Author: Jill Shalvis


As always, her hair had a mind of its own. Battling with the blow-dryer helped only marginally. She took a couple of swipes with the mascara wand and declared herself good to go.


Jax had offered to wait for her to take a quick shower and dress so that she could walk him around the property. She found him in the small kitchen, which was made even smaller by his sheer size. He was drinking something out of a mug and talking to Tara, but when she walked into the room they both fell into a silence of the shhh-here-she-comes variety. “What?” she said, looking down at herself. Nope, she hadn’t forgotten her clothes.


“It’s nothing, sugar.” Tara handed her a steaming mug. “It’s only instant from the store, and trust me, it’s no Starbucks.” She shot Jax a look like this was his fault. “I picked it up last night when I bought the cleaning supplies.”


“It’s good enough for me,” Jax said. “Thanks.”


Maddie told herself not to stare at him, that it was like staring directly into the sun, but she’d never been good at following advice. Plus she found she couldn’t stop looking at his mouth. It was a good mouth and made her think about things she had no business thinking about. “So about why we called you.”


A faint smile hinted around the corners of his mouth. “You needed a master.”


“Well, your ad did say you are an expert.” Look at that, she sounded cool, even smartass-like. She’d always wanted to be a smartass. Nicely done, keep it up. Do not let him see you sweat.


And whatever you do, don’t look at his mouth.


Or at the way his jeans fit, all faded and lovingly cupping his… cuppable parts. “Does your expertise include dusty hundred-year-old inns decorated in early rooster and duck?”


“Ducks and roosters are no problem. The cows are new to me. And I specialize in fixing things up and restoring them to their former glory.”


She wondered if that talent extended to humans, maybe even humans who never really had a former glory. “So how much can we get done between now and Christmas?”


“And think cheap,” Tara cut in to say. “Aesthetic value only, for resale purposes.”


“The inn didn’t come with an operating account, unfortunately,” Maddie explained. “Just a big fat mortgage payment, so money’s a problem.”


Jax’s eyes flicked to Tara, then back to Maddie, and once again she wondered what she was missing.


“So you’re going to sell?” he asked.


“Hopefully,” Tara said.


“Hopefully not,” Maddie said.


Jax nodded as if this made perfect sense. “I’ll walk the property and work up a bid.”


“And I’m off to shower.” Tara turned back at the door. “Sugar, tell me you left me some hot water so I’m not forced to head to Alpine and bathe outside like a cretin.”


“Alpine?” Maddie asked. “What’s that?”


“There’s a natural hot springs about three miles up the road,” Jax said. “The locals think of it as their own personal hot tub.”


Maddie looked at Tara. “How do you know about the hot springs?”


“Doesn’t everyone?”


“No,” she said, but Tara was gone. Alone with Jax, she pointed to his clipboard. “Better put a new water heater in that bid.”


“All right.”


The kitchen seemed even smaller now that it was just the two of them. She moved to the slightly larger living room and was extremely aware that he followed. “I don’t think we’ll waste any money in here,” she said. “Just the inn.” She reached up to shove her too-long bangs out of her face and realized what she’d done when she caught him staring at her right eye, at the scar on the outside of it that she knew was still looking fresh. Before she could turn away, he was there, right there, and gently—God, so gently it nearly broke something inside of her—brushed the hair from her face and stared at the mark.


For the longest heartbeat in history, he didn’t say anything, but the muscles in his jaw bunched. From his fingers, so carefully light on her, she felt the tension grip his entire body. “What happened?”


“Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.”


Another agonizing beat pulsed around them before he let go of her, allowing her bangs to fall over her forehead again.


He let out a long breath and eyed their Charlie Brown Christmas tree. When he spoke, his voice was low but normal. “You have an eyelash curler on your tree.”


Grateful, so damn grateful that he wasn’t going to push, she let out a breath, too. “We improvised.”


He took in the pictures of their teen crushes and shook his head, not smiling but letting go of some of the tension racking him.


“You don’t like?”


“Actually, I do like,” he said, and when she glanced over at him, she found him looking directly at her.


“I meant the tree.”


He just picked up his leather jacket from its perch by the front door, the one he’d given her to wear last night. Once again he held it open for her, then nudged her outside ahead of him.


