Author: Jill Shalvis


“Fair enough.”


There was something in her voice, something she’d held back until now, and he realized she’d been avoiding direct eye contact. Removing the beer from her fingers, he set it down, then put his hands on her hips. Gently he turned her on the stool to fully face him, waiting until she tilted her head up and met his gaze.


Yeah, there it was. Damn. Unhappiness. “You wanted this,” he murmured quietly. “The renovation on the inn.”


“Very much.”


“Then what’s wrong?”


She looked away. “That whole superpower mind-reading thing is getting old.”


He let his fingers do the walking, up her arm, over her throat, giving her plenty of advance warning before he cupped her jaw. Just as slowly, he brushed her long side bangs away from her right eye.


Her breath hitched, but she didn’t pull away. The scar there was fading, and he let his thumb brush over it lightly, hating what it represented. He wanted to know the story, wanted to know how badly she’d been hurt, and whether she’d managed to give as good as she’d gotten.


He realized that he’d tensed, and that Maddie had stopped breathing entirely. When he purposely relaxed, she responded in kind, her eyes drifting closed, and she surprised the hell out of him by tilting her head slightly so that his hand could touch more of her. His heart squeezed up good at that, and his fingers slid into her hair, and then around to cup the nape of her neck.


Obeying the slight pressure he applied, she slid off the stool and then, of her own accord, stepped between his legs, dropping a hand to his thigh. When her chest bumped his, she let out a soft sigh. “You touch me a lot.”


“I like to touch you. That’s not what’s making you unhappy.”


She shook her head. “This is still a bad idea.” She looked at him then. “Just so we’re clear. We are, right? Clear?”


He didn’t take his eyes off hers. “Crystal.”


She nodded, then backed away from him. “Then I’ll see you the day after tomorrow.”


“Yes, you will.” He snagged her wrist. “Maddie—”


“Listen, I’m not trying to be coy, or play a game, I promise. It’s me. I’m just…” She shook her head. “It’s me,” she repeated softly. “I’m just trying hard to be who I want to be, that’s all. I’m okay, though. Really.”


“Good.” He slid his hand to hers and stroked his thumb over her palm. “One more thing.”


“What?”


He covered her mouth with his. He kissed her until his headache vanished and so did his bad mood. He kissed her until he felt her melt into him, until she was gripping his sweatshirt like a lifeline and kissing him back with enough passion that he forgot what the hell he thought he was doing.


Lifting his head, he ran his thumb over her slightly swollen, wet lower lip and struggled to put his brain into gear. “Saying that this isn’t going anywhere doesn’t change the chemistry problem we have. Just wanted to make that clear, as well.”


Eyes huge on his, she licked her lips and made him want to groan. “Crystal,” she whispered breathlessly and pulled free. This time she didn’t stumble into a table—instead she plowed over some poor sap at the door. Apologizing profusely, she vanished into the night.


“Always in a hurry,” Ford said conversationally, leaning on the bar.


“Always,” Jax murmured.


“Ah, so you do still have a tongue. For a minute there, I thought maybe she sucked it out.”


“Fuck you, Ford.”


“You keep saying that, but you’re not my type. And do you realize you’re still looking at the door?”


“Just reminding myself to keep my distance,” Jax said. “Distance is good.”


“Yeah, that was some nice distance you had going there a minute ago.”


Jax opened his mouth, but Ford held up a hand. “I know, fuck me, right? So tell me this, is keeping your ‘distance’ why you bid the inn renovation? Or why you stopped by the hardware store earlier to what, chat with Anderson? Because I heard you set him up on a date with Jeanne’s cousin. Smooth, by the way. Real smooth.”


“Okay, so the distance thing has gone out the window,” Jax admitted. “I don’t know when or why, but it has.”


Ford laughed, easily vaulted over the bar, and clapped a hand on Jax’s shoulder. “Maybe because she’s hot and sweet? Or because you two have enough chemistry to light up this entire town? Because karma’s a bitch?”


Jax shoved him off. “This isn’t funny.”


“Yeah, it is. Come on, I’m starving. You can brood over a burger.”


Five minutes later, they walked into Eat Me Café to grab burgers. Maddie was at a semicircular booth with her sisters, the three of them bent over a stack of paperwork. Jax looked at her frown and figured they were going over the inn’s outstanding bills and the refinancing forms.


Jax stopped, fighting the urge to yet again hint that she should approach her current note holder, but she hadn’t asked his opinion and probably wouldn’t.


