Author: Jill Shalvis


She’d forgotten many. On purpose. But hey, if he wanted to think she had only one more fault, she wasn’t about to dispel that notion.


“You forgot that you’re the most mule-headed, stubborn-assed woman on the planet.” Crouching at her side, he put his hands on the arms of her chair and turned her to face him. She saw that his frustration was with the situation, not her, that he was indeed looking at her with warmth and affection.


“I can help,” he said. “By extending a second loan, or helping you apply to another bank.”


His offer tightened her throat so that she could barely breathe. “I don’t want to think about that right now.”


“What do you want to think about?”


“Maybe about inhaling some chips.”


He nodded, letting her lighten the mood. “Except that might clash with all the whipped cream.”


“True,” she said. “I could work on another crooked scarf.”


Holding tight to her chair, the very sexy, gorgeous man shook his head, and she worried that he was going to force this conversation that she didn’t want to have. But she shouldn’t have. “I have something better,” he said very quietly, his eyes heated.


Everything within her quivered at that. He was close enough to block out the sharp fluorescent light with his shoulders, shoulders that were broad enough to weather whatever burdens came his way.


And hers.


And he could make everything go away for a while, help her let go of all that was wrong, and embrace the one thing that was right.


Him. He was right, she thought, staring at his hard chest. It would be warm to the touch and strong enough to offer comfort and safety while making her feel desire.


He slid his hands up her legs and settled them on her waist, just beneath her sweater. His hands were big and callused and felt so damn good on her bare skin.


“You’re tense again.”


“Yes.” She bit her lower lip, but the words escaped anyway. “You fixed me last time. You’re good at fixing things.”


“Yes. Anything you need, Maddie.”


That. That right there was another thing that made him different from the men in her past. He was willing to put her first. They’d known each other two and a half weeks, and he’d do anything for her, and at the knowledge, a powerful emotion surged through her. Desperately afraid to trust it, she shoved it aside, forgetting it entirely when he slid his hands up, taking her sweater up, too, up and over her head.


This left her in just a plain white bra, but when she’d dressed this morning, she hadn’t exactly planned on being seduced.


Jax’s eyes dipped downward, darkening as he took in the soft curve of her breasts, not appearing at all bothered by the plainness of the bra. This was good. She sucked in her stomach, but he didn’t take his gaze any farther south.


In fact, he lifted his head and looked straight into her eyes. “You’re so beautiful, Maddie.” And then he kissed her.


Yes. Oh, yes, this was definitely going to go a long way toward making her feel better, and when he deepened the kiss, stroking her tongue with his, she slid her hands beneath his shirt to touch his warm skin. “Here?” she whispered.


“No.” He lifted her from the chair and set her on the desk. “Here.” Eyes hot, he spread her legs with a big hand on the inside of each of her thighs, then pressed close. When he slowly ground his erection against her, she nearly lost it. She tore at the button on his jeans and was going for his zipper when he captured her hands. His mouth skimmed her jaw, heading toward her ear, his hands dropping to her hips to hold her still so that she couldn’t climb him like a tree. “Slow this time,” he murmured against her skin, letting go of her hands to stroke her body, his fingers teasing her nipples. “We have as long as we want—”


Yes, but she didn’t want to think. She needed the oblivion. Now. Maybe she wouldn’t have thought of getting it in quite this way, but he’d started it, and she was on board. So completely on board. Again she reached out, this time getting his jeans opened and… oh, yes, her hands inside to wrap around him, so big and hot and hard—


“Maddie.”


She tipped up her head to say he’d better not be thinking of stopping just as he raised his hand toward her face.


In a completely involuntary motion, she flinched back.


He went still. For a single, horrified beat, she did the same. Then she closed her eyes and thunked her head back to the desk, swamped by embarrassment, unease, and frustration. “I’m sorry, I have no idea where that came from. None.”


Calm, silent, he leaned over her and slid a hand to the nape of her neck, cupping the back of her aching head, probably checking to make sure she hadn’t cracked it.


She could have told him the only thing that was cracked was her damn, worthless heart. Horrified, she kept her eyes closed. She trusted him, maybe more than any man she’d ever been with, so she really couldn’t explain why she’d—


“Maddie, look at me.”


