She stared up at him, wanting him more than her next breath, but… but. He’d held back, and she couldn’t help the feeling that there was more.
“Ball’s in your court,” he said, and before she could finish catching her breath, he hit the power button. The clunking started up again, and she let out an involuntary gasp, gripping the sides of the washer for all she was worth.
Flashing her a slow, heated smile, he left her alone.
Two weeks. Maddie had been in Lucky Harbor for two weeks, and they’d been the best fourteen days of her life. Now she had two weeks left until Christmas to do what she had to do.
All along, she’d hoped that she’d be able to convince Tara and Chloe to give the inn a real shot.
She’d believed she could.
But that belief had just died with one shake of her loan officer’s head.
With a rough sigh, she left the bank, got into her car, and dropped her head to the steering wheel. She had the start of a headache pounding behind her right eye, her stomach was in knots, and the interior of her car felt like it was closing in on her as the loan officer’s words echoed in her brain.
I’m sorry, Ms. Traeger, but you’ve been turned down for the refinancing. In today’s economy, we have to work up against tougher regulations and qualifications, and you and your sisters didn’t qualify.
You’re a loser…
Okay, so she hadn’t said that last part, but Maddie had felt like a loser. Dammit, they’d needed that loan, both for the renovations and to get the inn up and running.
Not to mention paying off the credit card debt the three of them were racking up.
A shuddery sigh escaped her, but she refused to cry. Couldn’t cry. She hadn’t told her sisters that she’d had the bank meeting this morning. They thought they wouldn’t be hearing until the end of the week.
Now she was glad she hadn’t told them. Mostly because she wasn’t quite sure they’d be as devastated that it was over.
She pulled out her cell and called her dad. She had no idea why, other than she needed to hear the voice of someone who loved her.
“Hey, sweetie,” he yelled into the phone, sirens and screaming in the background. “How are you?”
“Dad?” Her heart stopped. “What’s going on, are you okay?”
“I’m terrific. I’m on a set in New Orleans, filming a horror flick.”
“Oh.” Like a dope she nodded, even though he couldn’t see her. His voice helped though, a lot. “Miss you.”
“Well, then come on out here. We could always use another hand.”
The thought was oddly tempting. “I might do that.” Since she’d be homeless soon enough.
They spoke for a few more minutes, and then she hung up without telling him about the mess she’d made of her life.
And her heart…
God, she needed some chips. An entire bag. With a sigh, she drove to the inn, but neither sister was there, and Chloe’s Vespa was gone. Turning around, Maddie headed to the café and found Tara working the lunch shift.
“Go away,” Tara said from the chef’s window. “I’m snowed under.”
Okay, so that took care of telling Tara now. “I need something warm and fattening.” To ease the hot ball of anxiety choking the air out of me. “And if you remind me that my jeans are finally fitting, I’m going to knit you another scarf.”
To her credit, Tara merely nodded. “I’ve got just the thing—Life Sucks Golf Balls casserole. Eggs, bacon, cheese, and veggies for a healthy touch.”
“But it’s a casserole.” Maddie shuddered. “The ingredients will all be touching.”
“Don’t be a child.”
“Yes, the ingredients are all touching, good Lord, but I’ll put the bread waaaaay on the other side of the plate, okay? Maybe even on its own plate if you stop your bellyachin’. Now sit down and shut up, and I’ll bring it out to you.”
“Fine. But I also need hot chocolate and extra whipped cream. Extra extra.” Because whipped cream was a solve-all. It would ease the dull throb of bitter discontent and swirling anxiety in her gut. She was counting on it.
In a few minutes, she was inhaling the amazing casserole and simultaneously spraying more whipped cream into her hot chocolate when she felt a shiver of awareness race down her spine.
Already horrifyingly close to losing it, she didn’t dare look up when his boots and denim-clad legs came into her line of vision. “How?” she asked, nose deep into her hot chocolate. “How do you always know?”
“That you’re OD-ing by whipped cream? I didn’t. I have a business meeting with a potential client.” He nudged her over and slid into the booth next to her. She felt his long, searching look, then his warm palm sliding along the back of her neck at the same time as he pressed a hard thigh to hers, making her want to crawl into his lap and inside his opened jacket.
