Author: Jill Shalvis


“All of them.”


Maddie found a doily. “My ex is good-looking. And good in bed. And…” The shame of it reached up and choked her as she carefully folded the doily so it looked like a star. “And, as it turns out, violent.” She nodded to herself and set the “star” on top of the tree. Yep. Perfect. Especially if she scrunched up her eyes. “Which I guess makes him pretty damn flawed.”


There was a long beat of loaded silence. When she managed to turn to her sisters, both were looking at her with shock and rage and regret in their eyes.


“Is that who hit you?” Tara finally asked quietly. “Your ex?”


Maddie nodded, and Chloe let out a breath. “You hit him back, right?”


“And then called the police,” Tara said. “You called the police on him, didn’t you, sugar? Put him behind bars so he could be some big bubba’s bitch?”


No, she hadn’t. And it was hard to explain, even to herself. But it’d happened slow, the gradual teardown of her self-esteem until she’d no longer felt like Maddie Moore. She’d felt awkward and stupid and ugly.


Alex had done that.


No, scratch that. She’d let Alex do that to her, one careful, devastatingly cruel comment at a time before she’d walked out on him.


Without her confidence, without her savings, without anything.


It sounded so pathetic now, which she hated. “I dumped his coffee on his family jewels,” she said. “Ruined his new Hugo Boss suit, which was pretty satisfying, since he looked like he’d peed his pants.” Too bad her bosses hadn’t appreciated her show of feminism and she’d gotten fired.


Details. But for the first time, she shared them over a third bottle of wine, while they cleaned and decorated the cottage into the night.


And much later, lying under the tree together, the three of them stared up at the chili pepper lights and grinned like idiots.


Or that might have just been Maddie.


She couldn’t help it. The top of her head was bumping up against the scrawny trunk of the tree, and she was breathing in the scent of pine. Above her, she could see a set of barbecue tongs dangling off the branches next to a picture of Jon Bon Jovi, a whisk, a Tupperware lid, and a near-naked shot of a very young Johnny Depp. “I’ve never had a more beautiful tree,” she whispered reverently.


“That’s because you’re drunk, sugar. Drunk as a skunk.”


Chloe sighed dreamily. “I haven’t had a tree in years. Not since I left Mom’s when I was sixteen.”


Maddie sighed, too. They were as much strangers to each other as she was with Jax, really, and yet since arriving in Lucky Harbor, she’d never felt less alone. “I know you guys are out of here as soon as possible, but—”


“Maddie, darlin’,” Tara said softly. “No buts.”


“Just hear me out, okay? What if we refinanced? We could hire someone to renovate, and we could run the inn the way it should be run. And we have a part-time employee already in Lucille! Sure, she’s ancient, but Mom trusted her.”


“Mom trusted everyone.”


“My point is, we could probably even make decent money if we tried.”


“Do you have any idea what it takes to refinance these days?” Tara asked, ever the voice of reason. “We’d need a miracle.”


“Then we try to find out who Phoebe left all her money to in that trust. Obviously, it’s someone she cared about, which means this person cares about her in return. Maybe they’d be interested in investing in the inn. We could—”


“No,” Tara said harshly, and when both Maddie and Chloe stared at her, she closed her eyes. “Think about this logically, okay? Running an inn is a lot of work.” She waved her arms and nearly knocked the tree over. “And the marina, good Lord. Do either of you even know the first thing about boats or the ocean or—” She stopped because a spoon had fallen from a branch and hit her in the nose. “Ouch.”


“Mom wanted this.” Maddie reached up and removed a fork from the branches before it fell, too, and maybe poked out an eye. “She wanted this for us.”


Tara and Chloe lay there, silent. Silent and contemplative. Or so Maddie hoped. Exhausted, she let her eyes close, her thoughts drifting. She wanted this to work. She wanted it bad. So maybe her mother hadn’t tried to get close to her. Maybe her sisters hadn’t, either, and maybe, possibly, she’d even allowed her mother to rebuff her because it’d been easier. But now, right now when she’d needed an escape, one had appeared. “It’s meant to be,” she whispered, believing it.


For a long beat, no one said anything.


“My life is crazy,” Chloe said quietly. “And I like crazy. It doesn’t lend itself to responsibilities, and I’m sorry, Maddie, so very sorry, but this is a pretty big responsibility.”


“And my life is in Dallas,” Tara said. “I’m not a small-town girl, never have been.”


