Author: Jill Shalvis


He finally spoke. “You okay?”


“I was thinking of asking you the same. You’re… mad.”


He shifted his inscrutable gaze to hers, then turned back to the road. “And that worries you.”


She squirmed in her seat over that one, and he blew out a low breath. “I was hoping we were past this, Maddie.”


Her, too, but unbidden came the images of Alex, how he’d lashed out when he appeared so calm and in control. It pissed her off that her brain could do this to her, betray her now, make her feel so irrational. But that was the thing about fear. She could ignore it all she wanted, but it didn’t go away. Nope, it merely hung out, biding its sneaky time.


Jax let out a long breath and didn’t speak again. As they got on the highway, with the mountains on their left and the ocean churning on the right, the silence grew.


And grew.


And thickened into something ugly.


“You believed him,” he finally said, voice low.


“No. I—”


“You did.”


“I’m sorry. I’m…” What? Overwhelmed by seesaw emotions? Check. Unnerved because even not wanting to, I let your father scare me? Check and check. Both were ridiculous and childish and stupid, and she knew this. “I’m sorry,” she repeated lamely.


“Don’t,” he said, voice tight. “You don’t mean it. So don’t apologize.”


He was right. She hadn’t meant to apologize. She’d meant to ask him how he planned on releasing his anger, because he clearly was angry. She could read the tension still in his body—she’d become somewhat of an expert on the subject. “For what it’s worth, I really do know you wouldn’t hurt me. Logically, anyway.”


He slid her a searching look but said nothing.


She let out a breath. “So what’s your father’s problem with what you do for a living?”


He was quiet so long she’d decided he wasn’t going to answer. Then he suddenly spoke. “He sees working with one’s hands as beneath him.” He turned off onto the asphalt road at the end of town. Lucille was on her front porch and waved.


Maddie automatically waved back.


They drove down the dirt road, and then they were at the inn. Jax parked, and they both sat there.


“What does he do?” Maddie eventually asked.


“He’s a lawyer. We used to be one and the same.”


She tried to picture Jax in an expensive suit and an uptight expression and couldn’t. “No. I don’t believe you were ever like him.”


“Believe it. Hell, I even thrived on it.”


She searched his face for the easygoing, sexy, playful lover she’d been with all afternoon but couldn’t find him. This did not help her nerves. “Why did you quit?”


“Lots of reasons, but mostly I hated who I’d become.”


“Elizabeth?”


He shrugged. “She was part of the lifestyle.”


“You don’t talk about her.”


“I try not to think about that time in my life.”


She stared at him for a full minute, waiting for more. When it didn’t come, she felt her own temper stir. “I’ve learned the hard way that when people aren’t forthcoming, there’s a good reason.”


“I’m not like him, Maddie. Not even close. Don’t compare us.”


She felt like he’d slapped her. Not a mouse, she reminded herself. Hold your ground. “So you didn’t keep parts of yourself purposely hidden from me? You’re not still keeping parts hidden?”


A muscle ticked in Jax’s jaw. “You’re going to let him win.” His words were short and clipped. He was pissed. “You’re going to let him drive that wedge he wanted between us.”


“This isn’t a court case to win or lose, Jax. It’s my life.” She stared at him while he stared straight out the windshield. “Is there anything else about your past I should know?”


He was quiet for a beat too long, and she let out a breath. “Jax. Is there?”


“There’s always something.”


“That’s no answer, and we both know it.”


But given his silence, it was the only answer she was going to get. Honestly, she couldn’t quite believe it, that they’d found themselves here, in this place. She’d had little hints from him that he hadn’t been the open book she’d thought, but she’d ignored them.


Logically she knew that, given how hard it’d been for her to open up about her past, she needed to cut him some slack for not being completely forthcoming himself. But she couldn’t find it in her at the moment. “I have work to do.”


He shoved his fingers through his hair. “Maddie—”


“Lots of work.” She hopped out and shut the door hard. Her exit wasn’t exactly graceful, since she had to yank it open again to pull out the hem of her shirt, which had gotten caught.


Without looking at him, she walked into the inn and shut that door hard, too, then put her forehead to the wood. When she couldn’t stand the suspense and peeked out the window, he was gone.


