Okay. That did it. I’d had it up to here with everything, and I didn’t care that Hot Bartender Dude was probably the sexiest guy I’d ever seen or that he was nice enough to drive me here and buy me food. Or that he thought my ass was sweet and liked my legs.
I squared off with him, forgetting everything else. “Answer me one question.”
His brown eyes locked with mine. “Done.”
My voice dripped sugary sweetness when I spoke. “Who in the f**k do you think you are to tell me what to do?”
He blinked once, and then he tipped his head back and laughed. “You got attitude. You really do. I kind of like that.”
That pissed me off even more, and besides, that was also kind of twisted. “You can leave now.”
“Not until you get what’s going on here.” Jax planted two hands on the counter, one on either side of my hips, and then he leaned in, caging me. “I need you to listen to me.”
I locked up and was unable to remember the last time a guy got this close to me.
“Calla,” he said, and I shivered at how deep and soft his voice was as it wrapped around my name. “I don’t think you realize just how far gone Mona is and what that means for everyone who knows her.”
Air halted in my lungs. “How far?”
“It’s not pretty.”
“I didn’t think it was.”
His eyes continued to hold mine. “This house has been party central for the last couple of years. Not the cool kind of parties anyone with two working brain cells would want to go to. Police are here on the regular. This house has basically become a drug house, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you find crack pipes stashed in some of these kitchen drawers.”
Oh my God.
“The kind of people she hangs with? They are the bottom of the f**king barrel. Can’t get any lower than them. And you can’t get any shadier than them. And that’s not even the worst part.”
“It isn’t?” How could it be worse than my mom owning a crack house? I guessed a meth lab could be worse.
“She’s pissed off a lot of those shady people,” he said, and my stomach dropped to my toes. “Owes them a lot of money from what I hear, too. So does her man Rooster.”
Owes more people money? Oh God, that was bad news.
“Now I know Clyde probably doesn’t want you to know this, but I don’t think shielding you from the shit that’s going down here is the right thing to do. Mona’s got a lot of the wrong kind of folks gunning for her. The kind of people your mom is messed up with are bad news. The windshield?”
“What does any of this have to do with the windshield?”
“You came here first, right? Someone probably has an eye on this house, saw you, and decided to give you a good old-fashioned redneck warning. They may not realize yet that you’re her blood, but they know you obviously know her since you’re here. And hey, the whole windshield thing could be a f**ked-up coincidence, but I doubt it. Let’s hope they don’t realize you’re blood.”
Oh, holy crap on a cracker, this was not good. My chest rose sharply as my pulse kicked up. This had veered off from crap, straight into shitville.
“Yeah, I see it’s starting to make sense,” he said softly, almost gently. “It’ll get worse from here, especially if she doesn’t come out of hiding.”
Turning my head to the left, I heard his words. They sunk in, causing a shudder to snake its way down my spine. God, a meth lab would probably be better than this.
Oh Mom, what have you gotten yourself into?
Her life, what had become of it, hurt like a real physical burst of pain, and something that I long since believed was dead sprang alive deep inside me. A need I’d suffered with for so many years, an urge and drive to fix her—to fix Mom.
Two fingers landed on my chin, gently forcing my head center. My eyes widened as they once again connected with his. “They could use you to get to her.”
My brain immediately shut down on that. The whole thing was just too much. Mom stole money from me and some crazy windshield-breaking rednecks that were hell-bent on revenge. It sounded like a plot from a movie featuring a washed-up action star.
“Honey, the best thing you could do is to turn around and leave town,” he said again, his brown eyes holding mine in a steely gaze. “There’s nothing here for you.” Jax almost sounded disappointed by that, and when my breath caught again, his gaze finally left mine, flicking down to my parted lips. His voice was deeper, rougher when he spoke again. “Nothing but trouble.”
I didn’t go home the next day like Jax had ordered me to do. Not because I currently wasn’t in possession of my own car or because he had absolutely no business telling me what to do. I seriously had no choice but to stick around and . . . and do what? Track Mom down and find out just what kind of crap she’d gotten herself in, and hopefully get my money back?
The idea that there was no money left at all was something I couldn’t allow myself to think about, but at this point, it was either staying here for the summer or living in my car. Whenever I got my car back.
But it was more than that. Yeah, the money was huge, it was linked to my life, but it was also about Mom. It was always about Mom.
When Jax had left last night, he’d wanted me to leave with him, so that he could drop my “sweet ass” off at a hotel that he actually offered to pay for, but I refused, figuring the last thing I needed was to owe someone money. He’d warned that he was sending a cab.
He’d actually had the nerve to say to me, “I know you’re smarter than this, honey, so I’m going to give you forty minutes to get over yourself, and when a cab pulls up in front of your house, you’re going to get your sweet ass in it.”
What in the hell?
So when the cab pulled up and honked for a straight minute, I’d ignored it, and it had eventually driven away.
Yeah, it was kind of nice of him to offer to pay for a hotel and to send a cab, nice in a really weird and overbearing kind of way. But it was something, his domineering niceness, that I couldn’t allow myself to give a lot of thought.
I had a restless night on the couch and spent a good part of the morning going through Mom’s mess of a bedroom—and finding absolutely nothing of any use, not even a crack pipe. However, the closet did hold a few items I wished I hadn’t seen.
One was a framed photo of me when I was around eight or nine years old. The other was a trophy—about two feet tall, still shimmery and glittery. They were mementos of a past I could no longer claim.
After placing those items in the back of the closet, covering them up with old jeans, I got ready to head to the bar. I didn’t really care about how I dressed, but I took my time with the makeup, carefully blending it until the scar sloping down my cheek was less red, more pink, and almost invisible if someone was far enough away. I could leave the house wearing ratty sweats and a T-shirt full of holes, but I never left home without having the thick makeup smacked across my face. Once I was done, I called up Clyde, knowing there was only one other place where there could be any info like bank accounts or evidence of where she could’ve run off to.
