“Come here,” Jax demanded again, voice hard as slate. “Now.”

Breath lodging somewhere in my throat, my feet moved toward him. As I passed Pearl on the way out, she sent me a concerned look. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, but still, none of this was good.

“Jax—”

He clasped my hand, pulling me the rest of the way out from behind the bar. “Not right now.”

It took a lot in me, but I clamped my mouth shut as he led me back down the hall, toward the office. Opening the door, he hauled me inside, and my stomach was somewhere around my toes as he slammed the door shut. I tried again, but when he wheeled on me, his hand still around mine, all the words died on the tip of my tongue.

Our gazes collided for a fraction of a second, and then I dipped my chin to the left and drew in a deep breath. “I’m sorry about what happened out there. I—”

“Are you f**king apologizing?”

My gaze rose to his. “Yeah, I guess. I mean, the guy was a dick, but he—”

“You’re f**king serious?” His eyes were so dark I wondered how they changed color like that. “You have no reason to apologize for that f**king ass**le.”

“It’s my first night and you had to kick someone out.”

“I don’t care if it was your first night or your tenth night, someone acts like that, then they’re out. No second chances.” He was staring down at me, and the look in his eyes was so intense it was like he could see right through me.

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“You’re not mad at me?”

“What?” His eyes widened as his hand slipped up to my elbow. “Why in the hell would I be mad at you, Calla?”

I shook my head. Thinking about it, it did sound like a stupid question.

His eyes narrowed. “You can’t be serious.”

Suddenly, desperation to be out of this room, or at least change the subject, washed over me with the force of a tidal wave. “He said something about trouble—Mack did. Was he talking about Mom?”

“That doesn’t matter right now.”

I thought it did. “Then why am I back here?”

“I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

The words repeated themselves through my head. He wanted to make sure I was okay and that . . . that was sweet.

“You did nothing wrong out there,” Jax went on as he squeezed my arm gently, reassuringly. “I’m pissed because that was utter bullshit.”

“Yeah, well, it was, but . . .”

He cocked his head to the side. “But what?”

Warmth crept into my face, and I took a step back, going as far as I could with his hand around my elbow.

“What, Calla?” He reclaimed the space, the tips of his boots brushing my toes.

I took another step back, and I was against the wall, back flush with it, and he was still right in front of me. The entire length of my body shimmered with awareness. I started to look away, to turn my head.

Like the night before, two fingers curled around my chin, forcing my face straight on with his, and it was with his head lowered near mine. And his mouth . . . it was inches from mine.

“You don’t believe what he said, do you?” His voice was deceptively low, soft.

My throat dried.

He let go of my arm and pressed his hand against the wall, beside my head, keeping the other one at my chin. “I can’t believe this shit.”

I blinked. “It’s not like I have a low self-esteem. I just believe in reality—like I’m Realistic Rachel.”

“Realistic Rachel?” His brows knitted as he mouthed the words again silently.

“Yeah,” I breathed. What I was about to say was true. “I know what people see when they look at me. Most people don’t say anything because they’re not jerks, but I know what they see. It’s been that way since I was ten years old. And there’s no changing that.”

Jax stared at me, his full lips slightly parted. “What do they see, Calla?”

“Do I really need to spell that out?” I shot back, irritated and frustrated and about a thousand other things. “I think it’s pretty obvious.”

His eyes searched mine. “Yeah, it is obvious.”

Even though that’s what I’d been saying this whole time, hearing him agree still felt like a punch to the boob. I wanted to look away, but he wasn’t allowing it. “I think I need to get back out—”

His mouth landed on mine.

Oh my lawd . . .

There was no warning, nothing that would’ve given away what he’d been about to do. One second I was talking, and then the next, his warm mouth was on mine.

Jax kissed me.

Eight

My brain short-circuited the moment it fully recognized that Jax was kissing me—that, in fact, his lips really were on mine.