Instead, she squirted whipped cream directly into her mouth. She swallowed the mass and licked her lips, then happened a glance a Jax.
Whose eyes were locked on her mouth.
It was interesting, watching him watch her. Her life was in the toilet. Circling the drain, in fact, and he still wanted her. She hadn’t thought that could matter, or that it could help, but somehow it did. “Thought you had a meeting.”
“He can wait a minute. Talk to me, Maddie.”
“About what?” She shook the nearly empty can of whipped cream. “How I just ran out of my drug of choice, or that I failed at yet something else?”
Her only defense at letting that last part slip was sugar overload. She read the label on the whipped cream, but nowhere did it say that mainlining this substance might cause low self-esteem and diarrhea of the mouth.
He took the can from her fingers. “What do you think you failed at?”
Life. She closed her burning eyes and swallowed past a thick throat. The beginning of a headache had turned into an entire percussion band sitting on her right lobe. “I need some chips,” she whispered. “Layered in greasy, salty goodness. It soothes being rejected.” Downing her hot chocolate, she went to stand, but Jax grabbed her wrist.
Rejected. Stomped on. Decimated… “You have a meeting.”
“I do,” he said, but didn’t let go. She tried to tug free, but he reeled her in, then lightly kissed the corner of her mouth.
“Whipped cream,” he explained.
She drew a shaky breath. She wanted him, bad, but even that wouldn’t soothe the ache from knowing her dream was in its death throes. “I think your client is waving at you,” she whispered.
He turned and eyed the man two booths over trying to get his attention. Jax nodded his head and held up a finger, and then turned back to Maddie. “Talk to me,” he repeated firmly.
“The bank turned us down for the refinancing.” Just saying it out loud made her want to be sick, but that might have been all the junk food she’d consumed. She shot a guilty look in the direction of the kitchen. “And I still have to tell Tara and Chloe, but we should cancel the new interior doors we ordered. Obviously, we need to put in the new windows when they come and fix the roof to sell, and I’ll finish the painting, but little else. And your client’s about to fall out of his chair trying to overhear us. You have to go.”
Oh, God, that low, husky voice filled with all that empathy was going to break her into a million little pieces. Not here, she told herself sternly. You will not fall apart in a public place again. Besides, this time there was no one to dump coffee on.
“Gotta go,” she choked out. She’d used up all the fake strength in her arsenal. She needed to reboot, that was all. Pulling free, she got up and walked out.
• • •
Back at the inn, Chloe’s Vespa was still gone, so Maddie headed directly into the marina office. If the ship was going down, the books were going to be balanced when it did.
Less than a minute later, she heard the marina building door open and shut, and then the slide of the lock, and she looked up into Jax’s caramel eyes. Her heart skipped a beat. “What happened to your meeting?” she asked.
By him. God. She was costing him work left and right. “Jax—”
He came around the desk and leaned back against it, facing her, with his long legs stretched out in front of him. “You can try to get a revolving line of credit as a second mortgage. Or try another bank. Or your current lender, who’s far more likely to—”
“If we go to the current lender, they’ll know we’re in trouble.”
“Maddie, in this market, everyone’s in trouble, not just you. This doesn’t have to be over.” His voice was low and serious. “I can help—”
“No.” She swallowed hard and shook her head. “Thank you. It’s incredibly kind of you to even think it, but—”
“Jesus, would you stop trying to figure this out all on your own? You’re not on your own, not anymore, not unless you want to be.”
Suddenly uncomfortably aware that he’d never gotten frustrated with her before, she stared at him.
He stared right back, unwaveringly. “Maddie, remember when you listed all your faults for me?”
“Yes,” she said tightly, hating that her stomach had knotted at the first sign of his frustration. He wouldn’t hurt her, she told herself. He’d never hurt her.
“I’m going to guess you’re still using a nightlight for the closet monsters. And I know you still don’t like your food touching.” He cocked his head. “What else was there?”
“The Sound of Music,” she said, then rolled her eyes. “And the burping the alphabet.”
“You forgot one.”
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