Author: Jill Shalvis


Worst-case scenario, she’d go back to LA and try to get a job through her dad’s connections, but she hoped it didn’t come to that. She was doing her damnedest not to think about it, not yet anyway. A picture of Jax flashed in her mind—the other thing she was trying not to think about—and her heart pinged, but she hoisted her glass of orange juice into the air. “To you, Mom.”


Tara and Chloe looked at her like she was nuts, but she gestured to their glasses, and they obediently picked them up. “I’d love to celebrate who you were,” Maddie said to the ceiling. “But I didn’t know you well enough. So instead, I think I’ll celebrate who we are because of you.”


“I like that,” Tara said. “Here’s to letting go of regrets and even resentments. Here’s to what might have been, and to what we will be.”


“Happy birthday, Mom,” Chloe said quietly, for once her eyes devoid of the mocking sarcasm.


“Happy birthday,” Tara and Maddie echoed.


“Oh, and happy birthday to Jerry, too,” Chloe added, and they all laughed. It was a rare moment of peace and solidarity as they clicked their glasses together.


Chloe knocked her orange juice back and set the glass on the table. “So, Tara, Maddie wants to tell you something—you snore.”


“Excuse me?” Tara’s eyes narrowed. “I do not.”


“Yes, you do. Like a buzz saw. Or a grizzly bear with sleep apnea. Tell her, Maddie.”


Maddie winced. “Okay, well—”


“You did not just compare my breathing to a grizzly bear,” Tara said to Chloe.


“And/or a buzz saw.”


Maddie sighed and reached for her knitting. Solidarity was officially over.


At dawn, Jax gave up on the pretense of sleep and got out of bed. It was ironic that he’d come back to Lucky Harbor to lead the lazy, kick-back life he’d always wanted, and yet it wasn’t in him to be lazy.


Unlike Izzy, who was sleeping like… well, a dog. “Time to get up.”


Izzy squeezed her eyes tight.


“We’re going for a run.”


Jax could have sworn that she shook her head. With a sigh, he got up and ran alone. When he got back, Izzy was waiting for him on the porch. “Did you cook breakfast?” he asked her.


She looked at him balefully, like Dude, no opposable thumbs, or I totally would have.


Jax showered and dressed, then headed into his office, where Jeanne handed him coffee and left him to himself. Three hours later, she reappeared.


“I’m all caught up. I’m going shopping for some lingerie.”


Jax winced. “And I want to know this why?”


“Because maybe you’d like me to pick up a present for somebody.”


“Like who?”


“Like the cute curly-haired Traeger sister. The one you’re in a fight with.”


“What?” He shook his head and stared at her. “How could you possibly know that?”


She smiled. “I didn’t, but you’re all broody and mopey-looking. What did ya do? Don’t tell me, it was something stupidly male, right? Should I get black and lacy, or white and sheer?”


Jesus. “You should mind your own damn business.”


“Well, that’s no fun.” She came close, gave him a sympathetic look, and kissed his cheek. “You could solve it the way Steve solves all of our fights.”


He sighed. “How does he do that?”


“Easy. Just admit you were wrong. His always being wrong really works for us.” She gently patted his arm and left him alone.


But it didn’t feel wrong to want Maddie to see him as more than an escape. It felt… weak and vulnerable, which he really hated.


But not wrong.


Stop thinking, you idiot. He moved through the office and out the back door. The morning was frosty, the cold biting into his skin, reminding him that winter had arrived. Instead of going into his wood shop, he loaded himself and Izzy into his Jeep and went for a drive.


And found himself at the inn.


It looked deserted. He let himself in, noting that it was colder inside than outside. The heater hadn’t been turned on today. He walked the ground floor, the sanded but not-yet-finished floors creaking beneath his boots as he took in the walls that still had to be painted, and the bathrooms waiting for their new vanities. He felt a surge of frustration.


It didn’t have to be like this.


When something thudded above him, he took the stairs two at a time but found the second floor empty. He hit pay dirt in the attic. The room ran the entire length of the inn. At the moment, it held most of the furniture from the other floors that had been moved to finish the floors. There were tarps everywhere and also stacks of boxes filled with God knew what, dating back to Maddie’s grandparents’ era.


