“I don’t like steaks,” I lied. I loved red meat, all kinds of red meat. I was a meat girl, meat and more meat.
He arched a brow as his thumb smoothed over the inside of my wrist. “Please tell me you like steaks. I don’t know if we can be friends if you say you don’t.”
I almost laughed, because that was ridiculous. “I like steaks, but—”
“Perfect,” he murmured, tipping his head back. “Did you bring any dresses with you? I’d like to see you in a dress.”
I did bring summer dresses and the appropriate shrugs with me to hide the scars, but that was beside the point. “Why do you even want to go out with me?”
“Because I like you.”
My heart jumped in my chest, and if it had hands, it would have been clapping happily. “You can’t like me.”
“I’ve already told you that I want to f**k you. You can’t forget that.”
Holy crap. “I kind of blocked that out.”
He laughed deeply, clearly amused. “You can’t be surprised that I like you.”
“Fucking and liking are two different things.”
“Yes. And no.” His eyes locked with mine. “Are you saying no because you don’t think you’re pretty?”
Holy crap on a Conquistador.
I tried to pull back this time, digging in my feet, but his arm curled, keeping me in place. Panic dug acid-tipped claws into my skin. My chest rose with a deep breath and I forced my eyes to narrow, giving him the most bitchtastic look I could come up with, anything to take attention off how he’d hit my rejection right on the head.
“I know,” he said again, tugging me forward as he spread his legs. I ended up between the V of his thighs. Close, too close to him.
I didn’t understand that statement, so I continued staring at him with my bitchy glare. “Let me go.”
One arm slid around my back and he kept moving his thumb up the inside of my arm. The touch, his closeness, all of it was doing strange things to my body. My knees were going weak while every muscle was tensing. “I already knew about the pageants,” he said, keeping his gaze on mine. “Before you showed me the picture and the trophy last night, I already knew.”
There were no words.
“Your mom used to talk about it a lot, tell us how pretty her baby is. Not used to be, but is.”
I was going to kill my mom.
“Clyde would talk about it, too,” he went on, having no idea that I just added Uncle Clyde to my murderous list, and then I’d have to off myself for last night, because I’d done the same thing. “He wasn’t a fan of the pageants or the way your mom paraded you around. Neither was your dad, right?”
Clyde had hated the pageants, but my dad . . . “I don’t know,” I heard myself saying. “Dad never said anything to Mom.”
“I think he talked to Clyde.” Jax smiled a little. “You know what I said last night about the whole pretty thing? I wasn’t f**king around. That’s why I’m taking you out.”
Then his arm curled even more, and I was chest to chest with him. The contact sent a shock wave of sensation swirling through me. His head dipped, his mouth inches from mine. My free hand ended up pressed against his chest.
I couldn’t breathe.
I didn’t care.
“You didn’t kiss me last night,” I said, and then I wanted to kick myself in the lady parts.
His eyes narrowed slightly. “Fuck no, I didn’t.”
A pang lit in my chest. “Then why do you want to take me out?”
Jax stared at me a moment, and then his features returned to the lazy, relaxed look that was somehow incredibly sexy and nerve-racking. “Honey, I’m not going to do anything with a girl who’s drunk, especially you. No way in hell. When I said you were safe with me, I wasn’t bullshitting around. I even told you that last night.”
“You did?” All I remembered was Jax jerking back, but he had been talking while I was knee-deep in freak-out mode and about to hurl. “Oh.”
“Oh,” he murmured, and then he rocked my world. “And I remember you telling me I was your first kiss. That shit in the office earlier doesn’t count, but I’m going to be your real first kiss. After I take you out on Sunday.”
My mouth dropped open. I was back to freaking out, because he’d known about my years as a pageant queen, and needing to get away and being turned on. Yes, I was turned on. I might be very inexperienced for obvious reasons, but I recognized what my body was going through. Which wasn’t good, because there was no way I could explore any of that with him and I didn’t plan on being around long enough to give either of us time.