Tara sat on Maddie’s left, facing Jax and Ford. Her eyes locked on Ford, then widened right before they darkened. If looks could kill, Ford would be six feet under. Then, smooth as silk, she cleared her face until it was blank, got up from the table, and headed in the opposite direction, slipping into the restroom.


Jax looked over at Ford, who was watching Tara go with a tight look to his mouth, eyes shuttered.


What the hell?


He was unable to ask Ford about it, because they were now even with Maddie’s table. Jax greeted her and then introduced Ford to Chloe.


While Maddie and Chloe made casual pleasantries with Ford, Jax took in the paperwork on their table.


Yeah, bills. And by the looks of things, lots of them.


The waitress came by to seat Jax and Ford, and they ended up on the other side of the café. Tara came out of the restroom, and Ford followed her with his eyes.


“What’s going on?” Jax asked him.


“What? Nothing.”


“You’re staring at Maddie’s sister.”


“Maybe Tara’s staring at me.”


Jax leaned back and studied his oldest friend. “I never said which sister, and I sure as hell didn’t say her name, either. And I was under the impression you didn’t know any of them.”


“I’m a bartender. I know everyone.”


“You’re an athlete who happens to own half a bar. Cut the shit, Ford. What’s going on?”


Ford just shook his head, silent. Since Jax had given up destroying souls for a living, he’d admittedly become more easygoing and laid-back, but even so, Ford was just about catatonic in comparison. He was so chill that sometimes Jax felt like checking him for a pulse.


But nothing about Ford looked chill now. His mouth was grim, his eyes inscrutable, and he seemed shaken.


Except nothing shook Ford. Nothing. “What the hell’s up with you? You bleeding from where her eyes stabbed daggers into your sorry ass?”


Instead of smiling, Ford shook his head. Thing was, if Ford didn’t want to talk about something, then Jax would have better luck getting answers out of a rock. He looked at the table where the three sisters sat, Tara on one side of Maddie, looking tense enough to shatter, Chloe on the other, slouched back, a little distant, a little bored, and clearly frustrated.


Between them, Maddie was talking, probably trying to make everyone happy. Ever the peace maker. Even as he watched, Maddie looked at Tara, then over at Ford.


She’d noticed the tension, too.


Ford slumped in the booth a little, face turned to the window.


“Ford.”


“Let it go, Jax.”


“I will if you will.”


Ford was silent a long moment. “You ever make a stupid mistake, one you think you can run from, only no matter how fast and far you run, it’s still right there in front of you?”


“You know I have.”


Ford let out a long, shuddery breath. “Well, chalk it up to that. One I don’t want to talk about now, maybe not ever.” The door to the café opened, and a uniformed sheriff strode in. He was built almost deceptively lean. Deceptive because Jax knew that the guy could take down just about anything that got in his path. He’d seen him do it. Actually, he’d seen him do it to Ford.


And okay, also himself. The guy was a one-man wrecking crew when he wanted to be, and the three of them had gone a few rounds with each other over the years.


Sawyer, the third musketeer.


He made his way directly to their table and sprawled out in the chair Ford kicked his way. “Shit, what a day.” He turned down the radio at his hip and looked around. “I’m starving.”


The guy had been born starving. He ate like he had a tape worm, and he eyed the burgers lined up on the kitchen bar, waiting to be served. Both Jax and Ford gave him space. You didn’t want to get any key body parts, like, say, a hand, in between Sawyer and grub when he was hungry.


Jax waved over their waitress, and between the three of them, they ordered enough for a small army. Sawyer didn’t speak again until he’d put away two double doubles. Finally, content, he sighed and leaned back. “So. Why are we staring at the sisters?”


Not much got by Sawyer.


“What do you know about them?” Ford asked him.


“Other than Jax going at it with the middle one on the pier the other night? Which, by the way—nice, man.”


Jax let out a long breath and felt a muscle bunch in his jaw. “People need to mind their own business.”


Sawyer flashed a rare grin and helped himself to Jax’s fries. “Not going to happen in this town. As for the other sisters, I know the oldest has a sweet ass to go with her sweet-ass accent when she’s pissed, and she was pissed earlier at the post office when she found out that we don’t have guaranteed overnight from here. And the youngest, she might be hot, but she’s also crazy. I clocked her at seventy-six on a fucking Vespa 250. When I pulled her over and wrote her up a ticket, she said I was committing highway robbery because there was no way she’d been going a single mile per hour over sixty-five. She chewed out me, my radar gun, and my mama, and I gotta tell you, that girl has a mouth on her. Oh, and apparently I need some sort of guava shit facial because my skin is dry in my ‘P’ zone. Like I care about my P zone. She’s going to be trouble, big trouble.”

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