The morning was clear and crisp, and the trees and ground glittered with frost. The sun was so bright it hurt her eyes and head, and also her teeth, which made no sense.


“Hangovers are a bitch,” Jax said and dropped his sunglasses onto her nose.


He walked away before she could thank him, so she closed her mouth and pushed up the glasses a little, grateful for the dark lenses. She tried to remember the last time anyone had done such a thing for her without anything expected in return—and couldn’t.


“Also going on the list,” he said when she’d run to catch up with his long-legged stride. “Making sure no more trees are in danger of killing you in the next wind storm. We’ll chop that up for firewood.”


She stared at the massive tree bisecting the yard. “Where I come from, firewood comes in a small bundle at the grocery store, and you set it in your fireplace to give off ambience.”


“Trust me, ambience is the last thing you’ll want this tree to give you. It’s going to keep your fingers and feet warm.”


She hugged his jacket to her and not because it smelled heavenly. Okay, because it smelled heavenly. And did he never get cold? She looked at him in that slightly oversized hoodie and sexy jeans and boots, carrying that clipboard. She wished she had a clipboard. Instead, she pulled out her Blackberry to make notes, too. “Do I need to call a tree guy?”


“I can do it. Those two trees there…” He pointed across the yard to the left of the marina building. “They’re going to need to be seriously cut back. I’m sure there’s others.”


They walked the rest of the property and outlined all the obvious problems. There were many. After discussing them in detail over the next half hour, they were back in the center of the yard, next to the fallen tree.


“So,” he said. “Your sisters want out.”


“Yesterday,” she agreed.


“I think your mom hoped you three would stick around and take care of this place the way she always intended to. You know how she was.”


“Actually, I don’t,” she said. “I didn’t know her very well. I was raised by my father in Los Angeles. She sent postcards from wherever the Grateful Dead were playing, and we had the occasional whirlwind visit. But she never mentioned this place, not once.” She realized how detached that sounded and just how much she’d revealed about their lack of a relationship, and it both embarrassed and saddened her. Having bared herself enough for one day, she turned away.


“Some kids might resent their parent in this situation,” he said quietly.


“There’s some of that.”


She felt a big, warm hand settle at her back, and he led her to his Jeep. The huge brown dog in the passenger seat sat up and gave a single, joyous woof!


Jax opened the door and the lab mix leapt out, all long, gawky limbs and happy tongue. Two huge front paws hit Maddie in the chest, making her stagger back.


Jax’s hands settled on her arms from behind, steadying her. Leaning over her shoulder, he gave the dog a friendly push. “Down, you big lug. You okay?” He turned Maddie around to face him, eyeing the two dusty paw prints on her chest.


She backed away and brushed herself off before he got any notions about helping. “She’s very pretty.”


“Pretty something, anyway.” He sent the dog a look of affection. “I just haven’t decided on what. Izzy, sit,” he directed, and the dog promptly sat on his foot, looking up at him in clear hero worship.


Maddie bent for a stick and threw it. Izzy craned her neck, took in the stick’s flight through the air, and yawned.


“She’s not much for chasing sticks,” Jax said dryly. “She’ll chase her tail, though, all day long. She’s a rescue. She didn’t get the Labrador handbook.”


Izzy nudged her head to Jax’s thigh, and Jax crouched to give her a hug and a full-body rub, and Maddie felt a moment of jealousy as Izzy slid bonelessly to the ground in clear ecstasy, groaning loudly.


“She likes that,” Maddie managed.


“I have a way with my hands.”


She bit her lower lip to keep the words “show me” inside.


He laughed again, soft and sexy, as he straightened and apparently read her mind. “We don’t have chemistry, remember?”


She closed her eyes. “Okay, here’s the thing. We have some chemistry,” she allowed.


“Some? Or supernova?”


“Supernova. But,” she said to his knowing grin. Good Lord, he needed to stop doing that. “I really did give up men.”


“Forever?”


“My gut says yes, but that might be PMS talking. Let’s just say I’m giving up men for a very long time.”


“You going to try out women?”


He was teasing her. She pushed him back a step, knowing damn well he only went because it suited him. No one pushed him around unless he wanted to go—something she wished she could say about herself. “I’m trying to say I’m not cut out for this, for the casual-sex thing.”

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