Author: Jill Shalvis


He only hoped Maddie saw it the same way. He kept telling himself that she would, that what they were beginning to feel for each other would be stronger than extenuating circumstances.


As he made his way through his house to leave for the shrimp feed, he shook his head at all the decorations Jeanne had put up, complete with mistletoe hanging from his doorways. It was clear that she was optimistic for his shot at having a woman in the house. Probably he’d blown that.


He drove to the pier. In a few hours, just about everyone in town would arrive for the annual event. The money raised tonight would supplement the funds for the police and fire departments, which was important but definitely not the first thing on people’s minds as they paid to get in.


Nope, that would be the events. First up was the parade of shrimp boats, always led by the mayor on a decorated jet ski. Then the person who came closest to guessing the amount of shrimp brought in would get to kiss the mayor.


Man, woman, or child.


With Jax’s luck, it’d be Ford or Sawyer. Last year it’d been his mail carrier—much to everyone’s utter delight. Hopefully this year, plenty of the other two thousand people in town had bought tickets.


Afterward, they’d eat until their guts hurt and then dance to the Nitty Gritty, the local pop-rock band. People would probably still be dancing as the first pink tinges of dawn came up on the horizon.


Sawyer arrived right after Jax. He was in uniform, there on official crowd-control duty. And to make fun of Jax, of course. Ford showed up, too, setting up a booth for the Love Shack from which beer, wine, and eggnog would be floating aplenty.


Jax eyed the jet ski waiting for him. It was a loan from Lance and his brother—when they weren’t manning their ice cream shop, they were big jet skiers. In the summertime, like normal people.


Not many were crazy enough to go jet skiing in the dead of winter, but tradition was tradition.


Lance was grinning when he handed over the key. The kid was facing a virtual death sentence with his cystic fibrosis, but he knew how to enjoy life. He’d lavishly decorated the jet ski with Christmas lights. Sawyer had helped him, and both had promised that everything was battery operated and waterproof so Jax probably wouldn’t get electrocuted.


Good to know his friends had his back.


Out on the water about two hundred yards, three shrimp boats waited, also lavishly—aka garishly—decorated, ready for him to escort them in parade-like fashion. “Good times,” Lance said and grinned.


Jax turned his face upward. Lots of clouds, but no snow or rain. That was good. But it was forty-eight degrees, so “good” was relative. He pulled on the thick, waterproof fisherman gear the shrimpers wore so at least he wouldn’t freeze off any vital parts.


The crowd woo-hoo’d as if he was stripping instead of putting on gear, and he rolled his eyes. Looking out into the faces, he locked gazes with Maddie.


She shook her head. Obviously, she wasn’t over the whole lawyer thing—not that he blamed her—and just as obviously, she thought he was crazy.


He’d have to agree there. He smiled at her. She didn’t return it. Ouch. He’d have to work on fixing that, but one problem at a time. Stepping into the water, he straddled the jet ski and took another look at the shore.


Ford and Sawyer were grinning. So was Chloe.


Bloodthirsty friends.


Maddie had her hand over her mouth, so he wasn’t exactly sure what her expression was now. He hoped it was sympathy, and he also hoped that he could get that to work in his favor in a little bit when he needed warming up.


As he’d imagined, the next ten minutes passed in a frozen blur as he rode the jet ski and lead the shrimp parade. Then he was back on shore, being warmly greeted and wrapped in blankets. Sandy shoved a mic into his hand and a piece of paper. The crowd hushed with expectant hope.


“Eight hundred and fifty-six shrimp,” Jax called out.


No one had guessed that exact amount, but one person had come close at 850. He accepted another piece of paper from Sandy with the winner’s name. He read it silently and looked at Maddie, who stared back, thoughts closed but a little pissiness definitely showing.


Trying to convey both apology and self-deprication, he smiled at her. “Maddie Moore,” he said to wild cheers.


Maddie’s mouth fell open.


Chloe helpfully shoved her forward.


“But I didn’t put any tickets in,” Maddie said as Jax grabbed her hand in his and pulled her up onto the makeshift stage.


Ford and Sawyer were cracking up. So was Chloe, and Maddie narrowed her eyes at her. “How many tickets in my name did you enter?”


“Fifty.”


“Me, too,” Ford called out.


Sawyer grinned. “A hundred from me. Good cause and all.”


Okay, Jax thought, so maybe sometimes his bloodthirsty friends came in handy.


