Letting him serve the beers, I dusted the neon ‘BEER’ sign. Then I went on to brush and vacuum the pool table felt. After that, I cleaned the jukebox with antibacterial spray, scrubbed the restrooms with bleach, and then sponged down all the windows before getting rid of the excess water with a squeegee.
As I was returning the cleaning supplies to the closet, Sherry sidled up to me with a huff. “What’s wrong, Kensey? Don’t tell me nothing. You’ve been like Martha Stewart on crack all afternoon. The men’s restrooms are so pristine, you could eat in there—probably even off the floor itself.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it.” The very idea, even in jest, made me shudder.
“Are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”
Even if I’d wanted to blow her off, I couldn’t. It was pretty obvious that I was stressed. “Yes, I’ll tell you.” I needed to update Clear, Sherry, Dodger, and Cade on the Linton situation anyway. “Family meeting at my Mom’s place?”
“I’ll be there. Call her and arrange it.”
Going into the breakroom, I called Clear. She was more than happy to have us all over for dinner later, not sounding the slightest bit uneasy that I was calling a meeting. Apparently, she was still convinced of what she’d said in the library that day. Probably even thought I was going to announce that the problem was officially gone.
Just as I was about to return the phone to my locker, it began to ring. Seeing that it was Blake, I smiled and answered, “Hey.”
“Hey, baby,” he said in that rumbly, velvety voice. “I’ve shuffled some things around, but I still won’t finish up today until around seven-thirty.”
Leaning against the wall, I said, “That’s fine. I’m going to my mother’s house for dinner at six-thirty. Sherry, Dodger, and Cade will meet me there so I can give them an update.”
There was a long pause, and I wondered if he was unhappy to hear that Cade would be there. “All right,” Blake finally said, sounding a little stiff. “What time do you think you’ll be done?”
“Probably around eight. It’ll take a while to make my mother settle once she hears what’s been going on.”
“Okay, drive straight to my place afterwards.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask how his lunch with Tara and Bastien went, but I held back. “See you then.”
“See you then, baby.”
The rest of my shift went by pretty fast, and soon enough I was slipping on my jacket and retrieving my purse from the locker. Walking out of the bar, I spotted Rossi’s car in the lot. No Silver Sedan anywhere, though. The only person hanging around was Cade, who called my name when he saw me. I stopped, but his footsteps were hesitant as he approached, glancing around us nervously.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
He gave me a too-quick smile. “I’m good.” He folded his arms across his chest. “You sure about Blake? It’s your business, I know. But I’ve heard things, Kensey.”
“What sort of things?”
He glanced around us again. “Not things I’d feel comfortable sharing in case I had to deal with the kind of blowback that puts a guy in hospital. He has a lot of shady connections. And I know that some of the men who work for him are ex-cons.”
I wondered if Rossi was one of those men. “If they’ve paid their debt to society—”
Cade snickered. “No one really pays the debt they owe to society anymore. The system doesn’t work, but that’s off topic. Look, if I believed that Blake would harm you, I’d share everything I heard. But I don’t think he would. He can protect you. He has the means and power to do it, which is why part of me is glad that you have him around you right now. But if what I’ve heard is true … Maybe you’d be able to overlook it—I don’t know. I mean, you’re no spun glass princess. You learned early that the world isn’t an innocent place. But I think it might hit you hard, even if just for a few moments.” He put a hand on my upper arm. “Just be prepared, okay?”
I nodded. “Okay.”
His smile was strained. “See you at your mom’s place.”
With my imagination going stir crazy, I crossed to my car. I gave Rossi a quick wave before climbing inside. I’d wanted to press Cade to share more, but pressing him on anything was fruitless. He wasn’t warning me away from Blake, so what he’d heard couldn’t be that bad, right? Cade just wanted me to be “prepared.”
But for what?
I knew the moment I stepped into my mother’s kitchen and smelled garlic, onions, and tomatoes that she’d made spaghetti bolognaise. One of my favorite meals. I almost fell to my knees in gratitude.
Instead, I put a hand to my rumbling stomach. “Damn, I’m starving.”
Clear smiled. “You won’t be for much longer.”
“Need me to set the table or anything?”
“It’s already done, sweetie, but thanks. What do you want to drink?”
“Check the fridge.”
After I poured myself a glass, I sat at the kitchen island as she pottered around. To look at the airy kitchen, no one would think she’d just cooked a meal. There were no crumbs or spills on the granite counter; no dirty pans or cooking implements in the aluminum sink. She was already way ahead on the cleaning.
I didn’t bother offering my help. Clear had her own way of doing things, and she didn’t like anyone interfering.
“Before everyone gets here, why don’t you tell me about Blake Mercier.” She took a moment to check on one of the herb pots near the sink. I’d actually made the pot itself in elementary school, so it wasn’t the best quality, but Clear loved it. “You said you weren’t dating him, but the things I recently heard tell a different story.”
“When you last asked about him, I wasn’t dating him.” Instead of telling her about the ‘arrangement,’ I added, “I originally didn’t intend to have anything at all to do with him. He just wouldn’t let it go.”
Clear’s face went all dreamy. “He pursued you.”
“Not in a romantic way. He was pushy and annoying.”
Her lips thinned. “He just wanted sex.”
“But that’s changed?”
Folding my arms on the table, I rested my chin on them. “Yes.”
“How much do you like him?”
I thumbed a bead of condensation from my glass. “A lot.”
She stared at me, her lips pursed. “I’d like to meet him.”
“That’s good. He wants to meet you.”
“He does? Interesting.”
“Invite him to come for dinner on Sunday.”
Lifting my head, I sighed. “All right, but just don’t ask him what his damn intentions are or something weird like that. This is early stages. We’re feeling our way. I don’t need you scaring him by talking marriage or kids.”
She snickered. “If I scare him off, it just shows he’s not good enough for you.”
“And please don’t talk about Michael.”
Now she looked hurt. “Why not?”
“Blake knows about him, but that doesn’t mean I want you shoving it under his nose, talking like we’re one big, happy family.” It would just be weird and uncomfortable.