Author: Jill Shalvis


A very bad feeling began to bounce around in her gut. “You’re not?”


“No. You called and asked me to come here.”


Maddie took a second, deeper look at him and his attire: the black sweater that upon closer inspection was really a North Face hoodie and had JC Builders embroidered on his pec. His jeans were baggy but still emphasized his long, hard body in a way that suggested they were old friends. He wore work boots, and, given the battered, beloved look to them, they were not for show. But most telling was the measuring tape sticking out of a pocket and the clipboard he held resting against his thigh.


In the yard behind him was his Jeep with a big, brown dog riding shotgun.


“You’re the contractor,” she said weakly.


“Uh-huh.” He was definitely amused now. “Unless you’re no longer interested in my… mastery.”


Oh, God.


“After all,” he said. “I am a penis-carrying human.”


Chloe laughed.


Tara grimaced and shut the door on his face, but she did hold up a finger first and say, “Just a moment, sugar.” Once a steel magnolia, always a steel magnolia.


“Jeez,” Chloe said in disgust. “How is it the so-called baby of this family is the only one who knows not to shut the door on the unspeakable hottie? I mean that’s just sacrilegious.”


Maddie groaned. “I called him. Omigod. I called him. I’m such an idiot.”


“Aw, honey.” Chloe stroked a hand down Maddie’s out-of-control hair, her fingers getting caught in the tangles and tree sap. “You’re not an idiot. Not exactly.”


“It’s the kissing! It’s the stupid kissing! It’s like he kissed all the vital brain cells right out of my head!”


“A good kiss is a signature,” Chloe said, and when both sisters looked at her, she shrugged. “Hey, don’t blame me, it was on one of Mom’s cards.”


Maddie shook her head. “What do I do?”


“You stick with your resolve. You’re giving up men,” Tara reminded her. “Next problem. We’re selling this property. We need to tell him so before we waste any more of his time.”


Maddie held her breath—and her head. Damn, she really needed Advil. “Last night, we said we’d give this place a shot.”


“That was three bottles of wine talking,” Tara said.


Suddenly Maddie’s heart pounded in tune with her head. “Give me a month. Until Christmas,” she said. Begged. “We fix the place up a little, and if you still don’t want to make it work, we’ll sell. And with the improvements, we’ll get a better price. You’ll have lost nothing.”


Chloe looked at Tara.


Tara sighed.


“You know I’m right,” Maddie said, sensing their capitulation. This was it. She had to convince them. She wanted, needed, this month. “We’ll be better off for it, I promise.”


“But what will we use for money for the renovations?” Chloe asked. “All I have is a Visa card, and there’s not much left on it after last month’s trip to Belize.”


“I have an unused MasterCard,” Tara said slowly.


“Me, too.” It was Maddie’s entire emergency contingency plan, since Alex had so unsuccessfully “invested” her small nest egg. “It’s a start, and it shouldn’t take us more than a few weeks to refinance. And I’m still determined to find out about that trust and talk to—”


“Let the trust go,” Tara said firmly. “Mom went to great lengths and expense to separate it and protect it, and it’s none of our business. Besides, that’s not our real problem.”


“What’s the real problem?” Maddie asked.


“That I don’t want to be here,” Tara replied.


“You don’t have to be,” Maddie said. “We put this into motion, and I’ll stay. You two can go, and I’ll handle it.”


“Until Christmas,” Tara said. “And then we’ll sell.”


Not a mouse… Fake the strength. “If that’s how the majority votes,” Maddie said carefully, forcing herself not to back off.


“And you’re okay doing this by yourself,” Chloe clarified. “Really?”


“Yes.” Maddie looked at the closed door and drew a deep breath. “Well, maybe not all by myself.”


“A partner will definitely help,” Chloe said, nodding. “And I have a feeling that man knows how to partner.”


Maddie remembered how it’d felt to be in his arms and got a hot flash. No question, he knew how to partner. She’d be willing to bet her life on it. Not that it mattered.


“Sugar, how do you plan to get his help when you just rudely told him you weren’t interested?”


Oh, yeah. That. “I’m going to wing it.” With a steady breath, she pulled open the door while simultaneously attempting to tame her hair—a losing battle.


Jax had moved along on the porch and was hunkered down, arms braced on his thighs, studying the dry-rot on a post. When she stepped out, he straightened to his full height and looked her over. “Everything okay?”