When she talked herself into opening her eyes, he shook his head. “Don’t be sorry. Don’t ever be sorry.”


How could she not be? Because a minute ago she’d been half an inch from getting her hands on him, and now… now he was moving away from her, easing out from between her legs.


“We’re not doing this.” His voice was quiet. Terrifyingly gentle. “Not like this, not again.”


“Jax—I know you wouldn’t hurt me.”


“No, you don’t. Not yet. But you’re getting there. That’s not why we’re not—”


“Then why?”


A muscle in his jaw bunched, as if it was costing him to back off. It sure as hell was costing her; her entire body was humming, throbbing.


“Because I just realized I don’t want to be your escape. I want more. Yeah,” he said when she gaped at him. “I don’t know when or how exactly that happened, but there it is.” He looked at her for a long beat, clearly waiting for her to say something, like maybe she felt the same, but she couldn’t say a word with her gut lodged in her throat. He nodded and handed over her sweater before zipping up his jeans and turning to the door, where he paused.


She held her breath. Surely he wasn’t really going to walk away. He was going to come back to her, and they’d laugh this off and agree they were just playing…


Any second now…


“Take care of yourself, Maddie.”


She blinked at the sound of the door shutting. It sounded pretty damn final.


Apparently, they were not playing. Not even close.


And how had he done that so calmly, when everything within her still trembled and quivered? Whipping around, she grabbed the first thing she could—a file—and chucked it at the door where he’d vanished. It made it only about two feet before it opened and fluttered uselessly to the floor. Dammit. And damn him.


“Fine,” she said out loud. But it wasn’t fine, and she had the shakes to prove it, not to mention the churning in her stomach. She took in the desk, the organized mess she’d been working so hard on. She needed something to do now. Something big. Something new.


Her gaze fell on the key hooks lining the wall behind the desk. Specifically onto the fishing-boat keys. Snatching them in her fingers, she flew out of the building and headed down the dock. It was time for a solo expedition of a different kind.


With Ford’s patient, calm voice in her mind, she sailed out of the marina. The wind was low, and the swells even lower. Because the skies were overcast, and also because she wasn’t stupid, she stayed very close to the shore. It was a smooth ride, and it felt incredible to do it by herself, for herself.


When she got cold, she turned back to the marina. She did have a bad moment trying to dock. But she managed, and if she accidentally hit the side of the boat hard enough to jar her teeth, that was okay. That’s what rental boats were for.


She tied up the boat, hung up the keys, and nodded. She’d done it. She’d actually done it. And if she could do that, she could do anything. Maybe even have a relationship without self-destructing it.


Chapter 18


“Always get the facts first.


You can distort them later.”


PHOEBE TRAEGER


Today would have been Mom’s birthday.”


Both Tara and Maddie stopped eating when Chloe said this casually over blueberry pancakes. “It’s true. She’d have been fifty-five today. She was looking forward to this one because it meant she could get a senior discount in some places. She always wanted to be able to get that damn discount.”


Tara looked at Maddie. “Did you know?”


Maddie shook her head. She hadn’t been able to think of anything but how Jax had looked walking away from her. “Whenever I asked her how old she was, she said she was ageless. She celebrated Jerry Garcia’s birthday as her own.”


Tara let out a reluctant smile. “That’s what she always told me, too.”


“Grandma showed me Mom’s birth certificate,” Chloe said. “That’s how I know.”


Maddie dropped her jaw. “You have her birth certificate? Where was she born?”


“Here.” Chloe smiled. “Well, in Seattle, which is close enough, right? She grew up in Lucky Harbor, from what I heard.”


Thinking about Phoebe going to school here and having a home made Maddie wistful. She was working hard on not resenting how little she’d known about her mother, or how her father hadn’t encouraged her to breach that emotional and physical distance. Instead she was trying to concentrate on the here and now that Phoebe had given her.


She’d told her sisters about yesterday’s bank rejection. Surprisingly enough, they’d been disappointed. Or at least they’d been kind enough to pretend. They’d agreed to find another lending institution, though Maddie was fairly certain neither Tara nor Chloe expected that to happen. In the meantime, they were going to stick out the month, finish up the bare-essential renovations, and then put the place on the market. Maddie hoped to open the inn and run it until it sold. Hell, who knew, maybe it’d do so well they would miraculously turn it around.

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