My gaze flicked to the printed-out spreadsheet for last month—the spreadsheet stapled to a gazillion receipts—and I scanned the lines. Like the dozen spreadsheets before it that I’d found, all the way up to March of last year, everything was tracked—monthly bills, like electricity and other utilities, income coming in, food and beverage costs and breakdowns, and, most surprising, payroll.
The reason why Mom always had friends working for her who were interested only in free drinks was that she could never make payroll. The idea of Mona’s making enough money to pay its employees on a regular basis had been laughable. Not funny laughable, but maniacal, slightly crazed laughable.
But Mona’s had been making payroll for about a year now and had employee names I didn’t recognize with the exception of Jax and Clyde. There was even some dude who worked in the kitchen on weekend nights, helping Clyde out.
Mona’s was turning a profit for the last four months. Nothing major, or to get overly excited about, but a profit was a profit.
Leaning back in the chair, I slowly shook my head. How was this possible? If Mona’s was making money, why was she stealing—
“What in the hell are you doing in here?”
Emitting a low shriek, I jumped in the chair as my chin jerked out. All the air whooshed out of my lungs. Jax stood in the doorway, and he must’ve been part ghost and part ninja, because I hadn’t even heard him approach. The floors creaked about every other step when I’d walked down the hall to the office.
It had only been a handful of hours since I’d last seen Jax, and it wasn’t like I’d forgotten how hot he was in those hours, but geez, all I could do was stare at him for a moment.
Freshly showered, his hair was slightly darker as it curled against his forehead. The black shirt he wore appeared tighter than the one he wore last night, which I’m pretty sure the female population was thankful for.
But he didn’t look happy at all to see me.
Jaw set and lips pressed together, he glared at me as I stupidly gazed back at him like a fawn. “What are you doing in here, Calla?”
At the sound of my name, I snapped out of it. Placing the spreadsheet and receipts on the desk, I narrowed my eyes at him. “Well, considering this bar is my mom’s, I have every right to be in the office.”
“That’s some dumb rationale considering I’ve been at this bar for about two years and last night was the first time I’d seen your sweet ass.”
Heat flashed across my cheeks as I tilted my chair to the left. “Can you stop referring to my ass as sweet?”
His eyes deepened to dark chocolate. “Would you prefer I refer to it as hot?”
I inhaled through my nose. “No.”
“How about heart shaped and thick?”
My hands curled into fists. “How about not at all?”
His lips twitched and then the humor fled from him as his gaze dipped to the stack of papers. He stalked over to the desk. “You were going through the files?”
I shrugged forced casualness. “Wanted to see how the bar was doing.”
“I’m sure that’s really not your business.”
What the hell? “I’m pretty sure that it is.”
He planted one hand on the desk, right on top of the spreadsheets. “Do tell.”
Swiveling the chair, I angled the right side of my body toward his. “Well, considering that this bar is the only thing my mom will leave me one day, I have every right to look at those papers.”
Something flashed over his face as he tilted his head to the side. “Leave you this bar?”
“Mom has a will. Has had one for years. So unless she’s changed it recently, which I doubt has been high on her to-do list, if something happened to her, God forbid, the bar is mine.”
Again, there was a strange tightening to the skin around his eyes I didn’t understand. A moment passed. “Is that what you want? The bar?”
Hell to the no. I didn’t say that.
“What would you do with this bar if you did unexpectedly end up with it?” he demanded.
I said the first thing that popped in my head. “I’d probably sell it.”
Jax drew back from the desk, straightening to his full height. His eyes were like shards of glass as he stared down at me. Gone was the teasing, flirting bartender. “If you don’t care about this bar—”
“I never said that.” Not exactly.
He ignored that. “Then why are you here? For your mom? That’s a lost cause and you damn well know that. And you didn’t stay at a hotel last night, did you?”
His rapid change of subject left my head wheeling. There were days when I thought she was a lost cause and then others where I couldn’t allow myself to think that. “Thanks for sending the cab, but—”
“God, you’re going to be a pain in my ass.” He moved away from the desk, scrubbing his fingers through his damp hair. The muscles in his back tensed under his shirt.
I drew in a sharp breath, feeling my cheeks redden once more. “I’m not a pain in any part of your body, buddy.”
He barked out a laugh as he faced me. “You’re not? I told you what kind of crap your mom is messed up in, and the fact that a lot of nasty folks want a piece of her, and you’re still here. On top of your window being busted out—”
“Look, I get that my mom is in trouble and all that. Newsbreak, but that’s nothing that new to me.” Well, she did seem to be in a lot more trouble than normal, but at this point, whatever. “And the stuff with my car? I was in that house for a handful of minutes. There is no way someone saw me that quickly. Not to mention, my car was parked in a bar parking lot with a strip club across the street. These things happen.”
“Do they?” He folded his arms across his chest again. “Are you frequently around stripper bars.”
“No,” I hissed.
A muscle fluttered along his jaw. We were engaged in an epic stare-down for what felt like an eternity before he spoke again. “Why are you here, Calla? Seriously? There’s nothing here for you. Your mom’s not. You don’t have family here. And from what I know of you, you’ve spent the last couple of years at college, not even making brief visits. Not judging, but you haven’t really cared this entire time. So, why now?”
Whoa. His words slipped through me like a sheet of ice.
Jax started backing up toward the door, his eyes never leaving my face. “Just go home, Calla. You’re not—”
“My entire life is on hold!” The moment those words left my mouth . . . holy crap, I realized how true they were. And that sucked like I’d swallowed a vial of acid. I didn’t even know what made me say it. Maybe it was the softness in his voice that reminded me of pity. I don’t know.
