It had also become a Sunday night ritual for Clyde and me, and sometimes when Mom was around and had her head on straight, she’d take part.
I smiled as I watched him unload the bags. This was so familiar, and I had missed this. Missed having someone who felt like family even though they weren’t blood.
In that moment, something came unhinged in my chest. I didn’t get it, but suddenly I was uncomfortable. Not with what was happening now, but what had been happening the last couple of years.
Tears burned the back of my eyes. I didn’t know why. It was dumb. I was back to everything being dumb.
Clyde pulled out a head of lettuce. “You know what to do, baby girl, so get your ass over here and start chopping.”
I dragged myself over to the counter, swallowing back tears. I will not cry. I will not lose control. My cheeks were damp.
“I didn’t pick up that Mexican cheese blend. We are gonna do this from . . . Aw, baby girl.” Clyde put down the block of cheese and twisted his big body toward me. “What are those tears for?” he asked.
Lifting my shoulder, I wiped at my cheeks as I whispered, “I don’t know.”
“Is it your mother?” Those large hands were gentle against my face, his fingers calloused from years of work as they chased after the tears. “Or is it the boys? Kevin and Tommy?”
I sucked in a rattled breath. I never thought about them or that night when the entire world burned in bright oranges and red. Not to be cold or uncaring, but it was too hard to think about them, because I could barely remember what they looked like, but I remembered their coffins, especially Tommy’s. So I refused to even think their names, but their names were cycling over and over again.
“Or is it everything?” he prodded gently.
God, Clyde knew me. Squeezing my eyes shut, I nodded. “Everything.”
“Baby girl,” he’d murmured against the top of my head after he pulled me to him, enveloping me in one of his big bear hugs. “Everything might seem like it’s too big, but it ain’t. You’ve seen and been through worse, baby girl.”
“I know,” I agreed. My breath hiccupped as I struggled to rein my emotions back in. “It’s just that . . . this is so familiar. We did this for years, and I never thought we’d do it again. Or that I’d be standing here and working at Mona’s. I was going to be a nurse. I had it all figured out.” And none of it included a guy like Jax or making tacos with Uncle Clyde, but I didn’t share that. “I don’t have it all figured out anymore.”
Clyde patted my back like a baby that needed to be burped, but I loved it. “Calla-girl, you’re a lot of things, a lot of beautiful things rolled up into one. You’re strong. You got a good head on your shoulders. You’re still gonna be a nurse. This ain’t going to be your life. You still got it figured out.”
I nodded, but he’d gotten it wrong. The hysteria wasn’t because I was disappointed at the way my life had veered waaay off course or because of that nightmarish night. Not that I wouldn’t prefer some aspects, namely the he**in and Mom being in trouble, to be different, but I wasn’t crying because of that.
That wasn’t the reason for the tears. I was crying because all of this was familiar and the familiarity had made me happy.
It had been a week since the night Greasy Guy had shown up at my mom’s house and left with a fortune’s worth of heroin. There hadn’t been any more visits like that and that could be because there was always some random dude at my house. Okay. The guys weren’t random. It was either Clyde or Jax.
On my days off, it was Clyde duty and when I went back to work on Wednesday, it was Jax who followed me home, which had surprised me a little. During my time off, I hadn’t heard from him. Not once. I knew he had access to my cell number, because I had to list mine in the office, next to everyone’s phone numbers in case of emergencies.
Granted, I hadn’t tried to get in touch with him, either, because I told myself that would’ve been pointless and dumb. And I was trying to avoid all things dumb, but I’d actually looked forward to returning to Mona’s on Wednesday, and that was kind of dumb.
So I failed like a giant whale at avoiding dumb.
On my days off, Jax didn’t exist, but on Wednesday when I’d come in and he’d already been there, inspecting receipts at the desk when I entered the office to stow my purse, he’d looked up, grinned, and called me honey.