And it wasn’t just a peck on the lips.

No, it wasn’t deep and there weren’t tongues involved, nothing like the kisses I read about in romance novels, the wet kind that seemed a little gross to me, but I imagined, if done right, would have me dropping my shorts like no tomorrow, but this kiss . . . it was real.

His lips were melded to mine, and I was awed by the way they felt. They were soft, but firm, and I didn’t know one thing could be both. They followed the curve of my lips, as if he were just mapping them out.

My arms were frozen at my sides, but I could feel my body start to lean forward, off the wall and toward his. Our bodies didn’t connect, though, which was probably a good thing.

I was already only seconds away from combusting.

Jax lifted his head from mine, and I realized then that my eyes were closed. Even so, I could feel his gaze on my warm cheeks, on the tip of my nose . . . my lips.

“You kissed me,” I whispered, and yeah, it was a stupid statement, but I was feeling pretty stupid.

“Yeah.” His voice sounded deeper, gruffer. Sexier. “I did.”

I forced my eyes open and was staring at an unofficial member of the Hot Guy Brigade.

He leaned in, his arm against the wall taking his weight as he dropped his hand from my chin. “I don’t kiss girls that I don’t find hot as hell or beautiful. So, you get my point?”

There were fuzz balls in my brain. “You kissed me to prove a point?”

A ghost of a smile appeared. “Felt like it was the quickest way to prove the point.”

That it was. I didn’t know if I should feel offended that he kissed me to prove a point and that most likely meant there was nothing else driving the kiss, or if I should be flattered that by kissing me he thought I was hot as hell and beautiful.

I didn’t know what to think or say, so I just slumped back against the wall as he pushed off it. Half grin in place, he reached over and opened the door.

“Nothing like that will ever happen again in this bar,” Jax said, and then he was out the door.

He’d said that like it was a promise—a promise there was no way he could keep, but it was another . . . sweet thing to do.

I closed my eyes again, letting out a breath as I ducked my chin to my chest. Three weeks ago, I was living in Shepherdstown with my Three F’s, close to graduating, and this bar wasn’t even a forethought in my head. My life had been focused around goals—graduating, finding a job in nursing, and reaping the benefits of following through with said goal.

That was all.

Weeks later, everything had changed. Here I was, standing in Mona’s with an MIA mom, no money, my future completely up in the air, and an unofficial member of the Hot Guy Brigade had kissed me.

Nothing planned about that and none of those things fell into my carefully crafted Three F’s plan.

But that kiss . . . to prove a point or not, it had been important. Really important. After all, it had been my first real kiss.

For about a billion reasons, I was grateful when Pearl appeared in the hall, telling me she was taking me home. Although I hated being shuffled around like I had no say in what I was doing, after what had gone down with Mack and then Jax, I wasn’t against getting out of the bar and clearing my head of the nasty and the not so nasty.

I’d grabbed my purse and said my good-byes to Clyde. On the way out, I told myself not to look for Jax, and I managed to listen to that demand for about two seconds. At the door, I glanced at the busy bar. Jax was there with Roxy. Both were smiling and laughing as they were working the customers.

Roxy looked up, giving me a quick, distracted wave, which I returned.

Jax didn’t even look up.

A twinge of unease, and something far more annoying and ridiculous, lit up my chest. I stomped the feeling down as I followed Pearl outside and focused on getting my car back ASAP the next day.

Pearl chatted idly as she drove me to the house, once again without me having to give her directions. I liked her, and being that she was probably the same age as my mom, I kind of imagined that this was what my mom would look like if she hadn’t decided to go traipsing through trashville.

When Pearl arrived at the house, she stopped me before I climbed out. “Oh, I almost forget.” Stretching back against the seat of her older-model Honda, she pulled out a wad of cash. “The boys who ordered the wings left you a tip.”

Ah, the cop table. Smiling, I took the money, already knowing that it was way too much for a normal tip. “Thank you.”

