Ben stopped with his beer halfway to his mouth. “Why not?”
When Jack didn’t answer, Ben swore and set down his beer. “Don’t ask me how you can be the smartest guy I know and the most stupid at the same time.”
“You know we’re not a real thing.”
Ben gave an impressive eye roll.
“You thought it was stupid that we pretended,” Jack said.
“No. I thought it was stupid that you didn’t just go for it.”
Jack took a long pull of his beer. “You’re going to have to repeat that because I think you just suggested I should be with Leah for real. Leah.”
“Yeah, you keep saying that. Yeah, it’s Leah, who you’ve had a thing for since…well, ever.”
Jack shook his head. “What is this? It’s not like you’re exactly a relationship king. You haven’t been in a relationship since Hannah died five years ago. You’re no better at getting yourself into this shit than I am.”
Ben shrugged. “At least when it came my way, I went for it.”
Jack stared at him and then laughed. “Let me get this straight. You’re saying if the right woman came your way, you’d take a shot at another relationship?”
Ben’s attention drifted to the bar. Jack followed his cousin’s gaze to a beautiful blonde sitting there alone, nursing something clear out of a shot glass.
“Well, there’s a bad idea,” Jack said with a shake of his head. “Tangling with her.”
“Yeah?” Ben asked lazily. “Why’s that?”
“She’s got claws.” Jack looked at him. “You know this. Remember how she was in school?”
“I also remember how we were.”
“We were wild, not mean.”
Ben didn’t look concerned as he rose, dropped cash on the table, and headed out into the night.
“Gee,” Jack said, getting to his feet as well. “Guess we’re done here.”
He left the bar too, but Ben was nowhere in sight. This wasn’t so unusual when it came to his cousin, but it was still irritating. Jack grabbed Kevin from where he’d been happily sleeping in the truck. Kevin’s favorite thing—after eating or taking a shit on the neighbor’s lawn—was going for a walk on the beach.
After that, inexplicably, they ended up standing in front of the bakery. It was closed, of course. But Jack could see a light on in the back, and with a frown, he walked around to the alley. The back door was ajar, and he stepped close to hear a voice muttering softly.
She had her back to him as she stood at the cooking island whipping something into a froth. “Okay, cookie dough,” she said, “listen up. Just because I’m giving you to Jack doesn’t mean I’m giving a piece of me to Jack.” She added something from a smaller bowl and went back to whipping. “Because I’m not. I might be a little broken, but no one’s getting any of my pieces. Not even if…” More from yet another bowl. “A piece of me—or two—really wants to be given.”
Jack wasn’t sure how to acknowledge the emotion that went through him at her words, uttered with good humor but also with a sort of grim truth. He’d known she cared about him deeply. Just as he’d known that she didn’t know how to deal with those feelings. He’d known all of it, and he’d even known why. He’d accepted it. Hell, he was responsible for the rules in the first place. But hearing her talk about her broken pieces killed him. “Leah.”
With a shriek she whirled around, her whisk held out in front of her like a weapon. “Jack!” she gasped. “You scared me.”
“Stay,” he said to Kevin, and to make sure he did, Jack tied the leash to the back porch railing before entering the kitchen. “What are you doing here this late?”
“Making black-and-white cookies.” She paused and then shrugged. “For your mom’s nurses.”
Again emotion swelled, and he stepped into her, taking the bowl from her hands and setting it aside. “Why?”
Leah met his gaze. Her heart was still pounding, but not from fright. “That’s what people who care about each other do,” she finally said. “They help each other out.”
She drew a deep breath and let it out. She wasn’t exactly sure what was wrong between them, but she knew it was her fault. “Friends,” she said.
Jack expressed polite, doubtful surprise with one quirk of his dark brow.
“We are friends,” she said, then hesitated. “Aren’t we?”
“We’re more than naked friends,” she said and then bit her lip, because why had she said that? Why had she gone there?
Jack studied her for a long moment, and she knew he could see her nerves. “Talk to me, Leah.”
“I’m a bit of a mess. No surprise there though, right?” She turned from him, and wiping her hands on her apron, walked to her purse hanging on a hook by the door. From it, she pulled out the stack of cards she’d sent him throughout the years, the ones she’d found in the nightstand by his bed.