“Actually . . .” His head dipped again and his chin grazed my right cheek. “I want to kiss you now.”
Jax felt it. “And I think you want me to kiss you. Correction. I know you want me to kiss you.”
I shuddered this time, nearly overcome by the heaviness in my br**sts and the sharp whirl of tingles down below. My hand fisted in his shirt. He couldn’t kiss me. I couldn’t go out with him. This wasn’t why I was here.
Why was I here again? It didn’t matter. The reason had to be dumb.
He made a deep sound in the back of his throat that really twisted me up in delicious little knots and now it was his lips sliding over my cheek, following the curve of the bone, heading straight for—
The office door burst open. “Jax, are you—whoa. Not expecting that.”
I jerked at the sound of Uncle Clyde’s voice and started to pull away. Jax let me get turned around, but he didn’t let me go. His arm was still around my waist.
Clyde looked at me and his gaze moved over my shoulder. I could feel the heat of Jax behind me, and then Clyde looked at me again.
He smiled a big, toothy smile.
“Wasn’t expecting that,” he said, smoothing his hand over his apron. “Not at all.”
I had to do damage control. Stat. “It’s not what—”
“We’re going out on Sunday,” Jax announced to my disbelief. Then he pulled me back against his chest, into his heat, and I almost died right there. The way my heart sped up, I was sure that was going to happen. “I’m taking her to Apollo’s.”
“Good choice, boy, very good choice.” Clyde sealed the comment with a nod of approval.
I had to get out of here. This time when I pulled free, Jax let me go. I stumbled forward, shooting him a look over my shoulder.
I stomped off, passing Clyde, or trying to pass him, but he looked down at me and he also winked. “Good choice, baby girl, very good choice.”
There were simply no words.
Heading back out to the bar, I drew in several deep breaths. Hands shaking, I ignored the looks Roxy and Nick shot my way as I grabbed my apron. Tying it on, I hurried onto the semi-busy floor before Jax made his way out.
He wanted to kiss me.
He wanted to take me out to get steaks at Apollo’s.
And Uncle Clyde approved.
Oh dear Lord in heaven, how in the world did I end up where I am? But I had done the right thing by getting out of that room, and I was going to do the right thing by not going out on a date with Jax. I needed a broken heart like I needed my mom being in a bigger mess than she was already in.
My step faltered at that thought, and I almost dropped the basket of fries I’d grabbed from the window on the head of the guy I was carrying it to.
The older man looked up, the skin around his eyes crinkling. “You doing okay, girl?”
I nodded, recognizing the man. He was in his late fifties. A regular. In the bar every night I worked, even the busier nights when the crowd was younger, like tonight was getting. “Mind is all over the place, Melvin.”
“Know the feeling.”
Placing the basket on the table, I smiled. “Need anything else? Another beer?”
“No, sugar, that’ll be all for now.” When I started away, he stopped me by placing his hand on my arm. “It’s good to see you here, doing what your momma should be doing.”
My jaw opened, but I had no idea what to say to that or how to feel about everyone knowing who I was. Then again, it wasn’t a secret. He patted my arm and then turned to his fries, which were smothered with Old Bay Seasoning.
Okay. Tonight was going to be weird. My life was weird. And dumb—couldn’t forget dumb.
Pivoting around, I saw Jax swaggering behind the bar. He looked smug. Pleased. Wholly confident. His gaze cut in my direction.
I whirled, aiming for the front of the floor to check the tables that didn’t need to be checked. The bar picked up, and I only went behind the bar to relieve Nick, and then I took my lunch, and it was weird taking a lunch late at night. I wasn’t hungry, still full from the grease-capades, and I didn’t want to hang out in the bar or in the kitchen, considering Clyde was already probably planning my wedding.