“I entered my name one hundred times,” Lucille called out, disappointment clear across her face. “Damn. Maybe next year…”


“Kiss, kiss, kiss,” chanted the crowd.


Jax had stopped shivering, but he still had some serious warming up to do. Both his own body, and Maddie, because her eyes were on him, cool and distant.


Yep, definitely needed some warming up. Kissing sounded like a great way to do that. Holding Maddie’s very resistant gaze in his, he tugged her close, looking forward to this for the first time all day.


“You’re freezing,” Maddie whispered.


“Yes.”


She sighed and slipped her arms around his waist, tipping her face up to his. “I’m still mad at you.”


“I know.” He stared down into her beautiful eyes and felt his heart catch with all the possibilities he felt, not to mention hope—an extremely new emotion for him. “I plan on changing your mind about me.”


“Jax—”


“I’m sorry, Maddie. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but you have to know, I’m not a lawyer now. That was my past.”


“I know.”


“Kiss!” yelled the crowd.


Maddie fidgeted in his arms, clearly not thrilled with having an audience for this. He ran a slow hand up her throat before cupping her jaw, leaving his other hand low on her back in what he hoped was a soothing gesture. “You okay with this, Maddie?”


Surprising the hell out of him, she answered by cupping his icy face in her hands and going up on her tiptoes to reach him. He met her halfway, bending low to cover her mouth with his. He heard her suck in a breath and knew his lips were icy. Apologizing with a soft murmur, he changed the angle to get a better taste of her.


Then she surprised him again.


Her mouth opened for his, and the sweet kiss turned into something else, something sensuous and intense. Heat exploded within him, melting all the iciness from the inside out.


Around them, the crowd whooped and hollered, and Maddie began to pull back, but he held her tight.


“Need a minute?” she whispered, a hint of humor behind the heat in her eyes as she brushed up against his erection.


“Maybe two—” He broke off with a jagged groan when she put her mouth to his ear. “Maddie, that’s not helping.”


But then she whispered something that did help.


“Just think,” she whispered. “It could have been Lucille.”


Ford was bartending, serving beer on tap to a line of customers. Jax, warmed up now, was behind the bar getting cups and restocking the alcohol. The booth was good for Ford because it made the Love Shack even more popular, which in turn was good for Jax because he owned the other half of the bar.


In fact, Jax coowned several businesses in town. It was what he’d done with his money when he’d come back to Lucky Harbor. He’d bought up properties in a sagging market to help the people who’d known and loved him all his life.


They were thankful, but he was the one who felt the gratitude. They’d welcomed him back, given him a sense of belonging when he’d so desperately needed it.


“Wake up,” Tara said with a little wave in his face. She’d come to his end of the bar, away from the line and the crowds, and was looking at him expectantly. “Yeah, hi. I’m looking for a drink.”


“The line’s over there. I’m not serving, I’m just—”


She tapped the bar. “Listen, sugar. Lucille just asked me about the stick up my ass, okay? I need a drink pronto. Make it a double.”


He grimaced. “Beer, wine, or eggnog?”


“Well, hell. Wine.”


Jax poured her a very full glass and handed it over, watching as she tossed it back like a shot of Jack. “Tara.”


“Yeah?”


“You have to tell her.”


Tara stared at him, then sat and dropped her head to the bar. “I’m going to need more alcohol for this. And something far stronger than wine.”


Jax reached beneath the bar for a shot glass and a bottle of Jack that Ford had squirreled down there for… hell, he had no idea.


“Bless your heart,” Tara said fervently as he poured her two fingers.


“You can’t keep this from Maddie any longer.”


“Watch me.”


Jax shook his head. “When Phoebe asked me to draw up the blind trust five years ago, she also asked me for a promise. That you be protected at all costs.”


“Not me.” Tara shut her eyes. “My secret. She wanted my secret protected.” Her eyes flew open. “Which means you can’t tell.” She sounded relieved. “You can’t, you promised—”


“But you didn’t,” he said.


“Jax.”


Who’d have thought that a promise to a dead woman would result in betraying a person he’d come to care for so deeply? “I don’t break my promises, Tara. Ever.” Not to mention professional confidentiality. “But when Phoebe put all her liquid assets into that blind trust—”


“It left her in a precarious position when she needed cash. And then you gave her the loan against the inn.” Tara’s eyes filled with misery. “I never meant for either of you to have to be in that position—”

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