But Ford came out three minutes later, unscathed. At least physically.
“You going to explain that?” Maddie asked him.
Looking uncharacteristically tense, Ford shook his head. “No.”
No. Of course not.
The next morning, Jax was on the second story of the inn sanding the wood floors into submission when he heard the rumble of Chloe’s Vespa start up.
Setting down the sander, he walked past a snoozing Izzy to the window. In the yard below, Chloe sat on her bike. Tara was on one side, hands shoved in the pockets of her long coat. Not Maddie. Nope, she stood directly in front of the Vespa, hands on hips.
Chloe said something.
Maddie said something.
Then Maddie removed the god-awful green scarf she wore, the one she’d been making for the past few days, and wrapped it around Chloe’s neck.
Chloe looked down at it and grinned. Whatever she said had Maddie throwing herself at Chloe and hugging her tight. After a single beat of hesitation, Chloe returned the hug, awkwardly patting Maddie on the back.
Maddie craned her neck and sent Tara a get-your-ass-over-here gesture.
Jax watched Tara fight with herself, then capitulate to the “Mouse,” who’d never really been much of a mouse at all. Tara stepped forward and nudged Chloe in the shoulder. Chloe nudged back, and then Maddie yanked them both closer and into a hug.
Afterward, Chloe drove off, and Maddie swiped at her eyes like a mother seeing her baby off on the first day of kindergarten.
Tara went into the cottage, but Maddie stayed there on the driveway, watching until the Vespa vanished from view.
Without taking the time to drop his tool belt, Jax headed for the stairs with a sleepy Izzy at his heels. He half expected Maddie to have vanished by the time he got outside, but she still stood in the same spot. Her eyes were wet but no longer leaking, for which he was infinitely grateful, though his heart clenched hard at the sight of her misery. “You okay?”
At the sound of his voice, she angrily swiped her nose on her sleeve. “No, and don’t be nice.” Her voice cracked, and she turned away. “Not yet, not until I… get this thing out of my eye.”
“Aw, Maddie. Come here.”
With a soft sniff, she whirled and threw herself at him, making the tools on his belt jangle as his arms came around her hard.
“I’m going to miss her,” she whispered, her hands fisted in his shirt and her face plastered to his neck. “Which is ridiculous. We hardly know each other—”
“It’s not ridiculous.” Sliding a hand into her hair, he tugged her head up so he could see her eyes. “You love her.”
“Every pissy, sarcastic, bitchy inch.” She dropped her forehead to his chest and sniffed again.
He squeezed her tight and gave her a few minutes. Finally she relaxed and lifted her head.
“She’ll be back,” he said.
“Yes,” she agreed, sounding better, much to his relief. “She’ll be back.” She shifted against him, then sucked in a breath when his hammer jabbed into her hip.
“Sorry,” he said. “Let me drop the belt—”
“No.” She held on when he would have pulled away. “Don’t. I like it.”
Again, he lifted her face, and he smiled. “The tool belt turns you on.”
“No.” She closed her eyes and thunked her forehead to his chest. “Little bit.”
Delighted and also immediately aroused, he laughed, and she groaned. “Don’t judge me. Apparently everything turns me on here in Washington. I think it’s the ocean air.” She rubbed her forehead back and forth over his chest. “Or…”
“Or…” He tightened his grip on her hair when the tip of her nose brushed over his nipple.
“Or learning to stand up for myself.” Going up on tiptoe, she pressed her face into his throat and inhaled, her hips bumping his.
His eyes drifted shut as he held her to him. “Try again,” he murmured against her mouth.
She stared into his eyes. “It’s you.”
“Us,” he corrected and kissed her, hot and insistent. She responded with a satisfying, soft whimper of need that went straight through him. He still held her ponytail, controlling the angle of her head, but he didn’t have anything to do with the way she melted against him, trying to climb into his skin to get closer. Their tongues slid together in a rhythm that made him groan, as did her hands, which were all over him, slipping beneath his shirt, gliding over his back as if she couldn’t get enough.
He sure as hell couldn’t, but he wasn’t going to get what he wanted out here in the yard, even when her hands came around to his front, playing with his abs, then with the waistband on his jeans, which were loose enough to allow the tips of her fingers to slip inside. He held his breath and wished she’d go south another half an inch—
“Oh, for the love of God.”