Swallowing hard, I watched him stop and stare at me. “My entire life is on hold,” I said again, much lower, and then everything just came out in the worst case of diarrhea of the mouth. “Mom cleaned me out. She took my entire savings account, which held all my money—my tuition money and what I planned on using for emergencies and for when I searched for a job. Not only that, she took out a loan and credit cards in my name and didn’t make a single payment. She tanked my credit, and I’m not even sure I’ll qualify for any student loan now.”
His eyes widened slightly as he lifted an arm, running his palm over his chest, above his heart.
“I don’t have any place else to go to,” I continued, feeling an odd lump in my throat and a stinging in my eyes. “I can’t stay in the dorms because I couldn’t enroll in summer classes. She left me with nothing except the little money I have in my checking account and a house that apparently is a crack house. On top of that, she’s run off doing God knows what with a dude named Rooster. And my only hope—my only prayer at this point, is that she has some kind of money, something to pay me back with. So, yeah, I get that there’s nothing really here for me and that I’m a giant pain in your ass, but I seriously don’t have any other place to go.”
“Shit.” He looked away, jaw tight.
Then it hit me. Humiliating. I squeezed my eyes shut. Where were the staples? I needed them for my mouth.
“Shit,” he said again. “Calla, I don’t know what to tell you.”
I forced my eyes open and found him staring at me. There wasn’t pity in his gaze, but his eyes were lighter again. “There’s nothing you can say.”
“There is no money here, honey. Nothing that she can give you.” His eyes searched mine. “I’m not bullshitting you. It sucks. Fucking really sucks, but there’s nothing. Not a drop outside of what this bar is just starting to make and that isn’t much.”
I sat back as I let out a shaky breath. No. No. No. That one word was on repeat.
“If she took your money, she doesn’t have it. And if she had any money herself, it’s also long gone, too. Trust me.” His voice dropped lower. “A week doesn’t go by that there isn’t someone sniffing around this bar looking for her because she owes them money.”
Shifting my gaze away, I drew in another deep breath. “Okay. I need to accept that there is no money and I won’t get a red penny back.” He didn’t respond to that, which was okay, because I was mostly talking to myself. “That’s it. I’m broke. All I can do is pray that financial aid comes through.”
Bile rose in my throat as what I was saying really sank in. I was seriously broke. My life was seriously on hold. I also might seriously be sick.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly.
Jax had moved around the desk and he was closer. I didn’t want him closer. Nervous, I smoothed my hands over my denim-clad thighs. “Plan B,” I whispered.
My voice shook as I spoke. “Plan B. I need to get a job and make as much money as I can this summer.” I glanced around the office and I suddenly knew what I needed to do, to get the control back. There was a knot in my chest, and I wanted to cut it out, but there would be no cutting it out. “I can work here.”
He started, and then he frowned. “Work here? Honey, this is not your kind of place.”
I spared him a look. “It doesn’t look like it’s your kind of place, either.”
“Why is that?” he fired back.
“Look at you.” I gestured in a wide circle in front of him. “You don’t look like you should be working in a dive bar.”
An eyebrow rose. “I like to think it’s one step up from a dive bar.”
“A little step,” I muttered.
One side of his lips kicked up. “Where do you think I should be working at?”
“I don’t know.” Sitting back, I brushed my hair off my forehead and sighed. “Maybe at Hot Guys R Us.”
His brows flew up. “So, you think I’m hot.”
I rolled my eyes. “I can see quite fine, Jax.”
“If you think I’m hot, then why were you so resistant to going out with me when you first came into the bar?”
I stared at him, wondering how the conversation veered off to this. “Does that really matter?”
“No, it doesn’t.”
His eyes glimmered with amusement. “We’ll agree to disagree.”
“We aren’t agreeing on anything.” I pushed up and stopped. He hadn’t moved, and the space was cramped. I couldn’t walk around him. “I can work here.”
“A rough crowd comes in on the weekends. Maybe you should try the Outback down the street or something.”
“I’m not afraid of any rednecks,” I grumbled.
Jax narrowed his eyes at me.
“What?” I threw up my hands. “Not like the bar can’t use my help. And I need money. Obviously. And maybe by working here I can make some tips and maybe get back some of the money, even if it’s a small percentage.”
“Making tips?” He took another step forward, and I was stuck between him and the chair. “What do you think you’d be doing here?”
I shrugged a shoulder. “I can bartend.”
“Have you ever done that before?” When I shrugged again, he laughed outright. Now my eyes were narrowing on him. “Honey, it’s not that easy.”
“Can’t be that hard.”
Jax stared at me for a long moment, and then probably one of the most fascinating things to watch happened. Each tensed muscle relaxed, and a slow, knowing grin appeared on his lips.
My tummy did a cartwheel.
“Well, we can’t have this, now can we?”
“Have what?” My tumbling tummy? There was no way he knew about that.
“You not having any place to go.” When I didn’t answer, he cocked his head to the side. “Okay, honey, you want this . . . you got it.”
For some inane reason, it felt like he was talking about something else, and tiny, tight coils formed in my belly. “Good.”
His grin spread until a flash of straight white teeth appeared. “Great.”
The bar opened at one in the afternoon, and since no one had moseyed on in, Jax set me up behind the bar slicing fresh lemons and limes, with one warning.
“Please don’t cut your fingers off. That would suck.”
I’d rolled my eyes and hadn’t bothered to respond, working quietly until I had all of them cut and ready to roll. For the most part, I was comfortable behind the bar as long as I didn’t pay attention to the framed photo I wanted to rip down and toss across it.