He looked down at them for a beat. “What are you doing with those?”
“The question is, what are you doing with them?”
“You sent them to me,” he said simply.
And to him, it was that simple.
In fact, the only person who’d ever complicated this, the most important relationship in her life, was herself. She ran her fingers over the envelopes postmarked from all the places she’d been. She could still remember where she’d bought him each and every card, how she’d felt when she’d signed it and sent it off.
In the past she’d always shrugged that part off because she’d left Lucky Harbor. She’d been the one to go. So how could she get homesick for a place, a man, she’d willingly walked away from? “You missed me,” she said.
He shrugged, and her gaze flew to his, catching the light of teasing in his. “Maybe a little,” he said.
“I missed you,” she admitted. “More than I wanted to.”
He gave a slow head shake. “Leah, you don’t have to do this.”
“I don’t want it to be pretend,” she whispered in a rush, the words tumbling out of her. “I know I said I did, that I promised that it was just that, but I lied. When I’m here in Lucky Harbor, it all feels right. I love it here. In this place, in this bakery. I love it here with you.”
He closed his eyes. “Leah—”
“I was just a stupid teenager, Jack. Too immature to know what I was running away from.”
He let out a long, slow breath. “You weren’t the only one.”
“What did you run from?”
“What I want. I always have.” He paused. “Ronald’s retiring.”
She blinked. “What?”
“Yeah, and he’s recommending me as his replacement. I have a formal interview for the job next week.”
She stared at him and felt a slow smile curve her mouth. “Oh, Jack,” she breathed. “It’s perfect for you. Just what you’ve always wanted.”
He stared down at her for a long beat, saying nothing, then he laughed real low and quiet. “Hell if you don’t drive me absolutely crazy, even as you get me like no one else.”
She still held the whisk. Her other arm wound around his neck. “I drive you crazy? In a good way, right?”
“No,” he said, but he smiled a little, hooked an arm around her waist, and pulled her in.
“Hi,” she whispered.
“Hi.” Lifting her up, he set her on the counter. Holding her there, he reached out and dipped a finger into the bowl of batter at her hip.
“You want some chocolate?” she whispered.
“Yes.” He sucked it into his mouth and then took the whisk from her hand, setting it aside. And then he grasped the hem of her sweater and lifted it up over her head.
“What are you doing?”
Instead of answering, he dipped his finger back into the chocolate. Just as she might have said something about him double-dipping, he painted a streak of chocolate across her collarbone.
“Uh—” she started, but then he flicked open her bra and finger-painted her already hardened nipples.
And then he licked every inch of the chocolate off her, by which time she was attempting to tug off his clothes.
“Not here,” he said, holding her off.
“Oh my God,” she said. “You and your not here.” But he was right; they were in the bakery kitchen, for God’s sake. Panting, she looked around. “The office.”
Lifting her up, he walked with her wrapped around him to the office. He set her down on the desk, right on top of the stack of bills she had to pay. “Lift up,” he said, and tugged down her leggings, taking everything off, including her boots and panties.
He cupped her face and tipped it to his for a hot kiss as he nudged her legs open. Then he dropped to his knees and slid his palms up her inner thighs.
She could feel his breath against her and she slid her fingers into his hair, unable to look away as he put his mouth on her. When he did something cleverly diabolical with his tongue, her breath hitched and her head fell back.
Jack never failed to take her right out of herself, out of everything she knew, detonating the careful distance she liked to put between herself and what she was experiencing.
With Jack, there was no distance. He didn’t allow it. He had her right where he wanted her, legs splayed by his broad shoulders, hands gripping her possessively, his tongue making her writhe. She couldn’t be more vulnerable to him, and in that moment, on the very edge of a steep, slippery precipice, she couldn’t care.
“You taste better than the chocolate,” he murmured against her and gently sucked in exactly the right spot at exactly the right rhythm, essentially flinging her off a cliff. As her release washed over her, she felt him press a kiss to her inner thigh before rising to his feet. Towering over her, he scooted her back a little and crawled up her body, making her moan as her achingly sensitive nipples grazed his chest. She clutched him to her and kissed him. Somewhere along the way he’d lost his clothes and put on a condom. Taking over the kiss, he slid inside her. “Leah.”
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