I glanced to my side, spying a young and good-looking guy with something close to a buzz cut. He nodded at Hot Bartender Dude as he grasped the neck of the bottle. “Thanks, bud.”
And then he was off and we were alone again.
“Anyway,” Hot Bartender Dude said. “How about I make you my special drink?”
Usually when a guy offers to make me their “special drink,” I’d run for the hills screaming bloody murder and mayhem, but I found myself nodding again, which totally cemented the fact I was shallow and maybe a little dumb.
And totally not in control of the situation, which was a . . . unique experience for me.
I watched him pivot around, and the muscles of his back rippled under his shirt as he reached for the pricey liquor on display behind the bar. I didn’t see which bottle he grabbed, but he moved with a fluid grace, grabbing one of the rock glasses, used for smaller mixed drinks and shots over ice.
The fact that I remembered the kind of glass made me want to bang my head off the bar top. I also resisted that urge—thank God. As I watched him make the drink, I tried to figure out his age. He had to be at least a year or two older than me. Within a few seconds, he placed an impressive mixed drink in front of me.
It was red on the top, then graduating into the color of a sunset, with a cherry to garnish. I picked up the drink and took a sip. My taste buds about had a mouth-gasm at the fruity flavor. “You can’t even taste the liquor.”
“I know.” He looked smug. “It’s smooth, but proceed with caution. Drink too fast and too much, it’ll knock you flat on your pretty ass.”
Chalking the “pretty ass” comment up to typical bartender charm, I took another tiny drink. I didn’t have to worry about being careful. I never overindulged when it came to liquor anyway. “What’s it called?”
My brows rose. “Interesting.”
“Oh, it is.” He folded his arms on the bar top and leaned in, giving me what I was quickly learning was a distracting and devastatingly sexy half grin. “So, you got any plans for tonight?”
I stared at him. That was all I was capable of doing. Besides the fact that after a handful of minutes of being in his presence, I’d almost forgotten why I was here, which was not to socialize, he seriously couldn’t be doing what I thought he was doing.
Flirting with me.
Asking me out.
These things simply did not happen in Calla land. I couldn’t even believe they happened to really hot chicks like Teresa or Brit or Avery, but I definitely knew they did not happen to me.
Hot Bartender Dude shifted his weight forward, and that did amazing things with the muscles in his arms, and then those gorgeous eyes locked on mine, and I forgot how to breathe for a second. The way his lips curved in that moment told me he was fully aware of his effect. “In case I need to clarify what I just said, I’m wanting to know if you’re free to do something with me.”
It was a good thing that I’d placed the drink down because I probably would’ve dropped it. “You don’t even know my name,” I blurted out.
His gaze lowered, giving me a view of ridiculously long lashes. “What’s your name, honey?”
I gaped at him in what was probably a very unattractive manner. He couldn’t be serious.
Hot Bartender Dude waited as he lifted those lashes.
Oh my God, was he really serious?
“Do you ask every girl out who walks into this bar?” If so, after taking one long look around the bar, he had some real slim pickings. With the exception of the guy who’d gotten the beer and was sitting with a couple other guys, most of the people in the bar were a few years shy of retiring.
His half grin spread. “Only the good-looking ones.”
I went back to gaping at him.
Part of me wasn’t surprised by his response. I had a face. Always had a face, ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper and was wearing onesies. Mom used to praise how symmetrical my face was, how perfect it was. When I was younger, I looked like one of those porcelain baby dolls and I’d been paraded around as such. And as I grew up, my features had stayed symmetrical—full lips, high cheekbones, small nose, and blue eyes to match the blond hair—real, blond hair.
But the key words here were had and was, and while I was a lot of things, stupid wasn’t one of them.
Well, on most days.
Right now, staring at this guy, I was feeling about three kinds of stupid.
“Correction,” Hot Bartender Dude continued, grinning until that dimple appeared in his right cheek. “Hot girls with sexy legs.”
This guy was so full of it. “I’m sitting down! How can you see my legs?”
He chuckled deeply, and damn if that wasn’t a nice sound, too. “Honey, I saw you walk into the bar, and the first thing I noticed was those legs of yours.”
Okay. I did have really nice legs. Three days a week, I pretended to be into my fitness and ran. I was lucky when it came to my legs. Fat never deposited on my thighs or calves. It ended up in my ass and hips. And okay, there was also a pleasant hum trilling through my veins in response to his words, but I . . .
I sucked in a sharp breath, going cold on the inside.
Hot Bartender Dude and I were face-to-face, full frontal face-to-face, and we had been this entire time. There was no way he hadn’t seen the scar on my face, and not once since laying eyes on Hot Bartender Dude had I thought about the scar. So caught off guard by him, it hadn’t even crossed my mind.
But now that I was thinking about it, I immediately dipped my chin down and to the left as I wrapped my suddenly boneless fingers around the glass. Now I knew he couldn’t be serious, because he was totally a part of the Hot Guy Brigade, and I was Calla, the friend of the Hot Guy Brigade. Not Calla, the girl they blatantly flirted with.
Maybe he was on crack.
I decided to ignore what he’d said as I studiously forced myself to remember why I was here. “It is a really good drink.” Keeping my right cheek to him, I started checking out the bar again. Still no sign of Mom. “Pretty and tasty.”
“Thanks, but we aren’t talking about the drink. Unless talking about a drink involves you and me getting a drink when I get off,” he said, and my gaze swung back to his sharply. He arched one brow when he had my attention. “Then I’m all about having a drink.”
My eyes narrowed as I squirmed in my seat. This . . . this I wasn’t accustomed to. “Are you for real?”
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 . . .”