It had stormed earlier in the day, but it had eased off when I stepped outside. The air was still thick with humidity. Walking aimlessly around the building, I lifted my hair off my neck and wished I could wear ponytails on nights like this.
I like you.
I said I wanted to f**k you.
My knees wobbled a little, and I wondered how weird would it be if I just smacked myself in the head.
I’d taken two more steps when I saw the shadows clustered around the Dumpsters pull away and become thicker, solid. My heart stuttered as I backpedaled a step. The unexpected movement stirred tendrils of unease. Spinning on my heel, I headed back toward the front of the building. It was probably someone back by the Dumpsters relieving himself or doing something else nasty, but I picked up my step. A basket of fries would be good about right now.
I was almost to the corner of the building when, without any warning, the tiny hairs all over my body rose. The steady thump of footsteps behind me was close. My breath caught. Every instinct in my body fired off.
A second later I was grabbed from behind and shoved against the brick wall as a wet, warm hand folded around my throat.
Then Mack was right in my face.
“Say one word I don’t want you to say and you’ll regret it,” he threatened, and in the dim light, something shiny and sharp flashed in the corner of my right eye. “I’ll even out that face of yours.”
Even as anger rose, ice built in the pit of my stomach as I stared into his dark eyes. The hard set to his face and the sneer to his lips told me he wasn’t making idle threats. All I was able to get in was a shallow breath.
“You understand? Nod if you do.”
I didn’t want to nod, because I didn’t want to lose an eyeball, but I did as he ordered. I nodded.
His sneer spread into a tight, cold smile. “Good girl. Now I tried to get a message to you the night before, but that f**kwad had to get involved, and I’m not telling Isaiah that he’s f**ked, you get me?”
I so did not get him on the last part, but I nodded again, because I really didn’t want another scar. And I’d also thought that Reece, or one of his cop buddies, was going to pay Isaiah a visit and explain that I had nothing to do with my mom’s shenanigans. Either that hadn’t happened or it hadn’t mattered to Mack or Isaiah.
“Mona’s got a little under a week before Isaiah gets really impatient,” he went on, and the knife he held shifted. Air caught in my throat. “If she doesn’t show by next Thursday, it will be your problem. It’ll be the f**kwad’s problem, too.”
I was assuming that f**kwad was Jax. “I . . . I don’t know where she is.”
“That’s not my problem. And it ain’t Isaiah’s problem, either.” Mack moved, and the front of his body was pressed against mine, and there was a good chance I was going to vomit again. “It’s your problem. And don’t even think about pulling any shit and leaving town. We know where to find you and you really don’t want your friends back at that school to get pulled into this. You got that?”
My heart pounded in my chest as I nodded for the third time.
“You don’t want to get on the bad side of Isaiah. Or me. We don’t f**k around.” When he moved against me this time, I held whatever little breath I had in my lungs. There was no space between us, and it felt nothing like when Jax was that close. This made my skin crawl. “If she doesn’t show, we’ll send her a message. You don’t want to be a part of that message.”
I so did not want to be a part of the message.
His beady eyes traveled over my face, lingering on my left cheek. “You know, you’re not too f**ked-up looking. I could do you doggy-style. Turn you around. Fuck you from behind.”
My eyes widened, and now my skin felt like it wanted to jump off my bones and run far, far away. Acid churned in my stomach, fueled by panic and more than just a little bit of fury-tipped fear.
Mom brought this on, dragged this nasty piece of shit right to my doorstep.
His smirk turned even more vile. “Yeah, I think I have a good idea what message to send. Even better, it will send another message to the f**kwad inside.”
Oh God, this wasn’t good. I was pressing back against the wall, absolutely horrified by what he was implying in his threat. I knew what that message would entail.
My stomach hurled.
“And you better keep that mouth shut,” he added, pulling back. The knife disappeared for a second, and then I felt the tip under my chin, causing my fingers to dig into the wall behind me. “Get me?”
“Yes,” I whispered, not about to nod this time.