Chapter 21


“Men are like roses.


You have to watch out for the pricks.”


PHOEBE TRAEGER


The three sisters sat in the back booth at Eat Me Café having a late night dinner. Tara had just gotten off shift, and at this hour, there were more Christmas decorations than customers.


Chloe was eating the night’s chicken special. Tara was carefully stirring her hot tea and adding honey with the precision of a drill sergeant moving troops.


Maddie was knitting, and not with the precision of a drill sergeant. She was also thinking too hard: about Jax’s father, about Jax’s ex-fiancée, about Jax. About their fight. At the moment, she wasn’t sure where they stood, or even where she wanted them to stand, but with a few hours of distance, she could definitely admit one thing.


She’d overreacted.


Fear did that to a person, made them completely… stupid. She hated that. She thought about going over to his house to talk to him. Or better yet, not talking. She could let her fingers do the talking for her.


Chloe glanced at her and rolled her eyes. “You and your orgasmic glow need to shut it.”


“Don’t mind Chloe,” Tara said. “She’s just jealous, bless her heart.”


“I’m going to bless your dead body,” Chloe said. “And are you saying you’re not jealous? The Mouse is clearly getting some, and we’re getting the big fat zip.”


“Sugar, you can’t miss what you can’t even remember.”


Maddie sighed. “There’s really nothing to be jealous of.”


“Uh-oh.” Chloe cocked her head. “Trouble in paradise? What happened? Don’t even try to tell me he didn’t fill out a condom. I’ve seen how he fills out his jeans.”


Tara choked on her tea.


“Oh, like you haven’t noticed.” Chloe turned back to Maddie. “Before we get to why you’re pouting, can we at least hear the juicy details? Does he talk dirty in bed? He’s good with his tongue, right? Please tell me he is.”


So good, Maddie thought and wriggled as she felt her body respond at just the memory.


“This isn’t fair.” Chloe slouched in her chair, pouting. “I’m good with my tongue, and I can’t even do it without getting an asthma attack.”


“I know I’m going to regret asking,” Tara said. “But how do you know you’re good?”


“I practiced with zucchinis. What?” she asked when both sisters laughed. “You asked.”


Tara rubbed her temples as if trying to remove the image burned into her brain. “So what happened?” she asked Maddie, clearly desperate to move on. “What happened with you and Jax?”


“I happened,” she said miserably. “I let my past dictate my present and possibly ruin the future.”


“Huh?” Chloe asked.


“I met his father. Who’s not a nice guy, by the way. And I found out that Jax gets really quiet when he’s mad. Like the calm-before-the-storm quiet.”


“Ah, sugar.” Tara pushed aside Maddie’s knitting to squeeze her hand. “That doesn’t mean he’s going to blow up.”


“I know that.” Sort of.


“And we all have pasts,” Chloe pointed out, surprisingly void of sarcasm. “And exes.”


“I know that, too. I just realized that, for as open and laid-back as he is, there’s more to him, a lot more than he’s shown me. I’m tired of playing the game when I don’t get a copy of the rules. He can go play with himself.” She paused. “Okay, that came out wrong.”


“But it sure is a great visual,” Chloe said.


“I say back off,” Tara said. “You’ve had your fun with him, and that’s all you need for now.”


“But—”


“Trust me,” Tara said. “Backing off before you fall is the safest.” She got up and came back with an apple pie and a quart of vanilla ice cream. “This is my Can’t Get It Together apple pie. It’s got a million calories, but it cures everything. Broken budget, broken heart, you name it.”


They each took a huge piece and added ice cream.


“Uh-oh,” Chloe said to Maddie. “Your foods are touching.”


“Shut up.” The warm, buttery crust melted in Maddie’s mouth and made her moan. Not as good as being naked with Jax, but a close second.


“So one week left until Christmas,” Chloe said, mouth full.


Maddie set down her fork, her stomach clenching.


“Honey.” Tara shook her head, looking surprisingly upset. “It all comes down to money. Our cards are maxed out now. We have no buffer. We’re finishing up the bare necessities and getting it on the market. It’s for the best.”


“Plus you two want out of here,” Maddie said softly.

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