“I get that,” Maddie said. “But maybe we can put it all into motion, and I’ll run the place. Maybe I’ll send you both big fat checks every month. Maybe by this time next year, we’ll be celebrating.”


“That’s a lot of maybe-ing.”


“It could happen,” Maddie insisted. “With a little faith.”


“And a lot of credit card debt.”


Sitting up again, brushing pine needles out of her hair, Maddie went to the kitchen and came back with a Lucky Harbor phonebook. “I saw a bank right next to the Love Shack in town. I’ll go there tomorrow and see about refinancing.”


“What do they sell at this love shack?” Chloe wanted to know. “Is it a sex shop?”


“It’s a bar.”


“Even better,” Chloe said.


“I’m leaving here by the end of the week,” Tara warned. “Sooner, if I can manage it, with or without refinancing.”


“You really get hives in a place like this, huh?” Chloe asked.


“Sugar, you have no idea.”


Maddie had put her finger on a list of general contractors. “Two of them say they specialize in renovations.” She pulled out her Blackberry.


“Maddie,” Tara said.


“Just calling, that’s all.” She dialed the first.


“Isn’t it the middle of the night?” Chloe asked, looking out the window.


“Oh, yeah…” Still buzzed, Maddie grinned. “I’ll leave a message.” Except the number she’d dialed had been disconnected or was out of service. She punched in the numbers for the second listing, a JC Builders. “Hey,” she said to her sisters. “I got an answering machine, and it says they have a master carpenter on staff. A master!”


“She’s drunk dialing contractors,” Chloe said to Tara. “Someone should stop her.”


“Shh.” Maddie closed her eyes as she listened to a deep, masculine voice instructing her to leave a message. “Hi,” she said at the beep. “Potential new client here, looking for a master—er, renovation expert. We’re at Lucky Harbor Resort, at the end of Lucky Harbor Road, you can’t miss us. Oh, and we’re in desperate need of mastering. You’re probably busy, seeing as you’re the only master in town, but we’re short on time. Like really short on time. In fact, we’re sort of desperate—” She broke off and covered the mouthpiece because Tara was in her face, waving wildly. “What?”


“You said desperate twice. You can’t tell him that—he’ll raise his price! And what the hell is your fixation on being mastered?”


Maddie rolled her eyes—which made her dizzy—and uncovered the mouthpiece. “Okay, forget the desperate thing. We’re not desperate. Hell, we could do the work ourselves, if we wanted. So come or don’t come, no worries.” She paused, turned her back on her sisters, and lowered her voice to speak extra softly. “But please come first thing in the morning!” And then she quickly ended the conversation and smiled innocently at Tara.


“Stealth,” Chloe said with a thumbs-up. “Real stealth.”


As always, Jax got up with the sun. Apparently, some habits were hard to break. Once upon a time, he’d have hit the gym and downed a Starbucks while racing his Porsche on the highway to take his turn on the hamster wheel with the rest of the city. As a very expensive defense attorney for a huge, cutthroat law firm in Seattle, where winning cases at all costs had been the bottom line, he’d gone by his given name, Jackson Cullen III.


It’d been comfortable enough, given that he’d been raised by a man with the same philosophy as his firm. Jax had spent his days doing his thing in court, schmoozing with the other partners in the law firm, and in general sucking the very soul from himself and others. And then repeating the entire thing all over again the next day.


He no longer owned the snooty condo, fancy Porsche, or even a single suit, for that matter, and he was five long years out of the practice of schmoozing anyone.


But he was still working on recovering his soul.


Just being back in Lucky Harbor helped. It was a slower, simpler lifestyle, one he’d chosen purposely. He’d gone back to his first love, rebuilding and restoration, while trying to help people instead of acquit them.


Until yesterday anyway, when for the first time in far too long, he’d actually felt something real. He’d felt it with shocking depth for a curly-haired, endearingly adorable klutz, a woman with unconscious warmth and an innate sexiness, and a set of sweet, haunted eyes.


Devastating combo.


He pulled on his running gear and nudged Izzy, his two-year-old mutt. She was part brown lab, part possum, and proved her heritage by cracking open a single eye with a look that said Dude, chill.


“You’re coming,” he said.


She closed her eye.


“Come on, you’re getting a pudge.”


She farted.


He shook his head, then dumped her out of her dog bed, no easy feat since she weighed seventy-five pounds.

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