“Sure. We were just, um, discussing what we’re going to have for breakfast.”


“Really.”


“Yeah. You know, pancakes or Cap’n Crunch.”


“Cap’n Crunch. Always Cap’n Crunch. And you’re going to have to work on your lying.” Leaning in, he tweaked a curl. “Thin door.”


And here she’d been worried that she wasn’t going to make enough of a fool of herself in front of him today. She glanced over her shoulder for assistance, but her sisters had vanished. Traitors. “Okay, listen. I’m sorry.”


“For?”


“The drunken phone call. Shutting the door in your face twice this morning alone. The whole spiel you just heard—pick one.”


Jax looked out into the bright, sunny, icy-cold morning, and then back into her eyes. “And about the kiss. Are you sorry about that, too?”


She’d thought that she would be. After all, she’d been so easily drawn into Alex’s ready charm, and look at what a nightmare that had turned out to be.


They both knew the truth. If she’d felt any more “interested,” she would have spontaneously combusted.


At her silence, he stepped in a little closer. Close enough that her body tensed with the need to step back, but then his scent came to her, his soap or deodorant or whatever that delicious male scent was, and her nostrils twitched for more. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she whispered.


“You have a lot of things you don’t want to talk about.”


Last night, he’d been kind enough not to ask questions. She hoped that was still the case. “I know.” She braced for the inquisition, but he didn’t go there. He kept it light.


And sexy. God, so sexy.


“I understand,” he said, nodding. “All that kissing was… awkward. Messy. Completely off.”


It’d been deep and erotic and sensual, and even now, just thinking about how his mouth had felt on hers sent butterflies spiraling low in her belly.


No.


No, she wasn’t sorry about the kiss.


Clearly reading her mind, his mouth slowly curved. “So no interest, and certainly no chemistry,” he murmured, dipping his head to take in the fact that her misbehaving nipples were pressing up against the words BITE ME on her T-shirt.


“R-right,” she managed. “No chemistry whatsoever.” But then she took a step into him instead of away, and look at that, suddenly his mouth was right there, and her hands were fisting in his fleece hoodie.


How had that happened?


His eyes were heavy lidded now and locked on her mouth. Beneath her hands, he was warm and hard with strength, and she tightened her grip. To keep him at arm’s length, she told herself. “You don’t want chemistry with me,” she said. “I have… faults.”


“Like you can’t hold your liquor?”


“Ha. And no. I mean…” She searched for something suitably off-putting. “I’m twenty-nine, and I keep a flashlight on me, just in case I need to hold the closet monsters at bay. I can’t let foods touch on my plate, everything has to be in its own quadrant. And my go-to movie is The Sound of Music. I can sing every song.” There. Didn’t get more embarrassing than that. But just in case, she added one more. “I can also burp the alphabet. I won an award for it in college, and sometimes when I’m alone, I practice in the mirror.”


“The whole alphabet?”


“Yeah, so it’s for the best that we don’t… you know.”


“You’re right. That Sound of Music thing is totally a dealbreaker. Thankfully, we have no chemistry at all.” He was teasing her, but when she met his gaze, he wasn’t smiling. Nope. His eyes were lit with something else entirely, and it wasn’t humor.


And she knew something else, too. She hadn’t scared him off. Not even a little.


Chapter 8


“The easy road is always under construction,


so have an alternate route planned.”


PHOEBE TRAEGER


Maddie rushed through a shower with water that wouldn’t go past lukewarm, and worse, it looked suspiciously rusty. She’d be worried except she’d gotten a tetanus shot just last year when she’d stepped on a nail at a movie set in Burbank. And anyway, it was hard to find room for worry when her body was humming and pulsing.


And he hadn’t even kissed her again.


Dammit, how dare he bring her body parts back to life with nothing more than his presence after she’d decided to go off men entirely?


It was rude, it was thoughtless, it was…


Not his fault.


Getting out of the shower, she stood in the bathroom and rummaged through her duffel bag. She’d packed only the essentials, leaving the rest in storage with her dad in Los Angeles.


She pulled on a pair of Levi’s and struggled with the top button. Damn chips. She pulled on a tank top, then added a big bulky sweater, not letting herself hear a certain ex’s voice whispering in her ear that she should hit the gym. Instead, she didn’t look at herself too closely in the mirror. Ignorance was bliss, right? Maybe she ought to put that on a 3x5 card and add it to the box.

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