And then he’d acted like he had Saturday when we last worked together, flirty and charming . . . and touchy. But he still acted like he hadn’t told me he wanted to get to know me in the inappropriate biblical sense.
Maybe he’d changed his mind since then, had woken up that day with a good old-fashioned case of morning wood and wanted to get laid.
And I was okay with him changing his mind.
That wasn’t why I’d put effort into my hair and makeup and clothing again today. It was for the tips.
Jax was here now, but he was back in the office doing God knows what, and I felt like I should be back there because this was my mom’s bar, but before I could act on that, Reece approached the bar. Sometimes when I saw Reece, I thought about my brother Kevin. He’d been fascinated with firemen and police officers. There’d been a good chance that if he’d been allowed to grow up, if heaven hadn’t needed angels, he would’ve been a cop or a fireman.
No more than a second after Reece reached the bar, Roxy spun on her heel and pretended to be dusting bottles or some crap. This wasn’t the first time she’d done that.
Every time Reece was in the bar, which seemed to be whenever he wasn’t working, which also seemed often, Roxy bounced like a rubber ball. And it was obvious.
“Hey,” Reece said to me, but his eyes were on Roxy’s back. “Can I get two Buds?”
“Yeppers.” I tilted my head to the left as I grabbed the chilled bottles. Popping off the caps, I handed them over. “On a tab?”
“Works for me.” His gaze finally shifted back to me. He had pretty blue eyes—vibrant and almost startling in depth. “So, you’re really sticking around?”
Since Reece didn’t look at me like he looked at Roxy, who still had her back to him, I wasn’t self-conscious. Well, not really. It was like talking to Cam, Jase, or Ollie. In other words, hot guys who had eyes for only one female and didn’t care if I looked like the cousin of the Joker.
Worked for me.
“Yeah, at least until the end of the summer.” The words sounded weird to my ears, and I wasn’t sure why.
“Cool.” He leaned against the bar, head cocked to the side. He had a wonderful jaw and bone structure. And I was easily distracted. “This bar has really changed since Jax stepped in.”
I had to agree with that. “When I lived here, Mom had some . . . um, real winners working the bar.”
Reece laughed, and it was a nice laugh. “I’m pretty sure we have files at the sheriff’s office on the f**kers she had working in here.”
My lips twitched. “Probably true.”
He grinned, and a dimple appeared in his left cheek. “See you in a little bit.”
Roxy waited to make her way over to me until Reece was back at the table near where a pretty serious-looking game of pool was going down. I glanced at her as I tossed the caps into the trash. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Why do you walk away every time Reece comes up to the bar?”
She pulled off her huge glasses for what had to be the first time since I’d met her and wiped the lenses off with the hem of her tank top. Without the glasses, I got a good look at her face. The girl was literally as cute as a pile of kittens sleeping together. Tiny, pert nose and baby-doll-looking lips, paired with big brown eyes. Those bow-shaped lips pursed.
“I don’t serve him,” she said as she placed her glasses back on.
Before I could further explore that statement, the words “Calla-freaking-Fritz?” were shouted from the door of the bar. “You really are working here!”
I spun to where the sound traveled from, and at first I had no idea what I was seeing standing there.
It was a life-sized Barbie.
If Barbie had smaller boobs and dressed like a stripper.
The female prancing toward the bar was wearing some kind of skintight Lycra dress that covered her from her butt cheeks to her boobs, and nothing else. It looked like someone had taken a bedazzler to the dress. She was as sparkly as a disco ball on New Year’s Eve.
Her blond hair was blown out and large and as she hurried toward me on sky-high shoes that had see-through heels in them; her hair flowed like she was strutting down the runway.
As she got closer and her big smile spread, I started to see past the glitter on her cheekbones and eyelids. I recognized her.
“Katie?” I placed my hands on the bar, stunned.
“You recognized me!” She stopped and then did something in those heels that I’d break my neck doing. She jumped, bouncing as she clapped excitedly. “No one recognizes me!”
