It was the right way.

She usually admired the hell out of that. “He was our manager,” she finally said, “and then, when I stopped playing, Jase’s manager.”

He stroked a hand down her hair. “He’s the one who hurt you,” he said.

She pressed her face harder into his throat and concentrated on just breathing him in. He smelled like the sea, like the wood he’d sanded earlier. He smelled like her, too, and that actually made her smile, but then suddenly she was all choked up.

Sam merely tightened his hold on her in a way that made her feel safe and warm and cherished, and gave her the moment she so desperately needed.

“He was a longtime family friend,” she said. “I had this big, fat, painful crush on him. Always did, from the time I was seventeen. He was the one who talked me into staying in music when I had that growth spurt and kept fumbling.”

“How old was he back then?”


He gently pulled her face from its hiding zone and looked into her eyes. “You were seventeen, and he was. . .?”


“Big age difference for a crush.”

“Maybe that was part of it for me,” she said. Compared with Jase, or the boys her own age, Nathan had been a grown-up. He’d been smart and funny, and so damn handsome . . .

“He went for you,” Sam said. Not a question, a statement of fact.

“Not until I turned twenty-one. We . . . dated, a little bit. Nothing serious.” That hadn’t come until later.

“He kept you playing.”

“Yes,” she said. “Until after we broke up. After that, not even God could have kept me playing. But Nathan gave it his best shot.”

“Tell me,” he said, his dark, mossy-green eyes never leaving hers.

She drew an unsteady breath of warm, protective Sam and found the courage to keep speaking about it. “We’d been dating again,” she said. “More serious then, much more. We were exclusive. And I did try to play. I tried for Nathan, for Jase, for everyone. But I couldn’t do it.”

“Let me guess. Nathan didn’t like that.”

“It frustrated him. I frustrated him,” she admitted. “He got . . . different. Unhappy.” Mean, she thought. “I left him,” she said. “And it got a little ugly.”

Sam gently tilted her face and looked down at her, his expression quiet, steady. “How ugly?”

She closed her eyes, the memories she’d managed to mostly bury over the years coming back to her. She swallowed hard. “Ugly. I refused to give in to pressure and stay with him. But he was a family friend, and our paths continued to cross. A lot. He was big in my parents’ life, in Jase’s life, and he was important to his career as well, so I did my best to keep things as friendly as possible.”

“It’s bullshit that you had to do that.”

She opened her eyes. Sam’s gaze wasn’t his usual calm now. “I don’t know a lot about family,” he said, “but I do know that the loyalty should have gone to you.”

“Yes, but you don’t understand. We were all like family. Nathan’s mom and dad had gone to college with my mom and dad. All of us were tight, real tight—”

“Still bullshit,” Sam said. “Tell me more about the ugly business.”

She stared at his chest. His broad chest. There was a lot of strength in his body, and he’d honed it well, both on and off the water with physical labor. And yet she wasn’t afraid of that strength because he knew he’d never use it against her. He’d never push her around in anger and try to take what he wanted, especially if it wasn’t what she wanted. He’d never—

“Becca,” Sam said, cupping her face, drawing her attention back to the here and now.

“There were a lot of family gatherings,” she said. “My parents throw a big shindig on Sunday nights, and everyone goes. After I left Nathan, I stopped attending so he wouldn’t have to.”

Sam’s mouth tightened, telling her what he thought of her family allowing that to happen, but he didn’t say a word, just waited for her to continue.

“Last year, on my twenty-eighth birthday,” she said, “Mom and Dad and Jase talked me into having a party at their house.”

“Tell me they didn’t invite your ex to your own birthday party.”

“Like I said, he was a family friend, a really good one.”

“Shouldn’t have happened, babe.”

They were the words she hadn’t realized she needed to hear, and she let out a shuddery breath. “Nathan came. He said he wanted to hook up again, but I knew what he really wanted.”

“Which was?”

“Jase had been floundering since the last rehab attempt. He’d been showing up late to gigs, missing some altogether. . .”

Sam dropped his head, swearing softly beneath his breath before looking at her again. “Nathan wanted you to keep Jase in line.”


“Not your job.”

“But it was. It was my job, Sam,” she said when he swore again, not so softly. “That’s been my job my whole life. But Nathan also wanted me to try to play again. He thought that would help.”

“And you couldn’t,” Sam guessed.

“Neither one,” she said. “I tried to explain this to Nathan at the party, but he was drunk.”