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Lena’s escape from her abusive husband has brought her to Jackson, and he clearly wants to be there for her, but can she trust anyone again after what she’s gone through? And will Jackson be able to help her heal without losing his heart?
I finished checking Derrick’s figures from last night and headed to my guitar but turned when movement by the door caught my gaze.
“We’re closed.” The words automatically spit out of my mouth as the shape of a body appeared in the doorway that I’d accidentally left ajar.
“Oh. Sorry. The door was open. I didn’t realize.” With her hand clutched to the top of a raincoat, she turned to leave.
Why was she wearing a raincoat? The sun was shining last I looked. “Wait,” I caught myself saying before I considered the reasons. I didn’t have any, other than the fact that she looked like she was in pain. The lighting in the room was dim. I hadn’t bothered to open the blinds at the front windows yet since the pub didn’t open for another couple of hours. Bar stools were still propped upside down on the bar from the floor cleaning the night before. “I guess it’s okay to come in. We’ll be open any minute.” That was a lie, but I didn’t know what else to say. She looked so helpless I didn’t have the heart to turn her away.
I swiped my hand through my thick black hair, thinking I should have pulled it back into a ponytail. Instead, it hung down the back of my neck and onto my shoulders. It was the longest it had ever been, and it irritated me when I did any physical work like the mundane task of balancing out a register—usually my younger brother’s job—or mixing cocktails.
Instead of telling her the pub wasn’t open for business yet, I decided to let her come in. There was something not right with her, the way she walked, slowly and carefully, as if she were injured. I pulled a stool down from the bar and placed it on the floor. I gestured for her to sit and then walked behind the bar. She clutched her coat closed as she hesitated but then slowly walked to the stool. Her hands shook as she placed her bag down on the bar, and I decided it might be interesting to play bartender for a while.
“What can I get you?” I placed a napkin down in front of her.
“Coffee, please.” She kept her head down, holding onto her dark glasses as if she could hide the bruise that protruded from under them.
I took a bottle of Jameson’s down from the shelf, poured some into a shot glass, and set it in front of her.
“I said coffee.” Her voice was soft and trembled as she spoke, and she looked around the place as if making sure no one else was there that she knew.
“Yeah, I know.” I kept my voice soft, hoping she realized I meant no harm. “But you look like you could use this.” I stood with the bottle still in my hand.
She glanced back at the open door. “I don’t drink. I mean, at least not at nine in the morning.”
“Well, I think you should make an exception in this case. Hell, if it makes you feel better, I’ll have one too.” So I poured another, picked it up, and waited for her to pick hers up and join me.
“I don’t think …” The words came out slowly, and she paused and looked at me. “Do I look that bad?”
“Well, okay,” her voice timid, she raised the glass, and I clinked mine against hers.
“Bottoms up.” We emptied the glasses, and I poured her a cup of coffee. I decided to be bold and go all out. “So, where’d you get the shiner?”
“I was hoping it would be dark enough in here that no one would notice.” She pulled off the glasses, and glanced back at the door, again.
“Ouch.” I couldn’t help the cringe at the sight of the black eye. “Let me get some ice for that.”
“Thanks, but not necessary. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
I didn’t acknowledge her objection. Instead, I filled a plastic bag with ice, wrapped it in a towel, and handed it to her. “Hold it on there for a good fifteen minutes. It’ll help the swelling go down.”
I strolled to the front door and shut it, turning the lock. Her shoulders relaxed a bit.
I studied her, waiting for her to answer how she scored the shiner. I decided that even with the black eye, she was a damn attractive girl. Her reddish-brown hair, lying loose around her face—most likely to help hide her eye—would be as smooth as silk once it met a brush again. She was thin, maybe too thin. She was running from something or someone. No one, especially a beautiful woman, comes walking into my bar—well, any bar, for that matter—at nine o’clock in the morning with a shiner double the size of a silver dollar, clutching her coat closed while hobbling over to a seat. I wondered what was under her coat, perhaps a nightgown, sweats—or nothing.
When she hadn’t answered my question, I went for a different approach.
“So, how does the other guy look?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah … ah, the other guy … not so good.” She shook her head slowly and stared straight ahead, lost in her own thoughts.
She raised her hand to her face. Her cheeks flushed a little pink. “Um … no.” She was silent for a few seconds, then piped up as if she’d just remembered something. “There was no other guy. I was in a car accident this morning.”
I figured she was lying, particularly when I caught sight of the large handprint on her wrist protruding from the sleeve of her coat.
“I don’t mean to sound nosey, but have you seen a doctor yet? You could have some serious injuries, you know. The way you walked over here, it looks as if you may have a broken rib—or at least cracked—maybe two.”
“I’ll be all right.” She sipped the coffee as she held the ice pack up to her eye and sat in silence. She took her coffee black. I appreciated that. I’d never understood how someone could ruin a great cup of coffee with cream and sugar. She looked around the pub. Her gaze settled on the stage.
“You have live music here?” she asked.
“Yeah, we do. A couple of nights a week, sometimes more. Mostly on Friday and Saturday nights—some local boys and myself. It helps bring in the tourists.”
She smiled and sipped her coffee again, and when she set the cup down, I topped it off.
“Thanks, um … Where’s the restroom?”
I pointed behind her. “Over there, past the stage.”
She strolled slowly across the room. I considered offering her a hand but decided to hold back. She didn’t seem open to accepting any help, but I detected a lot of fear underneath that tough exterior. My interest piqued as she stopped briefly to look at my guitar on the stage as she passed by.