It was the approximate temperature of the Arctic Circle up here, thanks to the icy air and the equally icy glance Maddie sent his way. She was sitting on the floor, holding her Blackberry as she went through the box in front of her.


“Hey,” he said, risking frostbite by moving farther into the room.


She didn’t answer.


“What are you doing?”


“Trying to figure out what pieces of furniture are worth selling to cover this month’s bills.”


Ah, hell. “Maddie—”


“This is a no-talking zone.”


When he didn’t leave, she sighed, her expelled air coming out in a puffy mist, testament to just how cold it was. “Fine.” She jerked her head toward an unidentifiable pile in the far corner. “Can you peek under that tarp and tell me if you see an antique walnut hall bench? I know we had one. Someone’s selling a match to it on eBay for three hundred fifty dollars. If I could get half that, I’d be happy.”


He moved toward the pile. “You shouldn’t be working up here. It’s too cold.”


“Turns out financial anxiety is a great way to keep warm.”


He hated that she was so stressed about money. “Where are your sisters?”


“Drove into Seattle to check out two antique consignment shops to see if they’d be interested in working with us.”


“If you sell all the furniture, what will you use if you reopen?”


She shot him a look that said she was worried about his IQ and went back to working on her Blackberry. There were two spots of color high on her cheeks. Her eyes were shiny, too shiny. And her lush, warm, giving mouth was tight and grim.


That’s when it hit him. She wasn’t mad at him.


She was hurt. “Maddie.”


“Go away. I hate everyone right now, and I’m pretty sure that includes you.”


“No, you don’t.”


“Yes, I do. I really do.”


“I could change your mind about me.”


“I have no doubt, but try it and you’ll be walking funny tomorrow.”


He couldn’t help it, he laughed, and she swiveled her head toward him. “This isn’t funny! I wanted you, and you walked away!”


“I wanted you to want me, not just the—”


“You’re not just an escape, not to me. I’m just a little slower at this than you are.”


He looked into her eyes and saw the truth. Remembering Jeanne’s words, he shook his head. “I was wrong to push.”


“Wow. A man who can say the W word. What else do you have up your sleeve?”


“I don’t know. You’ll have to look yourself.”


She arched a brow. “Strip.”


Not much surprised Jax anymore, but this did, and he laughed again as he willingly pulled off his shirt.


She stared at his chest, then his tattoos. Her eyes went a little glazed, but she lifted a shoulder, feigning indifference.


Indifference his ass.


“I’ve seen you without your shirt before,” she pointed out coolly, then murmured so quietly he would have missed it if he hadn’t leaned in, “And maybe I’d rather see you without your pants.”


“You’ve seen me without those, too.”


“You’d argue with a woman on the very edge?”


He nearly laughed again but recovered quickly, especially since she was still giving him that eat-shit-and-die look. But at least she was looking. And the rosiness of her cheeks was no longer about hurt or embarrassment. Mission half accomplished.


Holding her gaze in his, he tore open the buttons on his Levi’s, held his breath to brace for the cold, then shoved them down to his thighs.


Her eyes locked in on his forest green knit boxers. Slowly, she set down her Blackberry and then, just as slowly, rose to her feet. “I’m trying to hate you.”


“But you can’t.”


“I could. With some more time.”


“Then I’ll change your mind,” he said.


“But I’m stubborn, remember?”


“Yes, but I’m very persuasive.”


She nibbled on her lower lip and stared at him, definitely not hating him if her hardened nipples were any indication.


“You’re…” She gestured to his erection. “Um.”


“Yeah.” He was just as shocked as she. It was fucking freezing in here.


“I thought it was supposed to shrink in the cold,” she said eyes on “it.”


He opened his mouth, then shut it again. She was the only person on earth who could render him speechless. While he stood there, shirt off, pants at his thighs, she stood up and tore off her own sweatshirt.


She wore a pale blue satin bra that barely contained her full breasts. As he soaked in that mouthwatering sight, she unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans and shoved them down. “Crap,” she said and glanced up at him. “Okay, keep in mind I didn’t plan on a striptease today. I’ve got to learn to plan ahead.”


If she was talking about the fact that her underwear was a purple lace thong instead of a match to her bra, he could care less. Combined they were going to give him a brain aneurysm.


She tried to kick her pants off, but they got caught on her boot. “And some practice wouldn’t hurt, either.”

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