As she came around the bar grinning, I wondered if people could actually see her behind the bar. “Hi,” she said, shoving out a dainty hand. “I’m Roxanne, but everyone calls me Roxy. Please call me Roxy.”

“Calla.” I shook her hand, laughing. “Nice to meet you, Roxy.”

She slid her purse off her shoulder. “Jax says you go to college at Shepherd, studying nursing?”

My gaze flickered over to where he stood. Damn, he worked and talked fast. “Yeah. You’re at the community college?”

“Yeppers peppers.” Reaching up, she adjusted her glasses. “Nothing as cool as nursing. Working toward a computer graphics degree.”

“That’s pretty damn cool. You can draw, too?”

She nodded. “Yep. Drawing and painting kind of runs in the family. Not the most lucrative career choice, but it’s something that I love to do. Figured taking it into the graphic design world would be better than choosing the life of a starving artist.”

“I’m jealous,” I admitted, brushing my hair over my left shoulder. “I’ve always wanted to be able to draw, but I can’t even draw a stick figure without it looking half stupid. Two things I generally lack—art and talent.”

A laugh burst from her. “I’m sure you’re talented at something else.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Does talking and not knowing when to shut up count?”

Roxy laughed again, and I saw Jax glance at us. “That is a true talent. I’m going to drop off my purse. I’ll be right back.”

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When she came back, we worked the bar together and, like Jax, she was supercool and patient. The customers loved her kooky sense of humor, which included doodling on the napkins she gave out, and apparently had to do with her T-shirt choices. It seemed like a lot of people rolling in checked out what her shirt said before they even placed an order.

The bar wasn’t too busy, but as Thursday evening rolled on by, the seating area filled up, and because I was slow, I moved out from behind the bar.

Jax caught my arm. “You’re forgetting something.”

“What?”

The half grin appeared as he turned his hand around my arm, tugging me toward him. I bit down on my lip as I stumbled forward, having no idea what he was about. I got close to him, close enough that when he reached down to a cubbyhole, his arm brushed my thigh.

“Got to wear an apron when you’re out there.”

My brows rose as I stared at the half apron. “Seriously?”

He jerked his chin at Pearl.

I sighed when I saw she had one tied around her waist, and then snatched it from him. “Whatever.”

“It goes great with your shirt.”

I rolled my eyes.

Jax laughed. “Let me help.”

“The last time I checked, I can tie an apron without—” I gaped at him. Somehow the apron was back in his hand and his other hand landed on my hip, startling me. “What are you doing?”

“Helping you out.” He bent his head toward my left ear, and I immediately turned my cheek. “Jumpy?” he asked.

I shook my head, finding that I had no idea how to form syllables, and that was embarrassing.

Without saying a word, he turned me around so my back was to his front, and then he slipped an arm between his waist and mine. I didn’t dare move.

“You can breathe, you know.” His arm trailed across my lower stomach, setting off a chain of flutters, as he spread the apron.

“I’m breathing,” I forced out.

Amusement colored his tone. “You sure about that, honey?”

“Yeah.”

Pearl entered the bar just then, carrying a tray of clean glasses. She arched her brows in our direction. “Getting hands-on, Jackie boy?”

“Jackie boy?” I mumbled.

Jax chuckled not too far from my ear. “Tying knots is hard.”

“Uh-huh,” replied Pearl.

“And I like getting hands-on with her,” he added.

My face felt like I’d been baking in the sun by the time he finished, which was an absurdly long time if you thought about it. When I felt the final tug of the knot being secured, he gripped both sides of my hips.

Holy sparks in a room of flammable material.

“All good.” His hands slid off my hips, and then he was giving me a gentle shove toward the exit to the bar floor. “Have fun.”

Shooting him a look over my shoulder, my lips pursed as he let loose that damn laugh that I decided that I did not, under any circumstances, find sexy. Nope. Not at all.

It was totally sexy.

Seven

Helping work the floor with Pearl, taking bar orders, and running food from the kitchen wasn’t bad. Wasn’t sure what it meant when it came to tips, and since I wasn’t really employed, there was no hourly wage, so I hoped it didn’t mean suck.