“No problem. Now get your butt inside and get some rest.” She flashed a big smile.

I opened the door. “Drive safe.”

Pearl nodded and she waited until I’d unlocked the door and stepped inside. Flipping on the hallway light, I tried to ignore the nostalgic feeling washing over me. My eyes closed and I was transported back to when I was sixteen, coming home late from spending the evening with Clyde at the bar. I didn’t have to imagine the sound of Mom’s laugh. She always had a good laugh—boisterous and throaty, the kind of laugh that drew people to her, but the downside of her laugh was she didn’t do it often. And when she did, it usually meant she was flying so high she could lick the clouds.

That night had been bad.

The house had been packed with her friends, other overgrown children who probably had real kids at home and were more interested in partying than being responsible.

I walked down the hallway, seeing what had been there five years ago. Some stranger dude passed out on the living room floor. Mom on the couch, bottle in her hand; another guy I’d never seen before had his face buried in her neck and a hand between her legs.

The guy on the floor hadn’t moved.

Mom had barely been aware that I was home. It had been the guy all up on her that had noticed and they had called me to join in, to party. I’d gone upstairs and had wanted to pretend that they weren’t there.

Except that guy on the floor still hadn’t moved for an hour, and finally someone in the house had grown concerned.

He’d been dead for God knows how long.

I stared at the spot near the couch, shuddering, because I could see the guy there still. Shirtless. Dirtied jeans. He lay facedown and his arms were awkward at his sides. People had bailed out of the house faster than I could blink, leaving Mom and me alone with a dead guy on the living room floor. Police had shown. It hadn’t been pretty. Paperwork had been filed, but no one from child services showed. No one came around. Not a real big surprise there.

Mom had gotten cleaned up after that . . . well, for a few months.

That had been a good couple of months.

Shaking my head, I dropped my purse on the couch and pushed those thoughts away. I reached into my pocket, grabbing a hair tie, and pulled my hair up into a quick twist.

Not wanting to spend another night on the couch and not up to staying upstairs, I finally caved and stripped the sheets off the bed downstairs and threw them in the washer with the blanket I’d found in the upstairs linen closet, resisting the urge to Lysol the hell out of the mattress. The only thing stopping me was that the mattress seemed relatively new, and there were no suspicious stains or smells radiating from it.

Feeling antsy and full of energy instead of tired, I cleaned up Mom’s bedroom, throwing everything that looked like trash in the black garbage bags I’d found in the pantry, and then placed the bags on the back porch. There hadn’t been any clothes in the tall dresser and the vanity, something I hadn’t checked before, and there were just a few jeans and sweaters in the closet. What I found on the floor didn’t add up to a full wardrobe.

Further proof that Mom really had hit the road.

I didn’t know what to think about that or how to feel. She stole from me, throwing a major wrench into my life. She’d stolen from others. And she was out there, either freaking out or so messed up she didn’t even know what she’d done.

Digging the money out of my pocket, I counted out thirty bucks and added that to the twenty dollars the cops had left. That amount seemed excessive, and probably had more to do with pity than my service, but fifty in tips my first night wasn’t bad. I stashed the cash in my wallet after moving my purse into the downstairs bedroom.

Sighing wearily, I made up the bed and put away the clothes I’d brought with me. I took a quick shower and dried off in what Mom used to call her “cozy” bathroom. Cozy, because if you spread your legs and stretched out your arms, you could pretty much touch the sink, bathtub, and toilet.

As I turned to head out into the bedroom, the fogged-over mirror caught my attention. I don’t know why I did what I did next. It had been years since I even briefly entertained the idea, but I leaned forward, swiping my hand across the mirror, clearing it.

Maybe it was the stress of everything going on. Maybe it was what the guy—Mack—had said at the bar. Maybe it was Jax and his kiss. Probably the kiss, but it didn’t matter, because I was doing what I was doing.