I could see how. Katie Barbara had been a quiet girl in high school. Some would’ve called her different. She’d always brought her lunch in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, straight through senior year. She always had her nose in a book and always wore floppy hats that at some point during the day a teacher always made her take off. I vaguely remembered her giving a speech in English class in the third person. Throughout school, her hair had been a multitude of colors—blond, brown, black, purple, and fire engine red. Pink had been a favorite, though, and still was, because now I could see that the ends of her hair were dipped pink, matching her dress.
“You do look . . . different,” I said, at a loss for what to say.
“Of course I do. I got one with my body.” She slid her hands down the sides of said body as she did a little shimmy. “Did a little makeover.”
Roxy giggled from somewhere behind me.
“You look great.” Disco ball dresses weren’t my thing, but Katie did look hot. Hot in a way that probably had guys doing stupid things just to get close to her. Very different from high school, and I wondered what our classmates thought of her now.
“You look the same. The scar has faded a lot. You can barely see it with makeup on,” Katie said, and Roxy sucked in a breath as Katie popped down on the empty seat in front of me.
I realized she hadn’t changed completely. She was still painfully blunt. Not rude. Just had no filter whatsoever. I smiled instead of letting the comment get to me, because I knew it wasn’t coming from a bad place. “Yeah.”
She popped her tan elbows on the bar and rested her chin in her palm. “I can’t believe you’re back in town, working at your mom’s bar. I thought you were off doing bigger and better things.”
Well, this was awkward. It was like the kid who partied so hard they failed at college coming home with their tail between their legs. “I’m here for the summer.”
“Visiting Mom of the Year?”
Roxy sucked in another sharp breath and whispered, “Daaammmn.”
Again, Katie was as blunt as my fingernail. “I was planning on it, but she hasn’t been around.”
“That’s probably a blessing in disguise, girl.” Her blue eyes rolled. “I think it’s cool you’re back.”
“Thanks.” I bit down on my lip as I glanced at Roxy. She was grinning at Katie. “So what have you been doing?”
Katie leaned back on the stool as she waved her hands around her body. “Um, what does it look like? Not working in an office.”
I thought she looked like she was a stripper, but if that wasn’t the case, then I really didn’t want to throw that out there.
“She works across the street,” Roxy explained, leaning against the counter. “At the club.”
Oh. Double oh. So she was a stripper.
Katie giggled as she batted thick and long lashes at me. “I absolutely love it.”
“Let me tell you, most girls do. This whole you only strip because you have daddy issues?” She flicked her wrist dismissively. “I strip because dumbass guys pay me to flash some skin when they can get that shit for free at home, and I make damn good money doing it.”
Well, if she was happy doing it, then whatever. I smiled. “Sounds good.”
“But you?” Those lashes batted again. “Working at a bar? I didn’t think you drank at all,” she stated, her glossy pink lips turning down at the corners in confusion. “Have you ever been drunk?”
I didn’t get drunk. Well, because of Mom. I could feel Roxy’s eyes on me. “I will drink a beer or two, but I’ve never been drunk.”
“What?” Roxy all but shouted.
Reece and the boys looked up from their tables. I lowered my voice as I felt my cheeks burn. “Well, it’s probably good that I don’t really drink since I’m working at a bar.”
Roxy gaped at me. “You’ve never known the wonders of being shitfaced?”
“Getting tipsy is fun . . .” Katie trailed off as a good-looking man, maybe in his late twenties, saddled up to the bar.
“Whiskey. Straight up,” he ordered, his gaze flickering over me and then to Roxy, who reached for the short glass.
Katie’s gaze started at the tips of the man’s dark-colored boots, up his jeans, white shirt, and traveled straight up to his wavy ash-blond hair. “Damn, I’d like to get tipsy with that.”
The guy gave her a long, lingering look—a purely male look I’d seen tossed around a lot during my short time at the bar, that said he was all about seeing her naked. He then grinned before turning back, heading for the table Reece was sitting at.