happy to see me go whereas a handful of minutes earlier he was trying to get me to share drinks with him.