Mindless work, but I didn’t think about much of anything as I zoomed back and forth, and I could almost pretend that I had chosen this job out of want and not need. The only thing I couldn’t help wonder about was Mom, where she was and if she was okay. It was a familiar worry I’d spent many years obsessing over until I could practically feel the ulcers forming in my belly. I wasn’t going to do that again. At least that’s what I told myself, but if I was being honest with myself, and who wanted to do that on the regular, I knew better.

I dropped off a plate of wings at a table I was guessing was full of off-duty cops or army guys, based on their nearly identical buzz haircuts. And holy billy goats, there were a lot of yummy-looking guys sitting there. The hot guy Jax had been chatting with earlier had joined them, and I was a little nervous approaching their table since I was busy picturing each of the guys in different uniforms and liking what I saw in my head.

“Thanks,” one of the guys said as I placed a truckload of napkins on the table. Up close, he had the most amazing blue eyes.

I smiled as I clasped my hands together. “Need any refills or anything?”

“We’re good,” another one spoke up, grinning.

Nodding, I quickly skedaddled back to the bar to relieve Roxy for her break. I had no idea how Jax looked like he just arrived, full of smiles and energy, even though he’d been here as long as I had. Working a kink out of my neck, I headed to where a guy who couldn’t be much older than me was waiting. The day had been long and flip-flops were so not appropriate for bar work, causing my feet to ache, but I didn’t want to complain.

The cash in the pocket of my apron helped keep my lips in a smile formation.

“What can I get you?”

He rubbed a hand across the front of his oversized white shirt as his gaze quickly shifted away from me. “Uh, how about a Bud?”

“Tap or bottle?”

“Bottle.” His gaze swung back to me as he hitched up his baggy jeans.

“Coming right up.” Turning, I stepped around Jax and grabbed a bottle. When Mona’s got busy, it had to be crazy behind here, and I was kind of, surprisingly, excited about the prospect. There had to be a sort of Zen in being that busy. Heading back to the customer, I popped the lid, smiling as a little cool air rolled up from the open neck. “Tab or pay as you go?”

“Pay as I go.” He took the beer as he leaned back from the bar and muttered, “Shame.”

My brow arched up. “Shame?” Seriously doubted that was his name or something. “I’m sorry?”

The guy took a long swig of his beer and his brows knitted. “It’s a shame.”

I glanced around, not sure what he was talking about and wondering if he was already drunk. I hadn’t had to cut anyone off yet, and I really wasn’t looking forward to that moment. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw Jax stop and angle his body toward us. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not really following.”

With the hand holding his beer, he made a circle in the air around about where my head was. “Your face,” he clarified, and I sucked in a sharp breath. “It’s a shame.”

Every muscle in my body locked up as I stared at the guy. Somehow, maybe because I’d been so busy running back and forth, I’d done the impossible. Forgotten about the scar. That wasn’t an easy thing to do. Not only had the scar cut into my skin, it had sliced deep, becoming a very tangible part of me. I knew it was visible, even with the Dermablend, just faded into a thin cut, but I had forgotten.

Taking another deep swig of his beer, he continued. “I bet you were really hot one time.”

That statement stung. Oh yeah, it was like stepping on a pissed-off hornet. It shouldn’t bother me, some random ass**le’s opinion, but the sting coursed through me. I didn’t know what to do or how to respond. It had been so long since anyone even commented on it. Probably because people who knew me, who weren’t shocked by the scar, always surrounded me when the makeup faded after a long day.

“Get the f**k out.”

I jumped at the sound of the deep voice growling behind me and turned. Jax stood there, his eyes flashing and jaw tight, set in a hard line. Dumbly, I wondered why he wanted me to leave. I hadn’t done anything, and it wasn’t like he didn’t realize my face was slightly on the disfigured side.

But he wasn’t talking to me.

Of course not.

Duh.