He showed a little after noon, and I’d been waiting for him on the stoop. I hopped into his truck, a Ford that was a lot older than Jax’s, and buckled myself in before he could get his massive size out of the vehicle.
“Like I said on the phone, I need to go to the bar. I wouldn’t have called you if I had my car.”
“Jax is taking care of your car.”
I wrinkled my nose as I plopped my purse in my lap. “That’s reassuring,” I muttered, which was bitchy, because even though he was a wee bit bossy, he had been helpful.
Shifting his girth around in the seat, he twisted toward me. “Baby girl,” he began again. “Are you really staying in this place?”
I sighed as I slid my sunglasses on. They were nice. Total knockoffs, but I thought I looked good in them. “In the reputed crack house? Yes. I’m not getting a hotel room.
“Jax already tried to take me to one. He even called a cab!” Even though I waved my hand around, I didn’t miss the way Clyde’s lips twitched. “Mom . . . she really screwed me over. Like bad. And I’m figuring that what she’s going through is pretty bad, too.”
Clyde pressed his lips together as he threw the truck into reverse. “It is bad.”
A breath shuddered through me. “Is it as bad as Jax told me?” There was a little part of me that was hoping that Clyde would tell me that Jax tended to exaggerate.
No such luck.
Even though I didn’t elaborate, he grunted out an affirmative. “I don’t know exactly what he said, but I’m imagining that he didn’t tell you all of it.”
I closed my eyes, just listening to the tires eat away at the road. God, what was I doing? Maybe I should’ve just gone to the hotel and headed back to school, called up Teresa—No. I stopped myself there. She and Jase had a lot of plans this summer. Traveling. Beaches. Sun and sand. I wasn’t going to mess that up by dumping my problems on her—on them. Plus there was something completely out of control about crashing on friends’ couches that I couldn’t deal with.
Minutes passed before Clyde spoke again. “This is the last thing I wanted you to do.”
I didn’t open my eyes.
“Coming back here? Well, I’ve always been real with you, baby girl, and I’m gonna keep being real with you.”
My heart lurched into my throat, and all I could think about was what Jax had said to me. That there was nothing but trouble here.
“This is the last place I wanted you to be and, well, there are things you don’t need to know about. You don’t ever need to know about, but one thing ain’t changed, and that’s you, baby girl.”
My eyes popped open.
“You’re good to the core. Always have been, no matter what shit Mona put you through, even before the fire.”
A pang lit up my chest, licking through my body, and it spread across the scar on my cheek, and washed over the other scars—the worse ones. It was like it had just been yesterday. The fire.
“But you know there ain’t no helping your mother.”
“I know that,” I whispered around a sudden knot in my throat. “That’s not why I’m here. She did me wrong, Clyde. I’m not lying.”
He spared me a quick, knowing glance. “I know that and I believe that, but I also know that you’re here, and now that you know your mom has got herself in a mess, you’re going to want to help her somehow.”
I sucked in a sharp breath.
“But it’s worth repeating,” he continued. “There ain’t no helping Mona. Not this time. The best you can do is get back to that school and don’t look back.”
A bowl of corn nuts sat on a scuffed-up oak table in the office situated at the end of the hall leading to the restrooms. There were two file cabinets behind the desk, and butted up against the wall was a couch that was made of leather and looked surprisingly new—a lot newer than the one I’d slept on last night.
I hadn’t been able to bring myself to sleep in the loft upstairs.
I’d never run a bar before and I wasn’t perfect when it came to numbers, but after poring over the statements, receipts, and bills I’d found neatly organized, I knew two things.
First up, there was no way Mom had been keeping track of any of this during the last year. If you looked up the opposite of organized, there’d be a picture of Mom smiling happily. Someone else was keeping track of the books, and I seriously doubted it was Clyde. God love him, he was good at keeping things real, great at being practically the only positive role model around, and awesome in the kitchen, but running the financial side of a bar? Uh. No.
Second thing I learned was that the bar wasn’t bleeding money like it had been stabbed repeatedly with a wicked hunter’s knife. This piece of news confounded me. If Mom had blown through my money and potentially hers, I’d imagined the bar would be next on her list. Plus, it wasn’t in the greatest condition.
Well, on second thought . . .
I’d checked out the bar since I was alone when Clyde had headed into the kitchen to do some cleaning after explaining that my car, which was no longer in the parking lot, was down the street at a garage getting the windshield replaced.
No way did I even want to think about that bill.
Back in the day, before I’d left for college, Mona’s had been a mess. Bar top always sticky and so was the floor, but the origin of that stickiness was always questionable. Taps were broken. Kegs should’ve been eighty-sixed ages ago. Days-old lemons being used, fruit juice beyond the expiration dates, and a whole slew of other grossness went on. Mom had always hired her friends to bartend. Her friends basically being middle-aged men and women who hadn’t grown up and thought working behind a bar meant they got free booze. So cleaning was never high on the priority list.
Although the bar wasn’t looking like it was in its prime any longer; more like it was in its geriatric stage, it was cleaner than I gave it credit for yesterday. Behind the bar, the ice had recently been dumped and the ice well flushed out with hot water, preventing a slew of gunky bacteria growth to grow. I hadn’t seen fruit flies or small critter droppings, which were unfortunately commonplace in bars. The bar tops were freshly wiped down and the floor was also clean behind the bar; the bottles were stacked and organized.
Even the tables out on the floor had been cleaned, as were the ashtrays. So, while the bar might need a renovation, someone definitely cared about it, and I knew that wasn’t Mom.