Tara was hands on hips when they broke apart. She glared at Jax. “So was that tongue lashing you just gave her included in the bid?”
“Men are like parking spots. All the good ones are
taken, and those that aren’t are inaccessible.”
Maddie rounded on Tara. “You’ll have to excuse me,” she said. “Since I didn’t get the memo about you having the right to butt in on my business.”
“How about I just remind you that you gave up men for a damn good reason. You need to slow down and think before acting.”
“I spent my life doing that. It hasn’t worked out so well. I’m trying something new.”
“At our expense,” Tara said.
“Well, excuse me for lacking the perfect gene from the Traeger pool.”
Tara nearly choked at that. “Sugar, if you think my life is perfect, you need to take off the rose-colored glasses.”
“Hey, until last night, you wanted all of us to believe it.”
Tara stared at her, myriad emotions dancing across her face, with hurt leading the pack. “Well,” she finally said a little stiffly. “Nobody’s perfect.” And with a final glare in Jax’s direction—one that he didn’t need translated—she stalked off.
Maddie blew out a breath, then looked at Jax. “Tell me why I feel like I just kicked a kitten.”
He gave a slow shake of his head. “A wild tiger, maybe. Not a kitten.”
She smiled grimly and backed away. “I need something to do. Work, maybe.”
“You could help me sand the floors.”
“Tempting, but I need something more physical. I need to tear something up. You got anything like that?”
You could tear me up. In bed. For a minute his head actually spun with that image, but he shook it off and grabbed her hand. “I’ve got just the thing.”
“Is it X-rated?”
He nearly smiled at the slightly hopeful tone in her voice. “Maybe later.”
In less than five minutes, he had her suitably protected and holding an ax. He pointed to the pile of huge wood rounds he’d created from the fallen tree earlier in the week. “Have at it.”
With a tight, thankful smile, she gripped the handle but then hesitated.
She gave him an apologetic glance. “Feels weird with you watching.”
“I like to watch.”
She rolled her eyes and shoved a few curls out of her face. “I know it’s silly, but this feels like a… solo thing.” She paused. “I’m used to doing things on my own.”
“Solo isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe it’s time for a new tactic.”
No doubt. She gestured for him to step back a little.
“Go for it,” he said.
Trinity in The Matrix, she decided. That’s whose strength she was going for. She wriggled her hips a little, getting into position, and then swung the ax. It barely budged, much less flying through the air in slow-mo like in The Matrix. Damn, the thing was heavy.
“Put your weight into it.”
She narrowed her eyes and looked at Jax. “Maybe you should go first and show me how it’s done.”
“Sure.” He came close, moving with his usual innate and easy grace even in the tool belt. He was wearing Levi’s again. This pair had a hole in one thigh and on the opposite knee. He had on an opened flannel over a caramel brown Henley that brought out his eyes.
Their fingers collided as he took the ax from her, and then he set his open hand low on her stomach, the hot, callused palm gently pushing her out of harm’s way. As always at his touch, heat slashed through her, and for a minute, she closed her eyes and wavered.
She should have chosen sex. Note to self: always choose sex over physical labor!
“It’s not too late,” he said very softly.
Afraid to speak and give herself away, she pointed to the wood. With a knowing smile, he lifted the ax and swung it. Muscles bunched and worked with an effortless ease that left her mouth dry and other parts of her not quite so dry. He swung for five straight minutes without faltering in his rhythm, then stopped. He shrugged out of the flannel, leaving him in just the Henley, the sleeves of which he shoved up to his elbows. “You ready to try?” he asked.
Hell, no. Not when she had a view like this. She shook her head. “Watching you do it is helping a lot. Keep going.”
He gave her an amused look but turned back to the wood.
He glanced over his shoulder.
“You look…” Hot. “Overheated. Probably you should take off your other shirt, too.”
Oh, yeah. Not trusting her voice, she merely nodded.
His lips quirked, but he said nothing as he reached up and behind him, tugging the shirt over his head in one smooth, very male motion.
And then he stood before her in those low-slung jeans, tool belt, and nothing else but a gleam of sweat.
“Better,” she tried to say, staring at his tatts, but it came out more as a squeak. She was lucky not to be a puddle on the ground. Honest to God, the man shouldn’t be allowed to look like that. It just wasn’t fair to all the other men on the planet.
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