Jax was staring down the guy on the other side of the bar, and then he was moving forward. Slamming one hand down on the bar top, he launched up over the bar, landing nimbly on the other side, inches from the guy.

“Holy crap,” I whispered, eyes wide.

I’d never seen anyone do something like that. Didn’t even know it was possible. Jax hadn’t even hit a bar stool. It was like he propelled himself over the bar all the time. Maybe that’s what he did during downtime, winging himself back and forth over the bar.

Pearl stopped in the middle of the bar floor, staring at Jax, and she didn’t look too surprised, which I found odd. His buddy at the table stood. The rest of the guys at the table were twisted in their seats, faces set, but not with curiosity. More like they were ready to jump to their feet any second.

Jax snatched the bottle out of the guy’s grasp as he slammed a hand in the middle of the guy’s chest, knocking him back several feet.

“Whoa, man, what the hell’s your problem?” White Shirt asked, catching himself.

“I said, get the f**k out of here.” Jax got right up in his face, and him being a good head taller than the other guy, it was pretty impressive. “Right this f**king second, you wannabe f**king gangster.”

“What the f**k? I didn’t do anything wrong.” White Shirt shot back. “Just trying to get a drink.”

“I don’t give two f**ks what you were trying to do.” The muscles in his back rippled under his shirt. “All I care about right now is you getting the f**k out of the bar.”

“Man, that’s messed up.” White Shirt Guy cocked his head like he was about to throw down, which by the sound and look of Jax, I was going to say would be a very bad idea. “You can’t just kick me out for that shit.”

And White Shirt Guy pointed right at me.

My stomach tumbled again, and before I realized what I was doing, I’d reached up, pressing my fingers against the slightly raised line on my cheek. I jerked my hand away.

He wasn’t done. “What did you expect, man? Not my fault she’s Mona’s daughter. Ain’t like you can’t notice her face—”

“Finish that sentence and I’ll f**k your face up so badly you’ll be seeing double for the rest of your life, ass hat.”

Oh God, this was getting out of hand. I stepped against the bar top. “Jax, just drop it. Not a big deal.”

The White Shirt Guy’s face flushed a deep pink. “Aw, bro, you’re really starting to piss me off.”

Thank God his friend was up and standing beside them now because Jax didn’t seem to hear me. “Come on, Mack,” Jax’s friend said, catching him by the arm and not too gently leading him to the door. “Get the hell out of here before Jax lays into you.”

“What the f**k?” Mack exploded, causing me to jump again, and the muscles to tighten in my neck and back. “You’re not on duty, Reece, so you can—”

“On duty or off, you might want to rethink that sentence.”

Ah, so Reece, his friend, was a cop. Hands shaking, I smoothed them down my thighs, hoping this whole scene would be over soon. Everyone in the bar was listening over the music, watching the confrontation go down. That made everything so much worse.

Jax stalked them toward the door, his hands clenched into big fists at his sides.

“You f**ked up,” Mack said, stopping at the door, having to get one last word in. “You think you got trouble now? You ain’t seen shit, you mother—”

“God, you guys never f**king learn,” Reece muttered, shoving Mack out the door, and as he disappeared into the night, Reece glanced back at Jax. “I’ll make sure the piece of shit gets out of here.”

“Thanks,” Jax muttered, wheeling back around. His gaze landed on me.

“Was it because of Mona?” Pearl asked in a low voice, and that answered why she wasn’t surprised when Jax had vaulted over the bar. “Did she—”

“No,” he growled, heading around the bar. “Watch the bar until Roxy gets off break.”

Confusion pulled at Pearl’s lips, but she nodded as she smoothed a hand back over her blond hair. “Got it.”

I didn’t move as I watched Jax stalk around the bar, stopping at the entrance. He motioned at me. “Come here.”

My heart was pounding, and I didn’t want to move forward, because he sounded and looked pissed, and I wasn’t sure if he was mad at me. After all, he’d relented quickly on the whole idea of me working here, but that didn’t mean he was pro Calla. Considering a fight had almost broken out the first night I was working probably wasn’t good.